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African American Students’ Experiences in Special Education Programs

by Eleanor Craft & Aimee Howley - 2018

Background/Context: Disproportionate placement of African American students into special education programs is likely to be a form of institutional racism, especially when such placement stigmatizes students. If placement also fails to lead to educational benefits, the practice becomes even more suspect. Some studies have explored disproportionate placement (i.e., overrepresentation) from the perspectives of policy makers and educators, but few have looked at the practice from the vantage of the African American students experiencing it.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study explored how nine African American students in secondary special education placements perceived their school experiences and the benefits, challenges, and detriments associated with their placements and accompanying disability labels.

Setting: Participating students attended one of three high schools in an urban district in the midwestern United States. Respectively, the schools had low, medium, and high percentages of students on individualized education programs (IEPs).

Population/Participants/Subjects: Three students from each of three schools participated in the study. With the help of school personnel, the researchers selected students who (a) were African American, (b) were juniors or seniors, (c) carried the label of learning disabilities or mild cognitive impairment, and (d) had received special education services for at least three years.

Research Design: The researchers used an in-depth interview design including three increasingly detailed interviews with each student. Verbatim transcripts of interviews provided the data the researchers analyzed using (a) inductive coding, (b) development of case-specific profiles, (c) organization of codes to identify patterns in the data, and (d) identification of emergent themes.

Findings/Results: Three emergent themes suggested that, in most cases, students found the negative consequences of their special education placement to outweigh any benefits. The limited benefits of placement included interactions with responsive teachers and, in a few cases, more suitable instructional pacing. The negative consequences included the experience of being stigmatized by peers, making limited academic progress because of a slow-paced curriculum, and confronting barriers that kept them from returning to general education placements.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The study found that traumatic events in the students’ lives led to academic difficulties, which subsequently led to placement in special education. Rather than supporting the students through a difficult phase of their lives, educators used special education referral and placement as a form of victim blaming. This response had the effect of excluding the students from engagement with the general education curriculum and from interaction with friends. The dynamics of victim blaming led the researchers to judge special education referral and placement of the nine African American students as a form of institutional racism.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 10, 2018, p. 1-35
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22260, Date Accessed: 6/15/2021 4:09:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Eleanor Craft
    Palm Beach County School District
    E-mail Author
    ELEANOR CRAFT is a school counselor for the Palm Beach County School District and has been an educator for 12 years. She also serves as the copresident of the Palm Beach School Counselors Association, where she promotes and advocates for comprehensive school counseling programs. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University, a master’s degree in school counseling from the University of Dayton, and an Ed.D. in educational administration from Ohio University. Her current research interests include educational leadership, the cultivation of resiliency in students, equity in education, and social emotional learning.
  • Aimee Howley
    Ohio University
    E-mail Author
    AIMEE HOWLEY is an emeritus faculty member in Ohio University’s College of Education. Currently she is the owner of and lead researcher for WordFarmers LLC. With degrees in philosophy, special education, and educational administration, Howley’s research over the years has focused on equitable policy and social justice education, especially for students and families in rural schools and communities and students with exceptionalities.
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