This is one of the sadder education columns I've read in awhile. The title asks, Is Special Education Racist?
— in other words, are too many black children given special education designations? The authors' answer is no. In fact, they say, despite the fact that a proportionately larger number of blacks are labeled as needing special ed than other children, there should probably be more black children enrolled in the programs.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the authors are racists who believe that blacks are naturally inferior intellectually. In fact, the authors are college professors from Pennsylvania State University and University of California, Irvine, who have published a study concluding that black children "are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities." Because more black children are exposed to these risk factors than children in the rest of the population, more of them are likely to have traits that qualify them for special education.
Here is the authors' analysis of exposure to lead, which has terrible effects on children.
Thirty-six percent of inner-city black children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. The figure for suburban white children is only 4 percent.
Continuing to list risk factors:
Black children are about twice as likely to be born prematurely and three times more likely to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.
Here's their analysis of socioeconomic factors linked to student achievement:
About 65 percent of black children, compared with about 30 percent of white children, live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. From 1985 to 2000 about 80 percent of black children grew up in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by widespread unemployment, racial segregation, poverty, single-parent households and welfare.
When children are correctly diagnosed as needing the extra help that comes with a special education designation, that's supposed to help those children by increasing the educational help and attention they receive. It doesn't mean they will be locked away in separate classrooms. If the label is misused, that's a fault with the individual program, not the designation itself. If children who need the extra attention are left to fend for themselves, they aren't receiving the educational support they deserve.
There's a stigma that goes along with being labeled special ed, and it certainly looks like racism is at play when more black children are given that label than children from other groups. But to the extent the professors' analysis is correct, which is pretty likely, it's our society, which allows preventable problems that cause permanent harm to children to fester, that deserves the blame, not the schools.
The professors' conclusions should serve as a wakeup call to anyone who labels schools "failing" because they aren't able to counteract problems that began at birth, or before birth, which lower children's abilities to be successful in school. Successful education results where there are good practices inside and outside the school walls. If we work to repair problems in the outside world at the same time we improve education in school, our children will be better educated and more successful.