disability discrimination

Many worry that students of color are too often identified as disabled. Is the real problem the opposite?

PHOTO: Ali Lapetina

New research challenges a piece of common wisdom about special education: that black students are too often told they have a disability.

It’s true that 15 percent of black students in the U.S. are identified as disabled, while only 13 percent of white students are. Some worry that misplacing black students in special education segregates them and lowers expectations for their success. The disparity has even prompted action from the federal education department, which has long cautioned school districts against over-identifying students of color.

The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, joins other recent research in calling these concerns into question — and suggests that bias may be at work in the other direction.

“These well-intentioned efforts appear to be targeting the wrong problem typically being experienced by racial and ethnic minority children attending U.S. schools,” write the study’s seven authors.

The researchers controlled for factors like poverty and student test scores to determine whether similar students of different races are identified as disabled at different rates. Their conclusion: kids of color are actually less likely than white children to be identified as having disabilities.

For example, the study finds that about 75 percent of the lowest-achieving white boys in fourth grade are identified as disabled, compared to under 50 percent of fourth grade black boys of the same achievement level.

That finding, of underidentification of students of color, generally holds across different races — black, Hispanic, Native-American, Asian-American — different years and grades, and different disabilities. Asian-American students appear to be especially underidentified for special education.

Paul Morgan, one of the authors of the study and a professor at Penn State, says that some have mistakenly taken the higher raw numbers for some racial groups as evidence of bias.

“You don’t hear a statistic like ‘minority children are twice as likely to have asthma’ and automatically conclude that pediatricians are racially biased, and let’s stop identifying children who are minorities with asthma,” he said.

“I’m all for monitoring for the potential of racial bias, but there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to do that,” Morgan said. The correct way, he says, is to “look at similarly situated or otherwise similar children in the school” — by comparing students with comparable achievement levels, for example. 

The findings are likely to prompt pushback. A 2015 study from Morgan and colleagues reaching similar conclusions received a sharp critical reaction from some other academics. In a response published in the same academic journal, several researchers accused Morgan and colleagues of oversimplifying a complex issue. (Morgan and one co-author wrote a reply to the critique.)

The dispute turns in part on a question about what data set was used in the 2015 study. Morgan says his latest work, which uses different data, is partially meant as a response.

The critics did not address Morgan’s argument about the limitations of past research. They did say, though, that the study goes too far in implying that underidentification of students of color is always a problem and the opposite never is.

There “is not a broad and sweeping witch hunt targeting overrepresentation,” the critics wrote. (Recent federal guidelines warn against both over- and underidentification of students of color.)

Morgan says he agrees that, in some cases, identifying too many students of color may be a legitimate concern. But he worries that districts are being encouraged to pay too much attention to raw differences among groups.

He pointed to the recent finding that schools in Texas had systematically denied students special education services in order to hit accountability targets.

“You quickly can enter a situation where schools are paying attention to those numerical targets and not identifying children who may have disabilities,” he said.

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on Change.org calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”