For a long time special educators and the general public have heard that special education is racist. The story from the school reformers goes something like this: African American students are thrown into segregated special education classes because teachers don’t know how to teach, or they don’t have “high expectations.”
If teachers request a special education referral for a black student, they are portrayed as not knowing how to teach, or worse, it may be assumed they don’t want to work with children of color.
This idea that educators funnel black children into special education has been harmful all around.
Here is a quote from the Los Angeles Daily News printed just a few days ago where they are discussing why 14% of their students are in special education (my guess as to why in a minute):
“It’s sort of a national problem, unfortunately, that African-American students are disproportionately referred for and found eligible for special education,” Howell said.
Closing out his remarks at the committee meeting, Cortines [LA’s school superintendent] said while he understands some children will forever require special education courses, he wants to see data that shows how many students are returned to general education.
“It should not be a life sentence,” Cortines said.
Now, we learn, in a recent New York Times Op Ed. “Is Special Education Racist?”, about research by Paul L. Morgan, an associate professor education at Pennsylvania State University, and George Farkas, professor of education at the University of California Irvine, that indicates the sobering reality that black children are “underrepresented” in special education when compared to their white middle class peers of the same “academic achievement, behavior and family economic resources.”
Black children are less likely to get services for: learning disabilities, speech, language disabilities, speech, language impairment, intellectual disabilities, health impairments, and emotional disturbances!
Why? Parents might not request services, in part, because the language surrounding special education is confusing. I have always believed this about gifted black students. Poor parents might not think to ask for school psychological testing to assess their child for gifted services (if there are any), so their child gets in trouble in school for boredom or misbehaving, when the real problem is a high I.Q!
Or, the authors claim that due to an educator’s “low expectations” of black students, they don’t look for neurological problems. But I think it might be more about a teacher’s fear of being stereotyped as a failure, or racist. The idea of special education as a dumping ground has been around for many years along with messages like “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Consider the use of the word “sentenced,” like children in special education are in prison, to brainwash the public’s perception of special education (like Cortines uses in the LA article above).
All of this has been a way to tarnish teachers, special education, and public schools, and it goes a long way towards eliminating special education services for all children—but especially for the poor and African Americans.
The hypocrisy is that charter schools, replacing traditional public schools, usually do not serve students who need special education. They are not equipped to do so, nor, I assume, willing to pay for it. In fact, going back to LA, it is my guess, that so many charters have opened, and rejected African American students with special needs, that they now have more students with disabilities in traditional public schools.
The fact is most educators and parents recoil at the idea of misrepresenting children as having disabilities when they don’t, especially if those children are African American. The race card has been used in the past to condemn special education, to make it look like something bad, so it could be de-funded and run out of town.
And worse, black children have been pushed through the system without getting the beneficial services that could have really helped them succeed.
So this new research is refreshing news, although it comes late for many students. Special education can help many more students of color and we should stop denying them or anyone else those services when they need them.