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?”

NEW DATA

To help students with physical disabilities navigate a maze of barriers, NYC releases new reports on high school accessibility

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

When Michelle Noris helped her son apply to public high schools, she knew the city’s directory would not be much use.

Since her son, Abraham, uses a wheelchair and the city’s official list of over 400 high schools contains little information about physical infrastructure, Noris knew she’d have to make phone calls and set up visits to find out whether cafeterias, auditoriums, and even front entrances could accommodate a wheelchair.

“I spent hours and hours on that,” said Noris, a former member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. “It felt like I shouldn’t have to do this.”

Now, after lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city is starting to release more detailed information about how accommodating its high schools are for students with disabilities — an effort to reduce the burden on those students and their families to figure it out for themselves.

New online profiles indicate whether school bathrooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, libraries, hallways and other spaces are completely accessible on each floor, and if not, what barriers might be present.

They are meant to correct a major challenge for families seeking accessibility information about New York City’s high schools: 62 percent are deemed “partially accessible,” an ambiguous term that is supposed to mean students with disabilities can access “relevant programs,” but in practice gives little sense of the scope of accessibility issues. Just 13 percent of high school buildings are fully accessible, according to 2016 data.

A partially accessible school might have a ramp, but it’s connected to a service entrance designed to transport garbage rather than wheelchairs. A school could have an accessible bathroom, but it’s on the second floor. An auditorium might accommodate a wheelchair, but provide no access to the stage.

In recent months, the education department has posted on its website new “Building Accessibility Profiles” that offer such granular, crucial details — based on a 58-question survey conducted by department employees.

One Upper Manhattan school building, which houses New Design Middle School and two KIPP charter schools, earned one of the highest possible accessibility ratings. But its profile notes that the bathrooms might not be maneuverable; some stalls are missing grab bars; there is no braille signage throughout the building; and some of its hallway doors may be too heavy for students with limited upper body strength. (The reports do not differentiate between schools that share buildings, a concern among some advocates because students at each school may have different accessibility needs.)

For now, the profiles only exist for high school buildings in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, putting the city behind on its original schedule to have every high school profile available in time for this year’s application season. City officials said they plan to complete profiles for all partially accessible high schools by January, but could not offer a timeline for middle or elementary schools. (The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes almost two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accessibility problems in elementary schools.)

Experts largely praised the city for beginning to make the high school choice process less onerous for students with disabilities by offering them more information about physical accessibility.

But some also pointed out that the information is difficult to find. The city’s official high school directory only says whether schools are “accessible” or “not accessible,” a potentially misleading indicator given that most schools fall somewhere in between. And the city’s “School Finder” site, essentially a digital version of the directory, does not link to the new accessibility data, though a spokesman said that information will be included in future updates.

“This is all really, really valuable information,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But if families don’t have a way of getting to it easily, it doesn’t do them a whole lot of good.”

The easiest way to get to the information is on the city’s Office of Space Planning website, which lists each school’s accessibility profile.

Still, there are significant upsides to the new data — and not just for parents.

More detailed information about building infrastructure could help the city better-allocate capital funding to schools that might only need modest improvements to become significantly more accessible, Moroff said. The city’s current five-year capital plan includes $100 million for such improvements.

“We work diligently with families and school communities to ensure every student has a seat at a school that meets their accessibility needs,” said education department spokesman Michael Aciman.

While Noris, the parent and disability advocate, said she would have loved the additional information when she was searching for a high school for her son, she’s glad her advocacy paid off. She used to carry around mock surveys to show city officials what kinds of information would have helped her, and even used the surveys to rate a few schools, partly to show that useful information about buildings could be extracted in under an hour.

So when Noris saw the data appear on the city’s website, she couldn’t help but feel like she played a role.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, they listened to me,’” she said. “I was very pleased.”

now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.