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Anastasiou, D., Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., & Wiley, A. L. (2017). Minority disproportionate representation in special education: Politics and evidence, issues and implications. In J. M. Kauffman, D. P. Hallahan, & P. C. Pullen (Eds.), Handbook of special education (2nd ed.) (pp. 897 - 910). New York: Routledge.

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Abstract and Figures

In this chapter we describe the observed patterns of disproportionality and consider how and why the over-representation of minority students in special education settings has become a contentious political issue. We also investigate the state of the evidence concerning the underlying causes and contributing factors involved in the observed patterns of minority disproportionate representation. We specifically focus on conceptual issues, as well as methodological and statistical limitations present in some influential studies investigating disproportionality. We explain why descriptive statistics indicating minority over-representation in special education do not necessarily support causal inferences of widespread misidentification based solely on race or ethnicity. More recent work, employing contrasts between otherwise similar children of different race/ethnicity, instead consistently indicates that minority children are under-identified for special education. Finally, we consider legal and policy issues emerging from the recent Notice of Proposed Rule Making, and some unintended consequences of these proposed regulations. Equity and social justice issues regarding minority students in education are discussed.
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895
Section XIII
Cultural and International Issues in Special Education

The rise of concerns for culturally, linguistically, and
ethnically diverse students with disabilities dates back to at
least the 1960s. Reported patterns of the overrepresentation
of African American students in special classes and schools
gradually provoked a widespread skepticism about the pur-
pose and usefulness of pull-out placements. Culturally based
issues have been a source of discord and inuenced the
agenda of education reform. A wave of topics rooted in the
minority disproportionate representation has also affected
the public image of special education. From a humanitar-
ian service for learners with disabilities, traditional spe-
cial education has been re-conceptualized as an obstacle
on the road to equitable participation in school and social
life. Yet a series of recent well-designed studies controlled
for confounding variables, such as socioeconomic disad-
vantage, academic performance, behavior functioning, and
health-related factors, have gone beyond the reported pat-
terns of overrepresentation and a rst-generation of stud-
ies with methodological limitations. These studies have
provided growing and converging evidence that minority
children are, in essence, under-diagnosed and under-treated
for several disability conditions, and thus, have challenged
the view that special education is a tool for racial segrega-
tion. Has the eld of special education been misled? Are
we at a turning point of an important change in our per-
ceptions of racial disparities in education? In Chapter 57,
“Minority Disproportionate Representation in Special
Education: Politics and Evidence, Issues and Implications,”
Anastasiou, Morgan, Farkas, and Wiley summarize the rel-
evant literature and attempt to approach disproportionality
issues in the light of the most rigorous scientic evidence
available, and from a social justice perspective.
In Chapter 58, “Cross-National Differences in Special
Education: A Typological Approach,” Anastasiou and
Keller explore how different countries around the world
provide education to students with exceptionalities.
Specically, they revisit their typological approach to
categorizing special education provision internationally,
using a set of specic criteria. The general context of
the educational system and the inuence of the inclusion
movement on special education services are also taken into
account. They also provide four cases of nations—Ghana,
Qatar, Italy, and Finland—as examples to illustrate four
of the six identied types. In addition, they try to establish
a sound base for international comparative analyses and a
relatively objective analysis of how a specic country pro-
vides education to exceptional learners within the context
of its national educational system.
897
57
Minority Disproportionate Representation in
Special Education
Politics and Evidence, Issues, and Implications

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

Pennsylvania State University

University of California, Irvine

Kent State University
Historically and currently, minority children have been
over-represented in the U.S. special education system
(e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2005, 2015), with
this over-representation often considered indicative of
children being misidentied as disabled based on their
race or ethnicity (U.S. Department of Education, 2016)
as the result of racial bias and discriminatory eligibility
practices. Yet empirical evidence as to whether the repeat-
edly observed over-representation is due to racial bias or,
instead, to other factors has been limited due to meth-
odological limitations in the available empirical work
(National Research Council, 2002).
Here, we rst describe the observed patterns of dispro-
portionality and consider how and why the representa-
tion of minority students in special education settings has
become a contentious political issue. We further investi-
gate the state of the evidence concerning the underlying
causes and contributing factors involved in the observed
patterns of minority disproportionate representation
(MDR). We specically focus on serious conceptual
issues, as well as methodological and statistical limitations
in some inuential studies investigating disproportional-
ity. Finally, we consider legal and policy issues emerging
from the recent Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM;
U.S. Department of Education, 2016, pp. 10978–10986).
These proposed regulations are designed to address dis-
proportionality in special education believed to be occur-
ring due to widespread over-identication based on race
or ethnicity.
Reported Patterns of Over-Representation
MDR has been operationalized as occurring when racial or
ethnic minority children experience a higher than expected
likelihood of being in special education (Anastasiou,
Gardner, & Michail, 2011; Kauffman & Landrum, 2009).
To date, the disproportionality debate has been primarily
centered on (mild) intellectual disability (ID), emotional
disturbance (ED), and specic learning disability (SLD).
These disability categories have been characterized as
“judgmental” because their assessment process and iden-
tication are more subjective than “non-judgmental”—
that is, less subjective—categories like visual or hearing
impairments.
At a descriptive level, national annual data from the
Ofce of Special Education Programs (OSEP) show that
a disproportionate proportion of African Americans are
placed in the special education categories of ED and mild
ID. This has been a historically persistent pattern. For
example, in 2013, the risk ratios for African American
students receiving special education services in the fed-
eral categories of ID, ED, and SLD were, respectively,
2.3, 2.1, and 1.4 times more likely than the group created
by combining the other ethnic groups (see Table 57.1).
Compared to risk ratios reported a decade ago, there has
been a modest but distinct drop in African-American
over-representation in the categories of ID and ED; the
risk ratios for African American students were 3.0, 2.3,
and 1.4 for the ID, ED, and SLD categories, respectively,
Dimitris Anastasiou et al.
898
as reported in 2003. The decline in the African American
risk ratio for all disabilities has been small, from 1.5 to 1.4
within a decade (U.S. Department of Education, 2005, p. 39;
U.S. Department of Education, 2015, pp. 41–42).
Some additional reporting indicates that minorities
are not only placed in special education at a higher rate
than white children, but that they may receive services
in relatively more restrictive settings than general edu-
cation classrooms (e.g., special classes, special schools;
DeValenzuela, Copeland, Qi, & Park, 2006; Skiba,
Poloni-Staudinger, Gallini, Simmons, & Feggins-Azziz,
2006). Specically, in a statewide analysis of the educa-
tional environment in Indiana for all types of disabilities
in special education, Skiba et al. (2006) found that African
Americans are under-represented in general education set-
tings, dened as less than 21% of the school day in pull-
out settings—the risk ratio was .71—whereas they were
overrepresented in special or dedicated settings (dened
as receiving instruction in special settings greater than
60% of the school day) during the 2001–2002 school
year, with a risk ratio was 2.94 for special classes and
schools. However, and as we explain further below, none
of the aforementioned educational environment studies
has controlled for alternative explanatory variables. Thus,
whether these disparities in placement are explained by
racial bias, variability between the ethnic/racial groups in
relative severity of impairment within the specic disabil-
ity conditions, or other factors remains unknown.
Collectively, these descriptive statistics have led to
inferences that the disparities are explained by widespread
over-identication based on race or ethnicity. This was the
motivating concern for the 1997 and 2004 amendments to
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For exam-
ple, the U.S. Congress observed “more minority children
continue to be served in special education than would be
expected from the percentage of minority students in the
general school population” (p. 118 of Statute 2651, Public
Law 108-446) when amending IDEA to enact greater
compliance monitoring of minority over-representation.
The U.S. Department of Education in its guidance to states
and local educational agencies (LEA) emphasized that the
purpose of these IDEA amendments was to address over-
representation based on race or ethnicity (e.g., Posney,
2007, emphasis added) and so due to inappropriate iden-
tication resulting from racially biased evaluation pro-
cedures. Reports of minority over-representation have
resulted in special education being characterized as con-
stituting a “legalized form of structural segregation and
racism” (Blanchett, 2006, p. 25) and “institutional racism”
(Codrington & Fairchild, 2012, p. 6).

Yet descriptive statistics are insufcient to infer causal
explanations. This includes drawing inferences of racial
bias from ndings of disparity (see National Research
Council, 2002, 2004). Examples help to illustrate this.
Minority children are about twice as likely to have
asthma as white children (Akinbami, Moorman, Simon,
& Schoendorf, 2014). They are also two or three times
as likely to receive Title 1 or Head Start services. By the
same logic used by OSEP and some scholars, these asthma
and other disparities would be considered as conclusive
evidence that physicians are widely misidentifying minor-
ity children due to racially biased diagnostic procedures.
Yet using descriptive statistics to make causal inferences
can result in mistaken conclusions, as other mechanisms
may be responsible for the observed pattern. For exam-
ple, minority children’s higher rates of asthma are likely
due to their greater exposure to environmental allergens.
Accounting for minority children’s greater exposure
to environmental, neighborhood, sociodemographic,
and additional risk factors largely explains the initially
observed disparities in asthma diagnosis (Beck et al.,
2016), suggesting that these factors underlie the observed
disparities and so should be the target of policies designed
to address minority children’s greater rates of asthma. In
contrast, efforts to reduce the disparities by encourag-
ing physicians to limit the extent to which they diagnose
asthma in minority children would be misdirected, and
would instead exacerbate the extent to which the condi-
tion was aficting minority children by potentially limit-
ing their receipt of treatment (e.g., inhalers).
Similarly, rather than Title 1 and Head Start services
being delivered in racially-biased ways, it may be instead
that minority children are more likely to receive these ser-
vices because they are more likely to experience poverty,
the negative effects of which the services are designed to
ameliorate. The point is that when descriptive statistics
are used to make causal inferences regarding the underly-
ing mechanisms, misattributions are quite possible, which
can lead to misdirected legislative, policy, and advocacy
efforts. Evidence of misidentication based on race or eth-
nicity requires stronger evidence than reports of dispari-
ties provided simply through descriptive statistics.

As others have noted (e.g., National Research Council,
2002), mechanisms other than misidentication based on
race or ethnicity may explain minority over-representation
in special education. Despite repeated calls for greater
methodological rigor when investigating the explana-
tory mechanisms (e.g., racial bias vs. greater exposure
to poverty) responsible for minority over-representation
in special education (National Research Council 2002;
MacMillan & Reschly, 1998), data collected by OSEP
and the U.S. Department of Education’s Ofce of Civil
Rights (OCR) do not allow for the evaluation of compet-
ing explanatory mechanisms. This is because OSEP’s and
OCR’s estimates do not adjust for possible confounds
including exposure to poverty as well as additional social,
environmental, and biological risk factors that themselves
increase the likelihood for cognitive, emotional, physical,
and biological impairments and so may instead explain the
observed over-representation.
Minority Disproportionate Representation in Special Education
899
Poverty is sometimes characterized as a type of
“neurotoxin” (Ostrander, 2015) that can result in lower
cognitive and behavioral functioning, possibly due to its
associations with chaotic, stressful, under-resourced home
and community environments and greater likelihood of
environmental toxins and pollutants (e.g., lead exposure)
(Betancourt et al., 2015; Noble et al., 2015). For example,
researchers have found lower SES to be associated with
smaller cortical gray and deep gray matter volumes in
African American infants at 1 month of age. This suggests
that neurological embedding of adversity may occur very
early in children’s development (Betancourt et al., 2015).
Unfortunately, children who are from racial and eth-
nic minorities are far more likely to experience poverty in
the U.S. than children who are white. For example, about
40% of Black children grow up in poverty. The contrast-
ing percentage for white children is only 10% (Patten &
Krogstad, 2015). Other examples of potential confounds
include being exposed to lead, being born with low birth
weight, and experiencing fetal alcohol syndrome. These
factors are associated with a greater likelihood of cog-
nitive and behavioral impairments, while being dispro-
portionately more likely to be experienced by racial and
ethnic minority children (National Research Council,
2002). Furthermore, among children from lower income
families, small differences in income have been found
to be associated with relatively large differences in brain
surface area, and these relationships are most prominent
in regions of the brain mediating neurocognitive abilities,
such as language, reading, executive functions and spatial
skills, all of which are critical to academic performance
(Noble et al., 2015).
When initially observed, many lay people, and even
some professionals, implicitly or explicitly take minor-
ity over-representation to constitute racial bias. However,
what may be occurring is that schools are attempting to
provide services to children who are academically or
behaviorally struggling in school, a disproportionate num-
ber of whom may be minorities because of their greater
exposure to the risk factors for disability. Addressing
minority over-representation might therefore require
efforts to address underlying structural and societal ineq-
uities that result in minority children’s being dispropor-
tionately more likely to experience disabilities, as well as
other types of health impairment such as asthma. Yet, as
we report more fully below, educational researchers have
only rarely approximated the ceteris paribus (i.e., other
things being equal) condition that would yield strong evi-
dence of whether minority over-representation in special
education is explained by widespread misidentication
based on race or ethnicity. Studies that have done so (e.g.,
Hibel, Farkas, &Morgan 2010; Morgan et al., 2015),
consistently nd that white, English-speaking children
are more likely than otherwise similar racial or ethnic
TABLE 57.1
Risk Ratio For Students Ages 6 Through 21 Served Under IDEA, Part B, Within Racial/Ethnic Groups By Disability
Category: Fall 2013
Disability American Indian
or Alaska Native
Asian Black or African
American
Hispanic/
Latino
Native Hawaiian or
Other Pacic Islander
White Two or
more races
Autism 0.88 1.15 0.97 0.75 1.25 1.21 0.91
Deafblindness 1.63! 0.88! 0.75 1.03 4.15! 1.13 0.69!
Developmental delay a 3.80 0.42 1.68 0.68 2.52 0.92 1.15
Emotional disturbance 1.58 0.19 2.14 0.60 1.38 0.95 1.11
Hearing impairments 1.23 1.21 1.03 1.34 2.81 0.77 0.72
Intellectual disabilities 1.49 0.51 2.26 0.91 1.55 0.71 0.66
Multiple disabilities 1.73 0.63 1.38 0.73 1.88 1.12 0.67
Orthopedic impairments 0.95 0.84 0.83 1.21 1.53 1.00 0.73
Other health impairments 1.32 0.28 1.37 0.60 1.39 1.31 0.92
Specic learning disabilities 1.80 0.32 1.51 1.29 1.91 0.74 0.72
Speech or language
impairments
1.32 0.71 1.02 1.06 1.10 1.01 0.85
Traumatic brain injury 1.49 0.54 1.09 0.70 1.60 1.31 0.84
Visual impairments 1.51 0.90 1.12 0.96 1.93 0.99 0.79
All disabilities 1.56 0.48 1.42 0.99 1.60 0.91 0.82
Source: U.S. Department of Education (2015), p. 42.
! Interpret data with caution. There were 18 American Indian or Alaska Native students, 52 Asian students, 10 Native Hawaiian students, and 30 students associated with
two or more races reported in the deaf-blindness category.
a States’ use of the developmental delay category is optional for children ages 3 through 9 and is not applicable to children older than 9 years of age.
Note: Risk ratio compares the proportion of a particular racial/ethnic group served under IDEA, Part B, to the proportion served among the other racial/ethnic groups com-
bined. For example, if racial/ethnic group X has a risk ratio of 2 for receipt of special education services, then that group’s likelihood of receiving special education services
is twice as great as for all of the other racial/ethnic groups combined. Risk ratio was calculated by dividing the risk index for the racial/ethnic group by the risk index for all
the other racial/ethnic groups combined.
Dimitris Anastasiou et al.
900
minority children to receive special education services
due to identied disabilities. This is despite the minority
children being, on average, more likely to display greater
clinical needs (e.g., severe reading difculties) suggestive
of possible disabilities.
Politics of Special Education


Contemporary special education began as a civil rights
struggle for children with disabilities. Passage of Public
Law 94-142 in 1975 established the right to an equitable
and appropriate education for children with disabilities.
These civil rights protections continue to be extended in
the US as well as, increasingly, in other countries (Martin,
2013; Weintraub & Abeson, 1976).
However, there has also been an ongoing debate as
to whether special education may itself be discrimina-
tory, particularly in how minority children are identied
as having disabilities (Artiles, 1998; Dunn, 1968; Hibel
et al., 2010; Kauffman & Landrum, 2009; Morgan et al.,
2015; Morgan & Farkas, 2015; Skiba et al., 2008). Debate
regarding why minority children are overrepresented in
special education generally, as well as being diagnosed at
greater rates than Whites for specic disability conditions
dates back to at least the 1960s. For example, an inuen-
tial article published by Lloyd Dunn (1968), at the peak
of the civil rights era, provoked widespread skepticism
about the usefulness of separate placements for minority
students. Dunn, who was then the active past-president
of the Council for Exceptional Children—a professional
organization in whose main journal the article appeared—
suggested that minority children were often being misi-
dentied as disabled and questioned whether the special
classes for students with mild ID were morally justiable.
The article continues to be widely cited and has sparked
considerable discussion and controversy about minority
overrepresentation in special education.
Even before the passage in 1975 of Public Law 94-142,
now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA), many were skeptical about the delivery of special
education services in separate settings. After Dunn (1968),
there was and continues to be widespread discussion of
the phenomenon and factors contributing to the reported
or observed patterns of overrepresentation of minorities
in special education (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, &
Ortiz, 2010; Harry & Klingner, 2007, 2014; Losen, Ee,
Hodson, & Martinez, 2015; Losen & Oreld, 2002; Skiba
et al., 2008; Sullivan & Artiles, 2011).


There are at least four reasons why over-representation
in special education has been viewed as problematic.
First, it is believed to constitute additional evidence of
racial bias and discrimination in the United States. The
existence of reported patterns of disproportionality has been
considered an indication of continued racial bias toward
minority group students (Artiles, 1998; Skiba et al., 2005;
Sullivan & Artiles, 2011). However, the purported reasons
behind the phenomenon can have important consequences
for its conceptualization and remedies. Is disproportional-
ity explained by racial bias and discriminatory eligibility
procedures or, instead, by underlying socioeconomic and
other structural inequities that are disproportionately expe-
rienced by racial and ethnic minorities? Exposure to pov-
erty co-varies strongly with both race and ethnicity as well
as disability identication (Shifrer, Muller, & Callahan,
2011). Is disproportionality resulting from minority chil-
dren’s greater likelihood of struggling academically or
behaviorally in schools or do disability identication and
eligibility for special education go beyond these disability
indicators, suggesting again the possibility of racial bias
and discrimination? Relatedly, why are special education
teachers (indirectly) blamed when (a) special education
settings and services are the last resort for educating stu-
dents with disabilities and (b) to a large degree, refer-
ence processes, eligibility, and individualized education
plan (IEP) processes are school-system processes that are
mostly out of the control of special education teachers?
A second reason that MDR has been viewed nega-
tively is that special education labels, such as ID and ED,
might carry a stigma of inferiority or antisocial behavior;
a higher incidence of such labels among minority students
can interact with and perpetuate stereotypical beliefs
about minorities. However, whether the stigma is gener-
ated from the diagnostic label or the disabling condition
per se is itself unknown and controversial (Anastasiou &
Kauffman, 2011; Kauffman, 2003). It is difcult to con-
clusively answer this empirically, although some nd-
ings provide insight into this issue. In a propensity score
matching analysis of the effects of special education,
Morgan, Frisco, Farkas, and Hibel (2010) found that stu-
dents who were predicted to be unlikely to be placed into
special education but who nevertheless were so placed
more frequently displayed internalizing and externaliz-
ing behaviors, as well as disabled learning-related behav-
iors (e.g., being inattentive, disorganized). Morgan et al.
(2010) hypothesized that “if special education placement
has stigmatizing effects on children, then these effects are
most likely experienced by children whose background
characteristics are most like those of children who are not
so placed” (p. 249). In brief, there are legitimate reasons to
worry about misidentication and “false positives” when-
ever and wherever this occurs.
A third reason for the politicization of disproportion-
ality is its connection with perceptions about the effec-
tiveness of special education, which has also become a
political issue. The value of special education in terms
of its effectiveness in increasing children’s learning and
behavior continues to be debated (Kavale & Forness,
1999; Morgan et al., 2010; Oh-Young & Filler, 2015;
Wang & Bakker, 1985–1986). An older meta-analysis
Minority Disproportionate Representation in Special Education
901
from several years ago indicated that different placements
produced differential effect sizes for different special
education categories (LD or ED and moderate/mild ID).
Specically, Carlberg and Kavale (1980) found a posi-
tive small effect size of .29 for students with LD or ED
in favor of special education classes and a negative small
effect size of –.14 for students with moderate and mild ID
(IQ 50–75) in favor of general education classes. A more
recent meta-analysis indicated that the less integrated set-
tings were less benecial than more integrated settings,
producing effect sizes of approximately .20 and .30 for
the differences in social and academic skills, respectively
(Oh-Young & Filler, 2015).
However, although a powerful tool, meta-analysis
research is not without methodological limitations inher-
ent in sample selections, methodological choices, and
comparisons between populations that are not randomly
assigned in different special education placements.
Zigmond (2003) argued that evidence on the relative
effectiveness of one special education placement over
another has typically been methodologically awed and
inconclusive. Effectiveness studies have failed to specify
where, for what, and for whom one placement could be
better than another (Zigmond, 2003).
Where students with disabilities should be educated is
the wrong research question to ask in this view, and it is
antithetical to the essence of individualized planning—
the central tenet of special education service delivery
(Zigmond, 2003). Contrasts between students placed in dif-
ferent placement settings, matched for a specic disability
category, age, grade, and relevant characteristics related
to outcomes, on specic domains of academic achieve-
ment (e.g., reading, mathematics) and behavior could
better clarify the effectiveness of different special edu-
cation placements and services. We need more nuanced,
transparent, and objective meta-analysis research with
careful and clear methodological choices. Although there
are legitimate concerns about the effectiveness of special
education across its continuum of placements, dismiss-
ing the struggle for incremental improvement is a cynical
stance. Given the lack of evidence for the effectiveness
of typical inclusive practices, such as co-teaching (Kloo
& Zigmond, 2008; Scruggs, Mastropieri, & McDufe,
2007), to deny or eliminate educational options for stu-
dents with disabilities would negatively affect their civil
right to an appropriate education.
A fourth issue is raised by the wider political context
within which disproportionality discourse has emerged.
This discourse coincides with the era of identity politics
that has followed the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-
1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the
Fair Housing Act of 1968 (Heyes, 2012; Massey, 2007).
The phrase “identity politics” signies a wide range of
political theory and activity concerned with the political
representation of social groups based on race, ethnicity,
religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other character-
istics. Proponents of identity politics or the politics of
recognition typically claim political freedom and civil
rights for a specic constituency that they perceive to be
marginalized within its larger context, emphasizing iden-
tities and social status and adopting a strategy of breaking
down cultural barriers, ghting discrimination, and build-
ing empowerment (Heyes, 2012). Identity politics is com-
monly theorized, and has been practiced, as an alternative
to class-based politics that emphasize economic issues,
such as poverty and economic inequality, as well as their
consequences for education, healthcare, employment, and
social security (Frank, 2004; Massey, 2007).
Ironically, identity politics may have decreased insti-
tutional racial discrimination, but at the same time the
shift of the agenda from income inequality to racial/
ethnic inequality in civil society has not yet reduced
the enormous racial wealth gap that helps perpetuate
racial inequality (Bangs & Davis, 2015; Shapiro, 2004;
Shapiro, Meschede, & Osor, 2013; Wolff, 2009, 2015).
Striking differences are found in the wealth holdings of
racial and ethnic groups, and these gaps have not changed
appreciably over time (Shapiro et al., 2013; Wolff, 2015).
Anastasiou and Kauffman (2012) pointed out that we do
not live in a purely “cultural” society that has no relation-
ship to economics. They questioned whether identity poli-
tics, by itself, is enough to improve the lives of people with
disabilities. Similarly, the interests of minorities might be
better served if identity politics were accompanied by a
strategy of seeking social compensation, creating politi-
cal pressure for the redistribution of income, resources,
and opportunities, as racial and ethnic inequity is exacer-
bated by underlying economic inequalities (Anastasiou &
Kauffman, 2012; Wolff, 2009, 2015).
The State of the Evidence
It is a mistake to infer that reported patterns of dispro-
portionality, in and of themselves, constitute evidence of
racial bias and discrimination. This is because, as we have
indicated above, there may be other factors that explain
the over-representation (e.g., greater exposure to poverty).
For example, Wolff (2009), in the economics eld, made
the following methodological remark:
to prove employers discriminate against one group of
workers in favor of another group, we need evidence that
one group of workers earns less than another group even
when we statistically control for all factors that affect a
worker’s productivity. (Emphasis in original; p. 423)
Establishing that racial bias and discrimination explain
the observed minority over-representation would involve
demonstrating that minority children are over-represented
in special education after we meet the ceteris paribus
condition by statistically controlling for variability in aca-
demic achievement, exposure to poverty, or other factors
that affect children’s likelihood of being identied as disa-
bled and thereby receiving special education.
Dimitris Anastasiou et al.
902
Perhaps the key issue in thinking accurately about
disproportionality is whether teachers and schools make
referrals and nd students eligible for special education
not based on what they can measure and observe, but
rather on unconscious race/ethnic bias (Losen, Hodson,
Ee, & Martinez, 2014; Losen et al., 2015). However, as
we explain below, recent ndings from multivariate stud-
ies controlling for confounding factors at the individual
level, particularly academic achievement, nd that the
problem appears to be the reverse of what has often been
believed. That is, schools appear to be under-identifying
and under-treating minority children with disabilities.

Academic achievement is “the key variable in special
education eligibility for most students” (Hosp & Reschly,
2004, p. 196), and academic and behavioral struggles can
largely explain teacher referrals for special education ser-
vices (Abidin & Robinson, 2002). However, only recently
have the strong confounds of individual-level academic
and behavioral struggles been included as covariates in
studies investigating minority disproportionate repre-
sentation. These more recent studies nd that academic
and behavioral struggles strongly predict children’s like-
lihood of being identied as having disabilities (Hibel
et al., 2010; Morgan, Staff, Hillemeier Farkas, & Maczuga,
2013; Morgan et al., 2015; Morgan et al., 2016; Shifrer
et al., 2011). For example, Morgan et al. (2015) found that
the individual student’s level of school functioning (princi-
pally, school achievement, behavioral self-regulation, and
externalizing problem behaviors) is the strongest predictor
of special education service receipt. This is true even for
the more “judgmental” conditions of LD, ID, ED, specic
language impairment, and other health impairment (OHI)
categories. As Morgan et al. (2015) stated,
Higher academic achievement and greater behavioral
self-regulation consistently lower children’s likelihood
of being identied as disabled. More frequent external-
izing problem behaviors decrease children’s likelihood of
being identied as having learning disabilities or speech
or language impairments. These behaviors increase chil-
dren’s likelihood of being identied as having health
impairments or emotional disturbances. Collectively,
the ndings suggest that U.S. schools are likely to iden-
tify children as disabled on the basis of their academic
achievement, behavioral self-regulation, and externaliz-
ing problem behaviors. (p. 284)
Not surprisingly, externalizing behavior increases the
risk of being identied as having attention-decit/hyperac-
tivity disorder (ADHD) (under the category of other health
impaired (OHI)), and EBD (Morgan et al., 2013, 2015). A
study by Morgan and associates (2017) further claries the
key role of school achievement. They found that among
fourth graders who were experiencing clinically signicant
reading difculties (i.e., reading achievement in the lowest
10% of the distribution), about 75% of white children were
receiving special education services by fourth grade. Yet
the contrasting percentages for minority children display-
ing the same clinical needs were much lower. Specically,
only 44%, 43%, and 48% of African American, Hispanic,
and American Indian children were receiving special edu-
cation services, respectively (Morgan & Farkas, 2016).
The fact that, among children who were otherwise similar
in their clinical needs, racial and ethnic minorities were
less likely to be receiving special education, is strong evi-
dence against the claim that minority over-representation
is explained by widespread misidentication of children as
disabled based on their race or ethnicity. Instead, and con-
sistent with repeated studies in public health (e.g., Flores
and the Committee for Pediatric Health, 2010; Miller,
Nigg, & Miller, 2009; Zuckerman et al., 2014), the nd-
ings suggest that minority children experiencing the same
or greater clinical needs as white children are, on average,
less likely to receive special education services to which
they have a civil right.
One explanation for minority children’s under-iden-
tication is that teachers and other specialists may have
lower expectations for minority children. Another poten-
tial explanation is that teachers are not referring minor-
ity children for special education so as to avoid being
viewed as racially biased. This is particularly likely given
the focus of OSEP and OCR in the U.S. Department of
Education on monitoring and reducing the supposed over-
representation of minorities in school districts due to
misidentication based on race or ethnicity. A Mexican
immigrant and U.S. scholar in the “spedpro” listserv sug-
gested this as a possibility:
[G]iven the history of discrimination against different
ethnic populations, teachers fear making a mistake in
referring students from ethnic backgrounds for special
education referral. The fear of making a mistake and the
bias against special education makes teachers hesitant to
make the special education referral, and the hesitation
increases when the disability is less obvious (e.g., a learn-
ing or behavioral disability). (T. Ochoa, April 22, 2016)
This “higher thresholds hypothesis” (meaning different
cut-off scores for minority students that may be indicative
of more tolerance towards low school achievement and/
or behavioral problems) should be investigated. This may
relate to the nding that disproportionately more minority
students are placed in special or dedicated educational set-
tings but for different reasons than the racial discrimina-
tion hypothesis has suggested. It may also be that OSEP’s
and OCR’s monitoring and regulatory efforts have led
schools to actively avoid identifying “too many” minority
children as having disabilities, even those children with
clinical needs and who may be legally entitled to special
education services.
Finally, as suggested by Hibel et al. (2010), there is
the possibility of a “frog pond” effect in which, because
Minority Disproportionate Representation in Special Education
903
minority students tend to be over-represented in racially
segregated, low-income, and low-performing schools,
they need to have especially low academic performance
in order to be identied by teachers as possible candidates
for special education placement. Suppose, for example, that
two students, one African American and the other white,
both have test scores at the 30th percentile nationally.
If the white student is in a mostly white middle-class
school with average performance at the 70th percentile,
she is likely to be a strong candidate for special educa-
tion, whereas if the African American student is in a
high-poverty school with average performance at the 30th
percentile, she would denitely not be a special education
candidate. In view of the high rates of housing segregation
leading to high rates of racial and income segregation in
our nation’s schools, this is the most likely explanation
for the under-placement of minority students in special
education. Additional research should also be conducted
on the other contextual (school-level) effects reported by
Hibel et al. (2010)—other things being equal, including
school average test scores, schools with a higher percent-
age of minority students tend to have lower special educa-
tion placement rates.

Poverty and low family SES have been the focus of several
investigations related to special education placement. In the
rst generation of empirical, district-level studies, three
major multivariate studies investigated this role. Two of
the studies (Hosp & Reschly, 2004; Oswald, Coutinho,
Best, & Singh, 1999) indicated that economic variables
play a signicant role in explaining disproportionality
in special education. However, the study by Skiba et al.
(2005), using district-level data from one state and con-
trolling for district-level averages, found that poverty
makes “a weak and inconsistent contribution to the pre-
diction of proportionality across a number of disability
categories” (p. 130). Such a nding should be viewed
cautiously. This is because the study relied on aggregate-
level instead of individual-level data, which can result in
the well-known “ecological fallacy” (Anastasiou, et al.,
2011; Gelman, Park, Ansolabehere, Price, & Minnite,
2001; Robinson, 1950). This is when aggregate-level data
are used to make inferences to individuals, for example,
if the percent minority or the percent in poverty is used
across districts to predict the percent in special educa-
tion, rather than using individual-level data to estimate
the effect of family poverty and race on student placement
into special education. For further discussion see Morgan
et al. (2017). It is also noteworthy that measuring family
poverty using a dichotomous variable of free/reduced-cost
lunch is known to be methodologically limited because
as a measure of family SES it introduces a great deal of
measurement error (see Harwell & LeBeau, 2010).
Some have dismissed the “greater exposure to poverty”
explanations of minority over-representation on the basis
of this rst generation of district-level studies. Instead,
these theorists have advanced a “cultural hypothesis of
discrimination.” This has been based in particular on the
study by Skiba, the weaknesses of which we have just dis-
cussed. For example, Artiles et al. (2010) used the conclu-
sion of Skiba et al. (2005) to argue against the “poverty
hypothesis” as an explanatory variable in disproportionality.
Specically, they stated that the poverty hypothesis “tends
to minimize the signicance or magnitude of the problem”
(p. 282). Similarly, O’Connor and Fernandez (2006) criti-
cized the report of the National Research Council (2002)
because it emphasized the impact of poverty in explaining
MDR. Specically, they argued that:
This theory oversimplies the concept of “develop-
ment” and consequently under-analyzes how the culture
and organization of schools situates minority youths as
academically and behaviorally decient and places them
at risk for special education placement. (O’Connor &
Fernandez, 2006, p. 6)
We do not argue that the socioeconomic disadvantage,
even when well measured, is the only important factor in
explaining MDR. However, we underline that some dis-
proportionality theorists have tended to magnify the role
of cultural identities and minimize the signicance of
socioeconomic factors and other confounding variables.
Accumulated evidence shows that these generalizations
are too hastily based on anecdotal evidence and a single
awed quantitative study.
In addition, a second generation of studies analyzing
nationally representative individual-level data have more
rigorously controlled for potential confounding variables
including family-level economic disadvantage (Hibel
et al., 2010; Morgan, Hillemeier, Farkas, & Maczuga,
2014; Morgan et al., 2015; Morgan et al., 2016; Shifrer
et al., 2011). This second generation of studies have shown
that racial or ethnic minority students are often under-
identied or equally identied across a wide range of dis-
ability conditions, including SLD, ADHD, ED, ID, health
impairments, and speech or language impairment, as well
as in several age groups once family-level SES is properly
accounted for. That is, the role of SES was clearer in the
models of studies by Hibel et al. (2010) and Shifrer et al.
(2011), which used individual- instead of aggregate-level
data, thereby better controlling for the confound using a
much better measure of family SES. In Hibel et al.’s (2010)
research, a separate model employed race- and family-level
SES to predict special education placement and specic dis-
ability identication. Controlling for a family’s SES, this
study indicated that (a) the initial Black over-representation
became statistically non-signicant under-representation,
and (b) Hispanics are signicantly less likely than non-His-
panic whites to be placed into special education (p. 322).
Similarly, Shifrer et al. (2011) stated,
Strikingly, all of the signicant race/ethnicity effects
are explained once we account for the systematic
Dimitris Anastasiou et al.
904
differences in SES between these groups by including
controls for highest parental education level and family
income . . . Overall, although the bivariate results sug-
gested that race was a key predictor of disproportionality
in the identication of learning disabilities, the multivari-
ate analyses illuminate that disproportionate identication
is actually being driven by differences in SES, a correlate
of race in the United States. (p. 252)
A partial exception was Sullivan and Bal’s (2013) study,
which used the dichotomous variable of free/reduced-cost
lunch as a proxy measure for socioeconomic disadvan-
tage. Statistically controlling for free/reduced-cost lunch
attenuated the race effects for SLD for African American
children, but race remained signicant; however, race was
not signicant in the ED and SLD categories after con-
trolling for free/reduced-cost lunch. Overall, repeated evi-
dence indicates that socioeconomic disadvantage—if and
when rigorously measured using family-level measures
of household income and occupation and/or educational
levels—can explain a signicant part of minority over-
representation in special education.

Health-related and healthcare variables may be contrib-
uting factors in MDR in some disability categories. For
example, minority children’s lower access to healthcare
as well as healthcare providers may have resulted in less
access to early intervention/early childhood special edu-
cation services (Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier, & Maczuga,
2012). Recent public health and healthcare literature also
contradicts the hypothesis that minority over-representa-
tion is explained by widespread misidentication based on
race or ethnicity. This is because public health researchers
often nd that minority children are less likely than whites
to be identied for disabilities and other health conditions,
even when displaying similar or greater clinical needs
(e.g., Miller et al., 2009). For example, Flores and the
Committee on Pediatric Research’s (2010) synthesis char-
acterized racial and ethnic health disparities as “extensive,
pervasive, and persistent” (p. 979). This included a lower
likelihood for minority children to be diagnosed with
autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, and other types of
health conditions.
Reports by educational researchers that minority chil-
dren are over-identied as having disabilities, which have
largely not controlled for the strong confounds of academic
struggles or other indicators of lower school functioning,
conict with this larger and more rigorous body of work
by public health researchers. Public health researchers
have also recently detailed a number of underlying mecha-
nisms that may be resulting in minority children’s lower
likelihood of disability identication and treatment (for a
review, see Zuckerman et al., 2014). These mechanisms
include lower access to healthcare and health providers, a
lack of information regarding the symptoms and available
treatments for disabilities and other health conditions, as
well as stigma towards disability and a general aversion to
medical care in minority communities.
Addressing Current Knowledge Limitations
There continues to be major knowledge limitations in
the way that MDR is investigated. We have already
pointed to one of these, the lack of studies that approxi-
mate the “otherwise similar” condition when comparing
placement and diagnosis rates between racial and ethnic
groups. Contrasts of better matched children of different
racial/ethnic groups are needed to establish that MDR is
resulting from widespread misidentication on the basis
of race or ethnicity (National Research Council, 2004).
These types of contrasts, which satisfy the counterfac-
tual or ceteris paribus condition necessary for drawing
causal inferences, have only recently been approximated
in studies of MDR (e.g., Hibel et al., 2010; Morgan
et al., 2015).
Instead, most of the available work generally falls into
one of three categories. The rst category relies on anec-
dotal information or subjective observation (e.g., Dunn,
1968), or, although analyzing data from very large sam-
ples of children, still fail to make any attempt to control
for other explanatory variables (e.g., Ofce of Special
Education Programs; U.S. Department of Education
2015). This category of studies simply cannot provide
rigorous evidence as to the underlying mechanisms that
may explain the observed disparities. This includes the
type of data that is emphasized in the NPRM for estab-
lishing reasonable thresholds of signicant disproportion-
ality. The data systems proposed by OSEP for monitoring
for over-representation based on race or ethnicity would
rely on simple, unadjusted risk ratios that contrast rela-
tive proportions of children identied or not identied
as disabled by race/ethnicity. The proposed regulations
would also establish quota-like “reasonable thresholds”
that would set numerical targets designed to keep “too
many” minority children from being identied as having
disabilities.
A second category of studies has attempted to account
for some, but not all, alternative explanatory variables,
typically by analyzing district-level instead of individ-
ual- or family-level data (e.g., Oswald et al., 1999; Skiba
et al., 2005). This reliance on aggregate-level data is prob-
lematic. Doing so can result in the “ecological fallacy,”
which can yield spurious estimates due to misspecied
regression equations (Robinson, 1950). For example,
Skiba et al.’s (2005) analyses included as a control the
average district-level achievement, but no control for rela-
tive achievement in each district between the racial/ethnic
groups. As a result, there was no effective control for the
strong confound of variability between the racial or ethnic
groups in their relative academic achievement or family
SES. As we noted above, controlling for individual-level
academic achievement takes into account a likely alterna-
tive explanation of the disparities. That is, lower achieving
Minority Disproportionate Representation in Special Education
905
children are more likely to be identied as having disabili-
ties, and racial or ethnic minority children are more likely
to display lower academic achievement. Other studies
(e.g., Sullivan & Bal, 2013) did not account for individ-
ual-level academic achievement.
What we need are studies that better approximate the
ceteris paribus or otherwise similar condition, in which
children differ in regards to their race or ethnicity but
not in their clinical need for services. Such studies need
to account for individual-level confounds in order to
better meet this condition. In particular, this includes
accounting for the strong confound of academic achieve-
ment. To better inform the extent to which signicant
disproportionality is occurring based on race or ethnicity
throughout the US, these studies should ideally be based
on nationally representative data. Doing so provides for
greater external validity by allowing for the greatest gen-
eralized inferences to national school population with
disabilities.
Only since 2010 have a third group of studies been
conducted using nationally representative samples and
adequate control for confounding variables. These few
studies have consistently found that racial or ethnic
minority children are less likely than otherwise similar white
children to receive special education as result of having iden-
tied disabilities. Minority children’s under-identication
is evident whether using parent- or teacher-report of dis-
ability status, whether examined prior to, by, or following
school entry, as well as whether examining special educa-
tion generally or across a wide range of specic disability
conditions.
In the future, researchers should identify mechanisms
that result in minority children’s lower likelihood of
school-based disability identication. Such studies could
use in-depth qualitative studies, focus groups, and exten-
sive stakeholder interviews to better understand potential
barriers to disability identication as well as special edu-
cation service receipt, particularly as disproportionately
experienced in minority communities. In particular, the
most likely explanation—the frog pond effect in which
students are identied as low performing by compari-
son with their peers in the same school—should be more
thoroughly investigated. Also needing investigation is the
nding that, other things including school average test
scores being equal, schools with a higher percentage of
minority students tend to have a lower special education
placement rate.
Minority families raising children with disabilities
already report experiencing high levels of stigmatization,
healthcare providers who are dismissive of their concerns,
poor access to information and care, as well as additional
barriers to effective treatment (Zuckerman et al., 2014).
Identifying the extent to which these barriers may be
occurring for special education service receipt should help
inform efforts to ensure that all children with disabilities,
regardless of their race or ethnicity, are receiving those
services to which they have a civil right.
Implications
Not only has “disproportionality politics” set a scholarly
agenda focused on a belief in widespread racial discrimi-
nation in special education, but this agenda has also had
political implications. Both OSEP and OCR monitor for
over-representation based on race or ethnicity, on the
assumption that minority over-representation is indicative
of racially biased disability identication. Unfortunately,
they do not consider other factors that may explain the
disparities. A recent NPRM suggests defunding of spe-
cial education programs up to 15% for students aged 6–21
years (U.S. Department of Education, 2016, pp. 10978–
10986). This notice states that budgets of school districts
should be cut and transferred to develop comprehensive
coordinated early intervention services (CEIS) when they
have a disproportionate number of minority students who
have been (a) identied as needing special education, (b)
placed in separate special education settings for 21% or
more of the school day, or (c) disciplined.
These efforts risk unintended, negative consequences.
Contrary to the best-available evidence, which has shown
that minority children are less likely to be identied as
having disabilities even when displaying the same clinical
needs as white children, many have argued that minority
children are often inappropriately identied as disabled
due to racial bias by teachers and schools. As a result of
empirically misguided legislation and policies designed
to keep schools from identifying “too many” minority
students as needing special education services, teachers
have not been referring, and schools have not been iden-
tifying, minority children who may have disabilities out
of a fear of being labeled as racially biased, as well as
to avoid quota-like thresholds monitored by the state and
federal government, despite the children’s academic and
behavioral needs. Therefore, inaccurate estimation of the
directionality of disproportionate representation attribut-
able to race or ethnicity may have unintentionally exac-
erbated existing racial inequalities between minority and
white students, and substantially restricted the educational
opportunities and civil rights of minority students with
disabilities. These children’s lower likelihood of receiving
treatment for disabling conditions has been hypothesized
to partially explain long-standing racial achievement gaps
(Basch, 2011). There is an urgent need for accurate under-
standing of the directionally of minority disproportionate
representation identication at the scholarly, public, and
political levels, using rigorous empirical research, as well
as efforts that attempt to reduce any potential barriers to
entry into special education that may be disproportion-
ately experienced by minority families.


What should the special education eld be doing to help
ensure that children with disabilities, regardless of their
race or ethnicity, are receiving special education services
Dimitris Anastasiou et al.
906
to which they may have a civil right? For policy-makers,
efforts should be made to ensure that potential “barriers to
entry” that make it especially difcult for minority chil-
dren with disabilities to receive help are identied and
eliminated. One such barrier might be the current reli-
ance on parent and teacher referral for special education.
Better-resourced white, English-speaking parents may be
able to more easily access special education services than
less well-resourced racial, ethnic, or language minority
families by collecting information through network ties
and then using this information to secure additional ser-
vices (Horvat, Weinger and Lareau 2003).
Universal screening has been suggested as a method
for addressing racial and ethnic disparities in public health
and gifted education (Card & Giuliano, 2015; Payne &
Puumala, 2013). Analyzing currently available nationally
representative datasets that include measures of children’s
academic achievement as well as additional confounds
would allow OSEP and OCR to better monitor for minor-
ity over-representation based on race or ethnicity by
allowing for ceteris paribus contrasts between children
who are otherwise similar in their clinical needs and back-
ground characteristics.
Practitioners should be especially sensitive to the devel-
opmental concerns of minority families, as these families
sometimes report feeling that practitioners are dismissive
of their concerns (Zuckerman et al., 2014). Schools and
clinics should ensure access to trained interpreters who are
uent in the minority family’s primary language, as well
as make sure that the family has access to appropriately
translated written materials (Brotanek, Seely, & Flores,
2008). Currently, about 95% of due process materials
require some college work to be understood. School-to-
community partnerships, in which evidence-based infor-
mation about signs, symptoms, and potential services
for disabilities are made available to minority families
through trained local community members may also help
address these disparities. Clinic-to-community partner-
ships have already been reported to help address racial
disparities in health care access (Flores, 2009: Madsen,
Thompson, Adkins, & Crawford, 2013).


The eld remains divided about the nature and causes
of MDR in special education and, consequently, what
to do about it. Debates and disagreements within any
eld are expected and useful, as long as such debates are
constrained by logic, empirical evidence, and civility.
However, recent ceteris paribus MDR research suggest-
ing that minority students may be widely under-identied
and under-served was immediately strongly criticized
and largely rejected by numerous prominent and inu-
ential scholars in special education (e.g., Blanchett
& Shealey, 2016; Ford & Russo, 2016; Skiba, Artiles,
Kozleski, Losen, & Harry, 2016). This is despite the most
recent work directly accounting for repeatedly identied
methodological limitations in the prior work, and the
resulting ndings of under-identication being very con-
sistent with those reporting on disability identication in
public health.
Those who hold that racially biased over-identication
is a more pressing problem than under-identication
continue to advocate for practices, policies, and regula-
tions designed to reduce special education identication
of minority students (Albrecht, Skiba, Losen, Chung, &
Middleberg, 2012), despite repeated empirical evidence to
the contrary. Those who hold that racially biased under-
identication is the more critical problem advocate for
measures designed to ensure that minority students with
disabilities access the special education services to which
they are legally entitled (Canon, Gregory, & Waterstone,
2013; Morgan & Farkas, 2016).
We are hopeful that the eld’s longstanding commit-
ment to rational inquiry, civil discourse, and social justice
will move us quickly toward the best possible solutions
based on the best possible evidence-based understanding of
MDR in special education. In this spirit, we conclude with
some suggestions for advancing the discourse surrounding
this issue. First, it is important to publicly acknowledge
that, although perspectives and interpretations of MDR
research may differ, there is a shared commitment across
stakeholders to understanding and effectively address-
ing racial disparities in education and special education.
There is an unfortunate tendency in public debates about
emotionally charged issues to oversimplify and stigmatize
“opposing” perspectives and people using negative labels.
An example in the eld of special education is labeling
and dismissing certain perspectives as “decit thinking”
or “decit ideology.” We submit that using pejorative
labels to oversimplify or deliberately demean a person
or a perspective generally hinders rational inquiry, civil
discourse and, most importantly, shared interests in better
helping children who are struggling in school.
Second, we believe that there is real value in identify-
ing, exploring, and emphasizing areas of agreement. For
example, almost all stakeholders desire improvements in
identication to ensure that minority students with dis-
abilities are not denied the special educational services
to which they are legally entitled, while at the same time
minimizing the identication of minority students who do
not require the services and supports provided through
special education. Universal screening (mentioned previ-
ously in this chapter) is an identication practice used in
response to intervention (RtI). This practice may provide
improvement over traditional practices for identifying and
addressing the educational needs of minority students with
and without disabilities, and possibly reducing MDR in
special education (Cartledge, Kea, Watson, & Oif, 2016).
Although there is general agreement about the value
of universal screening as a response to MDR in special
education, advocates of universal screening and progress
monitoring within RtI will have to recognize that (a) iden-
tication practices within RtI rest on the assumption that
Minority Disproportionate Representation in Special Education
907
some students are struggling, for one reason or another,
in their academic and/or social performance, and so
should be considered for additional instruction or support
in order to experience greater school success; (b) deter-
mining “responsiveness” in RtI requires subjective judg-
ments about the adequacy of instruction at each “tier” and
whether a student is “unresponsive” enough to warrant
atypical supports and interventions; (c) RtI requires sort-
ing students into categories that carry the risk of stigma;
(d) universal screening and progress monitoring in RtI,
if practiced in a way that minimizes bias or error, will
disproportionately identify groups of students who are
more likely to be struggling due to their greater expo-
sure to the risk factors for cognitive, behavioral, and/or
physical impairments and resulting disabilities; and (e)
students identied for the most intensive interventions
and supports will, on average, experience worse educa-
tional and developmental outcomes than students not so
identied—just as people who are identied as needing
intensive medical care will, on average, experience worse
health outcomes than those who are not so identied. This
last observation holds true even if intensive interventions
are high quality (Fuchs et al., 2015), although it is logical
to assume that those receiving intensive intervention will
be, on average, better off for having received it.
Another likely area of agreement among stakeholders
is the need to improve the effectiveness of special educa-
tion. As discussed previously, concerns about MDR (both
over-identication and under-identication) are necessar-
ily intertwined with concerns about the quality and help-
fulness of special education services. There is an extreme
but inuential view within MDR scholarship that suggests
that special education is always an illegitimate, harm-
ful, or unjust response to student differences; that special
education is the cause of any and all negative outcomes
experienced by students who receive it; that interventions
designed to directly change (versus accommodate) differ-
ences in student functioning are “ableist” and immoral;
and that the purpose and function of special education is
to oppress, segregate, and harm students who differ in
race and/or ability (Collins, Connor, Ferri, Gallagher, &
Samson, 2016). There is only one possible conclusion to
be drawn from this perspective—special education must
be completely abolished in all of its forms.
Abolishing special education would, of course, elimi-
nate MDR in special education once and for all. If the
eld continues to accept this perspective as a legitimate
contribution to the discourse on MDR in special educa-
tion, we suggest that those who hold it state more clearly
the need to abolish special education and, in addition
to publishing repetitive, conceptually hollow screeds
falsely attributing malice to special education, provide
credible, large-scale demonstrations of how schooling
without special education will work in the real world, and
exactly how education will be better and more just with-
out it. Such demonstrations require hard work and may
not advance careers as quickly as ideological attacks on
hard-won public entitlements like special education, but
they are necessary to advance equity and social justice.
An alternative perspective is that special education,
although imperfect, is a rational, necessary, and ethical
response to instructional realities and student differences
that may be the result of underlying disabilities (Kauffman
& Hallahan, 2005). Like any other human endeavor (e.g.,
“tiered” instruction), special education can be practiced
well or poorly. Unless we believe that minority students
never require special education, or that special education
is in all cases and under all circumstances unnecessary or
harmful to minority students with disabilities, achieving
equity and justice for these students will require policies
and practices that increase both access and quality in the
provision of special education services.
Focusing on areas of agreement is good. Ultimately,
however, achieving equity and social justice requires an
open-minded examination of recent ndings that minority
students with disabilities are under-identied and under-
served in special education. Special education research-
ers and advocates must consider the possibility that, for
decades, the effects of structural inequalities (e.g., dis-
proportionate exposure to poverty and other types of neu-
rotoxins) on special education identication have been
misinterpreted as evidence of racial bias against minority
students. Pressure to reduce special education identica-
tion of minority students may, in turn, have contributed to
a problem of under-identication and under-service and
possibly exacerbated achievement gaps by disproportion-
ately reducing access for minority children with disabili-
ties to potentially benecial services that white children
with disabilities are more often receiving. There is no
equity or justice in failing to provide minority students
access to services to which they are legally entitled. There
is no equity or justice in accepting special education’s
inadequacies as inevitable, or using these inadequacies
as a justication for not providing students with disabili-
ties additional supports and services, which are their civil
right.
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