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  • Writer's pictureRobin Gonzales

What Principals Need to Know from Latest Federal Education Data on Students with Disabilities

If you're an educator, you know that understanding the unique needs and challenges of students with disabilities is paramount to the success of your school or district. With 7.3 million students with disabilities in U.S. public schools, it's a significant demographic that cannot be overlooked. Katherine Schaeffer's report from the Pew Research Center sheds light on some vital statistics and facts. Here's what school administrators and superintendents should glean from it:

1. Increasing Enrollment of Students with Disabilities

The percentage of students with disabilities has risen over the years. In the 2010-11 school year, there were 6.4 million such students, which accounted for 13% of enrollment. By the 2021-22 school year, this figure has risen to 15% of national public school enrollment. As this population grows, schools need to be prepared with tailored resources, staff, and curricula.

2. Impact of COVID-19 on Special Education

A significant note was the decline in students receiving special education services during the pandemic, with a drop from 7.3 million to 7.2 million between 2019-20 and 2020-21. While there was a recovery in the 2021-22 school year, the challenges faced by students with disabilities during the pandemic, such as limited or paused special education services, should push administrators to consider contingency plans for any future disruptions.

3. Challenges in Hiring Special Education Professionals

The hiring process for special education professionals has proven difficult for many districts, with 40% of public schools unable to fill their special education teaching vacancies during the 2020-21 school year. This should signal a call to action. Offering competitive incentives, ongoing training, and a supportive community might attract and retain talent in these crucial roles.

4. Diverse Needs within the Disabled Student Population

It's essential to recognize the variety within the special education demographic. For instance, while a third of these students have specific learning disabilities like dyslexia, others might have speech impairments or chronic health issues. Understanding this diversity is the first step in ensuring that each student receives the necessary support for their unique needs.

5. Varied Statewide Percentages and Services

There's a wide variance in the percentage of students receiving special education services across states. For example, New York and Pennsylvania serve a significant portion of students with disabilities, while Texas, Idaho, and Hawaii serve the lowest. These differences can arise from how states determine eligibility and the challenges of identifying students who might benefit from these services. Administrators should be aware of their state’s criteria and work collaboratively to ensure no student is left behind.

6. A Gender Discrepancy

Delving into the gender data, about two-thirds (65%) of disabled students are male, even though overall student enrollment is fairly even between boys and girls. The reasons behind this difference could be varied, but it’s crucial to ensure that both genders have equitable access to resources.

7. Influences in Special Education Recommendations

Research suggests that recommendations for special education can be influenced by a school's socioeconomic composition and academic performance metrics. This highlights the importance of objective assessments and continuous training for educators to ensure students are not mislabeled or overlooked due to external factors.


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