New research co-authored and published Wednesday by a UC Irvine professor of education contradicts countless studies over the years showing an over-representation of minorities in special education classes.

Conventional wisdom has suggested for years that minority children are put in special education at a rate higher than whites, prompting cries of racism because of a perceived stigma in being placed in classrooms with other struggling students, said George Farkas, a professor of education at UC Irvine.

George Farkas. Photo courtesy of UCI
George Farkas. Photo courtesy of UCI

“For political motives, people tell themselves stories where there’s no solid research on it and the stories are self-perpetuating,” Farkas said. “It’s one of those myths that went forward on the strength of the political racism charge.”

There are cases of some black parents who are suing school districts for trying to put their children in special education, Farkas said. Some critics even say special education is “part of a school to prison pipeline,” Farkas said.

Farkas and several Penn State educational experts published their findings in Educational Researcher.

They reviewed data from a national study of more than 20,000 children from when they entered kindergarten in 1998 through eighth grade. The data included information about the parents and teachers as well.

Farkas said other researchers used flawed data from districts that did not provide a full picture of the students placed in special education.

The UCI-Penn State study, however, concludes that minorities are actually “very seriously under-represented” in special education classes in large part because many come from poorer homes without access to health care that would flag the students for special attention, Farkas said.

For instance, Farkas argued, parents of Asian descent are particularly resistant generally to special education because of the stigma attached to it.

“I think in that community the stigma is larger than anywhere else because they’re so focused on education that they’ll do almost anything to not let the kids get into a special education program,” Farkas said.

A white working class parent, typically, will not resist suggestions to place their child in special education classes because it is viewed as “free tutoring… extra help,” Farkas said.

Research indicates special education classes provide only modest help to students, Farkas said. It’s much more effective, he said, if a parent just gets more involved in coaching and tutoring their child.

Still, educators ought to do a better job of selling the benefits of special education to all parents because some won’t have the resources or time to commit to offering more help with homework, Farkas said.

“If you’ve got a single mother with four other kids and the house is disorganized that’s just not going to happen,” Farkas said.

Educators, also, should “not be afraid of being called racist” if they suggest special education classes for students.

Another issue is the cost of special education programs, Farkas said. School administrators in poorer districts tend to shy away from putting children in special education because of the expense, which also hurts minorities, Farkas said.

— City News Service

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