News: Special ed's effects on academics among students with LD

Study confirms that students with learning disabilities receiving special education have higher test scores.

Does special education help students who are identified as eligible for it and receive services? A report from Schartz et al. (2021) indicated that students from New York do benefit...that special education works!

Looking specifically at students with learning disabilities, Schwartz and colleagues found that the students' academic outcomes improve following classification and enrollment in special education. What is more, the effects are largest for those entering special education in earlier grades.

Here is the abstract from Schwartz et al.:

In the 40-plus years since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special ed- ucation has grown in the number of students and amount spent on services. Despite this growth, academic performance of students with disabilities remains troublingly low compared to general education students. To some extent, these differences reflect persistent underlying disabilities, but they also may reflect ineffective 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 specific learning disabilities (LDs), using rich New York City public school data. Because the majority of LDs are classified after school entry, we observe outcomes before and after classification, allow- ing us to estimate impacts using within-student pre/post comparisons (student fixed effects) and an intent-to-treat specification. 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. Attendance, however, shows little change after classification. Results are robust to alternative specifications and falsification tests bolster confidence in a causal interpretation. Differences in impacts by gender, race/ethnicity, grade of classification, and settings illuminate possible mechanisms.

The question of effectiveness (or efficacy; people debate the nuanced differences in these terms) is a recurring question, and many people have expressed opinions about the issue. Some have actually examined data about the overall question of whether students who get special education have better outcomes (e.g., Kavale, 1990; Marston, 1998), others have conceptualized the issue as one of teacher effectiveness (e.g., Englert, 1983; Sindelar et al., 1986), some have discussed the methods used to study the question (e.g., Tindall, 1985), and yet others have considered certain aspects that might contribute to understanding the question (e.g., Hocutt, 1996).

Add to this catalog a set of three studies that each examined the question using a specific method (see Angrist & Pischke 2009). That method is often referred to as "student fixed effects"; the method involvescomparing many students' performance before receiving special education to their performance during and after participating in special education (Hanushek et al., 2002; Hurwitz et al., 2020; and the one that is the subject of this post, Schwartz et al., 2021). Does students' performance improve as a consequence of being identified and receiving special education? If performance is higher (corrected for aging) after special education, that points to the benefits of special education.

Especially interesting in the the analysis by Schwartz et al. (2021) is the observation that the benefits of special education are particularly evident for younger students. Much of current practice in education has focused on delaying determination of eligibility for special education. Under the rubric of "response to intervention," "data-based decision making," and other phrases describing practices and procedures, state and local education agencies have adopted plans to assess virtually all students' progress and only evaluate for special education eligibility those students who have failed repeatedly in "tier 1" and "tier 2" programs.


What's a report about research without limitations? Well here are a couple:

First, there are potential reservations about the student-fixed-effects method. Often, for example, the analyses examine only students from a specific local education agency, so it's impossible to determine whether those effects—positive or negative—are solely the result of the special education placement or whether they may be affected by the local policies, the way that the specific LEA conducts it's special education practices. So, as much as I personally want to cheer for these demonstrations that special education appears to be effective, I want to exercise caution. They provide a "strong maybe."

Second, the present study (nor the others) does not show what aspect of special education is the active ingredient, just that blah-blah. Identifying the effective factor or factors will take longer.

Flash of the electrons to Dan Hallahan, Paul Morgan, and other colleagues who provided me with fodder for this post!

Interested readers may (please) add other comments.


Angrist, J. D., & Pischke, J. S. (2009). Instrumental variables in action: Sometimes you get what you need. Mostly harmless econometrics: an empiricist’s companion. Presentation slide deck available from

Englert, C. S. (1983). Measuring special education teacher effectiveness. Exceptional Children, 50(3), 247-254.

Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., & Rivkin, S. G. (2002). Inferring program effects for special populations: Does special education raise achievement for students with disabilities?. Review of Economics and Statistics, 84(4), 584-599.

Hurwitz, S., Perry, B., Cohen, E. D., & Skiba, R. (2020). Special education and individualized academic growth: A longitudinal assessment of outcomes for students with disabilities. American Educational Research Journal, 57(2), 576-611.

Hocutt, A. M. (1996). Effectiveness of special education: Is placement the critical factor?. The Future of Children, 6(1), 77-102.

Kavale, K. (1990). Effectiveness of special education. In The handbook of school psychology, T. B. Gutkin & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.; pp. 868–898). John Wiley & Sons.

Marston, D. (1988). The effectiveness of special education: A time series analysis of reading performance in regular and special education settings. The Journal of Special Education, 21(4), 13-26.

Sindelar, P. T., Smith, M. A., Harriman, N. E., Hale, R. L., & Wilson, R. J. (1986). Teacher effectiveness in special education programs. The Journal of Special Education, 20(2), 195-207.

Schwartz, A. E., Hopkins, B. G., & Stiefel, L. (2021). The effects of special education on the academic performance of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 40(2) 480-520.

Tindal, G. (1985). Investigating the effectiveness of special education: An analysis of methodology. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18(2), 101-112.