Special Education Mis-education Position Paper

For more than four decades the U.S. public school system has carried out practices that resulted in the disproportionality of special education referrals and assignments of African American students --- subsequently resulting in life-long challenges that are inextricably connected to this erroneous misplacement of African American youth. This position paper was commissioned by The Odyssey Project and it was researched and written by Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D., based on thousands of hours of research and experience.

For more than four decades the U.S. public school system has carried out practices that resulted in the disproportionality of special education referrals and assignments of African American students --- subsequently resulting in life-long challenges that are inextricably connected to this erroneous misplacement of African American youth. This position paper was commissioned by The Odyssey Project and it was researched and written by Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D., based on thousands of hours of research and experience.


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2016<br />

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong>” as a<br />

Mechanism for the <strong>Mis</strong><strong>education</strong><br />

of African<br />

American Youth<br />



<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

“<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong>” as the Mechanism for the <strong>Mis</strong>-<strong>education</strong> of African American Youth<br />

A <strong>Position</strong> <strong>Paper</strong> Commissioned by The Odyssey Project<br />

By:<br />

Rick Wallace, Ph.D.<br />

Published March 1, 2016<br />

© 2016 by The Odyssey Project<br />

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<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

Executive Summary<br />

This paper was commissioned by The Odyssey Project for the purpose of establishing an official<br />

position on an enigmatic issue that has been at the core of multitudinous conundrums within the<br />

black collective. For more nearly 40 years the special <strong>education</strong> system in the U.S. has been used<br />

as a mechanism to isolate and ostracized African American youth, especially young African<br />

American males. This paper not only outlines this longstanding problem, but it also highlights<br />

the influence that institutional racism and cultural indifference play in the dynamic responsible<br />

for disproportionality.<br />

There is a wealth of pragmatic and empirical evidence that suggests that the disproportionate<br />

representation of African Americans in the special <strong>education</strong> system is far from coincidental. The<br />

numbers that support the position established by this paper are beyond bearing statistical<br />

significance — demanding the attention of all entities involved. The disproportionality outlined<br />

within this document identifies a number of fallible paradigms and processes that must be<br />

addressed in totality if African American students are ever to receive a reasonable opportunity<br />

within this system.<br />

To bring further elucidation to the official position of The Odyssey Project, it should be<br />

understood that we advocate a separate and independent system of <strong>education</strong> for African<br />

American Students — a system that is owned, funded and operated by African Americans. Our<br />

youth have unique racial, social and cultural needs that are not addressed within the Eurocentric<br />

public <strong>education</strong> system in the U.S. The deficiencies in these specific areas compound the<br />

proclivity of the public <strong>education</strong> system to assign special <strong>education</strong> labels to black youth in<br />

disproportionate numbers.<br />

The paper further identified teacher attitudes and behaviors, the lack of teacher training, the<br />

cultural indifference between African American students and the institutions that they attend, the<br />

bias of school psychologists in their assessments of African American students and more.<br />

Although we advocate building a unique <strong>education</strong>al system that will be designed to meet the<br />

unique needs of African American youth, this paper does make specific suggestions as far as<br />

strategies that we believe will be efficacious in remediating the disproportionality involved in the<br />

misdiagnosis of African American youth as far as special <strong>education</strong> labels are concerned.<br />

Finally, it is our position that one area in which the black collective has failed to address many of<br />

its enigmatic issues, including special <strong>education</strong> and the mis-<strong>education</strong> of black youth, is the<br />

failure to create topic-specific think tanks that are dedicated to evaluating and addressing these<br />

issues. Therefore, we suggest that a significant amount of effort be invested in creating an<br />

African American <strong>Education</strong> Reform “think tank.” While fighting for change in the public<br />

<strong>education</strong> system, blacks must come to an erudite understanding that we are the only ones who<br />

can improve our situation.<br />

And, while this is not officially presented as an academic or scientific paper, it does contain a<br />

significant amount of pragmatic and empirical data that should inspire further research.<br />

2 | P a g e

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

“<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong>” as the Mechanism for the <strong>Mis</strong>-<strong>education</strong> of African<br />

(Gardner & Miranda, 2001)American Youth<br />

Introduction<br />

This paper is designed to effectively communicate the position that The Odyssey Project has<br />

taken concerning the overrepresentation of African American youth in special <strong>education</strong>. As it<br />

pertains to the special <strong>education</strong> system and the public <strong>education</strong> system, in general, the term<br />

“overrepresentation, refers to an occurrence in which the percentage of students that can be<br />

characteristically associated with a specific group (e.g. ethnicity, race, gender, socioeconomic<br />

status, linguistic background, etc.) is higher than its representation within the general population.<br />

It is worth noting that any time that overrepresentation occurs at a level that is considered<br />

statistically significant, it is important to identify the cause.<br />

For more than four decades, it has been evident that African American youth have been<br />

significantly overrepresented in the special <strong>education</strong> system (Codrington & Fairchild, 2012;<br />

Blanchett W. J., 2009; Gardner & Miranda, 2001).<br />

In 1997, The United States Department of <strong>Education</strong> identified disproportionate minority<br />

representation of African American students in the special <strong>education</strong> system, with those more<br />

prevalently affected being African American males. This disproportionality was readily<br />

identified as a critical issue that needed to be addressed aggressively. From the fall of this<br />

discovery, which was long overdue, The Individuals with Disabilities <strong>Education</strong> Act (IDEA) of<br />

1997 was passed.<br />

To truly understand the pernicious nature of the special <strong>education</strong> system, it must be perceived<br />

within its proper context. When the U.S. Supreme Court Ruled that segregation in <strong>education</strong>,<br />

based on any characteristic differences, including race, was unconstitutional, those who advocate<br />

institutional and structural racism had to create an alternative modality for continuing to separate<br />

black students from white students. Their solution was the creation of a special <strong>education</strong><br />

program that could identify blacks as having learning disabilities that required them to be in<br />

separate classrooms (Johnson, 2013).<br />

3 | P a g e

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

The statistics that reflect this dilemma are quite alarming. For instance, although African<br />

American students only make up 16 percent of the public <strong>education</strong> population, they constitute<br />

more than 21 percent of the students that have been diagnosed as special needs students through<br />

special <strong>education</strong> criteria. When socioeconomic variables are factored into the equation, the<br />

numbers are even more disparaging, where African American students, who qualify as living at<br />

the poverty line, are 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teacher as suffering from<br />

mental retardation than are their white counterparts.<br />

To further exacerbate this enigmatic issue, the IDEA discovered that some minority groups<br />

(primarily African American males) were more likely to be misdiagnosed and misplaced into<br />

special <strong>education</strong> programs than white students. In response to its findings, the IDEA<br />

implemented measures through regulations that governed federal, state and local <strong>education</strong>al<br />

agencies as far as minimizes the overrepresentation of African Americans in the special<br />

<strong>education</strong> system. However, despite the efforts of the IDEA, the overrepresentation of African<br />

American students, especially African American males, continues. In fact, it is getting worse in a<br />

number of critical areas.<br />

It is important to note that while certain entities have gone to great lengths to present a narrative<br />

that suggests that African Americans are intellectually inferior, there is no empirical evidence to<br />

support any such postulation (Johnson, 2013). In fact, when afforded with equal footing and<br />

resources, African American students, including African American males, have excelled as a<br />

collective group.<br />

Based on recent empirical data, African American students between the ages of 6-21 are 2.86<br />

times more likely to be placed in some form of special <strong>education</strong> program under IDEA<br />

guidelines that define mental retardation. Additionally, this same group is 2.28 times more likely<br />

to be diagnosed as being in need of special services due to emotional disturbance than other<br />

students within the same age, but from different ethnic and racial groups combined.<br />

This paper is reflective of the review of available literature on this topic. Following is a<br />

statement of the problem that provides elucidation of the issue of overrepresentation of African<br />

Americans in special <strong>education</strong>. This paper addresses culpability in its totality, including the<br />

roles of teachers, parents, institutional & structured racism, societal factors, student attitudes and<br />

behavior, etc. — offering a number of propositional quaesitums to the current disproportionality<br />

in special <strong>education</strong>.<br />

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<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

Statement of the Problem<br />

The Inequity of Resources and Opportunity<br />

The inequality in resources and opportunity in <strong>education</strong> for African Americans is not a new<br />

dilemma — having been a documented and understood problem for more than a century. One<br />

might postulate that the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. the Board of<br />

<strong>Education</strong> would have ending the exorbitant level of inequity in access to an effective and useful<br />

<strong>education</strong>; however, that ruling only served to create a subtler form of separatism — giving the<br />

impression of improved exposure and opportunity for African Americans (Blanchett, Munford,<br />

& Beachum, 2005; Coutinho & Oswald, 2000; McIntosh, Cook-Morales, & Robinson-Zanartu,<br />

2005).<br />

One key stratagem that has remained a constant variable is sustaining segregation in public<br />

<strong>education</strong> is the use of the disproportionate assignment of special <strong>education</strong> tags to minorities,<br />

especially those of African American descent (Blanchett W. J., 2009). The persistent nature of<br />

this problem has been scientifically documented in an abundance of research literature (Gardner<br />

& Miranda, 2001; Waitoller, Artiles, & Cheney, 2010; Ward, 2010) . Yet, this enigmatic issue<br />

of disproportionality of African American youth (especially African American males) in special<br />

<strong>education</strong> continues at a rate of at least two and one-half times that of students of non-African<br />

descent (Osward, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999).<br />

As noted, the problem of disproportionality, as it pertains to African American males, has been<br />

principally problematic (Irging & Hudley, 2005; Sample, 2010; Wilson & Banks, 1994). African<br />

American students who speak what is considered as an African American dialect are also<br />

affected (Baugh, 1995; Champion & Bloome, 1995; Champion & Bloome, 1995).<br />

What exacerbates the reality of overrepresentation in special <strong>education</strong> learning disorders and<br />

emotional disturbances, is the fact that African Americans, along with other minorities, such as<br />

Native Americans and Latinos, are substantially underrepresented in special <strong>education</strong> programs<br />

that are specifically designed for the intellectually and academically gifted (Ford D. Y., 2008;<br />

Ford & Harris, 1994; Ford & Webb, 1994).<br />

Additionally, the patterns of disproportionality were intensified for African American students<br />

who lived at or below the poverty line (Scarborough & McCrae, 2010; Skiba, et al., 2011), and<br />

those who attended low SES schools (Osward D. P., Coutinho, Best, & Nguyen, 2001).<br />

5 | P a g e<br />

Consequences<br />

The corollaries of the disproportionality that is so prevalent in African Americans are<br />

significantly profound. While some of this disproportionality may be appropriately attributed to<br />

misguided good intentions, the truth remains that African American students that are relegated to<br />

special <strong>education</strong> classrooms are generally exposed to learning environments that do not promote

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

academic achievement — lacking academic rigor and a demand for excellence. Far too often, the<br />

focus in these classrooms is to effectively manage any behavioral or emotional issues, learning<br />

disabilities or other types of impairments that may or may not be present. Rarely is appropriate<br />

attention given to the capacity for proper development, academic excellence or the effective<br />

preparation of the students to be able to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.<br />

In fact, it has been well-documented that the average special <strong>education</strong> class creates a restrictive<br />

environment that has the capacity to significantly retard academic advancement, limits access to<br />

necessary services and stigmatizes the students (Brown K. S., 2010; Osher, et al., 2004).<br />

In its current form, special <strong>education</strong> programs almost always lack the type of pedagogy capable<br />

of challenging and developing students in key areas such as critical thought and analytical<br />

capacity. As a general rule, students assigned to special <strong>education</strong> programs are held to a<br />

significantly lower standard, primarily due to the low expectations of their teachers — meaning<br />

that these students are basically being conditioned to underachieve — looking to elevate<br />

themselves no higher than the glass ceiling that exists in their classrooms.<br />

The limited access to the general <strong>education</strong>al curriculum for these students serves to stifle their<br />

social development as well. The low expectations of the teacher results in a poor quality of<br />

instruction and attention, which in turn leads to a poor quality of <strong>education</strong>. In an economic and<br />

social environment in which the quality of holistic <strong>education</strong> of an individual directly impacts<br />

that person’s ability to achieve a high level of personal productivity, this type of low quality<br />

<strong>education</strong> negatively impacts the forward mobility of our children, stifling the productivity of<br />

subsequent generations.<br />

What is imperative is for blacks, as a collective, to understand that even those children who are<br />

misdiagnosed are at risk. The long-term placement of children who have been misdiagnosed with<br />

some form of learning disability or emotional disturbance in special <strong>education</strong> classrooms, where<br />

they will not be challenged to reach their full potential, will result in these youth taking on the<br />

characteristics of the disability they have been misdiagnosed with (Reschly, 1980). Furthermore,<br />

special <strong>education</strong> placements that result in segregation from the general student population,<br />

reduced teacher expectations and distorted self-concepts (Dunn, 1968; Goffman, 1963; Harry &<br />

Anderson, 1995), the outcomes subsequently reinforce the initial classification.<br />

While it is our position that the vast majority of African Americans that have been classified as<br />

special <strong>education</strong> needs students have been misdiagnosed, it is important to understand that it is<br />

our position that even those who have been properly diagnosed are at risk. The long-term effects<br />

of the stigmatism, labeling, inadequate teacher instruction, lowered expectations, limited access<br />

to services, enrichment resources and opportunities are immensely detrimental and debilitating to<br />

the student.<br />

The negative implications associated with the assignment of special <strong>education</strong> programming for<br />

culturally and linguistically diverse students are quite extensive, including higher dropout and<br />

arrest rates, lower employment status, lower wages and a reduced rate of independent living<br />

(Affleck, Edgar, Levine, & Kortering, 1990).<br />

6 | P a g e

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

The public <strong>education</strong> system, especially the restrictive settings with special <strong>education</strong><br />

classrooms, has served as temporary warehousing for young African American males —<br />

preparing them for long-term and repetitive warehousing in the Private Prison Industrial<br />

Complex (Brown K. S., 2010; Krezmien, Mulcahy, & Leone, 2008). A study conducted by Zabel<br />

and Nigro (Zabel & Nigro, 1999) revealed the incarcerated juvenile offenders tended to have a<br />

history directly connected to special <strong>education</strong>.<br />

In summation of the consequences, it is clear that the disproportionate placement of African<br />

American youth in special <strong>education</strong> programs results in a lifelong reverberation of negative<br />

consequences that work against the personal productivity of the affected individual. The most<br />

prevalent consequence that can be directly associated with the disproportionate assignment of<br />

special <strong>education</strong> labels for black youth include higher incarceration rates, poor socioeconomic<br />

status and well-being, an increase in dire health statistics, reduced life expectancies, lower<br />

college attendance and a reduction in employment opportunities (Frazier, 2009; Garibaldi, 1992).<br />

What serves as an exacerbating force in the development and perpetuation of these long-term<br />

negative consequences is the fact that culturally and linguistically diverse students, especially<br />

African Americans, are less likely to make the academic progress to ever exit the special<br />

<strong>education</strong> vortex than their white counterparts (Blanchett W. , 2006) — resulting in a more<br />

emphatic negative psychological, emotional and intellectual imprint that fosters the negative<br />

mindset, which nurtures the negativity associated with poor achievement throughout life. When<br />

the significance of this conundrum is properly elucidated, anatomized and evaluated, the only<br />

conclusion has to be that the overrepresentation of African Americans in special <strong>education</strong><br />

extends beyond the description of an <strong>education</strong>al dilemma and overflows into the realm of<br />

human rights violations. What stands out most is the fact that the special <strong>education</strong> system is a<br />

major contributor to the “school to prison pipeline.”<br />

7 | P a g e

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

Contributing Factors<br />

The New Jim Crow<br />

For decades, the special <strong>education</strong> system has functioned as warehousing system for black youth,<br />

much in the same manner that the U.S. prison system functions as a warehousing unit for African<br />

American men. Black males have been nuncupated to be of no worth to society in general. As<br />

Michelle Alexander (Alexander M. , 2010) has suggested in her published work, the “private<br />

prison industrial complex” represents the latest evolution of the racial caste in this country that<br />

specifically targets African Americans, with special emphasis placed on African American<br />

males.<br />

The overrepresentation of African American men being warehoused in the U.S. prison system<br />

corresponds emphatically with the overrepresentation of African American male youth in special<br />

<strong>education</strong> programs. Basically, special <strong>education</strong> programs should be viewed as another<br />

manifestation of systematic or institutional racism — with specific social structures functioning<br />

as mechanisms through which discriminatory practices can be carried out on a systematic level.<br />

When viewing the special <strong>education</strong> system in a post-Brown era, it bears a striking simulacrum<br />

to Jim Crow segregation. While the Brown vs. The Board of <strong>Education</strong> U.S. Supreme Court<br />

decision asseverated segregation, based on race, to be unconstitutional, that decision only led to<br />

more sophisticated, covert and subtle forms of racial discrimination that has permeated the public<br />

<strong>education</strong> system — being considered perfectly legal and constitutional. Unfortunately, these<br />

pernicious discriminatory practices have cyclopean negative implications.<br />

While it is not as easily recognizable as it has been in the past, African American students are<br />

still being denied equal access to a quality <strong>education</strong>, meaning that African Americans, in<br />

general, will continue to struggle in the area of equal opportunity, with a quality <strong>education</strong><br />

playing such a major role in creating opportunities to succeed in a global economy, create<br />

generational wealth and establish equal footing on a socioeconomic level.<br />

The misplacement of African American students in special <strong>education</strong> programs is a direct result<br />

of a cultural bias that is reflected in the referral, testing and placement processes within the<br />

<strong>education</strong>al system — perpetuating the common, yet fallible, ideology that African Americans<br />

are innately inferior, which directly assaults the self-image of African American youth, creating<br />

an inferiority complex and a poor self-image.<br />

In essence, what we are witnessing is the perpetuation of segregated schooling through the<br />

prolongation of biased policies and practices that unfairly target African American Youth,<br />

resulting in what can only be defined as a 21 st century version of segregated schooling<br />

(Blanchett, Munford, & Beachum, 2005)<br />

Causes of <strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

8 | P a g e

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

Over the course of the last several decades, researchers have offered multitudinous explanations<br />

and causes for the disproportionality of African Americans in the special <strong>education</strong> system<br />

(Patton, 1998). When examining the literature that is available on the topic, it is our position that<br />

the disproportionality of African Americans in special <strong>education</strong> is not the result of a singular<br />

impetus, but the result of a complex mechanism that is primarily predicated upon race, with a<br />

secondary factoring mechanism that considers socioeconomic variables.<br />

It is important to understand that while causal explanations identify and describe potential<br />

causes, they do not serve as justification for the disproportionality that exists; however, they are<br />

necessary to provide proficuous insight into this opaque existence of a special <strong>education</strong> system<br />

that is antithetical to the progress of African Americans on multitudinous levels. Causation is the<br />

point of initial engagement as we examine possible solutions to the problem of disproportionality<br />

on every level. As stated earlier, it is our ultimate position that black youth should be educated<br />

within an autogenous African-centered infrastructure that is funded and operated by blacks.<br />

However, for the sake of providing immediate relief, we must diligently search for solutions that<br />

can be implemented within the existing framework. Moving forward, we will make certain<br />

suggestions based on our understanding of the current literature on the topic, addressing the need<br />

for change on a number of different levels. These changes center on school culture, school<br />

psychologists, teachers, student attitudes and behaviors, ideological and political-economic<br />

environments, parental and family factors, or any combination of all of these.<br />

9 | P a g e<br />

Systematic Factors that Impact Racial Disproportionality in <strong>Special</strong><br />

<strong>Education</strong><br />

Institutional Racism<br />

When viewing the issue of disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> through the critical lens of<br />

historical awareness from a socio-political perspective, as it pertains to African Americans, the<br />

direct connection with institutional racism is apparent. The U.S. is a nation that is significantly<br />

organized and operated along the lines of race. To ignore this truth will lead to a substantial<br />

amount of frustration and nebulosity. The dominant group in this society (whites) has instituted<br />

various mechanisms of hegemony that serve to protect their positions of privilege and power.<br />

<strong>Education</strong> is just one of these mechanisms, and a very influential and powerful one at that.<br />

The acquisition of useful knowledge is the foundation of power, and the power acquired through<br />

knowledge is the necessary instrument through which one develops their potential and abilities to<br />

effectively navigate through the labyrinthine corridors of life — becoming a productive person<br />

— who exhibits prosocial behavior and contributes to the collective rise of their race.<br />

Historically, it has been a common practice of the powers that be in this country to limit the<br />

access of African Americans to a quality <strong>education</strong>, subsequently limiting their ability to succeed<br />

on a grand scale.<br />

To better understand this, one must consider the fact that for centuries it was illegal for blacks to<br />

become literate, and even when blacks were finally allowed to attend school, they were exposed<br />

to a substandard <strong>education</strong> (Coutinho & Oswald, 2000; Powers, Hagans-Murillo, & Restori,

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

2004). What is worth noting is the fact that the recently freed slaves in American were able to<br />

reduce their illiteracy rate by more than 50 percent in the first 30 years of freedom — moving<br />

from a literacy rate of 30 percent to well over 80 percent. In addition to the flagitious<br />

machination of limiting access to a quality <strong>education</strong>, the Mephistophelean attitudinal climate —<br />

in the scientific community and within popular culture — promoted an ideology that suggested<br />

the inferiority of African American people, and others of non-European descent. To further<br />

subsidize the limited access to <strong>education</strong>, and the suggestion of innate inferiority, was the social<br />

engineering element of “serial forced displacement” conjoined with socioeconomic-engineered<br />

poverty and “hyper-ghettoization” (Khalifa, 2010), a process in which African Americans are<br />

systematically corralled in poor, highly disadvantaged, inner-city neighborhoods. This form of<br />

social engineering is accomplished through a system of structured inequalities and<br />

discriminatory practices that involved hiring practices, lending practices and other mechanisms<br />

that are designed to isolate and separate blacks from the European population.<br />

Initially, this was done through a process known as redlining and the use of highways and<br />

railroads to effectively divide and isolate African Americans from white communities (e.g.<br />

Birmingham, AL’s 1926 racial zoning law). Not only are African Americans separated, but their<br />

reality within that isolation is primarily characterized by an underserved student population and<br />

scarce <strong>education</strong>al resources, including updated text books, qualified credentialed teachers,<br />

computers, advanced and gifted courses and contemporary, well-kept facilities.<br />

There has been no shortage of scholars who have authored literature that highlighted structured<br />

inequities that African American students consistently face. Coutinho and Oswald (Coutinho &<br />

Oswald, 2000) highlighted the prevalence of the historical context that frames the inadequacies<br />

associated with the African American <strong>education</strong>al experience, suggesting effective advocacy on<br />

behalf of African Americans within the <strong>education</strong>al process. Powers (Powers, Hagans-Murillo, &<br />

Restori, 2004) did an exceptional job of tracing the history of disproportionality in the state of<br />

California, especially following the Larry P. case that served to outlaw the use of IQ tests for<br />

special <strong>education</strong> placement of African Americans. Despite the ruling, which was meant to<br />

reduce the disproportionality in the state, it continued, primarily due to <strong>education</strong>al personnel<br />

violating the spirit of the Larry P. ruling through the implementation and practices of policies<br />

designed to circumvent the ruling in whole or part (Powers, Hagans-Murillo, & Restori, 2004).<br />

In a similar fashion, Daniels (Daniels, 1998), was able to highlight the manner in which the<br />

African American student population was negatively disproportionately represented in the<br />

remedial programs.<br />

While the contemporary form of racism and segregation present in today’s schools is not as<br />

blatant as the mechanisms during Jim Crow segregation, they are just as lethal. The automated<br />

mechanisms of white privilege and systematic racism serve to perpetuate the disproportionality<br />

in special <strong>education</strong>, while simultaneously promoting biases among teachers and school<br />

psychologists. Robinson (Robinson, 2003) reported that African American youth were inevitably<br />

suffering as a result of the failures of society, which has either been unwilling or unable to<br />

efficaciously address the enigma of structured inequity.<br />

10 | P a g e

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

Over the course of his brilliant career as an advocate of African American youth, Dr. Amos<br />

Wilson relentlessly attacked the structured racism that was so prevalent in the processes that<br />

facilitated the overrepresentation of African American youth in special <strong>education</strong>. Dr. Wilson<br />

took on the Herculean task of examining the sophisticated sociopolitical context of public<br />

<strong>education</strong> in America (Wilson A. , 1992) — leading to his assertion that African Americans have<br />

actually been subjected to pestilential ills of special <strong>education</strong> since enslavement. Wilson further<br />

iterated that African American slaves were mis-educated, through specific modalities, for the<br />

exact same reasons that contemporary African Americans are being erroneously educated<br />

through the medium of special <strong>education</strong> — being that African Americans have always been<br />

educated for the purpose of servitude. The main purpose for educating blacks has always been<br />

for the purpose of preparing them to serve the needs of the white power structure in<br />

multitudinous capacities. With any public <strong>education</strong> program, the ultimate goal is always the<br />

maintenance of the white power structure (Alexander M. , 2010; Wilson A. , 1993).<br />

In order to develop a perspicuous understanding of the dynamic that is in play in the creation of<br />

the disproportionality that currently exists in the special <strong>education</strong> system, it is paramount to note<br />

that the relationship between African Americans and Whites is built around power. The group<br />

that has the power will dictate the rules through which the relationship will be governed, and<br />

because the white, wealthy elite continue to possess the power — economically, socially and<br />

politically — they continue to frame the context through which the African American narrative is<br />

being written. In a powerful lecture on the white supremacy agenda in special <strong>education</strong> (Wilson<br />

A. , 1993), Wilson explained that through a specific seasoning process, public <strong>education</strong>, with a<br />

specific focus on special <strong>education</strong>, has served to build, first, an African American population<br />

that were loyal, docile and diligent slaves, in addition to producing other behavioral patterns that<br />

were constitutive to the perpetuation of the slave economy. Wilson went on to assert that this<br />

same practice has continued in public <strong>education</strong> through the “separate but equal” model that<br />

continues to promote the ideology of black inferiority — leading to a low collective self-image<br />

in African American students.<br />

Yet, the primary function of <strong>education</strong> remains to be a functioning vehicle through which<br />

African Americans will be trained and conditioned to produce maximum profits for white<br />

corporations — whether it is done as an employee or an inmate.<br />

Finally, Wilson closes the loop in his grading of the U. S. special <strong>education</strong> system through his<br />

assertion that public schools in the U.S. are not designed to consider the unique cultural and<br />

psychological composition of African American students (Wilson A. , 1993)<br />

Ecological Context<br />

In addition to the inherent structured inequities that are deeply embedded within the public<br />

<strong>education</strong>al system, consideration must be given to the specific environmental context in which<br />

the disproportionality of African American in special <strong>education</strong> has occurred. There have been a<br />

number of scholars who have explored the obvious and subtle links between the community<br />

characteristics of students that are overrepresented in the special <strong>education</strong> system. The findings<br />

of these scholars have revealed that economic, environmental and community factors<br />

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differentially affect the vulnerability to <strong>education</strong>al disability placement (Coutinho & Oswald,<br />

1999).<br />

One of the most powerful and constant predictors of special <strong>education</strong> disproportionality has<br />

been poverty (Scarborough & McCrae, 2010; Ward, 2010). Statistics reveal that mothers who<br />

live at or below the poverty line, who typically possess a low academic achievement history<br />

themselves, will have children who will be forced to perpetuate the same vicious cycle of mis<strong>education</strong>,<br />

lifelong economic challenges and poor life opportunities (Morgan, Farkas, Hilemeir,<br />

& Maczuga, 2009). The poverty factor exacerbated racial disparities as it pertains to having<br />

access to <strong>education</strong>al opportunity (Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azziz, &<br />

Chung, 2005), preemptively signaled by low birth weight (Temple, Reynolds, & Arteaga, 2010).<br />

A concomitant dynamic to neighborhood poverty is neighborhood violence (DeGruy, 2009;<br />

Stevenson, 2015; Stevenson, 2006). African American youth who live in impoverished<br />

neighborhoods are exposed to violence at a higher rate than those not living in urban<br />

neighborhoods stricken by poverty — making them more susceptible to academic failure. If there<br />

is to be a significant improvement in the area of disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong><br />

placement, the systematic factors in play, regardless of whether they are in the form of structured<br />

inequities or toxic social environments, must be addressed with the specific purpose of<br />

eliminating the current crisis of disproportionality in the special <strong>education</strong> system.<br />

Teachers<br />

While it may appear to be a harsh assessment from a superficial perspective, teachers have also<br />

been implicated as being significant contributors to this problem. It is important that we stress<br />

that we are not asserting that all teachers, even white teachers, are intentionally targeting black<br />

students. What we are asserting is that a combination of factors is contributing to the inability of<br />

teachers to accurately assess African American youth.<br />

It is important to understand the vital role that teachers play in creating the disproportionality<br />

that we are experiencing in special <strong>education</strong> today. It is the teacher who will generally make the<br />

initial special <strong>education</strong> referral.<br />

The Need for Increased Training for Teachers<br />

While teachers will be the ones responsible for making the initial referral for special <strong>education</strong><br />

evaluation, they are rarely qualified to make such a transvaluation. An interview of teachers, on a<br />

large scale, revealed that they are inadequately trained to assess and respect the unique<br />

behavioral styles and <strong>education</strong>al needs of African American students (Moore, 2002). Moore<br />

also reported that it was discovered that African American teachers innately held higher<br />

expectations for African American students than did their white counterparts (Moore, 2002).<br />

Another important fact surrounding teachers is that disproportionality decreased in situations in<br />

which the number of African American teachers increased (Serwatka, Deering, & Grant, 1995).<br />

What these studies illuminated was the fact that not only is teacher training relevant, but the<br />

presence of teacher-student ethnic and cultural congruence is also important in reducing the<br />

disproportionality of African American referrals for special <strong>education</strong> placement.<br />

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There are other studies that focus on the inability of non-black teachers to have the capacity to<br />

interact with students who are economically dis-advantaged, as well as teachers lacking the<br />

understanding of student behavioral styles across cultures (Skiba, et al., 2006).<br />

Cultural Insensitivity by Teachers<br />

Another factor involving teachers that must be considered is cultural insensitivity on the part of<br />

the teacher. There is a wealth of empirical and pragmatic evidence through research literature<br />

that reveals the diacritical polarities between the culture of most public schools and the home<br />

culture of many African American students — with particular interest being placed on those<br />

students who reside in highly impoverished areas (Alexander D. R., 2010). In addition to the<br />

disproportionality present in the referral of African Americans to stigmatized special <strong>education</strong><br />

programs, scientific data further suggests that a lack of teacher training, and cultural<br />

misunderstandings, serves as a significant contribution to the underrepresentation of African<br />

American students in gifted programs (Ford & Webb, 1994). The same study called for the<br />

desegregation of the gifted programs, as well as multidimensional assessment strategies (Ford &<br />

Webb, 1994).<br />

Another study revealed that the misdiagnoses of African American students for placement in<br />

special <strong>education</strong> programs were due to the fact that general <strong>education</strong> classrooms were not<br />

adequately equipped to facilitate the cultural diversity in the classroom (Gilbert & Gay, 1985).<br />

Furthermore, Amos Wilson pointed out that the vast majority of cases of what is generally<br />

perceived as a learning disability in African American students is a reflection of the conflict<br />

between African American oral tradition and European literary conventions and standards.<br />

There are other studies that suggest that in addition to the general cultural divide that exists in the<br />

classroom, creating a cultural mismatch, the gender of the teacher also plays a significant role —<br />

with African American female teachers being the most sensitive to the needs of the student,<br />

while white females were the least sensitive to the needs of African American students (Taylor,<br />

Gunter, & Slate, 2001).<br />

The Presence of Teacher Bias<br />

Although most teachers insist that they harbor no biases, <strong>education</strong> scholars have identified a<br />

significant presence of bias in the perception of teachers that functions as a direct influence in the<br />

disproportionality of African American referrals for special <strong>education</strong> services. According to<br />

Hilliard, it was common for educators to perceive cultural differences as being indicative of<br />

academic and intellectual deficiencies (Hilliard, 1980). It is this type of bias that has directly<br />

resulted in the misdiagnosis of African American children as being emotionally disturbed,<br />

mentally retarded and learning disabled, classifications that are based on highly subjective<br />

criteria — something that is substantially dependent upon the interpretation by the teacher of<br />

what should be considered normal adaptive behavior.<br />

A specific list of terms commonly associated with the special <strong>education</strong> industry that are<br />

considered to be highly subjective were identified by T. Armstrong to the predominant basis for<br />

teacher special <strong>education</strong> referrals (Armstrong, 1995). Additionally, Armstrong experimented<br />

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with placing the negative terms juxtaposed to positive reframe of the activity or behavior in<br />

questions. Certain juxtapositional comparisons included impulsive vs. spontaneous, hyperactive<br />

vs. energetic, distractible vs. creative, inattentive vs. global thinker with wide focus and<br />

aggressive vs. assertive, which all served to illuminate the apparent problem with biased<br />

perception among teacher, culminating in the myth of ADD. The fact that ADD/ADHD<br />

represents a statistically significant portion of the diagnoses of African American youth who are<br />

placed in special <strong>education</strong> makes teacher bias along the lines of these types of behavioral<br />

dimensions immensely significant.<br />

Unfortunately, many teachers have used special <strong>education</strong> referrals as a response to their<br />

perception that a student may be threatening or unteachable (Hale-Benson, 1982; Harry &<br />

Anderson, 1995; Kunjufu, 1985). The referrals made by these teachers were based on criteria<br />

that is highly biased by cultural beliefs, norms and standards, and biases. Belonging to a specific<br />

group, whether it be race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, linguistic or family origin, is a direct<br />

influence on the opinions that teachers form about certain children — leading to their referral to<br />

special <strong>education</strong> (Artiles & Trent, 2000).<br />

In the U.S., the general classroom environment is almost always inclined to assume or reify<br />

white values. So, when children of color are judged — not through the lens of their own cultural<br />

uniqueness and diversity — but through the lens of white norms and standards, it allows the<br />

teacher to abdicate their moral and professional responsibility to ensure that each student<br />

receives the best possible <strong>education</strong> — choosing, instead, to refer children that don’t adapt to the<br />

white value system to special <strong>education</strong> (Alexander D. R., 2010).<br />

Harry and Anderson (1995) suggested that to be fair and effective, it is necessary for teachers to<br />

resist the cacoethes to perceive differences as deficits — suggesting that it is necessary for<br />

teachers to put forth more of an effort to recognize the unique and exceptional talents that are<br />

possessed by African American students. Additionally, it has been discovered that public schools<br />

often create an atmosphere of negativity that exists among the staff, and that this negativity is<br />

typically directed toward African American students from low-income families (Harry, Klingner,<br />

& Hart, 2005). A significant portion of this negativity is directly connected to prejudicial biases<br />

against students who speak an African American dialect, commonly referred to as “Ebonics”<br />

(Fairchild & Edwards-Evans, 1990; Seymour, Abdulkarim, & Johnson, 1999). African American<br />

students — especially males — are burdened with a plethora of stereotypes based on culture-bias<br />

(Andrews, Wisniewski, & Mulick, 1997) and behavioral styles, such as how they walk and their<br />

manner of dress (Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson, & Bridget, 2003).<br />

As a general observation, it can be reasonably inferred, and empirically substantiated that the<br />

prejudicial attitudes of teachers will often translate into the teacher referring certain students to<br />

special <strong>education</strong> programming. It is worth noting that these biases are more regnant as it<br />

pertains to African American males (Andrews, Wisniewski, & Mulick, 1997), and this type of<br />

behavior is less prevalent among African American teachers (Serwatka, Deering, & Grant,<br />

1995). A study was conducted in which researchers observed 364 elementary and middle<br />

schools, and the researchers reported that African American students were two to four times<br />

more likely to be referred based on problem behaviors than were white children who exhibited<br />

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<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

the same behaviors (Skiba, et al., 2011). Additionally, these referrals more often led to the<br />

suspension or expulsion of the children referred.<br />

School Psychologists<br />

The school psychologist also plays an integral role in the perpetuation of disproportionality in<br />

special <strong>education</strong>. These are the professionals who have been entrusted with the responsibility of<br />

assessing our students to determine if special <strong>education</strong> placements are necessary; however,<br />

school psychologists have been proven to possess the same or similar biases as teachers, as well<br />

as suffering from insufficient training and insensitivities to cultural and class differences<br />

(Kearns, Ford, & Limey, 2005). Another challenge that school psychologists are being forced to<br />

engage is the lack of adequate tools of measurement through which to effectively and accurately<br />

assess children who are culturally diverse for special <strong>education</strong>.<br />

Without proper training, and without having the proper tools, racially biased assessments will<br />

continue to be a primary contributor to the disproportionality in the special <strong>education</strong> process.<br />

The fact that the inadequacies of standardized tests have been duly noted for some time has not<br />

deterred educators and school psychologists from using them as tools of measurement to assess<br />

the learning capacity of students who function outside of the cultural center represented within<br />

the test. More than twenty years ago, scientific literature debouched, reporting the problems that<br />

were associated with standardized testing — as well as the classification and placement of<br />

African Americans in special <strong>education</strong> — based on the results of standardized measurement<br />

mechanisms (Grant, 1992). These findings date back as far as the Larry P vs. Riles case in 1979,<br />

in which IQ tests were determined to discriminate against African American children. It was this<br />

particular case that established the legal precedent that determined that any test that is<br />

administered to minority children has to first be validated for use with the population in question.<br />

Since this case, further studies have identified a number of fallible characteristics associated with<br />

IA tests that render them inadequate for the assessment of students for the purpose of special<br />

<strong>education</strong> placement (Ford & Webb, 1994; Slate & Jones, 1995; Warner, Dede, Garvan, &<br />

Conway, 2002). These findings have played an immense role in documenting the need for laws<br />

that protect culturally diverse students from the cultural biases that are ingenerately represented<br />

in IQ tests that are used for the purpose of assessing these students for special <strong>education</strong><br />

placement.<br />

Behavior rating scales have also been used to mislabel African American students as a result of<br />

their cultural inapplicability (Reid, Cast, Norton, Anastopoulos, & Temple, 2001; Reid, et al.,<br />

2000). What is also worth noting here is that Grant (1992) also revealed that the continued use of<br />

culturally biased instruments, despite their illegality, likely attributed to the disproportionality<br />

that was evident during the course of his study. During this study, African American students<br />

only accounted for 17 percent of the school population; however, they represented 41 percent of<br />

all special <strong>education</strong> students, with the largest prevalence existing in the areas of behavioral<br />

disorders and educable mental retardation. Finally, in instances in which assessment mechanisms<br />

that were not considered to be culturally biased or discriminatory were used to assess students,<br />

African American students were more proportionately represented in special <strong>education</strong>, based on<br />

the overall representation in the general <strong>education</strong> population (Serwatka, Dove, & Hodge, 1986).<br />

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Student and Family Factors<br />

As climacteric as it may be to ensure that we illuminate the nefarious activities that are a part of<br />

the <strong>education</strong>al process from an exogenous perspective, it is also paramount for us to examine<br />

the endogenous elements that contribute to the disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> for African<br />

American students.<br />

In the past, a reasonable amount of literature was compiled, suggesting that African American<br />

students contributed directly to their special <strong>education</strong> placement (Ryan, 1976). Some<br />

researchers and scholars suggested that in the case of the African American male, it was his<br />

oppositional attitudes and cultural mistrust that served to inhibit <strong>education</strong>al advancement (Irving<br />

& Hudley, 2005). Irving and Huxley advocated the inculcation of a more powerful cultural<br />

identity within this demographic to reverse the current trend. In similar fashion, Hamovitch<br />

(1999), reported that children who were classified as being at risk, possessed a strong proclivity<br />

to reject the ideology of an afterschool program that promoted status attainment.<br />

One preeminent risk factor for African American females is pregnancy. In a study of this<br />

particular unit of analysis, it was discovered that African American adolescent females who<br />

became pregnant reported problems in completing their schooling (Prater, 1992). Prater<br />

suggested teacher training, school-based clinics and the creation of support systems within the<br />

community and school.<br />

As is the case with many African American students, African American parents have also been<br />

alienated by the public <strong>education</strong> system (Brandon, Higgins, Pierce, Tandy, & Sileo, 2010),<br />

experiencing substandard access to a quality <strong>education</strong>. These are parents who are also victims of<br />

mis-<strong>education</strong>, making it immensely difficult for them to be optimistic enough to encourage their<br />

progeny to attend and participate in the public <strong>education</strong> system. Zhang reported that parents<br />

who held college degrees, and earned higher incomes, had been successfully inoculated against<br />

this cycle of mis-<strong>education</strong> and alienation (Zhang, 2005). The problem with these victimblaming<br />

explanations is that they fail to consider the cultural, historical and systemic forces that<br />

directly influence the victim’s complicity to their own victimization,<br />

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Solutions<br />

Federal law protects the right of all children in this country to have access to a quality <strong>education</strong>,<br />

regardless of race, background, socioeconomic status. However, while many Americans are<br />

exposed to a free <strong>education</strong>, that <strong>education</strong> is not always effective nor appropriate. While efforts<br />

have been made to present the overrepresentation of African Americans in the special <strong>education</strong><br />

system as a relatively new phenomenon, the truth is that we have been a situation of crisis for<br />

more than five decades. Although there have been legislative efforts, such as the “Individuals<br />

with Disabilities <strong>Education</strong> Act,” we still find ourselves deeply entrenched in the enigmatic<br />

conundrum of disproportionality as it pertains to African Americans being referred for special<br />

<strong>education</strong> assessments. In addition to the use of the National Center for Culturally Responsive<br />

<strong>Education</strong>al Systems by the U.S. Congress to track disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong>,<br />

multitudinous researchers have released data based on in-depth studies — accompanied by<br />

recommendation on the most efficacious methods for rectifying the issue. Yet, African American

<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

children remain the most highly misdiagnosed and overrepresented population in special<br />

<strong>education</strong>, rendering them susceptible to the negative implications that are directly associated<br />

with special <strong>education</strong> placement.<br />

Each origin or causality associated with disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> is, in itself,<br />

suggestive of viable solutions. These multifarious forces that contribute to disproportionality —<br />

when viewed through a historical lens — demands a multifaceted, long-term approach to<br />

developing solutions that will produce efficacious results. The solutions must consider the<br />

totality of causality, meaning that it must involve instruments that will address teacher attitudes,<br />

training and behaviors, the proper training and equipping of school psychologists, the creation of<br />

new and innovative research and policy agendas, the diversification of the professional<br />

workforce to better reflect the diversity in the classroom and the concerted effort to disrupt and<br />

destroy the force of structured inequities and institutionalized racism.<br />

Additionally, the parents, students, families and the community, as a collective will have to<br />

embrace their roles in addressing and redressing the issue of disproportionality in special<br />

<strong>education</strong>.<br />

Teachers<br />

It is our position that teachers should be viewed as the first offenders, as they are the one who<br />

initiate the referral process for African American students to enter special <strong>education</strong><br />

programming, making them the first line of defense. Addressing the issues that are directly<br />

associated with the high rate at which teachers refer African American students for special<br />

<strong>education</strong> evaluation, will provide an immediate impact on the reduction in the<br />

overrepresentation of African Americans in the special <strong>education</strong> system.<br />

One of the initial points of interest that must be addressed concerning teachers is to develop a<br />

focus on meeting the needs of African American students vs. attempting force the student to<br />

squeeze into a cultural paradigm that is anything but homogenous to their unique culture<br />

(Hilliard, 1980) — something that can be accomplished through pre-service and in-service<br />

training on an ongoing basis.<br />

One thing that is chiefly paramount is the need for the teacher work force to be diversified on a<br />

much greater level. The natural bias of white teachers, especially female, is undeniable, and<br />

while mechanisms can be put into place to reduce the potential of that bias leading to a<br />

disproportionate number of African Americans being placed in special <strong>education</strong>, these<br />

mechanisms cannot protect the students from the inherent neglect based on the misconception<br />

associated with that bias. It has been well documented how African American teachers have a<br />

greater sensitivity to the cultural needs of African American students, making them less likely to<br />

refer black students to special <strong>education</strong> programming (Serwatka, Deering, & Grant, 1995;<br />

Talbert-Johnson, 2001; Taylor, Gunter, & Slate, 2001). Despite the need for an increase in<br />

African American teachers in public <strong>education</strong>, the numbers have actually declined in recent<br />

years (Welch, Patterson, Scott, & Pollard, 2007), making it imperative to address this shortage<br />

immediately (Wood, 2002).<br />

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While there is a need for African American teachers, in general, there is a critical need for<br />

African American male teachers who have the capacity to offer gender and cultural consonance<br />

with African American male students (Brown A. L., 2009; Brown & Buddy, 1999; Frazier, 2009;<br />

Jackson, 2005). African American male teachers are uniquely equipped to deal with the unique<br />

and specific needs of African American male students. Miller (1993) was able to effectively<br />

demonstrate the effectiveness of African American male teachers in engaging African American<br />

male students, while Mason (1997) was able to reveal how African American males have a<br />

unique ability to effectively intervene in anger-infused situations, and other behavioral problems<br />

that involved African American male students.<br />

It is imperative that teachers be provided the necessary training that will allow them to make the<br />

necessary adjustments to their pedagogical strategies to consider the ethnic diversity in their<br />

classrooms (Fearn, 2002; Ford B. A., 1992; Olmeda & Kauffman, 2003). It is necessary to<br />

implement culturally diverse curricula in order to be responsive to the needs of culturally diverse<br />

students (Sullivan, 2010). A pedagogy that is culturally responsive is one that involves a style of<br />

teaching that not only acknowledges the cultural diversity in the room, but embraces it —<br />

developing respectful relationships, affirming cultural identities and displaying a genuine<br />

concern for all students and the uniqueness they bring to the learning environment (Sullivan,<br />

2010).<br />

Finally, a teacher must possess a certain level of multicultural competency. Multicultural<br />

competence can be defined as an interrelated dynamic that involved nine factors:<br />

1. Respect for diversity<br />

2. An intense curriculum<br />

3. Communicating high expectations<br />

4. Motivating students<br />

5. Modeling positive attitudes and behaviors toward learning<br />

6. Using curricular materials that are culturally inclusive<br />

7. Teaching students to be proactive in dealing with prejudice and discrimination<br />

8. Acknowledging linguistic diversity<br />

9. Identifying and utilizing the cultural strengths that students bring to the school<br />

* (Veney, 2008)<br />

Another area of cultural diversity that requires an elevated level of sensitivity from teachers is<br />

needs of linguistic minorities — whether it is a student who speaks an African American dialect<br />

or a student who speaks an entirely different language (Baugh, 1995; Champion & Bloome,<br />

1995; Fairchild & Edwards-Evans, 1990; McCray & Garcia, 2002; Norton, 2009; Seymour,<br />

Abdulkarim, & Johnson, 1999; Sullivan, 2010).<br />

Disproportionality is an issue that has to be confronted before the teachers first engage their role<br />

as educators. The curriculum that is implemented within teacher <strong>education</strong> programs should have<br />

a strong focus on addressing institutional racism, involving a mandate for aspiring teachers to<br />

attend anti-racism training, creating an increase cognizance of structured mechanisms that<br />

promote racial biases in the manner in which culturally diverse students are perceived.<br />

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School Psychologists<br />

In the same manner as the teachers, there is a need for a new paradigm in training school<br />

psychologists, for the purpose of eliminating the existing deficit in cultural tolerance of African<br />

American cultural diversity (Harry, Restructuring the Participation of African American Parents<br />

in <strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong>, 1992). Additionally, it will also be necessary for school psychologists to<br />

develop strong cross cultural competencies that allow them to effectively assess and evaluate<br />

youth across ethnic, racial and cultural groups in order to ensure that they have the capacity to<br />

meet the needs of ethno-cultural minorities (Kearns, Ford, & Limey, 2005).<br />

Hilliard’s studies revealed that <strong>education</strong> professionals often view the cultural differences<br />

displayed among African Americans as personal deficiencies (Hilliard A. , 1980). These<br />

misperceptions have the potential to lead to the erroneous diagnosis of being below normal as it<br />

pertains to the measurement of adaptive behaviors — directly impacting the determinations that<br />

are made concerning learning disabilities. In addition to the proper training of existing school<br />

psychologist, an honest effort must be made to recruit African American psychologist, something<br />

that has been admitted by the National Association of School Psychologists. NASP has issued a<br />

directive to increase the efforts to recruit African American psychologist that possess the cultural<br />

competency to help facilitate the cultural diversity that is present in classrooms across the<br />

country.<br />

Another area in which school psychologists must improve is in the area of parental involvement<br />

and in developing a more emphatic resolve to challenge apparent failures within the <strong>education</strong>al<br />

process (Kearns, Ford, & Limey, 2005). Instead of being so easily content with relegating<br />

African American students to special <strong>education</strong> programming, school psychologists need to<br />

focus less on the perceived inadequacies of the student and more on the exploration of potential<br />

problems within the classroom environments (Hart, Cramer, Harry, Klingner, & Sturges, 2010).<br />

The instruments of measurement must extend beyond the use of standardized tests that attempt to<br />

measure intellectual aptitude — moving into the realm critical examination of the extent of<br />

person-environment fit.<br />

Finally, when tests are used as instruments of measurement, school psychologists must work to<br />

effectively tergiversate the inherent biases that are currently so prevalent in assessment protocol<br />

— especially when it comes to the use of IQ tests (Edwards, 2006; Fearn, 2002). Current<br />

assessments that have been made must be rigorously investigated to identify all cases that have<br />

been negatively impacted by cultural and racial bias. We must work to ensure that stricter<br />

regulations are set in place by the Board of Assessment and Training, while simultaneously<br />

lobbying for federal laws that prohibit any form of discriminatory assessment processes.<br />

Effective Schools<br />

This is an area in which we need researchers to advance the knowledge of what is required to<br />

effectively improve the <strong>education</strong>al and academic potency of schools, especially as it pertains to<br />

African American students. It has been reported that accountability, strong leadership,<br />

orderliness, leadership and a focus on academics are highly conducive to the success of African<br />

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American Students (Pressley, Gallagher, & DiBella, 2004). Other studies have been successful in<br />

identifying similar characteristics within a school that promote success (Osher, et al., 2004).<br />

Additionally, Ball (2009) focused on the makeup of schools that were effective in educating<br />

African American females — underscoring the importance of developing a positive and caring<br />

environment, developing a trusting relationship between the teacher and student, acceptance and<br />

receiving personal attention.<br />

There is a rising tide of empirical data that places an emphasis on schools that are especially<br />

formed for African American students, promoting positive teacher and parent relationships,<br />

parent involvement, academically focused teaching and a strong school climate (McDonald,<br />

Ross, Bol, & McSparrin-Gallagher, 2007). It important to understand that while charter schools<br />

can be a part of the solution, they can also create an academic imbalance within the community<br />

(Johnson, 2013).<br />

It is also important for African Americans to become directly involved in creating new and more<br />

powerful <strong>education</strong>al processes through the application of new African-centered theories of<br />

pedagogy and <strong>education</strong> (Wilson A. , 1992). Wilson suggested that schools that are redesigned to<br />

meet the specific and unique needs of children of African descent, and based on African<br />

psychology, will inherently reflect the exceptional learning capacity of our remarkable children.<br />

Student Attitudes and Behaviors<br />

There is no denying the fact that African American students, and the African American<br />

community and culture, in general, have been systematically victimized by a discriminatory,<br />

racially and culturally biased <strong>education</strong> system that has denied them reasonable and adequate<br />

access to <strong>education</strong>al opportunities afforded to non-blacks (Fairchild & Edwards-Evans, 1990;<br />

Osher, et al., 2004; Powers, Hagans-Murillo, & Restori, 2004). However, this perpetuated evil<br />

against African American students does not relieve them of the responsibility to themselves to<br />

take a lead role in reversing this longstanding problem.<br />

The malignancies of racial and cultural bias within the public <strong>education</strong> system that has wreaked<br />

havoc on African American students for over 100 years has created a deep-seeded distrust that<br />

has become pervasive throughout the black collective, and it is this distrust that serves to<br />

undermine African American Academic achievement (Irging & Hudley, 2005). Studies have<br />

shown that there is a higher level of distrust in the <strong>education</strong> system by African American males,<br />

who are more vulnerable to the pernicious machinations of racial and cultural discrimination,<br />

resulting in even lower academic expectations and achievements that African American females<br />

(Irging & Hudley, 2005). It is the lowered expectation for achievement that functions as the<br />

precursor for school-to-prison pipeline (Alexander M. , 2010).<br />

Often, the mistrust that is harbored toward the public <strong>education</strong> system by African American<br />

students can be accompanied by attitudes of cultural opposition that directly contribute to<br />

academic inadequacies, elevated high school dropout rates and low test scores (Irving & Hudley,<br />

2008). The best way to counter this dynamic of failure due to mistrust in the system is the<br />

development of a strong racial identity through proper racial socialization and the development<br />

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of academic self-esteem for African American students for the purpose of enhancing their<br />

academic achievement and socio-emotional well-being (Grantham & Ford, 2003; Stevenson,<br />

2006).<br />

While support the African American student’s freedom of expression, it must be pointed out that<br />

an oppositional cultural attitude — antipathy toward the <strong>education</strong>al process — may be<br />

implicated in certain aspects of African American youth culture that embraces counter-cultural<br />

styles of dress (especially sagging — the practice of wearing pants or shorts low around the hips<br />

— below the waistline of the underwear) or a specific style of walking (Baxter & Marina, 2008;<br />

Hamovitch, 1999). Additional research reports that an African American males style of walk can<br />

result is the teacher’s postulation of lower potential for achievement, higher aggression, and<br />

higher likelihood of a need for special <strong>education</strong> programming (Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson,<br />

& Bridget, 2003). While Adams and Collins (Adams & Collins, 2010) implementing a program<br />

that would challenge African American males’ patterns of antipathy toward accepted styles of<br />

dress, while Garibaldi (Garibaldi, 1992) suggested that an effort must be made to reverse<br />

negative peer pressure toward academic success, creating an environment that is similar to the<br />

positive response by peers for athletic accomplishments.<br />

While we must be very careful not to blame the victims, it is necessary to illuminate the<br />

possibility that better cooperation of African American students with teachers and one another<br />

can create a more productive and homogenous learning environment. Empirical data exists that<br />

points to the fact that cross-age tutoring for low-achieving males has produced positive results<br />

(Cochran, Feng, Cartledge, & Hamilton, 1993).<br />

Parental and Community Involvement<br />

There seems to be an ever-widening gap of indifference between African American parents and<br />

the public <strong>education</strong> system. Throughout its entirety, the public <strong>education</strong> system has been<br />

marred with malignancies that negatively impact the African American population, including<br />

systematic exclusion from <strong>education</strong>al opportunities through quality instruction — with the<br />

postulation of racial inferiority being the primary impetus. It has been documented that a<br />

significant portion of the cultural mistrust of African American students as it pertains to the<br />

public <strong>education</strong> system is a direct reflection of a similar or identical level of mistrust of the<br />

parents (Ryan, 1976). However, for the sake of their children, African American parents have to<br />

remain fully engaged in the process of educating their child, being the first and most sedulous<br />

line of defense against mis-<strong>education</strong> and the disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> referrals and<br />

assignments (Harrison, Arnold, & Henderson, 1995).<br />

It has been discovered that much of the disengagement by African American parents is the result<br />

of their perception of the respect, or the lack thereof, that they receive from the school staff<br />

(Zoints, Zoints, Harrison, & Bellinger, 2003). To encourage African American parents to<br />

participate at a higher level, it will require school professionals, including teachers and<br />

administrative staff, to abjure their negative stereotypes of African American families in lieu of<br />

perceiving their cultural strengths and diversity as cultural capital that will be able to add to the<br />

learning experience for all students.<br />

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The Need for Systemic Remediation<br />

The mis-<strong>education</strong> of African American youth does not take place in a vacuum; it occurs within<br />

the context of social ideologies, institutional processes and economic realities that serve to<br />

promote the biases and discriminatory practices that lead to the disproportionality of African<br />

American representation in the special <strong>education</strong>.<br />

A substantial effort has to be invested in disproving the paradigm of white superiority and Black<br />

inferiority. One area in which the belief in the inferiority of African Americans has been<br />

constantly reinforced has been in the manner in which this group is represented throughout mass<br />

media (Burrell, 2010), and the only way that this can be effectively countered is through<br />

launching a mass media campaign that is designed to challenge the belief in white superiority<br />

and black inferiority. Additionally, there must also be program implemented that focus on<br />

ensuring that <strong>education</strong> professionals are properly trained to understand and respect cultural<br />

difference. Finally, the economic health of the African American community must improve<br />

(Robinson, 2003).<br />

New Policy and Legislation<br />

Under the 1997 IDEA, the federal government acknowledges that changes were necessary to<br />

effectively address the needs of a population that was rapidly advancing in the area of cultural<br />

variance, ensuring that culturally diverse students would have equal access to a quality<br />

<strong>education</strong>. In 2004, congress reviewed and reauthorized IDEA, with the monitoring of<br />

disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> caring great gravity as far as priorities are concerned.<br />

African-Centered Think Tanks<br />

One area in which African Americans have suffered historically is in the lack of organized and<br />

structured meeting of the minds. When it comes to organized and longstanding think tanks that<br />

are focused on addressed enigmatic issues associated with African Americans, there are very<br />

few. This has served to limit the functionality and mobility of African Americans on a number of<br />

different fronts, and public <strong>education</strong> and the disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> has been no<br />

exceptions.<br />

The need to develop new policies regarding how referrals are submitted, new culture-specific<br />

standards, special <strong>education</strong> placement, testing are all standards that should be developed based<br />

on the recommendation of an interdisciplinary, African-centered <strong>Education</strong> Reform & Review<br />

Think Tank. This consortium would be responsible for functioning as <strong>education</strong>al consultant to<br />

the U.S. Department of <strong>Education</strong>, for the purpose of representing the interests of African<br />

American students<br />

Conclusion<br />

While it is obvious that the special <strong>education</strong> system in U.S. public schools is in need of a<br />

massive overhaul, it does not mean that the baby should be thrown out with the bath water. If the<br />

system can be properly calibrated to acknowledge the gifts of culturally diverse students, instead<br />

of seeing these gifts as faults, disabilities and deficiencies, it is possible that the special <strong>education</strong><br />

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system can be of immense benefit to those students that are suffering from certain learning and<br />

behavioral problems. However, it is the students that are misdiagnosed and inappropriately<br />

placed in special <strong>education</strong> programs that suffer and fail to benefit from these placements. If<br />

special <strong>education</strong> programming is to be a successful alternative teaching mechanism for students<br />

with certain challenges, the level of expectation for the students assigned to the program as to be<br />

raised. The idea for special <strong>education</strong> should not be to find a place to house and hide students<br />

with perceived learning disabilities, it has to be used as an alternative teaching mechanism that<br />

seeks to produce productive graduates.<br />

The federal government must place significant pressure on state <strong>education</strong> boards and local<br />

districts to aggressively address the racially motivated systems that promote racial bias and<br />

disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong>. Historically, racism, by its very design, has<br />

systematically denied people of African descent equality in the areas of socioeconomic status,<br />

sociopolitical mobility and economic opportunity. Despite laws that are designed to protect<br />

against racial discrimination, the construction of institutional policies that are highly<br />

sophisticated are designed to circumvent extant legislation, perpetuating the pernicious cycle of<br />

disproportionality.<br />

History has proven that the selective enforcement of laws meant to protect minorities is essential<br />

to the perpetuation of white domination. For instance, Africans continued to be captured and<br />

shipped to the U.S. long after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was outlawed in 1807, and the<br />

rights that were afforded to newly freed slaves by the 13 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution<br />

was quickly transcended and subverted by the Black Codes that ushered in the Jim Crow era.<br />

This is a reality that must be addressed as we attempt to eliminate disproportionality in special<br />

<strong>education</strong>. Amos Wilson (1992) warned against attempted to address a specific problem without<br />

critically examining the economic and political context the frames the problem. We cannot<br />

assume that simply illuminating the problem of disproportionality will result in the necessary<br />

changes to remedy the situation. The institutional mechanisms of racism are in place, and the<br />

cultural biases remain unchallenged. Wilson suggested that the primary function of <strong>education</strong> is<br />

to ensure the survival of a people (p. 1), and if this to be believed, the African American<br />

population is yet to gain equal access to the resources that are capable of preparing us to survive.<br />

Our position is that we can no longer sit and wait on exogenous entities to address the<br />

deficiencies within the public <strong>education</strong> system. We must become proactive in our engagement<br />

of these enigmatic issues. We must engage the multitudinous mechanisms and machinations that<br />

facilitate the inequities within the public <strong>education</strong> system, and we must engage it with a passion<br />

that is indicative of our desire to ensure that our youth are properly prepared to not only survive,<br />

but thrive.<br />

The type of advocacy that we recommend and promote must take into consideration the<br />

economic and political mechanisms of <strong>education</strong>, in addition to the immutable underlying<br />

intentions of those who are in power. The proclivity of advocacy programs in the past was to<br />

place a prodigious amount of gravity on strategies that were child, parent, school and district<br />

centered, rarely recognizing the nefarious existence and influence of covert manifestations of<br />

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<strong>Special</strong> <strong>Education</strong> Disproportionality<br />

neo-colonialism — subsequently failing to systematically and consistently dismantle the existing<br />

power relations that maintain the disproportionality in the special <strong>education</strong> system.<br />

Finally, this new type of advocacy must be undertaken with the vigor and heart of<br />

revolutionaries. For so long, the goal has been to maintain an aura of political correctness and<br />

compliance; however, it is this very compliance that has allowed white supremacy racism to<br />

sustain its negative impact on the <strong>education</strong>al system that has proven to be diametrically opposed<br />

to the progress of African American students. The consistent course of action in the past has<br />

been to seek relief from the very ones who are responsible for the destructive force of<br />

disproportionality. It is exceptionally fatuous to entrust the oppressor with the responsibility of<br />

liberating the oppressed, yet we have consistently done this in our past efforts to advocate for our<br />

children.<br />

The answer to the current conundrum of disproportionality in special <strong>education</strong> as it relates to<br />

African American youth will not be discovered through seeking relief from the federal<br />

government, school districts nor any other groups or individuals outside of ourselves. Autonomy<br />

is our only solution. The answers will only come from within once we realistically and<br />

holistically engage the realities of our socio-political and socioeconomic history —<br />

affectionately seeking a holistic knowledge of “self” as human beings who descended from the<br />

continent of Africa, and fully acknowledging that holistic <strong>education</strong> is inextricably connected to<br />

the internecine and agonists struggle for liberation, elevation and power for our race.<br />

Researched & Prepared by<br />

Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.<br />

Other Resources by Dr. Rick Wallace include:<br />

The <strong>Mis</strong>-<strong>education</strong> of Black Youth in America<br />

The Invisible Father: Reversing the Curse of a Fatherless Generation<br />

When Your House is Not a Home<br />

Renewing Your Mind<br />

Visit The Odyssey Project Site Here<br />

The Blueprint 1.0<br />

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