What A New IBO Study on Special-Needs Kids in NYC Says About Charter v. Public School Comparisons

A new study by the New York City Independent Budget Office offers fresh insight into thorny questions about charter school demographics and performance. The study compares student attrition rates at charter schools with nearby traditional public schools and finds that charter schools not only enroll relatively low numbers of special-needs students, over three-quarters of the special-needs kids who do enroll at a charter school in kindergarten have left by the third grade.

Across almost all demographic groups, kids enrolled at charter schools are less likely to leave during their first three years of schooling than are kids at traditional public schools, with one key exception: Students with special needs “leave charter schools at a much higher rate than either general education students in charter schools or special education students in traditional public schools,” the study found.

While 70 percent of the students who enrolled in a charter school in kindergarten were still at the same school in third grade; only 20 percent of special needs students from the same cohort remained at the same charter school for three years. By contrast, 61 percent of all students in nearby traditional public schools attended the same school three years after kindergarten; and 50 percent of special-needs students remained at the same public school for their first three years.

Attrition rates are an important indicator of how well kids will perform in school. Children who stay at the same school—whether charter or traditional public—do better on standardized tests than kids who switch schools. “The achievement gap between stayers and movers was considerably larger for those who left charter schools and the gap was larger in math than in reading,” the study found.

Equally important, the study suggests important questions about how the performance of traditional public schools are impacted not only by having disproportionately high numbers of special-needs kids, but also high numbers of special-needs transfer students—including those who started school at charters—who, according to the IBO study, are doubly disadvantaged: first because they have special needs, second because they have switched schools.

Consider what Stanford University’s oft-quoted CREDO study of charter school performance in New York City says about the performance of charter schools relative to traditional public schools and what it omits. When the CREDO study was published last February, headlines trumpted the study’s finding that, in reading, 22 percent of New York City charters “outpace the learning impacts”of traditional public schools, and 63 percent did so in math. By contrast, 14 percent of charters did significantly worse than traditional publics in math, and one-quarter of charters did significantly worse in reading, according to the study. [CREDO also made cautious—and much qualified—comparisons between the performance of special needs students at charter schools and traditional publics.]

But in evaluating the “learning-impacts” of charters and traditional publics, the CREDO study does not seem to take into account the significant discrepancy in the special-needs populations of different kinds of schools. While CREDO estimates that only 12 percent of charter school students are classified with special needs, 17 percent of traditional public school students have such designations. [Carol Burris, a respected Principal at a school in Rockville Center, L.I. finds other problems with the CREDO study here.]

Indeed, the CREDO numbers don’t tell the whole story. In Harlem, which has close to one-quarter of the city’s charter school students, and where charter schools showed some of the biggest learning gains, according to CREDO, the city’s public schools appear to have a disproportionate number of special-needs students. For example, Global Technology Preparatory, a Harlem middle school, opened four-years agowith a special needs population of about 30 percent. The schools special-needs population is now about 40 percent. The school, which was founded by educators who had a strong commitment to “mainstreaming” special-needs kids, takes kids who transfer in from nearby charters, including many kids with “IEPs” (individualized education programs). The school prides itself on integrating kids via so-called “inclusion” classes, which are taught by one general-education and one special-education teacher. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, has called so-called “self-contained” classes, which segregate special-needs kids from the general-ed population “an academic death sentence.”

Research has shown that kids in inclusion classes are much more likely to graduate than those in segregated classrooms, without adversely impacting general-education kids. Moreover, African-American boys are often over-identified as special needs because of behavioral problems, not because of learning disabilities. Some city educators argue that it is precisely kids with behavioral problems who are least likely to succeed in the no-excuses culture of charter schools.

Global Tech’s approach presaged special-education reforms in New York City, which were initiated about two years ago and intended to integrate more special-needs kids into regular public-school classrooms and to allow all but the most severely impaired children to enroll in neighborhood schools.  Having developed a reputation for being “good at” educating special needs students, says David Baiz, Global Tech’s new interim-acting principal who was also a founding teacher at the schools, Global Tech gets referrals from parents and even Department of Education headquarters.

Global Tech has won cudos for its innovative teaching methods. But when it comes to standardized tests, the measure used by most studies, including CREDO and IBO, public schools like Global Tech almost certainly can’t compare to schools with significantly lower special-needs populations. The IBO study helps explain why.

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