The structural and social correlates of the learning disability label during high school
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Educational attainment is a key component of occupational attainment and social mobility in America. Special education is a policy intervention geared toward ensuring equal educational opportunities for students distinctive from the majority. Students labeled with learning disabilities (LDs) comprise about half of the special education population, and are typically assigned the LD label for achievement levels that are lower than would be expected given their IQ. Although they have average or high IQs, students labeled with an LD continue to experience disparities in educational outcomes. In this dissertation, I use sociological perspectives and a large nationally representative dataset, The Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, to investigate the social and structural roots of the LD label, and to explore ways in which the LD label produces stigma or stratification during high school. In general, I find that (1) the disproportionate labeling of various status groups is indicative of the social and structural roots of the LD label, and that the process of assigning the LD label may not be uniform across schools; (2) labeled students have poorer educational outcomes than even unlabeled students who achieved at similar levels in early high school; (3) stigma related to the LD label is suggested by parents’ and particularly teachers’ much lower educational expectations for labeled students than for similar students not labeled with disability; (4) stratification related to the LD label is suggested by the placement of labeled students into lower levels of coursework than unlabeled students who performed similarly in a comparable level of coursework during the prior year; and (5) stigma and stratification related to the LD label are magnified among labeled students who are more socially advantaged, or who are higher achieving. Overall, the results suggest that the experiences of students labeled with an LD can be improved by addressing these social and structural factors that differentiate the likelihood of carrying the LD label, and have negative implications for labeled students’ social and academic experiences during high school.