My Summer: Doctoral Candidate North CoocBy Jill Anderson
The Sacramento native recalls discussing how parents of students with disabilities tend to have different access to resources and information about special education in Professor Tom Hehir’s class, and how that led him to reflect on his own experience growing up as an Asian American with a younger, autistic brother.
“I felt like my brother may have missed out on learning opportunities,” Cooc says. “There are few Asian Americans in special education whereas there is an overrepresentation of African, Native, and Latino Americans in special education. When I saw a disparity, I began wondering what is going on.”
As part of the Dean’s Summer Fellowship, Cooc decided to study teacher perceptions of student disability. Armed with data looking at some 20,000 high school students in urban, rural, and suburban communities, he first examined a survey question asking teachers to identify students in their class that they perceived as having disabilities. Cooc was not surprised that the raw figures indicated teachers, on average, were more likely to perceive minority students, with the exception of Asian American students, as having a disability relative to white students. This is consistent with special education enrollment trends.
While Cooc admits this result may be what one expects, the next results were more surprising. When he controlled for student gender, SES, prior achievement, and misbehavior (e.g, suspensions and fights), and for teachers gender, race, years of experience, teaching credential, and education., Cooc found teachers were more likely to believe that white students, rather than minorities, have disabilities.
“I was expecting something closer to parity but instead found this opposite trend,” Cooc says, pointing out that perhaps minority students are not being singled out based on race alone.
“It’s hard to disentangle, but it may be related to differences in the types of schools that white and minority students attend and access to appropriate resources and diagnoses in these schools,” he says. This could mean that some minority students needing special education are also not being identified.
The results highlight the complex interplay between race, disabilities, and contextual factors related to students and schools, Cooc says. The focus on teachers is important, though. While there are several factors that affect special education placement, teachers often act as “gatekeepers” since they are often the first ones who refer students for special education. Additionally, a teacher’s belief that one student is more likely to have a disability versus another may result in lower expectations and potentially lower academic achievement.
Currently, Cooc is working on publishing his research, which he hopes will turn into his dissertation work. “I think this asks important policy questions about disparities in teacher perceptions of students and the potential impact of these perceptions when it comes to disabilities,” he says. “More important, it provides insight into the broader and more complex question of why some minority students tend to be overrepresented in special education.”