How Early Education Can Reduce Special Education Placements

Walk into one of America’s public schools, and chances are at least one out of every ten students that you see walking down the hallway will be classified as special needs. Over the past 20 years, the special needs population within America’s schools has grown at a far faster pace than public school enrollment as a whole, and over 13 percent of public school students in the United States receive special education services.

A report released earlier this year by Clara Muschkin, Helen Ladd, and Kenneth Dodge of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, Impact of North Carolina’s Early Childhood Initiatives on Special Education Placements in Third Grade, highlights two effective early childhood programs implemented in North Carolina that decreased third grade special education placements through early intervention.

Third grade enrollment in special education is a critical benchmark, because transitions out of special education decrease dramatically after third grade. Between pre-k and third grade, about 41 percent of students identified with a disability are exited from services. Between third grade and age 19, only 26 percent of students are declassified, meaning that students are more likely to remain in special education for the rest of their academic career.

Not only does third grade mark an important point in the likelihood of declassification from special education, it also marks a turning point for students’ future education trajectory. Research shows that there are adverse outcomes associated with special education placements in third grade, including a widening deficit in reading ability, higher likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system, lower academic performance, and a higher chance of missing important benchmarks such as high school completion, postsecondary education, employment, and earnings. Conversely, as the North Carolina report notes, students who receive special education services in the earliest years of their education and then successfully transition out of these services continue to see intellectual and academic gains across their development.

Special education is also very expensive. It costs approximately twice as much to educate a student receiving special education services as a student in a regular education program. Of course, it’s important to provide students with whatever tools they need to be successful in school, but in some cases students are placed in special education simply because they are so far behind. So if there is a way to successfully reduce overall special education placements, it is in students’ and districts’ best interests to pursue that path.

The report focuses on three main categories of children who are at risk for disability:

  1. Children who are born with chronic disabilities that require lifelong attention (physical handicaps, genetic abnormalities) who will need special services all of their lives
  2. Children who are at risk for chronic disability that could be alleviated through treatment during pre-K and grades k-2, allowing for a transition out of special ed services
  3. Children who are at risk for a special education diagnosis, but whose placement in special education could be prevented with high quality early education and care
The authors recognize that students in group one will need services for their entire educational career, and that it is critical to provide services despite the high cost. Thus, the study focuses on group two and three, focusing on the effectiveness of North Carolina’s Smart Start and More at Four programs in reducing special education placements by measuring special education placements at the end of third grade.

Smart Start provides funds for all children ages birth-to-school entry. The program gives funds to local nonprofits, who can use the money for an array of services benefitting young children, such as child care vouchers, family support services, professional development and promoting collaborations among local agencies providing IDEA Part C funded developmental screenings. One of the main goals of the program is to increase the proportion of high quality child care centers, which is where early interventions are most likely to occur. While the organizations have a great deal of discretion as to how they spend their funds, the funds must serve children before school entry and prioritize inclusion of children with special needs.

Two major successes of Smart Start as highlighted in the report are:

  • Between 2004-2009 the number of infants and toddlers that were provided services more than tripled, going from 4,719 to 17,608.
  • The average age of referral to special education decreased from 22 months in 2001 to 16 months in 2004.
The More at Four program takes a different approach to early learning. This program targets  children identified as “at risk” due to low family income, limited english proficiency, disability, chronic illness or developmental needs and provides them slots in high-quality pre-K in the year prior to kindergarten. More at Four serves a critical role in ensuring screening for all special needs and providing referrals. By 2010, the program enrolled 25 percent of all four-year olds in North Carolina.

Comparing Smart Start and More at Four:

Smart StartMore at Four
  • Available to all families regardless of income
  • Available to at-risk four year olds
  • Priority on inclusion of children with special needs
  • Priority to identify children with special needs and provide access to services
  • Funding goes to local non-profits, and can be used for a variety of services
  • Funding goes to centers to provide slots in classrooms that met state standards for class size, teacher training, and state care licensing
  • One main goal is to increase proportion of high quality daycares where early intervention is likely to occur
  • Critical role in screening for special needs and connecting children to services through referrals to other agencies or in MAF classroom
  • Cost of $1100/child ($220 per year over 5 years-- longer but less intensive)
  • Cost $ 1100/child
  • Reduced special education placement by 10 percent
  • Reduced special education placements by 32 percent
  • More of an effect on children of less educated mothers, and on children of black mothers. More likely to have a positive impact on reducing racial and population-level income
  • Positive effects are greater for children of white mothers than for children of black mothers
The study found that when combined, the programs reduced special education placements by 39 percent (although it should be noted that neither had an effect on behavioral-emotional disabilities). This not only means that almost 40 percent fewer children would be enrolled in special education at the end of third grade, improving their later in life outcomes, but also presents significant cost savings to the state. Special education in NC costs $8,000 per third-grader on average, and as stated above, students are much more likely to stay in special education long term after the third grade marker. The programs examined only cost $1,100 each.

The Smart Start and More at Four programs both add to the growing body of effective early education programs. They further add to the research that proves the myriad benefits of high quality early education programs, especially for our most at risk students. But not every early education program is high quality.  To help ensure quality educational outcomes for our youngest children, it’s time to focus in on transforming the early childhood workforce. No matter how many amazing programs we have, the programs are only as good as the people implementing them."