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Disproportionate Representation of African American Students in Special Education Essay

Abstract In 2011 there is still disproportionate representation of African American Students in special education classes. This can be defined as conflict in the education environment because, government legislation mandates that No child be left behind, yet African American students, males in particular, are disproportionately being just that, left behind. The purpose of this study is to discuss disproportionate representation. What it means and who it affects most will be identified.

Contributing factors such as socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity will also be discussed. Possible solutions in the form of equity and early intervention will be discussed as well. Lastly with these factors identified, it is the hope that feasible and probable solutions can be reached or at least recommended. Review of Literature For more than 40 years the topic of Disproportionate representation has been addressed by scholars. The data collected has been qualitative and quantitative.

According to Bollmer, Bethel, Garrison-Morgen, and Brauen “The issue of disproportionate identification and placement of racial/ethnic minorities in special education has been investigated extensively (Bollmer, Bethel, Garrison-Mogren, & Brauen, 2007). ” They go on to share that the risk ratio, which is used to compare one racial/ethnic groups likelihood of receiving special education and related services to all other students is one of the most useful tools in this research (Bollmer, Bethel, Garrison-Mogren, & Brauen, 2007).

Sometimes referred to as disproportionality, disproportionate representation covers both over and underrepresentation. Overrepresentation happens when the percentage of students from one group is larger than expected based on their numbers in the general population. Underrepresentation is occurring when a specific group of students are involved at a lower rate than their numbers in the general population. According to Beratan “The disproportionate representation of minority students in special education is as clear of a racist outcome as one can find.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) formally recognizes such disproportionate representation as a problem in special education (Beratan, 2008). ” He goes on to share the following thoughts and statistics: A) Greater efforts are needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling and high dropout rates among minority children with disabilities. B) More minority children continue to be served in special education than would be expected from the percentage of minority students in the general school population.

C) African-American children are identified as having mental retardation and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their White counterparts. D) In the 1998-1999 school year, African-American children represented just 14. 8 percent of the population aged 6 through 21, but comprised 20. 2 percent of all children with disabilities. E) Studies have found that schools with predominately White students and teachers have placed disproportionately high numbers of their minority students into special education (Beratan, 2008).

Disproportionate representation not only speaks to the overrepresentation of African-American students labeled as learning disabled, but also to the gross lack of African-American students being labeled gifted. Bonner and Jennings share “According to the literature, African American males have been disproportionately place in special education classrooms and underrepresented in gifted and talented programs (Fred A. Bonner I. M. , 2007).

” Bonner and Jennings go on to say that “The story of the African American male in gifted and talented programs is one of widespread underrepresentation (Fred A. Bonner I. M. , 2007). ” Bonner and Jennings further share that lack of instructor referrals, substandard performance on standardized norm-referenced test scores and student and family choice contributed to the underrepresentation of African American males in gifted programs (Fred A. Bonner I. M. , 2007).

The authors continue to expound on this phenomenon by stating “Due to the potential for underachievement among African American students in first, second, and third grade, a time in which most identification processes for these programs are implemented, these students often go unidentified (Fred A. Bonner I. M. , 2007). ” Artiles and Bal maintain that African American males and Native American students appear to be the most affected groups at the national level (Artiles & Bal, 2008).

While disproportionate representation has touched all minority groups, African American males in particular have continually been identified as the most over represented population in Special education. Several factors are said to contribute to the disproportionate representation of minority students in Special Education. Yolanda Anyon shares: Barton and Tomlinson (1981) argue that the identification of students with learning disabilities and subsequent placement in special education is a form of social control to minimize problem behaviors in mainstream classrooms.

Other researchers have documented that teachers and principals refer children for special needs assessment who are causing the biggest problems in the classroom be it passivity, failure to learn material or aggressiveness (Anyon, 2009). She further goes on to share “in this way, special education primarily serves social control functions in schools as it legitimizes the removal of “deviant” students from regular classrooms (Anyon, 2009). ” Socioeconomic status is said to increase the likelihood that student will be placed in special education.

It is also said that race and ethnicity of students can be a large variable that causes excessive amounts of students of color to be referred and placed in special education. Skiba and fellow scholars share: Among the most longstanding and intransigent issues in the field, the disproportionate representation of minority students in special education programs has its roots in a long history of educational segregation and discrimination. Although national estimates of disproportionality have been consistent over time, state and local estimates may show varying patterns of disproportionality.

A number of factors may contribute to disproportionality, including test bias, poverty, special education processes, inequity in general education, issues of behavior management, and cultural mismatch/cultural reproduction (Skiba, et al. , 2008). They further go on to say that “special education was born out of, and owes a debt to the civil rights movement”, alluding to the fact that both the inspiration for and the strategies used by those whose work resulted in the initial national special education legislation came from the civil rights movement (Skiba, et al., 2008).

They also maintain that “concerns about racial inequity were central to litigation that led to the promulgation of the first special education legislation (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, IDEA) (Skiba, et al. , 2008). The scholars aptly point out the irony of racial disparity rates of special education service remaining one of the key indicators of inequity in our national educational system (Skiba, et al. , 2008).

An additional contributing factor that they share is “A second factor that might contribute to a disproportionate rate of representation in special education among students of color are sociodemographic factors associated with economic disadvantage (Skiba, et al. , 2008). Skiba, et al, give this insight into the role of poverty in disproportionate representation:

In order to directly assess the contribution of poverty to the disproportionate representation of African American students in special education, Skiba et al.(2005) studied the relationship of special education enrollment, race, socioeconomic and demographic factors, and test score outcomes in a sample of 295 school districts in a Midwestern state.

Across ordinary least squares and logistic regression equations, poverty made a weak, inconsistent, and often counter-intuitive contribution to the prediction of disproportionality across a number of disability categories (Skiba, et al. , 2008). While there are no definitive causes of the issue of disproportionate representation the above named ones come up in study after study which lends ample credence to them as real and possibly surmountable issues.

“It might well be expected that the students whose educational opportunities are limited will be more likely to be referred for special education services (Skiba, et al. , 2008). Another point expressed by Skiba and fellow scholars is: Of the possible links between general education practices and special education disproportionality, however, only the proportion of culturally consonant teachers in the teaching force has been directly investigaed.

Serwatka, Derring and Grant (1995) found that as the percentage of African American teachers increased, overrepresentation of African American student in the emotionally distrubed category decreased. Similarly, in a cross-state comparison, Ladner and Hammons (2001) found that the discrepancy of African American and white rates of eligibility for special education rose in direct proportion to the percentage of the teaching force that was White, especially in districts with a White percentage of more than 60% (Skiba, et al., 2008).

Just as there are no definitive causes identified, there are not any fool proof solutions laid out for correcting the issue of disproportionate representation. There are varying thoughts about strategies such as the following: If disproportionality in special education is multiply determined, no single intervention strategy can be universally relied on to reduce racial disparity. Rather, complex causality clearly suggests the need for comprehensive and multifaceted assessment and intervention plans.

In particular, the possibility that the determinants of disproportionality are locale-specific suggests that remediation plans must be driven by local needs assessment capable of identifying unique local patterns (Skiba, et al. , 2008). Early intervention approaches are said to possibly reduce disparities to the level that economic disadvantage is at work (Skiba, et al. , 2008). “Early intervention would not be expected to address systemic failures or bias and would hence fail to address disproportionality that is due to institutional inequity (Skiba, et al. , 2008).

” Researchers are beginning to look at the problem of disproportionate representation within the arena of equity studies (Artiles & Bal, 2008). According to the authors “researchers, practitioners, and policy makers continue to debate this problem and critical questions remain unanswered (Artiles & Bal, 2008). They go on to question the ability to, or lack thereof, explain how the phenomenon of disproportionate representation consistently remains in existence. Artiles and Bal have raised the following questions “How have researchers approached the study of this problem, and what are some key gaps in this knowledge base?

Does the problem exist in the United States only (Artiles & Bal, 2008)? ” These scholars have chosen to conduct research on “the problem of disproportionate representation as related to equity concerns in educational systems’ responses to difference (Artiles & Bal, 2008). Artiles and Bal share the following about equity in the United States educational system: Educational equity in the United States has aimed historically to enhance access and participation for students considered different.

For instance, programs were created to address the educational needs of students who have different ability levels or whose proficiency in English is limited (i. e. , special education and bilingual education, respectively) (Artiles & Bal, 2008). They further go on to share that special education in the United States was created as an answer to some of the issues of difference: The creation of special education was a landmark achievement in the attention of students considered different on the basis of ability.

Special education legislation entitled these students to free and appropriate public education, individualized educational programs, due process, and education in the least restrictive environment. Interestingly, an increasingly louder debate has emerged in the past 40 years in the United States about the disproportionate representation of ethnic minority and poor students in special education (Artiles & Bal, 2008). Laws that require states report placement data as it pertains to socioeconomic and racial lines to stay abreast of the problem of disproportionality have been imposed.

States and school districts that find themselves faced with the issue of disproportionate representation are required to take remedial actions to address it (Artiles & Bal, 2008). If equity is the solution and special education was designed to level the playing field, why then the issue of disproportionality? This same question is posed by Artiles and Bal, “But why then is placement in programs that purportedly address equity issues for students with different ability levels considered a problem when it involves other groups of different students, namely, ethnic minorities and poor students (Artiles & Bal, 2008).

” While that is a very rational and valid line of questioning, it is far too complicated to answer without factoring in the historical issues that plagued African American students long before special education legislation was implemented. Conclusions Disproportionate representation of African Americans in special education is not a new phenomenon. It has been studied and researched for well over 40 years. Whether it is referred to as disproportionality or disproportionate representation, the terminology covers both over and under representation within a group.

While most of the research addresses overrepresentation, there is some out there that speaks to the underrepresentation of African Americans in gifted programs, more specifically African American males. There are no concrete reasons for this phenomenon, but several different factors have been considered contributing factors. Socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity are often the most discussed contributing factors. Special education having roots that stem back to civil rights legislation lends a great amount of credence to the belief that those two factors are probably the leading cause of disproportionate representation.

The research shared a very specific accusation of how racism plays a very real part in disproportionate representation. Examples to that end were that studies have found that schools with predominately White students and teachers have placed disproportionately high numbers of their minority students into special education and African-American children are identified as having mental retardation and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their White counterparts.

In regards to equity Skiba and fellow scholars give this advice to educators in regards to making effective interventions: Thus, educators and policy makers seeking effective interventions to close special education equity gaps must be willing to openly discuss and address issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, culture, and language.

Moreover, processes chosen to address inequity must have at their core a mechanism to ensure that the perspectives of all stakeholders, especially those of historically marginalized groups who have been the recipients of unequal treatment, are represented when interpreting data on racial and ethnic disparities (Skiba, et al. , 2008). As educators we must take heed to the information shared about disproportionality. Though this information is not new, it must continue to be shared as if it was.

While this resarch was specifically about African Americans, other minorities are affected by disproportionate representation. I will be more cognizant of how I determine whether or not to suggest a student be tested for special education services. It is so easy to refer them, before taking the time to investigate the reasons behind the undesireable behavior. Works Cited Anyon, Y. (2009). Social Theories of Learning Disabilities: Understanding Racial Disproportionality in Special Education.

Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 44-57. Artiles, A. J. , & Bal, A. (2008). The Next Generation of Disproportionality Research Toward a Comparative Model in the Study of Equity in Ability Differences. The Journal of Special Education, 4-14. Beratan, G. D. (2008). The song remains the same: Transposition and the disproportionate representation of minority students in special education. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 337-354.

Bollmer, J. , Bethel, J. , Garrison-Mogren, R. , & Brauen, M.(2007). Using the Risk Ratio to Asess Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education at the School-District Level. The Journal of Special Education, 186-198. Fred A. Bonner, I. M. (2007). Never Too Young to Lead: Gifted African American Males in Elementary School. Gifted Child Today, 31-35. Skiba, R. J. , Simmons, A. B. , Ritter, S. , Gibb, A. C. , Rausch, M. K. , Cuadrado, J. , et al. (2008). Achieving Equity in Special Education: History, Status, and Current Challenges. Exceptional Children, 264-288.


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