EI Talk: A Blog for Early
Childhood Professionals

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
Inclusion word cloud

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.


Carnoy, M., & García, E. (2017). Five key trends in U.S. student performance. Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute. epi.org/113217

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

Connor, D., Cavendish, W., Gonzalez, T., & Jean-Pierre, P. (2019). Is a bridge even possible over troubled waters? The field of special education negates the overrepresentation of minority students: a DisCrit analysis. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 22(6), 723-745. 10.1080/13613324.2019.1599343

Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded—is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35(1), 5-22. 10.1177/001440296803500101

Elder, T. E., Figlio, D. N., Imberman, S. A., & Persico, C. L. (2021). School segregation and racial gaps in special education identification. Journal of Labor Economics, 39, S151-S197. 10.1086/711421

Grindal, T., Schifter, L. A., Schwartz, G., & Hehir, T. (2019). Racial differences in special education identification and placement: evidence across three states. Harvard Educational Review, 89(4), 525-553. 10.17763/1943-5045-89.4.525

Losen, D. J. (2018). Disabling punishment: The need for remedies to the disparate loss of instruction experienced by black students with disabilities. https://today.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/disabling-punishment-report-.pdf

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., & Maczuga, S. (2017). Replicated evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in disability identification in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 46(6), 305-322. 10.3102/0013189X17726282

Morgan, P. L., & Farkas, G. (2015). Is special education racist? New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/is-special-education-racist.html?ref=oembed

Raj, C. (2016). The misidentification of children with disabilities: A harm with no foul. Arizona State Law Journal, 48, 373-437. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2068&context=law_facpub

Schifter, L. A. (2016). Using survival analysis to understand graduation of students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 82(4), 479-496. 10.1177/0014402915619418

Skiba, R. J., Poloni-Staudinger, L., Gallini, S., Simmons, A. B., & Feggins-Azziz, R. (2006). Disparate access: the disproportionality of African American students with disabilities across educational environments. Exceptional Children, 72(4), 411-424. 10.1177/001440290607200402

Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A. C., Rausch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: history, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 264-288. 10.1177/001440290807400301

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

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Equity in Education: How UDL Fosters an Accessible Learning Environment for All

Jillian Archer (GU ’24), Rebecca Bullied (GU ’21), Caroline Fisher (GU ’21), Daniela Mateo (GU ’23), Megan McCrady (GU ’21), Quynh Pham (GU ’22) June 15, 2021

Books, world glob and graduation hat

So, what is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that optimizes learning for all individuals based on scientific research into how humans learn. The way people learn is as unique as their fingerprints; curriculums must be designed with the diversity of the classroom in mind. UDL attempts to minimize barriers and maximize the learning of all students. To understand UDL further, let’s break down the three elements of UDL.

  1. The “Universal” component in UDL represents the idea that the curriculum accounts for the vast array of strengths, needs, backgrounds, and interests that students bring to the classroom.
  2. The “Learning” element of UDL recognizes that learning is not unary and that everyone learns differently. UDL emphasizes the three components of learning: recognition, the “what” of learning, skills and strategies, the “how” of learning, and caring and prioritizing, the “why” of learning.
  3. The “design” portion of UDL emphasizes that the curriculum design should accommodate all types of learners.

Broadly, the aim of UDL is to create goals, methods, materials, and assessments that function for all learners. Teachers employing UDL should first determine what their learning goals are: what do they want their students to know and care about? And then determine how to circumvent the barriers preventing students from achieving these goals using the three principles of UDL (UDL At a Glance, 2010).

How Does UDL Function in a Classroom?

UDL operates in a classroom by following three principles:

  1. The first is representation: individuals differ in the ways they perceive and understand content. Some learners may have sensory disabilities, learning disabilities, or cultural and lingual differences. To account for this, information should be presented in multiple different media, such as visual displays, recordings, or a customizable presentation of information (UDL, 2018).
  2. The second principle is engagement. Individuals bring different interests and backgrounds to the classroom; therefore, the ways in which they can be engaged to learn vary markedly. Offering multiple means for engagement will fuel student investment and autonomy, allowing them to grow into successful learners (UDL, 2018).
  3. The final principle is action and expression. Students differ in the ways they can best express information. Individuals who struggle with organizational abilities or students with a movement impairment may need to approach tasks differently to best demonstrate their knowledge (UDL, 2018). Providing multiple options for expression often promotes learning and deeper understanding of the content and encourages students to use different means of action and expression (Lombardi).

Who is UDL for?

Simply, UDL is for everyone. The accommodations some students may get in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) could be used for all students as needed. Universally available accommodations may reduce the stigma around accessing them (Understood, 2020). There is no one ‘typical’ student. Offering multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression is an advantage to all students. UDL creates solutions that address limitations in learning environments rather than in individuals, which may increase students’ confidence in their learning abilities. Addressing accommodation and access issues on a universal basis, while still providing for individual student’s needs, will benefit all students in the long-term (Rose et al, 2006).


Lombardi, P. (n.d.). Ch. 13 Universal Design for Learning. Instructional Methods Strategies and Technologies to Meet the Needs of All Learners. https://granite.pressbooks.pub/teachingdiverselearners/chapter/universal-design-for-learning- 2/.

Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: Reflections on principles and their application. Journal of postsecondary education and disability, 19(2), 135-151.

UDL. (2018, January 12).

https://udlguidelines.cast.org... mp;utm_campaign=none&utm_content=aboutudl.

Understood. (2020, April 17). The Difference Between Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Traditional Education. Understood.

YouTube. (2010). UDL At A Glance.

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Expanding Child Tax Credit

Annie Foley (GU ’22) June 01, 2021

While listening to a podcast the other week, I was intrigued to hear about the expansion of child tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill, and the implications that this will have on millions of families living in the US. Put into simpler terms, this expansion essentially provides a guaranteed income for families with children, a proposal that seemed improbable in the US, especially after the government’s former cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was abolished in 1996 (Davies, 2021). Thanks to this new piece of legislation, individuals with an income up to $75,000 and couples earning up to $150,000 are eligible to receive $3,000 annually for each child that they have ages 6 to17, and $3,600 for each child under 6 (Leonhardt, 2021). This expanded credit will affect 27 million children, about half of which are Black and Latino, and move 9.9 children above or closer to the poverty line (Trisi & Floyd, 2021). Unlike other forms of government aid that are targeted, the money received by families can be used however they choose. Additionally, as opposed to receiving their benefits annually, families eligible for this tax credit will begin to receive monthly checks as a way of providing more financial stability (DeParle, 2021).

Passed to relieve the financial toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on many American families, particularly families of color, this expanded child tax credit has only been approved for a single year. While the financial situation of families has definitely worsened, the poverty that affected children before COVID, and will continue to long after, would, no doubt, benefit from the continuation of this credit. The effects that this economic security program will have on reducing the hardships of many children growing up in poverty could prove to have meaningful, long-lasting impacts on their lives. Additionally, aside from the impacts that this aid could have on the lives of children, the continuation of these monthly checks would be a massive stance for the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, to take on its staggering poverty rate. Only time will tell what the country decides to do in the long run, but it will be promising to see the effects that this expanded credit will have on the lives of children and families this year.


Davies, D. (2021, April 01). New Guaranteed Income for Families with Children Is 'Stunning,' Poverty Expert Says. Retrieved April 02, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2021/04/01...

DeParle, J. (2021, March 07). In the Stimulus Bill, a Policy Revolution in Aid for Children. Retrieved April 02, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/0...

Leonhardt, M. (2021, March 11). Here's Who Qualifies for the New $3,000 Child Tax Credit. Retrieved April 02, 2021, from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/1... Trisi, D., & Floyd, I. (2021, March 01).

Benefits of Expanding Child Tax Credit Outweigh Small Employment Effects. Retrieved April 02, 2021, from https://www.cbpp.org/research/...

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Early Childhood Learning – Brain Science and the Effects of Stress and Trauma

Rachel Lipman (GU Certificate in Early Intervention ’20) March 29, 2021

For a developing child, the value of family-centered care and the impacts of trauma on childhood learning are linked. Trauma occurs when children are exposed to events of situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have just experienced. This definition is a powerful reminder that trauma is individualized and providers need to be aware that we all experience and respond to trauma differently.

According to American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) family-centered care is a

“collaborative approach to the planning, delivery, and evaluation of clinical services” which involves a “mutually beneficial partnership” for family members and providers”.

Each individual is encouraged to share their ideas, knowledge, and experiences. The benefits of this approach include developing rapport and ensuring that the family members, the individuals, and the providers are all actively involved in service delivery (ASHA, 2020). For families who may be in highly stressful, traumatic circumstances clinician’s expectations for family participation takes on an additional dimension. How do service providers respond to or engage families in the process when it may appear that the family does not have a positive dynamic?

All young children rely on family members for basic needs such as shelter, meals, and safety, appropriate physical contact, love, and communication. Young children assume that relationships include emotional attachment, progressive complexity, reciprocity, and a balance of power. The role of the early intervention service provider includes helping caregivers to provide those elements to affect skill development. Recognizing a family’s circumstances, respecting their perspectives, and engaging in a reciprocal, honest, trusting relationship is critical to mediate the effects of trauma.

Family-centered care involves mutual respect, accurate and appropriate information sharing, participation, and collaboration. This concept is powerful to me as a provider reminding me that our first task in serving young children with disabilities or delays is to create meaningful relationships with families. In order to create environments that support child development, the clinician must meet the child and family where they are for that given day/session. For instance, a family member may be preoccupied with finding appropriate housing for their family and is not able to focus fully on caring for their child and therefore, the provider’s child-directed services may not be effective. Families have complex needs, thus most effective service provision is a team-based model. Providers need to be able to rely on team members creating integrated plans that address the family needs and priorities. When used appropriately, while incorporating the needs for the child, the family members, and the provider, family-centered care is a model for service provision that allows collaboration in the best interest of the child.

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