Minority Representation in Special Education: Untangling A Decades-Old Debate

Abigail Boateng (GU ‘), Anjanae Chandran (GU ’22), Devon Lawrence (GU ‘), Kelsey Ransom (GU ’24), Abigail Taye (GU ’21), Clare Westerman (GU ’23) July 01, 2021
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The status of racial, cultural, and linguistic minority students in special education remains one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of educational justice today. Despite its contemporary relevance, the roots of the debate can be traced back as far as the late 1960s, when researcher Lloyd Dunn noted the frequency with which students of color were removed from mainstream classrooms on account of supposed intellectual disability (Dunn, 1968). In the modern-day, his argument is typically framed as follows: as compared to the percentage of the total student body that they compose, students from under-represented backgrounds make up a notably greater proportion of those receiving special education services (Grindal et al., 2019; Voulgarides et al., 2017). Moreover, these discrepancies are most apparent in certain categories of disability, such as intellectual and emotional disabilities, rather than physical disabilities or those with a genetic (ie Down syndrome) or biological basis such as blindness or challenges to mobility (Skiba et al., 2008). Taken at their worst, these findings suggest a systematic bias within the school system that results in the false identification of typically-developing minority students as having a disability.

In contrast to this prevailing perspective, recent evidence from Morgan and colleagues has introduced significant controversy to the contemporary debate. According to this alternative view, due to their increased risk of poverty, ACEs, and other obstacles to intellectual development, minority students should be expected to benefit from services at higher rates than their more privileged peers. In a series of highly-publicized studies, the team at Penn State University’s Center for Educational Disparities Research reported that, when controlling for socioeconomic status and past performance on standardized tests, Black and Hispanic students were, in fact, less likely to be referred for aid than comparable white peers (Morgan et al., 2017). These findings continue to spark both praise and criticism across the public sphere, especially since they have been adopted as evidence that IDEA provisions intended to combat disparities may actually bar minority students from being referred for an IEP (Morgan & Farkas, 2015; Samuels, 2016; Connor et al., 2019). Complicating the issue further, the most recent data from Elder and colleagues reveals that Black and Hispanic children in a large Floridian sample do exhibit greater rates of SPED referral than white children with similar medical histories—but only in districts where students of color comprise a population minority. As the diversity of the student body increases, this trend reverses, resulting in the simultaneous under-identification of students in primarily Black and Hispanic schools (Elder et al., 2021). This finding is particularly consequential, for it implies that the problems of over- and under-representation may coexist—a reality that would only encumber efforts to address educational disparities.

Nonetheless, the question remains: if the very purpose of special education is to support students in their learning, what is the harm in referring children for services—even, perhaps, inappropriately? Unfortunately, however, reality tells a more complicated story: fueled by the misinformation still clouding public conceptions of disability, the designation of “special-education student” remains far too frequently associated with social stigma, lowered expectations, and physical or social isolation from mainstream-educated peers (Raj, 2016). Without a doubt, access to appropriate supports—delivered in a strengths-based and inclusive format individualized to each student’s unique and ever-developing needs—are crucial to promoting the educational flourishing of children with disabilities. Nonetheless, when underlying weaknesses in the vastly-underfunded school system intertwine with racial bias to place some groups of children in environments that ultimately prevent them from reaching their full capacity, these efforts are complicated substantially.

Reviews conducted within SPED classrooms trace an even more problematic trend. For instance, Skiba and colleagues found that Black students face a significantly greater likelihood of being placed in a substantially separate classroom, even when compared to white students with the same disability (Skiba et al., 2006). The rates of suspension from these classrooms differ as well; on average, Black enrollees in special education lose nearly three times as many days of learning to disciplinary action each year as do their white counterparts (Losen, 2018). Particularly in the case of low-income children, for whom school-based services may constitute the only source of formal intervention, the impact of these lost opportunities for support can be devastating. In combination, the implications of these findings are striking: wholly aside from questions of quantity, there appears to be a clear disproportionality in the quality of services that minority students receive.

Clearly, the question of minority representation in special education is as complex and nuanced as the population which it seeks to characterize. Ultimately, however, the classification of each student is far less consequential than our efforts to support every child in learning and developing to the fullest extent of their capacity. The disproportionalities observed in special education are just one manifestation of a much broader gap in educational opportunities for children belonging to marginalized communities (Carnoy & García, 2017). Nonetheless, they are only problematic so long as special education continues to constitute a ‘hindrance’ rather than the opportunity that it was intended to be. In the end, the conversation is far from over; we must continue to challenge ourselves and our institutions to grapple with these intersecting questions if we truly hope to foster educational equity.


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Christina A. Samuels. (2016, Nov 15). Analysis finds flaws in studies of black overrepresentation in special education. Education Week, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/analysis-finds-flaws-in-studies-of-black-overrepresentation-in-special-education/2016/11

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Voulgarides, C. K., Fergus, E., & Thorius, K. A. K. (2017). Pursuing equity: disproportionality in special education and the reframing of technical solutions to address systemic inequities. Review of Research in Education, 41, 61-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44668687