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New Research Challenges the Conventional Wisdom that Minority Students Dominate Special Ed

Special education research is usually a rather dry affair, with almost no one reading the findings other than special educators, special ed teachers, and special ed academics.  A paper published last year has drawn a larger audience because it appears to upend decades of accepted wisdom in the field.    The issue at hand is whether black and Hispanic students are overrepresented relative to their demographics in special education programs.  This has been the conventional wisdom for some time, so a comprehensive study that shows that it is actually white students who are overrepresented in special ed today was bound to garner widespread attention.   As with almost all race-related topics in the US today, there is a tendency to argue the points with more heat than light.   My goal in this blog is to do the opposite.

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 in a variety of categories, including emotional disturbance and specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.   Their findings are directly opposite of the conventional wisdom that special education programs are dominated by blacks and Hispanic students.

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 but this particular study got national attention once it was the subject of an editorial in The New York Times.  A new debate over these findings has come to the fore.     In April of this year, the journal Educational Researcher published a point-counterpoint between the paper’s authors and its critics.   Ironically, this controversy started just as the U.S. Department of Education was collecting comments on its proposal to fix the previously widely held belief that too many minority students are identified for special education.  Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states are required to monitor districts’ educational placement of students with disabilities for signs of overrepresentation.  Even though the federal 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 therefore proposed a new set of standards that would result in more districts being identified, with a comment period that ended May 16.  But according to this new research, the idea of  minority overrepresentation in special education may not be based on sound evidence at all.  If minority students are actually being denied the services they deserve, then Morgan and Farkas contend thatthe Education Department’s efforts could be harming the students it means to protect.  “The simple policy [federal officials] should do is stop talking about over placement. 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.”

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.  Unlike the child-count data, their 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. “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.”

This new data also appears 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.

But agreement with these findings is far from universal.  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.  She contends that the Farkas and Morgan sample size for students with disabilities 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.

I think that our best roadmap for the future lies with a combination of Farkas and Morgan’s research with Dr. Sullivan’s.   The matter of minority overrepresentation vs. underrepresentation is importantly influenced by cultural and regional contexts.   Given the state of many of our nation’s inner city schools, it is not surprising that a black or Hispanic student showing the same academic/learning characteristics is less likely to be referred for special ed than their white counterparts.   The unfortunate truth is that the academic norms expected by teachers and parents alike in an inner city school is going to be lower, and perhaps considerably lower, than those same stakeholders in more privileged school districts.    As unsavory as it may be, it makes common sense that school districts with lower achievement norms probably find it much more difficult to accurately identify students who are struggling primarily because of learning issues that require special education when many of their non-special ed peers are struggling in school because of nutritional, familial, and sociological obstacles.  So I believe that Farkas and Morgan do make a compelling case that inner city kids with learning issues are not going to be identified less accurately than students in better school districts.

What is the solution to this dilemma?   It is raising academic performance in inner city schools to the point where learning disabilities can be more easily identified as the reason why students  are falling behind.


Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.


Allied Health Professionals, LLC

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