Minority Students Underrepresented in Special Education Programs


A report published this week in the journal Educational Researcher, written by Paul Morgan and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University, has shown that racial-, ethnic-, and language-minority students are not receiving the special education help they need.

Allie Bidwell of US News and World Report writes the notion that minority students are disproportionately channeled into these programs has been shown to be untrue. Still, there are federal efforts to decrease the so-called excess of minority students who have been identified as having learning or intellectual disability, speech or language impairment, or as suffering from emotional issues.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act clearly details that states are required to use federal funding to identify students with special needs sooner so that the proportion of minority students in special education programs can be reduced. Morgan and his team have found that previous research has neglected to control for factors that put minority children at more of a risk for qualifying conditions. Also, the research has not considered the circumstances that result in minority families not being able to access special education services.

“These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s education inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled,” Morgan said in a statement.

The team used federal data to follow a nationally representative collection of students from kindergarten, at the time they entered school in the fall of 1998, through the spring of their eighth-grade school year. Their findings were that minority students were underrepresented when it came to being diagnosed as needing special education services during their entire time in elementary school and middle school.

Yet the US Department of Education is considering the adoption of a single standard for all states as to what is an acceptable amount of overrepresentation of minority students, say Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas in an opinion piece for The New York Times. This idea could mean that an even larger number of black children with disabilities will not be a part of the services that would benefit them.

Some of the factors that increase minority children’s chances of having a disability are include poverty, disadvantaged neighborhoods, racial segregation, single-parent households, and welfare. 36% of inner-city black children have an elevated level of lead in their blood, while just 4% of white children living in the suburbs have elevated levels.

Morgan says his study statistically controlled for differences in children’s academic achievement, behavior, gender and age, birth weight, mother’s marital status, family’s income and educational levels. It was discovered that in most cases, black students were less likely than white students to receive a disability identification. However, the Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits reports that Russell Skiba,  a professor in counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University whose research is cited throughout Morgan’s paper, said:

“The data that they’re using to make these conclusions is highly suspect and invalid. As the report itself acknowledged, the conclusions are limited in that the report only looks at students through middle school — and not high school. The conclusions make a blanket statement that don’t capture the complexity and the nuance of this field.

Skiba adds that some of the information used in the study is from teacher surveys. Teachers, in his opinion, have shown bias in their interpretation of student behavior based on race.

Michael Yudin, assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services,  the federal government’s top official on special education, elaborated on the implications of the findings:

“Far too many kids … are and have been disproportionately identified as needing special ed. That remains a major concern for us, even if it doesn’t show up in a national sample,” Yudin told The Huffington Post. “Identifying a kid as having a disability when they don’t, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the right thing for a child. Tracking a kid into special education, particularly for minority kids, particularly in high-poverty districts, we know some of the outcomes for these kids aren’t good.”