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"Over-Representation of Black Students in Special Education: Problem or Symptom?,"

by Alan Gartner & Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky September/October 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Some 5.1 million students, ages 6-21, in the nation's public schools are identified as "disabled" and are served in programs or services called "special education." While such programs have been in place in one or another public school system since the mid-19th century, only in 1975, with passage of P.L. 94-142 ("The Education for All Handicapped Children Act"), were all students with disabilities guaranteed a free appropriate public education.

In the 20 years since P.L. 94-142 has been fully implemented, the number of students served has increased by more than 1.5 million. They now comprise nearly 11% of public school students. While the law identifies 13 disability conditions, 91% of the students fall into one of four categories: specific learning disabilities (51.2%), speech or language impairments (20.2%), mental retardation (11.5%) or serious emotional disturbance (8.6%).

Of great concern is the fact that Black students are significantly over-represented in the Mentally Retarded (MR) and Severely Emotionally Dis-turbed (SED) categories. U.S. Depart-ment of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) data indicate that in 1994 Black students comprised 17% of the overall public school popula-tion. However, Blacks represented 25% of students labeled MR and 31% of students labeled SED. (Among Hispanic students, there is under-representation within these same categories: Hispanics students comprised 17% of the overall student population, but only 8% of those labeled MR and 8% of those labeled SED. Asian American/Pacific Islander students similarly were under-represented in these two disability categories. Under-representation presents a different set of problems that must be faced.)

This raises serious questions about misidentification, misclassification or inappropriate placement in special education programs and classes. There is both stigma and penalty that may attach to this labeling and categorization, all the greater for just those categories where Black students are most over-represented. Additionally, issues of racial segregation are raised, as most special education classes are separate from regular classes, and those categories where Blacks are over-represented are most likely to wind up in separate classes. While 55% of the students in special education programs in the 1994-95 school year were placed in other than regular classes (itself a profoundly disturbing matter), 91% of the students labeled MR and 88% of the students labeled SED were placed outside of regular classes.

Not only are Black students segregated from the general education population in self-contained special education classes, substantial research indicates that these are classrooms characterized by lower expectations; curricula that are less demanding than those taught to students in general; and lesser outcomes (student learning, dropout rates, graduation rates, post-secondary education and employment, living in the community).

The special education system first disproportionately identifies Black and poor youth as "losers," and then pro-motes their failure in a separate spe-cial education system.

What Should Be Done?

These are not issues of recent date. A quarter of a century ago, as Congress considered what became P.L. 94-142, the over-representation of Black students was recognized as a problem. Court suits found over-representation and in California barred the use of IQ tests for identifying students with mental retardation, and P.L. 94-142 itself required the use of non-discriminatory screening instruments. Yet the problem continues. Indeed, in the 1997 reauthorized law, P.L. 105-17, "Individuals with Disabilities Education Act" (IDEA), there are new provisions requiring a determination by each state as to whether significant racial disparities exist in the identification, placement, suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities. When disparities do exist (and Department of Education data indicate wide variances in state practices: for example, in five states more than a third of Black special education students are classified as mentally retarded, while in five other states fewer than a tenth are so labeled), states must develop remedial plans.

A 1998 conference convened by the National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion (NCERI) brought together educators (both general and special education), civil rights and disability rights advocates to address these racial disparities in education and identify strategies for change. Recommendations addressed three sets of issues: 1. Implementing the new federal data collection requirements; 2. Direct and immediate steps to address over-representation; and 3. Systemic changes.

1. Implementing the new federal data collection requirements

While the federal government has had responsibility and authority (under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) to address issues of disproportionate identification, classification and placement the provisions of the reauthorized IDEA give added authority and impetus to address these issues. But to do so, the federal government, particularly OCR and the Office of Special Education Programs, needs to require data from state education departments disaggregated by disability category and size of school district, as well as assure that data give an accurate picture of student placement. For example, in its current data collection, the Department of Education categorizes as a placement in "regular classes" students who spend as much as 20% of their time outside of such classes, i.e., in a more restricted placement. Further, each state should be required to identify the local school districts at the extremes - that is, by race, the greatest and smallest percentage of students classified as disabled, served in inclusive settings, graduated and suspended. Better data collection and rigorous enforcement are obligations of both the federal and state agencies.

2. Direct and immediate steps to address over-representation

As Patricia Kirkpatrick pointed out in her May/June 1994 P&R article, "Triple Jeopardy: Disability, Race & Poverty in American," while mental retardation can be caused by poverty
conditions, "the greater number of black children in special education cannot be explained solely by socioeconomic factors." The inability of schools to successfully educate African-American students, especially males, is especially significant in special education. James Ysseldyke, a leading expert on referral and assessment, stated in a 1993 NY Times article, "Studies show teachers refer kids who bother them, and we've been able to demonstrate that specifically African-American males demonstrate behavior that bothers teachers."

The system that is used to determine whether a student is disabled and in need of special education services relies heavily upon standardized tests, particularly so-called intelligence tests. Such tests not only implicate racial and ethnic discrimination; they are based on an erroneous understanding of intelligence, as a fixed and largely heritable characteristic, that can be precisely measured and provide an accurate predictor as to one's future success in school and life. Thus, the first immediate step must address the inadequacies of the referral and assessment process, as well as the inappropriate tests. (In the right direction is the development of a Test Resource Guide by the New York City Public Schools, which identifies the appropriateness of tests for particular groups and purposes.)

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education has been addressing the issue of racial disparity for many years. A report from its Project FORUM identified eight sets of activities to address these issues. They include:
· Creating a successful educational environment for all students;
· Pre-referral problem-solving in the general education arena;
· Referral for special education services;
· Assessment of students in terms of disability condition(s);
· Eligibility for special education services;
· Provision of special education services;
· Home-school-community interaction; and
· Staff development, recruitment and retention.

3. Systemic changes

Two features of the reauthorized IDEA, if implemented, offer the means for fundamental change. First, the law (indeed, this has been the case since 1975) requires that school districts implement "best practices" in student assessment and instruction. Were this done - and the federal government has the authority to see that it is done - the current discriminatory assessment procedure would be ended, as would the inadequate instruction provided to students with disabilities.

Second, the reauthorized IDEA focuses attention on outcomes for students. It asserts that significant outcomes can be achieved when there are "high expectations" for students with disabilities. These expectations are in terms of the regular (not some special) curriculum; that the education of students with disabilities in the same classroom as their nondisabled peers is to be the norm and exclusion from such settings must be particularly justified; that such education must provide students with disabilities the necessary supplemental aids and support services to enable them to succeed in the general education environment; and that the expected outcomes for students with disabilities must be drawn from the outcomes a state expects for students in general and that measures of these outcomes must be incorporated in school and district public reports.

Fundamental, then, is the development of a unitary school system, one where all students learn and succeed together. Currently, students who come to special education are those whom the general education system has failed. They bring this history of failure, and its concomitant depreciations of self and low expectations for success. In a refashioned mainstream, students do not need to be removed to gain the resources needed for success. While we may look to the day when labeling is no longer necessary in order to gain needed services for students
- whether they have disabilities or not
- a restructured school system where all students are educated well and together is achievable in the context of the current law. As the late Ron Edmonds, who conducted the pioneer research on school effectiveness, stated, "The essential problem comes from the structure and attitudes of those in public education today who simply are not overly concerned as to whether minority kids learn."

Alan Gartner is Executive Director of the 2003 Charter Revision Commission, City of New York. The views presented here are his own.
Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky directs the National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion at The Graduate School and University Center, The City University of New York.


Alan Gartner and Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky's book is Inclusive Education and School Restructuring (Brookes, 1997). They can be reached at NCERI, CUNY Grad. Ctr., 33 W. 42 St., NYC, NY 10036, 212/642-26S6.


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