Policy Brief

Private Options to Help Students Read

Executive Summary

The number of students with disabilities served under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) continues to increase at a rate higher than both the general population and school enrollment. Overall for the past 10 years, the number of students served under IDEA has increased 29 percent. This compares with an increase in population for three through 21-years old of 8 percent and an increase in estimated school enrollment of 14 percent. Currently, special education costs the nation about $35 billion, with some estimates running closer to $60 billion.

In the early 1990s, some public schools began relying on private remedial-education providers such as Sylvan Learning Systems and Kaplan Educational Services to serve remedial- education students. The private remedialeducation companies have had success raising student achievement for poor readers in public Title I programs. More recently, these private remedial-education providers have also helped special-education students with learning disabilities raise their performance on standardized tests.

Learning disabilities, or LDs, account for over 51 percent of all children in special education. A large proportion (about 80 percent) of learning disabilities involve reading problems. The U.S. Department of Education has acknowledged that many remedial-education students are mislabeled as special-education students. Numerous studies show that the longer individual students remain in special education the lower the student’s reading ability when compared to other poor readers.

Poor readers and LD students would benefit from similar types of reading interventions. Researchers argue that one-to-one tutoring is the most effective type of intervention for any child experiencing reading problems. Public school Title I programs have seen significant increases in student achievement by contracting with private remedial-education companies for reading interventions. School contracting for private remedial instruction is very close to a tutoring model and focuses on the individual poor reader.

Private remedial-education companies have also provided reading services to special-education students on a limited basis. Special-education students completing a Sylvan program for the 1999-2000 school year in Compton, Calif., for example, made substantial gains in reading, according to the Sat-9 test administered by the school district and Sylvan’s standardized California Achievement Test (CAT). On the Sat-9 special-education students in Compton gained an average of 11 Normal Curve Equivalents (NCEs, which are not equivalent to percentage points but are a common standard for measuring student progress) in vocabulary, eight NCEs in comprehension, and 11 NCEs overall in reading. On Sylvan’s CAT test the special-education students gained 18 NCEs in vocabulary, eight NCEs in comprehension, and 13 NCEs in total reading. The U.S. Department of Education considers a gain of two NCEs acceptable improvement and a gain of seven exemplary.