Getting to the Bottom of Special Education Disparities

Continued efforts to improve educational equity in our school systems has led to taking a careful and measured look at special education disparities. When I did fieldwork at a school in Phoenix – a place with fairly substantial achievement gaps and stereotypical educational disparities – I noticed that the special education classroom had a higher proportion of minority students. I began to wonder why this was the case, and attempting to answer that question has spurred me to research this issue further here at the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD).

My research examines the treatment of students from diverse backgrounds who may be at risk for special needs. I wanted to see which students were having difficulties, who is getting labeled with certain conditions, and what the results of those labels are. By examining the effectiveness of educational programs as a whole and understanding the treatment of various minority groups, I believe we can improve our special education system to serve all students.

We need to take a look at how special education students are treated and what that means for their long-term outcomes; by doing this we will be able to more effectively train practitioners to engage in better methods and techniques.

The Effects of a Disorganized Special Education System

There isn’t any one pattern that represents a minority group’s experience with special education around the country, but often times it is a very unsystematic (and potentially detrimental) method of making decisions about students receiving special needs services. Some kids may be receiving services that are not beneficial to them while others get missed entirely. This is indicative of a system that isn’t working as it should be.

Too often, when schools identify a student who needs special services based on his or her educational difficulties, these decisions aren’t being made based on legal requirements or research-based practice. This means that the process is somewhat arbitrary, and our research suggests that minority students are more disadvantaged by it than others. Further, when a student is placed in special education they tend not to receive appropriate services, setting many of them along a limited academic trajectory. What’s concerning is that these educational disparities continue to worsen due to the ineffectiveness of these services for the average students who seek special education. Ideally, they are supposed to provide better educational access, research-based instruction and intervention, and increase participation, but that often isn’t the case.

We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to properly support special education students, particularly from work by researchers here in CEHD, but often times that knowledge isn’t being used. This reinforces concerns over the over-identification of minority students. These students are already not being served well in general education. By putting them in another system that is even less effective, it compounds the disadvantage. This has lifelong consequences for minority students who are misidentified or receive a special education curriculum that isn’t correct for them.

A popular method of serving students with special needs is “mainstreaming” their education, meaning an inclusive curriculum in a more conventional classroom setting. This approach can be done well, but too often it isn’t because of insufficient coordination between general and special educators and lack of appropriate supports in the student’s classroom. An important goal of special education is providing services for students with special needs in the general education settings, but this goal can only be achieved if it is consistent with methods that are known to work. The challenge that lies in special education disparities is bridging the gap between research and practice, and preparing both special and general education teachers for children with various learning needs.

The Importance of a Fully-Implemented Curriculum

CEHD has a long history of developing strong systems of assessment and support for students with various levels of needs. We’ve had decades of scholarship by individual researchers and centers that has offered a wealth of effective information surrounding special education. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that information being implemented in a lot of school systems.

A popular educational framework that CEHD researchers have been instrumental in developing is what’s referred to as “response to intervention,” or, more broadly, multitier systems of supports. This is a valuable approach to support implementation of services for students who experience academic, behavioral, or social-emotional challenges, and it then measures the effectiveness of the interventions to make sure they are benefitting the student.

While it’s increasingly popular, most schools are not implementing it fully or correctly. Many schools that say they are employing the response to intervention method are only doing one or two elements of it rather than the entire framework. Doing just one assessment component means they aren’t actually using response to intervention. Without context there should be no expectation that it will work, and often times, it doesn’t. This is something that happens all too often in school systems.

Improving special education outcomes and disparities can’t be done piecemeal. Picking only one aspect of a system without having the coherent framework of research-based practice in place will not work. The key to making special education services successful is preparing educators and providers to think scientifically and systematically about a student’s needs. From there, it’s key to modify the instruction accordingly based on what works and what doesn’t. If that follow-up process doesn’t occur—if we aren’t engaging in data-based decision making and evidence-based practice—many of the methods can fall apart based on faulty assumptions. For minority students, it is also especially important to consider applicability of research relative to their specific cultural backgrounds, experiences, needs, and preferences. Both researchers and educators need to consider not only what works, but for whom it works and under what circumstances, so that we can ensure we provide appropriate services and supports for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

The Solution Isn’t Simple

The work surrounding the education disparities for minority students has been controversial for decades, and has become increasingly so recently because of efforts to distill the solutions down to a single right or wrong decision. However, the needs that kids bring to school and their experiences in the system are more complex than that.

That’s why taking a more scientific, data-based approach is crucial in understanding these educational issues. They can’t be fixed with any simple practice or policy. By using a more holistic approach to organizing systems that account for a student’s experiences in and out of school, and apply research in practice, change can be made. As we move forward we need to avoid looking for a simple answer, and truly examine the needs and experiences of our students.

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Amanda Sullivan

About the Author

Amanda Sullivan, Ph.D.

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