Minority Children are Unrepresented in Special Education: UC Irvine-Penn State Study

An intern checks out a basketball to a student with Marfanoid Hypermobility Syndrome.
An intern checks out a basketball to a student with Marfanoid Hypermobility Syndrome.
U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Maeson L. Elleman

Contrary to popular belief, minority children are not overrepresented in special education classrooms but are actually underrepresented, according to the findings of a UC Irvine-Penn State study.

The reason for this is minority children are actually less likely to be diagnosed with and treated for disabilities than white children with similar academic achievements, behaviors and economic resources, according to the new research.

The work of co-authors George Farkas, UCI professor of education, and Penn State University's Paul Morgan, Marianne M. Hillemeier, Richard Mattison, Steve Maczuga, Hui Li and Michael Cook appears in the current issue of Educational Researcher, a journal of the American Educational Research Association. Funding for the study was provided by the National Center for Special Education Research, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Education, with additional support from the Penn State Population Research Institute through funding from the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

Special education programs have been the target of legal challenges on the grounds of discrimination and racial bias, yet the study found that minority children are under-diagnosed across five disability conditions for which U.S. schoolchildren commonly receive special education services.

"From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of middle school, minority children are less--not more--likely than white students with similar performance and behaviors to be identified as having learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments or behavioral disorders," Farkas explained.

This is especially troubling because minority children are more likely to grow up in economically depressed neighborhoods, be exposed to dangerous pollutants, and be born prematurely or at a low birth weight than white children and are, therefore, at higher risk for developmental and behavioral problems.

More troubling is the fact that prior educational research argued the opposite, which caused current federal legislation and policies that attempt to reduce what has been reported to be minority overrepresentation in special education. Actually, it's special education intervention that these kids need, according to the newer research.

"These policies instead may be exacerbating the nation's educational inequities by limiting minority children's access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled," Farkas said.

Among the study's results:

* Black children's odds of learning disability identification are 58 percent lower than those of otherwise similar white children. Reductions in the odds of identification with speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances are, respectively, 63 percent, 57 percent, 77 percent and 64 percent.

* Comparable reductions in the odds of disability identification for Hispanic children compared to otherwise similar white children are 29 percent for learning disabilities, 33 percent for speech or language impairments, and 73 percent for health impairments.

* For children from non-English-speaking households compared to otherwise similar children from English-only households, the odds reductions are 28 percent for both learning disabilities and speech or language impairments.

* Children from families without health insurance are less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments.

The study sampled participants in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study's kindergarten cohort, a nationally representative group of 20,100 U.S. children who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998 and were then surveyed during the spring of kindergarten, fall and spring of first grade and the springs of third, fifth and eighth grades. Data were collected from children, parents and teachers.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!


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