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Reforming Urban Special Education

by Lauren Katzman, Joanne Karger & Thomas Hehir - December 21, 2005

The authors of this commentary were hired by the New York City Department of Education at the request of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Jose P. litigation to conduct an independent evaluation of the Department's recent special education reorganization. We found that the reorganization has moved special education in New York City in positive directions; however, we also identified a number of significant challenges that remain. We hope that the results of this evaluation will provide guidance to other school districts struggling to meet the legal requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The education of children with disabilities in our nation’s cities presents formidable challenges to the school systems that serve them. Most large urban school districts have struggled greatly with meeting the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) (20 U.S.C. • 1412(a)). Many districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, have been subject to major class action litigation over their failure to meet these responsibilities. The compounding effect of disability, poverty, and organizational ineffectiveness has meant that large numbers of children with disabilities in urban school systems have been denied equal educational opportunity. For example, recently released findings of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) show that although there have been major improvements in educational results for students with disabilities over the past decades, students with disabilities from low-income backgrounds lag significantly behind those from higher income groups.

For the past 26 years, New York City (NYC) has been involved in the Jose P. class-action litigation concerning its implementation of federal and state special education law. Although New York City has shown progress over the years in improving its services to students with disabilities, full compliance with federal and state law has yet to be achieved. Two years ago, a major reorganization of the management of special education was begun under the leadership of Chancellor Joel Klein. Klein focused on two goals: “significantly improving classroom instruction by providing proven professional development for our teachers so that they can most effectively meet a wide range of learning needs in each classroom,” and “hold[ing] schools and principals accountable for ensuring that as many students as possible are able to be educated in general education classrooms.” Although these are laudable goals, moving the largest school district in the country in a significantly different direction through a reorganization of management may or may not achieve these ends.

In order to determine whether the new management structure has been moving New York City forward, the NYC Department of Education (DOE), at the request of the Jose P. plaintiffs’ attorneys, sought an independent evaluation of the reorganization. We were part of the seven-person team hired by the DOE under the leadership of Professor Thomas Hehir of Harvard University to conduct this review. The purpose of our Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation of Special Education was to examine the extent to which the DOE has a management structure in place that is capable of implementing the fundamental requirements of IDEA. Specifically, we sought to assess critically the DOE’s recent reorganization in light of the ongoing Jose P. litigation. Our study took place during the 2004–2005 school year and involved significant data analysis; document reviews; school visits; and over 250 interviews of administrators, teachers, related services personnel, union representatives, State Education Department personnel, and parent advocates.


We found the degree to which the chancellor and many administrative personnel and school-based staff understood the importance of including students with disabilities in all reform efforts was consistent and impressive. This internalization of responsibility is commendable.  Unfortunately, this is not the case in many large urban school districts in which the evaluators have worked. We also found promising models for including students with disabilities in the general-education classes, and reports indicating that New York City has recently shown improvement in the academic outcomes of students with disabilities. These examples show that New York City is indeed moving toward the chancellor’s goals of improved classroom instruction and accountability for students with disabilities.

However, implementing a philosophy of inclusive education and high academic standards in a large urban school district is an extremely complex process. To be sure, an important aspect of change is a focus on philosophy. However, equally important is attention to political support, human resources, and support structures. We found that certain aspects of the special education infrastructure were confusing with respect to roles and responsibilities. Further, communication to personnel concerning special education policies and procedures was ineffective; and, in some instances, this communication breakdown appeared to have impeded the DOE’s ability to provide services to students with disabilities. Additionally, the infrastructure did not provide sufficient support to principals and school-based staff. We recommended that the DOE address these important management issues by fine-tuning roles and responsibilities and taking immediate steps to finalize and disseminate a policy and procedural manual. To support and plan for implementation of the philosophic thrust of the reorganization, we recommended that the DOE redefine the role of the special education central administration to focus predominantly on leadership and management in order to strengthen its capacity to oversee major initiatives for program development.

We also found that the management of special education was not sufficiently data driven, in large part because of the inaccuracies and unnecessary complexities associated with the DOE’s data system. These data issues impeded the ability of the DOE to manage its special education system in an effective and efficient manner. For this, we recommended that the DOE continue its development of a live interactive data system; and, because of the ongoing issues in the Jose P. litigation, we recommended that there be an independent entity for the sole purpose of verifying the accuracy of data.

An important area to evaluate in special education is the pre-referral process. Such an evaluation determines whether general education efforts have been used to their maximum capacity prior to a decision to refer a student for special education services. Here, we found that the New York City DOE had put into place processes to support students prior to referral; however, these measures were implemented inconsistently and were often duplicative. We recommended that the DOE adopt a consistent and streamlined approach for general education interventions and supports. Further, we suggested that the two most important areas that should be addressed in the pre-referral process were literacy, on which the DOE had already begun to focus, and behavior. When schools do not provide effective reading instruction and behavioral supports, inappropriate classifications of students with disabilities can occur. In fact, ineffective reading instruction and a lack of school-wide behavioral supports have been found to contribute to the overrepresentation of students of color in special education programs.

In our examination of the referral and evaluation processes, we found that, as in many school districts, determinations for special education classification in New York City were inordinately based on the medical model of disability.  Thus, disability is viewed as intrinsic to the child, and treatment of the disability is the focus of instruction. The medical model of disability leads to practices that attempt to “fix” the child rather than create substantive changes to the system. This model is problematic for all students with disabilities, but it is particularly detrimental for students who are English Language Learners, a growing population of students in New York City, as well as nationally. We recommended that the DOE move away from decontextualized, diagnostic assessment procedures based on the medical model toward an instructionally relevant methodology for the evaluation of English Language Learners for special education services.

Special education law emphasizes the importance of integration—that is, to the maximum extent appropriate students with disabilities are to be educated in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) (20 U.S.C. • 1412(a) (5) (A)). We found that in New York City, students with disabilities are overly segregated in special education classes and programs, despite the existence of a small number of promising, yet underutilized models of inclusive education. Further, we found that the placement process in New York City emphasizes the notion of placement as the availability of “seats” in special education programs rather than as the services and environment that are appropriate to the individualized needs of the student. We recommended that every school be required to develop and/or enhance a fluid and flexible service delivery system to serve, at a minimum, all students with high-incidence disabilities and, as appropriate on a case-by-case basis, students with low-incidence disabilities. In particular, we urged an expansion of opportunities at the high-school level, which holds the least options. In New York City, District 75 functions as a separate region, whose sole responsibility is the education of students with more significant disabilities. District 75 educates most of its students in separate special education schools, some students in special education classrooms within neighborhood schools, and a smaller number in general education classrooms. We recommended that District 75, over the next five years, transition from a separate entity to become a support system for students with more significant disabilities, with the goal of serving all students with low-incidence disabilities on a regional level.

Since 1997, IDEA has also required that students have “access to the general education curriculum”—that is, the same curriculum as that provided to students without disabilities (34 C.F.R. • 300.347(a)(1)(i)).  We found that although there have been some noteworthy efforts to provide staff development, these efforts are insufficient to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving effective access to the general education curriculum. We recommended that the DOE engage in staff development and collaborative models that focus on how to provide effective access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities.

Our report sought to support the DOE in the alignment of its management of special education with the recent reorganization, which highlighted improved instruction and more inclusive education for students with disabilities, in accordance with the true intent of IDEA. It is noteworthy that both the DOE and Jose P. plaintiffs’ attorneys have accepted the findings and recommendations contained in our report. As authors of this report, we sincerely hope and expect that our findings and recommendations will enable the DOE to promote better educational services and opportunities for the over 130,000 students with disabilities in New York City. Further, we hope that other school districts can learn from the challenges and successes of the largest school system in the United States.

Note: The Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation of Special Education was conducted by the following team:

Thomas Hehir, Ed. D.

Richard Figueroa, Ph. D.

Sue Gamm, J. D.

Lauren I. Katzman, Ed. D

Allison Gruner, Ed. D.

Joanne Karger, J. D.

Jaime Hernandez, Ed. D.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 21, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12267, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:47:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Lauren Katzman
    Boston University
    E-mail Author
    Dr. LAUREN KATZMAN is an associate professor in the Special Education program at Boston University. Her research has focused on students with disabilities' perspectives of the effects of high-stakes testing. She has conducted evaluations of state and district implementation of IDEA and provides professional development to school districts to support their move to a more inclusive environment. Katzman was herself a special education teacher for 14 years.
  • Joanne Karger
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    JOANNE KARGER, J.D., is an advanced doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on special education law and policy. She has worked on a number of lawsuits involving disability and education related issues and currently provides consulting services to school districts and nonprofit organizations on the administration of special education policies and procedures.
  • Thomas Hehir
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
    Dr. THOMAS HEHIR is Professor of Practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Director of the School Leadership Program. He is the former Director of the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education Programs, under the Clinton administration. He previously served as Associate Superintendent for Special Education and Pupil Support Services for the Chicago Public Schools and Director of Special Education for the Boston Public Schools.
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