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Special Education Bias

Report finds special-education bias

Web-posted: 6:39 a.m. Mar. 3, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Black children are almost three times more likely than white children to be labeled mentally retarded, forcing them into special education classes where progress is slow and trained teachers in short supply, according to reports released Friday by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
   Black boys living in wealthier communities with better schools and more white classmates were at greater risk of being labeled mentally retarded and sent to special classes than those attending predominantly black, low-income schools, researchers said.
    Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Donald Oswald, with colleagues from VCU and East Tennessee State University, detected the trend in data on 24 million students. They said the wealthier schools appeared to have succumbed to "systemic bias" that allowed "a substantial number" of black students to be "labeled mentally retarded inappropriately."
    Many educators and parents have long been troubled by large numbers of minority children assigned to slow-moving special education classes because of academic trouble or misbehavior. Experts said the reports released Friday provide some of the most compelling evidence to date that poor training and racial bias may have led some educators to write children off too soon.
    "What the studies have pointed out is something that many of us have suspected for quite a number of years," said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
    "The over-identification of students of color with special needs is a knee-jerk response to a more complex problem," said Gene Carter, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "You can't focus on the academic side of learning until you socialize kids into the learning environment. The solution rests, at least in part, with better professional development to help educators address cultural differences in teaching delivery and classroom management."
    The Civil Rights Project's papers (which can be found at also note that assignment to special education classes may increase a student's chances of getting into trouble with the law and failing state tests being used for promotion and graduation decisions.
    In 1998, about 1.5 million minority children were identified as having mental retardation, emotional disturbance or a learning disability -- diagnoses that would qualify them for special education classes, the reports said.
    Using 1997 Education Department data, the studies found that, nationwide, black students were 2.9 times as likely as whites to be identified as having mental retardation. They were 1.9 times as likely to be identified with an emotional problem and 1.3 times as likely to be identified with a learning disability.
    The report noted that minority children in special education are less likely to be returned to regular classes than similar white children, despite widespread support for the "mainstreaming" movement.
    Daniel J. Losen, a lawyer for the civil rights project, said minority students often end up in special education programs because their parents lack knowledge of the system and of their legal rights under federal law.
    Nationally, there were fewer Hispanic students proportionally in special education classes. This did not hold true, however, in districts that had large numbers of Hispanic students.
    New federal laws in the past quarter-century have forced public schools to expand their special education classes, but trained teachers have been hard to find and the federal government has provided little of the money needed for the expansion.
    Teachers' unions welcomed the findings. National Education Association President Bob Chase said the NEA "has long decried the misplacement of minority students in special education programs and classrooms."
    Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said, "One of the things that we emphasize ... is the ability to help teachers develop better teaching skills, particularly in the early grades, because that's where they're overloaded."
    The studies recommend that the Education Department and the U.S. Office for Civil Rights more aggressively enforce special education rules and that states intervene where minority students are overrepresented in such classes.
    Also recommended was that graduation tests be delayed until schools can show that all students have had a "meaningful opportunity" to learn the material.
   Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.

Copyright 2000, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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