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?”

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.”


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.

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.”