Racial disparities in special education
Black males are disproportionately placed in special education throughout the United States. Yet, the degree to which such disparities are warranted has been subject to debate. Prior research suggests that special education is used too often in high-poverty schools partly due to limited resources available to support struggling students (Skiba et al., 2006). More recent studies, however, suggest that, when considering student background characteristics and peer racial and socioeconomic composition, Black students are underrepresented in special education, specifically in high-minority schools (Elder et al., 2021). Given these varying findings and interpretations, in this dissertation I sought to bring further clarity to the issue of disproportionality as it relates to Black males. First, I replicated previous research using student-level data from two high-poverty school districts based in a Northeastern state to examine variation in special education placement by race and gender, before and after adjusting for background characteristics. To then understand whether special education placement was effective, I used student fixed effect models to estimate how academic achievement trajectories changed for students after placement and whether these findings differed by race and gender. I found that Black males in the sample were placed in special education at higher rates than students of other race-by-gender groups, even after adjusting for background characteristics. Prior to placement, Black males experienced large declines in academic achievement, and this trend continued after receiving special education. Together, these findings support the notion that Black males are likely overrepresented in special education. Provided these findings, in the second part of this dissertation, I tested the effectiveness of a potential policy mechanism in reducing disproportionality. Specifically, I asked whether providing teachers with additional resources to direct struggling students through a comprehensive student support program reduced the probability of special education placement for Black males. Using two distinct identification strategies, I found that this form of support reduced special education placement rates for Black students, nearly eliminating their disproportionate representation in the districts. I conclude with policy implications for both measuring and addressing disproportionality.