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Do Race and Ethnicity Play a Role in the Identification of Giftedness and Special Needs?

New research finds that bias based on race or ethnicity may play a bigger role in the classroom than previously thought. NYU’s Department of Teaching and Learning designed a study to examine how these biases affect the referral of students for gifted and special education programs. A more in-depth summary of the study can be read in this Chalkbeat article.

For the study, 70 third- and fourth-grade teachers from “an unnamed large, northeastern city” were randomly assigned to read profiles of fictional male students who showed signs of academic challenges, behavioral/emotional deficits, or giftedness. However, the profiles featured the student’s names: “Jacob,” “Carlos,” or “Demetrius.”

The results may be surprising to some. The teachers were more likely to see Jacob’s academic deficits as “medicalized problems to fix” and thus suggested he get evaluated for special education while Carlos and Demetrius’ same academic deficits did not warrant a referral. The study says this implies that “low academic performance is normal for [students of color], and not a problem to remediate.”

When Carlos and Demetrius demonstrated behavioral challenges in their profiles, their behavior was considered to be “more aggressive and problematic” than when Jacob demonstrated the same behavior. And what does this imply? Students who are classified as having behavioral issues – regardless of whether this is an accurate classification or not – tend to be treated differently in the school system.

Rachel Fish, the study’s author and a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School, was quoted as saying the following during an interview about the study’s results:

“If you’re labeled with an emotional behavior disorder, you’re likely going to be excluded from the general education classroom and it’s likely you’ll be greatly stigmatized. While there isn’t much conclusive research on how students’ classifications affect them down the road, there is evidence that being labeled with a behavioral disorder is associated with future incarceration.”

The study also found that teachers evaluated Jacob’s skills more favorably and were more likely to refer him for gifted programming than for Carlos and Demetrius.

This concern of providing students with equity of access to appropriate education services is exactly what special education expert Dr. Frances Stetson presented about during her PresenceLearning SPED Ahead webinar titled “Inclusion Is for Every Learner — Or is It?” Click here to watch her webinar and click here to read a summary of the Q&A portion on our blog. You can also download this free white paper and resource kit to learn how teachers can fight biases to better serve their students’ needs.

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