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Blog: TMMI: Dilemmas of Knowledge and Learning in the Age of Too Much Mis-Information by Beth Harry

Friday, February 24, 2017

In special education, comprehensible information about the overrepresentation of minority students has, for decades, been available and accessible to researchers and practitioners, courtesy of the Office for Civil Rights and, in more recent years, the Office for Special Education Programs. This information has consistently shown a pattern of overrepresentation of certain minorities in certain categories of disability. Yet recent work by Morgan, Farkas, et al., (2015) reports findings that are the exact opposite of this foundational knowledge.

Reviewing the work of these scholars leads me to reflect on what seems to me to be two seemingly opposite trends in accessing knowledge in today’s world. First, the over-simplification of daily tasks by sophisticated technology that eliminates the need for real comprehension. Second, the over-complication of information by abstruse statistical tricks that obfuscate meaning. In the following paragraphs, I will illustrate these concerns with a view to applying them to the topic at hand.

I recently applied for a lease to rent an apartment in a decent but modest condominium association. Delighted to hear that I would be able to complete the application on-line, I approached the task eagerly. Having taken the time to read the lease before receiving the on-line invitation, I figured that just finding my way through some 15 pages of legalese would take a mere twenty minutes or so. Imagine my surprise at finding that the only task requiring a moment’s thought was the initial box where I had to select which style of electronic signature and initial I preferred! That done, I did not need to search for anything, nor to be even vaguely aware what I was signing. Rather, I was guided each step of the way by a self-propelling red arrow that leapt from page to page, landing on a series of vibrantly pulsing yellow signature boxes, followed by an immediate prompt of “NEXT”, which then sent the arrow racing past all subsequent paragraphs to the next signature box. In 2 minutes I was finished, having no idea what I had signed. Ok, I thought, at least I should skim over the document before submitting, just to be sure I hadn’t missed a signature. But, you guessed it: There was no need to review, as the system quickly assured me that “all required fields” had been filled.


I came away planning to re-read Aldous Huxley’s (1932) Brave New World to remind me what percent of the population Huxley had predicted would constitute the tiny educated elite who would run a super technological society of followers and drones. In my signing of that lease application I was momentarily a drone, saved only, perhaps, by the fact that I had actually been able to pre-read and understand most of what I was signing.

This dumbing down of knowledge offers the great disadvantage of encouraging us to be as intellectually lazy as our worst instincts will allow. Indeed, what a good fit with the popular phrase – TMI! Don’t give me so much information! Spare me the unsavory details! In fact, don’t tell me anything that you can’t tweet or text me in a couple of seconds. Don’t give me any nuance, any counter arguments, any complications – just the bare bones. And, to be clear, I really don’t care whether it’s true or not, as long as it supports what I already think.

Now, in academic educational discourse, the extreme opposite prevails, and I am trapped in a conundrum: Which extreme to prefer – bare-boned, un-nuanced proclamations and processes geared for followers and true-believers, or overloaded academic arguments designed by elites to obfuscate and confuse? Here, the theme is: Give me so much information that I can’t understand it. Load up your research with statistics that no-one but you and your statistically savvy colleagues can comprehend. Just make sure the headline is catchy and taps into your target audience’s fears and suspicions. That will ensure that only about 5% of potential stakeholders will actually read past the headline and abstract, and maybe 5% more will read the concluding paragraphs. In the final uncomprehending analysis, those who want to believe it will, and those who don’t won’t.

The obfuscating approach to presenting information is on display in the claim of Morgan et al (2016) that minorities are underrepresented in special education. As I read and re-read their research report, I was plagued by one question: Does the reader really need to understand the sampling and statistical procedures outlined in this article to evaluate its findings and conclusions? If so, then I suspect that a tiny proportion of readers would be able to make sense of a finding that defies all previous research on the topic and, worse, seeks to refute everyday information that can be gleaned from a quick walk through the special education classrooms of typical school districts in the United States. I received an answer to this concern from a colleague as we passed a few minutes in idle conversation awaiting the start of a faculty event. My colleague said, “By the way, have you seen the newest findings on disproportionality? It seems minorities are really underrepresented in special ed programs! I just saw the article reported in the New York Times.” Suppressing a gasp, I asked my friend if he had read the article’s methodology, only to be told that he hadn’t had the time yet, but would do so later. But the damage was done. The dramatic headline, “Is special education racist?” (Morgan & Farkas, 2015) and its spurious findings had already ensured a gullible readership.

What’s a mere follower to do?

On the one hand, our lives are simplified by previously unimaginable technology. With this comes a relinquishing of personal responsibility for our own decisions. By this token, we can rely on the most public information sphere – the internet – for quick answers to any question, but are inundated with fake news, false information, and outrageous opinions. On the other hand, in the limited yet also public forum of academic journals, even well-informed readers struggle to reconcile abstruse statistical methods with conclusions that, based on daily experience, defy credulity. Rather than being manipulated to feign discovery of the “Truth”, these potentially valuable methods should be used judiciously, presented in the context of the complex social and cultural realities that seep through the rigid parameters of statistical boxes. Even more importantly, all in academia should be committed to making these methods comprehensible to a broad range of readers.

Of course, I could be accused of being a true-believer in the overrepresentation of children of color in special education programs. Perhaps I reject any findings that contradict my personal and professional knowledge. To that, I answer that I may be a follower but I’m not a drone. As such, I ask simple questions that do not require knowledge of hazard analysis; questions such as: Why study a sample of children that don’t represent the actual numbers known to be present in special education programs? Why base much of your sampling on teacher judgements rather than actual disability determinations? Why include some high-incidence disabilities and not others? Why do all this statistical hoop-jumping when you could just do a population count? Finally, why run to the New York Times (2015) with a piece of research whose statistical procedures you know the reporters and most Times readers cannot themselves evaluate? Why not wait for the thoughtful and possibly critical response of your academic peers who read Educational Researcher (Skiba, Artiles, Losen, Kozleski, and Harry, 2015), and who might be in a position to evaluate it?

The extremes of mis-information that I have described have serious implications for equity in learning. On the one hand, children attending schools dominated by scripted curricula and high stakes testing are likely to receive only an education of the first sort. On the other hand, the few who access an elite education are thereby positioned to describe and evaluate the circumstances of everyone else.

In light of these concerns I enter here a plea for research that honors reality and that highlights organizational and pedagogical solutions. As I indicated in my opening statement, knowing the numbers is not the problem. The challenge is, first, to understand the complex realities that contribute to the problem. Several lines of research, utilizing a range of methods, have identified such realities, including: Within-group diversity and second-language learning (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005); the complex relations among variables such as race, language, gender, and socio-economic status (Sullivan & Bal, 2013); school personnel’s negative perceptions and practices (Bal & Sullivan, 2014; Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, Kohler, Henderson, & Wu, 2006); unreliable decision-making regarding disability designations (Wilkinson, Ortiz, Roberston, & Kushner, 2006); and ethnic and socio-economic biases that negatively affect decision-making practices (Harry & Klingner, 2014: Knotek, 2002; Rogers, 2001). The second challenge is to use this research-based knowledge to engage in professional education that prepares teachers and school systems to provide equitable education for all children. By this I mean an education that enables them to access and critically evaluate information. Such education programs exist for children of the elites. I suggest we study how to provide them for all children.


Artiles, A.J., Rueda, R., Salazar, J.J., & Higareda, I. (2005). Within-group diversity in minority disproportionate representation: English Language Learners in urban school districts. Exceptional Children, 71(3), 283-300.

Bal, A., Sullivan, A. L., & Harper, J. (2014). A situated analysis of special education
disproportionality for systemic transformation in an urban school. Remedial and Special Education, 35(1), 3–14.

Harry, B., & Klingner, J. K. (2006; 2014, 2nd ed). Why are so many minority students in
special education? Understanding race and disability in schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Huxley, Aldous. (1932). Brave new world. NY: Harper & Brothers.

Knotek, S. (2003). Bias in problem solving and the social process of student study teams:
A qualitative investigation. The Journal of Special Education, 37, 2–14.

Morgan, P.L., & Farkas, G. (2015, June 24). Is special education racist? New York Times, p. A23.

Morgan P. L., Farkas G., Hillemeier M. M., Mattison R., Maczuga S., Li H., Cook M. (2015). Minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in special education: Longitudinal evidence across five disability conditions. Educational Researcher, 44, 278–292.

Rogers, R. (2002). Through the eyes of the institution: A critical discourse analysis of
decision making in two special education meetings. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22, 213–237.

Skiba, R.J., Artiles, A.J., Kozleski, E.B., Losen, D.J., & Harry, B. (2016). Risks and
consequences of oversimplifying educational inequities: A response to Morgan et al. (2015). Educational Researcher, 45(3), 221-225.

Skiba, R., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Kohler, K., Henderson, M., & Wu, T. (2006). The
context of minority disproportionality: Practitioner perspectives on special education referral. Teachers College Record, 108, 1424–1459.

Sullivan, A., & Bal, A. (2013). Disproportionality in special education: Effects of individual and school variables on disability risk. Exceptional Children, 79, 475-494 .

Wilkinson, C. Y., Ortiz, A. A., Robertson, P. M., & Kushner, M. I., (2006). English
language learners with reading-related LD: Linking data from multiple sources to make eligibility determinations. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 129–141.

Author Biography

Beth Harry is a Professor of special education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami. A native of Jamaica, she entered the field of special education as a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, an experience that has been chronicled in her memoir, Melanie, bird with a broken wing: A mother’s storyInspired by her experience as a parent, Dr. Harry’s research and teaching focus on the impact of special education on children and families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Her studies have included Puerto Rican, African American and a wide range of other cultural groups. In 2002, Dr. Harry served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ panel to study the disproportionate placement of minority students in special education. Her research on these topics have been published in numerous books and articles, most recently, two books: Why are so many minority students in special education? and Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education, published by Teachers College Press. In 2003 she received a Fulbright award to do research on Moroccan children’s schooling in Spain, where she was based at the University of Seville. Dr. Harry earned her Bachelors and Masters degrees at the University of Toronto, Canada, and her Ph.D., at Syracuse University. Previously an associate professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, Dr. Harry has also taught in Toronto and Jamaica, and was founder and director of Immortelle Center for Special Education, Port of Spain, Trinidad.