Understanding Initial Referrals for Special Education: 2 New Reports Provide Insight

by Ashley Barad

The Department of Education recently published its Annual Report on Special Education, which includes data on initial referrals for special education evaluations between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. In one table, the report specifically focuses on race and ethnicity, revealing that students of color made up the majority of initial referrals for special education. Of the 24,252 students initially referred to special education, 86.4% were students of color: 47.63% were Hispanic, 29.38% were Black, 7.21% were Asian, 2.18% were classified as “other”.

While the Department of Education’s report shows that teachers refer more students of color to special education, it does not delve into how or why they do so. A new study by NYU Professor Rachel Fish, published in September in the journal Social Science Research, gives a more detailed explanation of how teachers’ racial biases impact their understandings of students’ special needs.

By surveying 70 elementary school teachers from a city in the northeast, Fish illuminates how race alone can change an educator’s view of a student’s special needs. Teachers who participated in the survey read through fictional profiles of male students whose names were meant to signal their race, and determined what types of special services, if any, these students required.

The study revealed that when teachers in the study classified students of color as having special needs, they did so based on behavioral or emotional – not academic – factors.

Rachel Fish, the author of the study, told Chalkbeat that when teachers classify students of color as having special needs based on emotional/behavior issues instead of academic deficits, these students suffer from the social stigma of carrying this label. While it is important that students who need special services receive help in their schools, we must consider the unintended consequences of labeling students’ needs as either academic or emotional behavioral, and we must consider what leads teachers to classify students one way or another. 

However, it is important to note that Fish is not aiming to single out teachers as being racist or biased. As she told The Huffington Post, “This is really just giving us a window into biases in our entire society,” she went on. “It’s not something that’s unique to teachers.”

Although this study is limited based on its small sample size and use of fictional student profiles, it is notable because it illuminates an essential issue in our schooling system. By taking note of both the Department of Education’s recent report and Fish’s study, we can gain insight into important factors at play in the world of special education. 

Works Cited

NYC Department of Education Local Law 27 0f 2015 Annual Report on Special Education. Rep. New York   City Department of Education, 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Klein, Rebecca. "Why Some Kids Are Put In Special Education And Others In Gifted Programs." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Zimmerman, Alex. "When Is a Student 'gifted' or 'disabled'? A New Study Shows Racial Bias Plays a Role in Deciding." Chalkbeat. N.p., 20 Oct. 2016. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.