The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Exceptionality: Mechanisms of the Racialized Construction of Educational Exceptionalities
Rachel Fish

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Wisconsin-Madison

Primary Discipline

This project examines institutional contexts and mechanisms that produce racial disproportionality in special education and gifted/talented services. U.S. school data has revealed extreme racial inequality in exceptionalities, with students of color up to three times more likely to be identified with disabilities as their white peers, and white students up to three times more likely to be identified as gifted as their peers of color. Existing research provides conflicting explanations for racial disproportionality in exceptionalities/disabilities, arguing either a) that schools make biased decisions or b) that confounders, such as poverty, explain racial differences. I contend that existing research is limited by its treatment of exceptionality as a natural category. Instead, I argue that exceptionality is a social construct, one that is constructed along racial lines. In my dissertation, I ask how educational institutions shape the construction of exceptionalities. My mixed-methods research project 1) tests whether and how school-level racial composition moderates the relationship between individual students? race and identification with exceptionalities, 2) examines school-level variation in the effects of students? race and gender on teachers? decisions to refer students to special education through an experimental audit design and 3) investigates the mechanisms creating the intersection of race and exceptionality through interviews with teachers and parents. By asking how, when, and where racism manifests as educational decisions of well-intentioned educators and parents, my research will uncover structural factors that result in disproportionality in special education and gifted services.
About Rachel Fish

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