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.

Defining Culture

Culture is a complex concept that anthropologists and sociologists have defined in a variety of ways. Before the 1960s it was typically defined as a pattern of behavior and customs. Today it refers to the integrated patterns of human behavior that include communication styles, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions that give a group with a common heritage a sense of "peoplehood" (McIntyre, 1997).

"Most contemporary social scientists view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies" (Banks & Banks, 1994, p. 83). Banks suggests six major elements of culture: (a) values and behavioral styles, (b) language and dialects, (c) nonverbal communication, (d) awareness (of one's cultural distinctiveness), (e) frames of reference (normative worldviews or perspectives), and (f) identification (feeling part of the cultural group).

The works of Edward T. Hall—Beyond Culture, The Silent Language, and The Hidden Dimension—are classics in the area of intercultural study and vividly describe how humans can be unknowingly influenced by their culture. People from different cultures may perceive the world differently, unaware that other perceptions are even possible. Hall (1976) argues that most of us hold unconscious assumptions about what is appropriate in terms of personal space, interpersonal relationships, time, and ways of seeking truth (for example, scientific inquiry, meditation).

Hall (1976) portrays a continuum of sociocultural tightness to distinguish among cultures. Specific cultures may be described according to where they lay on the continuum between high-context cultures at one end and low-context cultures at the other end. In low-context countries such as the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia, interpersonal communication can take the form of a verbal message, a memo, or a computer program. Meaning is gleaned from the message, and what is said is more important than who said it. High-context cultures, such as southern European, East Asian, Arab, Native American, and Mexican, and those found in portions of the rural United States, are generally the opposite. Meaning must be understood in the setting or context in which the communication occurs. For example, in the Chinese language, many words may be pronounced in several different ways, depending on the context within which they are used.

High- and low-context cultures differ along many dimensions. For example, reasoning among high-context cultures is knowledge gained through intuition, spiral logic, and contemplation. Feelings are important. In contrast, among low-context cultures, reasoning is linear and logical. Knowledge is gained through analytical reasoning (for example, the Socratic method). Words are important. Interpersonal relations also demonstrate a strong contrast. To high-context cultures, the group is paramount. Among low-context cultures, the individual is paramount (Bennett, 2003).

Cultural diversity means that significant differences exist in students' performance and interactions in broad areas such as verbal and nonverbal communication, and in orientation modes such as conceptions of time, social values, and cognitive tempo. Cultural differences in learning may be especially obvious in three areas: learning styles, communication styles, and language differences.

Minority groups are those groups that have unequal access to power. They are, for the most part, considered by the majority as inferior or less worthy of sharing power in some way (Mindel & Habenstein, 1984).

Too many widespread myths and misconceptions about multicultural education hinder the truth to be revealed, according to Banks and Banks (1994). One common misconception is that multicultural education is an entitlement program and a curriculum movement for blacks, Hispanics, poor, women, and other marginalized groups (D'Sousa, 1991; Glazer, 1997). Major researchers and theorists in multicultural education agree that is a reform movement designed to restructure educational institutions so that all students, including white, male, and middle-class students, will acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function effectively in a diverse nation and world (Banks & Banks, 1994; Gay, 1995; Grant & Sleeter, 1997).

Winzer and Mazurek (1998) show other common misconceptions about multicultural education. Another misconception is that multicultural education is the study of cultures that are not American. The reality is that no matter when they arrive, all Americans develop and share many common values and experiences. The curriculum in multicultural education should reflect the culture of various groups as well as the shared national culture. Goals of multicultural education are erroneously thought to be implemented quickly and easily. Research, however, indicates that these goals cannot be achieved in a short time; the process is ongoing. Lastly, it is an error to believe that multicultural education is too difficult for younger children and should only be part of secondary programs. The truth is that multicultural education should begin in preschool.

Multicultural education consists of four interactive dimensions: (a) equity pedagogy, (b) curriculum reform, (c) multicultural competence, and (d) teaching toward social justice. Equity pedagogy seeks to achieve fair and equal educational opportunities for all of the nation's children, particularly minorities and the economically disadvantaged. Curriculum reform expands the curriculum from traditional course contents that are primarily mono ethnic (in the United States this means Anglo-European) to multiethnic and global perspectives. Multicultural competence is the process of becoming multicultural, whereby an individual develops competencies in multiple ways of perceiving, evaluating, believing, and doing. The focus is on understanding and learning to negotiate cultural diversity within a single nation and among nations. Teaching toward social justice involves clearing up myths and stereotypes associated with gender, different races, and ethnic groups, and stressing basic human similarities. It helps to put an end to prejudice and discrimination, and to solve basic problems of inequity (Burnette, 1998).

Today, more than 30 percent of this society's school-age children and youth are ethnic minorities. Every attempt must be made to reduce cultural conflict that may result from cultural bias. Research on the characteristics of effectively integrated schools shows that a policy consistent with integrated pluralism has the best potential for realizing good race relations, academic achievement, and personal development among students.