Who are the Children in Special Education? (page 3)
Since the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) nearly 30 years ago, legislators, educators, and parents have wanted to assess the impact of special education services for children with disabilities. Does special education work? Are growing numbers of students with disabilities graduating from school with high school diplomas? Do they continue their education beyond high school? Are they successful in finding employment? Many research studies have been conducted over the years in an attempt to answer these and other questions related to special education.
National evaluation of the IDEA is one of the ongoing responsibilities of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, OSEP is funding seven national studies aimed at doing just that. One of these studies is SEELS—The Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study.
What is SEELS?
SEELS is a six-year study (1999-2005) that will document the school experiences of a national sample of school-age students with disabilities. The study will follow the students as they move from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school. SEELS will study academic performance, school experiences, family life, social adjustment, and personal growth of each of these students. An important feature of SEELS is that it does not look at the students at a single point in time. Rather, it assesses change throughout the students' public education.
Information from the study will help to improve schools by informing the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Congress, state policymakers, parents, and educators about what works well and ways to improve educational services to better meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Who is in the Study?
To find students for the study, school districts across the country were first randomly selected and invited to participate in the study. These districts represented a variety of geographic locations, sizes, and community income levels. About 300 individual school districts and 40 state-operated schools for deaf and/or blind students agreed to participate. From these schools, approximately 14,000 students were randomly selected, and their parents were sent information about the study and invited to participate. Of these students, nearly 12,000, aged 6 to 12 as of December 1999, and their families agreed to participate in the study.
The students represent all the disability categories in the IDEA and comprise a variety of races, incomes, and genders. These students will be 12 to 18 years old when the study ends in 2005. All together, these students are representative of school-age children across the nation. This will allow SEELS to make valid statements about what educational and special services look like for children all over the country.
How is Information Being Gathered?
There are three main data collection activities for SEELS, each done three times over the life of the study. These are described below.
Parent interviews: Through telephone interviews, parents/guardians are asked to respond to questions about the school and family life experiences of their children. The first interviews were done during the summer and fall of 2000. Parents who did not have a telephone interview during the first round were mailed a written questionnaire to complete that included several of the telephone interview questions. The second round of parent telephone interviews was conducted in 2002. The final round of parent/guardian telephone interviews is scheduled for the 2003-2004 school year.
Student assessments: SEELS learns about students' academic performance and their perception of school and learning through face-to-face assessments/interviews with each student. Professionals were hired and trained to arrange and conduct the interviews with students. If a face-to-face interview is not appropriate for a student, a person familiar with that student is asked to complete an alternative assessment of the student's ability to conduct daily activities in school and in the community. The first student assessments were done in spring 2001 and 2002. The final round of assessments will be completed in the spring of 2004.
School questionnaires: Three types of questionnaires are sent to the schools to obtain important information about the schools, the educational experiences of each student in the study, and how they are doing in school. In spring 2002, SEELS asked schools to select one person to be a point of contact for the study. This school site study coordinator updates SEELS on student participants' enrollment, gives questionnaires to teachers, and sends transcripts (when students are in high school) to SEELS. The school questionnaires include:
- School Characteristics Survey—
- (one per school) on the policies and characteristics of the school;
Language Arts Teacher Survey—
- (one per student) provides information about the students' instructional goals, classroom experiences, assessment, accommodations, social adjustment, and educational progress in their language arts classroom; and the
School Program Survey—
(one per student), a questionnaire about the students' placements, programs, and overall progress.
What Have We Learned So Far?
Students approach their educational experiences from complex backgrounds and histories that are shaped by personal characteristics, such as:
age, gender, and ethnic background;
family background and circumstances, such as parents' education, expectations, and household income; and
the nature of the students' disabilities and how well they function.
These factors shape students' home life, experiences at school, and involvement in the community, as do the ways in which students, parents, school staff, and other service personnel work together toward positive results for students. Understanding the characteristics of students and their households is essential to understanding the many major life experiences of students and to being able to serve them well.
Below are some initial findings obtained from parents' interviews that tell us more about the personal characteristics of the students and their families.
In 2000, SEELS found that youth receiving special education services made up 11% of all students between the ages of 6 and 13.
Of these special education students:
75% were classified as having either learning disabilities or speech/language impairments as their primary disabilities.
9% of students were classified with mental retardation.
6% were classified with emotional disturbances.
5% were classified with other health impairments.
Students in each of the other disability classifications represented fewer than 2% of all students with disabilities. When combined, these other categories comprised about 6% of students receiving special education.
When findings are presented for students with disabilities as a whole, the experiences of students with learning or speech/language disabilities are largely represented. Because the vast majority of students with disabilities are students with learning or speech/language disabilities, it is important to look closely at the results for each disability category.
Among the general population of students in grades 1-8, boys and girls are represented in about equal numbers (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999).
Of special education students in the SEELS study, two-thirds are boys. Boys also comprise more than half of the students in each disability category.
There are more girls with mental retardation (12%) than boys (7%).
There are more boys with emotional disturbance (7%) than girls (4%).
- The greater number of boys than girls receiving special education appears in all racial/ethnic groups.
Some research has suggested that the higher proportion of boys among elementary and secondary school students receiving special education may be because schools use identification and assessment practices that inaccurately identify boys, more often than girls, as having certain kinds of disabilities (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2001). However, the National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study (NEILS), a national study of children birth to 3 years of age with disabilities, developmental delays, or who are at risk of delay, found a similarly high percentage (61%) of boys among infants and toddlers with disabilities (Hebbeler et al., 2001).
The greater number of boys among children with disabilities appears at very early ages, before school practices come to bear. The pattern is the same for all the age groups within SEELS and is the same for high school-age students (Wagner et al., 2002).
Whatever the reason for the greater number of boys among students receiving special education, it is important to understand that the research findings about experiences of special education students, as a group, are dominated by the experiences of boys.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Dissemination Center.
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