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Blacks More Often Are Labeled 'Special Needs'

Study: Wealthier schools inappropriately dubbed a 'substantial number' of minority students as mentally retarded, researchers said.

March 03, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Black children are almost three times more likely than white children to be labeled mentally retarded, forcing them into special-education classes where progress is slow and trained teachers are in short supply, according to reports released Friday by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

One of the most troubling findings, researchers said, was that black boys living in wealthier communities with better schools and more white classmates were at greater risk of being labeled mentally retarded and sent to special classes than those attending predominantly black, poorly funded schools.

Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Donald Oswald, along with colleagues from VCU and East Tennessee State University, detected the trend in data on 24 million students. They said the wealthier schools appeared to have succumbed to "systemic bias" that allowed "a substantial number" of black students to be "labeled mentally retarded inappropriately."

Many educators and parents have long been troubled by large numbers of minority children assigned to slow-moving special-education classes because of academic trouble or misbehavior. Experts said the reports released Friday provide some of the most compelling evidence to date that poor training and racial bias may have led some educators to write children off too soon.

"What the studies have pointed out is something that many of us have suspected for quite a number of years," said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals and a former principal, superintendent and state education commissioner in Connecticut.

"We didn't have the research base to support the notion," he said. "Now that we have it, we have the means to address the problem." Ferrandino was one of several experts who said racial bias was not as important a factor as the lack of trained teachers able to address learning problems at an early age before children were sent to special classes.

"The over-identification of students of color with special needs is a knee-jerk response to a more complex problem," said Gene Carter, executive director of the Assn. for Supervision and Curriculum Development and a former superintendent of the Norfolk, Va., schools. "You can't focus on the academic side of learning until you socialize kids into the learning environment. The solution rests, at least in part, with better professional development to help educators address cultural differences in teaching delivery and classroom management."

The Civil Rights Project's papers, now on their Web site at, also note that assignment to special-education classes may increase a student's chances of getting into trouble with the law and failing new state tests being used for promotion and graduation decisions.

In 1998, about 1.5 million minority children were identified as having mental retardation, emotional disturbance or a specific learning disability--diagnoses that would qualify them for special-education classes, the reports said.

Using 1997 Education Department data, the studies found that, nationwide, black students were 2.9 times as likely as whites to be identified as having mental retardation. They were 1.9 times as likely to be identified with an emotional problem and 1.3 times as likely to be identified with a specific learning disability.

The report noted that minority children in special education are less likely to be returned to regular classes than similar white children, despite widespread support for the "mainstreaming" movement.

"To the extent that minority students are misclassified, segregated or inadequately served, special education can contribute to a denial of equality of opportunity, with devastating results in communities throughout the nation," the researchers said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department said the Bush administration is concerned about misidentification of minority children and is proposing new reading programs to help solve the problem.

New federal laws in the last 25 years have forced public schools to expand their special-education classes, but trained teachers have been hard to find and the federal government has provided little of the money needed for the expansion. Urban schools like those in Washington, have found it particularly difficult to support special education for children with learning disabilities.

Some experts said one reason that black males are less likely to be labeled mentally retarded in urban schools is because those schools have less money to provide special help than wealthier suburban schools.

In another report, Jay P. Heubert of Teachers College and the Columbia Law School, both at Columbia University in New York, said that minorities with disabilities are doing poorly on new state tests and do not appear to have as many opportunities to learn the required material.

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