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.

Homestretch

Three big differences on Tennessee education heading into Dean and Lee’s final debate

PHOTO: Ned Jilton/Kingsport Times-News
Democrat Karl Dean makes his point as Republican Bill Lee listens during their Oct. 9 gubernatorial debate in Kingsport. The candidates' third and final debate will be on Oct. 12 in Nashville.

While the first two debates have been polite and cordial between Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee, sharp differences are emerging on hot-button education issues in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor.

The successor to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will have the chance to shape the state’s policies for K-12 public schools in significant ways. Voters have told pollsters that education will be one of their top priorities when they cast their ballots on Nov. 6.

Both candidates agree on the need to make teacher pay more competitive — and to take closer looks at the state’s troubled testing program and the state-run district for improving low-performing schools.

But as they prepare for their final televised debate on Friday evening in Nashville, the candidates clearly don’t agree on three significant issues. The positions are based on what Dean, a lawyer and former mayor of Nashville, and Lee, a businessman and farmer from Williamson County, have said during their first two faceoffs, as well as on candidate surveys.

1. Using public dollars for private schools

The use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition has been debated for more than a decade in the legislature, but such proposals have been consistently fended off by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans.

The current governor said he’d sign voucher legislation if lawmakers passed it, but they never did and he didn’t champion the policy shift as research showed mixed results on the impact of vouchers on students.

That climate could change if Lee becomes governor. A graduate of public schools who sent his children to a mix of public, private, and home schools, the Republican nominee has praised policies that give parents more school choices for their kids. Lee has said that vouchers have potential, but he has sidestepped specific questions about such programs.

Dean has seized on the voucher issue as a pivotal difference between him and his opponent and this week released a TV ad suggesting that the policy would undermine public education.

“Funding has always been an issue, but we should do nothing to take away from the strength of public education,” Dean said during their second debate in Kingsport.

He went on to talk about his support for nonprofit charter schools as mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015, but characterized vouchers as a different animal altogether.

“I have the scars on my back from my work in education reform,” Dean said, “but I do not believe in vouchers because vouchers actually take public dollars and put them into a private education system.”

2. Expanding early childhood education access

Both candidates want to improve the quality of publicly funded preschool programs across Tennessee, but have a different timetable for expanding access beyond the state’s lower-income families.

Dean advocates for universal pre-K programs, while Lee is cool to that idea.

“I’m always the guy who believes that government is not the answer,” Lee said during their first debate in Memphis.

Dean said investing more dollars in early childhood education makes sense if education is the No. 1 priority in a state that wants to prepare all children for success in the classroom and ultimately the future of work.

“That would be something that I would try to fund as quickly as I could,” Dean said of universal pre-K.

But Lee says that approach is premature in light of a landmark five-year study released in 2015 by Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that, while helpful in the early years, participating in the state’s public programs could actually negatively impact students as they advance through school — a shocking finding that ignited new efforts to step up pre-K quality across Tennessee.

“I believe we owe it to taxpayers and parents to focus first on how we can improve quality to ensure that any gains are sustainable,” Lee told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “That begins by working with our state universities and colleges of education to ensure they are driving quality training for early childhood educators, while at the same time working with local education agencies to set goals for improvement and identify best practices across the state.”

3. Arming educators in schools

A proposal to give some teachers handguns and train them on firearms fizzled this year in the legislature under opposition from the current governor, who instead spearheaded additional investments in school security.

But Lee, who has been endorsed by Haslam, thinks that arming teachers could help prevent mass school shootings like the one that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, last February.

“We protect our banks with guns, we protect our judges, we even protect our governor. But we leave our children defenseless in gun-free zones,” Lee says on his campaign website. “We should absolutely allow a qualified and vetted teacher to make the choice to be a part of the solution.”

Dean believes that arming teachers would be a big mistake.

“Putting guns in the classroom would create more problems and concerns,” said the former public defender. “The common sense approach would be to provide school districts with the resources they need for trained law enforcement and school resource officers. Of the hundreds of educators I’ve met during his time as mayor and on the campaign trail, the overwhelming consensus is that teachers want to teach. They do not want to be armed.”


Read our candidate surveys: Here’s what Dean and Lee say on public education


With less than a month to go until Election Day, polls show Lee with a solid lead over Dean in a state that leans mostly Republican.

The third debate is taking place on the campus of Belmont University and will be broadcast live beginning at 7 p.m. Central Time on Nexstar Media Group affiliates statewide.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton, Kingsport Times-News
Voters listen to the second debate in Kingsport.

Future of Schools

Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago’s schools?

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
An International Baccalaureate class at Senn High School in Edgewater

Senn High senior Shrda Shrestha is attending her neighborhood high school in Edgewater against pretty much everybody’s advice.

“When I first started looking at high schools, people were usually like, ‘It’s selective enrollment or nothing,’” said Shrestha. “Then I found out about IB.”

IB, or International Baccalaureate, is the rigorous curriculum that Chicago Public Schools hopes will improve the health of its neighborhood schools, both by improving academic outcomes and influencing the decisions of top students such as Shrestha.

The idea is that IB’s rigorous academics will both improve outcomes for low-income and black and Latino students, and also keep middle- and upper-income families from skipping on out on neighborhood schools, either in favor of one of Chicago’s 11 elite, selective-enrollment high schools or more drastic options such as private school or a move to the suburbs.

There are reasons for optimism. First, Chicago district students who complete the full IB curriculum are 40 percent more likely to attend college than a matched group of non-IB students, and also more likely to persist in college, according to a 2012 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

That’s especially encouraging because the city’s IB students closely mirror the overall district population — mostly low-income, and mostly Latino and African-American — compared with the whiter and wealthier student populations at selective-enrollment schools.

Second, IB is helping neighborhood schools make inroads with top students, as 23 percent of kids who were admitted both to IB and selective-enrollment schools last year chose IB, according to district data — music to the ears of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

IB is “becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools,” Emanuel told Chalkbeat. (Read our full interview with Emanuel and Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson here.)

Indeed, IB’s success is a potential silver lining for Emanuel, who is trying to recalibrate an education legacy marked by declining enrollment and punctuated by the closing of 50 schools in 2013.

Chicago’s IB push already has survived two mayors and nine school chiefs, likely because it’s working—and indeed, the Geneva, Switzerland-based IB holds up its results in Chicago as an example of the curriculum’s potential to transform schools worldwide. Administrators here see it not just as a sell to parents but also a way to connect students and teachers around one consistent curriculum.

It’s clear that the program is different from traditional coursework, both in its rigor and its cross-disciplinary approach.

IB is “about expanding your knowledge in all subjects and then seeing that they all connect somehow,” says Senn High’s Shrestha.

From elite international schools to Chicago

The International Baccalaureate Organization developed its initial curriculum 50 years ago with the idea that the children of British diplomats living abroad could point to it as a reliable, standardized credential when applying to Cambridge and Oxford. Plenty of elite boarding schools use IB, but there’s been a dramatic shift in IB’s clientele, to the point that the organization’s biggest North American customer is Chicago Public Schools, which supports IB programming in 59 schools.

IB’s founders “would never have imagined in their wildest dreams that the people that benefit most from it seem to be kids in urban schools,” said Paul Campbell, the organization’s head of regional development in the Americas.

Now, as Chicago signals that IB is the centerpiece of its efforts to revitalize neighborhood schools, other urban districts around the country are following suit — Los Angeles, Dallas, and Milwaukee each offer IB at a handful of schools, for example. That means taking up the challenge of preparing students for a demanding curriculum.

The cornerstone of the International Baccalaureate curriculum is its Diploma Program, the intensive two-year curriculum for 11th and 12th graders. These students take seven college-level courses that include specialized exams graded by IBO staffers — the externally evaluated tests, which cost up to $291 per student, are one of the most significant costs associated with IB.

The full Diploma Program courseload is notoriously difficult, to the point where “it’s a professional joke among DP advisers that they are also on-the-ground counselors for kids struggling with the courseload,” said Charles Tocci, an education professor at Loyola University. “It’s intense and it’s heavy duty.”

The Diploma Program isn’t right for every student, even the brightest ones. Students who play sports or hold a job can find the Diploma Program to be too much—in fact, the daughter of IB’s Campbell chose not to pursue the Diploma Program because she was also in her school’s orchestra.

Students who pursue the program anyway do so while counting the cost.

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Senn High School Principal Mary Beck talks to students.

“I don’t sleep—that’s how I do it,” said Senn senior Lynn Trieu, who works part-time at a sushi restaurant in addition to her studies. Yet Trieu also says she has no regrets. “It’s a little harder, I can see that, but it’s also something I like because it’s challenging me.”

Not every IB student needs to sign up for the heavy-duty experience. Statistically, the program’s strong postsecondary outcomes are achieved not only by students who pass the tests and earn IB’s prestigious diploma (which is separate from a school diploma), but also to students who complete the program and graduate but don’t earn the IB Diploma. And Chicago leaders say that taking even a couple of IB-level courses enhances students’ college readiness.

Building an IB pipeline

One of the main challenges for IB in Chicago is that few students arrive in 11th grade equipped to thrive in IB’s signature, two-year Diploma Program. Even when the transition starts earlier, it can still be jarring.

Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, for example, was certified earlier this year to offer IB’s Middle Years Program, which begins in sixth grade. Fiske Principal Cynthia Miller was immediately convinced it wasn’t enough.

“My children from pre-K to fifth grade are not exposed to that type of rigor, so it makes us work even harder to try to get them caught up,” said Miller.

Now Miller is getting her wish as part of Chicago’s latest expansion of its big bet on IB — the school will add IB’s Primary Years Program as part of a district initiative announced last month to create a citywide network of elementary and high schools.

The expanded IB curriculum not only acclimates students to the program’s intensiveness, but also starts them on a track that’s designed to improve the odds of completing the challenging diploma program.

At Senn High, for example, sophomore English students in the middle-years program spent last week comparing the rhetorical strategies employed in speeches by Michelle Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The exercise serves as a practice run for an assignment that students will be given during the diploma program.

“Our department has done a lot of work in these lower grades to get students ready for [the diploma program],” says Senn teacher Erin Riordan. “It’s useful and it’s good for us to work toward that.”

Chicago’s investment in IB’s early grades programming seems to be paying off as the number of students entering the diploma program has doubled in five years, from an average of 450 from 2012-15 to 911 last school year. (Citywide, there are 16,000 students in IB programs, but that figure includes elementary and middle programs.)

Even though it’s on the upswing, the 911 diploma-seeking high schoolers pales when compared with about 14,500 in the city’s selective-enrollment high schools.

Still, administrators say that IB’s expansion into Chicago elementary schools is useful because it funnels more students to the Diploma Program. That is a primary goal, but educators say IB’s lower-years programming, which includes extensive teacher training, is paying dividends beyond the students it sends to the Diploma Program.

“You’re creating the same expectations amongst all classrooms at a grade level,” says Lori Zaimi, principal of Peirce Elementary in Edgewater — Senn High’s IB feeder school. Without IB, “often you’ll see teachers dabbling in different training opportunities and there’s no consistency across the grade level. Now everybody’s teaching the same unit, and teachers are talking the same language, including the emphasis on things like inquiry and a global context.”

IB also emphasizes continuity by employing a handful of themes that are consistent from year to year such as “how we express ourselves,” “how the world works,” and “sharing the planet.”

Teachers implementing IB have also found the curriculum useful beyond preparing students for the Diploma Program. When Senn High added a Middle Years Program in 2013, program Director David Gregg quickly concluded “it wasn’t inherently honors level — it was really just best practices that was engaging and would help students kind of build skills and connect to their worlds.”

In response, Senn then pushed to make IB’s ninth- and 10th-grade programming the standard throughout their building, even for students who aren’t planning to enter the Diploma Program.

Compared with other premium curricular options such as the Advanced Placement courses supported by the College Board, IB’s offerings are notable for their emphasis on “sustained inquiry around topics,” said Jal Mehta, a Harvard education professor and coauthor of an upcoming book that examines attempts to remake American high schools, including IB.

Mehta said teachers “still experience the AP curriculum as essentially like racing through lots of topics fairly quickly, without opportunities for an in-depth exploration. On the whole, I think IB does a much better job of balancing breadth and depth.”

There are no externally moderated tests that measure effectiveness of the IB elementary and middle-year programs.

Becoming an IB school takes years to apply, train teachers and often rewrite the school’s mission statement to ensure that it encompasses IB’s desired level of rigor.

Every certified elementary school must teach only IB’s program, rather than offering it as one track among several. Middle year programs don’t have that restriction, but IB-only curriculum — which Chicago schools officials refer to as “wall-to-wall IB” — is the strong preference of the international organization behind the curriculum.  

A 40-year rollout aimed at access

From the beginning, Chicago’s rolled out IB as a neighborhood-school alternative to the district’s sought-after test-in high schools. Those selective schools, while high-performing, have traditionally skewed whiter and wealthier than the district’s overall student population—and their limited number of seats means that few students have access.

At Chicago’s IB high schools, in contrast, three-quarters of students in the Diploma Program are African-American or Latino, according to the University of Chicago study. “Equity has been baked into the process for IB expansion at every step,” says Kyle Westbrook, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for College Completion and formerly the executive director of Chicago schools’ Magnet, Gifted and IB programs.

One reason for that is the federal grants that have funded much of Chicago’s IB expansion are specifically geared toward desegregation. In 1980, when Lincoln Park High became the first Chicago high school to offer IB’s Diploma Program, the school was largely African-American and Latino, and IB was intended to diversify the student body by drawing in more white students from the then-gentrifying neighborhood.

(Lincoln Park looks very different now, whiter and wealthier, and in fact its IB program was left off the University of Chicago study because it differed from the city’s other IB high schools both in demographic composition and in its highly selective admissions process.)

The early anecdotal success of Lincoln Park’s IB graduates led then schools-chief Paul Vallas to expand IB in the 1998, adding Diploma Programs in neighborhood high schools around the city: Amundsen and Senn to the north; Prosser, Steinmetz and Taft to the northwest; Clark to the west; Curie, Hubbard and Kelly to the southwest; and Bronzeville and Hyde Park to the South.

A 2012 expansion spearheaded by Emanuel increased the number of Chicago high schools offering the Diploma Program (there are now 25), but focused on adding middle-school programs to elementary schools to better prepare students for entering the Diploma Program. But IB seats remain unevenly distributed across the city, despite the program’s aim. A regional report released by the district in August showed that the city’s West Side offers very few IB seats  — a shortage made more glaring when Clark High in Austin shuttered its IB program in 2011.

One reason for the unevenness is school size. Clark, for example, has just over 500 students, whereas most IB high schools have more than 1,000. “The West Side of Chicago is still an area where there’s an opportunity, but there’s a challenge in terms of the numbers, because to really to make it cost effective, schools have to really be of a certain size,” said Westbrook.

Despite those regional gaps, the IB initiative is largely fulfilling its mission to bring a premium offering to neighborhood schools. 

Latino students make up the largest single ethnic group within IB, and their experience within the program is different than that of African-Americans. Students from both groups enroll in ninth-grade IB classes in similar numbers, but Latinos are far more likely to enter the Diploma Program in 11th grade, according to the 2012 study.

One reason could be affinity with the curriculum: A 2015 doctoral dissertation by Chicago schools educator Sandra Arreguín found that Latino students were especially drawn to IB’s international focus. And Latino students are likely to have a leg up when it comes to IB’s emphasis on learning multiple languages. Senn High even offers a special track with a bilingual version of the IB Diploma.

“It helps close the achievement gap,” said IBO’s Campbell. “Instead of taking the advantage that these kids have and trying to put it aside, we take it and build on it.”

Can it last?

The addition of more early-years programs and establishment of IB feeder-school relationships like the one between Senn and Peirce open the door for parents to start their 3-year-old children on an IB track in hopes that — without leaving their neighborhood schools — the children will be prepared to thrive in a Diploma Program when they reach their junior year.

But that assumes that IB will still be around, which is hardly a given considering the program’s expense and the pending change in mayoral administration. Emanuel, an IB advocate, announced last month he won’t seek re-election. IB schools pay $11,650 each year to offer the Diploma Program, and slightly less to offer the Middle Years and Early Years Programs. That’s separate from the added faculty and faculty-training costs associated with IB, as well as the costs associated with IB testing.

“I’ve felt skeptical about IB’s long-term viability, because it’s expensive,” said Loyola’s Tocci. “When the district’s budgets were tight a few years ago, I expected IB would go on chopping block.”

Yet IB has plenty working in its favor, too. For one, educators such as Mehta say that developing an alternative, premium curriculum in house would likely be at least as expensive, and probably less effective. And the program has already survived several different administrations within Chicago schools, as well as two mayors.

“IB has been one of the only things that’s stuck around and withstood [the changes],” said Westbrook. “It would be hard for me to imagine the district unwinding that.”