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Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education

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Since the 1970s there has been consistent overrepresentation of minorities, particularly African Americans, in special education programs. Today, many more people are identified with learning disabilities. The overrepresentation of minority students is an increasingly important issue as minority students are becoming the majority of public school populations. Teachers refer minority students to special education programs more often than Caucasian students, and teachers mainly refer students to special education programs. Minority students are more often referred to special education programs for behavioral problems than academic issues. Studies have shown that the number of minority students enrolled in a school directly correlates to the school’s overall percentage of students in special education programs. Is the system of special education systematically reproducing the racial and social inequities of our society instead of decreasing them?

            More than one in 10 students is identified for special education services (National Research Council2). In the educational system, which for some is a bridge to the special education system, minority students are both misidentified and misclassified. According to Donna Y. Ford in “Culturally Different Students in Special Education: Looking Backward to Move Forward” many people question the overrepresentation of people of color in special education:  “Special education is under constant legal and personal scrutiny regarding the overrepresentation (number and percentage) of black and sometimes Hispanic American students” (Ford 398). In-terms of referrals and the structure of special education programs, minority students’ needs are both misunderstood, considered after a diagnosis of their intellectual capacities, and not adequately addressed.

            In the 1980s, black students made up 16% of total enrollment in schools and 38% of enrollment in classes for people who were considered “intellectually disabled.” In the 1988-1999 academic year, there were 1,111, 650 African American children enrolled in special education (Harry and Janette Klingner 2). African Americans had the highest risk of receiving a disability label in the United States- risk of 14.28%, with Americans Indians/ Alaskan Natives at a risk of 13.10%, Caucasians at a risk od 12%, 11.34% for Hispanics, and 5.31% for Asians.

Racially, ethnically, and linguistically different students made up 32% of public schools in 1989, 39% of public schools in 1999, and 45% of public schools in 2000 (Ford 392). Minority students are often treated as one group and therefore their abilities and challenges are attributed to their perceived race/ ethnicity.  In reality, students come form many different socioeconomic backgrounds and there are some minorities and (Caucasians) who need a lot of learning accommodations and others who simply need to learn in different environments.

The field must tackle terminology and come to consensus to avoid diluting the magnitude of the problem and the attendant question of are too many Black, Hispanic and/or ELL students inequitably referred to, identified as, and placed in special education and what is the nature of placement? (Ford 400).

The main reasons teachers send students to special education programs are because they think a student is stupid, does not know how to learn, or/and has a behavioral problem. Children of color have historically been labeled “emotionally handicapped.” This term does not address a child’s needs, intelligence, or capabilities. The label, “Learning Disability” was created as a less stigmatizing, alternative term to mental retardation (Harry and Klingner 5). This new phrasing gave white middle-class students more access to more fitting and useful accommodations, but did not significantly help address the academic needs of students of color. The new terminology for the categorization of people with different learning needs reinforced racist assumptions about intelligence and the aptitude of minorities. 

The greater number of minority students in special education is a result of school politics, relationships between school officials and parents, quality of education outside of these programs, classroom management of the referring teacher, and poorly trained teachers that work at minority schools.  There are many assumptions made about qualifications for the label of disability, especially in-terms of behavior. As stated by Donna Y. Ford in “Culturally Different Students in Special Education: Looking Backward to Move Forward,” ideas about how a child should act and what determines whether or not a child has a disability are different for various people:  “As Beth Harry has noted in several studies, views about behavior as well as what constitutes a disability, disorder, or special education needs vary across cultural groups and subgroups” (Ford 395).  Whether or not a behavior is deemed “appropriate” is heavily influenced by the person who is observing the child’s behavior and his/her/their sociopolitical and cultural background.

There are many assumptions about black and Latino inadequacy, there are low expectations for minorities, and cultural insensitivity towards minorities, which are explicit in all levels and stages of the special education process and programs. Many non-white students respond to questions or prove their knowledge in a way that is unfamiliar to teachers and can be misinterpreted as incorrect or considered unacceptable. Often teachers have a harder time relating and understanding students of color because they may present their knowledge in unconventional ways. Countless teachers have assessed the way African American students speak as not only inappropriate or incorrect, but as so “wrong” to conclude that these students have a language disorder. When teachers think that a student has a language disorder, the student is often referred to speech and hearing evaluation and services.

There are many controversies about language differences, proper language, and what constitutes a disability among educators and assessors of learning disability tests. In 2002, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association asserted that African American English (AAE) is a language and students who speak it must not be identified as having a speech or communication disorder (Ford 397). Questions about proper testing and language assessment have been raised due to the high percentage of African Americans in special education programs.  Researchers have challenged the effectiveness of tests in providing accommodations and assistance in special education programs that address student’s needs due to various reasons.  For example, researchers have asserted that these tests often result in attributing learning disabilities to students who present their knowledge in unrecognized forms of individual and cultural expression. However, these students do not necessarily have these disabilities or the severity of disabilities they are diagnosed with. These tests are the main determinant of whether or not a student is placed in a special education program.

Some teachers have made sweeping conclusions about what a child needs and the child’s abilities or lack there of based on their assumptions of how a child should act in class or their observations about how a child of a certain race or ethnicity performs and completes assignments. Notions of “proper” or “expected” behavior have raised questions about who deems this behavior inappropriate, why have people decided it is inappropriate, and is there any room for an authentic African American voice and presence in a “regular” education setting. Some assumptions based on language lead teachers to recommend more students of color to special education programs.

 Minority students in the educational system who deserve and require special education are misclassified and misidentified. “A daunting yet essential task in the past and future had been and is to research consensus on (a) terminology and (b) measurement, in terms of what constitutes potentially illegal representation of Black and Hispanic students in special education” (Ford 398). Cultural bias built-into IQ Tests makes it more difficult for students to demonstrate their intelligence when they do not perform well academically (Harry and Klingner 5).

Fear, misjudgment, and misinterpretation of black males contributes to their overrepresentation in special education programs. According to Torn D. Togut in “The Gestalt of the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Duality of Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education and Racial Disparity in School Discipline on Minorities” the location of schools contributes to the percentage of students in a school that will be enrolled in special education programs: “Furthermore, overcrowded schools that are disproportionately located in school systems with a high percentage of minorities contribute to the faulty identification processes, which has a disparate impact on minority students” (Togut 170-71) High-stakes testing, which leads to children being retained at grade level, contributes to the disproportionate number of minorities in special education. The process of testing for learning differences, mental retardation, and behavioral issues, which results in students’ placement in special education programs, is subjective and influenced by school politics, teachers’ views and expectations for students, and teachers’ cultural bias.

            Educators have a lot of agency in deciding what they test a child for, when to use alternative tests, and how much weight they put on each test in evaluating a child’s needs, abilities or lack there of. Many studies have shown that in the course of determining a student’s academic knowledge, needs, accommodations, and areas of weakness, special education teachers as well as other teachers are more likely to recommend a minority student to enroll in a special education program and/or take a special education evaluation than a Caucasian student when these teachers are presented with the same referral information (Togut 173). The racial and gender group with the highest representation in special education programs are black males.

            The IQ Tests that are given to students have an ingrained cultural bias which makes it more challenging for people of color to prove their knowledge. Also, since students of color’s responses to questions and tests in school are often misinterpreted or seen as “wrong” it can be extremely difficult for them to prove what they’ve learned and their intellect in any form. One of the issues with proper labeling and identification of a child’s need is that states define disabilities and give out accommodations differently.

Schools with larger class sizes and lower teacher salaries often have a higher percentage of students in special education. In one school in a low-income neighborhood African Americans comprised 17% of the population, and 35% of the students in special education (Harry and Klingner 6). There are three main factors that determine the likelihood a child is to be enrolled in a special education program: socioeconomic status of the child, the education a child receives, and the lack of resources available to that child.

            According to Torin D. Togut in “The Gestalt of the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Duality of Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education and Racial Disparity in School Discipline on Minorities,” there are many reasons why there is an overrepresentation of African Americans in special education programs: “There are several interacting factors contributing to the disparity of African Americans in special education ‘including unconscious racial bias of educators, large resource inequities that run along liens of race and class, unjustifiable reliance on [intelligence tests], educators’ inappropriate responses to the pressures of high-stakes testing, and power differentials between parents of students of color and school officials” (Togut 164).  Many environmental factors contribute to whether or not a student will be placed in special education: the child’s neighborhood and housing stability, geographic location, home environment, and the quality of healthcare the student and his/ her/ their family receives. Poverty is a factor in overrepresentation of minorities in special education.

            Studies have shown that the more urban a school district, the lower percentage of the minority students are enrolled in special education. One possible explanation for this difference is that urban districts may not identify as many students with special needs as require accommodations.

            White school districts enroll a higher percentage of minority students in special education. Part of the reasoning behind the higher representation of minority students in white school districts is that white districts have more thorough and difficult academic standards than in-city districts with mostly minorities.

            In 2000, 6% of all students were identified as having a Learning Disability (National Research Council 2). According to the Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education, a study came out in 2000 that concluded that 5% of Asian/ Pacific Islanders, 11% of Hispanics, 12% of Whites, 13% of Native Americans, and more then 14% of African Americans were identified for special education (National Research Council 1-2).

After years of research, a study resolved that differences in calculated performance, intelligence, and aptitude that culminate in one child being classified as disabled and another not being given this label are completely arbitrary and determined by social judgments. “Cultural differences among students, families, and teachers have been offered as a major explanation for overreferrals and thus overrepresentations. Specifically, differences in values, beliefs, attitudes, customs, and traditions between white teachers and their RELD (Racially, ethnically, and linguistically different) students contribute to low expectations and deficit thinking on the one hand and cultural misunderstandings on the other” (Ford 392-93).

            Special education teachers should have a better knowledge of the students they work with and the children’s families. This is especially important in regards to different cultural views surrounding special education. “In the name of accountability and being culturally responsive, how can educators own up to past (unnecessary) barriers and considerably reduce (and ideally eliminate) racial inequities in special education? How can the field increase accuracy in referring, assessing, labeling, and serving Black, Hispanic (students) … who truly require special education interventions?” (Ford 392) Many educators and education researchers propose that special education teachers should be required to take multicultural courses and the degrees that they receive should help them become culturally competent, aware, and open to new ideas, customs, and changing classroom environments. Special educators should have formal preparation before working with students with many needs: attending conferences, professional development/ inservice workshops, multicultural courses, and enrolling in degree programs that address issues of race/class/gender/ethnicity. Ideally this training will reduce unnecessary referrals and overrepresentation of minorities in special education.

            According to federal data in 2006, completed by the Department of Education’s office for Civil Rights (OCR), many members of Hispanic families decide whether or not a child receives special education services. “The prevalence and significance of familismo in Hispanic cultures is important to consider when addressing the needs of students with disabilities” (Ford 396). The data concluded that Hispanics are not overrepresented in special education and individual studies on particular Hispanic groups overwhelming present the opposite conclusion. Many Hispanic students who need additional services or accommodations are not receiving them, being tested for them, and often do not know that they can complete their work and learn more effectively in other settings or with more resources. 

            According to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), in 2006 black students represented 17.13% of public school students, yet 32.01% were identified as having an intellectual disability, and 20.23% as having a specific Learning Disability (Ford 398).

            A 2011 study by Amanda L. Sullivan indicated that ELL students were very likely to be placed in special education and to be identified as having learning disabilities (Ford 397). Though it is more difficult for English Language Learners to navigate the unfamiliar cultural practices and language in school, this does not mean that they should be enrolled in special education or that they have a disability. It is also not guaranteed that a special education program will address these needs.

            What does the future look like for people of color’s overrepresentation in special education programs? Donna Y. Ford in “Culturally Different Students in Special Education: Looking Backward to Move Forward proposes cultural competency as a possible solution: “How can educators’ being culturally competent decrease misunderstandings and clashes with unnecessary referrals of, and inappropriate special education identification and placement of those whose cultures are different from educators and decision makers?” (Ford 393). How can we change the social processes that channeled people of color into special education programs? How can we create terminology that more accurately describes students’ needs, strengths, and challenges or is the labeling constricting the ways we can help children succeed, learn, and grow? “When a very large percentage of students … is labeled as having emotional disorders, intellectual disabilities, and emotional disturbance, they are (depending on the severity) less likely or not likely to participate in college preparation classes and to enter college. From a cyclical view and acknowledging exceptional cases, this frequently destines them to a life of unemployment and crime” (Ford 402). If we do not address the issue of overrepresentation of minorities, we are continuing a legacy of racism and assessing people’s intellectual capabilities based on their skin color.

Works Cited

Donovan, Suzanne, and Christopher T. Cross. Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy, 2002. Print.

Ford, Donna Y. "Culturally Different Students in Special Education: Looking Backward to Move Forward." Sage Journal 78.4 (2012): 391-403. Rpt. in Council for                  Exceptional Children. N.p.: Council for Exceptional Children, 2012. 391-403. Bryn Mawr College. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.                         <>.

Harry, Beth, and Janette K. Klingner. Why Are so Many Minority Students in Special Education?: Understanding Race & Disability in Schools. New York: Teachers            College, 2006. Print.

Togut, Torin D. "The Gestalt of the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Duality of      Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education and Racial Disparity in School   Discipline on Minorities." Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 4th ser. 20.1 (2011): 163-81. Digital Commons American University Washington College of Law. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. < ext=jgspl>.