A Ghetto Within a Ghetto

African-American Students are Over-Represented in Special Education Programs

By Joel McNally

Illustrator: Jean-Claude Lejeune

-photo: Jean-Claude Lejeune

The disproportionate placement of African-American males into special education classes has created a “a ghetto within a ghetto,” says Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project.

Orfield says that this racial disparity makes it less likely that black students receive high school diplomas, less likely they will be employed after leaving school, and more likely they will end up in the criminal justice system.

“This is segregation within segregation,” Orfield said. “For a lot of these kids, this is a direct path to jail. It becomes an irreversible punishment in these kids’ lives. This is taking a bad problem and putting it inside another even worse problem. It’s just unconscionable.”

Orfield is co-editor with Daniel Losen of the newly published Racial Inequity in Special Education,a compendium of research documenting the unequal placement of African Americans into special education.

The over-representation of African Americans in special education has been documented repeatedly over the years. Although regularly decried publicly, the racial imbalance appears to have changed little over time.

In the 1970s, national surveys by the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education found that African-American children were only 16 percent of total school enrollment, but were 38 percent of the students in classes for children who were then identified as mentally retarded. More than 20 years later, African-American children constitute 17 percent of total student enrollment and 33 percent of those now labeled mentally retarded or cognitively disabled.

During the same period, two newly defined categories of educational disability — emotional and behavioral disturbance and specific learning disabilities — have expanded within special education. Blacks are also over-represented in those newer categories.

Mentally retarded — or cognitively disabled as it is now called in some states — refers to a child who is considered significantly below average in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. Emotional and behavioral disturbance refers to a child whose behavior is so negative in multiple environments that it impairs educational performance and social relationships. Specific learning disabilities refer to dyslexia and other perceptual difficulties in organizing and processing information that can result in performance significantly below what a child should be capable of achieving.

Research in Orfield and Losen’s book computes “odds ratios” that compare the odds of African-American children and white children being placed in various disability categories, with an index of 1.00 indicating an equal likelihood of children — Black or white — being designated for special education.

Nationwide, Blacks are nearly three times more likely to be identified as mentally retarded than white students and nearly twice as likely to be labeled as emotionally disturbed.

The third “soft” category, specific learning disabilities, is the category with the least social stigma attached. It had the lowest racial disparity nationally. Blacks were about 30 percent more likely than whites to be so categorized.

Although few deny African Americans are over-represented in special education in every state, many people are able to rationalize the fact. It makes sense, they say, because Black children are far more likely than whites to grow up in extreme poverty. That would make them more prone to learning disabilities that may be associated with inadequate pre-natal care, poor nutrition, drug and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, or childhood environmental hazards such as toxic lead paint.

The flaw in that medical explanation is that all of those health hazards are just as strongly associated with so-called “hard” disabilities such blindness, deafness and serious physical disability. Yet Blacks are no more likely than whites to be placed into “hard” disability categories that can be medically verified.

Orfield says the poverty argument is further refuted by the fact that over-representation in most school districts seemed to be exclusively among African-American boys, not among African-American girls, Latino boys or girls, or anyone else who lives in the same economic conditions.

“You can’t explain the over-representation in any rational way unless you can assume that Black boys have fundamentally different problems than Black girls or Hispanic boys or any other group of poor kids,” Orfield said. “It looks like there is a direct racial and gender problem here.”

“The real problems are things like white teachers who don’t understand how to deal with young Black boys who are acting out,” Orfield said. “The second thing is there are no social services available in schools for teachers to refer kids to. So teachers are seeing special education as the only resource that’s available. It’s the only way to get kids who have problems they can’t deal with out of their classrooms.”


The lifetime consequences of identifying children as disabled can be over-whelming. All special education students also face obstacles after school, but those obstacles multiply significantly for Blacks, as Orfield and Losen demonstrate:

“Post-high school outcomes for these minority students with disabilities are strikingly inferior. Among high school youth with disabilities, about 75 percent of the African-American students, as compared to 47 percent of white students, are not employed two years out of high school. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of African Americans, compared to 39 percent of white young adults [who have been in special education], are still not employed three to five years out of school. In this same time period, the arrest rate for African-Americans with disabilities is 40 percent, as compared to 27 percent for whites.”

Wanda Blanchett, assistant professor in the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says she’s troubled by what happens to African-American children after they are placed in special education.

“No one would have anything negative to say about the fact that all of these kids of color are over-represented in special education if, when they were placed there, they got the help they needed,” Blanchett says. “Even if it wasn’t the correct diagnosis, the fact that they got help, progress was made, and they went on to live great lives would overshadow all that. As a matter of fact, the data suggests just the opposite. We see that harm is being done.”

Special education is usually sold to African-American parents as a means of providing extra educational help their child needs. In truth, many Black children make very little progress after being labeled educationally disabled.

“Students of color with disabilities tend not to exit high school by graduating,” Blanchett said. “A lot of them drop out. If they do graduate, they tend not to graduate with diplomas, but with a certificate of completion. Graduating without a regular diploma limits their chances of even attending post-secondary education, not to mention affecting their skills and leaving them unable to compete if they were to get in.”

Orfield agrees that reducing access to higher education, whether it’s university or technical school education, is one of the most crippling side effects of the racial disparity in special education.

“We not only need to get kids graduated with regular diplomas, but they need to be capable of some post-secondary education,” Orfield said. “The chances that you can come out of one these categories where Black kids are over-represented and either graduate or be ready for any kind of post-secondary education is just miniscule.”


The relationship between the classroom teacher and the child is crucial. By far the primary determining factor in whether any child is placed in a special education program is referral by a teacher for evaluation. Orfield and Losen cite repeated studies confirming that more than 90 percent of the students referred by a teacher for evaluation will end up in special education.

That is why one of the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that schools employ “pre-referral intervention.” Special education is supposed to be a final resort, not the first. When a student is having educational or behavioral difficulties in class, an intervention team is supposed to investigate and recommend strategies to deal with the problem within the regular education program. Only after other attempts to improve performance have failed is a child to be referred for evaluation for special education.

Blanchett, who hosted a regional conference on special education, says she’s found that in many school districts, prereferral intervention was virtually nonexistent.

“Teachers indicated they didn’t even know there was supposed to be pre-referral intervention,” Blanchett said. “They didn’t even know what pre-referral intervention was. A large number of them said it didn’t exist at all. They had never heard of anything like that. These were general education teachers who were referring students.”

Daniel Losen, Orfield’s co-editor, who is legal and policy research associate with Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, taught elementary school in the Boston area for 10 years in a system that emphasized including special education children in the regular classroom.

“When you force teachers to examine their practices and come up with alternative methods of presenting material that speaks to kids’ individual strengths the way you do with kids with disabilities, all the kids in your class benefit,” Losen said.

“As a teacher, you’re now more aware of different ways of presenting materials. All kids have strengths and weaknesses whether or not they’re disabled. So breaking things down and encouraging learning in different ways is beneficial to everyone.”

Losen believes most teachers want to do well. With proper training and support, he said, they can learn to recognize the factors that lead to racial disparities in special education.

“Teachers can be trained to think about it and actually change their practices,” Losen said. “You know, bias doesn’t necessarily make you an evil person. It just makes you a member of society.

“This can be taught quite openly without a lot of defensiveness. We need to say there are things we need to learn to do better vis-á-vis teaching diverse groups of kids and being more appreciative of the sort of cultural capital different kids bring to the classroom. These things can be trained. Teachers can do this better, and most teachers want to.”


Asa Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State University in Atlanta in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education, believes the growth of special education, with a disproportionate number of Blacks, parallels the growth of desegregation.

“We weren’t doing a lot with special education before 1954,” Hilliard said. “Then, suddenly, you got a lot of special ed.”

The original form of special education was a two-track system — a gifted track for whites and a retarded track for Blacks, Hilliard said. When whites saw resources going to Blacks, they developed a third more socially acceptable “learning disabled” track. “That meant you could call your kids very bright, but say somehow the wires were crossed.”

“Special education, the way it’s operated, makes things worse,” Hilliard said. “If you call a kid retarded who’s not or say that he’s learning disabled and he’s not, and you separate him out for special instruction, which isn’t special, that just compounds the problems. Everybody in school knows who the kid is. They have nicknames for them. Sometimes they isolate them and stick them in Quonset huts on the back of the school. If they’re treated poorly, all kinds of bad things happen as a result.

“If you keep sentencing kids to classes where their achievement doesn’t change and it’s pointed out to you that achievement does not change, and in fact it sometimes gets worse, the disproportion will continue to have negative consequences.”

The federal law governing special education as well as federal civil rights laws are supposed to prevent special education being used to segregate school systems. The same Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that requires pre-referral intervention, also requires that students with disabilities be educated with their non-disabled peers “in the least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent possible.

Despite that, race appears to play a strong role in whether a disabled student is educated within the regular classroom or separately.

Nationally among students with disabilities in 2002, 55 percent of whites and only 37 percent of Blacks were educated inclusively, that is, spending less than 21 percent of the school day outside of the regular classroom. Defined as being educated in a more restrictive setting were those who spent between 21 percent and 60 percent of the school day out of the regular classroom: 30 percent of Black students and 29 percent of white students. Defined as being educated substantially separately were those who spent more than 60 percent of the school day outside the regular classroom: 33 percent of Blacks and 16 percent of whites.

Hilliard believes quality teaching is the key to eliminating racial and economic achievement gaps. Hilliard travels the country citing “dozens and dozens and dozens” of examples of schools in the poorest neighborhoods achieving outstanding results through good teaching.

“There’s no way to get around talking about the quality of instruction, but we’ve found ways to do it,” Hilliard said. “It’s simple. You put the right teachers in front of the children and you don’t have the problem of disproportion [of Black children in special education. You eliminate it overnight. There is no mystery about what to do.

“The question is how do you get good teachers in front of every child? That’s the only question. It really is. But that’s not what we say. We start looking at whether the kid had lead paint. Did they live in a gang-infested neighborhood? We’re looking for child factors or family factors when it’s really teaching quality factors.”

Instead of talking about the maldistribution of children with problems, Hilliard said, all we need to do is correct the maldistribution of quality of instruction.

Hilliard cited the results of a 1998 study by W. I. Sanders and J. C. Rivers: “If you give a kid three good teachers in a row in third, fourth, and fifth grade math and if another group of kids get three bad teachers in a row, those two groups will be separated by 50 percentile ranks at the end of three years due solely to the quality of teaching.”

Training and placing quality teachers is a leadership problem, Hilliard said.

“I’m in South Fulton County (in Georgia). There’s a North Fulton County. We know that teachers who don’t do well in North Fulton will sometimes get assigned to South Fulton. Somebody made a decision to do that. Somebody made a judgment not to be fair. So how do you make people be fair? How do you stop people from sending the weak teachers to the poorest neighborhoods?

“The inequities follow poor kids even when they transfer to wealthier suburban school districts,” Hilliard said.

“If you take a poor kid in the inner city and there’s a habit of putting the weak teachers in their classrooms, and then you send these kids out to the suburbs, they wind up in the low track, which probably has the weaker teachers. So you’ve got the same thing no matter where the kid is sitting.”

Orfield said it is the lack of training, resources, and alternatives for dealing with children that makes teachers quick on the trigger in referring children to special education, especially children who have social backgrounds and behavior problems they don’t know how to deal with.

“If the teacher is being evaluated on control of the classroom and the teacher doesn’t understand what’s going on and can’t relate to a certain group of kids, there’s a real temptation and incentive to define any behavior or educational problem as a disability,” Orfield said. “If a school administrator and a teacher have a problem that really requires some social work and they don’t have any resources, special education seems to be a resource. But it’s a resource that’s got a trap door for the kids.”


Susan Endress is director of the Community Parent Resource Center of Wisconsin FACETS (Family Assistance Center for Education, Training and Support). The nonprofit Milwaukee center assists parents of children with disabilities in getting access to educational resources.

Endress is often in the position of advocating for parents who want their children to get the additional help that is available within special education. But she knows very well that special education can be double-edged. The reduced expectation for success for a child in special education was something she experienced personally when her deaf child began school.

“With Megan, there was this expectation that deaf kids can only achieve a 4th to 6th grade reading level and never be included in mainstream classes,” Endress said. “It turned out the only thing going on with Megan was that she was deaf. She’s a very bright kid and a very traditional learner. Megan graduated with a 14th grade reading level and she made the dean’s list at college.

“If they can make those assumptions about someone like Megan, they’re even more likely to make those assumptions about students of color in special education. Unfortunately, I think too many of our teachers already have low expectations of students of color, and then when they see they’re in special education, they just notch it down a bit more. It’s like a double hurdle those kids have to get over.”

Black parents say there can be far more hurdles than that. Sophronia Purnell’s eighth grade son has been designated emotionally and behaviorally disturbed. Before she succeeded in getting him evaluated and placed in special education, her biggest struggle was getting him an education at all.

In third grade, her son was suspended repeatedly for his behavior. Suspensions also fall disproportionately on African-American students. As a result, Purnell estimated that in a month, her son would spend only five to 10 days in school. As her son continued to fall farther behind, she put her foot down.

“It was like every day somebody was calling me. By the time he got into the building, they were calling me to tell me they were sending him home. This particular day the principal called me and said, ‘I’m sending him home.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ She said, ‘Well, he can’t stay here.’ I said, ‘He can’t come here. I’m going to work. I’m leaving right now.’ She said, ‘Well, we’re not baby sitters here.’ I said, ‘You’re right. You’re educators, and he has a problem getting his education and I need you to evaluate him.'”

Purnell has had two children in regular education as well as her son in special education. She said she wasn’t concerned about less being expected of her son after he was labeled special ed. As a Black parent, she is used to having to fight to get the best education possible for her children.

“For regular ed or special ed, you have to do that anyway,” she said. “I still have to go to the school and find out what’s going on and try to build partnerships with the teachers.”

David Osher, project director of the Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice in Washington, D.C., cites evidence in Orfield and Losen’s book that African Americans who are designated with emotional and behavior disturbances are disciplined far more harshly than whites, often sending them directly into the criminal justice system.

African-American students were more than three times as likely as whites to be given short-term suspensions. They were 67 percent more likely than whites with emotional and behavior problems to be removed from school on the grounds of dangerousness. They were 13 times more likely than white students with emotional and behavior problems to be arrested in school.

It is a pattern that continues in life. Twice as many African-American students with emotional and behavior problems, 58 percent, drop out of school, and 73 percent of all students with emotional and behavior problems who drop out are arrested within three to five years of leaving school.

“I don’t think the issue is the relationship between special ed and entry into the juvenile justice system,” said Osher. “It’s the issue of appropriate educational services when kids start either developing or exacerbating mental health problems. They can do that when they are in school environments that are not good. Then, if they get into special ed, and they’re not provided with appropriate services, either their situation continues to be bad or it gets worse.”

Pat Patterson is an African-American family support specialist for the Community Parent Resource Center of Wisconsin FACETS. She raised two grandsons who were severely cognitively disabled and advocates for children throughout the area who have special needs.

“We had a city school superintendent who just left who said our kids were damaged goods,” Patterson said. “If you’re the parent of a disabled child, you are not welcome at the PTAs and PTOs because, guess what, you are vying for the same funds and resources that we need for our regular ed and gifted and talented children. So, get back.”

Patterson and Endress continue to fight to remove those trapdoors from special education that Orfield says are permanently damaging the lives of so many African-American children.

Endress said all parents who are told their child should be placed in special education want only the best possible education for their child. Parents have to continue to fight to receive that.

“When parents call here to find out about the services that would be available for their child in special education, I sometimes wonder if I should also tell them that a child in special education might have only a 50 percent chance of graduating,” Endress said.


Orfield said politically conservative pressure groups such as the Bradley Foundation have attempted in the past to use his organization’s research on racial disparities as an excuse to cut funding for special education that was hard-won as the result of intense activism and organizing by parents and concerned educators.

“Special education is a great gift to the country,” Orfield said. “Most parents who are in it want their kids to be in it. Their kids are getting something beneficial. We are talking about a tragic failure of a small part of the system.”

Losen said there were tremendous benefits to be had in special education and kids of all races had benefited from it.

For conservatives to lobby against full funding of special education because of legitimate research showing problems with racial disparities, cynically ignores the true consequences of reduced funding, Losen said.

“Whenever you have huge funding shortfalls, the kids who get hurt the most are the poor and the minority kids,” Losen said.

Orfield said the ultimate solution to the racial disparities in special education would require not only training teachers and administrators, but also diversifying school staffs that frequently have few black professionals.

“They need to have some folks who might be able to help understand what’s really going on [with African-American students],” Orfield said.

“There is a really serious risk that children’s behaviors are going to be misunderstood and the teachers aren’t going to have skills to deal with kids. That’s when schools panic and over-prescribe. It’s something we just need to keep a very close eye on when the results of those placements can be irreversible.”

Joel McNally (jmcnally@wi.rr.com) is a Milwaukee-based writer.