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Is Educational Policy Alleviating or Perpetuating the Racialization of Disabilities? An Examination of “Big-P” and “Little-p” Policies

by Adai Tefera & Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides - 2016

To understand the challenges associated with the enactment of educational policies that aim to improve equity and opportunity for students of color with disabilities, this article focuses on two separately conducted ethnographic studies. The first investigates district administrators’ approaches to addressing racial disproportionality after the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the second focuses on the emic perspectives of students of color with disabilities given the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) under the auspices of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Using a critical policy studies perspective, the authors examine how policy enactment within varying local contexts is influenced by harsh material realities and a dense policy environment, which exacerbate existing inequalities for students of color with disabilities. Collectively, these factors provide ripe terrain for understanding how policies, at the macro and micro levels, struggle to produce equitable outcomes and instead contribute to the educational inequities experienced by students of color with disabilities. The article ends with recommendations for policymakers on how to address existing procedural practices and compliance measures that are inadequately addressing and contributing to the persistence of racialized outcomes for students of color with disabilities.

In the last three decades there has been a steady rise in the number of educational reform efforts in the United States, each set with a significant aim to improve the academic performance and outcomes of historically marginalized students. These reform efforts have been, by and large, propagated through the enactment of educational policies (Ball, Maguire, & Braun, 2012). Today, as discussions ensue regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we are reminded of the lessons learned regarding the intended and unintended consequences of these policies. Despite the aims of these policies to close the ostensible achievement gap, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities, it continues to be the case that schools in the United States produce unequal educational outcomes based on race, socioeconomic status, ability, gender, and other forms of difference (Artiles, 2011; Artiles, 2015; Duncan & Murnane, 2011; Skiba et al., 2008). Consistent evidence points to the fact that a commitment to equality in policy and the law, while laudable, has been unable to produce equitable outcomes, particularly when considering the historical and social context of the United States (Harris, 2001).

For students of color with disabilities, challenges related to racial disproportionality in special education, limited educational opportunities, and continued segregation in schools and neighborhoods (Artiles, 2011; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Losen & Orfield, 2002) bring to light pressing policy challenges. More specifically, an important contradiction exists regarding the racialization of disabilities given that the civil rights response for one group of individuals (i.e., learners with disabilities) has become a potential source of inequities for another group (i.e., racial minority students) despite shared histories of struggle for equity (Artiles, 2011, p. 431). In this article, we argue that ambiguous policy guidelines coupled with complex local contexts contribute to insufficient changes in schools and to the reproduction of and rise in educational inequalities (Tefera, Gonzalez, & Artiles, forthcoming). Rarely is there a consideration in policy for the ways complex local contexts influence the enactment of policy on schools and by local actors (Ball et al., 2012). Consequently, in this article we draw on two studies to demonstrate the unintended consequences faced by local school actors as they attempt to mediate the enactment of federal educational policies.

To do this, we begin the article by providing a critical policy analysis of how federal and state policies under IDEA and NCLBBig-P policiestravel to and become enacted in local school contextslittle-p policies. We demonstrate how the contexts that local educators and students exist in mediate the outcomes and effectiveness of these policies. By using a critical policy approach, we examine what Ball et al. (2012) describe as the contextual factors, material realities, and external pressures that shape educational actors interpretation of educational policies and influence students experiences in schools as they respond to policy demands. More specifically, we discuss the ways in which the implementation of IDEA and NCLB within varying local contexts significantly alters their intent and can contribute to inequities; how the material realities of schools and districts interact with local context to perpetuate existing inequalities; and finally how external pressures generated by a dense educational policy environment allow for inequities to persist as practitioners attempt to respond to multiple and competing demands. Collectively, these factors provide ripe terrain for understanding how policies, at the macro and micro levels, struggle to produce equal outcomes and instead contribute to the educational inequalities perpetuated in U.S. schools.

In order to understand the complex issues associated with policy enactment and the frequent inequities, this article focuses on two separately conducted ethnographic studies. The first investigated district administrators approaches to mediating federal citations regarding racial disproportionality after the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004. The second study focused on the emic perspectives students of color with disabilities given the statewide high school exit exams in California under the auspices of NCLB. Using a critical policy studies perspective, this article brings together the findings of these two studies and argues that if differing local contexts, material realities, and external pressures are not seriously contended with when designing and enacting policy, then inequitable and disparate outcomes in U.S. schools will likely persist.


In this article we rely on a broad definition of educational policy, or what Ball (2008) refers to as Big-P policies, which he describes as formal policies that are legislated, created, and regulated by governments. Policy, however, is not simply an object or outcome, but rather something that is ongoing, interactional and [often] unstable (Ball, 2008, p. 7). Policies include people and programs, and are meant to address a pressing issue or problem. Therefore, it is important to consider the influence of little-p policies, or how Big-P policies travel to and unfold in local contexts and communities, often becoming inflected, mediated, resisted and misunderstood (Ball, 2008, p. 7). To understand the process of how two Big-P policies travel to local contexts through people and programs, we zoom in on IDEA and NCLB to understand how these policies were enacted in different contexts as local actors attempted to adhere to the equity demands within each policy. Specifically, we ask why 40 years after IDEA and 50 years after ESEA, we continue to see persistent inequities for students with disabilities, students of color, and students at the intersection of these two groups. By examining the enactment of these policies in two urban contexts, we are able to understand this paradox in more detail, providing examples of what Ball et al. (2012) point to as the importance of seriously considering context, materiality, and professional cultures in the study of educational policy enactment. In the next section we provide a brief overview of IDEA and NCLB and the initiatives embedded within each in the quest for more equitable practices in schools for students of color with disabilities.


IDEA is the single most influential piece of legislation affecting students with disabilities in U.S. schools today. The legislative history of IDEA began in the early 1970s out of Public Law 94142. The law took shape when parents in 26 states initiated litigation surrounding special education. Passage of IDEA relied upon the same litigation strategy used in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) (Minnow, 2010). The law was predicated on a substantial piece of civil rights legislation in attempts to gain rights for a historically marginalized group. IDEA was designed to legally ensure fair and equitable delivery of education to students with disabilities and meet the multiple demands of schools, teachers, students, families, and districts (Kirp, 1986). IDEA is also procedurally laden and has grown more complex over time.

Despite IDEAs connection to civil rights and the intention to provide educational opportunity to students with disabilities, a number of obstacles remain. Most notably, students of color are overrepresented in high-incidence disabilities (Losen & Orfield, 2002) and in disciplinary outcomes (Losen, Ee, Hodson, & Martinez, 2014). High-incidence disabilities include learning disabilities, emotional/behavioral disorders, mild intellectual disabilities, and speech and language disorders. This trend has persisted for decades (Harry & Klingner, 2014) despite legal protections provided by IDEA. Disproportionality is the overrepresentation of a specific racial/ethnic group in special education programs relative to the presence of this group in the overall student population, and/or the underrepresentation of a specific group in accessing intervention services, resources, programs, rigorous curriculum, and instruction relative to the presence of this group in the overall student population (National Education Association, 2007). Nationally, one of the most consistent trends is that Black and Latino males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories and in school suspensions (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). For example, national data show that disproportionality in special education adversely affects Native American and Black males the most because they are overrepresented in the high incidence (or nonmedical) disability categories and in school suspensions (Losen & Orfield, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2009). The high-incidence disability categories are emotional disturbance (ED), learning disability (LD), mental retardation or intellectual disabilities (MR or ID), other health impairments (OHI), and speech/language impairments (SLI). Black students are between 24% and 26% more likely to be identified for special education (DAgord, Munk, & OHara, 2012). National data also indicate that nearly three quarters of students receiving special education services are male and labeled as emotionally disturbed (National Education Association, 2007). Black students are most likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed and receive services for severe emotional issues, and they are three times more likely to receive services for mental retardation or intellectual disabilities than their White peers (National Education Association, 2007). Hispanic and Latino students are nationally under-identified; in other words, they are often not classified or given services when needed in almost all high-incidence disability categories (National Education Association, 2007). In contrast, Asian and Pacific Islanders are overrepresented in gifted and talented programs (Cartledge et al., 2002; National Education Association, 2007). Additionally, Black males are the most likely to be disciplined or suspended for subjective reasons, as compared to their White peers, and to receive harsher punishments (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002).

The first and most notable study on disproportionality was conducted by Dunn (1968), when he suggested that the overrepresentation of ethnic and language minority students in self-contained classrooms is a civil rights issue. However, scholarship on disproportionality did not gain momentum until the 1980s, when it paralleled the development of legal challenges in education stemming from Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the 1975 passage of IDEA (Skiba et al., 2008). The momentum was coupled with increased data collection on issues related to disproportionality by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) Office of Civil Rights division (Skiba et al., 2008).

With research growing on the significance of disproportionality, the federal government responded. Most notably, the 1997 and 2004 reauthorizations of IDEA have included specific disproportionality-monitoring indicators with which state and local education agencies must comply. The indicators track whether or not school districts exceed a numerical threshold that alerts to disproportionate outcomes. If states and districts show significant disparities in special education by race and ethnicity, they must remedy noncompliance through a formal process defined by each respective state. Despite increased federal and state monitoring and many districts being legally compliant with IDEA, disproportionality persists relatively unabated to date (Albrecht et al., 2012).

Persistent disproportionality may be related to the fact that IDEA, as it is currently structured, has weak federal enforcement structures behind it. Although special education is a civil rights issue, the bulk of compliance activity and enforcement of IDEA comes from the Department of Educations Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and not from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) (Hehir, 2002). This is problematic given that OSEP is generally more focused upon the administration of educational funds and programmatic concerns rather than on civil rights enforcement. When and if enforcement of IDEA does come from OCR, which is common in disproportionality cases, OCR is subject to bureaucratic and political pressures that weaken its enforcement capabilities (Losen & Welner, 2002). For example, while working within OCR, Pollock (2010) found that wealthier and overwhelmingly White parents consistently use IDEA and demand more resources from it than do less socially advantaged parents. This is incredibly consequential for the equitable delivery of special education because the more resources a family has, the more they are able to utilize IDEA and its legal structure to benefit their children.

While the civil rights for students with disabilities was an important accomplishment of IDEA, it is clear that the policy is also a considerable source of inequity for racial minority students given persistent challenges related to racial disproportionality (Artiles, 2011). For example, placement in special education does not always ensure that adequate or quality schooling is delivered, especially for culturally and linguistically diverse students (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Losen & Orfield, 2002; Wells, Hogan, & Sandefur, 2003). Research also indicates that mostly affluent and White students generally receive higher quality services in special education, while less affluent students and students of color are overrepresented in less rigorous programs and fare worse in educational and disciplinary outcomes (Donovan & Cross, 2002). Thus, the law simultaneously protects students with disabilities and has allowed for culturally and linguistically diverse students to be overrepresented in special education classification, placement, and/or disciplinary outcomes and receive lower quality services.


In the 40 years that have passed since the enactment of IDEA, a number of policy decisions have collided with the act, resulting in twists and turns in the education requirements for students with disabilities. One of the most notable shifts came with the 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, otherwise known as NCLB. Prior to 2001, it was typically the case that separate accountability systems existed for students in general and special education. While test performance was generally used as an accountability measure for students in general education classrooms, accountability for students in special education was, until fairly recently, one of technical compliance. The passage of NCLB significantly altered the educational landscape for students labeled with disabilities by leading to higher stakes, or rewards and punishments based largely on students performance on standardized tests. One of NCLBs most contentious aspects was the high stakes attached to the policy. Schools or subgroups of students that failed to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) faced severe consequences ranging from parents having the choice to send their child to a better performing school to schools ultimately being shut down.

Advocates of high-stakes testing and increased accountability often argue that combining higher expectations and strict consequences leads to greater educational gains and thus, they contend, improved economic gains and global competitiveness (Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). These proponents commonly assert that strict consequences such as retention or withholding high school diplomas serve as incentives for schools to work harder and students to improve their academic achievement and school outcomes (Klein, Hamilton, & Berlinger, 2002; Koger et al., 2008). Historically, however, substandard educational opportunities and low expectations have been commonplace in special education classrooms (Harry & Klingner, 2014; Thurlow & Johnson, 2000), making it difficult for students and their teachers to meet the demands of high-stakes accountability policies, and reap the benefits of the presumed educational and economic gains.  

While most educators and researchers agree on the premise of improving student outcomes, the means of getting there has long been disputed. Much of the literature on students with disabilities and high-stakes testing discusses the incongruity of IDEA and NCLB mandates (Thurlow & Johnson, 2000; Ysseldyke et al., 2004). Indeed, NCLB intersects with other major policies and reform strategies, further compounding contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities in educational practice, all of which affect the subgroups of students expected to benefit from this policy (Artiles, 2011, p. 436). The problem is further compounded given that most students with disabilities receive inadequate school support and services for success at grade level (Albritten, Mainzer, & Ziegler, 2004; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Losen & Orfield, 2002).

Moreover, while NCLB and IDEA infuse words of equity and inclusion throughout the two laws, the most alarming fact is that equality is primarily based on requiring equal outcomes as measured by state-mandated assessments. Narrowly focusing in on test score gaps as the sole indicator of educational inequality is just one more way that standardized tests impose high-stakes consequences on the victims of educational failure rather than on those responsible for it (Karp, 2004, p. 61). A great deal of research has also demonstrated that high-stakes testing measures often result in teaching-to-the-test, leading to the creation of classes that narrowly focus on low-level cognitive skills, such as rote learning, how to bubble-in multiple-choice tests, and how to choose answers by eliminating incorrect items (Harry & Klingner, 2014, p. 11). McNeil and Valenzuelas (2003) study on the impact of high-stakes testing in Texas revealed that issues related to gaming were especially apparent in schools serving predominately Black and Latina/o students. Essentially, rather than using standardized tests as an opportunity to assess students learning needs, there has been a narrow focus on the test scores of students and the schools they attend.

The primary tenet of recent educational policies, including IDEA and NCLB, is the continued use of standardized tests as the primary tool to measure equity. This has resulted in a disjuncture between the normative principles illustrated in education policy and the law, which purport fairness and neutrality, and the actual impact of these policies, which often have discriminating and damaging effects on students. It is in this tangible space between the intent and effect of policy that the studies highlighted in the next two sections take place. This is a crucial space to understand, as it allows for deeper questioning into why and how well-intentioned laws like IDEA and NCLB have failed to abate racial and ethnic disproportionality and improve outcomes for historically marginalized students.


To analyze IDEA and NCLB, we use a critical policy perspective (Ball, 1997; Ozga, 1987) by engaging with both sociological and policy literature to examine how policies travel from the federal level to school contexts, and the ways policies are appropriated and contextualized by local stakeholders in their routine practices (Ball, 1997; Ball et al., 2012). More specifically, we rely on a policy as practice perspective to shed light on the ways in which equity remedies create unintended equity problemsi.e., the perpetuation of racialized disabilities. We are particularly interested in investigating how policy affects practice and students experiences by considering the interactions between the contexts of school districts and the perspectives of local stakeholders.

As a result, our focus shifts from the meaning or intentions of the policy, to the processes surrounding the morphing and effects of policy across local contexts (Taylor, 1997), including a recognition of the material realities and the external pressures schools experience under current policy mandates. This is an important perspective, as it allows us to document how policies are interpreted in practice and absorbed into the organizational structures of schools. It recognizes the agency of local actors while acknowledging that schools in the 21st century operate within policy environments that affect the delivery of education just as much as the local context.

We posit, therefore, that the normative principles embodied in policy and the law, which aim to provide equality, are linked to the actual impact of the law, which in practice may have discriminating and damaging effects, particularly on racial minority students (Ball, 1997). In her critique of traditional policy studies, Erevelles (2011) explains that

Haunting these [traditional] policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. A cornucopia of lifeless data. In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have a history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable. Bodies are not always compliant. (Erevelles, 2011, p. 84)

We agree with Erevelles in her description of traditional policy approaches to understanding education, and recognize the need to acknowledge students bodies and the ways in which these bodies shape and are shaped by polices in particular local contexts.

This framework also enables the analysis of interactions between both the formal aspects of organizational life (e.g., monitoring mandates and procedures) and the informal aspects of organizational life (i.e., norms and biases, symbolic policy responses) (Edelman, 1992). The distinction allows for insight into how a policys intent morphs when applied to practice, known as loose coupling (Weick, 1976), and enables us to understand how the presence of organizational structures (e.g., monitoring mandates and procedures) may become symbolic indicators of rational governance and compliance with antidiscrimination laws (Edelman, Krieger, Eliason, Albiston, & Mellema, 2011, p. 888), regardless of whether the targeted inequities remain unabated.

In the subsequent sections we apply this framework and share findings from two studiesone focused on leaders reactions to citations for disproportionality under IDEA, and the other describing students perspectives and experiences with high-stakes testing policies and the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSSE).


In this section we turn to the first study where the second author investigated the role of legal compliance in federal disability legislation when addressing racial and ethnic disproportionality in special education. The project was a comparative ethnographic study that explored how legally mandated equity, through the auspices of IDEA, was interpreted in practice and how legal mandates relate to the entrenched complexities and inequities of local school districts. The study relied on a series of research questions that probed how the pressure to comply with the policy prescriptions of IDEA affected district administrators attempts to address inequities in practice.

The research was conducted in a northeastern state in the United States that has an aggressive policy approach for addressing disproportionality. This means that the states threshold for identifying severe disproportionality is much lower than a majority of other states and that in addition to federal statutes, there are numerous state-level laws, procedures and mandates associated with the delivery and monitoring of special education. The study used a comparative framework for ethnographic inquiry in the hopes of capturing how a citation for disproportionality was addressed in varied social contexts. More specifically, the comparative framework allowed for the impact of policy on practice to remain at the forefront while also being mindful of the complexities involved in the application of legally mandated equity.

The second author gathered ethnographic data from three school districts that had a history of noncompliance with IDEA and repeated citations for disproportionality. The study used the extended case method (Burawoy, 2009), which relies upon connecting the everyday experiences of social actors with larger social forces by historically, thematically, and abstractly locating ethnographic research within a broader social context.

The second author spent over 1,200 hours in the field following the daily activities of each districts special education administrator. Observations were taken in their offices, during special education meetings, cabinet meetings with other district and building-level administrators, professional development and departmental meetings, and visitations and consultations with teachers. The observations were focused on understanding how the school districts were formally organized, how district actors followed rules and procedures, and how the administrators informally interacted and acted with other district staff, parents, and students.

Additionally, in order to gain broad insight into how the individual perspectives of administrators, teachers, and school personnel contribute to or sustain a specific interpretation and understanding of disproportionality, the second author conducted 30 formal interviews with district staff (including administrative assistants, social workers, assistant superintendents, building principals, etc.) and non-district employed professionals who worked with the districts (including child protective service workers, special education advocates, etc.). The interviews were focused on understanding how these professionals experienced working in their districts and what their impressions were of the districts citation. Lastly, the field notes were triangulated with meeting agendas, handouts, district forms, local newspapers, and content from online blogs and commentary about the school districts and school boards.

Once a citation was imposed on a district, it literally and technically complied with all IDEA mandates. Technical compliance often caused the substantive intent of IDEA mandates to become loosely coupled (Weick, 1976) or diverge from their intent. In other words, practitioners were able to use compliance as a superficial remedy, which did not address some of the locally occurring root causes of disproportionality related to each districts sociocultural context (e.g., sociodemographic changes, residential segregation, and the culture and climate of the district).

For example, in the relatively rich and 90% White district of Sunnyville, the district administrator and her employees tended to use a colorblind approach when applying IDEA to practice. The district was cited under Indicator 9, which signifies it was disproportionately classifying students in special education. District leadership used the phrase Indicator 9, Indicator fine to express their relationship with and understanding of the citation. According to the special education leader in the district, Indicator 9, Indicator fine captured how easily the district could be cited for disproportionality. When the district received an initial referral for special education for a Black child, she and the guidance counselor, in particular, questioned whether or not the child would be classified for special education. If the child was, the district would be Indicator 9; if not, it would be Indicator fine. The phrase was mostly used by special education staff and was often said with humor, a groan, or some flippancy. The use of the phrase indicated that district personnel felt as though they had very little control or responsibility over their citation.

The indicator was also a catchall for district practices or students and families who were associated with the citationa Black child or family. For example, one day while I (second author) was sitting in Bettes office, the high schools director of counseling entered and asked Bette to sign a form. While Bette was doing so, she looked at me and said, Indicator 9! Going to a residential center! (a private out-of-district placement that takes the child off of the districts special education roster). The counselor added, Every one helps that we can get out! referring to the fact that the Black child would no longer be on the districts rolls, thus reducing the probability that Sunnyville would be cited again. The leaders in the district were never pushed by local constituents, or by the language in IDEA, to consider how local inequities influenced educational outcomes in the district.

The second district, Middletown, is a highly racially and residentially segregated district. It was cited for the disproportionate disciplinary outcomes of students with disabilities by race. Leadership in the district was laissez faire and allowed for a great deal of personal whim and bias to shape the delivery of education in the district. Because of this, disproportionality was not of paramount concern to high-level leaders. For example, when the second author attended a cabinet meeting where the citation was discussed she witnessed how inconsequential the implication of the citation was to high-level leaders.

The meeting began with the cabinet members sitting down in an office in a room in the central administration building and casually chatting about lunch and acupuncture. After about 10 minutes of banter, the special education administrator handed out a piece of paper to the people at the table and said, I received a Christmas present from the Statewe will be cited this year for suspensions. The superintendent looked at the special education director and said, Oh yes, we already know that. The 10th grade is really an issue this year. The superintendent of curriculum added, The 10th grade class has always been an issue. Already the citation was being rationalizedthe leaders had pinpointed the source of the citation to a specific grade and did not question whether or not the suspensions were legitimate or a result of larger systemic issues.

The director of special education continued by saying the district will probably have to go under a comprehensive review by the State. He then handed out another paper with a list of every student who had been suspended up until the day of the meeting, along with his or her infraction. In the data, the 10th grade was as equally implicated as were other grades.

The cabinet members leafed through the suspension list in relative silence until the director of human resources punctured the silence of the paper-turning with a chuckle: Im surprised we didnt get on the [citation] list earlier. We have two more to add to it today! With this, the districts business director pointed to the list of suspensions and looked at Rafael, asking, What are we supposed to do with this information? Dr. Gerald responded, The district really has limited ability with money, so we really need to focus our resources.

Suddenly, the assistant superintendent of curriculum, who had been mostly silent, said, You know, if we cant pinpoint the problem [where the suspensions are coming from], then we cant address it. Anther cabinet member added, How do we sweep this problem away, and only this problem? We dont have time for anything else! Where is the broom to get rid of this? The director of special education responded, I think there are bigger issues contributing to the high number of suspensions in the district. No one in the cabinet meeting was willing to engage with the deep racial and class divisions within the community, which permeated every aspect of district work. Thus, collectively, the hands-off approach of leadership coupled with IDEA mandates that did not require practitioners to grapple with local inequities allowed disparate outcomes to persist.

The third district of Green Hollow, which is approximately 30% students of color and 70% White with mixed socioeconomics, mediated disproportionality in a very rigid manner. The district, like Middletown, was also cited for disproportionate disciplinary outcomes of students with disabilities by race. Leadership in Green Hollow had a strong vision as to how the district should operate, and the vision was not responsive to a changing local context that was fraught with internal tensions associated with the districts growing diversity.

Leadership and staff struggled to meet the changing needs of the districts student body. The superintendent, and other district leaders, tried to quell local tensions by using zero-tolerance polices and practices. In addition, the special education department sought strict compliance with IDEA to address disproportionality. These approaches exacerbated the districts issues.

For example, it was well known across the district that the districts assistant director of special education had been hired to monitor compliance issues associated with the districts citation for suspensions. Because of this, the administrator often became a target of staff frustration. One staff member clearly explained sentiments I often heard from other professionals in the district, saying,

People feel like they are walking on eggshells [when disciplining a student]. . . . You know, [the administrator] . . . his answer to everything is Well write a check [referring to incentive structures embedded in behavioral interventions systems embedded in IDEA legislation]. But you understand that every time a kid walks by somebody, he says f--- you or something like that or whatever. And thats not acceptable anywhere, but we let them do it because we cant suspend? How is this BIP better? How will it fix the situation?

The staff member felt frustrated by the tools he was armed with to address discipline issues. The policies he was asked to comply with did not seem relevant to the needs of practice.

In conclusion, despite variation in how districts attempted to achieve compliance with IDEA, some more substantively than others, disparate student outcomes persisted because existing local inequities associated with race and class differences were not sufficiently challenged by policy mandates. The findings from this study indicate that compliance with IDEA was enacted in such a way that the three districts did not disrupt local norms and biases surrounding differences and disability. Rather, compliance acted as a guise to outside authorities and educational stakeholders that sound educational practices were occurring. This is highly problematic because the data showed that educational opportunities were denied to some students over others in all three of the districts.

As a whole, this study highlights the limitations of the letter of the law by exposing how well-intentioned legal mandates and procedural protections cannot ensure equitable outcomes in the context of local practice. The findings suggest that the particulars of a districts social context and the latent biases or preferences embedded within it greatly affect how disproportionality is understood, addressed, and remedied. They also suggest that compliance with a federal citation is not enough to ensure equitable outcomes, and broaden conversations about improving special education and addressing racial disproportionality to include consideration of how personal capacities intersect with structural factors. Lastly, the findings suggest that the current legal structure of IDEA is unable to rupture the effects of social context on policy implementation and puts into question the effectiveness of current legal strategies to address disproportionality.


In an effort to foreground the contextual reality and material consequences of NCLB for students in urban contexts, the second study explored the emic perspectives of Black and Latina/o students with disabilities as they journeyed through the process of attempting to pass the CAHSEE for high school graduation. The study took place during the 20082009 school yeara contentious time in California when a number of lawmakers, community organizations, and parent groups challenged the legality of the CAHSEE requirement, particularly for emergent bilinguals (or English Learners) and students with disabilities. Although California adopted the CAHSEE in an effort to align state and federal educational policy, and to elevate the importance of the learning of all students, research has demonstrated significant negative consequences for students attending the most diverse schools (Artiles, 2011; Fine & Ruglis, 2009; Kane & Staiger, 2002; Nichols & Berliner, 2007). For example, schools serving predominately Black, Latinas/os, emergent bilingual, and low-income students often have the least amount of resources to meet high-stakes testing demands (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Harry & Klingner, 2014). Moreover, teaching to the test, rote learning, and test-taking strategies (Harry & Klingner, 2014) typically end up being the focus due to high-stakes testing demands, rather than a focus on meaningfully engaging students in learning in the classroom. As a result, there have been a number of federal and state court challenges to these exams (Jellison & Heilig, 2012).

A significant body of research has considered the challenges regarding the validity and reliability of the exam as well as issues related to funding, particularly for students with disabilities and emergent bilinguals (Solórzano, 2008; Ysseldyke et al., 2004). However, it is equally important to consider the fact that little attention [is] given to the material context of the policy process, neither the buildings within which policy is done, nor the resources available, nor are the students with whom policy is enacted often accounted for (Ball et al., 2012, p. 5). In part, this study was conducted in an attempt to counter the focus on the technical and instead explicate the material context students were situated in as well as account for the students experiences with the CAHSEE within the larger context of NCLB. By focusing on the situated nature of the students and analyzing their perspectives and experiences, the study was able to describe the consequences of high-stakes testing on students experiences in school by accounting for the structural challenges with the policy.

This study, like the first one, employed ethnographic methods and revealed the detrimental gaps that typically exist between the intent of policy and what happens in practice. NCLB received wide support and praise from the public based on the claim that requiring all students to meet the same standards, primarily assessed through exams, would improve educational equity. However, the study revealed that inequities were often exacerbated for Black and Latina/o students with disabilities. By simply requiring all students to perform at the same level on, for example, standardized exams, high school graduation rates, and attendance, there was a damaging disregard for the different contexts students were situated within, which heavily influenced their outcomes. This disregard was manifest in inadequate opportunities to learn the material that would be tested on the CAHSEE, teachers without the appropriate credentials to teach special education, and lack of accommodations offered to the students while taking the exam.

The study was conducted at Morning Sun High School, a large, urban, Title I high school in Southern California serving nearly 2,000 students. The demographics of the school included 50% Latina/o students and 49% Blacks, with a majority of students (62%) receiving free or reduced-price meals. The school was comprised of nearly 9% students with disabilities, just under the percentage of students with disabilities in the state of California (10.5%). These numbers indicate that a considerable proportion of students with disabilities both within Morning Sun and California were significantly impacted by the CAHSEE at the time of the study.

In an attempt to focus on and capture the narratives of those students who spent the majority of their school day in the special education classroom, only Special Day Class (SDC) students were asked to participate in the study. SDCs are self-contained special education classes that provide services to students with disabilities that cannot be provided by the general education classroom or Resource Specialist Program (RSP), and occupy more than 50% of the students day. RSP is a program that provides instruction, materials, and support to students with disabilities who are assigned to the general classroom for more than 50% of the school day. Of the 20 seniors in SDC in Morning Sun, 15 agreed to participate. Classroom observations took place in two CAHSEE math preparation courses for students in SDC and one CAHSEE English preparation course. The primary objective of this ethnography was to understand and study the students conscious experiences of their world in an everyday life situationthe classroomwithin the context of the NCLB and CAHSEE policy mandates. Therefore, the primary unit of analysis was students experiences and perspectives as they were observed in the classroom and shared during individual and focus group interviews.

The main theory of action embedded in high-stakes exit exams and accountability policies is that teachers, leaders, and students will be motivated to improve learning and therefore raise outcomes with the added pressure of facing harsh consequences, including the withholding of high school diplomas. To the contrary, this study demonstrated that students were not provided added opportunities to learn essential material being tested on the exam. Rather, students faced a number of difficulties as they attempted to pass the exam, due in part to the structural inequalities within the school, including insufficient resources, inexperienced teachers, and lack of access to essential materials.

Students revealed that significant disparities existed as they attempted to pass the CAHSEE. Not only did the students face the same challenges their general education peers faced attending an urban school environment with inadequate resources, but the students also discussed the added dimension of being both a student of color and a student labeled with a disability. Essentially, they revealed that educational inequalities were often exacerbated as students of color with disabilities. Particularly striking were the critiques that students provided regarding school funding, opportunities to learn, and the impact that their identity label as Black and Latina/o students with disabilities had on their access to essential learning resources. For example, students narratives revealed the pervasive problem of lack of teachers, particularly special educators, and reliance on substitute teachers for many classes. Of the five special education teachers in the school, only one was certified to teach special education. The remaining four were either in their first or second years of teaching, and all were enrolled in alternative certification programs.

Many of the students had an acute awareness of the challenges teachers faced at Morning Sun, including low teacher salaries, challenging classroom environments, and a lack of school-wide leadership. During one focus group, when asked why the students were having difficulty passing the CAHSEE, the students responded, Its money because they dont have the money to hire good teachers. The good teachers are going to the schools that are going to pay more. They dont want to go to low-budget schools. Here, the students understand the advantage of attending low-poverty schools, namely the schools ability to attract high-quality teachers. The students also aptly articulate some of the challenges that come with attending an urban school with few essential resources, particularly given the challenge of both attracting and retaining special education teachers in urban schools.

These material inequalities had organizational consequences, including students lack of access to the accommodations legally afforded to them. Nearly all of the students in the study described at least one time in which they took the CAHSEE without being provided their accommodations, which were mandated through IDEA. For example, during one interview with Edna, a Latina student labeled with a learning disability, she explained the first two times taking the CAHSEE, sharing, I didnt get that at all [accommodations]. I was taking it in the library with special ed. students, but I didnt get any dictionary or calculator at all. Nobody read the questions to me. Although Edna eventually received the accommodations and passed both sections of the exam, she endured a number of attempts without any accommodations before finally passing after being provided her legally afforded accommodations.

Furthermore, in the rush to require that all students pass the CAHSEE in order to receive a high school diploma, many teachersboth general and special educationalong with school leaders were unprepared to make the necessary organizational changes to the school. For example, during one classroom observation the special education teacher, Mr. Murry, explained why students were not provided their accommodations, saying:

Last year the teachers didnt want to waste their time reading the entire test out loud to the students, providing accommodations. But this year, because its my second year and I know whats going on, Mr. Wang [another special education teacher] and I took the lead and made sure the students who needed it had the test read out loud to them. The problem was that for the October test [the first opportunity students had to take the CAHSEE that year] the administration didnt have all the 12th grade [SDC] students scheduled to take the exam in the same room, so students were spread out in the library, gym, and classroom with teachers who didnt know how to accommodate the students.

This problem was exacerbated at Morning Sun given the schools lack of resources and struggle to keep teachers and staff. As a result, students consistently expressed that despite the pervasive structural challenges faced in their school, ultimately they felt that it was their responsibility alone to pass. In effect, the students had internalized the rhetoric of individual responsibility and accountability, yet the accountability on the part of state and federal policymakers was largely absent in ensuring students needs were met and material resources provided.

A number of studies show that schools with few resources and little capacity to meet policy mandates often resort to strategies and techniques that include gaming of the system (Booher-Jennings, 2004; Diamond & Spillane, 2004; Figlio, 2002; Rustique-Forrester, 2005). Similar to these studies, the first author found that the pressure the school felt due to the high stakes of the CAHSEE led to increased teaching-to-the-test and even gaming of the system. For example, because Mr. Murry had a deep understanding of the needs of his students, he felt it necessary to provide them with assistance during the exam even if this was technically not allowed. As a result, he explained, On paper the scores look good, but were doing all these things. Many students confirmed what Mr. Murry said about offering the students assistance during the exam. When asked what the students would do if they did not know how to answer a specific math question, Jason, a Black student labeled with an intellectual disability, said he would tell Mr. Murry,

Dang, I dont know how to do this problem. I cant understand it. Then Mr. Murry gives me an example of how to do it, and then Ill try to take it from there, and if I cant do it then Ill skip it or Mr. Murry will keep helping me on the test.

Failing to recognize the ways in which the students were situated with regard to race, class, ability, and other social markers of difference led teachers and leaders to resort to measures that they believed would ultimately aid their students to passage, thereby avoiding negative consequences.

In essence, this study revealed the paradox of high-stakes testing policies such as the CAHSEE under NLCB, given that these policies improved neither performance nor equity. In part, the problem has been a persistent lack of recognition that policies are not only ideological but also material (Ball et al., 2012), with material consequences in the lives of students who were meant to benefit from such policies. It is therefore important that contextual, material, and relational aspects be considered in the making of educational policies, in order to improve their implementation and ultimately students experiences and outcomes in schools.


The persistence of disproportionality in special education and continued use of high-stakes testing suggests that the historical intent of equality in policy and law promised through IDEA and NCLB is deeply flawed when applied to practice. It is therefore important for policymakers to critically interrogate how IDEA has been written and amended. IDEA has always been focused on protecting individual rights; however, findings in the first study, along with research on educational inequities, consistently suggest racial disproportionality is not an individual issue but a systemic problem. Policymakers should reexamine the effectiveness of existing procedural protections embedded in IDEA and critically ask if they are still relevant to practice, given the persistence of racialized outcomes in special education. In addition, policymakers should allow for disability law to embrace a more systemic focus given that individual protections tend to perpetuate persistent inequalities in U.S. society. This is particularly true when considering how race and class differences intersect with power and privilege when IDEA is applied to practice. Wealthier and overwhelmingly White parents consistently use IDEA and demand more resources from it than do less socially advantaged parents (Pollock, 2010). This is incredibly consequential for the equitable delivery of special education given that the more resources a family has, the more able they are to utilize IDEA and its legal structure to the benefit of their children.

Given the variation of local contexts and differences in the materiality of students lives, policymakers should abandon a one-size-fits-all approach to educational policies. This is particularly true given differences in the ways students are situated and the growing cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds of students today. Following Cavendish, Artiles, and Harry (2015), we believe measuring students opportunities to learn with specific criteria and resources is much needed, especially with the ongoing evidence of racialized outcomes in special education. Finally, it is important that educational policy research considers the contribution of student voice, particularly in understanding specific local dynamics, thereby demonstrating the ways students are impacted by policy within varying social, cultural, political, and economic contexts.

The two studies presented in this article demonstrate that attempts in educational policy to address and improve inequities by requiring equality of result will continue to fall short so long as policies are constructed to treat those who are situated differently as if they are the same (powell, 2012). This is further compounded by the fact that vague policy guidelines enacted in increasingly diverse local contexts often lead to insignificant and at times damaging changes in schools, contributing to the reproduction of and rise in educational inequalities. Thus, the paradoxical relationship between equal protection and opportunityas defined by policy and the persistence of racial disproportionality in special educationhighlights how complex it is to legally mandate equity. It also strengthens the notion that requiring compliance and implementing high-stakes testing alone will not address disproportionality in special education nor so-called achievement gaps, given weak policy structures that fail to address the contextual and material realities of policy implementation that contribute to the racialization of disabilities.

The limits of both IDEA and NCLB demonstrate the need to rethink the structure of these policies, which is based upon individual protections and results within the wide systemic failures in schools and districts that allowed for inequities to persist. Alternative methods for initiating educational change must emerge that not only dictate how education should be delivered, but also challenge assumptions about the effectiveness of and reliance on current policies to improve equity in education.


The first author acknowledges the support of the Equity Alliance and the Sociocultural Research group at Arizona State University. Both authors are grateful to Alfredo Artiles for his mentorship, guidance, and support.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 14, 2016, p. 1-24
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21541, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 12:21:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Adai Tefera
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    ADAI A. TEFERA is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foundations of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research examines how federal and state policies are mediated by stakeholders in local contexts and experienced by culturally and linguistically diverse learners with disabilities. She uses an interdisciplinary approach in her research, which include tools from critical policy studies, sociology, and political science.
  • Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    CATHERINE KRAMARCZUK VOULGARIDES is a Senior Research Associate at the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University. Her work explores the social mechanisms and processes that contribute to educational inequities. She uses theory, primarily sociological theory, to ask questions about the intersections between social context, disability, educational policy, and race in order to improve student outcomes.
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