Bias in Special Education
Studies are showing that if you are a student in special education, you will be better served if you are a white boy. Despite the dominance of women in the field of public education, boys are referred and enrolled at a higher rate than girls (Wehmeyer and Schwartz 2001). It is possible that boys truly do have learning issues in greater numbers than girls. However, studies point to the likelihood of tester and cultural bias (Anderson 1997). Also, despite the popular belief that more minorities are placed in special education, a large study recently found that in fact, most students who receive special education services are white (Morgan et all 2017).
Why would we as a culture be putting white boys into special education at higher rates than other groups? Is that really a problem? Isn’t that better than the problem of minorities being lost in the special education system and not being included in general education?
Thankfully, special education is no longer the place to park kids who don’t fit in. It is – correctly – where we say to kids, “We expect more. We think you can do better. We want to help you.” Special education is a discipline of rigor for students and educators. Its aim is to mainstream kids whenever possible while also giving them specialized tools to succeed. Unfortunately, we are not giving those tools to everyone. Our expectations remain the highest for white boys.
The issue is not that white boys shouldn’t receive fewer services, but that the other groups should also receive them when needed.
But what do we do? Special education is expensive. If we are favoring one group over the others, at least we’re keeping costs down. Do we really want to put more students into the pool?
Do we keep things as they are? Do we increase special education funding for all the students who need it? Or do we raise the bar for eligibility (meaning that some white boys won’t be eligible) and focus on lessening our own biases so that all kids get a fair chance?
What is needed is a study that compares the futures of students who receive special education services versus those who do not. What is being lost by kids who don’t have special ed? How big a deal is this?
As an educator, I have seen girls and boys of color get lost in the mix. If they are not acting out, they are easy to miss. It’s really hard to treat everyone equally. It’s hard to see beyond the talking and the (usually boy) behaviors and focus on the less visible kids. And frankly, a quiet boy is sometimes easier to pay attention to than a quiet girl. She just kind of fades into the class. School culture often gives the message that as long as the quiet girl and the boy of color are getting by, it’s okay.
But of course it’s not okay. If special education is going to neglect boys of color and girls, then general educators need to step up. They need to bug these kids to do better, they need to bug the special educators to evaluate them. Special educators need to take off the race and sex blinders. We are all working to meet the needs of every child. EVERYONE needs to help everyone.
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