Special Education Bias

Public policy initiatives advancing efforts to reduce the over-identification of at-risk children, including minority children, have advanced at glacier speed over the last 40 years (cf. history; RTI adrift; misidentification old problem). A casual response to history is to say the problem is procedural, a matter of setting up the correct programs in America’s schools. Embracing RTI has that aura now. A closer look, however, suggests more progress should have been made, and there is “resistance to learning.”

A barrier to progress toward reducing over-identification is school bias. Among the causes of misidentification (cf. misidentification causes), it emerges as the critical one. In the 1930s there was ample bias against handicapped school children and they were prevented from attending public schools. There is ample history of bias against racial, ethnic and poverty groups in the same era. One reason Congress originated PL 92-142 in 1975 was growing public embarrassment over the amassed evidence presented by school policy critics.

Bias can be inferred at every level of policy implementation right down to local IEP teams making the final determinations for special education placements and dismissals.

In 2003, just prior to IDEA-2004 authorization, a thoughtful federally funded study by the Indiana Education Policy Center was written. Field survey and interview data were collected and cautiously interpreted. Properly, the authors noted that the problem of minority disproportionality is “extraordinarily complex.”

The first impression one gains from the study is that misidentfication of at-risk children for special education placement is largely a procedural matter. Once hearings are held in Congress, and regulatory apparatus developed through the U. S. Department of Education, and disseminated to SEAs, then it is only a matter of time and administrative effort before essential problems are corrected throughout the country in local schools. But when very little progress is made over decades, despite reports and regulations, then an alternate explanation is appropriate:

“The referral and placement process may indeed be sufficiently flawed in some areas to differentially increase the likelihood that minority students will be referred and found eligible for services; yet any inequities that characterize special education must be placed within the context of general inequities of educational opportunity that still pervade American public education” (Indiana Policy).

Additionally, educators are unaware of bias and find it difficult to talk about as a factor operating right in their own schools:

“Finally, discussions with these committed and often eloquent educators deepened our knowledge of local processes that may make a contribution in reproducing inequity; yet we also discovered a reticence to discuss issues of race that may itself serve as an obstacle to addressing problems of racial disparity. “

One can’t say to IEP team members, “I think you are biased” even if it is true. One can be clear on correct principles and procedures for eligibility, and make a good case that overcomes through objectivity. Educators presented with facts are reasonable and cordial professionals who can suppress their biases given the chance (cf. misidentification speech).

Who should lead? Ideally it should be an enlightened administrator, as in the case of David Gordon of the Elk Grove Schools in California. He noticed there were too many special education and reduced the number through a well-founded reading program.

But leadership can come from anyone who has knowledge of and commitment to reducing special education over-identification — Speech-language pathologists, school psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, reading specialists, etc.

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