When special education discriminates

With so many minorities tagged for special-ed classes, there's new scrutiny of how students' learning needs are labeled

To a volunteer tutor, the young man's placement in a special-education class in New York seemed baffling.

The African-American teen was indeed a slow reader, and had a detachment that bordered on hostility. Yet after a session or two with his tutor, it also became clear that the student was capable of doing strong academic work. Instead, he daily confronted a watered-down curriculum well below his interest level, and was getting little help with his reading problem.

Special-education classes are designed to offer students extra support in attaining academic skills through a plan tailored to their particular needs. Indeed, in some communities, the label has been overapplied as a way of giving relatively mainstream students access to smaller classes and more individual attention.

But for others, the designation can mean getting stuck in dead-end work. And with the advent of high-stakes testing, which requires students to pass a state graduation exam, the consequences of such placement are becoming more profound - particularly for minorities.

Many educators have long known that racial minorities are heavily represented in special-ed classes. A new report by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., charges that racial minorities make up a disproportionate number of the students involved. Intentional or unintentional racial bias is often a factor.

The mistaken placement of a black male student in a special-ed class "happens ... all the time," says Peter Kuriloff, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

But despite educators' familiarity with the practice, little progress has been made in stemming the excessive flow of minorities into such classes, according to some observers. "These things have been recurrently reported for 30 or 40 years, and nobody has done anything about them," says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project.

The report offers a new snapshot of the troubling trend.

Only in the past four years have states been required to include information about race in the statistics they provide to the federal government about special education. For the first time, it is possible to get a clear view of the racial makeup of special-education categories.

The numbers make a dramatic statement. Nationwide, about 11 percent of American schoolchildren are classified as needing special education. Within that group, black students are three times as likely as white students to be labeled mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. In some states, including Connecticut, North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina, black students are four times as likely as whites to be placed in special-ed classes.

The report finds that overall, white students with disabilities are much less likely to be removed from a mainstream public classroom and placed in an isolated special-education class than are minority children with similar problems. Hispanics, native Americans, and other minorities are also affected, although the pattern is most striking among African-American students.

Evaluations that discriminate

To the extent that racism is involved in such placements, it is often unintentional, Professor Kuriloff says. "These are really complicated issues," he points out. "It's not like anyone says, 'Hey, let's misclassify these kids.' " But, he adds, conscious and unconscious expectations tied to cultural differences can play a role in how students are evaluated and labeled.

The surge of popularity for high-stakes testing in US education is bringing the problem into particularly sharp focus. Many special-ed classes involve lower expectations and less-demanding curricula, charge some critics, and are thus ill-suited to prepare students for the exams.

"High-stakes assessment is dangerous and destructive," Professor Orfield says, "especially when applied to special-education students."

The issue of race and special education has long been a sensitive one. Some experts have speculated that racial discrepancies in special-ed classes are explained by poverty.

Yet the numbers in the new report show that the more affluent the area, the more likely minority students are to be placed in special-education classrooms. For some educators, such contradictions are all part of larger questions about special education itself.

One area of special education most in need of reform, some say, is the way in which students are classified. Although testing is used, many of the decisions are often subjective. "Any good school psychologist can get a kid classified any way they want to," Kuriloff says. Many of the tests are individually administered, and Kuriloff says they are often imprecise and influenced by the attitude of the administrator.

"Whether you're warm with the kid, whether you connect with him, whether you pause and give him time - all of these things will have an impact on the results," he says.

Assessments of students' abilities can also be affected by cultural differences. "There are certain expectations connected to cultural capital," Kuriloff says. "The way kids talk, what they know, what they prize, what their tastes are - these are things [evaluators] look for in kids, but judgments on these things get confounded by issues of race and class."

Include vs. separate

Another complicated issue tied to questions about special education is whether most students with disabilities would be better off staying in a mainstream classroom. The trend has been toward inclusion - keeping children with disabilities in regular classroom settings for as much of the day as possible.

"All children do better when we do a full-inclusion model," says Kathleen O'Sullivan, executive director of the Odyssey Charter School in Pasadena, Calif., a school with a high percentage of minority students and a slightly higher than average number of kids with disabilities.

But not everyone agrees with such a sweeping statement. "We can't have one-size-fits-all solutions," says James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities based in New York. "There's something called responsible inclusion. Inclusion has to work for the child."

While decisions about what is best for students may differ from case to case, what is important, say civil rights advocates, is that parents be better informed. Few parents exercise the broad set of rights available to them.

For instance, they can refuse to have a child evaluated. Or, if the child is tested and the parents don't like the results, they can insist that an independent evaluation be done at the expense of the school district. Also, it is possible to challenge a child's placement in a special-education class. A school district may ultimately insist on doing so, but would have to work through a hearing procedure.

Orfield says he has been heartened by a powerful response to the report by The Civil Rights Project. Inquiries have poured in from as far away as the Czech Republic, where some advocates for Roma (Gypsy) children are concerned that a similar type of discrimination is being practiced in public schools.

But it is in the United States where high-stakes testing is stirring the situation to a crisis point, Orfield says.

If serious corrective action isn't taken, he says, "We are at risk of having a bad situation get even worse."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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