Demystifying Disproportionality: Exploring Educator Beliefs About Special Education Referrals for English Learners
by Soyoung Park - 2020
Background: Federal civil rights law requires that English learners (ELs) with potential disabilities be identified in a timely and appropriate manner. Decades of research documenting the problem of disproportionality among ELs in special education suggest, however, that educators struggle with the proper identification of ELs with disabilities. ELs are found to be underrepresented in special education in the early elementary years and overrepresented beginning in upper elementary school. Although these disproportionality patterns are well documented, little is known about why this phenomenon persists.
Purpose of Study: This study addresses this gap by following 16 ELs and their educators in real time through the special education referral process. Using participant observation research methods, I explore mechanisms in the field that might explain disproportionality. Specifically, I examine educator beliefs about whether and when to refer ELs to special education, as well as how those beliefs manifest in the referral process for ELs.
Research Design: This qualitative research study was part of a yearlong multilevel project looking at the special education identification process for 16 ELs at two elementary schools in an urban district. The project involved data collection and analysis at the federal policy, district, school, and student levels. I used a combination of document analysis methods, participant observation research methods, and triangulation among interviews, field observations, and archival documents. Whereas the larger study investigated the entire special education identification process for ELs, this article focuses on just the referral process. Relevant data collected include interviews with school staff, observations of the referral process for ELs, and documents tied to the ELs’ special education referrals.
Conclusions: The educators in this study were found to adopt one of two stances regarding EL referrals to special education: wait to be sure and the sooner the better. These stances reflected educators’ beliefs about special education, ELs, and teachers. Teachers acted on these beliefs in way that led to the co-construction of “English learner” and “disability.” The findings suggest that educator beliefs about whether and when to refer ELs to special education serve as mechanisms that help to explain disproportionality for this student group. This study brings to light how the prevention of erroneous co-construction of EL and disability statuses requires changing the ways in which English learner and disability are conceptualized—shifting away from deficit views of these student groups and toward recognition of their many assets.
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