Study finds preschool reduces the need for special education

A study by Duke University, North Carolina, found that children who attended one of two state-run preschool programmes were less likely to be placed in special education in the third grade (Year 4) than other children who did not. This not only helps the children, but alleviates expensive special education costs as well.

Researchers compared funding levels for preschool in 100 North Carolina counties to the third grade special education placements in those counties during a 13-year period. They found that the state-run preschool programmes Smart Start – which provided health screening and childcare to children under five – and More at Four (now called NC Prekindergarten Program) – which offered preschool slots to disadvantaged four-year-olds – demonstrated a 39% reduction in special education placement when compared to counties not using these programmes.

Special education placements reduced most for the preventable categories of specific learning disability, educable mental handicap, and other health impairments. Less malleable categories of physical disability, speech–language impairments and behavioural-emotional disabilities were not affected. Special education programmes cost twice as much as regular education programmes. The authors outline the savings from the implementation of the two state-run preschool programmes.

Source: Impact of North Carolina’s Early Childhood Initiatives on Special Education Placements in Third Grade (2015), Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Are US school districts spending wisely?

The Center for American Progress has released a new report that examines the productivity of US school districts, and the conclusion is that productivity could be improved.

The authors used the results of 2010-11 state reading and maths assessments in elementary, middle, and high schools. They also used three productivity ratings that looked at the academic achievement of districts for each dollar spent, taking into account factors such as cost-of-living differences and concentrations of pupils with English as an Additional Language or with special educational needs.

The report argues that low educational productivity remains a pressing issue, with billions of dollars lost in low-capacity districts. Problems include inconsistent spending priorities (eg, some districts in Texas spend more than 10% of their unadjusted per-pupil operating expenditures on athletics); only a few states taking a weighted approach and distributing money to schools based on pupil need; funding disparity between different school districts within states; and inconsistent budget practices between different states.

The authors conclude that school productivity has not become part of the reform conversation, despite education leaders facing increasingly challenging budget choices. They recommend that:

  • States should build capacity for productivity gains through targeted grants, assistance teams, and performance metrics;
  • Education leaders should improve accounting procedures to make them more transparent and actionable, and create a multi-state initiative that will focus on building more robust education budgets;
  • Educators should come together to improve the quality of fiscal data across states; and
  • States and districts should encourage smarter, fairer approaches to school funding, such as pupil-based funding policies.

Source: Return on Educational Investment: 2014. A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity (2014) Center of American Progress.

Teaching reading to children with below average IQs

A new article in Exceptional Children describes a randomised controlled trial which aimed to investigate the effectiveness of a scientifically based reading programme for pupils with below average IQs, including children with a disability.

The schools selected for the US study had a relatively large number of pupils with IQ scores between 40 and 80. Children began their involvement when they were in early elementary school, and participated for up to four years. They were randomly assigned within their school and their IQ range (moderate=40–55, mild=56–69, and borderline=70–80) to either an intervention group (n=76), or control group (n=65).

Pupils in the intervention group received the programme daily for approximately 40 to 50 minutes in small groups of between one and four, provided by highly trained intervention teachers. The programme was based on Early Interventions in Reading, a systematic and explicit comprehensive reading intervention previously validated with struggling readers. However, as many children did not have the prerequisite skills to benefit, additional lessons were also developed. The control pupils received normal teaching.

The children were tested when they entered the study and then at the end of each academic year. On average, pupils in the treatment group made significantly greater progress on nearly all language and literacy measures than those in the control group. The authors conclude that the results demonstrate the ability of children with low IQs, including those with mild to moderate disabilities, to learn basic reading skills when provided with appropriate, comprehensive teaching for an extended period of time.

Source: Is Scientifically Based Reading Instruction Effective for Students With Below-Average IQs? (2014), Exceptional Children, (80)3.

Achievement gap narrowing for looked-after children

A new statistical release, published by the Department for Education, explores a range of outcome measures at national and local authority level in England for children continuously looked after for at least 12 months. The release shows there has been modest progress.

At Key Stage 1 (age 6-7), achievement in mathematics, reading and writing has improved gradually between 2009 and 2013. The achievement gaps between looked-after children and their peers have also fallen slightly during that time.

At Key Stage 2 (age 10-11), the picture is similar, with the achievement gap falling between 2009 and 2013, although it is still substantial. In reading, the gap fell from 27% to 23%, while in mathematics it fell from 32% to 26%.

At Key Stage 4 (age 15-16), 15.3% of looked-after children achieved 5 or more A* to C GCSEs or equivalent including English and mathematics (up from 11% in 2009). Changes to the attainment gap are less clear, but this compares with 58% of non-looked-after children who achieved 5 or more A* to C GCSEs or equivalent including English and mathematics in 2013. Although it is important to note that a high proportion of looked-after children (67.8%) have special educational needs, the achievement gap is substantial and influenced by a broad range of factors.

Source: Outcomes for Children Looked After by Local Authorities (2014), Department for Education.

Helping pupils with disabilities transition from secondary school

A new report from the US National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE) reviews the research on programmes that aim to help young people with disabilities make successful transitions beyond secondary school. Two promising approaches are identified:

  • community-based work programmes, which were found to have mixed effects on pupils’ employment outcomes and potentially positive effects on post-secondary education outcomes; and
  • functional life-skills development programmes, which were found to have potentially positive effects on independent living outcomes (although the extent of evidence was small).

NCEE’s search for transition research studies spanned the past two decades; however, relatively few studies (16) were found that met the What Works Clearinghouse standards for evidence of effectiveness. The authors offer several recommendations to researchers to try and help strengthen the evidence base.

For more on what works for children with disabilities, look out for the autumn issue of Better: Evidence-based Education magazine. It focuses on special education, including an article on functional skills, and will be available in September.

Source: Improving Post-High School Outcomes for Transition-Age Students with Disabilities: An Evidence Review, Institute of Education Sciences (2013).

Proven programmes for better communication

As part of the Better Communication Research Programme, a number of reports have been published on “what works” for children with speech, language, and communication needs. It aims to help commissioners, practitioners, and parents make their own judgments about different programmes. The full list of interventions, and details about the strength of evidence to support them, is available in Technical Annex. A web-based resource is also planned to share the findings.

Of the 57 programmes, three (5%) were found to have a strong level of evidence: Fast Forward, The Lidcombe Program, and Milieu Teaching/Therapy. The authors note that just because evidence is not especially strong for particular programmes does not necessarily mean those interventions are ineffective or lack practical value. It often means that their effectiveness has not been evaluated.

Source: Research at DfE 2013, Department for Education