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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