More than 6 million children in the United States receive special-education services for their disabilities. Of those age 6 and older, nearly 20 percent are black.
Critics claim that this high number – blacks are 1.4 times more likely to be placed in special education than other races and ethnicities combined – shows that black children are put into special education because schools are racially biased.
But our new research suggests just the opposite. The real problem is 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.
The belief that black children are overrepresented in special education is driving some misguided attempts at policy changes. To flag supposed racial bias in special-education placement, the United States Department of Education is thinking of adopting a single standard for all states of what is an allowable amount of overrepresentation of minority children.
If well-intentioned but misguided advocates succeed in arbitrarily limiting placement in special education based on racial demographics, even more black children with disabilities will miss out on beneficial services.
Black children face double jeopardy when it comes to succeeding in school. They are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities. Yet black children are less likely to be told they have disabilities, and to be treated for them, than otherwise similar white children.
About 65 percent of black children, compared with about 30 percent of white children, live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. From 1985 to 2000 about 80 percent of black children grew up in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by widespread unemployment, racial segregation, poverty, single-parent households and welfare.
Thirty-six percent of inner-city black children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. The figure for suburban white children is only 4 percent. Black children are about twice as likely to be born prematurely and three times more likely to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.
In a study published this month, we report that the under-diagnosis of black children occurs across five disability conditions for which special services are commonly provided - learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances. From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, black children are less, not more, likely than white children with similar levels of academic performance and behaviors to be identified as having each of these disabilities.
In fact, our study statistically controlled for many possible factors that might explain these disparities.
Examples included differences in children’s academic achievement, behavior, gender and age, birth weight, the mother’s marital status and the family’s income and education levels. In contrast, many previous studies reporting overrepresentation have not adjusted for these factors. Instead, these prior studies have relied on school- or district-level data that did not adequately control for differences in risk factor exposure between black and white children.
It may be that black children are less likely to be identified and treated for disabilities because of a greater responsiveness by education professionals to white parents. Low expectations regarding black children’s abilities may also lead some professionals to ignore the neurological basis of low academic achievement and “problem” behavior. Even those black children who do receive a diagnosis are less likely to receive help. For example, despite being more likely to experience symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, black children are less likely than white children to be given a diagnosis of ADHD. And even among those who are given an ADHD diagnosis, black children are less likely than white children to receive medication to treat the condition.
The last thing we need is to compound these widespread disparities in disability diagnosis and treatment by making school officials reluctant to refer black children for special-education eligibility evaluations out of fear of being labeled racially biased.
Pamphlets describing a school district’s disability eligibility procedures are often written in dense legalese that may be hard for many parents to understand. Revising them might make it easier for parents to advocate for their children during the eligibility evaluation process. Community outreach programs can also help overcome cultural barriers to identifying children with disabilities.
Such programs have already been shown to reduce racial disparities in children’s health and health care access. We should be trying to identify children with disabilities and to provide them with an education adapted to their individual academic, physical or behavioral needs.
The New York Times
Paul L. Morgan is an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University. George Farkas is a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine.