Special Education by the Numbers

General education students have tons of books and online resources to help them find out if their school is good and there are data and reports on how different states are doing.

Not so for kids with disabilities.

Figuring out where to go and where you stand in special education is a different beast.

But, knowledge is power. There is data out there. I’m going to help you find it and use it.

Now, you would think with all of the comments and complaining about special education, that there would be comprehensive data and reports on how much special education costs and how well it works.

You would be wrong.

BUT….there is an annual report on prepared by the US Department of Education on IDEA.

The latest is the “Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2019”… for this years report.

It opens with the mission of the IDEA law – to ensure the free appropriate public education of all children with disabilities.

There is a lot of information in the report. I can’t possibly cover all of it. Definitely check it out. It is available online at the Department of Education and I’ll also provide a link in the program notes at disabilitydemocracy.org. It gets updated every year, though this year it was later than it had been.

The report covers the three main sections of IDEA – Part C, which covers infants and toddlers, Part B for young kids ages 3 to 5 and then also in Part B which is for kids 6 to 21.

Let’s get some of the bad news out right away – there are systemic racial problems within special education. There is over-identification for some racial groups and under-identification for others. There are problems with mis-diagnosis and some major disabilities aren’t even covered. African American boys seem to be over identified with Emotional Disturbance. Girls are under-identified with autism.

While IDEA claims to address all children with disabilities, it doesn’t. There are some disabilities which don’t qualify for benefits under the IDEA law… and that is one of the big limitations of the report. It is ACTUALLY a report on federally funded special education as a program… so, many children with ADHD, dyslexia, or even some physical disabilities aren’t reported on here… or anywhere else.

Dealing with disabilities is like playing Hot Potato… everyone is in a big hurry to hand you off to someone else.

So, again, what we really have in the IDEA report is a review of the special education PROGRAM, not the outcome for kids with disabilities. So, for example, there is no data on how many students with disabilities are performing “at or above grade level” (shockingly low as we’ll discuss in our upcoming episode that takes a look at California’s data in more detail), or their job prospects, or life expectancy… the metrics are pretty limited…and they don’t seem to be designed to help make the program better. It is really frustrating.

… BUT the numbers are still useful.

I’m going to focus on the parts of the report for kids from 6 to 21.

As I said, there really isn’t any academic performance data to be found in the IDEA report. So, they are reporting on “education” without actually talking about the “education” piece.

Buckle up, it is going to be a bumpy ride…. And, if you are a Californian, you likely aren’t going to like what you hear.

I stumbled onto this report for the first time in January 2019. For me, it was eye-opening. Special education is kept so quite and individual that you don’t have any context for how OTHERS are doing to give you some sort of idea of how YOU are doing. That is the power of this report. It is the best “report card” that we have today for students with disabilities.

I’m going to cover 3 of the metrics for disabled kids between 6 and 21 – graduation rate, number of trained special education teachers, and inclusion of students with disabilities in general education.


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41st Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2019