By Federico Waitoller, PhD
“We are creating conditions in which students may be found in need for special education services when in reality they just needed quality opportunity to learn in the first place.”
Editor’s note: in June, Penn State University researchers published an article in the journal Educational Researcher indicating racial, ethnic, and language minority students are under-represented in special education services, contrary to vast amounts of research indicating these groups are over-represented in special education. Federico Waitoller, PhD, assistant professor of special education at the UIC College of Education, responds in this op-ed.
When we defeat more than 45 years of evidence, we need to be very careful about the statements that we make and to not overstate our findings and contextualize them within the larger body of evidence.
Patterns of disproportional representation of minority students in special education change across geographies—at the national level, data may differ from the stateor district level. And so what we have found is that both statements are true: in some contexts, racial minorities, particularly Black and Native American students are over-represented in special education. In some contexts, they are under-represented, In some contexts, Latino students are under-represented in some context they are over-represented, and these patterns also vary across disability categories, and gender . So I’m not surprised, because patterns are very complex. So, what we find at the national level we may not find at the local level. We must note, however, that there is extensive research indicating even at the national level that Black and Native American students are over-represented in the intellectual disabilities and emotional disabilities categories, challenging the findings from this new study.
Further, these new findings ignore a large body of literature that emphasizes contextual factors as predictors of over-representation, such as student-teacher ratio, the demographics of a school, the quality of instruction and the level of language support for English language learners. The new study mostly emphasized individual variables such as student achievement, but these contextual variables may be very important.
If poor quality of instruction, high student-teacher ratios and lack of language support contribute to declining student achievement, increasing numbers of Black, Latino and Native American students with low academic achievement could easily be perceived as an indicator of under-representation of special education needs. However, hypotheses of over-representation indicate the opposite is happening: because of low academic performance generated from poor access to high quality learning opportunities, Black, Latino and Native American students are often over-represented in special education classrooms.
This access issue is exacerbated by fiscal austerity facing urban districts around the country. In Chicago, where resources are being pulled from neighborhood schools with huge budget cuts and special education teacher positions are remaining unfilled, there clearly is an effect on the quality of instruction available to students, as well as the capacity to properly analyze referrals. When opportunities for quality learning decrease, we are creating conditions in which students may be found in need for special education services when in reality they just needed quality opportunity to learn in the first place.