Debate Over Whether Black Kids Are Being Pushed Into Special Ed Heats Up

New research questions the conventional wisdom around children of color and learning disabilities.

(Photo: Andersen Ross/Getty Images)

Jul 13, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

For decades, it’s been a truism in the African American community: Beware the school that tries to send your child to special education programs. Because the “system” is racist, goes the underground warning, it sidetracks black kids, diverting them into speech therapy classes or programs for the learning disabled simply for showing “problem behavior” teachers can’t handle.

That bromide echoed through my mind in 2006, the day my then-wife and I got the news from our day care provider: Our three-year-old son, slow to speak, slower to listen, and often in a world of his own, was showing signs of autism.

A new study, however, is making waves in education policy circles by suggesting that the opposite is true: Black children don’t get the special education services they need often enough. Despite the fact that kids like my son are 1.4 times more likely than their white peers to end up in a special ed program, education researchers Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas say that more kids need the help—and that school bureaucracies are less likely to recognize they need it.

But they also note that, for minority children born in America, odds are the deck was stacked against them before they were born.

“Black children face double jeopardy when it comes to succeeding in school. They are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental, and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities,” Morgan, an associate professor of education at Penn State University, and Farkas, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in a New York Times editorial. “Yet black children are less likely to be told they have disabilities, and to be treated for them, than otherwise similar white children.”

So, Why Should You Care? The researchers note that roughly 65 percent of black children, compared with about 30 percent of white children, “live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. From 1985 to 2000, about 80 percent of black children grew up in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by widespread unemployment, racial segregation, poverty, single-parent households, and welfare.”

At the same time, according to Farkas and Morgan, “36 percent of inner-city black children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. The figure for suburban white children is only 4 percent. Black children are about twice as likely to be born prematurely and three times more likely to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.”

The one-two-three punch of racism, low socioeconomic status, and an education system geared to downplay their needs has led to black children’s underrepresentation in special education.

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“The last thing we need,” Farkas and Morgan write, “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.”

But some question whether the study factors in history as well as data.

“Special education is a system that too often offers a substandard curriculum to students who need the most academic enrichment,” Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University and a research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, told The Atlantic. “Decades of research, [which] includes the entire public-school population, has demonstrated that special education has been used to segregate unwanted students.”

After learning about our son, his mother and I debated: Was this an attempt to pigeonhole him? If so, what should we do? If not, how would we know our son needs help? Ultimately, research and a few recommendations sent us to an evaluation clinic, a feature our progressive suburban Washington, D.C., school district uses to diagnose which students need extra help.

Over two hours, a team of medical and behavioral specialists evaluated his speech, vision, hearing, motor nerve skills, and basic cognitive functions. There were several dozen other parents, white and African American, who’d come to the daylong clinic to get their children tested too.

Ultimately, the results confirmed what his day care provider had suspected: Our son was on the autism spectrum. They recommended a special education program; now, halfway through middle school, our son is bounds ahead of where he might be if we hadn’t taken steps to get him the services he needed.

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Farkas and Morgan’s study “is not the first research (in special education and related fields) to suggest that large numbers of students, including students from culturally linguistically diverse and/or low [socioeconomic status] backgrounds, are under-referred, underidentified, and underserved in special education (and other types of special services, e.g., medical, mental health, etc.),” wrote Andrew Wiley, an associate professor of special education at Kent State University, in an email to TakePart.

What’s clear, he added, is there needs to be more study—of the U.S. special education system overall, as well as of Morgan and Farkas’ work.

Still, “regardless of differences in perspective and interpretations of research related to disproportionate representation in special education, we all share a commitment to promoting better and more just educational outcomes for the students affected,” Wiley wrote.

Even if it’s sometimes difficult to see.