June 9, 2020 / by LiteracyUntangled

The Not So Secret, Secret: Inequities in Special Education

If you have worked with students who have learning disabilities for any length of time, you are keenly aware of the inequities inherent to special education. In my experience as a self-contained special ed teacher I frequently encountered an us vs them mentality – e.g. general education teachers referring to a student as “one of yours” even when they also taught that student in one of their classes. But when you dial further down, you will find greater inequities lie within special education itself.

While there are racial disparities throughout special education, in this post I am going to specifically focus on Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD – dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia) and white vs black. It needs to be noted that there are considerable gaps between white special education students and almost all minorities but, for simplicity, we’ll keep this conversation spotlighted on white vs black. Let’s begin with identification.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) Report “The State of Learning Disabilities” 33.3% of the total US student population is diagnosed with SLD. Of the total SLD population 34% is white and 45.3% is black. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Black students only make up 34.9% of the total student population and yet a whopping 45.3% are identified as having SLD. In contrast, white students make up 40.9% white students, with 34% identified as having SLD. The State of Learning Disabilities states “Disability identification rates are often disproportionate to the overall enrollment rates for students in different racial or ethnic groups. For example, African American students made up nearly 16% of public school students nationwide and 20% of students identified with SLD in 2013–2014.” How is this possible, when we know dyslexia does not discriminate?

Researchers believe that the data points to cultural biases as playing a role in overidentification of SLD in black students. Once these students are misidentified, they also tend to be placed in more restrictive special education settings, spending less time in general education than their white peers. “Assigning disability labels to children who are not disabled runs the risk of lowering expectations, and through segregated placements, restricting access to the general education classroom.” asserts Thomas Hehir, Ed.D (Harvard Graduate School of Education professor). Now let’s take a look at overall outcomes for students with SLD, i.e. graduation and dropout rates.

According to the NCLD report in 2013-2014 the graduation rate for all students was 82.3%. Now compare that to student with SLD who had a graduation rate of 70.8% in the same time period. A solid 11.5 point difference between the two. When look solely at the graduation rates for students with SLD, we find a 76.7% high school diploma rate for white students with SLD vs a 63.5% high school diploma rate for black students with SLD. But that is not even the most shocking statistic. Brace yourself. The dropout rate for black students with SLD is a whopping 22.3%, nearly a quarter of this population DROPS OUT!

You may now be wondering, “How does my state/district/school compare to the national averages and how do I find that information?” There is an often overlooked tool on each state’s Department of Education website. It’s call the School Report Card. The School Report Card shows educational statistics at the state, district, and individual school level. For example, the Maryland School Report Card shows a graduation rate of 86.86% for all students. But when you filter down to special education, the graduation rate drops to 63.52%. Drill down a little further to black students in special education and you find the graduation rate plummets to 57.71%!

So, why did I choose to highlight these inequities? I won’t lie and say it’s not because of the current turmoil in our country, it is partially. But more importantly, when I was in the classroom these biases – whether it’s between general education and special education or inside of special education itself – infuriated me. It’s the same reason I became a reading tutor. The majority of my previous high school students were black and graduating at only a 3rd-4th grade reading level. We were doing them an immense, lifetime disservice and it was killing me. I wondered how they could possibly navigate the world at large on their own and achieve all the potential I knew they possessed. I eventually realized, if I wanted to have a real and lasting impact on my students, I would have to do it from outside the established educational system.

Part of my own personal mission for Literacy Untangled is to help parents navigate through the world of dyslexia and special education; shine a light on important facts and issues that are oftentimes too easily glossed over. My hope is that you use this information, and the information you find in your own state’s School Report Card, to make more informed decisions and meaningful changes to your child’s education. As trite as it sounds, knowledge really is power.