Study Sheds New Light on Racial Disparity in Special Education Assignments

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds an increasing racial disparity in special education in the United States. It is commonly believed that Black students are assigned to special education classes more often than White students. This is true but it is more complex.

The NBER study found that the students who are a racial or ethnic minority in a school are more likely that students in the majority to be assigned to special education classes. The research found that a Black student in fourth grade attending a school that was more than 90 percent minority was 6 percentage points less likely to be identified for special education than a similar White student.

Scott Imberman, a professor of economics at Michigan State University and lead author of the study, noted that “when it comes to special education demographics, people generally believe that minority students are put into special ed programs more frequently than white students, and if you look just at the raw numbers, that’s generally true. When looking at numbers and data more closely, what many think about this racial disproportionality gets turned on its head.”

Special education rates aren’t necessarily about a student’s race – but rather about how that student’s race compares to the school’s racial makeup, Dr. Imberman said. “Our findings suggest that schools are more likely to incorrectly say a student has disabilities when he or she is racially different from the student body as a whole.”

The full study, “School Segregation and Racial Gaps in Special Education Identification,” may be accessed here.

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