Students with disabilities in Boston Public Schools face stark odds: Data show they’re more likely than their classmates to be chronically absent from school and less likely to meet grade-level expectations on standardized tests.
To reduce these disparities, BPS next school year intends to teach more special education students in the same classrooms as their typically developing peers whenever possible, a practice known as inclusion. BPS debuted its long-awaited, multiyear plan to overhaul its special education services last week.
But the evidence is murky, experts say, about whether inclusive practices will improve academic achievement for students with disabilities, as district leaders hope. It also remains unclear how each school will meet the goals outlined in the district’s plan, which lacks specific details around implementation.
“The historical exclusion of students with disabilities is absolutely an equity issue, and BPS addressing it feels long overdue,” said Nathan Jones, a special education professor at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development and commissioner of the federal Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Special Education Research.
“For children [with disabilities], there are certainly benefits to being included from a social and emotional development perspective,” Jones added. “I think the case for improving academic and behavioral outcomes for students remains to be seen.”
Mountains of research show that targeted subject matter intervention tailored to the individual needs of students with disabilities is the best way to improve academic outcomes, Jones noted. His own study on the effect of co-teaching — when a general education and special education teacher share instructional responsibilities in the same classroom — found only marginal gains in test scores among students with disabilities.
The plan’s success, he added, will hinge on implementation, plus training and support for teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school staff who provide services to special education students.
BPS was ordered to revamp its special education practices as part of its 2022 agreement with the Massachusetts education commissioner to avoid state receivership. The agreement came on the heels of a critical state review of the district, in which state leaders described BPS’s special education services as being in “systemic disarray.”
As districtwide enrollment has declined, the proportion of students with disabilities has risen. Today, one-fifth of BPS’s 48,000 students receive special education services.
Under the district’s plan, BPS will place students with and without disabilities in the same classrooms in pre-K, kindergarten, and grades 7 and 9 at every school next school year. Schools will expand the practice to most grades the following year and to the remainder in the 2026-27 school year.
The plan also envisions a similar shift in the education of English learners. Beginning next year in grades K-8 and the following year in grades 9-12, students learning English will only be separated from peers as needed for direct English instruction, rather than spending their entire days in separate programs.
Members of the task force charged with advising the School Committee on the needs of students learning English have publicly opposed the district’s plan, which they believe does not do enough to allow more non-English speaking students to learn in their native language.
“It raises serious questions about both the school and the mayor’s office commitment to native language instruction,” said Suzanne Lee, former principal of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School and cochair of the English learners task force.
While the plan does not prescribe specific changes each school must make to transition to inclusion, it outlines dozens of action items for school leaders, like picking a coordinator to oversee support systems, a process that is underway, and auditing individualized education plans for students with disabilities, which has not yet begun. It also described in great detail the district’s failings in educating students with disabilities. Critics said the plan feels more theoretical and lacking in substance.
Disparities between students with disabilities and their peers, while not unique to Boston, reflect the city’s historic failure to adequately educate its most marginalized students, particularly Black and Latino children. A district-commissioned review last year found that 29 percent of BPS students with disabilities are taught in “substantially separate” classrooms — a rate more than twice that of state and national averages. Black and Latino males, who make up more than half of all students receiving special education services, are most likely to be segregated from the rest of their peers.
Federal special education law requires students with disabilities to be taught in the least restrictive environment as much as possible.
“We must dismantle root and branch systems that for decades were not designed for every student’s success,” said Linda Chen, senior deputy superintendent of academics at BPS, during a presentation of the plan last week before the School Committee. “That means we must confront the facts that clearly demonstrate how we have underserved our Black students, our Latinx students, our students with disabilities, and our multilingual learners with and without disabilities.”
District leaders are convinced inclusion will improve behavior and academic performance among students with disabilities. When students with disabilities have the opportunity to learn alongside their peers without disabilities, district officials argue, not only will they feel more engaged in school, they will also have access to rigorous grade-level instructional material they otherwise wouldn’t have. In an inclusive school, the district envisions some students with disabilities may be taught by both a general education and special education teacher in the same classroom, or they may be pulled out from time to time for specialized interventions.
The district will still maintain some specialized programs and substantially separate classrooms, officials said. But under the new plan, families of students with disabilities will be able to more fully take advantage of Boston’s school choice system. Currently, many students with disabilities are funneled into a small number of schools with specific programs that meet their needs. With inclusion, district officials said students with disabilities will have more options to go to schools closer to their homes, so they won’t have to travel as far for services.
Although schools will have freedom to implement the inclusion plan as their leaders see fit, they will all be required to meet a universal set of expectations, district officials said, and will be held accountable through regular monitoring and oversight by the central office.