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Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education

reviewed by Maya Kalyanpur - July 02, 2007

coverTitle: Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education
Author(s): Beth Harry, Janette K. Klingner, Elizabeth P. Cramer, and Keith M. Sturges
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747610 , Pages: 144, Year: 2007
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The book, Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education, is a companion to the 2006 best-selling book, Why are so Many Minority Students in Special Education? by Beth Harry and Janette Klingner. While the Harry and Klingner book provides an exhaustive analysis of their study conducted over the span of four years, the casebook highlights the stories of twelve children the study tracked, each accompanied by a set of thought-provoking questions. Any analysis by readers of the casebook or the stories presented therein would be enriched considerably by a familiarity with the broader study, in which the issues are discussed in greater depth. For example, the casebook provides numerous instances of poor instruction. However, it is the companion volume that offers an explanation or the institutional context to why poor schools tend to get poor quality teachers. At the same time, sufficient grounding is provided in the first part of the casebook to allow it to be used on its own.

Both books are based on the same premise that certain high-incidence disability categories, viz., specific learning disability (SLD or LD), emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD) and educable mental retardation (EMR), are social constructions. The authors contend that,  “individuals classified under these categories seldom display any clear biological characteristics that can be verified as pathological through any system of objective analysis,” and they “are based on individual judgments about where normalcy ends and disability begins” and “on societal norms for development and learning, not on measurable facts” (p. 3).  Within the educational system, however, these behaviors are interpreted as pathological, resulting in many children being labeled under these categories and placed in special education settings. These categories are referred to as high-incidence because the vast majority of children served in special education are placed in these categories.

There is a second, related concern: The proportion of Black and, in some states, Native American and Hispanic students in these categories is much higher than their proportion in the school system as a whole. As Harry and Klingner (2006) point out, the pattern of minority or ethnic overrepresentation in special education has:

continued to be a thorn in the side of the education system. It has been so troubling that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has collected data on the problematic categories ever since the early 1980s, and the National Academy of Sciences has twice been commissioned to study the issue. (p. 2)  

Dramatic state-to-state variability and changes over time in rates of identification of these categories have been interpreted as signs of the “instability and ambiguity of the categories themselves” (Harry & Klingner, 2006, p. 4). As the National Academy of Sciences report notes:

for students having difficulty in school who do not have a medically diagnosed disability, key aspects of the context of schooling itself, including administrative, curricular/instructional, and interpersonal factors, may contribute to their identification as having a disability and may contribute to the disproportionately high or low placements of minorities (Donovan & Cross, 2002, cited in Harry & Klingner, 2006, p. 4).

These key aspects of schooling affect the three major components of the special education decision-making process -- referrals, assessment, and placement – and, most significantly, they result in children from higher socio-economic status (SES) contexts receiving better schooling than those from low-SES contexts. In their study, Harry and Klingner (2006) argue that institutional bias and racism influence school leadership and instruction through discipline policies, classroom seating arrangements, and the perception of families as dysfunctional. Their research points to the arbitrariness embedded in the process by which students receive special education services.

It is a powerful argument made even more compelling by the wealth of detail and meticulously researched evidence that the casebook provides. The original study presents a panoramic view of the school systems under scrutiny, leaving readers with the conclusion that it is not specific principals, teachers or psychologists who are responsible for certain children being pulled out from regular schooling and placed in alternative special, mostly inferior, educational programs, but that the entire educational system is culpable. The casebook, however, focuses on the individual and makes clear that while systemic or institutional racism may explain some of this phenomenon of over-representation, personal biases and professional interpretations by individual agents also play a major role in specific children being relegated to special education.

In quiet even tones, this casebook presents an extraordinary and disturbing exposé of one of the stalwart bastions of conformism in the U.S.: the American public school. Children whose behavior, whether academic or social, is seen as different from what the teachers and administrators have deemed to be normative – regardless that this norm may be an idiosyncratic determination that varies from classroom to classroom, and regardless that individualism is a highly cherished value in other aspects of American life – are perceived to have broken the cardinal rule of schools. It is indeed, as the authors refer to it in the epilogue, the “tyranny of the norm” (p.117).

Story after story reveals both the inequities and the iniquities of the system. One event in Kanita’s story illustrates the overt biases of a psychologist, during a series of projective tests: Kanita’s reluctance to answer extremely personal family questions and to disclose more information about her mother than that she had been in “a program after she came out of jail” resulted in the professional concluding that she was “in denial of her feelings” and had “attempted to shut down” during the testing, and in turn recommending a label of EBD and placement in “a structured class with behavior management” (p. 32). Austin’s story exemplifies the arbitrariness of the labeling process: in her referral report, Austin’s teacher had

characterized him as “distractible, failing to finish assignments, having difficulty maintaining attention, having problems playing quietly, [etc.]”…. The assessor’s decision to use projective tests indicated that the team expected Austin to be found EBD. However, once the results of the tests were in, the language about Austin’s problems was changed to fit his disability. The presentation of evaluation findings read, “Austin was referred for testing in order to assess his poor general academic performance and his difficulty in specific learning areas.” This wording fit the label that was the ultimate decision of the multidisciplinary team: LD. (p. 49)

Clementina’s story reveals the impunity with which schools violate procedural safeguards and parents’ rights: (a) in not conducting a formal Child Study Team meeting with the mother, even though she came to the school for the purpose; (b) in the delay between Clementina’s referral, first initiated in kindergarten, and her placement meeting more than a year after her third-grade teacher referred her; and (c) in attributing this delay to the bilingual assessment (“You know how long those can take. We were waiting for that to be done,” says the assistant principal), even though neither was reference made to this assessment at the meeting nor was there any such report in Clementina’s file (pp. 82-84). Anita’s and Marc’s stories separately highlight the challenges of pull-out programs for the students who, already at an academic disadvantage, must now juggle two classroom schedules and numerous transitions in a single elementary school day. In Anita’s case, the regular education teacher insisted on giving her grade-level work that was far above her level, did not prompt Anita to leave for her special education class at the appointed time, and did not help her to learn the routines of her class that her regular education classmates had acquired during her absences. Math instruction in the special education classroom might consist of a coloring activity, a timed quiz and downtime. All in all, “between the canceling of special education classes, Anita simply forgetting to go to Ms. Parriton’s (the special education teacher) room, or lack of instruction during scheduled math time, there were many days when Anita received no math instruction at all” (p. 105). In Marc’s fourth-grade regular education class, “he and the two other special education students were isolated from the other students, with their desks placed in the far northwest corner of the classroom” (p. 110).

The casebook does not flinch from presenting difficult issues or from asking some hard-hitting questions at the end of each case study. Noting that Matthew and Austin “were the only two Black males in a class of 35 and they were both seated at desks isolated from the rest of their classmates, who were seated in neat rows” at Sunnybrook Elementary School, located in an upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood to which the Black students are “bused from ‘across the highway’ following court-ordered desegregation” (p. 46), it asks, “What role, if any, do you think that race and social class played in the placement process for Austin and Matthew?” (p. 60). It asks the now obvious question, “Should we need to label students in order to get them extra assistance?” (p. 78).

Carefully avoiding any evaluative overtones, it describes some of the deplorable attitudes and presumptions that schools hold about families (for example, the professionals in Clementina’s school rush through a Child Study Team meeting because they believe “the parent would not understand anyway” [p.82]), and about the students themselves (Taddeus’ principal describes him as a “PDK—pretty dumb kid” [p.115]). Through extensive field notes, it offers several instances of poor quality teaching that are almost tragicomic in their effect, like the incident of Ms. Hill who, not being familiar with the word ‘stout’ and confusing it with ‘snout’, claims that it is a type of nose, even after one of her students points out her mistake (p. 58).

Despite the detailed narratives, we get the impression that so much has been left out or not been said, an impression that is heightened when we are referred to other sources (on pages 28, 26, and 70, for instance) for more information on some of these cases. In the end, the reader is left wishing that the stories would go on and we could learn more about what happens to all the children in the casebook – a testimony to both the quality and authenticity of the narration.


Harry, B. & Klingner, J. (2006). Why are so many minority students in special education? Understanding race and disability in schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 02, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14542, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 6:29:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Maya Kalyanpur
    Towson University
    E-mail Author
    MAYA KALYANPUR began her career in special education as a classroom teacher for children with mild and moderate intellectual disabilities in India. She has a PhD in special education at Syracuse University, New York, and is a professor at the Department of Special Education at Towson University in Maryland, USA. She has conducted research on the intersection of culture and special education in the US, with special reference to culturally diverse families of children with disabilities, and on policy on inclusive education for children with disabilities in India. Currently, she is on sabbatical leave in Cambodia to pursue her interests in international special education, where she has worked as a consultant with UNICEF and the World Bank to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports on education for children with disabilities.
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