- Leanna Stiefel
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There has been an explosion of special education research and new policies surrounding the topic of racial and ethnic disproportionality. Some recent research shifts focus to whether school context moderates findings (e.g., is a Black student less likely than a White student to receive special education services as the proportion of a school’s Black students increases?). We extend this emerging literature using eight years of elementary student-and school-level data from NYC public schools, examining more school contextual moderators, expanding racial categories, and distinguishing between cross-sectional and over-time differences. We find that student racial/ethnic composition, teacher racial composition, school size, concentration of poor students, and teachers’ perceptions of school climate all moderate disproportionality. These school context factors appear to be particularly salient for the classification of Black students, and most of these associations are driven by differences across schools, suggesting new avenues for researchers and levers for policy.
Students with disabilities (SWDs) educated in traditional public schools alongside general education students (GENs) typically move to middle school in sixth grade, rather than continuing in a K-8/12. The documented negative effects of this move on GEN academic outcomes suggests similar negative—and perhaps larger—effects on SWDs. Using an instrumental variables strategy and NYC data on nine cohorts of students, we find the middle school transition causes a 0.30 (0.16) standard deviation decline in SWD math (ELA) performance and increases grade retention. Low-income SWDs and SWDs with a specific learning disability or emotional disturbance fare worse. However, the move does not widen the SWD-GEN gap, suggesting the need to ease the middle school transition for all students.
There is increasing concern about risky behaviors and poor mental health among school-aged youth. A critical factor in youth well-being is school attendance. This study evaluates how school organization and structure affect health outcomes by examining the impacts of a popular urban high school reform -- “small schools” -- on youth risky behaviors and mental health, using data from New York City. To estimate a causal estimate of attending small versus large high schools, we use a two-sample-instrumental-variable approach with the distance between student residence and school as the instrument for school enrollment. We consider two types of small schools – “old small schools,” which opened prior to a system-wide 2003 reform aimed at increasing educational achievement and “new small schools,” which opened in the wake of that reform. We find that girls enrolled in older small schools are less likely to become pregnant, and boys are less likely to be diagnosed with mental health disorders than their counterparts in large schools. Both girls and boys enrolled in more recently opened small schools, however, are more likely to be diagnosed with violence-associated injuries and (for girls only) with mental health disorders. These disparate results suggest that improving a school’s organization and inputs together is likely more effective in addressing youth risky behaviors than simply reducing school size.
In the forty plus years since passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special education has grown in the number of students and amount spent on services. Despite this growth, the academic performance of students with disabilities (SWDs) remains troubling low compared to general education students (GENs). To some extent, these differences reflect persistent underlying disabilities, but they may also reflect ineffective special education services. Does special education improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities? There is surprisingly little evidence to guide policy and answer this question. This paper provides an answer for the largest disability group, students with learning disabilities (LDs), using rich data from New York City public schools. Because the majority of LDs are classified after school entry, we observe outcomes both before and after classification, allowing us to gauge impact using within-student pre/post comparisons and, ultimately, student fixed effects in regression models exploring impacts. We find that academic outcomes improve for LDs following classification into special education, and impacts are largest for those entering special education in earlier grades. Results are robust to alternative specifications and falsification tests bolster confidence in a causal interpretation. Differences in impacts by gender and race/ethnicity, grade of classification, and settings shed light on possible mechanisms.