White Students Overrepresented in Special EducationA study from researchers at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and the University of California, Irvine finds that white children from English-speaking homes are more likely to be recognized as having a disability than children from minority families. The study used carefully controlled, longitudinal data to determine that children from racial, ethnic, and language minorities were less likely than white, English-speaking peers to receive special education services.

The researchers examined studies from the United States Department of Education, which included multi-year, longitudinal and nationally representative data. They controlled for variables related to children, their families, and their location like academic achievement, access to health insurance, and state of residence. The researchers specifically analyzed five disability conditions: learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities, and other health impairments.

Minority students in elementary and middle school were less likely than white, English-speaking children to be identified as having a disability in any of the five categories. This finding held for racial, ethnic, and language minority students. Children in these minority groups were less likely to receive special education services overall. Some of the study’s key findings include:

  • Children whose families did not speak English at home were 40 percent less likely to be identified with a speech or language impairment than children whose families spoke English.
  • African American children had a 58 percent lower likelihood of being identified with a learning disability than white children.
  • Hispanic children had a 29 percent lower likelihood of being identified with a disability than white children.

A number of other studies have examined the special education population, comparing it to the general population. Lead study author Paul L. Morgan of Penn State says that other studies “Have often not accounted for minority children’s greater exposure to factors that increase the risk for disabling conditions. In contrast, our study corrects at the child- and family-levels for minority children’s greater exposure to these risk factors, including the strong predictors of academic achievement or behavior for a school-based disability diagnosis.”

The researchers suggest that federal education policies should be made to counteract this imbalance.

This research is published in the journal Educational Researcher.

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