With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
North Cooc is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on using quantitative research methods and large data to analyze racial disproportionality in special education and the role of family and school contextual factors in explaining disparities in enrollment and achievement. He is currently examining the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in special education and collaborating with the Federation for Children with Special Needs in Boston to analyze the experiences of Asian American parents of children with disabilities. Prior to UT and graduate school, he worked in education research and conducted evaluations of after-school programs and literacy initiatives at Policy Studies Associates in Washington, D.C.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Why is race an issue in special education?
North Cooc: Race and special education matters a lot because historically and even today there are racial disparities in who gets placed in special ed. We know that African American students are more likely to be placed in special ed than white students and other students. Native American students are also more likely to be placed in special ed. In certain regions, Hispanic and Latino students are more likely to be place in special ed. Race is there because you see who gets placed in special ed. But not surprisingly, these are also the same groups that have historically been more marginalized in education.
These are disparities you see in general education in terms of achievement and college enrollment. You also see them in special ed.
It raises this question of the students placed in special ed: Are they part of this larger unequal system where they are stratified or sorted into special ed? Are they being placed because of actual learning needs, or is it because of other structural inequalities in general education?
Trib+Edu: Did you expect to see this?
Cooc: I wasn’t surprised by the numbers because we hear about inequalities with African American students, Hispanic students and Native American students in general education. We are familiar with a lot of the achievement gaps. They are not surprising.
Although for Asian students, they are less likely to be placed in special ed. I was expecting them to be similar to white students, but they are even lower than white students. On one hand, they tend to do better in general education. They have higher averages of achievement and college enrollment. So it is not surprising that they would have a lower rate of being placed in special ed.
One thing that was surprising was who gets placed in special ed based on disability category. In special ed, in general, Asians have a lower rate of being placed in special ed, but when you look at the categories, especially autism, it is very interesting. That is the one category where Asian students are actually overrepresented. For categories like learning disability, it is much much lower. Autism is a finding that we are still trying to figure out.
Trib+Edu: How do these disparities impact the classroom?
Cooc: For black, Hispanic and Native American students, they are overrepresented in special ed. So the question is, why is that the case?
Special ed is supposed to provide services for students that have a disability, so that they can learn and access the curriculum. If they are misidentified, then they are in a classroom setting that is not meant for them.
If they are in special ed but do not need the services, then you don’t have the same access to the general curriculum. You are not learning the same materials as other students. In some way, you are falling behind because you are basically in the wrong learning environment.
A concern with these racial disparities is that a large group of these students are being misidentified, and their learning needs are not being met.
Trib+Edu: Is misidentification the root of the problem?
Cooc: One category where you see higher disparities are in the category of emotional and behavioral disorder. That is one that is more subjective. For certain students that exhibit certain behaviors, one teacher might think it is just their personality or normal reaction. Other teachers might interpret that as EBD. That is one category where African Americans are overrepresented.
Trib+Edu: Hoes does Texas fare compared to other states?
Cooc: Texas is interesting because it has a lower rate of students being placed in special ed in general.
Trib+Edu: How could these findings be applied to a district?
Cooc: So Asian students, for example, who are underrepresented, that topic doesn’t get much attention. Usually we are concerned if students are being placed in special ed and being overrepresented. Underrepresentation doesn’t catch people's attention because, if they are not in special ed it can be seen as a sign that they are doing OK. I think that underrepresentation is important for a district to monitor, as well.
The opposite side of the coin is if students are being under identified. Maybe there are students who really need certain services, but they are not getting them.