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Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education: Case Studies of Suburban School Districts


by Roey Ahram, Edward Fergus & Pedro Noguera — 2011

Background/Context: The last two reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act established a policy mandate for districts to take action to reduce high rates of minority overrepresentation in special education.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The overrepresentation of Black and Latino students in special education suggests a convergence of two distinct processes: (1) assumptions of cultural deficit that result in unclear or misguided conceptualizations of disability and (2) the subsequent labeling of students in special education through a pseudoscientific placement process. This article explores how the social construct of the “normal child” became racialized through the special education referral and classification process, and subsequently produces disproportionality.

Setting: This research was conducted in two multiracial suburban school districts in New York State that were identified as having an overrepresentation of students of color.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Participants in the study consist of teachers and administrators within the two identified districts.

Intervention/Program/Practice: Intensive technical assistance was provided to these districts to identify the root causes of disproportionality and was subsequently followed by customized professional development. Three overarching activities of technical assistance were: observing in classrooms in each of the school districts; providing root cause analyses of disproportionality; and providing culturally responsive professional development.

Research Design: This research used mixed methods in collating district data, conducting technical assistance sessions with districts to identify the factors contributing to disproportionality, and creating 3-year professional development plans to address overrepresentation. In addition, researchers facilitated culturally responsive professional development to targeted groups of practitioners on topics related to improving teacher and district effectiveness in meeting the academic needs of children of color.

Findings/Results: Findings were: (1) cultural deficit thinking in educators’ construction of student abilities; (2) the existence of inadequate institutional safeguards for struggling students; and (3) attempts at addressing disproportionality often result in institutional “fixes” but not necessarily changes in the beliefs of education professionals.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The implementation of a culturally responsive framework can produce a shift in the special education placement process and lead to a reduction in disproportionality rates. Of note is confirmation that teacher–student interactions that begin the procedures triggering disproportionality are mired in teachers’ cultural deficit thinking. However, although teachers’ beliefs about students may change extremely slowly, effective school practices can interrupt the influence of deficit thinking.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 10, 2011, p. 2233-2266
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16432, Date Accessed: 3/26/2017 1:04:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Roey Ahram
    New York University
    ROEY AHRAM is a project associate at the New York State Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality and a doctoral student at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Development in the department of Teaching and Learning. A former high school mathematics teacher, he currently works with school districts to help identify and address the root causes related to the overrepresentation of Black and Latino students classified as students with disabilities. His research focuses on education policy, equity, and disabilities studies.
  • Edward Fergus
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    EDWARD FERGUS is the deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. A former high school teacher, Dr. Fergus now provides technical assistance and analysis on education policy and research to school districts. He is currently the co–principal investigator of a study of single-sex schools for boys of color (funded by the Gates Foundation), the New York State Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality, and various other research and programmatic endeavors focused on disproportionality and educational opportunity. He has published various articles on disproportionality in special education and race/ethnicity in schools and is the author of Skin Color and Identity Formation: Perceptions of Opportunity and Academic Orientation Among Mexican and Puerto Rican Youth (Routledge, 2004).
  • Pedro Noguera
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    PEDRO NOGUERA is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. His scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. Dr. Noguera holds faculty appointments in the departments of Teaching and Learning, and Humanities and Social Sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Development, as well as in the Department of Sociology at New York University. Dr. Noguera is also the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the codirector of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings (IGEMS). Dr. Noguera is the author of City Schools and the American Dream (Teachers College Press, 2003), Unfinished Business: Closing the Achievement Gap in Our Nation’s Schools (Jossey-Bass, 2006), and The Trouble With Black Boys . . . and Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education (Wiley, 2008).
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