Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Politics of Race, Class and Special Education

reviewed by Rhodesia McMillian & Ty-Ron M. O. Douglas - January 24, 2015

coverTitle: The Politics of Race, Class and Special Education
Author(s): Sally Tomlinson
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: B00K822WVU, Pages: 190, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

In an era of political polarization, attributes like race, social class, and politics affect every facet of human society—especially education. When Sally Tomlinson first began to critically examine the development of education in the early 1970s, the intersection of education, social class, and race became unmistakably clear. While some scholars might argue that the evolution of education reform has been for the better, Tomlinson contests the notion. Tomlinson contends that the school reform process has not adequately addressed the opportunity gaps that disproportionately marginalize students with disabilities and minority students.

This book—a compilation of Tomlinson’s scholarly writings over the past 30 years—illuminates and challenges historical and modern practices of identifying students for special education and rendering appropriate education. Through a sociological lens, she presents a comprehensive anthology that reveals the intersections among education, social class, race, and politics, as well as her personal experience as a scholar in special education.

To assist readers who are unfamiliar with her writings, Tomlinson introduces and substantiates her contributions with a narration of her research background and published works. The book combines theoretical perspectives and discourse analyses of the development of special education. Throughout the book, Tomlinson’s selected works provide a very broad perspective on how the development of class, consciousness of race, and the praxis of politics have adverse affects on education—particularly special education.

Tomlinson’s writings provide a useful international perspective on the development of the subcategories in special education, and how this development was well supported by various interest groups across the United Kingdom. The book explains how the education of the “educationally subnormal” was supported industrially because it essentially guaranteed a trained cohort of low-maintenance and consistent workers. Additionally, she explains how the expansion of special education was attributed to politically organized units. For example, she explains how the working definition of Intellectual Quotient (IQ) is derived from eugenics—a program of research that holds that the physical, mental, and behavioral qualities of the human race could be improved by suitable management and manipulation of its hereditary essence (Kevles, 1985). She further explains how IQ, coupled with the perception of race and class, increased the referral rate—and thereby the expansion—of special education overall.

An overall strength of Tomlinson’s book is that each chapter provides a sociological snapshot of special education in various silos—from colonial immigration and British national identities, to home-school links and education in a post-welfare society. Because this book presents research that expands over 30 years, chapters that specifically address the objectives of the book—politics, class, and special education—are highlighted in this review.

In Chapter Two, Tomlinson explains the evolution of expertise in special education from a medical model to a collaborative model that includes the practical knowledge of therapists, counselors, and psychologists. She also advances a sociological approach that recognizes the intersections between social structures. She evaluates how perspectives and processes of special education (e.g., referral, evaluation, and eligibility determination) can influence social and cultural norms, and explains how this perspective creates critical lenses for practitioners to become more reflective and culturally competent in practice.

In Chapter Three, Tomlinson discusses the catalysts for special education expansion, specifically in Britain. This expansion is attributed to the investment of interest groups, invasive practices of schools (e.g., the exclusion of students with disabilities), and the diminishing availability of employment for basic skilled workers. This chapter further claims that the expansion of special education is not the result of intrinsic qualities or lack of qualities in students, but rather the social criteria currently being applied to education (p. 39).

In Chapter Four, Tomlinson outlines the contemporary organizational structure of special education in Britain and other countries. She argues that the expansion of special education to include outside professionals reduces the responsibility of the schools when serving students with special needs. By contracting the services of a psychologist, therapist, or physical health professional to service students, it creates a feeling of subordination among parents; it also reinforces the bureaucratic loyalty outside professionals could have for vested interest groups.  

In Chapter Seven, Tomlinson encapsulates the historical marginalization of minority students in the United Kingdom, especially students of African-Caribbean descent. Tomlinson presents historical data that exposes educational practices that displace African-Caribbean students from the general education population—practices solely based upon perceived inferiority. She attributes the displacement of African-Caribbean students to post-Darwinian thinking, which was based on biological inferiority and cultural deficiency (p. 88). Furthermore, Tomlinson discusses how the development of IQ perpetuated and strengthened the arguments of those who supported post-Darwinian perspectives and eugenics. She concludes this chapter by arguing that the over-placement of minority students into inequitable educational subsystems cannot be abolished without a thorough examination of the historical and political context.

Finally, in Chapter Twelve, Tomlinson introduces her most current scholarly writings, which explore the relationship between the academic ability level of special need students and the global economy. She discusses the significance of the study of production, distribution, and consumption of wealth, and how these dynamics affect students with special needs and how they contribute to modern capitalism. She concludes the chapter by advocating for the employment expansion for special populations, and for policy that creates and sustains employment for students with special needs.

Each chapter in the book has its own identity, and Tomlinson employs broad overlapping concepts to unify the text. Although each chapter provides useful information regarding the intersectionality of special education with politics, race relations, and class, the text would have been enhanced by a more comprehensive historical foundation for an international audience. This omission is a limitation; while Tomlinson identifies the structures of European education that determine which children can and should not receive quality education or which children can and should not be considered as “educationally subnormal,” she does not provide sufficient context for non-European readers. Although Tomlinson’s work is within the parameters of education, politics, and class, the individuality of each chapter disrupts the fluidity of the text as a whole. Perhaps framing the chapters into three sections would have been helpful in better encapsulating and linking the concepts.

Overall, this book can function as a practical resource book for scholars and practitioners seeking to gain an international perspective on how economics, race, and politics contribute to the expansion of special education and the worldwide marginalization of ethnic minority students. Tomlinson’s utilization of a sociological imagination framework is effective. This framework helps us make sense of universal and historical occurrences that reify the social structures within which we act out daily routines. Tomlinson’s use of this approach allows her to elucidate the effects that racism, classism, and politics have on domestic and international educational policy.


Kevles, D. J. (1985). In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 24, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17831, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:37:13 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Rhodesia McMillian
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    RHODESIA MCMILLIAN, Ed.S, NCSP is presently a PhD student in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. A nationally certified school psychologist, her research focuses on both K­12 educational reform policy and inequities within special education. Ms. McMillian has presented at national conferences in the area of school psychology.
  • Ty-Ron Douglas
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    TY-RON M. O. DOUGLAS, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis Department at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His research explores the intersections between identity, community/geopolitical space, and the social and cultural foundations of leadership and education, with an emphasis on Black masculinity/families, spirituality, and community-based pedagogical spaces. Dr. Douglas’ work has appeared in outlets such as The Urban Review, Educational Studies, Teachers College Record, and Race, Ethnicity, and Education.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue