Ethnic background and attitude toward Special Education

While I have known for a while that some parents will look the other way when a child is struggling and will not have the child tested because they’re afraid or ashamed of the “special ed kid” label, I had not realized that minority families seem to be much more wary of that, until I read “Problems with the rush to label children,” by Andrea Hermitt (Education Examiner) posted on December 30, 2008, and the follow up “From Special Ed to gifted to somewhere in between.”

Andrea writes:

I think what appalls me most about labeling of school children is that over all, kids are disproportionately labeled based on race.

In response to that post, another Education Examiner — Caroline Grannan, from San Francisco, writes in the comments:

middle-class white parents are often eager to get their kids who may have some learning difficulty identified as special education. [...] I believe the vast majority of parents who seek special-ed ID are not doing it to get an “unfair” advantage for the child but because they believe the child needs the services, I should clarify.

By contrast, in the African-American community, special-ed identification is (generalizing again) often viewed as a stigma, a brand of shame — and racist. That’s even though special-ed identification does carry those same benefits — extra (free) academic support and testing accommodations.

Our district is plurality Asian (statistically the highest-achieving demographic), and oddly, I don’t have a handle on a consistent attitude toward special ed in that community, nor in the Latino community. The white and black attitudes seem to be the most consistent and evident.

In the follow up post, “From Special Ed to gifted to somewhere in between” Andrea brings up the subject of “special ed labels” again:

As I see it, affluent people want more services for children labeled Special Ed.  Meanwhile, lower income, and minorities who feel that children are being unfairly labeled don’t want to end up in the system at all where they won’t get the help even if they need it.  So as I see it, everyone agrees.  Special Education programs do little to truly advance the children back to mainstream education.

The way I see it, Andrea is lucky she doesn’t have to deal with the “system.” I would much rather not have my son labeled “special ed” but as I wrote in my response to comments in “Engineers, Hips, and Autism,” having him labeled does give him the extra services that he would not get otherwise.

Now, would he be getting those services if we didn’t fight for it and show up for our IEP meetings with a huge folder, books on the subjects highlighted throughout, and our insistence on services? Maybe not. It’s the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” issue.

On the same topic, Lindsay, the blogger on the Autist’s Corner (which I discovered recently and happen to like a lot) quotes Anna Stubblefield in her January 14, 2009 post “Intelligence Is Racialized” as saying:

[B]lack students are both more likely than white students to be labeled as special-needs students and more likely, once labeled, to be relegated to special-education ghettos rather than receiving the least restrictive, inclusive education mandated by federal law.

I live in a small town that’s pretty much all Caucasian, so I can’t talk about minority kids being overlabeled here, but I did notice from talking to parents who have children on IEP that kids of parents who are on the lower end of the socio-economic status, or who do not have the time and the know-how of finding out more information about what their child should be getting out of school, are more likely to not get the right services. So here the divide is not along ethnic background lines but more tied to socio-economic status.

I wonder if anyone studied whether overall minority children from affluent, or middle-class homes are as likely to be diagnosed as minority children from low-income families, and whether there is a difference in how their parents view the diagnosis, specifically whether middle-class and affluent minority parents are just as opposed to “special education” services as minority low-income families, or if they are more”eager” to have their kids identified just like the middle-class white parents that Caroline Grannar mentions.

In the end, I do agree with Andrea when she says

just like in the cases of Special Education, gifted programs are no better at serving gifted students than Special Ed programs are at serving Special Ed students.  So at the end of the day, the only kids really getting an education that meets their needs are those that are truly middle of the road, mainstream children.

but I hope parents of children who struggle with reading, math, or have other problems at school will not listen when she says

I am begging and encouraging parents to question any labels that are being put on your kids.  I am asking teachers to consider if these kids really need labels, or perhaps just time to mature.

The problem is, you can’t mature out of dyslexia, learning disability, or autism. In those cases, the earlier the services start, the better chance there is of catching up.

The issue is not the “label” but getting adequate services, regardless of the child’s ethnic background or socio-economic status. We shouldn’t be fighting against labels and special education, we should be fighting for making sure all children get the right education and the help they need.

(added 1/30/2009 — Being against “special education” because some children get worse services than others is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater and I don’t think that is the real point, anyway.

I think Adrea’s main point really boils down to the sentence

We do see the trend of lumping an inordinate amount of African Americans into Special Ed as a racist activity.

but I worry that was lost in the comments.

So it is not about special education, really… It is — let’s have a courage to say it — about the “good ol’” discrimination and prejudice that the minorities and the unprivileged have been facing for centuries and unfortunately still do some time.

It is about the attitude that children from poor and minority families, tend to be seen as less intelligent, as more likely to have trouble in schools, and are not expected to perform as well as their peers, so at the first sign of “trouble” they are skirted off to “special education.” Add to that the fact that they usually live in districts that have little money not only for quality “special education” but “regular” education as well, and yes, the end result is that they get stuck behind and fall more and more behind every year. It’s not that special education is bad, what’s bad is how these children are treated.)

Comments

  1. It’s not about the labels; it’s about getting the support needed to succeed. Too many times teachers are setting up kids to fail-putting trick questions on tests, making students read it themselves, instead of listening to a story (as a punishment), not giving more time, and sending them out of class if they are not learning the same way as others. Too many times general ed teachers want to know what label the student has, w/o wanting to know how the student learns in that class, or at that time. We need to move towards understanding the different variations of learning, regardless of a label on a legal document, and we must learn to teach to these variations in inclusive settings, preferably co-teach. Then perhaps labels could be temporary based on the particular need at the time; Some will change over time, some will not.

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