The Over and Underrepresentation in Special Education Programs

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

An educational trend that will not go away and continues to concern federal, state, and local educational policy makers is the overrepresentation and underrepresentation of certain "minority" populations in special education programs.

Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, tremendous benefits have been experienced today. Approximately six million children with disabilities enjoy their right to a free, appropriate public education. These benefits, however, have not been equitably distributed. Minority children with disabilities all too often experience inadequate service—unnecessary isolation from their nondisabled peers, and low-quality curriculum and instruction. Moreover, inappropriate practices in both general and special education classrooms have resulted in the misclassification and hardship for minority students, particularly black and Native American students. For example, in most states, black children are identified at one and a half to four times the rate of white children in the disability categories of mental retardation and emotional disturbance. Nationally, Hispanic and Asian children are underidentified in cognitive disability categories compared with whites. These data raise questions about whether the special education needs of minority children are being met (Losen, 2002).

Consider the following data collected by the Civil Rights Program at Harvard University (Losen & Orfield, 2002):

  • In wealthier districts, black children, especially males, are more likely to be labeled mentally retarded. Native American children also showed this finding, but to a lesser degree than black children.
  • Minority children with disabilities are underserved. Black children with emotional disturbances received high-quality early intervention and far fewer hours of counseling and related services than white students with emotional disturbances.
  • Disturbing racial disparities were found in outcomes and in rates of discipline. Among high schoolers with disabilities, about 75 percent of black students, compared with 47 percent of whites, are not employed two years out of school. Three to five years out of school, the arrest rate for blacks with disabilities was 40 percent compared with 27 percent for whites. New data also indicate substantially higher rates of school disciplinary action and placement facilities for black students with disabilities.

Keme'enui (2000) argues that at the beginning of the 21st century, the risk factors that plagued children with diverse learning and curricular needs a decade ago have not diminished. In fact the risks these students face are more intense now, at the beginning of the new millennium, than at any time before. The Information Age and global economy will be unforgiving to workers with poor reading and literacy skills (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). Jobs requiring the most education and training will grow the fastest and pay the highest. Occupations that require a bachelor's degree or higher will average a 23 percent growth—almost double the 12 percent growth for occupations that require less education and training (U.S. Department of Labor, 1995). Students who are unable to negotiate the "new basic skills" (Levy & Murnane, 1996) will be left behind in the new economy of the 21st century. This picture becomes increasingly chilly when the most recent reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are considered. At the close of the 20th century, two in five fourth grade children could not read at a basic level. This means they could not comprehend or make simple inferences about fourth grade material (NAEP Reading Scores, 1999).

Concurrent with the cultural, familial, and sociological changes that are now occurring in the new millennium, educational leaders are requiring more of all students (Keme'enui, 2000). Students and teachers are asked to go beyond the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills to integrate thinking and content area knowledge in authentic problem-solving activities. As Resnick (1987, p. 7) stated, "Although it is not new to include thinking, problem solving, and reasoning in someone's school curriculum, it is new to include it in everyone's curriculum." "Everyone" at the close of the last century means more than 46 million children who will attend nearly 88,000 pre-K-12 public schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 1997).

Educational leaders also are calling for curriculum standards or goals that indicate what students have learned upon their completion of public school education. These standards have been developed and promoted by a range of professional organizations, each calling for curriculum changes for all students.

By developing curriculum standards, educators can improve student learning outcomes. They need, however, effective strategies and programs to teach and manage students with diverse learning and curricular needs. Unlike middle- and upper middle-class students who may receive substantial support for academic pursuits outside of school, diverse learners, especially children from low-income families, are more dependent on schools for their academic development and educational achievement (Alexander & Entwisle, 1996). In the final analysis, these students are more dependent on effective programs and strategies that consider their learning characteristics, such as delayed language development or lack of background knowledge, in the design and delivery of the curriculum content.

The standards also require educators to scrutinize more closely innovations in curriculum and instruction. Although reasonable expectations must be set for diverse learners, failure to accommodate the unique learning and curricular needs of diverse learners can place these students at greater risk.

The motive for addressing diversity can no longer be liberalism or obligation, but a question of self-interest (Hodgkinson, 1985) since, as Yates (1987) predicted for the year 2050, half the U.S. population is projected to be Hispanic, black, of Asian/Pacific descent, or Native American (Council of Economic Advisors, 1998). Society must recognize the contributions of minority groups and implement procedures to permit them equal access to power within society (Bauer et al., 1997).

Schools have changed from predominantly white institutions to multicultural environments (McIntyre, 1997). The 25 largest school systems have a student population comprised mostly of students from diverse backgrounds. Nonurban areas are also seeing such developments.

Although minority children make up 40 percent of elementary and secondary enrollment nationwide, minority teachers account for only 13.5 percent of the teaching force (Johnston & Viadero, 2001). The contrast in cultural backgrounds between teachers and students applies to an even greater extent in special education, in which students from diverse backgrounds are overrepresented in various programs for the special needs youth. McIntyre (1997) cites researchers who attribute this overrepresentation to, in part, the difference between expectations from the students' parents and their schools.

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