College of Education > News and Publications > 2015 January–March news > College of Education professor receives $150,000 grant

College of Education professor receives $150,000 grant

Paul L. Morgan, associate professor of education and director of the Educational Risk Initiative, has been selected as one of six inaugural recipients of the Spencer Foundation Midcareer Grant. The $150,000 award will support Morgan as he acquires new substantive knowledge, theoretical perspectives and methodological tools, particularly in regards to understanding racial/ethnic disparities in disability identification and treatment.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Paul L. Morgan, associate professor of education and director of the Educational Risk Initiative, has been selected as one of six inaugural recipients of the Spencer Foundation Midcareer Grant. The $150,000 award will support Morgan as he acquires new substantive knowledge, theoretical perspectives and methodological tools, particularly in regards to understanding racial/ethnic disparities in disability identification and treatment.  Paul Morgan

“I feel very honored to have been selected as an inaugural Midcareer Grantee by the Spencer Foundation,” Morgan said. “The foundation had earlier provided me with funding for a National Academy of Education Spencer Post-doctoral Fellowship, which was instrumental in advancing my early career trajectory. With this Midcareer Grant, I will be able to extend my earlier work by examining why racial, ethnic and language minority children are less likely to be identified and treated for disabilities in the U.S. than otherwise similar white, English-speaking children.”

Currently in its first-year piloting phase, the Midcareer Grant was awarded to only six of 99 applicants. It specifically targets established scholars who are seven to 20 years postdoctorate and are interested in advancing their understanding of a compelling problem in the field of education. For Morgan’s project, that problem is the misrepresentation — specifically, the underrepresentation — of minority schoolchildren in special education, a topic he’s been studying for many years.

“Many prior studies show that minorities are disproportionately over-represented in special education,” Morgan explained. “However, our research is showing that in fact minority children are less likely to be identified and treated for disabilities, and so are comparatively under-represented in special education. These disparities in disability identification occur both prior to and following school entry, and are evident across a range of specific conditions.”

Because minority children’s disabilities may not be appropriately identified, they may be less likely to receive special education services for which they are legally entitled.

“One reason for the disparities,” Morgan explained, “is that minority children in the U.S., unfortunately, are more likely to be exposed to the risk factors that are associated with disability identification, more so than children who are white or English-speaking.” These risk factors include being born with low birth weight and being raised in poverty. However, because of both cultural and language barriers, minority children may be comparatively under-served by health and educational professionals. 

Morgan’s findings are consistent with research currently being conducted at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, which finds that minorities are often under-diagnosed and, therefore, less likely to receive treatment for disabling conditions, despite being more likely to experience these conditions. As part of his Spencer-funded Midcareer Grant project, Morgan will collaborate with public health faculty at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions as well as faculty from Johns Hopkins School of Education’s counseling and human development program. These partnerships are designed to advance the education field’s limited understanding of how individual, family, health care system, school and community-level factors interact to result in racial and ethnic disparities in school-based disability identification processes, and how those disparities might be better addressed.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to enrich my work through collaborations with public health researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, as well as with my fellow educational researchers at the School of Education,” Morgan said. “My hope is this multi-disciplinary project will help policymakers better understand and address racial disparities in school-based disability identification. I am excited to begin this work, and continue to be extremely thankful to the Spencer Foundation for their investment.”

“The Spencer Foundation is thrilled to welcome Professor Morgan into the inaugural class of Spencer Midcareer grantees,” said Robert Ream, associate program officer for the Spencer Foundation. “Dr. Morgan's work challenges conventional wisdom and questions prevailing assumptions about the over-identification of minorities in special education. We are pleased to invest in the patient cultivation of an already accomplished scholar who wants to equip himself to explore more deeply the public health dimensions of his line of inquiry.  We are pleased to see that he approaches his own research as a journey of continuous learning and improvement.”

At Penn State, Morgan also serves as a research associate for the Population Research Institute and is a faculty affiliate at both the Child Study Center and Prevention Research Center. In addition to receiving the Midcareer Grant, Morgan also was awarded the 2015 Distinguished Researcher Award from the Special Education Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association for his significant contributions to special education research.

By Jessica Buterbaugh (March 2015)