Special education: Beneficial to many, harmful to others

By: | May 27, 2021

Over the past 45 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the fraction of students receiving special education (SE) services in public schools. Currently, over 13% of U.S. public school students participate in SE programs annually, at a cost of $40 billion.

Despite the rising cost of, and participation in, SE, there is limited quantitative evidence on who benefits from SE and to what extent SE impacts achievement in school and beyond. On the one hand, SE students likely benefit from the individualized educational support that SE offers. On the other hand, for students with less severe conditions, there are reasons why SE participation could be harmful: Being placed in segregated learning environments or held to relatively lower expectations regarding achievement may inhibit long-run success. Though the purpose of SE is to ameliorate the challenges that students with disabilities face throughout schooling and later in life, exactly which students benefit from SE participation is less clear.

For students of color in particular, education experts differ on whether SE participation is beneficial. Black students are about one and a half times more likely to receive SE services in public school than white students. This has sparked discussion of whether these differences in SE classification between white and Black students imply that some Black students are misplaced in SE (e.g., due to racial bias from administrators or placement rubrics). And yet, after conditioning on important background characteristics such as prior academic achievement and socioeconomic status, Black students are less likely to receive SE services relative to their white peers. These findings have led to concern about whether Black students should be placed in SE more often, despite appearing to be overrepresented in SE.

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