Special Ed Gender Gap Stirs Worry
Some say boys singled out for wrong
by Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff and Bill
Dedman, Boston Globe Correspondent,
The Boston Glove, 7/8/02
Public schools in Massachusetts and nationwide place
twice as many boys as girls in special education, a gender gap that
extends from the biggest cities to the toniest suburbs to the tiniest
towns, according to a Globe analysis of state and federal data.
But the size of the gender disparity in special
education is not uniform from district to district. For example, for
children diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, one special-education
category, boys make up 90 percent of emotionally disturbed students in
Kansas City, but only 55 percent in Milwaukee.
The more subjective the diagnosis of the student,
the wider the gender gap, records show. In Massachusetts schools, boys
are slightly more likely than girls to be identified with hearing or
vision problems, and 11/2 times as likely to be retarded. But boys are
twice as likely to be labeled with a learning disability, and more
than three times as likely to be called emotionally disturbed.
Such differences raise a recurring worry: that
special education is a way to push misbehaving students - mostly boys
- or slower ones out of regular classrooms. Superintendents and
special-education advocates insist this isn't commonplace, but
Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said the gap
''More boys get referred because they tend to act
out. And it's an overidentification, because very often they don't
necessarily have a disability at all. It's just that they're active,''
Driscoll said. ''Young girls tend to be passive and underidentified,
because they're compliant, and sometimes it hides a disability. ... We
have a responsibility to respond to these kinds of statistics, which
we see all the time.''
Of the Commonwealth's roughly 160,000 disabled
public school students, 66 percent are boys, according to 2000-01
enrollment figures from the state Department of Education. That figure
matches national numbers that show that two-thirds of boys are
classified as special-needs, receiving help for anything from severe
physical impairments to behavior disorders.
The disparity in special education seems to depend
as much on geography as disability. For example, in affluent Sherborn
west of Boston, 77 percent of the town's special-education students
last year were boys. Next door in Dover, the number dropped to 68
percent. In Burlington, nearly 70 percent of the town's special-needs
students were boys - but just across Route 128 in Woburn, it was 60
percent. There's one elementary school in Orleans on Cape Cod, and
boys comprised about 80 percent of its special-education enrollment.
There's also one elementary school in Nahant on the North Shore - and
boys made up 60 percent of the special-needs students, figures show.
The disparity from town to town flummoxes
superintendents and authorities on special education. They say they
are aware of cognitive, medical, and psychological reasons for the
overall 2-to-1 gender gap. But those well-researched differences
between boys' and girls' development do not explain why a boy in
Deerfield is almost twice as likely to end up in special education as
his peer in Williamsburg, according to the data. The gap persists even
though special-education referrals are governed by state and federal
''I suspect you get varying histories from town to
town and varying cultures around special ed,'' said Martha Ziegler,
founder of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a Boston
advocacy group. ''It always comes down to what's going on in the
regular classrooms plus the outlook and practices of the
administrators all the way to the superintendent.''
Nationally, special education is largely a boys
club, with 1.9 million girls and 3.8 million boys classified as
special education in 2000, according to numbers compiled by the US
Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The gap in
Massachusetts is about as wide, with 54,000 girls and 105,000 boys in
About 12 percent, or 1 in 8 children, in US public
schools was disabled enough to require special education in 2000, the
latest year for which national figures are available. In
Massachusetts, a greater share of children were placed in special
education: 1 in 6, or 17 percent, in 2001.
For more than 25 years, Massachusetts had one of the
nation's most generous special-education laws, requiring districts to
provide the ''maximum feasible benefit'' to disabled students. But two
years ago, amid soaring costs and worries that some students received
the often expensive services without truly needing them - the state
Legislature enacted stricter eligibility requirements.
The new rules took hold in January, but educators
say it is too early to gauge their effect.
Meanwhile, wide differences from town to town
persist. Take Norfolk and Lincoln, both outside Route 128 and each
with about 1,200 students. Both superintendents say they try to ensure
that students don't end up in special education for the wrong reasons,
such as academic problems that aren't driven by disabilities.
But last year, 73 percent of Norfolk's
special-education students - compared to 57 percent of Lincoln's -
''I really wonder why this is true,'' said Norfolk
School Superintendent Marcia A. Lukon, who has testified before the
Legislature in favor of tightening special-education eligibility. ''We
have a few severe behavior cases, but in general it's not the naughty
little boys that get put in special ed.''
Jeanne Whitten, interim superintendent of schools in
Lincoln, is equally baffled by her district's smaller gender gap:
''I'm wondering if perhaps we just abide by the rules and regulations
of the Department of Education more so than others. There's no magic
formula, clearly. We try to treat all children, all genders, all
ethnic groups the same.''
Boys do exhibit some disorders with higher frequency
- four times as many boys are autistic, specialists say, and three to
four times as many boys are diagnosed with attention
deficit-hyperactivity disorder. Biologically, boys have more birth
defects and mature at slower rates than girls. And in classrooms, boys
are more prone to disrupt lessons if they struggle with learning,
while girls turn more inward and simply tune out the teacher.
''Girls might sit quietly in the regular-ed
classroom appearing as if they're getting it, but not causing
behavioral disruptions because it's not part of their repertoire,''
said Jerome J. Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of
the Learning Lab at Lesley University in Cambridge. ''Boys frustrated
by reading or math or who find school a toxic place because of a lack
of appropriate education might be more likely to act out physically -
and do so in ways that would get the notice of the teacher.''
The gap cannot be explained entirely by the fact
that boys develop more slowly because it persists throughout all ages.
In Massachusetts, at age 6, the male-female ratio is 2.4 to 1,
leveling off by age 9 at 1.9 to 1 - but it remains at that level
through high school.
Orleans school officials insist they gauge first
whether struggling students would be better off with extra attention
or different teaching styles instead of special education. Moreover,
some disabled students get special-education help but take
regular-education classes. ''Just because students are referred
doesn't mean they qualify,'' said Ann Caretti, director of student
services for the Nauset Regional School District, which includes
In the end, the strength of the local parent
councils or parents' familiarity with complex educational law also can
affect who gets special-education services.
When she lived in Burlington, Caroline Pooler
resisted the district's suggestions that her second-grade son, who has
a speech and language disorder, be transferred from regular-education
classes into special-needs classes. After mediation and a lawyer's
help, Pooler moved to Andover so her son could remain in
regular-education classes while also getting special-education
''I do believe sometimes special education is a
crutch,'' Pooler said. ''Some kids do need it. But there are times
when kids could be in a regular-ed classrooms with the right
The Globe calculated disability rates by
gender and diagnosis in each of the nation's 14,681 public school
districts using information from the 2000 Elementary and Secondary
School Survey by the Office for Civil Rights. For Massachusetts
schools, later figures were available, for 2001 by district and for
2002 statewide, from the Massachusetts Department of Education.
Figures for every school are at http://www.boston.com.