Overrepresentation of Minorities Special Education

Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education

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The national debate over special education has no easy answers. On one hand, many parents of affected children want more resources catering to their children’s special needs. However, the ‘mainstreaming’ movement, which was and is supported by many parents, stresses the need to place children in the least restrictive environment possible. There is clearly a need to balance placement in special education to promote educational success with a need for normalcy. Into this debate is the concern that minority children are disproportionately represented in special education classes, and that racist and classist assumptions may cause what would be seen as mere difficulties in non-minority children to be ‘disabilities’ in minority children (Shippen 2009; Rogers 2002). Ironically, greater support for special education arose as a result of the civil rights movement, out of a desire to acknowledge and support ‘difference’ in a positive fashion (Sullivan & King 2010).

“Black students are twice as likely as white students to be educated in a more restrictive environment… U.S. Department of Education data indicates that at least thirteen states labeled more than 2.75% of black students intellectually disabled. Nationally, the prevalence of white students labeled mentally retarded was approximately 0.75% in 2001, and in no state did the incidence of labeling white students rise above 2.38%” (Torin 2012). Despite the fact that special education may be viewed as ‘helping’ students, it can also hold them back, as in the case of one black student labelededucable mentally retarded” who was gifted at football — the principal decided to enroll the boy in regular classes based upon his obvious intelligence as a player with extra support from teachers to help him ‘catch up.’ Eventually, “Billy Hawkins went on to complete a Ph.D. And is now Associate Dean at Michigan’s Ferris State University” (Torin 2012: 163).

Despite the rosy assessment of the benefits of special education, “academic outcomes for students with disabilities fall substantially below outcomes for non-classified students, leading to skepticism among disproportionality adherents that students of color will truly benefit from special education” (Feldman 2012). Minority students tend to be treated substantively differently than whites within special education — they are more often placed in restrictive classrooms than receive supportive instruction while in a mainstream environment or are placed in special education as punishment for perceived disobedience (Feldman 2012; Bryan, Griffin & Thomas 2012)

“The identification and assessment processes, IQ test, and practitioner bias are most frequently cited as contributing to overrepresentation” (Mills 2003: 7). Black young men are particularly overrepresented in schools dominated by whites, suggesting that behaviors not viewed as ‘normative’ or resistant are punished with placement (Mills 2003: 71). Minority students who are struggling are often not identified early on in their academic careers and placement in special education is seen as the only recourse. Also, economically-related struggles and cultural deficits are misread as disabilities. “The social construct of the ‘normal child’ became racialized through the special education referral and classification process, and subsequently produces disproportionality” (Ahram, Fergus, & Noguera 2011).

Clearly, special education is failing our children: particularly our young, black male children who are disproportionately represented in special education classes. But the solution is elusive: to what extent is instructor bias the major factor in placement is uncertain, versus real deficits? The solution is likewise unclear. Same-sex education, more mainstream classroom support and less biased forms of testing, screening, and instruction are all potential solutions (Piechura-Couture, Heins, &