Overrepresentation Of Minority Students In Special Education Programs

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Overrepresentation or disproportionality of minority students in special education programs is an ongoing problem that has plagued our nation for several decades. Overrepresentation can occur in many areas but is most prevalent when considering a student's ethnicity. Disproportionality refers to "the extent to which membership in a given … group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category" (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999, p. 198). For example, government reports have revealed that African American students constitute over 14% of the school-age population yet they represent 20% of the students placed in special education (Losen & Orfield, 2002). Klinger et al., (2005) reported that African American students are twice as likely than White students to be labeled as mentally retarded, one time more likely to be labeled as learning disabled, and over one and half times as likely to have an emotional or behavioral disorder.

Disproportionate representation of ethnic and racial minorities has historical connections to educational segregation and discrimination. Dunn (1968) first raised concerns about this issue in the sixties. He described the disproportionate number of minority students being labeled as mentally retarded and placed in self-contained classrooms which raised significant educational and civil right concerns. Ferri and Connor (2005) have also maintained that disproportionality has historical roots. After schools were integrated in 1954, following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the number of African American students placed in special education programs increased. Students were being grouped or placed according to their academic ability. This practice resulted in many African American students being grouped together in low ability tracks and many were subsequently referred for special education services. Hence, over referring African American students for special education became another way to resegregate students of color.

Some people would argue that placing a student in special education would greatly benefit the student because he or she would receive more individualized attention to address their disability and other needs. However, disproportionality often presents negative implications for minority students. Once African American students are identified as having a disability, deemed eligible for special education services, and placed in a special education setting; they are more like to remain in special education classes throughout their years in school. They are more likely to receive a "watered" down curriculum that is not as rigorous as the curriculum that the students in general education receives. These students are segregated from their general education peers when placed in more restrictive settings. Disabled students are often stigmatized and treated differently by other students in their schools. Lastly, to further exacerbate the problem, overrepresentation may also cause some students to be misclassified or inappropriately identified as having a disability.

Disproportionality is a complex problem that has been linked to multiple factors depending on the school and/or school district. Probable causes of disproportionality include psychometric test bias, socio-demographic factors, unequal opportunity in general education, and cultural mismatch between teacher and student (Skiba, et. al, 2008). Research has also suggested that bias at the prereferral stage of the special education eligibility process is a cause for disparity of African American students being placed in special education (Darley & Gross, 1983). As a former special education teacher, I have participated in several meetings with a purpose of deciding which placement is appropriate for a student previously identified as having a disability. On several occasions, I have asked the referring general education teacher his or her reasons for referring the student for special education services and was surprised to receive such vague and potentially bias explanations. For example, one teacher told me that she referred a student for behavioral issues because at times, "he was stubborn and refused to do his work." Another teacher told me that she referred a student because he presented challenging behaviors such as talking out without permission and he often contradicted the teacher's answers or explanations to the class which infuriated the teacher. When questioned further about the interventions used before referral, the teachers' response were more ambiguous and peppered with a lack of knowledge of appropriate intervention strategies. The purpose of this study is to determine the personal characteristics of the general education teachers that have the greatest influence on their decision to refer minority students for special education. The study will address the following research questions through a mixed method of qualitative and quantitative research:

To what extent if any, does a general education teachers' years of experience, teaching level, training in classroom management and intervention strategies, education level, ethnicity, age, and gender impact disparity at the prereferral stage of the special education eligibility process?

What impact does a general education teachers' efficacy and perceptions of minority student characteristics bias their referral of minority students for special education services?

What is the placement rate of the students being referred for special education services by the general education teachers?

This study will focus on the students being referred for academic and/or behavioral issues because these are the main reasons why minority students are referred for special education services. As a result of this study, I hope to be able to extend the available literature on potential teacher bias during the prereferral stage of the special education process. My ultimate goal is to decrease the numbers of African American students being referred for special education services when the referral is not warranted or questionable.

Conceptual Framework

Disproportionality is a widespread problem that continues to affect minority students. Patterns of consistent disproportionality are evident and have been studied extensively for years.

Oswald et al. (1999) examined the magnitude of overrepresentation by analyzing extant data from the 1992 Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Compliance Report to describe the extent of disproportionate representation of African American students labeled as seriously emotionally disturbed (SED) and mildly mentally retarded (MMR). They also wanted to determine the extent to which economic, demographic, and educational variables at the district level were associated with disproportional identification for this ethnic group. Zhang and Katsiyannis (2002) used data extracted from three federal government publications to find out whether or not there have been any recent improvements or changes in overrepresentation of minorities in special education. Although, there has been some debate concerning how disproportionality should be measured and the extent of the problem, overrepresentation continues to occur with no definitive causes. Researchers have also been unsuccessful in identifying real solutions to eradicate this phenomenon.

Previous studies have examined many aspects of disproportionality including bias in problem solving and the social process of student study teams and teacher efficacy and student problem as factors in special education referral. Yet, research is somewhat limited and has mainly focused on the magnitude and possible causes of disproportionality. There appears to be a gap in the literature when examining personal factors that affect the general education teachers' decision to refer a student for special educations services. This study will fill this gap by examining factors that influence referral and subsequently results in disparity. An in-depth analysis of teachers' efficacy and perceptions of minority students will also be examined to determine if these factors impact disproportionality.

The cognitive theory of social learning coined by Alfred Bandura will inform my approach to understanding the phenomena of disproportionality with regards to teacher efficacy. Teacher efficacy will be analyzing to determine its role in the prereferral stage of the special education process. I will examine the general education teachers' belief that he or she may or may not be capable of bringing about desired changes in their students. Teacher efficacy will take account of two dimensions, judgments and personal beliefs. Disproportionality will also be approached from an ecological perspective framework to understand how special education referrals are influenced by personal characteristics of the referring teacher. The teacher factors that will be explored will also note the influence of ascriptive characteristics, characteristics that cannot be changed such as age, gender, ethnicity, etc., on disparity.

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