"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
- Leonard H. Courtney
Data is useful to identify possible problems, but it should never be relied on to tell the entire story. An example can be found in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Special Education Department's presentation on "Addressing LA Unified's Significant Disproportionality Challenges for African American Students with Disabilities."
According to the data provided, African American students represent 7.49% of the LAUSD's general education students but are 10.04% of the district's Students with Disabilities (SWD). For the specific eligibility of Emotional Disturbance (ED), African American children comprise 18.5% of the LAUSD's cases. While this information tells us that there is, indeed, significant disproportionality in the number of African American children receiving these services, it does nothing to explain why this is happening or if it is harming the affected students. Without answering these essential questions, the district went on to explain how they were going to fix the "problem."
It is possible that higher than expected diagnoses are occurring because of implicit bias or because the students are not receiving early intervention, but further studies should be undertaken to prove these suspicions. An equally plausible explanation is that the parents of these students are more culturally prepared to accept a legitimate diagnosis. Until data is presented proving that students are incorrectly being diagnosed, the district should not be embarking on any plan that seeks to reduce the number of students with any specific eligibility. To do so creates the unacceptable risk that students will not receive services to which they are entitled and which they need.
Even more concerning is the fact that the LAUSD appears to be minimizing information from the same data set that shows Asian students are significantly underrepresented in the district's special education population. Only 2.99% of Students With Disabilities (SWD) are Asian, while these students comprise 6.05% of the general education population. For the diagnosis of ED, the difference is even greater with only 1% of Asian students identified as having this eligibility.
This example of significant disproportionality identifies a condition that may indicate Asian students in the general education population are not properly identified. This means that they are not getting the services that they require and are entitled to under the law. As a result, these students may not only fall behind academically, but they could suffer irreparable harm to their self-esteem. The long-term damage will prevent them from reaching their full potential and increase the risk that they will drop out of school before receiving their diploma or certificate of completion.
Given the severe risks to children, the LAUSD should be prioritizing the investigation of cases where significant disproportionality shows that students are underrepresented. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. When asked why this underrepresentation is not considered to be a problem, representatives from the district do concede that this "data comparison is important." However, they state a "need to prioritize resources towards our significant disproportionality charge." Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the district saves money when there is an underrepresentation of students in special education.
Meetings of the board's Special Education Committee are currently suspended. However, Kelly Gonez is now saying that she may allow them to begin again soon. Once she does, the significant disproportionality of Asian and African American students needs to be one of the topics that this committee investigates. The community must be assured that everything is being done to ensure that no children are being excluded from receiving the services that they need.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD's CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a "strong supporter of public schools." For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.