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Disproportionality in Special Education: Impact on Student Performance and How Administrators Can Help

Two children with special needs sit in a classroom.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates equal rights and essential support to students with disabilities in the US public school system. Every year, this legislation ensures that an equal education be provided to millions of students who otherwise may not receive it. Under IDEA, a child may become eligible for special education services when they are diagnosed with one of many covered disabilities, including autism, deaf-blindness, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, or traumatic brain injury.

IDEA stipulates that data must be collected on the identification and placement of students in special education programs. This information helps the government determine the funding needed to provide free and appropriate public school education for eligible students. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that 14 percent of students ages 3 to 21 in the public school system (approximately seven million individuals) received special education services from 2017 to 2018.

The data also reveals critical concerns, such as disproportionality in special education. In other words, a disproportionately high rate of students from racial or ethnic minority groups and poverty-level income households are placed in special education programs despite not having a disability.

The Impact of Disproportionality in Special Education

Disproportionality in special education is a problem that impacts both students and teachers. Children improperly placed in special education programs may not be receiving the best support to meet their needs, leading to problems in student performance. For example, students of color identified for special education programs often get placed in separate classrooms or receive more discipline than their classmates, as reported by The Century Foundation (TCF). Additionally, a disproportionate number of minority students and English language learners get placed in special education services programs, often in restrictive classroom settings, according to Understood.org.

Disproportionality in special education is also a socioeconomic issue. Children living in poverty have a higher chance of being identified with learning disabilities than students living in households with much higher incomes, according to NCES. The report cites data linking insurance as a possible cause of the disproportionality. From 2011 to 2013, children in households with public insurance received ADHD diagnosis at higher rates than children with private insurance, 11.7% versus 8.6%, respectively.

Students with disabilities from low-income families also had a higher likelihood of placement in substantially separate classrooms than non-low-income students, according to TCF. Students impacted by disproportionality, particularly those in substantially separate classroom settings, perform worse than their peers in general education classrooms, according to TCF’s report.

Current research about socio-economic status leading to misplacement in special ed classrooms is limited in scope. According to TCF, this is because “they either focus on a singular community or they measure income-status using community-based factors rather than student-level data.” However, research indicates that socio-economic disproportionality continues into adulthood. In essence, low-income students become low wage earners, have a higher likelihood of incarceration, and have a lower life expectancy than their higher-income peers, according to TCF.

Other factors that can affect a student’s placement for special education includes school demographics, overall student achievement levels in a school, and teacher-to-student ratios, according to an EducationDive report.

How Administrators Can Help Address Disproportionality in Special Education

Administrators can address disproportionality in special education by helping prepare teachers with the skills and resources they require to identify students in need of special services. The US education system has lost 17 percent of its special education teacher workforce over the last decade, as reported by PBS. Still, even as more special education teachers quit their jobs, the population of students with disabilities ages 6 to 21 stayed about the same—declining about 1 percent.

Improving retention rates of special education teachers delivers direct benefits to school systems and students. Principals, superintendents, and other school administrators can implement strategies to prepare teachers, including the following:

Training Educators and Improving Resource Availability

The process for identifying children for special education programs includes an assessment. For example, a school can complete a functional behavior assessment (FBA) of students removed from their classes for more than 10 days due to problematic behaviors, based on IDEA stipulations. If properly trained, educators who witness students struggling academically and socially can intervene as soon as they recognize the signs.

Reduced school funding may make it difficult to find educators with the right qualifications to work with special needs students. Still, school administrators can push for access to educators trained in working with students with IEP plans. It will help both students in need and overburdened teachers.

Improving Assessments for All Students

Instead of just screening students who are struggling in school, school administrators could expand observations to all students to help address the needs of every student. Additionally, decisions on whether or not students may benefit from a special education program could include assessments of various factors, including test scores, subjective observations, and classroom performance.

The challenges for teachers include making distinctions between learning disabilities, attention issues, and other factors of underachievement. Administrators can ensure that school personnel acquire essential skills for gathering, assessing, and interpreting data on student performance and progress.

Improving Teaching Conditions

Why do special education teachers quit? Factors include safety concerns when working with students who have severe behavioral disorders, burnout due to heavy student workloads, the burden of accurately completing IEP paperwork, and low wages. Through mentorship, experienced special education teachers can pair up with new teachers to help navigate the daily and diversified challenges of working with students in special education programs.

In addition to pushing for mentorship, administrators can insist on increasing school budgets to improve compensation and overall satisfaction among their special education teachers.

Make an Impact by Improving Special Education Programs

For individuals interested in addressing the challenges posed by disproportionality in special education, pursuing a graduate degree can help position them for leadership roles. American University’s Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership and Online Master of Arts in Teaching, for example, can help prepare educators for senior-level administrator roles to drive real change in the education system. Courses such as Education Leadership and Organizational Change and Effective Teaching for Diverse Students” equip educators with the critical competencies they need to lead and improve educational settings for both students and teachers.

Learn more about American University’s School of Education Online and their master’s degree programs.

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