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

Here are some relatively firm numbers from the Special School District of St. Louis County, Mo. This district was established specifically for special ed, and is open to every special ed student in the county, whether they go to public or private schools, are homeschooled, or are homebound due to medical or other issues. So it’s a pretty comprehensive cross section.

The district serves 24,000 students. That includes two countywide vocational/technical high schools that the district operates. They account for 1,800 students; the total receiving special ed services is actually closer to 22,000.

Out of those 22,000, 97% receive special ed services in their “home” school, alongside “normal” students. About 750 attend schools totally focused on special needs. Some of those kids are so severely physically disabled they need their own attendant and pretty much 24/7 care no matter their intellectual skills. Some of them really should be going to an “alternative” school, but they got slapped with an unspecified category of behavioral disorder, and were diverted into this system. The rest of them are what we would all consider “special ed students.”

Those students need something close to 1-on-1 attention. My wife’s typical “class” size was maybe 7-10 kids, and most years she had a lull-time aide or assistant assigned to her. They were taught different subjects at different times throughout the day (sometimes by a teacher who specialized in something like math, reading, or domestic life skills, but most hours by my wife), so in that sense they were in classes.

According to the state of Missouri, 301 students were in Phase 3 high school programs. Anecdotally, a lot of those students seem to have started out in regular school, but fell farther behind each year until they needed special attention in every class. The 5-year high graduation rate was about 27%-29%.

That means about 1/4 of the students with the most intense intervention did well enough to earn a high school diploma. A lot of my wife’s graduates seem to have ended up in food service or custodial work. The rest of them would either a) drop out before graduation b) learn enough skills to work in a sheltered workshop c) not really have that level of skills, but enough skills to live in a group home with supervision. The rest could be considered a complete failure of the system.

The district’s per pupil cost is $15,146, spread out among the students who need only the most minimal of assistance to those who are totally dependent on special services.

That number is on top of what the participating school districts spend, which ranges from $11,124 to $23,811 per pupil.

TL;DR. Special education is expensive, and can cost twice what a school district would spend on a typical student. Few students need the most intense level of assistance. A little more than 25% of the time, the outcome is good enough to ensure that even those students can at least graduate from high school and find a minimum-wage job. Most of the rest will have learned enough to at least minimally function in society, with a lot of supervision.

Is it worth it? YMMV.

Do students have to have a disability to attend the technical high school?

If money available to a school system is finite, won’t you get the best ROI by spending each dollar at the place where it gets the most marginal return?

For example, take $100.

A. You could use it for a few hours of 1:1 time with one of the clients mentioned above. That kid may have so many components missing from their brain that they have made no real progress since 12, like the above kid.

B. You could use it to upgrade the arduino a G&T kid uses to a newer, nicer model. This might help that kid learn very slightly faster but he’s probably throttled by other factors.

C. You could use it to pay for higher quality school lunches for one of the poorer students. $100 is probably about a month’s worth.

You want to measure the results and if the measurements show one of the above choices is better, you should do it. In this made up example, it’s choice C, but this isn’t always true. Obviously if you get the next $100 of funding, well, maybe all the poor kids have all the kale they can eat during lunch. Maybe the next marginal gain is somewhere else.

I mean, flip it the other way. Why don’t we take money away from the “normal” student programs and put more of it in special ed? Why not? Maybe each special ed student would benefit a small amount from 1:1 tutoring all of the time.

Why shouldn’t we do that?

I wasn’t aware that medical science had *any *treatment, either demonstrated or in the pipeline, for brain injury. There are substantial technical issues with such a treatment, replacing missing axons would require technology so far in advance of today’s that it’s basically science fiction. (axons are very long cells serving more or less as wires, they made their connections during embryonic development when the brain was tiny and then extended themselves as the embryo/infant/child grew. There is no technology available today or more than only vaguely theoretically possible that could possibly replace them if they are missing.)

Hypothetically, what if the job they hold down doesn’t pay more, over their expected lifespan and including the kids where these efforts were a failure, than the cost of training them for that job?

Note I am not saying we should give up, just that an analysis of cost:benefit should be done and **if **the numbers don’t work, then yes, we “should” give up. Assuming we as a society care about the “needs of the many” and not just the needs of a specific child, if an effort is not cost effective it means the same dollars could be spent somewhere else that is cost effective.

It depends very heavily on the details of each specific case. But in many cases, there is effective treatment for brain injury–which, in many situations, basically consists of sitting back and letting the brain do its own thing, albeit very often assisted with some kind of therapy. The brain is far more versatile than scientists and doctors dreamed of even 30 years ago. Some people manage to live a fairly normal life with literally half of their brain missing.

Most people’s situations are not that dramatic, but there are documented examples as far as the eye can see of the brain compensating for either a brain injury or physical injury to an astonishing degree.

There’s also this.

One exaggerated way to look at this is “wouldn’t the best return on investment be educating the top 10% from first grade onwards, and put the bottom 90% including special needs into some bottom feeding day care pool that barely turns them into complacent worker bees?” If one accepts the ROI argument, there should be elites from first grade onwards and the rest can be “educated” as peasants.

Dinsdale, what would you think if your child was in the middle range of the autism spectrum instead of at the shallow end? And what if the educators had come back in first grade and said your child is disruptive, can’t keep up with the neuro-typical students, we can’t accommodate in our school because frankly the ROI sucks?

Not to be snarky, but you’ve had a small preview of what it could have been like if society said the ROI means sink or swim to your child back in kindergarten.

And I write this as a parent of one twin that is in the middle range of the autism spectrum (and you probably have little inkling of the amount of insurance, work benefits, money we spend every day, cost to my career, relocation back to the US, the cost of my marriage, etc) and one twin that needs a 504 plan for a year or two to get over a rough patch of anxiety issues. Doesn’t have to be Goodwin. WTF are parents of special needs children supposed to do? Not send kids to school? Accept there is no education for my child and deal with it privately? Send 'em to school and let them drool in the MR classroom all day and send 'em back home? Let them beg in the streets? Let them live in the streets? Pimp 'em out? Domestic servants?

Net-net, we are a rich society, and should take care of and provide opportunities for all of us in the society. Including those in poverty and those with special needs. This ain’t an ROI calculation but one of basic human rights and dignity. And I call bullshit on there not being enough money, the issue in the US is not being enough empathy to allocate the dollars needed. With all due respect, IMHO ROI isn’t the way to look at this.

In a district of 24k students, 22k are receiving special ed services?

Is this accurate? Where is this district? What is so different about this community that they have so many compromised children?
Do you have a cite? I think this seems highly irregular indeed, and can see now why you are so concerned!

IIUIC, it’s not a geographical district: it’s an organizational unit covering special ed in a combination of specialized and normal centers, covering several geographical districts.

It’s not a community-

There are 20- something school districts in St. Louis County - this particular one handles special ed and technical education for the entire county. Districts are not always solely dependent on geography ( especially in large systems ) and even when there is not a separate district providing special education, there might be another entity like this one providing special education to residents of multiple geographic districts


The algorithm is as follows : subdivide your budget into discrete dollar chunks. Choose a heuristic of what you are optimizing for. Graduation rates? College acceptance rates? Any practical heuristic is a formula that would factor in many variables.

Then, allocate the first chunk of money (the smaller the chunk size, the higher the resolution) to the potential budget item that has the greatest predicted gain on the heuristic. Update the state of the budget. Repeat until all money is allocated.

Note that “predicted gain” is a specific, measurable prediction. Next year or other time increment, you update the algorithm that made the predictions based on the results from the last year.

So it is unlikely that the solution you describe is optimal. Obviously, on iteration 1 of the algorithm, yes, the first dollar chunk should go to the top 10% of children because that is where the largest gain is. But as the algorithm proceeds, there are diminishing returns.

For an example, say the first dollar chunk pays for classrooms, teachers, and basic books for the top 10%. You could double the money spent but you won’t get double the results : a twice as expensive classroom, or twice as expensive textbooks or a teacher paid twice as much will be better, but nowhere near double. Likely the relationship is logarithmic, that is, the log of the money spent is the gain.

An algorithm like described is correct no matter the budget.

This is my third attempt at writing this post. My skills are not good this morning.

The Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is pretty much unique in the U.S. It was organized in 1957 to provide services to students with special needs, regardless of what school district they attended. There are currently 22 independent school districts in the County, with a combined enrollment of roughly 129,000. Some of those districts have a total enrollment of fewer than 1,000 You can imagine the impact on their budget to provide for even one one blind child of normal intelligence: teach the student to read braille, provide materials in braille, special forms of testing, etc.

SSD services are also available to students of religious schools, secular private schools, home-schooled children, etc. I don’t know what that number is, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say 11,000 throughout the County. That makes a total student universe of roughly 140,000.

Out of that 140,000 SSD currently serves a total of 22,000, or about 1 in 6 students in St. Louis County. As I cited upthread, 97% of those students can be served in a “regular” school by SSD staff either in their regular classroom, or in a private space.
Because of the unique relationship between SSD and the other school districts, St. Louis County provides a manageable but still sizable chunk of data for education types to study.

No, the technical high schools are open to all students across the county. Think of them as “magnet” schools that focus on vocational/technical education. And I’m not counting them or their enrollment as part of my discussion, except perhaps the impact they might have on SSD’s per pupil spending.

Depends on what you mean by “treatment.” BothGaby Giffords and James Brady were victims of severe, permanent brain injuries, and with lots and lots of therapy, recovered enough to have a somewhat normal quality of life.

Now, what do you do when the victim of a gunshot to the head is an 8-year old in 3rd grade? At least before the shooting she would have known fundamental reading and arithmetic. Do you write her off forever? Stop educating her for a year or two and then judge whether she’ll benefit from future education?

For the sake of discussion, let’s say you start identifying special needs students in first grade and put them into a “bottom feeding day care pool.” How much will it cost to run those centers? In Missouri, full-time day care for school age children costs an average of $4,874 per year. Missouri has a lot of day care centers in rural areas, and a lot where enforcement of regulations is pretty lax, so let’s figure a minimum of $6,000/yr. to warehouse a school age child in a decent, inspected facility.

Don’t forget that a lot of the students we’ve shuffled into the warehouse have serious physical disabilities as well as learning disabilities, and taking care of those students/children/inmates costs thousands of dollars more that someone with average physical capabilities. Let’s say the cost of taking care of all those physical needs adds an extra $1,000 to the average. Now we’re at $8,000 per year.

That’s a lot less than the $11,124 the Mehlville R-IX School District spends per student, and a whole lot less than the combined $26,000+ per year Mehlville and the SSD will spend on that student, K-12. But what have you really accomplished? You’ve warehoused one out of every six kids now in public, private, or home school, and you’ve saved the taxpayers of St. Louis County $176 million per year. What do you do when they turn 18?

And while I’m putting this all down, let me say one other thing. Schools don’t diagnose autism, ADHD, etc. Those are medical diagnoses and they’re made by phyisicans, psychiatrists, neurologists, etc. What a school can do is limited to suggesting the parent have their child evaluated, and then making an appropriate IEP after an official diagnosis.

Okay, any other questions?

Well, pencil in the numbers.

What’s the average wage earned by a successful client of this program? How many working years will they have? Does their expected lifetime earnings exceed the cost of the program? By what factor?

I am all for helping those who will benefit. But maybe the same $5000 a year will send an underprivileged kid to trade school and instead of becoming a retail worker, that kid becomes an electrician. That’s a large and measurable dollar gain, with a more than a million dollars increase in expected lifetime earnings.

Please note the italicized word expected. This means that if one of the handicapped clients becomes a nuclear physicist, hypothetically, that outcome is averaged in with all the failures, and it wouldn’t be worth it to society if there were 999 failures for each success.

I like a challenge and I’m not doing anything in particular this evening.

Let’s define “success” as getting a high school diploma or GED, which qualifies the graduate to get a minimum wage job. In Missouri (and all my data has come from Missouri) the minimum wage is now $12/hr.

Assume that the graduate gets a minimum wage job, works 30 hours per week, 50 weeks a year, ages 19-67. That works out to $18,000/ yr. Over the 48 years the graduate would be in the work force, that comes out to $864,000.

As I noted earlier, the per pupil cost for special education over and above “regular” education is $15,146/yr. Let’s go further and assume the student was identified as having special needs at an early age, and put into a government-funded pre-kindergarten program at age 4, and also didn’t graduate until age 19 (which is the oldest age eligible for this particular special ed system. That means society has spent $227,190 over 15 years to educate that special needs student to a successful outcome (a high school diploma.)

Subtracting that from a lifetime of 30 hour/wk minimum wage jobs produces a lifetime net of $636,100 productivity for that student. Of course that doesn’t even begin to include the financial benefits to society an employed person produces compared to an unemployed person.

As long as I’m crunching numbers, I also determine that the system can produce more than 2.5 “failures” for every success and STILL end up producing a net “profit” for taxpayers.

Of course, as I’ve said many times on this Board while apologizing for many, many numerical errors, math isn’t my strong suit, so feel free to run your own numbers and let me know if I’m incorrect.

In both St. Louis County, and the St. Louis Public Schools (a totally separate district which serves the City of St. Louis) that underprivileged kid can attend a public vocational/technical high school (two in St. Louis County, one in the City of St. Louis) at taxpayer expense, graduate from those schools, and quickly find an apprentice job in a skilled trade.

In addition, St. Louis County students are eligible for a taxpayer-subsidized post high-school program specifically to train practical nurses. It’s a small program, but it currently trains about 120 students per year. That’s also under the vocational-technical school umbrella.

Forget about money for a few minutes. What about quality of life for the students? I’d say that even if a person with, for instance, Down syndrome is never able to have a job that pays enough for them to fully support themselves, but the lessons they learned in school, which would include basic reading and math and lifecare skills, would lead to a MUCH higher QOL than they would have had if they were just warehoused somewhere.

As nursing schools go, that is NOT a small program. The v/t school in my hometown used to have a program where students who went from from grade 10 on could graduate from HS with an LPN certificate. When the requirements changed, they could no longer do that, but one school in my town has a similar program where they can graduate with a CNA certificate, at no cost to them.

The smartest kid at my junior high, 40 years ago, went to that v/t school and graduated as valedictorian; he said he wanted to be a truck driver and got razzed a lot about it. Anyway, he got a certificate in diesel mechanics from a local community college, and did that for a few years and then decided to teach it at that school. I bet someone who graduates from that program doesn’t need a lengthy interview, because anyone familiar with that program will know that this school would train the best diesel mechanics anywhere. He would have been a dismal failure as, say, a doctor or a lawyer.

Thanks Kent Clark for the linked info and your thoughtful posts.

I dunno what I would think. But in discussions such as this I’m often reminded of John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance. I’m not willing to defer entirely to the opinions of those most intimately involved as the basis for forming public policy.

How much is a life worth? Are all lives worth equal amounts? And where does the money come from? Difficult questions.

Hell - I’d be thrilled if the US paid a fraction of what we do on the military, taxed the wealthy more, and invested WAY MORE in education and all manner of social services. But that does not seem to be the choice our country has made.

We live in real time. Babies are born each year. We need to make decisions about how to take care of the growing babies and children. Other people have come up with answers. You say first hand experience doesn’t count. What would you do? Do you just want to keep the resources of society sitting in some bank vault until you obtain 100% certainty of an answer?

Boy, it is frustrating when people misread what was written (intentionally or not). Hard to imagine how someone could interpret “not willing to defer entirely to the opinions of those most intimately involved as the basis for forming public policy” as you did.

My preference - as difficult as it might be to implement - is for much of public policy to be formed from a perspective of an individual who does not know whether or not they would benefit from such policy, but instead, what was best for the society as a whole. If I have a disabled child, I might favor special education with few limits. If I have unimpaired or no children, I might wish no special ed. I suspect that what is “best” for society likely rests somewhere between those two self-interested positions.

Your own first hand experience of working in claims may not be the best reference point for this discussion, either.

Yes, you are going to have to make choices. The public schools are dedicated to attempting to educate all children. They are required to take all children.

I have a couple of IEP children myself. I wish they were not on IEP, but they are what they are. They are not discipline problems. They simply need more help than what the normal teacher can easily provide. IMO the IEP system allows staff more specialized in special needs kids to work with the special needs kids more efficiently than the regular teacher, who is focused on other things. This actually helps the more gifted students as well, since the teacher can address more advanced subjects when the IEP kids are with their specialists. It certainly seems like a more efficient system than loading everything on the single teacher.

If one of your solutions is to simply stop teaching the IEP kids because you don’t think teaching them provides enough of an ROI, yes, you do need to specify at this time what your ultimate goals are. You seem to want to step around this issue and leave it for others. I think IEP works well enough within the parameters of our public school system. If you want different parameters, it’s up to you to put those things on the table.

I agree - my job certainly skews my perspective.

But sorry, I have no agenda I’m pushing, and no “ultimate goals.” I chose this forum because I was seeking information, not a debate.

The most I’ll say is that I probably disfavor the highest level of expenditures that occur at some extremes in education and health care. I question whether schools are the best situated to provide such extreme services. And I wonder how expenditures during school years fit in with whatever services are available to an individual throughout their lifetime.

I think there is at least SOME element of the overdiagnosis of some mental/emotional conditions. Societally, I think there is SOME tendency for SOME parents to seek extra resources/accommodations for their child, or expect the schools to provide what ought to be provided at home. ISTM that SOME parents don’t like to face the fact that their kid is just below average in all respects, and likely faces a tough row to hoe in this economy.

But I have no idea or desire to try to form those thoughts into any workable policy. My questions have largely been answered. My response to you was based solely on what I perceived as a misinterpretation of what I had written.