Monday, August 8, 2011

Salem has a special ed problem

A ranking of Massachusetts school districts in regard to the number and percentage of student classified as needing special education was just released. A review of the data makes it clear that the city of Salem has a special ed problem.

According to the data, Salem ranks 23rd of all of the 393 public school districts in the state. That number is actually even a little worse than it sounds. Most of the schools ahead of Salem on the list are either vocational technical schools, or public charter schools specifically for children with issues. Looking strictly at regular public school districts, Salem comes in sixth of 298, with a special ed classification on 23.9 percent of our students. On the plus side, back in 2008 we had 25.3 percent of students on the sped list. That number would have been good enough for fourth today. The average sped rate for regular municipal school districts is 16.2%. Salem even outranks the average of the vocational schools, which average 23.8%.

Why does Salem have such a high percentage of special ed students? Outgoing superintendent Dr. Cameron tried to blame it on Salem being an urban area back in 2008. Looking at the numbers, I'm not so sure that's the real answer. Check out the map below, where I've plotted the locations of the five public school districts that have higher percentages than Salem. Don't miss Martha's Vineyard. Holyoke, which is number 1, is fairly urban. The rest just aren't. In fact, I'd argue that inbreeding might be the problem in Athol. (If you haven't been there, trust me. If you have, you know I'm right.)

So I'd say Cameron is wrong, or making excuses, and digging deeper would seem to prove this. Looking at the largest cities in the state, we see Salem outpacing all of them. Lynn, the closest geographically, and also with a large (probably larger than Salem) English language learner population, has a special ed rate of 16.1 percent. On average, the ten largest cities in the state have a special ed rate of 18.5, again outpaced by Salem.

After blaming Salem's rate on being an urban district, Cameron followed with a second, and I'd guess more correct reason. From the Salem News:

"The second reason we may have such high numbers, through no fault of anyone," he said, is that the schools don't have consistent standards to qualify children for special education. There is a team in each of the nine school buildings to review cases. Now, he said, they're working to make sure each of the teams uses the same standards.

I think this is probably more accurate. You know, other than that part about "through no fault of anyone." My guess, and admittedly, it's just a guess, is that the Salem schools have a real problem saying no to little Timmy's parents when they decide maybe he needs an IEP. Rather than saying, "No, Timmy needs to buckle down a little bit, behave, and learn some discipline at home," the Salem schools kowtow. In addition to not having any standards between our own schools, it seems like there are no common standards from district to district.

Why do I care? Money. It's really, really expensive. Special ed eats up about 37% of the school budget, while serving less than 25% of the population. You'll never get rid of the most expensive cases, because they are the ones who need it the most, but you could lower the costs some by making sure students really need the services. This would, in turn, make more resources available to the rest of the population, and hopefully stop little Timmy's parents from feeling like they need to get him special attention to get any at all.* Additionally, we wouldn't have to hire a new Special ed coordinator every few years at spiraling six-figure salaries. Seriously, this job has no incentive to decrease special ed spending at all.

*There is no little Timmy. Any resemblance to anyone anywhere is merely coincidence. The name Timmy is fictional. He may be a she. Sally, for example. Also, Sally is fictional. He may not have parents. The example was for illustrative purposes only. I've been threatened with enough lawsuits recently. Hi Brian! (Really, one of the threats was from a man named Brian who has very little understanding of the first amendment, or what the standards for defamation are when you're a public official.) Brian is real.


  1. Good read Real World. I'll tell u our son has an IEP. We were more or less told by doctors and early intervention types that we would be the worst parents ever if we didnt get one. He was a late talker and did some tracking so we got him checked out. A neurologist told us he was helping us by placing him on the spectrum even though he didnt need to be. We didnt feel good about it but went along. After the first year of school Salem started to fight us on him having the IEP, as they should have. All The boy needed was a good push from some great teachers and he opened right up, super smart and doing great. We gave up the IEP but we didnt have too and we were told that there was nothing Salem could do to take it away. There r so many resourses for parents it spun our heads. Classes,lawyers,doctors,support groups it goes on and on. I started to think that there are a lot of these people just in it for each other, They don't care about the kids and they sure as hell don't care about the schools.

  2. And can we here more about Brian


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