race matters

When is a student ‘gifted’ or ‘disabled’? A new study shows racial bias plays a role in deciding

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Fourth-grade students at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn.

Racial bias among educators may play a larger role than previously understood in deciding whether students are referred for special education or gifted programs, according to new research from NYU.

The study, the first of its kind to show a direct link between teacher bias and referrals for special services, found stark differences in how teachers classify students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds showing identical signs of disability or giftedness.

Teachers were more likely to see academic shortfalls as disabilities among white students, even when students of color demonstrated the same deficits. They tended to see these struggles as “problems to fix,” the study explains, if students were white. And students of color were more likely be referred for special-education testing when they had emotional or behavioral issues compared with identical white peers — and were less likely to be identified as gifted.

Those findings may help inform a debate that has divided researchers: Is special education racist if students of color tend to represent a greater share of its population? Or do problems associated with poverty that can affect cognitive development (lead exposure, for instance) mean that students of color might actually be underrepresented in special education settings?

The study, which is set to appear in the journal Social Science Research, doesn’t resolve that debate. But it does offer evidence that bias plays a role in both over- and under-classifying students for certain services.

“The issue is that racism affects all of us, and teachers are in positions of power,” said Rachel Fish, the study’s author and a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School.

Educators are an important focus because they are responsible for about 75 percent of all referrals for gifted or special ed programs, according to the report. And in the vast majority of cases, the evaluation process confirms a teacher’s suspicion.

Fish was able to isolate a student’s race as a deciding factor by giving 70 third- and fourth-grade teachers culled from an unnamed large, northeastern city a survey that described identical behaviors, but signaled different racial identities. Teachers were randomly assigned to read profiles of fictional male students who showed signs of academic challenges, behavioral/emotional deficits, or giftedness. The only thing that changed was their name: Jacob, Carlos, or Demetrius.

The teachers who participated were more likely to see academic deficits in white students as “medicalized problems to fix,” while black and Latino students with the same deficits were seen as ordinary. The implication, according to the study, is that “low academic performance is normal for [students of color], and not a problem to remediate.”

And in terms of behavioral challenges, black and Latino students’ actions were “seen as more aggressive and problematic than misbehavior by white boys.”

That could have troubling implications for equal access to appropriate education services because students who are classified as having behavioral issues tend to be treated differently.

“If you’re labeled with an emotional behavior disorder, you’re likely going to be excluded from the general education classroom and it’s likely you’ll be greatly stigmatized,” Fish said in an interview. While there isn’t much conclusive research on how students’ classifications affect them down the road, there is evidence that being labeled with a behavioral disorder is associated with future incarceration.

The study also found that bias helped determine whether students were considered gifted: Teachers evaluated white students’ skills more favorably than their black and Latino peers.

The picture is slightly more complicated for English learners. Teachers tended to refer a student with mild academic challenges for special education services if he was a white ELL student, as opposed to a black or Latino ELL peer. They were more likely to perceive Latino boys as having behavioral issues if they were non-native English speakers. But they were less likely to perceive white ELL boys as having behavior problems than their white non-ELL peers, according to the study.

Many of these problems are evident in New York City, where students of color are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, and white students often face less severe behavioral interventions.

Still, Fish acknowledges that the study has some limitations and shouldn’t be overgeneralized. Because it relies on a small group of teachers evaluating fictional students, it’s hard to claim that her findings apply in real situations across the board.

But Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College who studies inclusive education, said that while previous research has shown racial disparities in gifted and special education, this study is among the first to describe one mechanism of how that sorting happens.

“We don’t really have very good ways to get at implicit bias,” she said. “And this is a really, really good way.”

Still, like Fish, Oyler is careful to point out that the findings don’t suggest teachers should be branded as racists; there are larger institutional factors at play that enable implicit bias.

“What is wrong with our system that we continue to sort and label kids at both ends of the imagined bell curve,” she asks, “and then give them different kinds of educational opportunities based on what we perceive them to be?”

The Right Resources

‘We didn’t have options’: A new Staten Island charter school aims to fill a gap for students with dyslexia

PHOTO: PhotoAlto/Anne-Sophie Bost

Laura Timoney knew that New York City’s first charter school designed for students with dyslexia would become a reality when she and its other founders were able to envision a full day in the life of a student.

“We named her Juanita Henderson, and still just smile whenever we think of her,” said Timoney, who works on education issues in the Staten Island borough president’s office. “She’s so excited and looking forward to coming to school, learning, looking in microscopes.”

If all goes according to plan, Bridge Preparatory Charter School will begin serving its real students on Staten Island in fall 2019. The elementary school was approved by the Board of Regents in June, and it’s set to be the first charter school in the state — and among only a few public schools nationwide — devoted to educating children with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities.

The goal is to provide another option for families who have long fought for more choices closer to home. Staten Island is the borough with the highest share of students with disabilities, and while district schools have been steadily adding resources to help students with literacy issues, many parents of children with dyslexia send them to private schools in Brooklyn or New Jersey.

To succeed, though, Bridge Prep will have to navigate a few considerable challenges.

A few, like finding space, are familiar to charter schools in New York City. Others, like convincing parents that their educational model will work best for their children — who may have sizable academic and emotional needs thanks to their frustrations with reading — may be more specific to Bridge Prep.   

“We’ve gotten branded as the dyslexia school,” founder Timothy Castanza said. His hope, though, is that the school will be able to attract a mix of students. “Struggling with literacy in general, something that so many students do struggle with, means that you should come to this school.”

While designing the school, Castanza traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, to visit a magnet school that almost exclusively serves students with language-based learning disabilities and to Pittsburgh to visit the Provident Charter School for Children with Dyslexia.

Bridge Prep plans to use the Orton-Gillingham instructional approach, a popular method of teaching students who have trouble with reading, spelling, and writing. Each class will be 12 to 13 students so instructors can cater to children’s individual needs, Castanza said.

Timothy Castanza, Rose Kerr and Laura Timoney celebrate the approval of Bridge Prep.

The school also plans to use the “triad method,” designed by Rose Kerr, a former Staten Island principal. Instead of students leaving their classrooms to receive extra help, additional teaching assistants and literacy coaches will rotate through the classrooms (called triads) to help students, joining the assigned general education or special education teacher and any paraprofessionals mandated for students.

The model is costly, and the five founders of Bridge Prep are continuing to search for additional outside funding — part of why the school’s planning process has taken several years. (GRASP Academy, the dyslexia-focused school in Jacksonville, spent about double what a typical elementary school in that district did in 2015, according to the Florida Times-Union, though per-student spending in Florida is generally far below that of New York.)

The overarching goal, they say, is to help students at the start of their academic careers, putting them on the right track for later success.   

Opportunity Charter School, another charter school designed to serve mostly students with disabilities in Harlem, came under fire last year for not being able to meet its academic benchmarks. But Opportunity has operated as a middle school and high school, and its students enter having to catch up. Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York, said Bridge Prep’s decision to open an elementary school means it might avoid some of those issues.

“It’s never too late to help a struggling reader learn to read, but it does get more difficult the longer the student is left without appropriate evidence-based interventions,” said Moroff.

It’s hard to know exactly how many students in Staten Island or New York City have dyslexia. The city’s annual special education report in 2016-17 said about 77,000 students have a learning disability. Of all students with disabilities enrolled in the city’s district schools, nearly 130,000 were receiving all of their recommended services, while almost 50,000 were denied some of the services that they were legally entitled to.

In 2016, the city announced it would increasing the number of reading coaches in each school through a new Universal Literacy Program. That may be helping, Moroff said, but some students still find themselves without needed support.

“If kids didn’t have private attorneys, then what they ended up doing was just struggling in school and not getting the support they needed, falling farther and farther behind and getting a hodgepodge of services,” said Moroff.

Ayelet Schwartz, a Staten Island mother whose daughter has dyslexia, saw that firsthand.

Despite having a diagnosis of her daughter’s condition, Schwartz said the teachers at her local district school didn’t take her seriously. So Schwartz sued the Department of Education to reimburse her for the cost of sending her daughter to a private school for students with language-based learning difficulties, two hours away.

“I’ve heard kids say, ‘I’m so stupid, why can’t I read? I’m so mad at my brain!’” said Schwartz, whose daughter is now middle-school aged. “My daughter didn’t want to go to dance anymore, didn’t want to go to school. She would cry, throw her books, say ‘I’m an idiot,’ things like that. So it took a lot of work to undo all of that.”

Having a local school with experience helping students like her daughter like Bridge Prep would have saved her family from years of struggling, she said. “We didn’t have options,” said Schwartz. “If this school works, I’m all for it, because we need options here on Staten Island.”

model of inclusion

New York City is placing students with disabilities in mainstream classes. But do they actually feel included?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Terell Richards languished at the public middle school in Queens for students with severe disabilities that he attended a few years ago.

It wasn’t just that he found the work so easy he sometimes fell asleep in the back of the classroom, his sister, Kya, said. It was also that he felt so out of place he would sometimes dissolve into tears.

“Just crying and saying how much he just felt like he was in the wrong place and completely lost,” said Kya, who helped her brother, now 19 years old, switch to a private school for students with special needs.

Now, New York City — and districts across the country — have started sending more students like Terell into classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers. But while some research has shown students with disabilities can perform better in mixed-ability settings, a crucial concern has been whether the new environment makes students with disabilities actually feel less isolated and out-of-place.

A new first-of-its-kind study based on surveys of more than 250,000 New York City middle-school students between 2007 and 2012 tries to answer that question.

The study comes with some important caveats: The surveys are conducted annually by the education department, meaning they weren’t written by the study’s authors nor did they oversee how they were administered. Also, the survey period ended just as the city was beginning its major push to move most students with disabilities out of separate classrooms.

It finds that middle-school students with disabilities tend to feel welcomed in schools with non-disabled peers, though their experiences vary by their type of disability. But, more surprisingly, special-needs students in separate classes don’t feel more excluded.

The study, which was funded by the Spencer Foundation, is set to appear in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Researcher. Here are three big takeaways:

Students with disabilities generally feel included in mainstream schools.

The study tracks whether students feel included at over 500 traditional schools by looking at how students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers responded to five questions from the city’s annual survey: whether students feel welcome at school, whether students with disabilities are included in school activities, if teachers know students’ names, whether students are bullied, and whether they see harassment.

Generally, students with disabilities reported slightly higher levels of inclusion in school activities than non-disabled students, and feel only marginally less welcomed — though they also reported slightly higher levels of bullying and harassment.

About 60 percent of students with special needs either agreed or strongly agreed that students with disabilities are included in all school activities, about two percentage points higher than non-disabled students. A slightly smaller share of special needs students felt welcomed at school compared to students without disabilities — though 92 percent said they felt welcomed. (The patterns are relatively consistent even when controlling for differences in student characteristics like gender, race, or socioeconomic status.)

Advocates said they were both surprised and encouraged by those findings.

“We do worry that in the hands of an unskilled teacher that kids will not necessarily feel welcomed and they’ll still be separated out and made to feel different” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “It’s pretty exciting to me to see that’s not necessarily true.”

Feelings of inclusion vary widely by disability type.

Although students with disabilities generally reported feeling about as included and welcomed as their peers, there are significant differences based on the type of disability a student has.

Those who were classified as having an “emotional disturbance” — often students who have significant behavioral problems — felt among the least included. They were about 4 percentage points less likely to report feeling welcome or included, compared to non-disabled students, and were also more likely to report harassment than students in any other disability category.

“The emotional disturbance kids are the ones who stand out in their classrooms,” said Leanna Stiefel, the study’s lead author and an economics professor at New York University, adding that they may feel less included because their disabilities are more difficult to hide.

But students with “low-incidence” disabilities such as multiple handicaps, autism, or intellectual disabilities reported more positive feelings than any other group. They were about 10 percentage points more likely than non-disabled peers to report that their schools include students with disabilities, and were slightly more likely to report feeling welcomed.

Students who are segregated based on ability don’t necessarily feel excluded.

Surprisingly, it made little difference whether students with disabilities were in “self-contained” classes — essentially classes comprised only of students with disabilities — or were in classrooms that included non-disabled peers: Both groups reported similar feelings of inclusion. (The findings don’t include students in District 75, a separate set of schools that are even less inclusive, since the schools themselves are only for students with disabilities.)

Moroff, the special education advocate, said the finding surprised her and noted it could reflect that students in more segregated settings aren’t necessarily aware of more inclusive models.

“It’s very possible there that there’s a level of interaction they’re not having,” Moroff said, “that they don’t even expect to be taking place.”