And a bit more diplomatically, Michael Yudin, the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education, told Education Week, “We’d love to have a conversation with them to learn more, and to understand better about some of the conclusions they drew.”
What upset everyone was this: Six million disabled children in the U.S. receive special education. However, African American children do so at a much higher rate—1.4 times that of white children. So in a school where, say, 15 percent of students are black, they may make up 20 percent of special-education students. Many educators and experts see a problem with that imbalance.
For almost half a century, researchers have attributed this overrepresentation to conscious or unconscious biases that define minor behavioral problems, different speech patterns, or slower learning performance as disabilities. As a result, the federal government flags and corrects states and school districts with abnormally high rates of black or Latino students in special education.
And that practice is what the new study says is incorrect.
“If well-intentioned but misguided advocates succeed in arbitrarily limiting placement in special education based on racial demographics,” Morgan and Farkas wrote in their op-ed, “even more black children with disabilities will miss out on beneficial services.”
Their study looked at more than 21,000 students across the nation from when they started kindergarten in 1998 through eighth grade. This sample allowed the researchers to look at family poverty, race, language, and low birth weight so they could control for those factors. They looked at categories of disability including emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, and speech impairment.
The results found that minority children, when compared with their white peers, were less likely to be identified as having a disability—which, the report claims, means there are more who belong in special-education classes. Morgan, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, told National Journal that while the finding was surprising, other fields like pediatrics help explain why this might be.
“We know that minorities are much more likely to be exposed to health risk at a young age,” Morgan says. “Low birth weight or being exposed to lead can have consequences on your cognitive growth. Poverty itself can have an impact.”
That, Morgan says, may be why the percentage of minority children who should be in special education is larger than the percentage of minority children in the school population as a whole. More of them live in poverty, which causes health problems in childhood. In the op-ed, Morgan and Farkas pointed out that 35 percent of black children in inner cities have elevated levels of lead in their blood, compared with just 4 percent of white children. And African American children are about twice as likely to be born prematurely. Another thing that may prevent black and Latino kids from being identified as disabled is that fewer have health insurance or regularly visit doctors.