Racial Inequity in Special Education:
Harvard University Findings
Racial inequities pervade special education in American schools. In 1998, approximately 1.5 million minority children were identified as having mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or a specific learning disability. Racial Inequity in Special Education , The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University which is a new book published by Harvard Education Press, explores the inequities experienced by minority school- children in special education and the potential life consequences of such inequities. These issues are examined as systemic and as evidence of persistent racial inequities in our system of public education.
The book also covers both the over-representation of minority children in special education, as well as the under-servicing of minority children with serious academic and special education needs. The research explores the complexity of the issues, including the high degree of subjectivity that affects special education identification and placement, and examines the possibility of widespread civil rights violations. The book also includes a comprehensive review of attempts by legislators, child advocates, and educational and civil rights enforcement agencies to address these complex problems.
Nationwide, black students are nearly three times as likely as white students to be labeled mentally retarded, and nearly twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed. In many states the disparities are even greater.
Once identified for special education services, most minority students are far more likely than white students to be removed from mainstream classrooms and to be isolated from their regular education peers.
Poverty related factors might correlate with an increased risk for disability, but fail to explain the gross overrepresentation of blacks in certain disability categories.
The failure to provide high quality support and services in a timely manner may contribute to the disproportionate numbers of black youth with disabilities who wind up unemployed or in prison.
High stakes tests used to retain students in grade or deny diplomas, over reliance on IQ testing, inequitable state funding formulas, and restrictions on bilingual education enacted by legislation may exacerbate problems experienced by minority children with disabilities and contribute to overrepresentation.
The goal of racial equity in special education should parallel the goal of racial equity in general education so essential to the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001."
The current level of data collection and public reporting on race and disability should be expanded to include ethnicity, English language learner status, and gender, from every school and district, with special attention paid to the potentially negative impact of foreclosing bilingual educational opportunities.
A moratorium on the use of high stakes tests for denying diplomas and retaining students at grade level is needed until all children are provided with adequate opportunities to master the curriculum, including valid tests, and appropriate test accommodations.
Federal and state civil rights enforcement needs to be strengthened substantially and focused on leveraging the necessary resources for long-term improvements, stimulating collaborative reform efforts, and inspiring voluntary compliance.
"The findings of Racial Inequity in Special Education indicate a trend with chilling implications for our education system. The over-identification of minority students in special education and the subsequent isolation, stigmatization, and inferior treatment they receive reconfirms the notion that education in America falls short of offering a level playing field for all. By compiling this body of valuable scholarship, Losen and Orfield have unearthed the contours of the problem as well as promising blueprints for resolving it."-U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA)
Professor Gary Orfield, Co-Director of The Civil Rights Project, notes: "This book is an illuminating account of a widespread problem that has received little attention until now, Racial Inequity in Special Education sets the stage for a more fruitful discussion about special education and racial justice—a discussion that aims to advance racial equity in both special and general education." Co-editor Daniel J. Losen of The Civil Rights Project concludes: "The book is especially timely because of current debates in Congress involving special education. The research findings can inform those debates through their extensive documentation of racial disparities."#