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Low-Income Students and a Special Education Mismatch

Researchers find disproportionate assignments for low-income students, raising questions about systemic barriers and equity
Special Education

Low-income students are disproportionately assigned to special education, according to a new report from the Century Foundation by researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and SRI International. 

Experts and educators have long documented how students of color are disproportionately sent to special education to their detriment, isolated in classrooms with teachers who have less expertise in important subject-matter material like math, English, and science. Last summer, the Trump administration delayed regulations the Obama administration had proposed to curb discriminatory special education assignments, stating that racial disparities in the identification, placement, or discipline of children with disabilities are not necessarily evidence of, or primarily caused by, discrimination.” Rather than reflecting racial discrimination, they said, an overrepresentation of students of color in special education can be chalked up to higher need for those services, or because special education placement is correlated with poverty. They did not suggest that this correlation in itself could be due to discrimination.

The Century Foundation report sought to understand the experiences of low-income students in special education. Little research on the intersection of income and special education exists, in part because states are not required to report special education data by students’ income status, the report says. The new findings confirm that low-income students are overrepresented in special education and warn that the potential for systemic discrimination should not be thrown out. The report was authored by Laura Schifter, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Todd Grindal, a researcher at SRI International; Thomas Hehir, a professor at HGSE; and Gabriel Schwartz, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health,

“The problem in assuming that the disproportionality among low-income students is appropriate is that you’re ignoring potential school-wide and more systemic factors that be impacting the higher rates of identification among low-income students,” says Schifter.

Income Matters

In their analysis of data from three states, the researchers found that low-income students were more likely to be identified for special education than their more affluent peers — specifically in subjective categories, like an emotional disability, compared to more objective categories, like hearing impairment.

Low-income students diagnosed with a disability were also more likely to be placed in a substantially separated classroom than their more affluent peers. This is a problem because expectations are often lower in such classrooms, and teachers are less likely to be content specialists — experts in key subjects like math and English — than in mainstream classrooms.  

    “The problem in assuming that the disproportionality among low-income students is appropriate is that you’re ignoring potential school-wide and more systemic factors that be impacting the higher rates of identification among low-income students.”

    “Educators and policymakers should question whether the disproportionality in separate classrooms is merely based on need. They should consider other factors: Is it because schools where there are more low-income students also have more segregated programs, and so we push kids into those programs?” Schifter says.

    While the study doesn’t identify exactly why students in poverty are diagnosed with disabilities at higher rates, Schifter said that it’s worth noting that behavior problems or being behind in terms of certain skills, like word recognition, might be misdiagnosed as a disability when, if given the proper supports, when they in fact just need some extra instruction or support in their current classroom.

    A Delicate Balance: Support and Access

    One of the central paradoxes of special education is the fine line between denying students the special education services they need and denying them the educational experiences available in a general-abilities classroom.

    But earlier intervention can help school officials navigate this line.

    • Break out special education data by income. The federal special education law, called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires only that states break down special education data by race and ethnicity. The racial breakdown is an important, but the federal government and states should also ask schools and districts to look at the data by family income, so that researchers and policymakers can learn more about the experiences of low-income students in special education.
    • Build capacity for earlier intervention. To meet the needs of low-income students in general education classrooms, schools and policymakers should seek to support teachers’ capacity to address different learning needs. The report’s authors identify multi-tiered systems of support, in which all students receive the same core instruction, but some students receive supplemental instructions depending on their needs — to ensure students’ needs are addressed in the appropriate way, and that special education is reserved and structured for those who need it, rather than a catch-all. Wraparound services, including counseling and mental health support, can also help ensure that the effects of poverty don’t result in children being diagnosed with disabilities they don’t actually have.
    • Help families stay involved. Every child has a right to learn in the “least restrictive environment,” according to IDEA. Make sure that low-income families know their children’s rights and feel empowered to advocate for them. Ask policymakers to continue to support the Community Parent Resource Centers funded by the federal government.

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