Contrary to popular belief, minority children are not overrepresented in special education classrooms and are actually less likely to be diagnosed with and treated for disabilities than white children with similar academic achievements, behaviors and economic resources, according to new research co-authored by George Farkas, professor of education at UC Irvine.
Special education programs have been the target of legal challenges on the grounds of discrimination and racial bias, yet the study found that minority children are underdiagnosed across five disability conditions for which U.S. schoolchildren commonly receive special education services.
“From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of middle school, minority children are less — not more — likely than white students with similar performance and behaviors to be identified as having learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments, or behavioral disorders,” Farkas said.
Minority children are more likely to grow up in economically depressed neighborhoods, be exposed to dangerous pollutants, and be born prematurely or at a low birth weight than white children and are, therefore, at higher risk for developmental and behavioral problems, he said. Intervention programs such as special education are of particular benefit to these children.
The findings contrast sharply with most prior educational research as well as current federal legislation and policies, which have focused on attempting to reduce what has been reported to be minority overrepresentation in special education.
“These policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s educational inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled,” Farkas said.
Students enrolled in special education programs receive an individualized education plan and may get small-group or one-on-one instruction by teachers trained to support their learning. They may also be granted extra time to complete tests.
“Education professionals should be attentive to cultural and language barriers that might keep minority children from being appropriately evaluated and identified for disabilities,” Farkas said. “Minority children with disabilities may be denied [remedial] services if well-meaning but misguided advocates succeed in placing limits on special education placement.”
Additional study results include the following:
- Black children’s odds of learning disability identification are 58 percent lower than those of otherwise similar white children. Reductions in the odds of identification with speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances are, respectively, 63 percent, 57 percent, 77 percent and 64 percent.
- Comparable reductions in the odds of disability identification for Hispanic children compared to otherwise similar white children are 29 percent for learning disabilities, 33 percent for speech or language impairments, and 73 percent for health impairments.
- For children from non-English-speaking households compared to otherwise similar children from English-only households, the odds reductions are 28 percent for both learning disabilities and speech or language impairments.
- Children from families without health insurance are less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments.
The study sampled participants in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study’s kindergarten cohort, a nationally representative group of 20,100 U.S. children who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998 and were then surveyed during the spring of kindergarten, fall and spring of first grade and the springs of third, fifth and eighth grades. Data were collected from children, parents and teachers.
The study appears in the current issue of Educational Researcher, a journal of the American Educational Research Association. Farkas’ co-authors are Paul Morgan, Marianne M. Hillemeier, Richard Mattison, Steve Maczuga, Hui Li and Michael Cook of Pennsylvania State University.
Funding was provided by the National Center for Special Education Research, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Education. Additional support came from the Penn State Population Research Institute through funding from the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.