According to recent figures from the US Department of Education, across the country, 13 percent of black students have a school disability, much higher than the 9 percent disability rate among white children. Disabilities range from dyslexia and speech impediments to mental and emotional disorders including hyperactivity and aggression. Many civil rights advocates argue that hundreds of thousands of black students with disabilities are misdiagnosed, separated from their peers, and admitted to lower-level classrooms. The federal government monitored the removal and calculated that in 2019, 22 percent of black students with disabilities were learning 60 percent or more outside the regular classroom. Only 16 percent of white children with disabilities were isolated from their peers in this amount.
But a team of scholars at Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Irvine believe the numbers on these crude disabilities are misleading. They argue that the incidence of more serious disabilities is much higher among the poor population. Black children are more likely to live in poor communities where premature birth, poor nutrition and health care, drug addiction, stress and high levels of lead can lead to higher rates of disability and more serious individuals. Intensive service and different speeds of instruction may actually require more in black children.
“We do not find evidence that special ED placements are being used as an alternative method to differentiate students of color,” said Paul Morgan, lead author of the study and professor of education at Penn State. “Doesn’t the federal regulations consider anything like what we were doing here, as there is a difference in disability? Is there a difference between the potential need for more intensive service? ”
Morgan’s views are controversial, and they contradict the Department of Education’s guidelines for ensuring that the rate at which children are removed from the general education classroom is not too different by race or ethnicity. Schools that fail need to address their inequalities by spending a large portion of their federal funds – 15 percent – on helping students with disabilities. As a result of this punishment, some schools that have a high number of black children in special education are reluctant to diagnose extra black children and assign them to special education classes – regardless of the need for a child, some researchers say.
Published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities in May 2022, “Which students with disabilities are primarily excluded from the general education classrooms of U.S. primary schools?” In the study, researchers analyzed a national representative survey of students who started kindergarten in 1998 and another survey of the number of students who started kindergarten in 2011. Each survey identified nearly a thousand children with disabilities. Their teachers noted that students initially learned in a regular classroom with their peers, or if most of their time was spent in special services and initially in a separate classroom or a separate school for students with special needs.
Morgan and colleagues found that black and white children who were diagnosed with disabilities and posted the same low test scores would be removed from the general education classroom and placed in a separate special ED classroom. The main reason why black children are more likely to be admitted to separate classrooms is that most of them were struggling with reading and maths and were in the lowest 10 percent in terms of achievement.
Morgan examined the statistics of different entry points in special education in first, third and fifth grades. He found that black children with disabilities were, in almost all cases, the same as white children excluded from general education. The exception was among first graders in 2012, where he found that black children were more likely to be separated from their peers than similar white children. However, this gap in the placement of special education has disappeared with the age of children and can no longer be identified in the third grade.
Daniel Lawson, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, criticized Morgan’s analysis. Lawson argues that comparing children to the same academic achievement is a flawed argument. He noted that children in poverty, regardless of disability, tend to score lower on exams – because the cost per student is lower, their teachers are less experienced and the teacher turnover is higher. Lawson argues that we should address the underlying reasons why poor children score less and improve schools for low-income black children, instead of thousands of black children scoring low in separate special education classrooms. Another solution, he argues, is to give more support to black students with disabilities within the general education classroom.
Previous research has often shown that students with disabilities who are in their regular grade-level classrooms outperform students in separate special education classes. But the students who are removed have more serious disabilities and it is difficult to know if they could have done better if they had been with their classmates. A well-planned 2020 survey in Indiana found that inclusion was better for children with mild disabilities, but randomized controlled trials also found that students with disabilities learn better when learning a specific subject, such as fractions, separately.
I have spoken with other specialized education experts, many of whom have asked not to speak on the record because the combination of race and disability has become so controversial. Janet Mancilla-Martinez, an associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, agreed to speak on the record and said that adjusting raw data in different ways, as Morgan did, was an important step in understanding. Special education is going on. Mansilla-Martinez is concerned that many low-income communities have a “wait and see” approach when children struggle with reading rather than intervening early, when it is most effective. But he also acknowledged that some schools are over-identifying children who do not actually need special education services and are stigmatized. “It may not be what they need, they may need better opportunities to learn,” said Mansila-Martinez. He wants researchers to look at what is happening in the community by community, in a more grainy way than just crushing national data.
Some educators are questioning whether there should be so much focus on the number of schools and where too many or too few students are being identified and where they are being placed.
Catherine Kramerzuk, an assistant professor of special education at City University of New York – Hunter College, said: “We need to get out of this under-representation and over-representation civil rights debate. “We know there is a problem with special education and we need to think of new ways to deal with it.”
Kramarczuk Voulgarides is organizing a conference in December 2022 with young scholars to create a new path in special education. (The conference is funded by the Spencer Foundation, which is one of the many donors to the Hatching Report.)
This is a problem I will be following.
This story is about racial bias in special education Written by Jill Barshe and produced by The Hatching Report, a non-profit, independent news organization focusing on inequality in education and innovation. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.