Poster Paper: Why so Few Immigrants? Exploring the Nativity Gap in Special Education

Saturday, November 5, 2016
Columbia Ballroom (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Menbere Shiferaw, New York University

There is widespread agreement among practitioners and researchers that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in special education, although there is less consensus about the direction. Much of this literature focuses on race. This paper examines the participation of immigrant students in special education, about which much less is known. Immigrant students are a particularly important group to study because they make up a large and growing share of the student population. Moreover, their program participation decisions can be complicated by factors unique to being foreign-born, such as language, culture, and institutional barriers. Understanding gaps in program participation has implications for students’ academic success and consequently the nativity academic gap for low performing immigrants. This paper uses a comprehensive set of data and methods to examine the nativity gap in special education. Why are there so few immigrants receiving special education services? 

The limited literature on immigrant children with disabilities suggests that they are significantly less likely to receive special education services than their native counterparts. I first confirm this finding using rich, administrative, longitudinal data on 1.5 million New York City (NYC) public school students. Immigrant students are roughly six percentage points less likely to receive special education services than natives. 

The crux of this paper, and most relevant for policy, is an examination of three distinct explanations for the nativity gap in special education: healthy immigrant selection, language and culture, and resource and institutional challenges. First, I use data from the US Census and the National Health Interview Survey to explore the prevalence of disabilities in the immigrant and native population. Second, using the NYC administrative data, I explore heterogeneity in the nativity gap by country of origin, English proficiency, and disability classification. Lastly, I examine whether school level socio-demographic, expenditure, and teacher characteristics mediate part of the nativity gap in special education. I also use hazard model analysis to examine the reclassification patterns into and out of special education by nativity and receipt of bilingual services to understand whether there is a lack of multilingual personnel to assess need and deliver services to English language learners with disabilities.

For over forty year, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has guaranteed free and appropriate public school education to all children with disabilities. Do immigrant children with disabilities have access to the appropriate curricula and services they need to meet their educational needs? Understanding the nativity gap in special education is critical for targeted policymaking and ensuring that special education services are indeed available to all students in need.