Special Education

Are There Too Few Minority Students in Special Education?

By Christina A. Samuels — May 31, 2016 8 min read
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It’s not often that special education research gets attention from more than teachers and other academics.

But it’s also not often that research purports to upend decades of accepted wisdom in the field—and also takes direct aim at race-related policy issues currently under debate at the federal level.

In 2015, education professors Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas published a peer-reviewed analysis stating that there is clear bias in the way students are identified for special education. But the bias went in an unexpected direction, they said: By their calculations, black and Hispanic students are universally underrepresented compared to their white peers—rather than overrepresented—in a variety of categories, including emotional disturbance and specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.

The paper was not the first time that Morgan, of Pennsylvania State University, and Farkas, based at the University of California, Irvine, had published those sort of findings. This particular paper, however, was accompanied by an editorial in The New York Times, propelling it to national attention.

The researchers’ paper, which situates itself squarely in the middle of debates on equity and racism, has received fierce pushback from others in the special education field. Those critics argue that Morgan and Farkas are making sweeping and inaccurate conclusions based on data that don’t reflect the actual population of students with disabilities. In April, the journal Educational Reseacher published a point-counterpoint between the paper’s authors and its critics—just as the U.S. Department of Education was collecting comments on its proposal to fix what the department perceives as the problem of too many minority students identified for special education.

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Morgan and Farkas suggest that teachers may be reluctant to refer students for special education for fear of seeming racist, and that they need training in culturally and linguistically sensitive evaluation methods. Other researchers who see overrepresentation point to several potential causes, including educators’ unconscious racial biases, or inadequate instruction.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, districts that are flagged by states for overidentifying minority students for special education are supposed to use part of their IDEA money for early-intervention services. States are also required to monitor districts’ use of suspensions and expulsions, and the educational placement of students with disabilities for signs of overrepresentation.

Federal Policy

Even though the monitoring requirement has been around for nearly 20 years, states have identified only a tiny fraction of districts for overrepresentation problems. The Education Department has suggested a set of standards that would result in more districts being identified, with a comment period that ended May 16.

But if minority students are actually being denied the services they deserve, then the Education Department’s efforts could be harming the students it means to protect, Morgan and Farkas say.

Black Students in Special Education: Differing Views

Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas find in their research that minority children are less likely, not more likely, to be identified for special education services. Drawing on longitudinal student data, they computed the odds that a black student would be identified using two different methods.

Both their estimates are significantly different from that of the federal Office of Special Education Programs. Based on national data collected in fall 2013, OSEP found black students were often more likely to be identified for disabilities that year compared with all other racial and ethnic groups combined.


Source: Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas; Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education

“The simple policy [federal officials] should do is stop talking about overplacement. That’s such a modest suggestion. We should simply stop this harmful push that is just completely against the evidence,” said Farkas. “We have replicated [our findings] so many times, in so many ways, that it really can’t be questioned at all.”

The critics of the analysis are being driven by their political worldview, not the science, he said.

To their critics, however, Morgan and Farkas are ignoring studies that draw a more complex picture. They cite research that says students might be underrepresented in some categories, while being overrepresented in others that often carry a stigma, such as intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances. Overrepresentation happens often enough that the federal government is correct to guard against it, they argue.

The findings in the research by Morgan and Farkas also harken back, for some, to arguments that black and brown students are fundamentally inferior to white peers.

“We want kids to have the services that they truly need,” said Elizabeth Harry, a professor of special education at the University of Miami. In 2006, Harry co-wrote a book, Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education? a three-year qualitative study of the special education placement decisions in an urban district. “We don’t want kids to be placed in categories that suggest they have intrinsic differences. Kids who are already marginalized by history, by continuing economic difference, then receive a label that suggests they are intrinsically deficient,” she said.

Adjusting for Differences

Why are Morgan and Farkas’ findings so different from other research?

In their study, the researchers looked at a national sample of children who entered kindergarten in fall 1998 and were surveyed periodically through 8th grade. That sample of children is different from the child-count data that are collected by the federal office that oversees special education.

The sample data include a wide-ranging set of additional demographic variables including information on the child’s academic achievement and on his or her behavior, as observed by teachers.

Morgan and Farkas used that additional information to make the children as similar to one another as possible. What they found is that for students who demonstrated similar levels of academic achievement and behavior, the minority students were less likely than their white peers to be enrolled in special education. “We all know there are many sorts of underlying inequities or disparities in the United States. It’s well established that minority children are likely to experience the hurts and harms that make disability more likely,” Morgan said.

The data are not showing that minority children are intrinsically inferior, Morgan said, just that they bear the brunt of these damaging factors.

“The right way to read the research is, if we look at kids who display a similar level of need, who is more likely to get help?” Morgan continued. “Amongst children displaying the same level of need, white children are more likely to get services. That, to me, seems like an inequity.”

The data also appear to mirror other public-health research, which suggests that minority students, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, are less likely to have access to medical care and are diagnosed with certain disabilities, such as autism, at older ages than their white peers.

Some in special education have found the research compelling. “It helped me congeal a number of impressions that I’ve had over the years,” said Michael Gerber, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a leader in the field of special education, disabilities, and risk.

“Up until the time that Morgan and Farkas started playing with this large, nationally representative sample, no one had really done a rigorous sample at the individual level and looked at the likelihood of data longitudinally,” he said. “There was satisfaction with what we were seeing was the truth.”

Chilling Effects?

But lawsuits such as Larry P. v. Riles, a long-running California lawsuit that resulted in a ban on IQ tests to evaluate black students for what was then known as mental retardation, could have had a chilling effect on school leaders who might otherwise want to refer black students to special education, Gerber said. A judge found the tests to be culturally biased.

Gerber said in his own experience, he has heard of school leaders who want to halt special identification of, for example, Hispanic students.

“Principals have said, ‘Don’t identify students who are Spanish-speaking to special education because they don’t have learning problems. They have language problems,’ ” Gerber said.

The federal education department’s new rule may ultimately harm special education by diverting to early intervention money that is needed for students who are identified with disabilities, Gerber said. “We should not be using special education as the vehicle for solving this pervasive problem, if it in fact exists.”

Amanda L. Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who has conducted extensive research on special education disparities, said that Morgan and Farkas’ work is an “interesting addition” to the field, but cannot be taken as the last word on the subject.

One concern she has is that the number of students with disabilities in the data set that the researchers use is very small, but they’re using those findings to suggest that underrepresentation is universal. Her own research has found that minorities are both underrepresented and overrepresented in some categories, and that identification varies not only by disability category, but by region. “You have a nationally representative sample, but they’re averaging across the entire country with these findings. And we do feel that region matters,” she said.

Morgan and Farkas also make adjustments for students based on their academic proficiency and behavior. But not every student who struggles with school has a disability, Sullivan said. It is incorrect to assume that all the minority students in a group of low achievers has a disability and should therefore be enrolled in special education, she said.

As for the federal government proposal, there’s ample evidence that school systems are not always following the spirit of the IDEA, she said.

“To the extent that we can prompt some evaluation and self reflection” among districts of their identification practices, “it’s a good thing,” Sullivan said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2016 edition of Education Week as In Special Education, a Debate on Bias


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