August 2, 2016

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Make Sure IDEA Is Helping All Children with Disabilities

By Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas

Many have concluded that racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. are disproportionately over-represented in special education.  For example, Black children represent about 14% and 19% of the general school-aged and special education populations, respectively. These disparities have been taken as clear evidence that schools are racially biased in how they identify children as disabled.

In response, the U.S. Congress amended IDEA in both 1997 and 2004 to ensure that minority children were not over-represented in special education based on their race or ethnicity. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) proposed expanding these regulations. For example, OSEP proposed that States use a standard method for monitoring over-representation and adopt what it would judge as “reasonable” amounts of over-representation. 

Although these regulations are well-intentioned, they may actually be exacerbating inequities experienced by racial and ethnic minority children in the U.S. This is because, as we explain more fully below, the best-available empirical evidence repeatedly indicates that white children are more likely to receive special education services than otherwise similar racial or ethnic minority children. Rather than establishing quota-like systems for how many minority children can qualify as having disabilities in U.S. schools, IDEA should instead be rewritten to better ensure that all children with disabilities receive the special education services that are their civil right. This might include having States use universal screening methods rather than relying mostly on teacher- or parent-referrals. Universal screening has been suggested as a means of addressing similar disparities in both pediatric care and gifted education.

To date, most of the studies used to justify IDEA’s amendments and OSEP’s proposed regulations have not been adequately designed to answer whether minority children’s over-representation in special education is occurring because of racially biased disability identification. Clear evidence of misidentification based on race or ethnicity requires “apples to apples” contrasts between children who are otherwise identical and who differ only in their race or ethnicity. Yet most prior studies have only reported “apples to oranges” contrasts between children who differ in their race and ethnicity but who also may differ in many other ways. For example, most of the prior work has not properly accounted for differences between the children in their relative exposure to poverty. Doing so is important because poverty is known to function as a type of “neurotoxin” that negatively interferes with children’s cognitive and behavioral development. Living in poverty also increases children’s exposure to many of the known risk factors for disability, including environmental toxins (e.g., lead) and pollutants, being born with low birthweight, and experiencing chronically stressful environments associated with lower executive functioning (e.g., attention regulation and inhibitory control). Currently, almost 40% of Black children but only 10% of White children live in poverty. 

Even more striking, almost none of the prior work has attempted to account for academic achievement differences. This is despite academic achievement being a major reason why children are considered for special education. Decades of research have documented very large racial and ethnic achievement gaps. Because achievement differences and exposure to poverty are confounded with race and ethnicity, and may themselves explain minority children’s over-representation in special education, they are  important to control for before attributing over-representation to racial bias and discrimination.  

Our recent research has attempted to address well-known methodological shortcomings in the existing research by better controlling for these other explanatory factors. Doing so should provide clearer evidence as to whether minority children’s over-representation in special education is the result of misidentification based on race or ethnicity. In essence, we conducted a series of “apples to apples” contrasts between children who can reasonably be characterized as otherwise similar by controlling for many other factors known to increase children’s risk for disability identification. For example, we controlled for academic achievement, exposure to poverty, birthweight and gender, and access to health insurance. Controlling for these factors better approximates the condition in which the children are otherwise identical except in their race or ethnicity. 

What do we find? We repeatedly find that white, English-speaking children are more likely to be identified as disabled and so receive special education services than otherwise similar racial or ethnic minorities. That is, white, English-speaking children are more likely to be receiving special education services when contrasted to racial and ethnic minority children displaying the same relative need for services. We find identification disparities again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again.  We sometimes observe that racial and ethnic minority children are over-represented in special education before accounting for potential confounds, but never after. Instead, we repeatedly find that minority children are less likely to be receiving special education services than otherwise similar white children. We find this to be the case whether we use parent- or teacher-report of disability status, whether we investigate for disproportionate representation before or after school entry, and whether we examine this to be the case for special education service receipt generally or for specific disability conditions.  We have yet to find any evidence to indicate that minority children’s over-representation in special education is explained by widespread misidentification based on race or ethnicity. We do consistently find that schools mostly provide special education to children who are struggling academically or behaviorally.

What does this mean for IDEA’s reauthorization? Our findings suggest that the law should be rewritten to instead address widespread under-identification and under-treatment of racial and ethnic minority children. As has been reported by  public health researchers, our findings suggest that schools and districts may be acting in ways that are more responsive to better-resourced White, English-speaking families. It may also be that, because of IDEA’s emphasis on addressing over-representation based on race or ethnicity, schools may have been actively avoiding identifying “too many” children with disabilities who are racial or ethnic minorities, despite these children’s potential needs for additional services.

One way to address this disproportionate under-representation based on race or ethnicity might be to ensure that IDEA’s Child Find procedures are standardized, perhaps by using universal screening measures to better identify children who may have disabilities. Another possibility is to increase the use of school-to-community partnerships, in which community members help to disseminate empirically-based information about the risk factors, symptoms, and available treatments and services for disabilities provided by schools or clinics. These types of partnerships have helped address similar  disparities in public health. Still another way might be to require that due process materials are written in a way that are accessible by all families. Currently, about 95% of due process materials in the U.S. need a college work or beyond to understand. Ensuring that all children with disabilities are receiving evidence-based and effective special education services is also important, and itself requires further investigation.

The bottom line is this: IDEA should be ensuring that all children with disabilities are being helped, regardless of their race or ethnicity. That is IDEA’s most important promise.  

George Farkas is a Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine. He studies educational inequality and how it can be reduced.  His tutoring program, Reading one-to-One, was the basis for President Clinton's "America Reads" initiative. He has published more than 100 articles in peer reviewed journals, is an Associate Editor of AERA Open, and is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. 

 Paul L. Morgan, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies and the Director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research at Penn State. He investigates factors that increase children's risk for disabilities, as well as practices and policies that may better help the children as they attend U.S. schools. Paul has been awarded the Distinguished Early Career Research Award from the Council of Exceptional Children's Division for Research as well as the Distinguished Researcher Award from the American Educational Research Association's Special Education Research Group.