Bryant Hopkins, IES-PIRT fellow and PhD student in the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, was a panelist at “Working Across Sectors to Support Vulnerable Youth in Schools” on Friday, June 1. Read our Q&A below and then watch Bryant discuss his work with faculty, practitioners, and agency representatives.
What are the challenges that shape your research on students with disabilities?
The team I work with (Dr. Leanna Stiefel, Dr. Amy Ellen Schwartz, Menbere Shiferaw, and Michael Gottfried) studies multiple facets of special education policy at a systems or macro level, using data from NYC as well as national databases. Our newest study focuses on students with learning disabilities, estimating a positive and beneficial impact of special education services on academic outcomes. The key challenge in this research is the difficulty of isolating credibly causal estimates of the treatment effect of special education – which cannot be randomly assigned.
Many traditional threads of educational policy research evaluate the impact of an intervention by comparing students who do and do not receive a specific treatment. Unfortunately, determining the effectiveness of special education services for students with disabilities is a more complicated endeavor. Students who receive special education services are different in observed and unobserved ways from those students who do not. These differences are related to the delivery of services and, ultimately, academic and non-academic outcomes. This selection of students into special education renders a comparison with other children without these unique characteristics relatively unsatisfactory. Fortunately, we’ve been able to build on the work of past research to develop an identification strategy that we feel addresses the inherent problems answering causal questions in the special education realm.
How has your partnership with the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) influenced your research questions?
Our partners at the NYCDOE have been and continue to be helpful in identifying important issues for us to study and providing support for learning a complex dataset. Their initial guidance was key in developing a research plan that has produced a number of papers shedding light on questions both the NYCDOE and larger research community needed to answer. With their help, we’ve been able to explore how students with disabilities feel about inclusion in schools across different disabilities and compared to typical students (Educational Researcher, 2017), analyze patterns of chronic absenteeism and describe differences across settings (Teachers College Record, forthcoming), and document system-wide trends of inclusion and performance over the last decade.
Our continued relationship with the NYCDOE has also helped us fully understand the roll-out of the district’s expansive special education reform efforts in 2012 and how it was implemented at elementary, middle and high school levels. This information will be paramount to assess the district’s wide-reaching reform policies.
What type of systems, access, or partnership opportunities would enhance your ability to guide decisions and policies aimed at improving the educational outcomes of students with disabilities?
Using our successful partnership with the NYCDOE as a benchmark for what is possible in education research, it would be extremely helpful to work with other states to replicate this relationship and reproduce successful special education research in as many educational environments as possible. There has been a revolution over the past 15 years in the creation and use of administrative, student-level data describing special education students. Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Massachusetts are just a few examples of states that have made statewide data available to researchers. Comparing results across these data would be invaluable in answering how special education policy differentially effects students across districts of varying size, population density, and ability to serve large or small populations of special education students.