The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Special Education and School Improvement: The Low-income Education Access Project (LEAP)

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
April 15, 2016

At the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on April 26, 2016, I will provide you with an overview of the Low-income Education Access Project, or LEAP. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education initiated LEAP in response to key findings of a multi-year review of special education in the Commonwealth that I commissioned Thomas Hehir and Associates1 to conduct. The purpose of the review was to provide a comprehensive understanding of special education identification and placement as well as academic performance of students with disabilities in the Commonwealth, and to recommend strategies that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education might use to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

The findings were presented in three reports, discussed below, and are summarized in Review of Special Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: A Synthesis Report Download Word Document, published in September 2014.2 The first report focused on students with disabilities enrolled in traditional public schools,3 the second on students enrolled in Career and Technical Education programs,4 and the third on students with disabilities enrolled in out-of-district programs.5 Two key findings on which LEAP is based are:

  1. There were substantial differences in special education identification, placement, and performance outcomes of low-income versus non-low-income students with disabilities.

  2. Students with disabilities who were fully included in the general education program outperformed similar students who were not included to the same extent in general education classrooms with their non-disabled peers.

The studies show that students from low-income families are much more likely to be identified as eligible for special education and much more likely to be placed in substantially separate classrooms than their non-low-income peers. If students are identified inappropriately as requiring special education, or are placed in substantially separate classrooms without access to the academic and other benefits that result from inclusion in the general education classroom with their non-disabled peers, their performance will lag. These are matters of concern for us, particularly with increasing numbers of students from low-income backgrounds in the Commonwealth's schools.

In order to address these issues of identification, placement, and access, the Department's Special Education Planning and Policy Development Office initiated project LEAP. The project is designed to strengthen the general education program by improving teaching and other services provided to low-income students, both with and without disabilities. LEAP has its origin in our special education office, but has robust connections to other school improvement initiatives in the Department. At the April 26 Board meeting, Department staff will present on the strategic plan for LEAP and the work that is happening in 14 districts that have partnered with us in the first stages of the project. We have invited a representative from one of the participating districts to join the presentation.

Russell Johnston, Senior Associate Commissioner for Accountability and Partnerships; Marcia Mittnacht, the State Director for Special Education, and Susan Fischer, LEAP Coordinator, will be available at the Board meeting to answer your questions.

Download Video File
Low-income Education Access Project Presentation