KU News Release

July 23, 2012
Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860

Study shows race played role in placing minorities in special education categories

Argun Saatcioglu

Tom Skrtic

More Information

LAWRENCE — For decades, educators have known that minority students are placed in special education at a disproportionate rate to white students. The debate has centered on whether socioeconomic class or race is more responsible. Two University of Kansas researchers are conducting a study that thus far has shown that racial bias may be an important factor.

Minorities also tend to be identified as having more significant impairments—such as intellectual deficits or emotional problems—and thus are often placed in more restrictive settings for treatment outside regular classrooms, such as self-contained special education classrooms. By contrast, white students placed in special education are typically identified for relatively less severe problems, such as mild learning disabilities and are placed in regular classrooms, along with paraprofessionals and co-teachers when necessary. The debate on these racial patterns has centered on whether social class or race is more responsible. Some argue minorities are identified for more significant impairments and placed in restrictive settings because of developmental problems associated with social and economic disadvantages, such as higher rates of poverty. Others claim racial bias in the schools also plays a role.

Argun Saatcioglu, assistant professor of education policy and by courtesy sociology, and Tom Skrtic, professor of special education, are in the midst of examining racial bias and categorical manipulation in special education classification in a large, urban, Midwestern school district. Their study defines a special education “category” as a combination of disability classification and instructional placement. It tracks racial categorization patterns over a period of 20 years in the district, addressing how the categorization patterns changed when the district was forced to desegregate its schools and allow more black students into traditionally white disability categories. The study is funded by the Sociology Program of the National Science Foundation.

Research on racial patterns in special education typically focuses on statistical models to disentangle class effects, such as low income, from race effects. But this suffers from significant estimation problems given how race and class overlap and interact.

“Our conceptual approach and our methodology helps transcend these problems to an important degree,” Saatcioglu said. “Our case involves a quasi-experimental situation where an entire school system was pressured to allow black students into traditionally white disability categories. So, we are examining how the schools responded to this regulative pressure. Did they let traditionally white disability categories be shared by blacks? Or, did they allow white students to migrate to other disability categories as black students gained access to traditionally white categories? Also, if such a migration did occur, did it involve reallocation of resources, services and opportunities in ways to maintain categorization differences in favor of white students?”

Preliminary results suggest that prior to desegregation many black students in special education were identified as “mentally retarded” or “emotionally disturbed” and were placed in relatively restrictive settings outside regular classrooms, while whites were identified as “learning disabled” or “LD” and often received instruction in regular classrooms, which is broadly consistent with the national pattern. However, as many black students were re-categorized as “LD with regular classroom placement” as part of the desegregation order, the majority of whites in that category were labeled as “LD with self-contained classroom placement.” In other words, white students with disabilities were allowed to migrate to another, previously less prestigious category — less prestigious because of placement outside the regular classroom. However, by virtue of its new inhabitants, the category appears to have been infused with new prestige. Moreover, there is evidence that this category may have been endowed with increased expenditures resulting in more resources, services and opportunities than before, in order to reinforce its new prestigious identity, in favor of white students.

This shift is what Saatcioglu and Skrtic refer to as “categorical manipulation.” The phenomenon follows a common occurrence in work organizations. Privileged groups often hold the best jobs. When forced to include minorities, females or other less-privileged groups, dominant status groups often create their own, new prestigious categories, taking with them advantageous career prospects, job benefits and authority sources.

Saatcioglu and Skrtic’s research shows the role of categorical manipulation in the perpetuation of status hierarchy and resulting inequality. When the district gradually re-segregated about a decade after the racial integration program was put into place, the traditional racial patterns in special education categorization were restored. Black students in special education were reidentified as “mentally retarded” or “emotionally disturbed,” and placed in restrictive settings. And, white students were identified as “learning disabled” and placed largely in regular classrooms.

“Our question essentially was ‘Did the schools use special education in a racially biased way?’ The analysis thus far shows the answer is yes,” Skrtic said.

Saatcioglu and Skrtic have presented their findings to several scholarly bodies and will present them again in August at the American Sociological Society’s convention in Denver. The findings are not only adding to the body of knowledge in racial categorization both in schools and organizations, but they may likely help inform policy to counteract racial bias in special education placement. The study could possibly be expanded to economic organizations, as the data is showing that categories can indeed be manipulated. The researchers also hope to study the effects of inclusion. As they gather more data, they may be able to track how students who were both included with their classmates and those that were placed in completely separate rooms have fared in various areas of education and life, including whether they graduated high school, attended college, earned degrees and how they have progressed in the job market.

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