Ideological and Theoretical Assumptions

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Special Ed

Artiles, A. J. (2011). Toward an Interdisciplinary Understanding of Educational Equity and Difference: The Case of the Racialization of Ability. Educational Researcher, 40(9), 431-445.

Artiles explains how a civil rights victory for learners with disabilities has become a way to oppress racial minority students. He cites statistics showing that African Americans are more than twice as likely as their white peers to be diagnosed with intellectual disability and one and a half times as likely to be diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disturbance. Other minority groups are similarly over-represented. After kids get placed in special education, their academic outcomes are usually bad, and their economic prospects are correspondingly limited. Even within the disabled population, white students tend to do better than their minority peers. While poor kids are likelier to be diagnosed with disabilities, race is a significant predictor of diagnosis even if you control for poverty.

The dominant (“canonical”) ability difference model takes a medical perspective: disability is a matter of individual characteristics. Recognizing the individual rights of disabled people was a civil rights victory. Artiles points out that this model puts the responsibility for students’ educational outcomes on their own “worth” and effort. Furthermore, it doesn’t challenge the basic school hierarchy. Failing to recognize structural aspects of oppression is a kind of historical amnesia.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to make the education system accountable to everyone. However, it was implemented without considering structural inequities—different schools and communities have uneven access to money and qualified personnel. The accountability movement has had unintended consequences that punishes the schools most in need of help by incentivizing teaching to the test and demoralizing teachers further. NCLB also creates an incentive to push more kids into disability diagnoses where they get alternate accountability assessments.

Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A. C., Rausch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. (2008). Achieving Equity in Special Education: History, Status, and Current Challenges. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 264-288

Skiba et al begin by pointing out that education has always been fraught with racial oppression. In the 1850s, people went to jail for teaching the children of freed slaves to read. They cite the contemporary phenomenon of the “situationally retarded” child—public schools identify more kids as such than any other child service setting.

How should we measure disproportionality in special education? The obvious method would seem to be the composition index, comparing a group’s percentage of the special ed population to the population generally. This measure shows twice as many black kids in special ed as in the population generally. However, the composition index method falls apart in statistical edge cases, like in schools that are almost entirely black. Another method is to look at the risk ratio, the odds of a given black kid being found to be disabled versus the odds of a given white kid. The problem here is that we need to use the white population as our baseline, so we can’t measure their underrepresentation in special ed.

Does poverty cause racial disproportionality in disability diagnoses? There are strong statistical links between race and poverty, but the links between poverty and school performance are weaker. As Artiles points out, poverty alone is insufficient to explain racial disproportionality. As you might expect, disproportionality is more severe for disability categories that depend more on subjective assessments like mental retardation, emotional disturbance and learning disabilities, and it’s less of an issue where more objective standards apply, like hearing or vision impairment. There are plenty of reasons why this might be true. Psychometric tests haven’t been conclusively proved to be intrinsically racially biased, but even if they’re perfectly fair, they’re mostly measuring the fact that white kids have better access to resources than minority kids do. Educators can mistake cultural differences for impairment. White school professionals assume black families to be more dysfunctional than they are, and they don’t account for community strength in black and Latino communities, where extrafamilial adults play a strong caretaking role. Schools with more black teachers diagnose fewer black kids as emotionally disturbed, unsurprisingly.

Education systems reflect “knowledge, values, interests, and cultural orientations of White, middle-class cultural groups… Education that fails to explicitly teach the codes and rules necessary for successful participation in unfamiliar contexts, does not connect knowledge produced in schools to students’ lived experiences, or ignores the foundational role of culture in knowledge production may yield inadequate and inappropriate educational experiences for a range of cultural groups” (277, citations omitted). School is a “cultural reproductive system”, what Althusser calls an ideological state apparatus. As per Foucault, educators can advance an ideological agenda without intending to, or even being aware of doing so.

Skiba et al argue that the causes of disproportionality are multiply determined. Data doesn’t point to a single clear cause, and it isn’t enough to settle the matter anyway, because our racial identity informs how we interpret the data. Given how much discretion school officials have in placements, though, we probably need to look at those officials’ attitudes and beliefs. Teachers struggle with classroom issues brought on by socioeconomic and cultural difference and their own lack of resources—it’s tempting to shunt kids into special education, to get more resources for the school or just to get problematic kids out of their hair. If the problem is one of cultural responsiveness and values, then solutions need to address those things too.

Morgan, P., Farkas, G. g., Hillemeier, M. m., Mattison, R. r., Maczuga, S. s., Hui Li1, h., & Cook, M. m. (2015). Minorities Are Disproportionately Underrepresented in Special Education: Longitudinal Evidence Across Five Disability Conditions. Educational Researcher, 44(5), 278-292

Morgan et al push back at the idea that minority kids are overrepresented in special education. They point to analyses showing that minority kids are less likely to be in special ed than white kids if you carefully control for all the covariant factors like IQ, prior academic achievement and behavior, and maternal education. How did the previous studies cited here get it wrong? Morgan et al point out that those studies don’t follow kids over time, and don’t account for risk of disability identification across multiple conditions. They look at both time-invariant measures (gender and race/ethnicity, mother’s marital status, mother’s age at the time of birth, low birth weight, health insurance, ESL, socioeconomic status) and time-varying measures (frequencies of children’s externalizing and self-regulatory behaviors using the Social Rating Scale.)

Our results… suggest that future investigations of minority disproportionate representation are likely to report biased estimates of minority disproportionate representation if they fail to account for the strong potential confounding variables of individual child-level academic achievement and behavioral functioning (287).

I don’t have the statistical acumen to critically evaluate Morgan et al’s methods, but they seem convincing. So, if it’s in fact the case that minorities are more likely to display disability-related symptomatology for various socioeconomic reasons, why are they less likely to be diagnosed with disabilities? The authors see racial bias at work, but in the opposite direction from Artiles and Skiba et al. They argue for more culturally and linguistically sensitive special education evaluation methods to make sure that disabled minority kids get the services they need. They attribute the overrepresentation of white kids in special ed to school officials being more responsive to white, English-speaking parents who advocate for their kids to be diagnosed. This would seem to run counter to the idea of learning disability diagnoses as stigmatizing, but per Artiles, the stigma doesn’t weigh as heavily on white kids.

Sullivan, A. L., & Artiles, A. J. (2011). Theorizing racial inequity in special education: Applying structural inequity theory to disproportionality. Urban Education

Sullivan and Artiles counter Morgan et al’s assertion that minority kids are underrepresented in special ed by not just explaining their research findings, but theorizing them.

We distinguish between explaining and theorizing research findings. The former refers to making sense of trends and patterns in reported findings without necessarily overtly locating the evidence in a theoretical landscape or explicitly using theoretical tools to interpret the data. Thus, explanations are neither clearly grounded in nor benefit from the systematic application of sets of propositions and principles to analyze and explain phenomena, which is what defines a theory (1528).

Sullivan and Artiles’ theory is that disproportionality in special ed is the result of structural inequities, rather than in the beliefs or actions of individuals. For that reason, change efforts that focus on individuals, like professional development to help teachers become more culturally informed, won’t work because they won’t be addressing structural factors.

[F]rom a structural perspective, the sorting process that underpins special education identification and placement and schools’ patterns of allocating human and material resources is primarily concerned with reproducing racial and economic hierarchies within the broader social system that serves the interests of the dominant group (1531).

With this theory in mind, Sullivan and Artiles address two research questions. First, what is the extent of racial disproportionality in special ed? Second, to what extent do structural factors in individual school districts effect disproportionality in specific racial and disability groupings? They predict that while patterns of disproportionality will differ across localities, the root causes will be the same. Rather than seeing these results as contradictory, we should expect that varying social contexts will produce complex results.

Sullivan and Artiles expected to find more disproportionality in the more subjective categories, no surprise there. They also predicted that disproportionality would be more prevalent among racial groups with the least power in a given locality. In situations where resources are most scarce, the authors expect that special ed will become more desirable as a way to get more academic support, and there will be less racial disproportionality. Where resources are less scarce, special ed will function more as a means of racial segregation. Finally, where minorities have greater political power or are better represented among teaching staffs, there will be less disproportionality. Their research confirmed all of these expectations except for the last one, where correlations are weak. This may be due to the fact that there are few districts where minority teachers have attained enough critical mass to have a structural effect.

The data on disproportionality are extraordinarily complex, and it seems like merely sifting though them won’t yield any consistent results. The only hope for making sense out of the situation is to start with a theory and see whether the facts support it or not. Sullivan and Artiles certainly seem to have found strong support for the theory of special ed as a tool for maintaining structural inequity, with the specifics of those inequities depending on the local political conditions. Makes sense!