For years, the special education has been criticized for its disproportionately large percentage of students of color. Some critics have gone so far as to call it “discriminatory” and a “new legalized form of structural segregation and racism.”
However, a new study [PDF] tells a far different story. Released June 24 by Penn State Education Professor Paul Morgan and University of California Education Professor George Farkas, the study asserts that students of color are underrepresented in special education.
“From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, black children are less, not more, likely than white children with similar levels of academic performance and behaviors to be identified as having each of these disabilities,” Professors Morgan and Farkas wrote in a column, titled “Is Special Education Racist?,” in the June 24 New York Times. “In fact, our study statistically controlled for many possible factors that might explain these disparities.
“Examples included differences in children’s academic achievement, behavior, gender and age, birth weight, the mother’s marital status and the family’s income and education levels. In contrast, many previous studies reporting overrepresentation have not adjusted for these factors.”
Among the studies major findings, the report found that students of color are far more likely to be prone to risk factors for developing certain disabilities, such as lead exposure, fetal alcohol syndrome and poverty.
At the same time, students of color generally have less access to health care and thus are less likely to have their disabilities properly identified. This problem, the study found, is further exacerbated by language barriers.
For the study, the researchers examined data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of 21,100 students who entered kindergarten in the 1998-1999 school years. They measured the students for five common disabilities in students: learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances.
However, the study’s methodology has already received some criticism from other scholars, particularly in regard to the sample of students used in the report.
“The data that they’re using to make these conclusions is highly suspect and invalid,” Russell Skiba, a professor in counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University, told the Huffington Post. “As the report itself acknowledged, the conclusions are limited in that the report only looks at students through middle school — and not high school. The conclusions make a blanket statement that don’t capture the complexity and the nuance of this field.”
Nationwide, black students represent about 14 percent of all students, but nearly 20 percent of special education students. Similar figures exist for Latino students.
In districts with particularly disproportionately high percentages of minority special education students, federal law requires that they spend a certain percentage of their federal funds on investigating these disparities.
But as Professors Gordon and Farkas see it, such policies may be misguided.
“Finding that racial, ethic and language minority children in the United States are less likely than otherwise similar White, English-speaking children to be identified as disabled and so are comparatively underrepresented in special education would suggest that federal legislation and policies currently designed to reduce minority overrepresentation in special education may be misdirected,” the report states. “These policies instead may be exacerbating education inequities by limiting minority’s access to potentially beneficially services to which they may be legally entitled.”