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Racial Differences in Special Education Identification

Special education expert Laura Schifter discusses how students of color and low-income students are disproportionately assigned to special education, and what can be done.
Laura Schifter in class
Lecturer Laura Schifter (left) leading a class during HGSE J-term.
Photo: Jill Anderson

Lecturer Laura Schifter — an expert on federal education policy and special education — explains disproportionality and why so many students of color are placed in special education, often in separate classrooms from their peers. While income status is sometimes accepted as the reason behind this phenomenon, Schifter says that doesn't tell the full story. In this EdCast, Schifter shares recent research on this issue and discusses the challenges facing special education.


Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Harvard special education expert, Laura Schifter says income status doesn't entirely explain the whole story regarding why students of color, especially black students, are more often labeled with some of the most stigmatizing emotional and intellectual disabilities in special education and then placed in separate classrooms. I spoke to Laura about the longstanding issue of disproportionality in special education and what she discovered in a recent study looking at this persistent problem.

Laura Schifter: The disproportionality of students of color in special education has been a concern with special education law and with practice since IDEA originally passed in 1975 and there's been kind of this March where additional studies have looked at it. Policy has changed on how it addresses disproportionality in special education over time. And one of the things that continues to be questioned in the looks around disproportionality in special education for students of color is what is the relationship between low income students and students of color and disproportionality.

But researchers hadn't really dug into that yet. And why this is important is that people made the argument that if there are more low income students who are also students of color and we know that there are higher rates of disability among low income students because of things like access to healthcare, exposure to lead, low birth weight, then we would expect to see that students of color would be in special education at higher rates. And one of the things that we wanted to dig into more as school districts really and states really started collecting more data on this is to test whether that assumption holds up or to what extent that assumption holds up that low income students are more identified for special education.

And whether the disproportionality that we see of low income students in special education is only the result of a higher rate of low income students among students of color. So that's what really drove us to look at this is to try and break down these different pieces and then think about what are the implications for the students and what are the implications for the schools based on what we see.

Jill Anderson: So tell me a little bit more about what you did find out because it sounds like there's a lot of reasons that you might end up seeing disproportionate numbers of kids in these classes.

Laura Schifter: First, we looked at the identification for low income students in special education and what we did in our study is we had administrative data, which means the data, all the students in the state across three different states, two moderately sized states and one large state. And what we did when we looked at that is we looked at, okay, well what are the rates of identification for low income students in special education as compared to non low income students. And we did find that low income students were more likely to be identified.

Now one of the things that did raise some concerns for us or flags about what this means for students in school is we looked at how low income students were identified for special education across different disability classifications. And one of the things that we saw is that low income students were much more likely to be identified in categories like emotional disability and intellectual disability where some of the determinations being made about those categories are a little more complex and are determined by multiple people and stakeholders than something that's considered more clear cut in an identification, like a visual impairment or hearing impairment.

And we did find that low income students, the disproportionality and identification and some of those softer disability categories was much higher than those other categories. And then another flag for concerns for us for low income students was what happens after their identification. One of the things that we need to think about is whether identification for special education is appropriate. We need to think about those factors kind of going into the process of identification as well as after the student is identified, what happens to that student in the school.

And one of the things that we found for students from low income families is that they were much more likely to be placed in substantially separate classrooms and segregated from their non-disabled peers after they were identified for special education.

Jill Anderson: Is it pretty well known that that is not a good thing in education to have special education students separated? That's like the whole point not to separate them. So is that something most educators seem to know?

Laura Schifter: Yeah. So it's really tricky because one of the things that's in special education law is a requirement that students be placed in the least restrictive environment. And now the least restrictive environment is somewhat flexible in how it's interpreted. It doesn't mean that 100% of the time all students with disabilities are educated alongside of non-disabled peers and the preference is towards inclusive classrooms. And what we've seen over time is the more that teachers know about what they're able to do in the classrooms, the more technology has advanced.

The more that we've realized that more kids with disabilities can be included in general education and meet expectations that people would not expect. But there is still the practice that some kids need specialized instruction in specialized classrooms. Where that becomes concerning is what we really need to think about is whether the outcomes of the students in those classes are good. And for some students at the individual level, maybe they are, but I think where we see concerns is when we look at the patterns across school districts and across states is students in those placements are much more likely to be disciplined than students without those placements.

They're much less likely to graduate from high school, much less likely to do well on achievement tests, much less likely to enroll in college. And I think some of those patterns really raised the concern about whether those placements are actually good for the vast majority of students that get them.

Jill Anderson: The study looked at three states and I know there was a lot of variability in what happened in those states, but was there a way to really know what students were accurately placed and which students maybe weren't? It seems like that might be hard to track or figure out.

Laura Schifter: It is hard to track and figure out at the level at which we're looking at. So we're looking at it at a systems level and I think what some of the evidence that we have raises questions about is it really indicates a pattern that would suggest that maybe not all of the decisions that we are making are appropriate. So when we see differences that pop up in certain categories that are determined more by the educators within the school district instead of medical professionals, when we see patterns that indicate that these students also have segregated placements, these are indications that at a systems level we really need to ask ourselves what are practices on referral?

What are the programs that we have in the school that might be funneling kids to certain placements over other kids? How well prepared are general educators in the classroom to teach students with different needs in the classroom and diverse learning needs?How does the diversity of our teacher population reflect the diversity of the students in the classroom? All of these things may then lead to increased referrals in special education and that might be a data point that we should use as a diagnostic and say, okay, well we need to look at what's going on in our school and in our school district more to better understand why we are getting these outcomes that we are.

And in some cases, the district may review that and say, you know what, our practices are right. We just have a really effective program and this number is identifying kids appropriately. In other places, what you might find out is we have a system where our classroom management across our school is really variable and we're not providing enough supports for students to understand how they're supposed to behave in our classroom from one year to the next. And that's actually leading to more disruptive behavior from our students.

And if we switch the way that we think about how we have classroom management in our schools, then maybe we'll decrease the number of students that are referring and if using things like positive behavior, interventions and supports in a school wide way, what we may see is then decrease in the number of students who are being referred to special education for discipline issues or emotional issues.

Jill Anderson: This seems like something that's very difficult to do. So I did want to talk a little bit about what that process of evaluating a student for special education might look like.

Laura Schifter: First, one important thing to understand is that to be identified for special education under the law, it requires that you meet two criteria. The first one is that the child has a disability and that's a disability, one of 13 disability categories. And importantly the other factor is that the child needs special education to access the curriculum. So it has to be both of those factors. And what that means is that in school, not all kids with disabilities are eligible for special education.

What that also means is that not all students that need extra support should be eligible for special education. And one of the things that becomes tricky is because sometimes those factors are maybe a little bit more complicated to determine is that there might be fudging of those two criteria based on the context to either get what they think the student needs going forward. Now, the way that the process usually works is it starts with a referral for special education. That referral usually comes from a teacher or a parent when they've noticed that something is not going well for the child.

Once a referral happens, there's an evaluation that's conducted and the evaluation may take the component of an educational psychologist administering a psychoeducational assessment. But it also factors in information from the teacher reviewing the student within the context of their classroom. And what happens after that is that a team of professionals come together for an eligibility meeting. And this is one of the things that we do in my class is we have students simulate that eligibility process where all the different people in the room.

This includes an educational psychologist, a special educator, the general education teacher, representative from the school district, that might be the principal or a special ed director as well as the parent of the child or guardian of the child, and they all come together to have this conversation about what the evaluation has uncovered and then they make a determination as a group about whether that child should be identified special education. And one of the things that we found even in doing this simulation multiple times with the students in the class that I take, is that they realize how complex this process is.

And they only have information on their student for about 10 minutes. But even with just gathering that information with 10 minutes about the student, different factors play into the determination of whether they're persuaded to decide that that child should be eligible for special education or not. Some of those factors might be how well prepared the teacher feels to discipline their classroom. The principal might have things on their mind in terms of what supports they could actually provide the student and whether they have the ability to get the student what they need within their school district if they do find the child eligible.

And one of the things that people who take on the role of the parent consistently say is how after the simulation begins, they experience the process of feeling defensive about their child when there are seven other people in the room telling them about what they see the negative things are going on with their child and that the parent feels disempowered to advocate on behalf of what they see are the needs of their child. The important thing to understand about the eligibility process for special education is that it's not simple and it's really complex.

And because of that, what we really need to think about from the perspective of practitioners and from the perspective of policy makers is we really need to be able to ask ourselves through this process, are we making the best decisions for the child or are we making the decisions that we have to make because of the context of our system? Thinking about things in different ways can lead to some of these systems questions that may lead to us looking for different supports in that way.

Jill Anderson: Wow. Because I'm listening to you, I'm thinking it sounds like there's a lot of complexity to the entire system beyond just the eligibility process that make this really difficult work to do.

Laura Schifter: Yeah. Yeah. It's certainly a difficult work to do and I think people have good intentions going into this work and it's important to recognize that as well. When we think about things from a systems perspective and a policy perspective, I think one of the things that we need to do is think about it through the lens of how can we create the best conditions possible for this complex system to go in a good way for kids. It is really concerning that there have been some recent studies that have come out that really raise a flag that general education teachers don't feel well prepared to meet the needs of kids with disabilities in their classroom.

If teachers don't feel prepared to meet the needs of kids with disabilities within their classroom or kids who behave differently within their classroom, then there will be a kind of trigger to find a solution for that through the path of special education. But one of the things that we can do from assistance perspective is say, okay, well what can our teacher preparation programs do better? If this is a need that teachers have, how can we think about better preparing teachers to meet the needs of kids that we know that every teacher's going to have in their classroom?

That's where things like teaching teachers and teacher prep programs, things like universal design for learning and thinking about frameworks that anticipate diversity in the classroom and equip teachers to know how to provide for supports for students going forward and prepare them for that.

Jill Anderson: Knowing what you've discovered in your research about lower income kids ending up identified more often and students of color, what do we need to change or how can we approach this a little bit differently to be sure that the right kids are being classified in this way?

Laura Schifter: One of the things that's interesting in looking at this issue is that it is consistently thought of as a special education problem. The fact that more students of color identified for special education is always assumed to be a special education problem. It's not. I think the fact that more students are identified for special education actually indicates a problem within our general education system. And it's just a result of the fact that our general education is not meeting the needs of all kids.

And so I think what we need to do is look for opportunities to really bolster general education in a robust way so that it can meet the various needs of kids. I do also think another thing that's important to factor in, as you know, one of the things that we talked about is the idea that identification in and of itself may not be a bad thing. It gives kids rights and access to services. It gives kids access to interventions that a lot of kids really do need, and that's important to recognize.

I think what we need to be concerned of are some of the problems with special education identification and that includes stigma, lower expectations, and the potential to be segregated from your non-disabled peers. One of the other things that we can do is really think about ways to reduce those negative impacts of special education. So what are the ways that schools are reinforcing stigma attached to disability identification? Are there ways that we can tackle that? Are there ways that schools and school systems can tackle the fact that separate programs for kids with disabilities do not have the same outcomes as inclusive programs?

One of the things that I think really raises questions about this is when we see low income students being placed in segregated programs at higher rates. I think it raises the question is that because the segregated programs are more likely to be in districts with high numbers of low income kids? If you look at rural states or rural school districts, they don't have the capacity to run a segregated program. And as such, that no longer becomes an option for placing a student in that program and they're forced to think about ways to do inclusive education well.

These are all questions that we can ask at the district level, that you can ask at the school level and really think about opportunities to change the way that we provide education for kids with disabilities or kids that just have additional needs because the system has not met them well from their past. And maybe that's a case where it's an inappropriate identification.

Jill Anderson: And what about policy? What's their role in this?

Laura Schifter: Policy has multiple levels and one of the levels that we look at a lot is through federal policy and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and policymakers have tried to address the issue of disproportionality in special education. The way that they have tried to address it is by pushing states to identify districts that have significant disproportionality for identification, placement, and discipline for students of color in special education. One of those regulations are actually just being implemented for the first time more aggressively now.

And so I think we'll have to see how that works out. But when a district is identified with significant disproportionality, the first thing they need to do is review their policies, practices, and procedures, and determine whether that disproportionality is appropriate. And if it's not, then what they need to do is they're required to spend 15% of their funds under IDEA on something called coordinated early intervening services. What that might be in a school district is something like multi-tiered systems of support where you're providing different interventions for kids over time and seeing how they respond to those interventions before referring a kid for special education to try and see if there's a way that we can provide more structure within general education to provide various services for kids before referring for special education.

So that's one of the ways that policy has tried to address it. And I think one of the things that we'll see is when people start talking about what to do next with IDEA, that this issue will come up and there'll be an opportunity to kind of evaluate whether this is the right approach or not.

Jill Anderson: Is there a specific policy recommendation that you would make?

Laura Schifter: So I think that one thing that will be important for IDEA to do is right now we only require that states report data based on special education identification by race and ethnicity, and they are not required to look at it for low income students. And I think that that is one thing that we need to require is that the data be reported out by low income students and that we look at significant disproportionality for low income students as well.

Jill Anderson: Laura Schifter is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She recently published "Racial Differences in Special Education Identification and Placement: Evidence Across Three States" in the Harvard Educational Review. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks so much for listening and please subscribe wherever you like to get your podcasts.

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