Poverty & Safety Net
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Minority students and special education

February 10, 2020
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A flashcard of a plate, something that I learned to call a dish, was what could have placed me in special education.  

I didn’t have a medically diagnosed physical or intellectual disability, just a difference in dialect. That seemingly small difference could have changed the course of my life. Special education is important for students who need it, but when students are placed into special education inappropriately, it can cause issues.

 Special education provides students with medically-diagnosed intellectual conditions—like autism —physical handicaps, behavioral issues and learning delays the support they need to meet educational benchmarks set by the state and federal governments.

First day of kindergarten  

At age four, my daughter was on track with her peers in reading. Her public school pre-k class teachers were amazing, and she was thriving. By the age of five, things were different. That August, with her big-girl book bag and brand-new uniform, she was ready for kindergarten and all the wonders it would bring, but three months later, a series of events changed that, eventually leading her to special education. [bctt tweet="Are Black students OVERREPRESENTED in #specialed?" username="CommunitySols"]  

Special education provides students with medically-diagnosed intellectual conditions—like autism —physical handicaps, behavioral issues and learning delays the support they need to meet educational benchmarks set by the state and federal governments. While special education services are crucial for students who need this help, misidentification of students of color is concerning. According to a 2016 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the Department of Education, “for students who do not have disabilities and are mistakenly identified as having disabilities and who receive special education services as a result, special education services are inappropriate and may have negative consequences … limiting the student’s access to proper instruction.[1]”

 In Ohio, 15.2 percent of the state’s public school population was identified as having a disability during the 2017-2018 school year.

In Ohio, 15.2 percent of the state’s public school population was identified as having a disability during the 2017-2018 school year.[2] A higher percentage of Black students receive special education services compared to their representation in the overall population. In the 2017-2018 school year, 19.1 percent of Black students were in special education, when the overall Black student population for public schools in the state was 16.8 percent.[3] This is concerning.  

Source: Ohio Department of Education Report Cards, Enrollment by Student Demographic[/caption]  

Source: IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables, Number of students ages 6 through 21 served under IDEA[/caption]  

Past research has pointed to possible causes of minority misrepresentation in special education including bias built into tests and a lack of professional development for adults working with diverse populations of students. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—trauma brought on by poverty, violence or racial disparities—could contribute to difficulties in education. In 2017 alone, 18 children, ages one to 17, lost their lives to homicides in Cuyahoga County.[4] Each of these children had families, friends – networks of people -- impacted by the tragedy of an unexpected loss. As 90 percent of the brain’s development occurring by the age of five,[5] trauma such as this has been shown to have a significant effect on a child’s behavior. These children don’t have disabilities, but they may need other kinds of supports at school.

 When it comes to special education, as with any program, data matters, especially how it’s collected and measured.

A 2017 report by The Brookings Institution points out that minorities are less likely to be identified as needing special education when other factors like family income and achievement are taken into account. This further underscores that misidentification – both over and underrepresentation of minorities in special education – should be vigilantly monitored to ensure that every student receives the education and support he or she deserves.  

But this doesn’t have to be the norm, and programs like City Year can help. City Year is an AmeriCorps program that partners with under-performing schools in high poverty areas in multiple cities across the country, including both Cleveland and Columbus. According to data released by City Year,[6] schools that partnered with them were twice as likely to improve proficiency rates in English/language arts and up to 3 times as likely to improve math proficiency rates than schools that did not partner with City Year.

 It will take a village of parents, advocates, teachers, administrators and legislators to change a system as complex as special education.

A year after graduating from special education  

Twice a year over three years, my daughter and I would meet with her Title I and primary teachers to discuss and review her IEP. But that changed one spring day during seventh-grade. It was on that day with happy tears and wide grins that they announced my daughter “graduated” out of special education.  

It takes a village to raise a child, and it will also take a village of parents, advocates, teachers, administrators and legislators to change a system as complex as special education. It won’t happen overnight, but by implementing and building upon programs and partnerships that have been proven successful, we can move in the right direction.  

[1] Dear Colleague Letter: Preventing Racial Discrimination in Special Education, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201612-racedisc-special-education.pdf  

[2] Ohio Department of Education Report Cards, Enrollment by Student Demographic http://bireports.education.ohio.gov/PublicDW/asp/Main.aspx  

[3] IDEA Section 618 Data Products: Static Tables, Number of students ages 6 through 21 served under IDEA, Part B, by disability and state, https://www2.ed.gov/programs/osepidea/618-data/static-tables/index.html#partb-cc  

[4] Child Fatalities 2017, The Cuyahoga County Child Fatality Report Twenty-First Edition, https://www.firstyearcleveland.org/files/assets/2017-county-child-fatality-report.pdf  

[5] Trauma, Toxic Stress and the Impact: Defining Adverse Childhood Experiences, https://comsolutionst.wpengine.com/research/trauma-toxic-stress-impact-defining-adverse-childhood-experiences/  

[6] Evidence of Impact, https://www.cityyear.org/impact/evidence-of-impact

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