Green, Olsen Explore Intersection of Race and Disability Risk in Special Education

Students of color and Indigenous students are more likely to be referred for special education services than their white counterparts. Two COEd professors wanted to find out where the disparities may have started.

Tuesday, Apr 13, 2021 • Collin Yoxall :

In 1968, Lloyd M. Dunn, a professor at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Tennessee, found that significant disparities existed in the field of special education. Fifty-three years and many more studies later, two UTA College of Education faculty members wanted to understand where special education disparities began, specifically when it comes to the crossroads of race and disability risk.

In their latest published work for “Psychology in the Schools,” Dr. Ambra Green, Dr. Amanda Olsen, and their co-author Vandana Nandakumar, a graduate student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS), set out to understand where in the education system the overrepresentation of students of color and Indigenous students identified for Emotional Disturbance (also referred to as emotional and behavioral disorders) begins.

Equity in education is an issue both Green and Olsen are passionate about, according to Olsen. “Although my research interests connect to equity in education,” said Olsen, “Dr. Green is truly an expert and pioneer in this area, and has masterfully positioned her research agenda to connect with both academics and practitioners to address disparities in special education.”

Decades of research into the intersection of race and special education have found that students of color and Indigenous students are more likely than white students to be referred for special education services. These referrals, according to Green, are often “inaccurate” and the result of “biased perceptions of behavior and exclusionary and harmful disciplinary practices.”

“In general, the literature has acknowledged the differential treatment of students from marginalized races and ethnicities, students with disabilities, and students at the intersection of both in the classroom, school building, and district,” said Green.

“However, what is less known in the field…is the differential treatment of students at the intersection of race and disability risk (i.e., students who have not been identified as having a disability but are perceived to portray characteristics of a student with a disability),” Green explained.

“What was also less known that this study, and their previous study, sought to explore was where exactly within the classroom educational disparities began (e.g., classroom management, pedagogy, curriculum),” she added.

The project involved a sample of 23 educators and more than 500 students in second through fifth grade. The researchers found that teachers used an instructional technique called “opportunities to respond” (OTR), which engages students by regularly asking for their responses to questions or statements, more often with students identified as not at-risk of an inaccurate disability identification. The research team also found higher rates of positive specific feedback were used with students at risk than students not at risk. Of the students who were at-risk for a disability identification, Black students received significantly more OTR than white students.

The findings did not surprise the researchers. “This study was able to add to the literature by empirically analyzing the intersection between the differential treatment of students with varying races/ethnicities and disability risk. A relationship that educators only thought was true, before this study,” said Olsen.

According to Green, the findings serve as a base from which future research on special education disparities can spring.

“The acknowledgment of disparities in special education identification has been around since about 1968 with the Dunn article. Unfortunately, the issue has not been fixed. In my opinion and research, this is largely due to the racist ideologies embedded in the education system,” said Green. “This study, along with a multi-disciplinary research and implementation approach, can help to begin to successfully eradicate this issue,” Green concluded.