NYT: "Is Special Education Racist?"
Print Friendly and PDF

From the NYT op-ed page:

Is Special Education Racist?

Black children are not being “dumped” into special education. On the contrary, many need help they are not getting.


MORE than six 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.

Because what could be better than the federal Department of Education imposing itself on every state in the country on an issue where its ideology is at war with the science?

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

But not conceptional! Eight months and 29 days before birth, but not a day sooner

, 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. …

In a study published today, 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.

Smart white parents with a kid with, say, an 80 IQ will tend to work the system to get their kids IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and other perks to ensure that they at least get high school degrees. A black kid with an 80 IQ will often be treated as normal, and thus won’t be handheld as much to a diploma.

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 A.D.H.D. And even among those who are given an A.D.H.D. 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.

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.

Since nobody remembers anything, it’s worth pointing out that racial differences in special ed a half century ago are what kicked off Arthur Jensen of Berkeley onto his later career as titanic scientist / object of vilification. From the website Human Intelligence:

Arthur Jensen’s emergence as an important figure in the history of human intelligence theory occurred in February of 1969, with the publication of a controversial essay in the Harvard Educational Review. In the article, Jensen presented evidence that racial differences in intelligence test scores may have a genetic origin. This assertion, and Jensen’s concomitant recommendation that white and African-American children might benefit from different types of education, drew strident criticism from many members of the academic community and the public at large (Ciancolo & Sternberg, 2004).

Jensen’s interest in this topic began when one of his graduate students noted that the white special education students he was working with appeared to be more genuinely “retarded” than the students from minority groups who had been placed in special education. In fact, it seemed to Jensen’s student that whereas the white children functioned at a low level both inside and outside the classroom, the minority children sometimes appeared “quite indistinguishable in every way from children of normal intelligence, except in their scholastic performance and in their performance on a variety of standard IQ tests (Jensen, 1974, p. 222).”

A high fraction of white students with, say, 70 IQs are Funny Looking Kids with organic syndromes that are clearly visible to the other students on the playground. A high fraction of black students with 70 IQs are perfectly fine, and may be popular on the the playground, they’re just kind of slow in the classroom.

Jensen’s student wanted to know if there were any “culture-free” intelligence tests that might explain the differences he observed in his students. This question spurred several experiments, and the results persuaded Jensen that standard g-loaded intelligence tests are fairly good measures of intellectual ability, and that racial differences in average IQ scores are not due to any “culture unfairness” intrinsic to the tests. Jensen articulated evidence to support these views in his 1969 article.
Print Friendly and PDF