Rethinking claims of racial bias in special education

Across the nation, 13 percent of Black students were diagnosed with disabilities at school, far higher than the 9 percent disability rate among white children, according to the most recent tally of the U.S. Department of Education. The disabilities range from dyslexia and speech impairments to emotional and psychological disorders that include hyperactivity and aggression. Many civil rights advocates argue that hundreds of thousands of Black students who don’t have disabilities are misdiagnosed with them, separated from their peers and funneled into low-level classrooms. The federal government monitors this removal and calculated that in 2019, 22 percent of Black students with disabilities were learning outside of a regular classroom 60 percent or more of the time. Only 16 percent of white children with disabilities were separated from their peers to this extent.

But a team of scholars from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Irvine, believe that these raw disability numbers are misleading. They argue that the incidence of more severe disabilities is much higher in impoverished populations. Black children are more likely to live in poor communities where premature births, poor nutrition and healthcare, drug addiction, stress and high levels of lead can lead to higher rates of disabilities, and more severe ones. There may genuinely be more need among Black children for intensive services and a different pacing of instruction.

“We’re not finding evidence that special ed placement is being used as an alternative method of racially segregating students of color,” said Paul Morgan, lead author of the study and a professor of education at Penn State. “The federal regulations don’t take into account anything like we were doing here, like are there differences in impairment? Are there differences in the potential need for more intensive services?”

Morgan’s views are controversial, and they are at odds with the Department of Education’s directive to make sure that rates of removing children from general education classrooms don’t diverge too much by race and ethnicity. Schools that fail are required to fix their inequities by spending a big chunk – 15 percent – of their federal funds designated for helping students with disabilities. This penalty has, in turn, made some schools with high numbers of Black children in special education reluctant to diagnose additional Black children and assign them to special education classes – regardless of a child’s needs, some researchers say.

In the study, “Which Students With Disabilities are Placed Primarily Outside of U.S. Elementary School General Education Classrooms?,” published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities in May 2022, researchers analyzed a nationally representative survey of students who began kindergarten in 1998 and another survey of students who began kindergarten in 2011. Roughly a thousand children in each survey had a disability diagnosis. Their teachers noted whether the student primarily learned in a regular classroom with their peers, or if they were pulled out for special services most of the time and primarily learned in a separate classroom or a separate school for students with special needs.

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.

This story about racial bias in special education was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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