A new Harvard Educational Review article, “Racial Differences in Special Education Identification and Placement,” examines how the United States’ special education system is failing to serve communities of color equitably from start to finish, from identification to classroom placement.
The article, authored by Todd Grindal, Laura Schifter, Gabriel Schwartz, and Thomas Hehir, analyzes the anonymous data of approximately 4.5 million public school students living in three states around the country. It is one of the most geographical diverse studies of special education and race to date.
For more than 40 years, researchers have raised concerns about the overrepresentation of students of color in special education. Despite this long history, the authors point out continued debates among researchers about why a disproportionate number of these students—especially Black students—end up in special education classes.
Some researchers point to racist biases (arguing that students of color without disabilities are wrongly identified as having one), while others claim that rates of disability among students of color are just higher than among White students, a result of higher rates of poverty among racial/ethnic minorities. Often lost in this debate is the actual experiences of students of different races within the special education system.
The authors found that, consistent with the bias hypothesis, poverty cannot explain higher rates of special education placement for students of color. In fact, racial disparities only exist for disabilities that are more subjectively defined—intellectual, emotional, and learning—not for disabilities that are more objectively defined, such as blindness or deafness. Additionally, the study found that, once identified as needing special education, Black students are more likely to be placed in segregated classrooms away from non-special education students than their White peers, even those with the same type of disability and the same levels of family income.
Schwartz, who is also part of the FXB Center’s 2019-2020 Doctoral Cohort, noted that studies focused on the experience of students once they get into special education are rare. This is one of the first. “We’re really dealing with two problems,” Schwartz said. “First, who is placed in special education? Is it actually helping the students it is meant to serve, especially Black and Hispanic students? But second, are Black and Hispanic students in special education being treated unfairly? Solving the first problem doesn’t necessarily solve the second, but researchers are often fixated only on who gets put into special education, not how children are treated once they get there.”
The Spencer Foundation provided the initial grant for this research. The authors hope that these findings will encourage school systems across the country to take swift action to improve special education programming and ensure communities of color are able to access the quality education children of color of all abilities deserve.