Do Too Many or Too Few Students from Poverty Get a Special Ed Label?
I received a really interesting question this morning in response to an invitation to our upcoming webinar on The Cognitive Impact of Poverty: Implications for Teaching. The question read as follows:
Do you have evidence for or believe that students living in poverty (with cognitive impact) are identified as needing specialized instruction and supports – therefore special education services? Or do you believe that these students are over-identified as needing special education services and do not require them and unnecessarily receive an educational label.
My answer was this:
Strangely enough, I believe that both things are true. What we see in our work is that high proportions of students from poverty have deficits in cognitive skills, especially working memory and attention. In many circumstances, that would qualify them for specialized instruction and supports – and the label that goes with that. However, what they need is not the whole apparatus of specialized instruction and supports because they have ability to learn, although not the developed capacity to learn.
What this means is that these students’ cognitive skills, including working memory and attention and others, can be dramatically improved with the right kind of cognitive training. Thus, if we address those deficits before the label gets applied (in RtI or MTSS), we would have students better served and more capable of learning, and many fewer students without expensive processes and labels.
The percentage of students classified as “special ed” across the country is about 13%. We have come across schools where the proportion of students receiving specialized services is 30% or more. In some of our testing, we see 70% or more of students living in poverty showing cognitive deficits. Does it make sense to classify 70% of a school as special ed? Not usually, although of course, there are some schools dedicated to serving students with special needs, and that is a different story.
It is my belief that many schools have way too many students in special ed. If we helped students develop their underlying cognitive skills, no matter why they are low (poverty is just one reason), then we and they could avoid the labels and the expensive processes and the conflict that classification often entails. At the same time, we would have the ability to serve the students who really do need those supports much better.
What does your experience tell you?