Blacks put in program too often, and dyslexics not enough, audit says
\Black students and high schoolers who aren’t native English speakers are too often funneled into special education, while dyslexic students who need the extra help are left to flounder, according to a critical study of the Houston Independent School District’s special education department. An African-American middle school student in HISD, for example, is more than four times as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than a similar non-African-American student – one of several concerns detailed in a $150,000 audit conducted by a Harvard University professor. “There are some serious issues,” said consultant Thomas Hehir, who served as director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education under President Bill Clinton. “But there’s a real desire to address these issues. People aren’t being cagey about it.” Hired by HISD, Hehir’s team visited schools, conducted interviews and analyzed state and national test data. The findings noted some positives, as well as several subpar practices. Special education students, for instance, spend less than half the school day with regular education peers – short of state averages and the level of mainstreaming that experts consider optimal. “Segregated classes where children were doing low-level work, or ‘co-taught’ classes where special education teachers appeared to be serving the role of a paraprofessional, do not comport with principles of best practice,” the report stated. Hehir said HISD needs to take advantage of technology for special needs’ students and consider developing specialized inclusive schools for students with significant disabilities.
Administrators said they’re already moving forward with some suggestions. They’ve implemented a new data management system and ordered $3.5 million worth of technology to assist special needs students, said Sowmya Kumar, who was hired last summer as HISD’s assistant superintendent of special education. “We’ve rolled up our sleeves and started taking care of some of these things,” she said. Currently about 8.2 percent of the district’s 200,000 students are served in special education, lower than the national average of 11.2 percent. Among those underserved in HISD: Students with dyslexia, according to Hehir’s findings. Researchers estimate that at least 5 percent of the population has dyslexia, a disability that makes deciphering the written language difficult. As of 2008, only 326 children in HISD, less than 1 percent of total enrollment, were labeled as dyslexic, mostly concentrated at a handful of campuses, as two-thirds of schools claimed zero dyslexic students.
The wide discrepancy in campus-level services were noted throughout Hehir’s findings. Principals, he suggests, need to be held accountable for improving their programs, rather than just delegating the responsibility to someone else on campus. None of the findings came as a surprise to Jennifer Medearis, a special education advocate and consultant in the Houston area. She’s disappointed that the school system spent money on an outside consultant. “Am I glad they realized they’re missing the mark? Yes,” she said. “But they could have gone about it a very different way and used that money to actually improve services.” Suzanne Carreker, vice president of research and program development at the Neuhaus Education Center, said she’s glad that the report sheds light on the needs of dyslexic students. “I hope it is a wake-up call that we can do more in terms of prevention and to prepare all teachers to be teachers of reading,” she said. firstname.lastname@example.org