Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 2019 Issue »

    Racial Differences in Special Education Identification and Placement

    Evidence Across Three States


    In this article, Todd Grindal, Laura Schifter, Gabriel Schwartz, and Thomas Hehir examine race/ethnicity differences in students' special education identification and subsequent placement in segregated educational settings. Using individual-level data on the full population of K-12 public school students in three states, the authors find that racial and ethnic disparities in identification persist within income categories and are stronger for those disabilities that are typically identified in a school setting, such as learning disabilities or emotional disabilities, than those more often identified by a health-care provider, such as blindness or deafness. Also, Black and Hispanic students with disabilities were more likely to be placed in a substantially separate setting, compared to white students, regardless of income status. These results suggest that low-income status is insufficient to explain observed inequalities in the rate at which students of color are identified for special education and placed in substantially separate settings. A better understanding of the ways income status and race contribute to students' interactions with the special education system are critical for building a more equitable and just K-12 education system.

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    Todd Grindal is a senior principal education researcher at SRI Education, where he studies the impact of policies and programs on young children and children with disabilities. He uses quantitative and qualitative methods to build evidence bases on how to support children at home, in schools, and in their communities. Grindal' work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Public Policy and Management, Journal of Research in Educational Effectiveness, and Applied Economic Perspectives. He was a coauthor on work that was awarded the 2016 Applied Research Award for Advances in Methodology by the American Education Research Association and the 2018 Outstanding Article award from the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness. Before beginning his doctoral studies, Grindal worked for six years as an elementary and preschool teacher and school administrator.

    Laura A. Schifter is a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, teaching courses on federal education policy and on special education. She is also a fellow with the Century Foundation, where she writes about issues impacting students with disabilities. She previously worked as a senior education and disability adviser for Representative George Miller (D-CA) on the Committee on Education and the Workforce and served as an education fellow for Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. She also taught elementary school in San Francisco.

    Gabriel Schwartz (https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8299-1407) is a PhD candidate in population health sciences at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. His research is in urban social epidemiology, examining how social policy, social stratification, and neighborhoods interactively shape health inequalities. His dissertation focuses on the health consequences of eviction for children, using causal inference methods in observational data. Prior to beginning his doctoral program, Schwartz worked in policy evaluation and as a health advocate.

    Thomas Hehir is professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Hehir served as director of the US Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs from 1993 to 1999. He also served as director of special education for Boston Public Schools from 1983 to 1987 and the associate superintendent for the Chicago Public Schools from 1990 to 1993. An advocate for children with disabilities in the education system, he has written on special education, special education in the reform movement, due process, and least restrictive environment issues.

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