Special Education

Keeping Special Ed in Proportion

By Anthony Rebora — October 12, 2011 10 min read
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Everyone involved in education is aware of the issue of racial achievement gaps in standardized test scores. But for some advocates of educational equity, there’s a parallel trend that even more dramatically depicts schools’ difficulties in effectively teaching struggling minority students. In industry parlance, it’s known simply as “disproportionality”—referring to the disproportionate statistical representation of African-American and Hispanic students in special education programs.

Exactly how disproportionality—also sometimes referred to as “overrepresentation”—is calculated is the subject of much scholarly and policy debate. But some widely available statistics illustrate the problem. For example, federal data from 2007 show that African-American students made up 17 percent of the U.S. school enrollment but more than 20 percent of the students classified with specific learning disabilities. Likewise, Hispanic students represented just over 20 percent of the school population but almost 24 percent of students classified with learning disabilities.


Providing a different lens, 2008 government data mapped by the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University show that in most states, African-American students were nearly or greater than twice as likely as white students to be classified with emotional or intellectual disabilities. The discrepancies—for both African-American and Hispanic students—are far worse in many individual districts, the organization says.

Interpretations of such figures vary. But for many school-equity experts, they point to the troubling conclusion that large numbers of struggling minority students are being classified for special education even though they don’t have true disabilities.

“The data are clear that when you look at the representation of minorities in special education, there’s something going on behind the scenes,” says H. Richard Milner IV, an associate professor of education at Vanderbilt University and the author of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms. “In other words, there are kids who are placed in these programs because educators either don’t want to deal with them, don’t know how to deal with them, or don’t know how to be responsive to them.”

And placement in special education, researchers point out, can often make matters worse for these students. Divorced from the regular academic curriculum and environment, they tend to have poorer academic and career outcomes than their peers, including much higher high school dropout rates. Compounding the problem is the enduring stigma that the special education label can have on students who don’t belong there. In the long run, says Milner, such students “become the victims of remediation.”

What Schools Can Do

Scholars generally don’t blame racial disproportionality in special education on outright discrimination. Instead, they say it typically derives from systemic flaws within a school or district’s instructional culture that allow for some disadvantaged students to fall through the cracks. Such problems are generally specific to individual school systems and may require a comprehensive analysis to identify. However, there are a number of widely recommended steps that school communities can take to address or prevent overrepresentation issues. By extension, these steps can be seen as ways to better support at-risk students in general.

Open up the conversation. Rather than avoiding the issue or accepting it as “just the way things are,” schools facing a disproportionality problem should seek to foster honest—though tactful—discussions on issues of race, academic achievement, and pedagogy. Experts often suggest organizing meetings in cross-functional teams to explore educators’ own experiences and perspectives. “Get people to talk about who they are and their own views of things, and then to examine their practice and their curriculum,” says Elizabeth Kozleski, a professor at Arizona State University and a principal investigator with the Equity Alliance.

In these conversations, school leaders should be on the lookout for examples of subtle cultural biases that educators may be relying on to justify high rates of special education referrals for minority students, suggests Edward Fergus-Arcia, deputy director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, which provides technical assistance to school districts on disproportionality. For example, some teachers may point to a lack of academic support from the students’ families or give voice to stereotypes about differing cultural expectations for student performance or behavior.

Such revelations may be a starting point for change. “The reality,” says Fergus-Arcia, “is that instruction should be responsive to all those types of issues.” For students with school-readiness problems, “it’s still our job to make sure we get them there,” he adds.

Become data-conscious. To help detect and address problematic racial academic patterns, experts stress the importance of honing in on student-performance data. “A lot of systems have disproportionality problems and don’t even know it because they’re not paying attention to the data,” says Amanda VanDerHeyden, an education consultant and researcher. “They are drowning in data but they don’t know how to consume it, pull it apart, then take action based on what they’re seeing.”

Janette Klingner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and co-author of Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education?: Understanding Race & Disability in Schools, stresses the value of examining student data holistically. “Progress-monitoring data is great for looking at classroom performance as well as [that of] individual students,” she says. “You get a sense of whether a particular classroom is doing well or not doing well, and where you might need to give instructional support to the teachers.”

At the classroom level, meanwhile, access to well-parsed progress-monitoring data has been shown to help teachers make better decisions about special education referrals, says Claudia Rinaldi, a senior training and technical assistance associate with the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative in Newton, Mass. Hard data give teachers a solid basis for responding to students’ learning needs and gauging their development, she explains.

Heal the curriculum. Many school systems with disproportionality problems, even some affluent ones, “do not have curriculum frameworks that are well-articulated,” says Fergus-Arcia. The materials don’t have “a good scope and sequence and curriculum map that show the teachers what they could be doing and where they should be at different parts of the school year, given the standard they need to meet for the state.” Such inconsistencies need to be tackled, Fergus-Arcia explains, because they put kids who are struggling or disadvantaged at an even greater risk of falling behind.

In addition, school leaders may need to scrutinize the curriculum for areas that exclude or fail to resonate with particular subgroups of students. By way of example, Klingner points to math story problems that are remote from some kids’ experiences. To tap students’ full capacity, she says, curriculum needs to be “accepting, interesting, motivating to kids and to make connections between [academic content] and their lives.”

Tailor professional development. No matter how idealistic they may be, teachers are not always well-prepared to work with diverse-needs students. To minimize the potential for added referrals, experts advise, school leaders should ensure that teachers receive sustained training in high-frequency problem areas like classroom management, English-language learner instruction, literacy development, differentiation, and culturally responsive practice.

Fergus-Arcia also strongly recommends targeting intensive professional development to members of school instructional support or intervention teams—the “key gatekeepers,” as he calls them—to ensure that they are operating well even as regular classroom instructional problems are being addressed.

Selected Books on Race and Education

To help teachers better understand the problems minority students face, school equity experts often advise forming faculty book-study groups around issues of racial identity and education. Here are some books recommended by the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School.

Building Racial and Cultural Competence in the Classroom
eds. Karen Manheim Teel and Jennifer E. Obidah (Teachers College, 2008)

Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation
by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Beacon Press, 2007)

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Grades
by Jacqueline Irvine and Beverly Armento (McGraw Hill, 2001)

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children
by Gloria Ladson-Billings (Jossey Bass, 1994)

Invisible No More: Understanding the Disenfranchisement of Latino Men and Boys
eds. Pedro Noguera, Aída Hurtado, and Edward Fergus (Routledge, 2011)

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom
by Lisa Delpit (The New Press, 1993)

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity
by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Basic Books, 2003)

Intervene, early and often. Perhaps most crucially, schools detecting signs of disproportionality should introduce rigorous academic interventions, in the form of individual or small-group instruction, to provide added support for students who are at risk of falling behind. Indeed, there is at least some isolated evidence that the response-to-intervention model—a tiered instructional-support framework—can significantly reduce special education referrals for minority students. But researcher VanDerHeyden stresses that, to work well, interventions must be carefully planned, based on validated instructional practices, and—most importantly—closely monitored through student-performance data. Even in schools with RTI, VanDerHeyden says, “intervention consistency is a huge problem.”

Fergus-Arcia adds that he generally urges schools to implement interventions earlier and more broadly than they are accustomed to. Too many schools, he says, take it for granted that their regular instructional program alone is strong enough to lift most kids.

The Teacher’s Role

While disproportionality is generally a school- or district-wide problem requiring structural change, there are also things individual classroom teachers can do on their own to respond to—or at least not contribute to—the problem. Teachers are not only the ones who work with the students most frequently and know them best. They also often initiate the special education referral process. “Teachers play a huge role [in special education determinations],” says Vanderbilt’s Milner. “Teachers matter.”

Don’t go it alone. Teachers who find that they are having trouble getting through to some students should acknowledge their own limits and reach out to colleagues for support. Getting input from others can help teachers avoid making fixed judgments about students that can lead to misclassifications.

Klingner advises observing the classrooms of more experienced teachers or partnering with staff members who have needed expertise. “Maybe it’s a special ed. teacher, maybe it’s an ESL teacher,” she says. “You’re going to develop a climate or culture where there’s more collaboration. That’s a really important piece.”

Similarly, Fergus-Arcia says teachers should make sure they know the proper protocols for getting assistance from the support or intervention teams in their building. “Every teacher needs some level of support, so having an understanding of that team, the existing process, and how it is activated is essential,” he says.

Be diligent about formative assessment. To ensure students are on pace, Fergus-Arcia recommends that teachers closely monitor progress data at least every two weeks. Those data may include not only test results but also written work, homework, and class projects. By consistently reviewing students’ work, teachers can gain an understanding of whether the kids are getting the material as intended, Fergus-Arcia says. Then they can “hone in on linking their teaching to the learning that’s actually happening,” as opposed to relegating some kids to permanent catch-up mode.

Discipline wisely. In responding to disciplinary problems—often a prominent factor in minority special education referrals—teachers should try to understand the motivation behind the behavior before punishing the student or removing him or her from class. “When a student is acting out, chances are something is happening beyond the behavior,” says Milner. “Students experience peer pressure, or they might be undergoing some family change or some form of abuse.” Educators should try to be cognizant of such issues and help students address them, Milner says.

As a rule, experts stress, teachers shouldn’t make assumptions about a student on the basis of behavioral issues. “We’re all responding from our own cultural frameworks of what we expect behaviors to look like in the classroom, and not every kid instinctively knows how to manage that,” Fergus-Arcia observes.

Read and reflect. In general, teachers in diverse classrooms may need to gain a better understanding of how their own viewpoints and preconceptions about schooling differ from those of their students. Teachers should be “conscious and deliberate about their own roles, their own belief systems, and how that sometimes connects inconsistently with their students,” says Milner. To help bridge cultural divides in the classroom, both Milner and Fergus-Arcia recommend forming faculty book-study groups around texts that speak to issues of education and ethnicity.

It’s important for teachers in diverse settings to converse with peers and “try to build an understanding of what it means” in practical terms to have kids with different cultural backgrounds and needs in their classrooms, says Fergus-Arcia.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Keeping Special Ed in Proportion


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