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Rethinking claims of racial bias in special education


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Morgan and his colleagues found that Black and white children who had been diagnosed with a disability and posted the same low test scores were equally likely to be removed from a general education classroom and placed in a separate special ed classroom. The main reason that Black children are more likely to be funneled into separate classrooms is because more of them were struggling with reading and math and were among the lowest 10 percent in achievement.

Morgan checked the figures for different entry points into special education, at first, third and fifth grades. He found that Black children with disabilities were just as likely as similar white children to be placed outside of general education in almost all cases. The exception was among students in first grade 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 special education placement disappeared as the children aged and was no longer detected at third grade.

Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, is critical of Morgan’s analysis. Losen argues that it’s faulty logic to compare children with the same academic achievement. He points out that children in poverty, regardless of disability status, tend to score lower on tests – in part because per pupil expenditures are lower, their teachers are less experienced and teacher turnover is high. Losen argues that we should fix the underlying reasons why children in poverty score lower and improve schools for low-income Black children rather than put thousands of Black children with low test scores in separate special education classrooms. Another solution, he argues, is to give more support to Black students with disabilities within general education classrooms.

Prior research has often found that students with disabilities who remain in their regular grade-level classrooms outperformed students who are placed in separate special education classes. But students who are removed tend to have more severe disabilities and it’s hard to know if they would have done better had they remained with their classmates. One well-designed 2020 study in Indiana found that inclusion was better for children with mild disabilities, but there have also been randomized controlled trials finding that students with disabilities learn a particular topic, such as fractions, better when they learn it separately.

I talked with other special education experts, several of whom asked not to speak on the record because the combination of race and disabilities has become so controversial. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, an associate professor of special education at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, agreed to talk on the record and said adjusting the raw data in various ways, as Morgan has done, is an important step in understanding what is going on in special education. Mancilla-Martinez is concerned that in many low-income communities, there is a “wait and see” approach when children are struggling with reading instead of intervening early, when it is most effective. But she also acknowledged that some schools are over-identifying children who don’t really need special education services and stigmatizing them. “That may not be at all what they need, they just may need better opportunities to learn,” said Mancilla-Martinez. She wants researchers to look at what is happening in a more granular way, community by community, instead of just crunching national data.

Some academics are questioning whether schools should be focusing so much on the numbers and whether too many or too few students are being identified and where they are being placed.

“We need to move beyond this civil rights debate of under-representation and over-representation,” said Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides, an assistant professor of special education at the City University of New York —Hunter College. “We know that there’s a problem with special education and we need to just think of new ways to address it.”

Kramarczuk Voulgarides is organizing a conference for December 2022 with younger scholars to chart a new way forward in special education. (The Spencer Foundation, which is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report, is funding this conference.)

It’s an issue I’ll be following.

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