Researchers Find Minorities Actually Underrepresented in Special Education

Contrary to common opinion, a new report says that racial, ethnic, and language minority elementary- and middle-school students are less likely to be identified as having special needs and, thus, are underrepresented in special education. “Minorities Are Disproportionately Underrepresented in Special Education: Longitudinal Evidence Across Five Disability Conditions,” coauthored by Paul L. Morgan of the Pennsylvania State University; George Farkas of University of California, Irvine; and Marianne M. Hillemeier, Richard Mattison, Steve Maczuga, Hui Li, and Michael Cook, of the Pennsylvania State University, examined the populations for five distinct groups: learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments, or emotional disturbances. 

“Our findings indicate that federal legislation and policies currently designed to reduce minority over-representation in special education may be misdirected,” said report co-author Paul L. Morgan of the Pennsylvania State University. “These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s education inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled.”

The authors conclude that one key barrier is language and practitioners abilities to diagnose language impairments when English is not the child’s primary language. Children that are racially or ethnically diverse, though, are underrepresented across all disabilities.

Additional Findings

  • African American children have odds of learning disability identification that are 58 percent lower than those of otherwise similar white children. African American children’s odds of identification for speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments, and emotional disturbances are, respectively, 63 percent, 57 percent, 77 percent, and 64 percent lower than otherwise similar white children.
  • Hispanic children have odds of learning disability, speech or language impairments, or other health impairments that are, respectively, 29 percent, 33 percent, and 73 percent lower than otherwise similar white children.
  • Children from non-English-speaking households have odds of learning disabilities as well as speech or language impairment identification that are, respectively, 28 percent and 40 percent lower than otherwise similar children from English-speaking households.  
  • Children from families without health insurance are less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments.
  • Children from families with lower levels of education and income are less likely to be identified as having other health impairments.

Read “Minorities Are Disproportionately Underrepresented in Special Education: Longitudinal Evidence Across Five Disability Conditions,” Educational Researcher, Vol. XX No. X, pp. 1–15, AERA (2015). 

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Education Policy