Policymakers cannot ignore the overrepresentation of black students in special education

Education
Photo Credit: Pexels
Photo Credit: Pexels

Kristen Harper and Edward Fergus, PhD
Child Trends

In their recent study featured in Education Week, Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier, and Maczuga got it wrong in arguing that more black children should be identified with educational disabilities and challenging federal policies meant to address overrepresentation by race in special education.

To be clear, black children ages 6 to 21 are already 40 percent more likelyto be identified with disabilities than their peers. While some communities may improperly deny special education services to children of color, we also believe that encouraging policymakers to overlook overrepresentation by race in special education impedes urgently needed action to address education inequality.

State education departments are working this fall to identify school districts with “significant disproportionality,” including racial and ethnic disparities in disability identification, as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its regulations. This is a critical moment for communities to reexamine how general and special education systems support children of color, with attention to early intervention, inequities in quality of education, and bias in identification procedures.

Given this study’s potential to disrupt such initiatives, we offer three clarifications regarding special education disparities and the work needed to address them.

IDEA is designed to address the overrepresentation of children of color in special education and, separately, the overidentification of education disabilities.

“Overrepresentation” here refers to circumstances in which a racial or ethnic group has greater representation in special education than in the general population. This must be distinguished from “overidentification,” which involves any situation where a child is inappropriately identified with a disability and placed in special education. In their study, Morgan et al. interpret IDEA to address only racial and ethnic disparities caused by overidentification.

However, IDEA contains separate provisions to address disparities within school districts: one addresses “disproportionate representation” in special education resulting from the improper identification of disabilities, and a second addresses “significant disproportionality” regardless of whether identification procedures are appropriate. In other words, IDEA compels educators to appropriately identify each individual child with a disability, even if the result is disparity, but also mandates that school communities address the causes of racial and ethnic disparity within special education systems.

The second mandate is an acknowledgement of the sobering reality that too many children of color in special education do not receive the support they need and, in too many places, face barriers to education access. Despite IDEA’s critical supports and legal safeguards, children of color with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and placed in segregated education settings. Further, the very data the authors analyzed—the National Assessment of Educational Progress—shows stubbornly low reading proficiency among children of color with disabilities. For example, the percentage of black children with disabilities at or above proficiency in reading rose from 1 percent to only 4 percent from 2002 to 2015.*

Efforts to understand racial and ethnic disparities in special education must include an examination of school- and district-level influences.

While national figures show overrepresentation by race for particular types of disabilities, these disparities can be far greater within school districts. Nationally, black children are twice as likely as all other racial and ethnic groups to be identified with emotional disturbance. In one state, however, over one-quarter of school districts had identified black students at rates at least 3 times higher than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.

This means that special education disparities are a community-level problem. Accordingly, IDEA requires states to identify “significant disproportionality” within school districts, which, in turn, must address the disparity.

The Morgan et al. study is not designed to inform this critical work. With its emphasis on individual student characteristics and use of statistical techniques to remove the influence of school-to-school differences from the analysis, the study cannot help federal lawmakers examine the utility of current law or assist school districts in working to help schools address disparity.

Our search for the causes of education disparities cannot devolve to a search for deficits among children of color.

To set the foundation for their study, the authors argue that children of color, who experience disproportionately higher rates of poverty, are at increased risk of disabilities because of their higher rates of exposure to various risk factors (e.g., low birthweight, lead exposure). This argument closely echoes a theory of compromised human development (TCHD) in seeking to translate environmental and systemic inequities experienced by children of color into individual traits.

The following scenario illustrates why this is a problem: a low-income child of color struggles academically, in a poorly resourced district without preschool services, in a school with a high percentage of first- and second-year teachers. (The scenario, sadly, is true for too many children of color across our nation.)

Is the child in need of intervention because of her income status, or is the school system in need?

After reading Morgan et al., or any work that espouses TCHD, anyone might point fingers at the child. We assert that, while the child in this scenario may or may not need assistance, the school system always will. Education policymakers, practitioners, and researchers have a dual responsibility to create environments in which a student’s individual needs are met, and to root out education inequity.

Each community is different; wherever children of color are underidentified as children with disabilities, steps should be taken to address the gap. However, education officials, educators, and parents deserve our support and applause as they carefully deliberate how to address the overrepresentation of children of color in special education. The Morgan et al. study is an unnecessary distraction from this progress.

* U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1992, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 Reading Assessments.

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