Reconsideration of the claim of racial bias in special education

Morgan and colleagues found that black and white children who were diagnosed with disabilities and posted the same low test scores would be removed from the general education classroom and placed in a separate special ED classroom. The main reason why black children are more likely to be admitted to separate classrooms is that most of them were struggling with reading and maths and were in the lowest 10 percent in terms of achievement.

Morgan examined the statistics of different entry points in special education in first, third and fifth grades. He found that black children with disabilities were, in almost all cases, the same as white children excluded from general education. The exception was among first graders in 2012, where he found that black children were more likely to be separated from their peers than similar white children. However, this gap in the placement of special education has disappeared with the age of children and can no longer be identified in the third grade.

Daniel Lawson, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, criticized Morgan’s analysis. Lawson argues that comparing children to the same academic achievement is a flawed argument. He noted that children in poverty, regardless of disability, tend to score lower on exams – because the cost per student is lower, their teachers are less experienced and the teacher turnover is higher. Lawson argues that we should address the underlying reasons why poor children score less and improve schools for low-income black children, instead of thousands of black children scoring low in separate special education classrooms. Another solution, he argues, is to give more support to black students with disabilities within the general education classroom.

Previous research has often shown that students with disabilities who are in their regular grade-level classrooms outperform students in separate special education classes. But the students who are removed have more serious disabilities and it is difficult to know if they could have done better if they had been with their classmates. A well-planned 2020 survey in Indiana found that inclusion was better for children with mild disabilities, but randomized controlled trials also found that students with disabilities learn better when learning a specific subject, such as fractions, separately.

I have spoken with other specialized education experts, many of whom have asked not to speak on the record because the combination of race and disability has become so controversial. Janet Mancilla-Martinez, an associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, agreed to speak on the record and said that adjusting raw data in different ways, as Morgan did, was an important step in understanding. Special education is going on. Mansilla-Martinez is concerned that many low-income communities have a “wait and see” approach when children struggle with reading rather than intervening early, when it is most effective. But he also acknowledged that some schools are over-identifying children who do not actually need special education services and are stigmatized. “It may not be what they need, they may need better opportunities to learn,” said Mansila-Martinez. He wants researchers to look at what is happening in the community by community, in a more grainy way than just crushing national data.

Some educators are questioning whether there should be so much focus on the number of schools and where too many or too few students are being identified and where they are being placed.

Catherine Kramerzuk, an assistant professor of special education at City University of New York – Hunter College, said: “We need to get out of this under-representation and over-representation civil rights debate. “We know there is a problem with special education and we need to think of new ways to deal with it.”

Kramarczuk Voulgarides is organizing a conference in December 2022 with young scholars to create a new path in special education. (The conference is funded by the Spencer Foundation, which is one of the many donors to the Hatching Report.)

This is a problem I will be following.