Some students wait longer than others before getting special education
Do students' ethnicities delay access to services?
Publishing in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Professors Rebecca A. Cruz and Allison R. Firestone, reported the results of a study with the title, “Understanding the Empty Backpack: The Role of Timing in Disproportionate Special Education Identification.” They examined data from an urban district showing when, across their school careers, students with disabilities were identified as needing special education and how the identification was associated with ethnic background and other factors. They reported that
... gender, race, and socioeconomic status were all factors generally associated with special education identification, and that African American and Latinx students were more likely to be placed into special education later in their school careers. This disproportionality in delayed placement was associated with particular special education labels; for example, African American students identified post-elementary school were more likely to be labeled with emotional disturbance and specific learning disability compared to same-age White peers, and Latinx students were more likely to be labeled with specific learning disability and intellectual disability compared to same-age White peers. (From the abstract; see full abstract in sources)
I found this study quite interesting, not just because of the implications for special education (are some students being systematically denied services during the early years, when help is particularly likely to be...well...helpful?), but also because of the methods they used. The method, called survival analysis (wonderfully explained by the eminent scholar and fine teacher, Judith Singer, and her colleagues; see sources), may be unfamiliar to many readers, so here’s a little sidebar about it. In simple terms, researchers can use survival analysis to see how much time elapses after a given event (receiving a cancer diagnosis, quitting smoking, taking a first job as a special education teacher) until some over event occurs (the cancer patients die, the smokers relapse, the teacher leaves the profession); not only that, but one can examine how other factors, intrinsic to the individual (e.g., gender, ethnicity) or other factors (e.g., whether one smoked cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; whether one taught school in affluent or not-so-affluent local education agencies; etc.) affect the outcomes. To be sure, survival analysis pesents some risks (excuse me!) associated with the method (e.g., it requires large and representative samples; some folks might find the statistical procedures to be challenging), but it’s a damn good way to learn a lot about outcomes.
The study by Professors Cruz and Firestone (2022) seems reasonably done, at least to my in-expert eye. Although their sample is limited (all the cases come from one LEA, so the results have to be taken within the context of that LEA’s policies, procedures, and culture), their analyses seem solid—and the report appeared in a sociological journal, which journals often are sticklers for rigor in methods.
Professors Cruz and Firestone (2022) discussed their findings in the context of what they (and sources they cite) considered the relative social desirability of different categories of disability. In their take, and knowing the risk of over-simplifying, they argued that disabilities such as learning disability and autism are associated with lesser degrees of stigma than disabilities such as emotional or behavior disorders or intellectual disability.
In one specific way, the report by Professors Cruz and Firestone (2022) underscores something that my colleagues and I found in a long-ago study of referrals for special education. Cruz and Firestone reported an increase in identifications in the post-elementary years: African-American boys were more likely to be identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders. Although we (Lloyd et al., 1991) did not examine student ethnicity, we found that referrals for special education services during the post-elementary years were more likely to be for EBD and were more likely to be made by school administrators. I wonder why that is…does the change in structure (in elementary schools, most children have the same teacher all day, but in middle school most students have 5-6 teachers each day; if more teachers refer students to “the office,” does that prompt administrators (e.g., vice principles) to initiate more referals? Are teachers in elementary grades especially cautious about referring Black kids, so those students just get passed along, even it they’re failing? There are many other questions…but the key concept is that we need to teach our students, regardless of ethnicity, well.
Cruz, R. A., & Firestone, A. R. (2022). Understanding the empty backpack: The role of timing in disproportionate special education identification. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 8(1), 95-113. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F23326492211034890
Studies related to disproportionate special education identification of students from historically marginalized groups have used increasingly complex analyses to understand the interplay of factors that cause and maintain disparities. However, information regarding the influence of students’ grade level at initial special education placement remains limited. Situated in labeling theory and life course theory, we used discrete-time survival analysis to examine temporal student- and school-level factors related to patterns of placement for minoritized students within one large urban school district. Results showed that gender, race, and socioeconomic status were all factors generally associated with special education identification, and that African American and Latinx students were more likely to be placed into special education later in their school careers. This disproportionality in delayed placement was associated with particular special education labels; for example, African American students identified post-elementary school were more likely to be labeled with emotional disturbance and specific learning disability compared to same-age White peers, and Latinx students were more likely to be labeled with specific learning disability and intellectual disability compared to same-age White peers. These results implicate inequities that emerge at the intersections of age, race, and perceptions of ability that should be considered in future studies of educational equity.
Lloyd, J. W., Kauffman, J. M., Landrum, T. J., & Roe, D. L. (1991). Why do teachers refer pupils for special education? An analysis of referral records. Exceptionality 2(3), 115-126. https://doi.org/10.1080/09362839109524774
Singer, J. D., & Willett, J. B. (2003). Survival analysis. In J. A. Schinka & W. F. Velicer (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Research methods in psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 555–580). John Wiley & Sons.
Willett, J. B., Singer, J. D., & Graham, S. E. (2013). Survival analysis. In J. A. Schinka, W. F. Velicer, & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Research methods in psychology (pp. 595–627). John Wiley & Sons.