By Allie Bidwell
June 24, 2015
A Penn State study says societal hurdles mean too few – instead of too many – minorities are receiving special education help.
|Despite common perceptions, minority students may actually|
be underrepresented in special education programs.
Minority students are significantly less likely than their white peers to be identified as disabled and may lack access to special education services, despite claims they are disproportionately tracked into and placed in such programs, according to new federally funded research.
In a report published Wednesday in the journal Educational Researcher, Paul Morgan of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues show that racial-, ethnic- and language-minority students are underrepresented in special education. Yet federal efforts still exist to curb what some say is an excessive number of minority students who are identified as having a learning or intellectual disability, speech or language impairment, or as suffering from emotional issues.
In fact, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states are required to use federal funding to intervene with students sooner in hopes of reducing the proportion of minority students in special education.
But those federal efforts might be misdirected, according to Morgan, because previous research on the topic hasn't controlled for factors that put minority children at greater risk for qualifying conditions, nor has it considered circumstances that result in minority families being less likely to access special education services.
"These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation's education inequities by limiting minority children's access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled," Morgan said in a statement.
Unadjusted research, then, would appear to show an over-representation of minority students in special education. For example, African-American children make up 14 percent of the school-age population but 19 percent of the special education population, Morgan explains in a video discussing his work. This type of disparity has caused some to label special education as a racially biased or discriminatory sector.
In truth, per Morgan's research, not only is the perception of too many minority students receiving special education services wrong, the need for more minority students to have those services is even greater.
"What hasn't always been satisfied is this condition of all other things being the same. Because of the nation's long and sad history of racial discrimination and segregation, it's unfortunate but well-established that minority children are much more likely to be exposed to risk factors themselves that increase the likelihood of having a disability," Morgan said in the video. "Exposure to lead, low birth weight [and] other risk factors for disability have often not been accounted for in the analyses when investigating minority disproportionate representation."
The under-representation of minority students also could stem from social and cultural obstacles.
"Education professionals should be attentive to cultural and language barriers that may keep minority children with disabilities from being appropriately identified and treated," Morgan said in the statement.
To reach their conclusions, Morgan and his colleagues used federal data to track a nationally representative group of students from kindergarten in the fall of 1998 through the spring of their eighth-grade year. They found minority students in the group were underrepresented in terms of being identified as needing special education services throughout elementary and middle school.
In fact, compared with otherwise similar white children, African-American children were 77 percent less likely to be identified as having health impairments, 63% less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments and 58% less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities, the researchers found.
Hispanic children were more likely than African-American children to be identified as having a disability, but were still significantly less likely – by as much as 73 percent in some cases – to be identified with one than white children. Children from families without health insurance and those with a higher level of academic achievement and greater impulse control were less likely to be identified as having a disability.
"Untreated disabilities increase children's risk for many adversities, including persistent academic and behavioral difficulties in school," Morgan said.
"As a matter of social justice, we should work to ensure that all children with disabilities, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or language use, receive the care they need."