New research suggests that a child’s likelihood of being referred for special education services is greatly influenced by the race of their teacher.

Black teachers are less likely to identify children for disability services, according to a study published this month in the American Educational Research Journal. Though the trend held for both white and Black students, it was particularly pronounced for Black boys especially if they are economically disadvantaged.

“It may be that Black teachers interpret certain behaviors as simple inattentiveness rather than a disability, or that Black students respond to Black teachers with more engagement,” said Constance Lindsay, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an author of the paper.

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For the study, researchers looked at administrative data from North Carolina elementary schools between the 2007–2008 and 2012–2013 school years. They found that the disparity in special education identification was especially strong in categories where there is more discretion like learning disabilities.

While special education can been be valuable, there have long been concerns that children from minority backgrounds are overrepresented in special education and the researchers said it can be stigmatizing if students are placed inappropriately.

“Our results add to the growing evidence for why diversifying the teacher workforce is important for improving student outcomes from all backgrounds,” said Cassandra Hart, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, who worked on the study. “Beyond that, school districts may want to consider providing clear guidance to teachers around when they should urge screening for disabilities, to minimize the role of teacher discretion in the identification process.”

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