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English Learners Misplaced in Special Ed Classes

HOST INTRO: New York City has the largest school system in the country, with just over a million students. It’s also one of the most diverse. Some schools may not be equipped to provide non-native English speakers with the support they need. And now the Department of Education is trying to find a solution. Reporter Alex Colletta tells us more. (0:16)

COLLETTA: When a kid starts school, the school asks the parent what language they speak at home. If it’s anything other than English, the student takes an English proficiency test. And if they do poorly they get designated as an English Language Learner. If they don’t make progress in learning English, they’re often classified as having a disability and referred to special ed.

COLLETTA: And that’s a big problem, says Chris Taharally, a special education administrator in East Harlem.

TAHARALLY: The really tricky question is, is it a learning cognitive disability in the mind or is it just a language acquisition problem… or challenge, rather. Because it takes years to become really fluent and immersed in a language. (0:13)

More than a third of all English Language Learners are receiving special education. And he says they may not belong in special ed.

TAHARALLY: Are these students being tested in their native language? Or are they given a test in English, a battery of tests in English, and then performing poorly? (0:10)

Taharally says that being misclassified as a special ed student can have long-term implications.

TAHARALLY: The graduation rates once you get to high school are about 8 or 9%. And the dropout rates are, it’s just a really abysmal kind of picture. And so those kids are… they’re at risk for jobs, job security, just having a better quality of life. (0:17)

Every student referred to special education gets an Individualized Education Plan—or IEP. Special ed instructor Ashley Tyree has been teaching kindergarten through second grade for the last four years. She’s convinced that some schools refer students who really don’t need special education.

TYREE: I have colleagues who work in other schools and they can absolutely 100% say that some of the students who have IEPs don’t need it because they were just English Language Learners.  (0:10)

Tyree says that at the school where she works they have multilingual teachers who can speak with parents and test the kids in their native language and that’s helped them reduce the number of students misassigned to special ed. But she says many schools don’t have the staff or the resources to follow these protocols.

TYREE: For other schools who haven’t caught up with the protocols and are still running things the way they have been for the past ten years, they’re seeing that difference. (0:09)

Taharally agrees they need more bilingual teachers, but, he says…  

TAHARALLY: It’s very difficult to find people who are qualified to administer those tests but also analyze the data. Across the board, there’s a real need for qualified professionals who are bilingual and multilingual and can administer those tests. (0:15)

The Department of Education introduced a new initiative last fall to increase the number of bilingual teachers and programs available to students. They also started a pilot program to pinpoint problem districts. Alex Colletta, Columbia Radio News.


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