The Special Education Narrative That May Not Be Right

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A new report came out last week suggesting that the conventional wisdom around minority kids being over-represented in special education may be inaccurate.  If true – not everyone’s convinced — then, what happened? Was it a problem in the research, or overheated advocacy, media coverage, or all of the above?

“For decades, some education leaders and researchers have asserted that school districts often use special education placement as a way to segregate black students, throwing them off the traditional academic track,” begins Joy Resmovits’ HuffPost piece about the new report from Penn State.  “But what if it’s the other way around, and too few minority students are in special education?”

According to the study, too few minority kids have been identified for special services, not too many:

“Looking at a national sample of about 20,000 children tracked from kindergarten to 8th grade, the researchers found that minority students are less likely than similar white peers to be in one of five common disability categories,” reported EdWeek

The accompanying oped in the NYT asked the provocative question Is Special Education Racist? and asserted that “black children are underrepresented in special-education classes when compared with white children with similar levels of academic achievement, behavior and family economic resources.”

This would seem to contradict the USDE’s 2012 data, showing that black kids were over-represented for SPED as a percentage of the total population. It also raises questions about the dominant narrative presuming that being identified for additional services is also a bad thing. 

Until now, no one seems to have considered these questions very deeply.

There are some caveats and controversies about the new numbers, which only go through elementary school and rely on teacher survey data on student behavior which may not be accurate. Special education ID rates and services vary widely by state and district. A couple of recent studies seem to have shown that black kids are over-represented in SPED even after accounting for socioeconomic factors.  Not everyone is jumping on board with the idea that higher rates of identification for special education is a good thing for kids, given that the outcomes of SPED programs are notoriously low.

What jumps out at me however the debate settles out among researchers is that the conventional narrative — that black kids shouldn’t be ID’d for SPED services at higher rates than their percentage of the population — hasn’t been flagged by reporters who cover education issues.

For better or worse, media coverage has gone along with that narrative, which treats black kids as if they were the same as white kids despite all the obvious additional challenges they face. Certainly, there are many ineffective special education programs out there, and some of the ones that serve higher numbers of black kids are especially problematic. But white and affluent parents clamor for special education services in suburban districts so obviously it’s not always a bad thing. And studies like this are an excellent reminder that skepticisim is always warranted, even when everyone seems to be saying the same thing.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.