NZ students with autism and school suspensions
Does increased funding reduce suspensions?
Nicholas Bowden and his colleagues (2022) wondered whether students with autism were more likely to be suspended than peers who did not have autism. Most of us would probably guess that they are. But, in a study released on line prior to publication in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, they also examined whether education-based funding based of students' level of need was associated with lower rates of suspension among autistic students.
Using New Zealand's “Integrated Data Infrastructure” (“a large research database managed by Statistics New Zealand containing a wide range of linked individual-level microdata”), Bowden et al. were able to collect data about 9741 autistic and 727,170 students who did not have autism. NZ's Ministry of Health maintains a data base called "Socrates" and from that data base Bowden et al. were able to assign one of five levels of need (very low, low, medium, high, and very high) to each individual student who had previously been diagnosed as having autism. Using yet another data set, Bowden et al. were able to connect ethnicity and socio-economic data to the cases.
Bowden et al. described the differences between student with autism who did receive funding versus those who did not receive funding:
Funded students were systematically different from unfunded students. Compared with the autistic students who did not receive funding, the autistic students who received high-need funding were younger; were more likely to be Māori; Pacific peoples; Asian; or Middle Eastern, Latin American, or from African ethnic groups and less likely to be European and from other ethnic groups; and were more likely to live in areas of high deprivation. Funded students had higher levels of disability support needs than unfunded students and were more likely to have a co-occurring intellectual disability. Funded students were less likely to have co-occurring behavioral, emotional, or other diagnoses.
Bowden et al. reported that students with autism were suspended 2.5 time more often than those without autism. However, those who received funding were three time less likely to be suspended in comparison with their peers who did not receive funding.
These results make it appear that providing funding of special education services reduces the chances that a student with autism will be suspended from school. However, the interpretation of a causal link would be premature. As Bowden et al. note, the research methods they employed show associations or correlations. They only know that the odds of suspension differ between those groups. Readers may have already recognized that the correlational nature of this study does not support causal inferences.
To me, these are interesting descriptive data. The scope of the study is impressive; integrating data across multiple sources shows great thinking and skill. And, it’s not just a sample that they studied; Bowden et al. studied nearly an entire population. So, yay, but…. I’m way concerned about suspending kids from schools. I’d like to see studies of ways to reduce school’s use of suspension regardless of whether the suspended children have disabilities. That, of course, would be a different study.
For those who are interested in NZ’s special education funding system: Funding flows through what the government calls “Ongoing Resourcing Scheme.” ORS funds teachers, specialists, teacher aides, and even some small items (“consumables”) a child might need. Parents are notified about their child's eligibility, level of need, services schools will provide, and more about how funding may be used (see this PDF). They also have opportunities to influence planning for their children's education through meetings and preparation of an Individual Education Plan.
Bowden, N., Gibb, S., Audas, R., Clendon, S., Dacombe, J., Kokaua, J., Milne, B. J., Mujoo, G., Murray, S. W., Smiler, K., Stace, H., van der Meer, L., & Taylor, J. (2022). Association between high-need education-based funding and school suspension rates for autistic students in New Zealand. JAMA Pediatrics. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2792410