Special Education: The Frontier of Continued Racial Segregation

by Kristina Rochester

There is an emerging trend of disproportionality in the statistical representation of African-American and Hispanic students in special education programs. (http://www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2011/10/13/01disproportion.h05.html.) This trend represents one of the greatest threats to educational equality in America as it is a new frontier for segregation. African-American and Hispanic students are not only placed at a disproportionate rate into special education programs but they are also more likely to be placed into special education classes separated from their peers. (Georgia Department of Education, 2009-2010 annual special education report.)Some consensus does exist that a huge amount of mislabeling is taking place in school systems across the country. The consequences of mislabeling a student can be staggering on developmental fronts. However, the most tangible effects can be felt in the employment realm. Some special education programs only provide certificates to graduates. This is problematic because students who graduate with a certificate instead of a traditional diploma will experience a huge narrowing of employment and continuing education opportunities. Such consequences of mislabeling disproportionately impact African-American and Hispanic students, continuing a cycle of poverty.

Special education placement criteria: How do we define the model student?

In tackling this major obstacle to education equality, an in-depth review of the special education referral process must be undertaken to determine where any possible cultural biases may exist. Special education referral mechanisms often take highly subjective behavioral criteria  into consideration during the referral process. The referral process will therefore be heavily influenced by how educators define the model student. As Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu has pointed out in his article “Black Boys and Special Education” it is possible that many of the attributes of the ideal student: quiet, long attention span, passive, speaks standard English, two parent home, can work independently; are closely tailored to the profile of the white female student. (http://www.teachersofcolor.com/2009/04/black-boys-and-special-education-change-is-needed/)Could it be possible that the baseline assumptions of what makes an ideal student run counter to the cultural norms of African American students?

Litigation has begun to keep apace with the reality that special education has become another frontier of racial segregation in America. In Lee v. Lee County Board of Education, 476 F.Supp.2d 1356 (2007), the court made strides in addressing the problem of disproportionality in special education. This case is part of litigation started in 1963 that involved Black students and their parents seeking relief Macon County Board of Education – a racially segregated school system. (Lee v. Lee County Board of Education, 476 F.Supp.2d 1356 (2007)). Litigation surrounding these cases has been ongoing and have evolved in line with the overall twists and turns that is the history of school desegregation. One of the most interesting aspects of these cases is with regard to the school board’s administration of its special education program. Upon a review of the local school districts in connection with ongoing litigation, the parties advised the court that segregation issues remained in special education.  There was an observation that a vast overrepresentation of African American students existed in MR (mental retardation and ED (emotional disturbance) special education categories and there was vast underrepresentation in SLD (specific learning disability) as well as gifted programs. The court approved a consent decree setting forth actions that the state would have to undertake in order to regain independence in running its special education programming. The provisions of the decree included (1) revise the pre-referral and referral stages as well as eligibility criteria (2) provide extensive teacher training; (3) undertake comprehensive monitoring of special education plans and programs (4) file annual reports detailing the monitoring process.

In Lee v. Lee County Board of Education, the court took progressive steps toward effective desegration of American schools. It helped establish disproportionate representation in special education as an unacceptable reality that needs to be monitored and remedied. However, disproportionate representation in special education continues in school districts across the country. For example, in Santa Cruz City Middle and High Schools, during the 2011-2012 academic year, 38 percent of black students were in special education programs despite the face that Black students only make up 2 percent of the overall school population. (http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/santacruz/ci_24096519/)

Teacher response and perception of struggling students

Dr. Edward Fergus, deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University points to teacher training as the main means of remediation. He posits that we must closely analyze the context of how we run schools and how we deal with students when they are demonstrating some kind of difficulty. Many teachers have insufficient tools to help students who may already be stepping in with great vulnerabilities.(http://www.blogtalkradio.com/ncebctalkradio/2013/10/14/disproportionality-and-culturally-responsive-leading ).Consequentially, teachers faced with struggling students who may also be disrupting the learning of others, use the tool they do have in their arsenal- the referral process. However, this tool may hurt students more then it benefits them if they are ultimately mislabeled with behavioral and learning disabilities.

One particularly effective means for teachers dealing with students with vulnerabilities is by using culturally responsive education and teacher self-examination. Dr. Fergus pushes educators to question their general expectations for children with language or cultural differences:

“But is there a level of progressiveness as it pertains to all of our kids? For some of our most marginalized population of kids, what do we expect them to achieve and how do we organize those expectations? Do we have the same expectation of college and career readiness for all our kids?”

 (http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/santacruz/ci_24096519/)

As a former teacher I can attest to the difficulty of differentiating instruction to accommodate different learning modalities and cultural responsiveness for the diversity of perspectives represented in the classroom. I was thrust into a challenging teaching environment with very little training on how to differentiate and respond to my students’ cultural needs. Education funding is suffering even more than it was a month ago due to the government shutdown and the slashing of vital educational programs such as Head Start. The necessary training for teachers to develop the tools to support students’ very real need for differentiation and a culturally inclusive environment is going to require a strong financial commitment from government. However, such funding will pay off several fold in ensuring that the school to prison pipeline is shut off and we focus on creating a workforce rather than growing a prison population.

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