The Problems with Special Education in Urban Schools

Discussions in the media about the “achievement gap” between whites and students of color typically revolve around discussions of teacher quality, innovative school models, high stakes testing, and to some degree teacher’s unions. It always surprises me that education reformers don’t spend more time discussing special education. At both urban schools I worked at, close to 25% of the student population was identified as “special ed”.  Special ed programs are particularly problematic for African American students — who are twice as likely to be labeled E.D. (emotionally disturbed), and three times as likely to be labeled as LD (learning disabled) or some other mild intellectual disability. Furthermore, African American students who are labeled special ed are less likely to be mainstreamed into regular ed classrooms than their white counterparts.

Not surprisingly, these statistics are misleading. African American students are not more likely to be learning disabled or emotionally disturbed  than white students. So why are large numbers of African American students misclassified as special education students?

On Saturday, I attended a workshop titled “The Over-representation of African Americans in multiple public systems”. In one breakout session, I listened to Richard G. Smith, the Chief Officer of Chicago Public Schools Office of Special Education and Supports reflect on the disproportionate representation of African American students in special ed. Smith pointed out that poverty is not a significant predictor of being placed in special education (so no arguing that Black kids get put in special ed because they are more likely to be living in poverty…)

Of course, racism is one key explanation. Teachers may be (unconsciously or consciously) more likely to expect less from students of color. However, in addition to this common argument, Smith provided a few interesting explanations. Smith pointed out that many kids who are labeled “LD” perform average or above average on IQ tests. He stated he believed many children placed in special education programs are actually “curriculum casualties”, (in other words the victims of years of poor teaching) rather than learning disabled. Smith also pointed out at that pre-K students are especially vulnerable to being labeled LD. Sometimes instructors misinterpret delays due to trauma or abuse as learning disabilities. This is problematic because only 5% of students ever leave special education.

Last, Smith pointed out that in most classrooms for kids labeled emotionally a small number of kids with actual emotional disturbances (such as schizophrenia) are usually mixed with “gang-bangers” (i.e students who may cause discipline problems but are by no means disturbed). Special education classrooms are hardly an appropriate solution for gang-affiliated students, or other kids who may cause discipline problems. I was speaking with a CPS principal earlier this week–and she pointed out that many “problem behaviors” that students enact in school are the same behaviors they need to survive on the streets. She stated that schools typically punish kids for fighting rather than teaching them alternative ways to deal with conflicts or manage strong emotions.

What are the consequences of over-representation? For one, kids classified as special education are less likely to interact with typical peers during the school day and may experience stigmatization. Furthermore, teachers may lower their expectations of special education students–and as a result these students may not realize their full potential, and may not feel encouraged to apply for college.

Clearly, schools need a reliable and accurate process for determining which students are coping with an actual disability. In the breakout session I attended, Smith argued that the “Response to Intervention” process provides a systematic process which limits individual discretion and personal bias. Smith also argued that educators must pay attention to other indicators of intelligence besides academic performance. Adaptive behaviors (how well a child does in the outside environment) and IQ tests can provide an educator more reliable information about a kid’s abilities than grades or test scores.

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