8. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Black Americans

In May of 2002, The Alliance for Excellent Education announced the beginning of plans to re-authorize IDEA. One heading said, “MINORITY OVER-IDENTIFICATION: IDEA Reauthorization Underway on Capitol Hill.” At the same time President George W. Bush “created a special Commission on Excellence in Special Education,” partly to study the problem over over-identification.”

Alliance reported: “The reauthorization bill will undoubtedly attempt to reform a system in which race often plays a role in whether a child is labeled learning disabled. Currently, African-American students account for 16 percent of the U.S. student population, but represent 32 percent of the student in programs for mild mental retardation.” Congress wanted to reduce the number of special education pupils.

“In a recent editorial for The Detroit News, Matt Ladner directs Washington, D.C., to “thoroughly investigate every possible cause of this over-identification problem, from perverse financial incentives to outright racial bias.” He points to medical research that demonstrates a “strong link between ineffective reading instruction and later learning disabilities.” Referring to a 2001 Progressive Policy Institute/Fordham Foundation collection of studies on special education, Ladner writes that a team of medical doctors estimated that “nearly 2 million children have learning disabilities that could have been prevented with proper, rigorous and early reading instruction.”

For the renewal, Congress published a summary report in 2003, which covered testimony before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (naspon). The body wanted a “performance-driven” instead of a “compliance-driven” model, and to strengthen FAPE protections by “reducing misidentification of students.” The Commission on Excellence in Special Education was critical of the high emphasis on school paperwork and compliance without regard for over-identification.


Nuclear Education (February 2011) provides more detail:

 “About 9% of all school age children are diagnosed with a disability and receive special education services. But African-American children receive special education services at a rate about 40% higher than the national average across racial and ethnic groups at about 12.4%. Studies have shown that schools that have mostly white students and teachers, place a disproportionately high number of minority children in special education.”

Over-Identification of Minority Children in Special Education  

Britton Loftin, writing for Politics365 (“African Americans Falsely Tagged Special Ed in Houston,” http://politic365.com/April, 2011), reports on patterns of disproportionality in Houston, Texas.  Superintendent Terry Grier has directed attention to the problem:

“An audit done by a Boston firm, along with research conducted by Grier’s administration, made statistical comparisons to other school districts.   The report done by Thomas Hehir and Associates of Boston studied HISD in the fall of 2010.   The study found that, “African American students in HISD are dramatically over-represented in the categories of mental retardation and emotional disturbance.”

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