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Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race and disability in schools.

reviewed by J. S. de Valenzuela - April 19, 2006

coverTitle: Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race and disability in schools.
Author(s): Beth Harry and Janette Klingner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080774624X, Pages: 206, Year: 2006
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Disproportionate representation of minority students in special education has long been recognized as a concern. In 1969, the President's Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR) published an influential report highlighting the misidentification of African American students with mental retardation. The National Research Council has commissioned two studies of this issue (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Heller & Holtzman, 1982) and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) funded a study of the disproportionate representation of minority students (Harry, 1994). Numerous published studies have documented the pervasive existence of this problem. In recent years, researchers have focused on identifying factors that may influence disproportionate representation. “Opportunity to learn” is one area identified as critical. However, this is an extremely complex topic that can be difficult to study. It is, nonetheless, a critical area of research. Harry and Klingner’s book, “Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education? Understanding Race and Disability in Schools,” provides a thoughtful and well-researched examination of disparities in educational opportunity that lead to disproportionate representation of minority students in special education.

Harry and Klingner argue that disproportionate representation is “the result of a series of social processes that, once set in motion, are interpreted as the inevitable outcomes of real conditions in children” (p. 7). Their study documents these social processes in rich detail within a well-organized text appropriate for a wide variety of readers. Those familiar with the debate and literature on this disproportionality will not be disappointed with the thick description of the multiple layers of processes operating within the school context. Those new to the debate will find more than sufficient information to make understandable the critical issues surrounding disproportionate representation.

This book details the results of a three year, in-depth ethnographic study of opportunity to learn in one large school district. The researchers examined the general characteristics of the district and patterns of placement in special education. They then narrowed their focus to 12 schools within the district, then to two classrooms within each of these schools, and then to 12 individual students. This “funnel” approach allowed the researchers to examine the educational context from multiple perspectives and to use a range of methods. The methods included statistical comparison of the selected schools, classroom observations and interviews with school personnel, attendance at pre-referral and special education team meetings, and home visits and interviews with family members of the selected students.

This book provides a thorough and detailed description of the multiple factors that combine to provide inequitable educational opportunities for minority students living in poverty. The factors identified include administrative decision making, differences in teacher quality between schools, failure to examine or address ineffective teaching, stereotypes about low-income families of minority students, disparities between policies and actual practices for student referrals and team meetings, and a special education system that requires diagnosis of disability prior to providing instructional support to students. One key finding was that the widest variation in teacher quality and the most egregious examples of ineffective teaching were found in schools in low-income, African American communities. Another was that biased assumptions about families attributed student academic difficulties to causes outside the influence of the school and that this attribution of cause constituted a risk for students that resulted in negative outcomes for some students. This text provides clear direction for school improvement initiatives and should be read by anyone interested in issues of educational reform.

The organization of this book mirrors the structure of the research design, progressing from a description of practices and processes at the widest level (school structures) to the narrowest (assignment of students to specific disability categories). The organization is effective in describing the multiple and interrelated factors that play a role in disproportionate representation. Each chapter builds on the previous yet provides a thorough discussion of the targeted level of analysis. As a university instructor, I could envision using individual chapters if the structure and content of a course did not warrant assigning the entire text. As a whole, this book would serve as a well-unified text for students to grapple with the complexities of schooling that places minority students at significant risk for receiving an inadequate education and subsequent placement in special education.

Each chapter includes a brief introduction of the content to follow and places it within the context of the overall purpose of the book. The authors’ clear writing style makes the results described accessible and relevant. The authors obviously took great care to demonstrate the interrelationship of findings at all levels of analysis.

Thick descriptions of school and community contexts and the use of selected excerpts from research observations and interviews are skillfully woven throughout the text. These serve to underscore the trustworthiness of the analysis and to illustrate key points. For example, when discussing “opportunity to learn” in the classroom (chapter 4) the authors stated in the introduction that “often, poorly planned lessons were at the heart of the problem” (p. 56). They followed this with multiple examples of actual classroom lessons. Appropriate citation of educational theory and relevant studies is included throughout the analysis. The authors do not shy away from discussion of racism on the individual and institutional levels, cultural capital, and hegemony. They engage in this discussion in a refreshingly detailed and nuanced way, providing multiple examples of specific practices they cite as problematic, going far beyond a theoretical discussion of education inequality. This book provides clear identification of practices at all levels of schooling that must be improved.

My only concern with this book lies in its title. It is an accurate description of the problem the authors tackle. However, I am concerned that readers might assume this book is primarily targeted at the special education audience and that it deals primarily with special education issues. Indeed, the area in which the authors provide the least amount of detail is the description of instruction in special education classrooms. Although more description in this area might have been interesting, it also might have detracted from the focus of this text—the factors within the general education and the larger school context that led up to inadequate “opportunity to learn” for many students, most critically African American students in high-poverty schools, and, therefore, to placement in special education. Indeed, while arguing that special education “categories do not necessarily reflect real disabilities within children” (p. 5), the authors provide a strong argument that the problems of special education and disproportionate representation cannot be fixed without reconsidering the relationship of special education to schooling as a whole and of lack of education opportunities for minority students within general education.


Donovan, M. S., & Cross, C. T. (Eds.). (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Harry, B. (1994). The disproportionate representation of minority students in special education: Theories and recommendations. Alexandria, VA: NASDSE.

Heller, K. A., & Holtzman, S. (Eds.). (1982). Placing children in special education: A strategy for equity. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

President's Committee on Mental Retardation. (1969). The six-hour retarded child. A report on a conference on problems of education of children in the inner city (Warrentown, Virginia, August 10–12, 1969). Washington, DC: President's Committee on Mental Retardation and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 19, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12492, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:40:49 AM

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About the Author
  • J. de Valenzuela
    University of New Mexico
    Prof. Scherba de Valenzuela is on the special education faculty at the University of New Mexico. She works in the area of bilingual special education and is interested in issues of assessment and the communication and language development of culturally and linguistically diverse individuals. A report of her research on disproportionate representation will be published in Exceptional Children during summer 2006. She is currently investigating bilingualism and educational opportunity among students with mental retardation and the disproportionate representation of English language learners in Special Education.
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