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Minorities Underrepresented in US Special Education Classrooms

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Although minority children are frequently reported to be overrepresented in special education classrooms, a team of researchers suggests that minority children are less likely than otherwise similar white children to receive help for disabilities.

The previously reported overrepresentation is most likely due to a greater exposure to environmental and economic risk factors, said Paul Morgan, associate professor of education, Penn State.

“The general limitation of the available studies is that they haven’t been able to correct for minority children’s unfortunate, but well-established, greater risk factor exposure to factors that themselves increase the risk for disability,” said Morgan. “For example, minority children in the U.S. are much more likely to be born with low birth weight than children who are white, as well as more likely to be exposed to lead in their environment.”

Adjusting for this greater risk factor exposure indicated that children who are racial, ethnic or language minorities in U.S. elementary and middle school are instead less likely to receive special education help than otherwise similar white, English-speaking children, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of Educational Researcher.

The magnitude of these differences is large. For example, according to the dataset analyzed by the researchers, the odds of black children being identified as learning disabled are 58 percent lower than white children displaying the same levels of academic achievement, behavior and family economic resources. Black children are 57 percent less likely to be identified as having intellectual impairments and 77 percent less likely to be identified as having health impairments compared to white children. The odds that black children are identified as having emotional disturbances are also 64 percent lower than otherwise similar white children.

Black children are 57 percent less likely to be identified as having intellectual impairments and 77 percent less likely to be identified as having health impairments compared to white children.

The odds that Hispanic children would be identified as having learning disabilities are 27 percent lower than otherwise similar white English-speaking children. Hispanic children are also 33 percent less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments and 73 percent less likely to be identified as having health impairments.

These numbers differ significantly from the unadjusted or minimally adjusted comparisons. For example, black children make up approximately 14 percent of the general school age population, yet are about 19 percent of the special education population.

“Prior studies have often relied on ‘apples to oranges’ comparisons between minority and non-minority children, who likely differ in ways other than their race, ethnicity, or language use,” said Morgan. “Yet characterizations have been repeatedly made of the special education system as racially biased based on these ‘apples to oranges’ studies.”

Federal law and policies require states to monitor and report on the extent of overrepresentation of minorities in special education. School districts are required to take corrective action if overrepresentation is reported.

Morgan said these federal efforts, although well intentioned, could actually exacerbate inequities in access to special education and related services.

“What’s happening is that federal officials have been monitoring and, to some extent, flagging racial bias when they observe what they view as minorities being overrepresented in special education, yet, what is occurring is that minorities are underrepresented in special education,” said Morgan. “Instead of emphasizing prevention or reduction of minority overrepresentation, cultural or language barriers may be making it less likely for minority children with disabilities to be appropriately identified and treated.”

The researchers failed to observe any tendency of U.S. schools to be racially biased toward identifying minorities as disabled and, therefore, inappropriately placing these children into special education classrooms. Instead, the results indicated that white, English-speaking children are systematically more likely to be provided with special education services.

The researchers suggest that training could help educational professionals better identify minority children with special needs.

“This underrepresentation may result from teachers, school psychologists and other education professionals responding differently to white, English-speaking children and their parents,” said Morgan. “Education professionals should be attentive to cultural and language barriers that may keep minority children with disabilities from being appropriately identified and treated, so that all children with disabilities, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or language use, receive the help they need.”

Study Background

Morgan worked with George Farkas, professor of education, University of California, Irvine; Marianne M. Hillemeier, head of the department of health policy and administration and professor of health policy and administration and demography; Steve Maczuga, research programmer and analyst; Hui Li and Michael Cook, both research assistants, all of Penn State; and Richard Mattison, staff physician in psychiatry at Penn State’s College of Medicine.

The researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort for the study, a multiyear longitudinal and nationally representative data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The U.S. Department of Education, the National Institute of Health and Penn State’s Population Research Institute supported this work.

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