Among special education advocates, it's an article of faith that minority students are enrolled in special education in greater proportion than their white peers, and that this is a problem that needs fixing.
But what if minorities are actually underenrolled in special education? What if minority students, even those who show characteristics similar to their white peers, aren't getting the services they need? That would mean a major shift in the way the federal government and special educators look at this issue.
The issue of "disproportionality" was addressed in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law requires, and in some cases compels, states to use part of their federal special education funds for early intervening services with the goal of reducing minority identification in special education.
The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency, published a report in February that examined how states were implementing that IDEA requirement. Its conclusion: States are coming up with many different ways to define disproportionality, including methods that result in few districts being identified as having a minority overrepresentation problem. The U.S. Department of Education should come up with a uniform definition for all states, the GAO report said.
Paul Morgan, an associate professor of special education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, shared research that challenged the belief in minority overrepresentation at the annual convention of the Council for Exceptional Children, held in San Antonio this week.
Morgan and his fellow researchers said they have found that most research on this topic tends not to control for certain variables among students; for example, socioeconomic status, age, gender (boys are identified for special education at higher rates than girls), and school performance.
But if you hold those other parts constant, a different picture emerges, of minority students not getting the same access to special education services as their white peers. Morgan said.
Morgan and his co-authors published a paper in the December 2012 issue of the journal Educational Researcher, in which they explored trends among preschool-aged children, using a data set of a nationally representative group of children born in 2001. During his talk at CEC, he referred to additional research he and his fellow researchers have done using a different nationally representative group of school-age children.
In both samples, the same trends seemed to hold true: Minority children were less likely to receive services than similarly situated white peers, even though minority children have a higher risk of having characteristics associated with a need for special services, such as delays in language receptivity and numeracy skills or attention problems.
Why might this be happening? In his talk, Morgan offered hypotheses that a variety of cultural and structural issues may be at play here. Clinicians may not be as responsive to the needs of minority children. Minority families may have less access to health care, or may not see certain behaviors as being indicative of a disability.
"I don't know how to fix it other than to say that the way we've been concerned about the problem may not be quite correct," Morgan told the audience. "Federal legislation may have been written on the basis of research we may not be so sure about."
Instead of reducing numbers, he said, the goal may need to shift to ensuring that all students with special needs have access to effective services.