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Friday, November 26, 2010

Series on Special Ed in New Jersey

Shannon Mullen's excellent series on special education in New Jersey is here.

A discouraging story about Cindy Parker and her autistic son Jacob:

Parker’s complaint is that after stints at four public schools in four different districts, Jacob’s problems seem to be getting worse.

In each case, she said, her son was placed in a fledgling autism program staffed by inexperienced teachers and aides who weren’t required to have any special training in autism. The teachers and schools were under no obligation to show any measurable results for her son.

The lone bright spot, she said, were the five years Jacob spent at the Children’s Center of Monmouth County, a state-approved private school that specializes in autism.

The staff there was “working miracles” with Jacob, Parker said. His outbursts diminished, and the family’s home life improved.

Then, more than a year ago, the Pinelands Regional School District pulled Jacob out of the school over his parents’ objections, after the New Jersey Department of Education enacted new “fiscal accountability” rules. Those rules were aimed at getting districts to curtail costly placements to private special-education schools.

But transferring Jacob doesn’t appear to be a cost-saver.

In fact, his tuition costs, paid for by the Pinelands district, have increased by 50 percent. While the Children’s Center charges $56,000 per student, Jacob’s new school, Southern Regional High School in Stafford, charges $85,000.


It is frustrating for Parker to see Jacob in yet another unproven autism program.

“I want to know, what success rate do they have? Show me the data that’s saying that ‘Joey is now in a group home because of all the wonderful things that Southern Regional has done for him,’” she said. “I have no idea.”

The district’s superintendent, Craig Henry, wouldn’t address Parker’s case, citing student confidentiality rules.

But Henry noted that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the chief federal law regulating the nation’s special-education system, doesn’t require districts to collect that kind of aggregate data.

“There aren’t any quantified benchmarks for students,” he said. “There’s no standardized way to measure the success of a program.”

The only available gauge is parental feedback, which Henry said has been overwhelmingly positive since the district started an autism program in an unused wing of the junior high school three years ago.

As Matthew Normand writes, however: "Despite their best intentions, parent reports are poor sources of evidence, as parents rarely have extensive training in behavioral observation, their observations are not independently corroborated to ensure accuracy, and, being the parents of the children observed, they are far from objective."