Does Race Cloud Teachers Decisions on Student Assignments to Special Education?

nyu-iconA new study by Rachel Fish, an assistant professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, finds that race is a major factor in whether teachers recommend students for either gifted education programs or special education programs.

About 75 percent of all referrals to gifted or special education classes are made by teachers. Since Black students are underrepresented in gifted education classes and overrepresented in special education classes, Dr. Fish sought to determine if teacher recommendations to these programs were tainted by racial bias.

Dr. Fish gave case studies to 70 third grade teachers asking them if they would refer the children for additional testing. The results showed that when a White boy was having academic problems the teachers were more likely to recommend further evaluation. Thus, Dr. Fish concluded that the teachers thought the student needed help to perform up to standard. Black children were less likely to be referred for further evaluation because, the author concludes, teachers had lower expectations for them in the first place.

Similarly, White boys with behavioral problems were less likely than Black boys to be recommended for further evaluation. Black children with less than stellar behavior were perceived to have social, emotional, or behavioral problems that needed outside help.

For boys with high academic ability and no sign of emotional problems, Whites were more likely than Blacks to be recommended for gifted education classes.

Dr. Fish says that “it is important to note, however, that these findings are not about blaming teachers for being racist. Rather, this research reveals how racism in our society affects the everyday work of teachers. I believe teachers are doing their best to support all students in their classrooms, yet racial bias affects everyone, often in ways that we’re unaware.”

The study, “The Racialized Construction of Exceptionality: Experimental Evidence of Race/Ethnicity Effects on Teachers’ Interventions,” was published on the website of the journal Social Science Research. It may be accessed here.

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