Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Education
Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Education" refers to the organization and performance of the public schools and public support institutions established for teaching children from pre-K-12th.
The Context
NYC's public education system is the nation's largest. Over a million pre-Kindergarten through 12th-grade students attend its 1,100-plus schools. The seven-member Board of Education and the Chancellor share custody. Thirty-two separate school districts manage their elementary and middle schools. Run by the superintendents, each district elects its own community school board to set educational policy. High schools report directly to the Board of Ed. There is extraordinary variety across the system: schools of every size and stripe, and at every echelon from first-rate to failing. Less than half of each high school class graduates in four years--and, even with extra time, only 70% of NYC kids can count on a diploma.
The Reporter
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

by Jessica Wolff

Special Education

The immense inadequacies and inequities of the New York City public schools are nowhere felt more acutely than by students in special education, the realm of the Board of Education that provides educational services to its 85,000 students with disabilities. In a school system whose resources are severely strained to provide an adequate education to children with average needs whose chances of graduating from high school are about 50-50, children with special needs face considerably worse odds of receiving quality schooling. [See Gotham Gazette's Issue of the Week on Special Education from August]

A report just released by the Least Restrictive Environment Coalition (LREC), a group of organizations that advocate for students with disabilities, examines the state of the special education system as the city is on the brink of implementing a new policy of educating all students in the least restrictive environment appropriate to them. According to this report, "Still Waiting After All These Years . . . Inclusion of Children with Special Needs in New York City Public Schools," students in special education currently run a serious risk of educational neglect and stand a slim chance of graduating from high school. Too many special education students spend their school days in segregated classrooms that have little in common with the classrooms and instruction other children receive. Moreover, the promising new Board of Education initiative to change this may be undermined by the system's lack of resources and qualified personnel.

Under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the federal law governing the education of children with disabilities, all children who require special education services are entitled to a free and appropriate education. In New York City, as elsewhere, these children's disabilities run the gamut from speech, hearing, and vision impairments, to learning, emotional, and behavioral problems, to mental retardation, autism, and mobility challenges. Their school environment and instructional services must be aligned with their Individualized Education Program (IEP), a detailed educational plan developed especially for each child and reviewed annually. The Individuals with Disabilities Act also requires that students be educated in the "least restrictive environment" appropriate to their individual needs. That means that, as much as possible, children with disabilities must be educated in integrated settings with non-disabled children and that, if a child can learn in a regular classroom with additional supports and services, the child must get those supports and services and be allowed to remain in that class.

Unfortunately, special education in New York City is not living up to the promise of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Here, according to data published in the new report, a majority of the students with disabilities are still educated in separate or segregated settings, whether a self-contained special education classroom or a separate school. Once classified as needing special education services, a student is unlikely ever to be "declassified" and leave the special education system. Once so classified, a student also often leaves behind expectations of academic success: students in self-contained special education classes within high schools are seven times less likely to graduate in four years than their general education peers. Fewer than two percent of all students in District 75, which runs programs for students with severe disabilities, graduate after four years. At a time when dropout rates for all students are on the rise, students in special education drop out at a rate that is 48 percent higher than general education students. "Disabled children are four times as likely to exit special education by dropping out than by receiving a regular diploma; they are more likely to die than to receive a Regents diploma," according to the report.

To make matters worse, according to the report's data, in New York City minority children and English language learners (ELLs) are at significantly greater risk for suffering this fate. They are more likely to be referred to special education than white children and non-English language learners. Black and Hispanic students are over-represented in the special education population, and they are much more likely to be placed in self-contained special education classes and other restrictive placements.

The Board of Education has recently begun large-scale changes to its system for educating students with disabilities. This restructuring is outlined in a newly adopted "Continuum of Special Education Services" (referred to as the "new Continuum") designed to "create a single, unified service delivery system for all students, disabled and non-disabled, living in a single community" and align New York City special education with current best practices in the field. The new continuum focuses on bringing a greater array of interventions and supports to the general education classroom, including a flexible curriculum, well-trained teachers and support staff, a "school-wide approach to behavioral issues," and an end to the practice of labeling children and removing them from the regular classroom or neighborhood school.

Though these are precisely the changes that advocates have long sought, groups like the Least Restrictive Environment Coalition worry that inadequate resources and inappropriate staffing may compromise new Continuum. In order to ensure the academic success of disabled children in regular classes in neighborhood schools, the school system must invest extensively in professional development and training for all teachers, support personnel, and administrators; ensure staff time for planning and coordination; and provide sufficient information and outreach that families can be confidently involved in their children's education. The Board of Education must also maintain a system of accountability for success through good use of data to track progress and rigorous oversight of schools' and district efforts.

Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC Board of Education - By far the easiest way to get information from the Board of Education. Check out this site for NYC public education facts and figures, policy details, and "school report cards" -- annual reports on the performance of each NYC school. Also available is the Chancellor's Plan for School Leadership Teams, the current initiative for bringing parents in as partners in school decision making.
  • NY State Department of Education - NY State Department of Education - Lots of info here about state policies that now drive city reform efforts -- learning standards, assessment requirements and results, universal pre-K, charter schools, registration review and more. The Office of NYC School and Community Services page posts city-specific info. Also available: curriculum resource guides to help teachers and families ensure class work is aligned with state learning standards.
  • NY State School Boards Association - A good place to check for the status of the state budget and up-to-date information on legislation and legal issues important for public education. Also culls newspapers statewide for school-related articles.
  • Education Week on the Web - Great site for national coverage of education issues. Includes daily digest of education articles from newspapers around the country. "In Context" section decodes jargon and provides background for the week's education news.

Other Recommendations:

  • Campaign for Fiscal Equity - Learn about the coalition successfully filed suit against the New York State to secure adequate resources for a quality education for all NYC public school kids. Skim Justice DeGrasse's decision, read recent editorials from around the state urging Gov. Pataki to do the right thing, and learn about CFE upcoming public engagement events.
  • TeachNet - A resource-filled website from Impact II: The Teachers' Network, which works to help teachers become policymakers in their schools.
  • NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy - Find out about one of the most effective organizations currently studying and working to improve public education in NYC and other US urban areas.
  • Educational Priorities Panel - Formed in 1976, during the height of New York City's fiscal crisis, to prevent further cutbacks to student instruction and services, EPP's 24 member organizations represent a broad spectrum of civic, racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Its current mission is to improve the quality of public education for New York City's children so that there is no longer a performance gap between city schools and those in the rest of the state. EPP's website is a gold mine of research and information on the New York City public school system. Want to know who was chancellor in 1901? It's here under historical facts. Can't figure out the difference between a CPT and an IEP, there's a useful "Lingo Translation." Plus, there's a whole library of EPP and other important reports and publications.
  • National Center for Education Statistics - Comparing schools around the country is difficult, but NCES can help. Download "The Condition of Education, 2000" for performance trends, educational attainment data, and stats on school quality around the U.S. If you're a believer in standardized tests, check out the Nation's Report Card (the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) website).
  • United Federation of Teachers - The teacher's union, never shy about its opinions on current policy issues, maintains a wide-ranging site, including a page for the Emergency Campaign Against Vouchers.

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