disability discrimination

Many worry that students of color are too often identified as disabled. Is the real problem the opposite?

PHOTO: Ali Lapetina

New research challenges a piece of common wisdom about special education: that black students are too often told they have a disability.

It’s true that 15 percent of black students in the U.S. are identified as disabled, while only 13 percent of white students are. Some worry that misplacing black students in special education segregates them and lowers expectations for their success. The disparity has even prompted action from the federal education department, which has long cautioned school districts against over-identifying students of color.

The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, joins other recent research in calling these concerns into question — and suggests that bias may be at work in the other direction.

“These well-intentioned efforts appear to be targeting the wrong problem typically being experienced by racial and ethnic minority children attending U.S. schools,” write the study’s seven authors.

The researchers controlled for factors like poverty and student test scores to determine whether similar students of different races are identified as disabled at different rates. Their conclusion: kids of color are actually less likely than white children to be identified as having disabilities.

For example, the study finds that about 75 percent of the lowest-achieving white boys in fourth grade are identified as disabled, compared to under 50 percent of fourth grade black boys of the same achievement level.

That finding, of underidentification of students of color, generally holds across different races — black, Hispanic, Native-American, Asian-American — different years and grades, and different disabilities. Asian-American students appear to be especially underidentified for special education.

Paul Morgan, one of the authors of the study and a professor at Penn State, says that some have mistakenly taken the higher raw numbers for some racial groups as evidence of bias.

“You don’t hear a statistic like ‘minority children are twice as likely to have asthma’ and automatically conclude that pediatricians are racially biased, and let’s stop identifying children who are minorities with asthma,” he said.

“I’m all for monitoring for the potential of racial bias, but there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to do that,” Morgan said. The correct way, he says, is to “look at similarly situated or otherwise similar children in the school” — by comparing students with comparable achievement levels, for example. 

The findings are likely to prompt pushback. A 2015 study from Morgan and colleagues reaching similar conclusions received a sharp critical reaction from some other academics. In a response published in the same academic journal, several researchers accused Morgan and colleagues of oversimplifying a complex issue. (Morgan and one co-author wrote a reply to the critique.)

The dispute turns in part on a question about what data set was used in the 2015 study. Morgan says his latest work, which uses different data, is partially meant as a response.

The critics did not address Morgan’s argument about the limitations of past research. They did say, though, that the study goes too far in implying that underidentification of students of color is always a problem and the opposite never is.

There “is not a broad and sweeping witch hunt targeting overrepresentation,” the critics wrote. (Recent federal guidelines warn against both over- and underidentification of students of color.)

Morgan says he agrees that, in some cases, identifying too many students of color may be a legitimate concern. But he worries that districts are being encouraged to pay too much attention to raw differences among groups.

He pointed to the recent finding that schools in Texas had systematically denied students special education services in order to hit accountability targets.

“You quickly can enter a situation where schools are paying attention to those numerical targets and not identifying children who may have disabilities,” he said.

pick a school

Denver Public Schools making changes to choice process meant to benefit low-income parents

PHOTO: Karl Gehring/Denver Post
A Lincoln Elementary student practices her writing skills in this 2008 file photo.

Denver Public Schools is making changes to its nationally recognized school choice system, in part to make it easier for low-income parents to navigate and to assuage fears of undocumented families wary of providing personal information given the national political climate.

The district plans to roll out a new, mobile-friendly school information website, as well as eliminate a requirement that families show “proof papers” to participate in the choice process.

This year will be the seventh that DPS has used a unified enrollment system for all of its schools, including district-run, innovation and charter schools. Families fill out a form listing their top five school choices. The district especially encourages families with kids moving into so-called transition grades — kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades — to fill out a form.

If they don’t, students will be assigned to their boundary school or to a school in their enrollment zone, which is essentially a bigger boundary that includes several schools.

District leaders believe that if families are informed about their choices and can enroll their students in the schools that are the best fit, those students will be more successful.

But not all families are participating. Last school year, district statistics show 87 percent of kindergarteners, 87 percent of sixth-graders and 73 percent of ninth-graders filled out the form. Participation has historically been lower among low-income families than wealthier families.

Remaining barriers include a low awareness of how to research different school options, district officials said. The fact that the choice process takes place in January, seven months before the next school year starts in August, also makes picking a school difficult for families experiencing housing insecurity who may not know where they’ll be living in the fall, officials said.

To make it more accessible, the district is planning to change three things about the upcoming school choice process, which will determine where students enroll in 2018-19. The changes were revealed at a school board work session Monday night by Brian Eschbacher, executive director of enrollment and planning for DPS. They are:

1. Moving the choice process from January to February

In past years, the district has given families a weeks-long window in January to fill out their school choice forms. That means families must research their options — and schools must ramp up their recruiting — in December, a busy time of year filled with holidays and travel.

Plus, asking families to make school choices so far in advance of the next school year can be hard for those who don’t have stable housing or easy access to transportation, Eschbacher said.

To remedy both issues, the district is pushing the choice window back this year. It will open on February 1, and families will have until February 28 to turn in their forms.

Eschbacher said the district also hopes to have the results back sooner. He said his team is aiming in future years to tell families their school assignments in three weeks instead of six. This year, they’re hoping to release results in early April.

2. A new user-friendly, mobile-friendly school search tool

The district plans to debut a new online tool in late October or early November that will allow families to more easily find and evaluate DPS schools. The tool, called School Finder, is made by a California company called SchoolMint and is already being used by several large urban districts, including those in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Camden, N.J.

The current DPS online tool is not mobile-friendly, which Eschbacher said presents a problem for families whose only internet access is through their smartphones. School Finder “looks slick” on a smartphone, Eschbacher said, and will allow families to look up a school’s rating, test scores, information about the programs it offers and even take a virtual tour.

The district hosted several forums with DPS school secretaries, community groups and non-English-speaking parents to get their thoughts on what information is most important to families choosing a school. Eschbacher said district staff are committed to providing that information to families free of jargon and in several languages.

“We’re trying to translate that into parent-speak, not buzzword-y speak,” he said.

Grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation are paying for the project, Eschbacher said. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports Chalkbeat.)

3. Eliminating “proof paperwork” as a requirement to participate in school choice

To participate in the process, the families of the thousands of students who are new to DPS each year have in the past been required to provide proof of their address, such as a utility bill, and proof of their child’s birthdate, such as a birth certificate.

But Eschbacher said district officials are worried that at a time when President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration enforcement, requiring proof paperwork will dissuade undocumented families from participating because they fear it will prompt government action.

According to Eschbacher, internal DPS research suggests between 6,000 and 8,000 of the district’s 92,000 students are undocumented. District leaders have been vocal about protecting those students. The school board passed a resolution in February assuring the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

This year, families who want to participate in choice only will have to tell DPS their child’s name, address and birthdate, Eschbacher said. Families eventually will have to produce proof paperwork but not until they register their children for school in the late summer, “when there is a longer window available and more community resources to help,” according to the board presentation.

School board members on Monday praised the changes, and lauded Eschbacher and his staff for proposing improvements to a system that’s earned national praise (and also criticism).

“To rethink the structure of what we’ve done in the past is a breakthrough and it will mean a lot to our families,” said school board member Happy Haynes.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized when district officials estimate choice results will be available this year.

scrambling for students

Lagging enrollment fuels Tennessee charter schools’ push for student contact data

The latest enrollment numbers from state-run charter schools help to explain why they’re battling for information about prospective students in Nashville and especially Memphis, where under-enrollment is a citywide challenge.

A Chalkbeat analysis shows that 22 schools in Tennessee’s 32-school Achievement School District have lost enrollment from last year, based on ASD data from the 20th day of this school year.

ASD charter operators say they rely on student contact information to send postcards and make calls to families in their neighborhood zones.

“Families come to us regularly throughout the school year and say that they thought our school was closed. They didn’t know we were an option,” said Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Tennessee.

In Memphis, Green Dot requested student contact information in July, but Shelby County Schools refused to comply. The response contributed to a dispute between the state and its two largest traditional districts over whether they are legally required to hand over that information under Tennessee’s new charter school law. In Nashville, LEAD has made a similar request of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. School board members in both cities argue that using student information for recruitment goes against the intent of the state law.

California-based Green Dot operates four ASD schools in Memphis, all of which are under-enrolled and saw their enrollment dip this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has ordered both districts to comply with requests from Green Dot and LEAD by Sept. 25, or face consequences that could include a loss of funding.

McQueen cited this week’s opinion by the state attorney general that sided with the charter schools and stated that information-sharing doesn’t violate a federal student privacy law. School boards in both Memphis have argued they had the right under the federal law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The ASD isn’t the only school system struggling with under-enrollment in Memphis, where the population declined by 1.7 percent from 2015 to 2016. Shelby County Schools has closed at least 21 schools since 2012, citing in part too many buildings and too few students in an increasingly competitive education landscape.

The chart below shows enrollment so far this year, compared to November of the previous year.

ASD enrollment

SCHOOL 2016 ENROLLMENT 2017 ENROLLMENT CHANGE
Cornerstone Prep-Lester 756 368 -51.3
Raleigh Egypt Middle 205 100 -51.2
Corning Achievement 224 138 -38.4
Hanley ES K-5 820 509 -37.9
Frayser Achievement 296 207 -30.1
Georgian Hills Achievement 324 258 -20.4
Humes Middle 315 252 -20.0
Wooddale Middle 473 382 -19.2
Westside Achievement 339 279 -17.7
Pathways Frayser 234 197 -15.8
Coleman ES K-5 548 472 -13.9
Grad Academy Memphis 536 468 -12.7
Whitney Achievement 376 336 -10.6
MLK College Prep 625 564 -9.8
Fairley High 565 515 -8.8
Cornerstone Prep-Denver 616 566 -8.1
MSFK 271 254 -6.3
Kirby Middle 407 382 -6.1
Hillcrest High 483 454 -6.0
Brick Church College Prep 338 326 -3.6
KIPP Memphis Achievement Elementary 448 445 -0.7
Libertas School of Memphis 220 219 -0.5
Freedom Prepatory Academy 567 578 1.9
Pathways Whitehaven 183 189 3.3
KIPP Memphis Prep. Elementary/Middle 611 699 14.4
Caldwell Guthrie 447 518 15.9
Spring Hill Elementary 281 354 26.0
Neely’s Bend College Prep 255 441 72.9
Coleman MS 102 N/A
Hanley MS 233 N/A
Lester Prep 205 N/A
Partners Community Prep 50 N/A