Racial disparities found in Madison special education referrals

Black students in the Madison Metropolitan School District are more likely than their peers to
Black students in Madison are more likely to receive special education services for subjective disabilities (File photo).Black students in Madison are more likely to receive special education services for subjective disabilities (File photo).receive special education services, especially for disabilities determined by subjective criteria, such as behavior or school performance.   

In the 2012-13 school year, nearly twice as many black students as white students in Madison were labelled as having emotional disabilities, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. They also outnumbered their peers in cognitive and learning disabilities.

“These socially constructed disabilities are very disproportionate when you look at students who are African-American,” said John Harper, Madison Metropolitan School District’s executive director of educational services.

“Obviously we are very concerned about that,” Harper said. “It is not a new phenomenon.”

District officials hope that by providing students with additional support and resources, they can create a more inclusive and equitable learning environment.  

But critics argue that students, especially black males, are often misidentified as having disabilities based on cultural differences, which only adds to the stubborn achievement gap between white and black students.

Some experts say the situation illustrates the great paradox of special education: The very resources designed to give students greater access to opportunity become another obstacle  — one framed by labels, low expectations, and students who don’t reach their potential.

“What we see is that special education is not fulfilling its promise to create more equitable access to education,” said Aydin Bal, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin—Madison and expert in the role of culture in special education identification and services.  

According to Bal, factors like race, income level and disabilities are coming together in Madison schools to create another form of segregation.

“In some ways, schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s,”  Bal said. “And we see this to a large degree in Madison, which has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation.”

 A national trend

 Bal’s research takes a historical and nationwide approach to studying the interplay between culture, learning and behavioral problems. He’s currently collaborating with the MMSD to see how these trends play out locally.

Last year, one in four black children in the district had special needs, the majority of them diagnosed with emotional, learning, or cognitive disabilities — the label formerly designated for mental retardation.

In comparison, white students were half as likely to have a disability and were more likely to be diagnosed with hearing, speech or visual impairments.

These findings mirror national trends. A 2009 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil rights found that African-American students nationally were three times more likely to be labeled cognitively disabled and 2.3 times more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than all other racial ethnic groups combined.

While professionals are supposed to screen out race and culture as factors when evaluating a student for disabilities, cultural elements are inherently tied to student behavior and knowledge, Bal said.  

Harper said that while officials have been aware of the issue, the district has made little progress over the years.  Efforts to address racial disparities in special education are as complex as addressing the greater achievement gap, and no single strategy will eliminate disparities, he added.

“I don’t see them as being two separate things,” he said. “I see them nested within each other. When we positively impact the achievement gap, we will dramatically reduce disproportionality (in special education) in our district.”

‘They fall into the cracks’

In the late 1960s, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson fed elementary school teachers arbitrary information on their students’ abilities then studied behavior in a California classroom.

The findings supported what many had already suspected: Teachers gave the most support to the students they assumed had the best chances of success. Those same students, consequently, performed better in the classroom. Those who were predetermined to have lower abilities fared worse.   

This practice triggers a cycle of low self-esteem and underachievement that can follow students after they leave high school and even into the next generation, Bal said.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “Once a student has been placed in special education classes, it becomes almost impossible to get them out. They fall into the cracks.”

“Special education doesn’t mean that the child can’t learn,” Bal added. “It means he or she learns in a different way.”

Harper said that if a student is struggling behaviorally or academically, teachers first collaborate with their colleagues and strategize on how to best help students progress.

After multiple strategies are employed and found to be ineffective, a team of educators might refer a student to specialists to be evaluated for an Individualized Education Plan — a legally-binding document that guarantees certain resources, such as additional instruction or extra time to take tests.

The process, said Harper, can last several months. “We want to avoid a knee-jerk reaction that could misidentify students with disabilities,” he added.

Harper said that because a concerted effort has been made in Madison to only identify students with true disabilities, schools have decreased the number of students who are identified within the district.

The challenge, he said, is that 44 percent of the students who are newly identified as having disabilities come from outside the district. Madison then, must honor those IEPs.

“While we’re going down internally, we’re making very little progress because new students are moving in,” he said.

Black males face worst disparities

Kaleem Caire, Executive Director of the Urban League of Greater Madison, said there’s one group faces particularly stark challenges in Madison’s school district: Black males.  

He said that as he was preparing information for a proposed charter school geared toward students of color — one that was eventually rejected by the Madison school board — he found 43 to 45 percent of black males in the district were identified as having disabilities.

“When the Urban League first reported this,” Caire said, “people were stunned.”

Caire isn’t surprised by the recent special education numbers. The district has traditionally served underperforming students through special education, he said.

“Teachers are quick to refer to black students to special education based on how they behave in the classroom,” he said, adding that special education services can sometimes act as a form of punishment.

“They’re making these decisions with good intentions, and most of them do, but there need be avenues to support these kids through measures that aren’t punitive.”

According to Bal, evidence suggests that race and culture not only play a role in identifying students who have disabilities, but also matter in terms of how those students are treated.

“We see that black students are disciplined more often for less serious reasons,” he said.

Harper, who has worked with Bal to examine local disparities in special education, said students with emotional behavioral disabilities are about four times as likely to face discipline like suspensions or expulsions.

“We are disproportionately suspending students with disabilities than peers without disabilities. Is it a topic of conversation? Yes.”

Complex problems, complex solutions

Bal said he’s not only concerned that students of color have an increased risk of being misidentified with disabilities, but worries that — once labeled — these students don’t receive the same quality of instruction that their non-identified peers receive.

But, experts like Bal are not hopeless. Bal said that he sees Madison as an important case, and one that could have national implications.

“It’s a complex issue, but there are solutions,” he said. “As long as we appreciate the complexity of the situation. When we generalize or try to oversimplify, that’s when our biases creep in.”

He said that part of the answer means including parents’ voices in the conversation, which is something he continues to do through his research and his collaboration with the district.

Additionally, through increased focus on preventative measures, he hopes that more students will receive attention that could eliminate the need for an IEP referral.  

“In the end, it’s not about African-American students. If you don’t address the issue, you’re missing out on the potential good these students will contribute to society,” Bal said.

While white students outnumber their peers in the Madison Metropolitan School District, black students are overrepresented in special needs services. According to 2012-13 data from the state's Department of Public Instruction, 25 percent of black students — one in four — were labeled as having a disability.  That number compares to 11 percent of white students.


The types of disabilities students are diagnosed as having varies widely by race and ethnicity. For example, while white students outnumber their peers in disabilties based on medical diagnoses — like autism or health impairments — black students determined to have emotional behavioral disabilities outnumber their white counterparts almost two to one. Experts sometimes refer to this second type of disability as a "soft" or "socially constructed" disability.

*Data source: Department of Public Instruction