Search results for special education

An elementary school student shows her younger friend how to sign using American Sign Language. Photo by daveynin, Flickr CC.

Since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 and the more comprehensive Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, the number of children receiving special education services has increased dramatically. Today, seven million children in the United States receive special education to meet their individual needs, with more than ever attending their neighborhood schools as opposed to separate schools or institutions.

Because special education has become so institutionalized in schools over the past three decades, we often take for granted that the categories we use to classify people with special needs are socially constructed. For instance, Minnesota has thirteen categorical disability areas, ranging from autism spectrum disorders to blind-visual impairment to traumatic brain injury. But these categories differ from state to state, as do states’ definitions for each category and their protocols for determining when a child meets the diagnostic criteria in a given area. A more sociological take suggests that the “special ed” label does more than just entitle children to receipt of services. For better or worse, it also helps to establish their position within the structure of the mass education system, and to define their relationships with other students, administrators, and professionals.
Research suggests that children of color are overdiagnosed and underserved. They are more likely to be referred for special education testing and to receive special education services than others. This disproportionality occurs more often in categories for which diagnosis relies on the “art” of professional judgment, like emotionally disturbed (ED) or learning disabled (LD). It occurs less often in categories that require little diagnostic inference like deafness or blindness. The attribution of labels can be particularly concerning for children of color, as these labels can be associated with lower teacher and peer expectations and reduced curricular coverage. Even when appropriately placed in special education classes, children of color often receive poorer services than disabled white children. Some research suggests that this happens because the culture and organization of schools encourages teachers to view students of color as academically and behaviorally deficient.
Given the disproportionate representation of students of color in special education, sociologists have investigated whether a child’s race or ethnicity elevates their likelihood of special education placement. By controlling for individual-, school-, and district-level factors, researchers have found that race and social class are not significant predictors of placement. However, school characteristics — like the overall level of student ability — play a role in determining who gets diagnosed. And, because children of color tend to be concentrated in majority-minority schools, they are less likely to be diagnosed than their white peers.

You may also be interested in a previous article: “Autism Across Cultures.”

For more information on children and youth with disabilities, check out the National Center for Education Statistics.

Photo of Elizabeth Warren speaking at a podium. There is a large sign next to her about how students afford college.
Photo by Senate Democrats, Flickr CC

Elizabeth Warren released an ambitious plan for free college and student loan relief on April 22.  Among a Democratic primary field that is increasingly embracing free college as the standard, Warren’s plan stood out for including $50,000 of debt relief for all individuals with current student debt, expanding what we mean by the cost of attendance, creating a fund for HBCUs, and (eventually) banning for-profit colleges from receiving federal funds. The plan also stood out in another way: centering sociological, justice-oriented research. Inequality and education are topics with a lot of good work from sociologists, but it is worth highlighting three sociologists who influenced Warren’s proposal: Louise Seamster, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Warren notes that student loan debt is a racial equality issue. She specifically cites analysis done by a team at Brandeis University, including sociologist Louise Seamster, that finds that households with lower levels of education and families of color benefit more from Warren’s plan. Dr. Seamster’s recent article in Contexts, “Black Debt, White Debt,” demonstrates how debt often functions differently for black and white families. White Americans can take advantage of forms of debt like home mortgages, student loans, and business loans that later result in increased wealth and can be used to establish creditworthiness for future financial interactions. In contrast, municipals fines and fees or predatory student loans are more likely to be carried by black Americans. These forms of debt have high interest rates, poor terms, and hurt future wealth and creditworthiness more than they help.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed also highlighted disparate impacts of student loan debt on black Americans, as well as the centrality of inequality for the American economy and the effects of for-profit colleges. Her work demonstrates how for-profit colleges target low-income students and students of color Dr. Cottom has also testified in front of Congress on for-profit colleges and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Warren’s free-college-for-all position leans heavily on researchers such as Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the most active scholars and advocates for low-income college students. Dr. Goldrick-Rab advocates for meeting the basic needs of students as they pursue their education, especially in recognizing the costs beyond tuition that students face. Paying the Price demonstrates how it is money, not will or desire, that gets in the way of students on financial aid trying to finish a degree.

Louise Seamster, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Sara Goldrick-Rab are exemplars of how sociological research can shape public policy and of how research and activism can push for a more equitable world.

Harvard vs. Bucknell football game. Photo by Yzukerman, Flickr CC

There is no shortage of writing on the history of college sports, especially its history of scandal, and plenty of writing on how big-time college sports harm both the colleges and their athletes. Books as varied as Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. The University and College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA’s Amateur Myth highlight the rise of the NCAA through and because of scandal, enormous amounts of money flowing through college athletic departments (but not to players), and the contortions of universities to fit big-time athletics. 

But athletics matter even in schools defined by their academics rather than their sports. Documents from the recent Harvard affirmative action legal case confirm prior research: even at the Ivies and at coed liberal arts colleges athletes receive a substantial admissions bump. Articles from The Atlantic and Slate detail this bump and how it especially benefits upper-class white students. At Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges the potential financial gain from athletics (as suspect as that might be at other schools) doesn’t make sense as the primary reason to keep sports in these schools. So what are some other reasons that American higher education institutions prioritize athletics? Here are three that sociological thinking and research can help us understand. 

1.Status Networks and Peer Institutions

First, athletics helps schools signal who their peers are, both academically and athletically. Higher education in the United States didn’t develop from a master plan. It is, instead, a network and market of schools that jockey for position, carving out niches and constantly battling for status. Athletic conferences are one way that institutions establish networks, and research has found that schools within conferences come to share similar status, both athletically and academically. The Ivy League is the prime example of this phenomenon. Although “the Ivies” have come to mean a set of elite schools, the league began as simply a commitment to compete against each other on the athletic playing field. 

2. Competing for Students

Another way that colleges signal prestige is through established ranking systems, and a key part of those rankings come from measures of selectivity and the quality undergraduate students. So all colleges are competing for students — either to solidify rankings or to simply matriculate enough students for small, tuition-dependent institutions to be able to pay the bills. In Creating a Class, Mitchell Stevens points out how important athletics are to recruiting students within the competitive, small liberal arts space. He writes,

“Students choose schools for multiple reasons, and the ability to participate in a particular sport at a competitive level of play is often an important one. Because so many talented students also are serious athletes, colleges eager to admit students with top academic credentials are obliged to maintain at least passable teams and to support them with competitive facilities.”

3. Non-academic Signals in Admissions

Histories of Ivy League admissions have revealed how including athletic markers was part of establishing who belonged at the school. On the most obvious level, prominent alumni who were athletes or the parents of prospective students publicly pushed for admissions policies that would be beneficial to others like them. But more subtly, and more insidiously, having an affinity for athletics was viewed as a mark of the “Yale man,” the upper-class, Christian, future leader of the world who had the presence of mind and body to pick up new ideas and manage others. 

Athletics in colleges isn’t just a money-maker or something to keep students happy. It’s a way for colleges to recruit students, fight for status, and signal what types of students they value.

Candidate for Virginia Delegate (elected November 7) Danica Roem, at Protest Trans Military Ban. Photo by Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

Originally posted November 28, 2017.

American attitudes towards transgender and gender nonconforming persons might be changing. Earlier this month, voters elected six transgender officials to public office in the United States, and poll data from earlier this year suggests the majority of Americans oppose transgender bathroom restrictions and support LGBT nondiscrimination laws. Yet, data on attitudes toward transgender folks is extremely limited, and with the Trump administration’s assault on transgender protections in the military and workplace, the future for the trans community is unclear. Despite this uncertainty, a close examination of the social science research on past shifts in attitudes towards same-sex relationships can provide us insight for what the future may hold for the LGBTQ community in the coming decades.

Attitudes about homosexuality vary globally. While gay marriage is currently legal in more than twenty countries, many nations still criminalize same-sex relationships. Differences in attitudes about homosexuality between countries can be explained by a variety of factors, including religious context, the strength of democratic institutions, and the country’s level of economic development.
In the United States, the late 1980s witnessed little acceptance of same-sex marriage, except for small groups of people who tended to be highly educated, from urban backgrounds, or non-religious. By 2010, support for same-sex marriage increased dramatically, though older Americans, Republicans, and evangelicals were significantly more likely to remain opposed to same-sex marriage. Such a dramatic shift in a relatively short period of time indicates changing attitudes rather than generational differences.
Americans have also become more inclusive in their definition of family. In 2003, nearly half of Americans emphasized heterosexual marriage in their definition of family, while only about a quarter adopted a definition that included same-sex couples. By 2010, nearly one third of Americans ascribed to a more inclusive understanding of family structures. Evidence suggests that these shifts in attitudes were partially the result of broader societal shifts in the United States, including increased educational attainment and changing cultural norms.
Despite this progress for same-sex couples, many challenges remain. Members of the LGBTQ community still experience prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes — especially for trans women of color. Even with support for formal rights for same-sex couples from the majority of Americans, the same people are often uncomfortable with informal privileges, like showing physical affection in public. Past debates within LGBTQ communities about the importance of fighting for marriage rights indicates that the future for the LGBTQ folks in the United States is uncertain. While the future can seem harrowing, the recent victories in the United States and Australia for same-sex couples and transgender individuals would have been unheard of only a few decades ago, which offers a beacon of hope to LGBTQ communities.

Want to read more?

Check out these posts on TSP:

Review historical trends in public opinion on gay and lesbian rights (Gallup)

Check out research showing that bisexual adults are less likely to be “out” (Pew Research Center)

Photo of two hands holding a paper that says "I Like Being Autistic Because"
Photo by Walk InRed, Flickr CC

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day. This community-wide event promotes the recognition and raises awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The celebration brings individuals with autism and grassroots organizations together to connect and to promote appreciation for people with autism. Despite increasing awareness, the causes of ASD remain a puzzle. While scientific approaches consider it to be a developmental disorder associated with genetic or environmental factors, recent studies in social science illustrate how cultures themselves vary in their perception of both autism and other neurological differences.

The prevalence of autism has grown in past decades in North America.  Explanations of this trend point out to an increase in the prevalence of ASD, a broadening spectrum of autism diagnoses, and declining stigma that promotes recognition and acceptance of the condition. Sociologists have also suggested that this may be because parents, psychologists, and therapists have created alliances, using their expertise to develop a new system of institutions for approaching autism.
Regarding the causes of ASD per se, early scientific theories indicated that the condition was associated with genetic alterations, but social science studies have emphasized the role of environmental factors. Further, cultural factors across the world can also shape how people understand autism in the first place.
Both the description and diagnosis of the ASD depend on historical factors and vary across nations. In Korea, children with autism and their families experience profound stigma, especially the mother — who is considered to be responsible for her child’s condition. Since in Korea parents gain social respect based on the behavior of their children, having a child with autism constitutes a signal of defective parenting. On the other hand, in Nicaragua, there is an emergent culture around autism that encourages teachers and communities to create a supportive environment. However, both cultures still see autistic children as suffering with a disability. Both stances contrast with new ideas about neurodiversity that strive to create a new place for autism in larger socio-cultural contexts.
Somali immigrants call autism the “Western disease” because there is no word for autism in the Somali language and because many believe it does not exist in Somalia. Somali parents accuse the Western diet and medical environment in North America for the condition of their children. Their testimonies have not only opened possibilities to explore new scientific hypotheses regarding the environmental causes of autism, but also to reveal the power dynamics and struggles involved in validating different perspectives and narratives about the condition.  

Contemporary educational programs in the United States are now more aware of the importance of highlighting the strengths rather than the deficits of students with autism. They also recognize that accommodation and acceptance of autism is as important as finding its genetic and neurological causes.

Image of a sign that reads, "honk for your kid's future"
Photo by Kyla Duhamel, Flickr CC

The FBI recently announced charges in a wide-spread college admission scandal involving fake test scores and fabricated athletic resumes. In the wake of the scandal, sociologists are weighing in and reminding us that college admissions is as much about legitimating privilege as improving life prospects. Sociologists have long been skeptical of the term meritocracy, which was in fact first coined as satire by Michael Young. The research below shows how constructed measures of merit in college admissions play a key part in reproducing inequality.

Mitchell Stevens spent a year in the admissions department at a selective liberal arts school. His book describes “the aristocracy of merit” — especially how the review process rewards the activities and presentation styles most common for privileged students. And while admissions officers are mostly the ones judging merit, the book also highlights how staff from other departments, such as coaches or fundraising officers, can advocate for a student’s admission. Shamus Khan’s ethnographic work similarly notes how elite prep schools set up their students to be competitive in elite college admission through skills, activities, and awards. Prep school staff even occasionally call admissions offices of Ivy League schools for students.
Other work on college admissions highlights that the idea of “merit” has always been socially constructed because those with race and class privilege can set the rules. For instance, colleges instituted  “holistic admission” in the early twentieth century because contemporary elites worried that their children would be shut out of attending their alma mater because of high-achieving Jewish students. They rewrote admissions criteria to devalue standardized test scores in favor of a review process that gave students credit for the experiences, skills, and habits that students from the upper-class were more likely to have.
So, if upper-class kids already have advantages, why is there a college cheating scandal? Jessica Calarco points out in NPR that the students affected by this scandal would likely do well no matter what school they attended, but parents are anxious about rising inequality, a bifurcating labor market, and afraid that children will have a harder time than their parents did. From teaching children how to advocate for themselves in school to paying thousands of dollars for out-of-school activities, middle and upper-class parents do whatever they can to help their children get ahead. American higher education is a decentralized marketplace that runs on prestige, which makes credentials from a big-name school potentially even more important in today’s changing labor market — both for students looking for social mobility and those looking to legitimate their privilege.

As Anthony Jack told CNN, the admission scandal flips the usual script — usually when we are discussing merit in college admissions it is around insinuations that minority students don’t deserve to get in. For more on race-based affirmative action, check out other TSP work below!

Affirmative Action, College Admissions, and the Debunked “Mismatch” Hypothesis

The Supreme Court’s Impacts on Race and Admissions in America

Merit and the Admissions Debates at Harvard University and Stuyvesant High School

Photo of marchers holding a sign that reads, “choose respect.” Photo by Office of Governor Sean Parnell, Flickr CC

Audiences are re-living one of America’s most infamous cases of intimate partner violence (IPV) with Jordan Peele’s recent documentary about Lorena Bobbitt, who retaliated against her husband John after years of alleged abuse. While the Bobbitt case is unique, the issue is common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the United States have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner. Tabloid exposés of such cases highlight personal details of the individuals involved. By contrast, sociological perspectives on IPV uncover the structural conditions that make it such a pervasive problem.

Sociologists began studying violence between spouses in the 1970s, particularly violence against women. Feminist scholars, drawing from interviews with victims in women’s shelters, focused on women’s experiences as targets or victims. They believed that IPV’s root causes were the patriarchal norms and laws that defined wives as their husbands’ property. Other survey researchers found that men were also likely to be targets of IPV — sometimes at rates as high as those for women.  They considered IPV a special case of violence in the home, but similar to child or elder abuse in its determinants: stress, social isolation, and intergenerational histories of family violence. Although the question of gender differences in IPV remains controversial, contemporary research does not necessarily see these perspectives as competing, but rather as describing two or more different types of IPV, such as “patriarchal terrorism” versus “common couple violence.”
Victims of IPV often suffer severe consequences. Violence damages physical and mental health, leading to injury, chronic pain, depression, sexually transmitted disease, and post traumatic stress disorder. Beyond these individual effects, the negative impact of abuse spills over into other areas. In some cities, landlords are penalized if the police are called to their property too often. Because of this, female renters who report domestic violence are considered a liability and often face eviction. Trouble at home also follows many women to work in the form of stalking and harassment. IPV victims miss work more frequently than their peers because of injury and distress, which results in lower productivity and higher job turnover.
Eradicating IPV across the world is a major focus of human rights organizations, but a big obstacle to changing behaviors remains: the continuing social acceptance of physical violence against wives in some areas. A recent international survey found that support for a husband hitting his wife varies widely across countries, but tends to be greatest in places where gender inequality is relatively high. Within a given country, the most marginalized people (rural, lowest wealth quintile, least education) are generally the most likely to support IPV. The good news is that these attitudes are changing. In nearly every country where data are available, support for IPV has declined since the 1990s. This trend parallels an increasing number of policies banning violence against women in recent decades.

This research shows how intimate partner violence affects both men and women, though women tend to experience more severe and persistent abuse in the United States and internationally. Undoing this social problem will require structural change in the way societies construct gender norms and how institutions respond to victims. In the meantime, some resources for abuse victims can be found here.

Photo of a plaque commemorating Ida B. Wells. Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr CC

As Black History month draws to a close, it’s important to celebrate the work of Black scholars that contributed to social science research. Although the discipline has begun to recognize the foundational work of scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, academia largely excluded Black women from public intellectual space until the mid-20th century. Yet, as Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, they leave contemporary sociologists with a a long and rich intellectual legacy. This week we celebrate the (often forgotten) Black women who continue to inspire sociological studies regarding Black feminist thought, critical race theory, and methodology.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was a pioneering social analyst and activist who wrote and protested against many forms of racism and sexism during the late 19th and early 20th century. She protested Jim Crow segregation laws, founded a Black women’s suffrage movement, and became one of the founding members of the NAACP. But Wells is best-known for her work on lynchings and her international anti-lynching campaign. While Wells is most commonly envisioned as a journalist by trade, much of her work has inspired sociological research. This is especially true for her most famous works on lynchings, Southern Horrors (1892) and The Red Record (1895).
In Southern Horrors (1892), Wells challenged the common justification for lynchings of Black men for rape and other crimes involving white women. She adamantly criticized white newspaper coverage of lynchings that induced fear-mongering around interracial sex and framed Black men as criminals deserving of this form of mob violence. Using reports and media coverage of lynchings – including a lynching of three of her close friends – she demonstrated that lynchings were not responses to crime, but rather tools of political and economic control by white elites to maintain their dominance. In The Red Record (1895), she used lynching statistics from the Chicago Tribune to debunk rape myths, and demonstrated how the pillars of democratic society, such as right to a fair trial and equality before the law, did not extend to African American men and women.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) was an avid educator and public speaker. In 1982, her first book was published, A Voice from the South: By A Black Woman of the South. It was one of the first texts to highlight the race- and gender-specific conditions Black women encountered in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Cooper argued that Black women’s and girls’ educational attainment was vital for the overall progress of Black Americans. In doing so, she challenged notions that Black Americans’ plight was synonymous with Black men’s struggle. While Cooper’s work has been criticized for its emphasis on racial uplift and respectability politics, several Black feminists credit her work as crucial for understanding intersectionality, a fundamentally important idea in sociological scholarship today.
As one of the first Black editors for an American Sociological Association journal, Jacquelyn Mary Johnson Jackson (1932-2004) made significant advances in medical sociology. Her work focused on the process of aging in Black communities. Jackson dismantled assumptions that aging occurs in a vacuum. Instead, her scholarship linked Black aging to broader social conditions of inequality such as housing and transportation. But beyond scholarly research, Jackson sought to develop socially relevant research that could reach the populations of interest. As such, she identified as both a scholar and activist and sought to use her work as a tool for liberation.

Together, these Black women scholars challenged leading assumptions regarding biological and cultural inferiority, Black criminality, and patriarchy from both white and Black men. Their work and commitment to scholarship demonstrates how sociology may be used as a tool for social justice. Recent developments such as the #CiteBlackWomen campaign draw long-overdue attention to their work, encouraging the scholarly community to cite Wells, Cooper, Jackson, and other Black women scholars in our research and syllabi.

Photo of a Steelers fan watching the Superbowl from a couch. Photo by daveynin, Flickr CC

Each year we are reminded of research on how many calories the average American eats on Super Bowl Sunday (hint: it’s more than Thanksgiving). Other research finds that fans of NFL teams that lose eat more saturated fat the next day than fans of teams that win. News outlets ranging from Men’s Health to Runner’s World to Healthy Women publish guides on how to stay healthy on game day. But sitting on the couch isn’t the only activity that is linked to both sports and food. As plan your healthy (or unhealthy) Super Bowl weekend, take a look at the research on how athletics can affect the eating habits of athletes ranging from body builders to youth basketball players.

Among female athletes, eating disorders are a prevalent issue. However, the research on whether female athletes are significantly different from their non-athlete peers regarding prevalence of eating disorders is mixed. Sport-specific factors such as performance pressure contribute to disordered eating, especially in sports that encourage leanness. The combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis is called the “female athlete triad.”
Male athletes are not immune from concerns over eating. Wrestlers may be at particular risk of disordered eating due to the intense emphasis on weight. Other sports encourage weight gain, and specific positions, such as linemen in American football, often achieve weight gain through stomach fat that puts them at risk for health complications like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Athletes and non-athletes may turn to steroid use to achieve a more muscular body, which can include intense cycles of 6,000+ calories per day followed by weeks of a stringent, low-calorie diet.
Proponents of youth sports expect that these activities instill healthy food and exercise habits. However, one study found that many youth sports events provide participants with unhealthy food and lack healthier options. Although youth involved in sports are more likely to eat fruits, vegetables, and milk than those not involved in sports, they also consume more calories overall and are more likely to eat fast food and drink sugar-sweetened beverages. Parents and organizers of youth activities need to be aware of the food options and information available to young athletes in order to make youth athletics a net positive in the health of children.

Photo of students sitting on a hill. Photo by EaglebrookSchool, Flickr CC

The confirmation hearing for the recently appointed Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh called public attention to what goes on inside elite, private boarding schools. Sociologists have long been interested in the role played by elite private prep schools in the intergenerational transmission of advantage. In 1956, C. Wright Mills contended, “if one had to choose one clue to the national unity of the upper social classes in America today, it would be the really exclusive boarding school for girls and the prep school for boys.” By selecting and training the newer members of the upper class, and by upholding the distinctive standards among the children of families who have long been at the top, the prep schools serving America’s “power elite” have long been the ticket to acceptance into elite colleges and corporations.

Today’s elite boarding schools provide many students with opportunities to cultivate a sense of ease and familiarity with authorities and gatekeepers. They also cultivate students’ beliefs in their own exceptionality by providing opportunities to specialize in unique activities and to hold leadership positions. Yet, because prep schools also escalate the process of separating the winners from the losers, they trap students in a “triangle of tension”: families pressure students to succeed, while the school (at least publicly) encourages them to adhere to a strict moral code, and their friends adopt a culture of “eat, drink, and be merry.” To escape this stress, youth often partake in the student underlife.
Many view surviving boarding schools as a rite of passage, though one more difficult for some than others. Designed to spread the values of affluent white families, students of color often experience prep school culture as extremely unwelcoming.
Moreover, not everyone agrees which private prep schools warrant the label “elite.” Schools may be considered elite on account of characteristics such as their independence from state funding and control, prestigious curricular offerings or teaching methods, the wealth and power of the families whose children they admit, and their geographic locations.

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández. 2009. “What is an Elite Boarding School?Review of Educational Research 79(3): 1090-1128.

Elite boarding schools enable privileged families to pass on wealth and advantages to their offspring, and they do so by enculturating students to a lifestyle that is tied to wealthy whiteness. This raises serious questions about how we currently think about the qualities and skills inculcated by elite socializing institutions, and about the legitimacy of the many privileges enjoyed by their graduates.