Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

A new report commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) – “Review of Special Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” — includes a powerful message about the importance of early literacy.

The report, prepared by Thomas Hehir and Associates, focuses on “disability categories whose determination – whether a child is identified as having a disability or not – might involve a greater degree of subjectivity.” It finds that Massachusetts has the nation’s second highest rate (after Rhode Island) of identifying children with special needs. It also finds that districts with large numbers of children from low-income families have higher rates of identifying students as eligible for special education than wealthy districts.

Hehir, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, presented his findings at a recent special meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that Kelly Kulsrud, our director of reading proficiency, attended. Hehir is also a former director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education and a former director of special education for the Boston and Chicago Public Schools.

According to ESE’s opening presentation, referrals to special education are highest at age 3 and third grade. At age 3, children are referred from the state’s early intervention program. Hehir, in the meeting, linked the grade three numbers, in part, to the identification of children who struggle with reading.

In addition to noting the differing rates between low-income and wealthy districts, the report finds that children from low-income families are more likely than other children to be identified as having special needs – particularly in high-income districts.

“Though some level of over-placement of low-income students in special education may be appropriate,  the numbers of low-income students being served in ‘High Incidence’ categories [which include communications disabilities, specific learning disabilities and other health impairments] exceed what most experts would consider appropriate,” the report states. It raises questions about the extent to which students are being identified as having special needs “due to problems in academics, particularly reading, and/or due to problems concerning behavior.”

In addition to recommending that ESE intervene in districts with “highly disproportionate levels of enrollment of low-income students in special education” and with “inordinate use of substantially separate settings for students with disabilities,” the report recommends “requiring better practices in general education.” It encourages districts to pay particular attention to early literacy in kindergarten through third grade. “We believe that a more focused effort on early reading… might be helpful in promoting better literacy overall and reducing inappropriate referrals to special education,” the report states.

The Boston Globe picked up on this recommendation in an editorial on the report. “Much of the problem could be avoided if districts would focus more attention on literacy efforts in grades K-3, instead of falling back on special education placements in later grades,” the editorial noted.

We recommend a focus on children’s language and literacy development that starts at birth and includes high-quality early education – as Amy O’Leary, director of our Early Education for All Campaign, noted in a letter to the editor of the Globe. Here is Amy’s letter:

The April 26 editorial “Massachusetts schools: Time to talk about special ed” focuses needed attention on early literacy as a way to prevent inappropriate placement in special education in later grades. However, by limiting its call to action to “literacy efforts in grades K-3,” it neglects the critical years from birth to 5 when the foundation of later literacy is laid.

By age 3, children from low-income families, on average, have vocabularies that are half the size of their higher-income peers. Low-income children who attended high-quality early education programs are 40% less likely to be referred to special education. They enter kindergarten with stronger language and early literacy skills.

Currently, 39% of third graders in Massachusetts score below proficient in reading on MCAS. If we want children to achieve the crucial educational benchmark of reading proficiency by the end of third grade — a strong predictor of future success in school — then we must accelerate efforts to build a statewide system of high-quality early education and care.

We must also focus state attention on the language and literacy development of children, starting at birth. An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency, now pending on Beacon Hill, does just that.