How is the "success" of special ed programs assessed?

Not sure if there is a factual answer to this or if it will drift into IMHO territory.

As I understand it, special ed programs are intended to provide an appropriate educational experience for each student and to enable each student to make as much progress as they are able to make. Am I incorrect in my impression? Is there a different standard/goal?

I’ve often had difficulty conceptualizing such a standard, as I do not understand how economics and diminishing marginal returns are to be considered within a limited budget. What level of resources ought a society direct towards an individual who has little/no chance of ever living independently, being gainfully employed, etc.?

Does anyone know whether special education programs are evaluated as to their success? Or even what is considered “success”?

For example, an IMHO thread is discussing a 14 yr old w/ ODD. And in my job, I just reviewed a file of a 5 yr old w/ behavioral problems, who is receiving 1:1 aide at school.

I know that each child is unique, and that pretty considerable efforts ought to be made before “giving up” on someone - especially a young person. But is anyone aware of any analysis of the types and degrees of success following various special ed efforts? What percentage eventually live independently? Obtain gainful employment? Receive disability benefits as an adult? Become incarcerated? …

AIUI, evaluation of special ed programs is a fairly sizeable business, and there are lots of companies that provide such evaluations. Here, for example, is a “District-Wide Special Education Program Evaluation” report for the Lynnfield, MA public schools from 2017.

I can speak to this a little; I spent a fair amount of time in special-ed classes as a kid, during which time my mom was a psychologist for my school district. Also, one of my sons is in elementary school, where he gets some accommodations.

While districts’ special-ed programs are evaluated routinely (per Kimstu’s post), the OP seems to be asking about special education programs as they’re applied to individual students.

OP: you say that you reviewed “the file” of a 5-year-old for your job…what’s your job? Are you a teacher? I can’t imagine that the list of professions that involve reviewing children’s “files” is very long. I’m asking because I’d expect a teacher to be familiar with most of what I’m about to say.

These things are covered by three federal laws: the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act. State laws may also apply.

In most cases, administrators/psychologists/therapists meet with the parents and they come up with an individualized education plan (IEP). An IEP can specify accommodations such as extra time on tests or an option to do “reading” with audiobooks instead of paper books.

As IEPs are explicitly tailored to individuals, there’s not a straightforward way to assess their effectiveness for that individual. The main question tends to be “is the kid doing better since we applied accommodation X?”

A barrier to measuring effectiveness more broadly is that very few kids in a given district have the exact same learning disabilities and get the exact same accommodations. In other words, the disabilities are kid-specific, as are the accommodations for those disabilities. It’s awfully hard to have a control group under those circumstances. Educational assessment, a slippery concept under ideal conditions, is even slipperier in the context of such highly variable problems/accommodations.

You mention “giving up” on students, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. Learning disabilities are chronic, lifelong conditions, not something that can be “beaten” (or not) by a set of finite-duration accommodations [sup]1[/sup]. The nature and degree of accommodations change over time, so they’re typically reviewed annually (via an IEP or 504 meeting). No one involved has much reason to retain accommodations that aren’t helping.

Besides, most accommodations are fairly cheap: I got extra time on math tests and access to a keyboard for all written work. Many accommodations specified in IEPs or 504 plans are similarly inexpensive.

You mentioned a kid who gets a 1:1 aide, and yeah, that’s obviously very expensive. But that kid may not need a 1:1 aide for more than a year or two, so the expense may be a little less than you’re imagining. And relatively few recipients of special-ed services require such expensive ones.

It might help if you explained why you’re asking. Are you concerned that too much money is spent on special-ed kids? That districts are obligated to spend money that they don’t have? I’m not impugning your motives—there’s plenty in American education that could be more rigorous—but it might be easier to answer your question if you explain what prompted you to ask.

[sup]1[/sup] In my experience (both as a kid and as a parent) many non-specialist teachers don’t understand this—to the detriment of their students. My son’s second-grade teacher tried to “fix” his handwriting and became frustrated when my son didn’t comply. He and I both have dysgraphia, and bad handwriting is inherent to people with dysgraphia because we have poor fine-motor control. But this teacher was convinced that my son “just hadn’t learned good penmanship.” This is sort of like concluding that a paraplegic just hasn’t learned to walk properly (severed spinal cord notwithstanding). My son began to hate school and check out. Luckily, his later teachers have been more clued-in than she was.

The OP seems to imply money spent on those with special needs is a waste? What would you suggest as an alternative?

“Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members ; the last, the least, the littlest.”

Look, if you want these children living independently they need assistance through these developmental years for any chance of reaching that goal. But additionally they need to know how to operate in the world and starting young is key. Plus, these kids need to be in school with normal kids so those kids are familiar with their needs and abilities. Those kids will be the ones providing opportunities in future. We need to normalize interaction between them, in youth, for it to succeed.

The costs of not helping, as many as possible, to achieve independence, due to lack of assistance during formative years, is far outstripped by the costs of them all becoming fully dependent on public assistance. I should think this would be self evident.

the short answer to the OP’s question is that success is defined in the IEP. So it is defined for each individual. One can’t measure the success of a non-verbal student the same as an ODD student who is otherwise academically capable.

It may be that the OP is actually asking how one measures the “success” of an entire special ed program in a school system. The same way you measure success in any other endeavor. Set some metrics and see how close the program gets to them. If you are simple-minded about the metrics you pick ones that are largely driven by money-more money is supposed to mean more success. If you lean more another way, you pick metrics that measure social or academic success for each student. But the point is that success is measured depending on how one picks the metrics. 90%+ of the general public ignore the metrics and just look at the final number. So they get gamed by the system. Life is like that.

My wife was a special ed teacher for 30+ years. Here’s how it works in theory.

Each student has what is called an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which is supposed to be agreed on by teachers, parents, and possibly the student’s physicians, personal assistant, etc. The plan is reviewed and updated each year, or during the year if something needs changes.

The plan uses the student’s current skills as a baseline, then sets specific, measurable goals, and at least a rough outline of how the teacher/school will work to achieve them. Obviously the IEP for a student with normal intelligence but a visual or hearing loss will be completely different from a student with multiple sclerosis who uses a wheelchair, and that’s completely different from a severely autistic student who’s off in a separate world.

There is no single standard. Each student is a separate case with a separate IEP, although students with similar needs can be grouped together and taught as a class.

Of course this is cost-, time- and labor-intensive, and an individual student’s progress may be millimeters per year. Some will never achieve independence. But without this type of assistance, even fewer would.

Not really a topic for GQ, is it? I’ll ask a mod if this thread should be moved.

Pretty much all such programs are under some federal association, if not jurisdiction. There are lots of people having meetings, making individual treatment plans, with objectives, and goals, and each one of those require “measurable progress” metrics to be substantiated with recorded data. On the whole it all sounds great. It probably does some good somewhere. I worked with a forty year old man, and met his elementary school teacher one day. He greeted her exactly as enthusiastically as he does every person he meets including those who work with him daily. Six or seven somatic and verbal expressions which have been successful in prolonging interactions with others over his lifetime. She remarked to me that he was unchanged from the age of 12 when she worked with him. Looked the same, and exhibited the exact same behaviors she and others had been “coaching” him to do. I showed her the “Individual Plan” currently being followed. She agreed it was also identical to the one she worked on.

I assured her that he was safe, generally moderately happy, properly hydrated and nourished, and had pleasant interactions with 4-12 people a day. I said we reported his progress every month, and updated his Habilitation plans accordingly at least twice a year.

Success means different things to different people. Government agency inspectors make it quite clear what sort of progress they expect, and generally they get it. Documented on dozens of forms which can then be reviewed to assure compliance.

My priorities when I worked with the fifth percentile of the education bell curve were: Socialization, hydration, nutrition, hygiene, exercise, and then it’s time to go to bed.


It looks, on the surface, like a churlish question. On the other hand, 80% of most schools’ budget goes to 10% of the students (Special Ed. and Gifted & Talented combined), and if I were a parent of someone in the middle 90%, I would have some questions. Are special programs funded out of the same general pool as standard/mainstream programs? Since Special Ed. programs are a federal mandate, are they accompanied by federal funds? These are not unreasonable things to ask.

I’m assuming dysgraphia is diagnosed? Was this 2nd grade teacher aware of your son’s diagnosis and still behaving as if he could be “taught” out of his disability?

That’s an absurd claim. I just googled some numbers and found an example with 13% of the budget for special education. This is Minnesota 2010 to 2011.

Cite, please. This is GQ.


This article lamenting ballooning special ed costs in California, for example, states that in 2015-16, California schools spent $13.2 billion on special education expenditures, which sounds like a lot until you realize that total expenditures in California schools that year exceeded $80 billion.

Special ed students cost the districts a lot more than general ed students. The problem is a lot of this expense does not really belong in the education budget but it is. My wife retired from the county office of education. She worked in the special education department. The county go the serverly disabled students. There were some “classes” that were nothing but day care and a nursery. The students being very low functioning. Students were transported to the school with a one to one aid during transportation. The students were brought into the class room where they were objective was to get the students to recognize the teachers aids and teacher. The main thing that the teacher and one to one did was feed them, change them, and clean them up. This kind of care is taking away from the education system. I am not saying the students should be treated differently, but we are kidding ourselves when we call this kind of care an “education”. this kind of care should have be given as part of the health department. One of the teachers had an after hours job. She would take cloth of various softness. she would rub the cloths against the student’s face so the student cold learn that different things feel differently.

I heard year after year if you just practice more your hand writing would improve.

I have a problem with fine motor control. I have reverted to printing. It is easier to print one letter and rest before printing the next letter. Trying cursive it was hard for me to write a whole work and keep my hands steady enough to complete the word. For me writing or printing more than a line or two is painful.

Some years latter I had children. My youngest was diagnosed with infintial tremor. His hands shake more than mine. My boys went through the same thing about hand writing. I was slow on backing them. But I have made sure my grandchildren are not down graded because of poor hand writing.

Fair enough. One of my professors threw that number out when I was in grad school (Colorado, five years ago) and I apparently accepted it a little too uncritically. I no longer have my notes from then, so I’ll back off the claim.

Instead, I’ll make this one: Any time public money is involved, it’s entirely fair to ask two questions: How much is this costing us? What are we getting for it?

From a macro perspective, treating all children as potentially educable has born fruit: for example, today, most kids with Downs Syndrome can read and write. It used to be that no one bothered to even try to teach them. And a great many techniques developed to help students with learning differences have found their way into general education practice and have been very successful .

Thanks to those of you who DID NOT immediately assume ill-motive on my part. I certainly have my impressions/opinions regarding the various demands we place on our public schools, the (over?) diagnoses of mental/behavioral conditions, the funding and provision of social services, and the like. My personal views on such issues may or may not be consistent, and may or may not be what you presume.

And my OP suggested that this discussion might be most appropriate elsewhere.

No, I am neither a health care professional nor an educator. My work for 3 decades had involved persons seeking disability benefits. I read a great number of medical records, school records, and IEPs as a regular part of my job. I acknowledge that individuals seeking child’s SSI are a nonrepresentative subset of IEP recipients. I had 3 children educated through public schools, and my wife teaches at a community college.

I also acknowledge the vast differences among students w/ disabilities. For example, my son is in the shallow end of the autism pool. He had an IEP and received services for a while, until we learned we could provide the services ourselves and preferred than he not be pulled out of classes. The staff seemed to really enjoy working with him because he is quite bright and they saw his potential to improve. And he is now gainfully employed as an engineer, married, living on his own.

A far different situation than my son’s is a child of limited intelligence (tho not intellectually disabled) coming from a challenging socioeconomic background, with little parental support. (I see A LOT of these types of cases, and admit it skews my perspective. Kids with disinterested parents and unfortunate backgrounds, diagnosed with various behavioral conditions.)

Yet another situation is the PROFOUNDLY disabled child - physically and/or mentally/emotionally.

Of course there are continuums stretching between the 3 examples I give - and undoubtedly countless other “types” of students.

Thanks. Read (rather quickly) through that lengthy report, and saw nothing responding to the sorts of questions I had (and undoubtedly phrased poorly.) The very final section purported to discuss effectiveness, but I found the contents lacking.

My understanding is that schools keep certain data assessing the “success” as measured by test scores, graduation rates, employment rates, and more. I wondered if similar stats were kept re: special ed students. I don’t know what they might be. Maybe accomplishment of individual IEP goals, transitioning off IEPs, progression to employment/college…

The report does a decent job of reporting the funds spent of spec ed, numbers of staff and students, and programs offered. But It doesn’t really make an effort to measure what those expenditures achieve. In a system with limited money, decisions have to be made how much to spent where. I’m mainly interested in how the decision is made as to how much to spend directed where. It is a relatively simple thing to opine that more/less money should be spent, and where it should be directed - but why? What are the individual and societal benefits from such decisions? For example, should we assign this one profoundly impaired student a personal aide - or instead, hire an additional aide to assist an entire classroom?

I see a lot of minors who are receiving considerable services, yet I wonder what the ultimate goal is? Maybe educators don’t think this way, but I do I am impressed by many vocational transition services I see in high school records. But in some cases, there seems to be no chance that a student will ever progress to higher education, be employed in a non-sheltered environment, or live unassisted. It is sad when I see records where a student seems to get assistance thru age 18, and then is essentially dumped from the system. (Well, in the states I’m familiar with, there are continuing social services available to those who are able to seek them.)

I guess at base I’m wondering what amount of funds ought to be spent how throughout an individual’s life, for what purposes? Take an extreme example of a profoundly impaired student, receiving costly 1:1 assistance. Would it be “better” for the student, to apply some portion of the $ spent on school activities, instead on providing a decent living situation for the entirety of their life?

Sorry to the extent my questions are unfocussed.


Thanks - that’s a great analysis of the type of thoughts I’m thinking. If I assume DS students are capable of reading and writing - perhaps to a certain grade equivalency, and eventually living in some assisted group housing, and employment in some modestly accommodated situation (hopefully not crushing my &^%*@ bread in the grocery store! :mad:). That’s a program with reasonable goals that I can fully support. No one is suggesting these DS kids will be brain surgeons or airline pilots, but we aren’t relegating them to lives of being institutionalized, either.

I wonder what similar equations are applied to different “classes” of special ed recipients.

…and the grade equivalency will depend on the student, but if we don’t even try to teach them we won’t know how far any of them can get. The most extreme case I personally know has a law degree and focuses on family law and (dis)ability law. She chose to attend UNED (the Long-Distance University of Spain) because that way her teachers had never seen her and nobody would be able to claim her grades had been “gifts” (as some imbeciles had done previously).
In the primary school that I attended back in the dark ages and my nephews more recently, it is common to pair students who are ahead in some aspect with others who are behind on the same; this helps both students in different ways. Most students will have some times they need help and others they can help. The Nephew (who was the smallest boy in the class) spent a couple of years paired up with the biggest boy, who is hard of hearing. This last year, the Nephew has been in school in France and run into many of the same oral-comprehension issues that his former partner has: once he realized this, he started copying the coping mechanisms he’s seen his former partner use. There are benefits to Special Ed, mainstreaming mechanisms and so forth which do not directly accrue on the student “being helped” but on their classmates; they’re difficult to identify and measure but they’re real.

You miss my point. We don’t know what a kid is capable of until we try to educate them. There’s a huge risk of fundamental attribution error here: See little Johnny, over there playing with bits of colored string! What a waste of public funds it would have been to try to educate him! The thing is, we don’t know what Johnny is capable of until we try, and even then, all we know is that what we tried didn’t work–maybe something else would have. If we go into assuming that the results we have been getting are the Best of All Possible Worlds, we risk wasting millions of people. This is what we did for years for kids with Downs syndrome and Autism, until some parents raised holy hell–and the changes we’ve made have already had a dramatic effect not just on the lives of disabled students but on pedagogy for all students. I see no reason to think we’ve now reached Peak Pedagogy at this point.

You see these case files and think 'What’s the point, really? What do we hope to accomplish?" The answer is “everyone to be a functioning, productive member of society”. The obvious answer is “well, that’s not possible for everyone”, and that’s true, but we don’t know which ones, and the only way to find out is to try. Historically, many people determined to be self-evidently "uneducable " are now understood to be quite educable, to the point of being able to support themselves and make contributions to society.

In 1980, childhood cancer seemed basically intractable. Survival rates were dismal. Dying children consumed incredible amounts of resources and they almost all still died. But we didn’t decide it was pointless in the long term just because it often wasn’t working out. Even today, it often ends badly–but many, many, many more children live normal lives because we kept at the problem.

So is the way we are treating kids with severe ODD the best or most appropriate treatment? I doubt it. Does that mean that they are fundamentally untreatable? It’s way, way to early to say. So we do what medicine has always done: we apply the best methods we currently have (even if we are aware there are problems) and strive to learn and grow.