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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Special Education” as a

Mechanism for the Miseducation

of African

American Youth



Special Education Disproportionality

Special Education” as the Mechanism for the Mis-education of African American Youth

A Position Paper Commissioned by The Odyssey Project


Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

Published March 1, 2016

© 2016 by The Odyssey Project

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Special Education Disproportionality

Executive Summary

This paper was commissioned by The Odyssey Project for the purpose of establishing an official

position on an enigmatic issue that has been at the core of multitudinous conundrums within the

black collective. For more nearly 40 years the special education system in the U.S. has been used

as a mechanism to isolate and ostracized African American youth, especially young African

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

the influence that institutional racism and cultural indifference play in the dynamic responsible

for disproportionality.

There is a wealth of pragmatic and empirical evidence that suggests that the disproportionate

representation of African Americans in the special education system is far from coincidental. The

numbers that support the position established by this paper are beyond bearing statistical

significance — demanding the attention of all entities involved. The disproportionality outlined

within this document identifies a number of fallible paradigms and processes that must be

addressed in totality if African American students are ever to receive a reasonable opportunity

within this system.

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

understood that we advocate a separate and independent system of education for African

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

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

public education system in the U.S. The deficiencies in these specific areas compound the

proclivity of the public education system to assign special education labels to black youth in

disproportionate numbers.

The paper further identified teacher attitudes and behaviors, the lack of teacher training, the

cultural indifference between African American students and the institutions that they attend, the

bias of school psychologists in their assessments of African American students and more.

Although we advocate building a unique educational system that will be designed to meet the

unique needs of African American youth, this paper does make specific suggestions as far as

strategies that we believe will be efficacious in remediating the disproportionality involved in the

misdiagnosis of African American youth as far as special education labels are concerned.

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

its enigmatic issues, including special education and the mis-education of black youth, is the

failure to create topic-specific think tanks that are dedicated to evaluating and addressing these

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

African American Education Reform “think tank.” While fighting for change in the public

education system, blacks must come to an erudite understanding that we are the only ones who

can improve our situation.

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

significant amount of pragmatic and empirical data that should inspire further research.

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Special Education Disproportionality

Special Education” as the Mechanism for the Mis-education of African

(Gardner & Miranda, 2001)American Youth


This paper is designed to effectively communicate the position that The Odyssey Project has

taken concerning the overrepresentation of African American youth in special education. As it

pertains to the special education system and the public education system, in general, the term

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

characteristically associated with a specific group (e.g. ethnicity, race, gender, socioeconomic

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

It is worth noting that any time that overrepresentation occurs at a level that is considered

statistically significant, it is important to identify the cause.

For more than four decades, it has been evident that African American youth have been

significantly overrepresented in the special education system (Codrington & Fairchild, 2012;

Blanchett W. J., 2009; Gardner & Miranda, 2001).

In 1997, The United States Department of Education identified disproportionate minority

representation of African American students in the special education system, with those more

prevalently affected being African American males. This disproportionality was readily

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

discovery, which was long overdue, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of

1997 was passed.

To truly understand the pernicious nature of the special education system, it must be perceived

within its proper context. When the U.S. Supreme Court Ruled that segregation in education,

based on any characteristic differences, including race, was unconstitutional, those who advocate

institutional and structural racism had to create an alternative modality for continuing to separate

black students from white students. Their solution was the creation of a special education

program that could identify blacks as having learning disabilities that required them to be in

separate classrooms (Johnson, 2013).

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Special Education Disproportionality

The statistics that reflect this dilemma are quite alarming. For instance, although African

American students only make up 16 percent of the public education population, they constitute

more than 21 percent of the students that have been diagnosed as special needs students through

special education criteria. When socioeconomic variables are factored into the equation, the

numbers are even more disparaging, where African American students, who qualify as living at

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

mental retardation than are their white counterparts.

To further exacerbate this enigmatic issue, the IDEA discovered that some minority groups

(primarily African American males) were more likely to be misdiagnosed and misplaced into

special education programs than white students. In response to its findings, the IDEA

implemented measures through regulations that governed federal, state and local educational

agencies as far as minimizes the overrepresentation of African Americans in the special

education system. However, despite the efforts of the IDEA, the overrepresentation of African

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

number of critical areas.

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

that suggests that African Americans are intellectually inferior, there is no empirical evidence to

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

resources, African American students, including African American males, have excelled as a

collective group.

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

times more likely to be placed in some form of special education program under IDEA

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

to be diagnosed as being in need of special services due to emotional disturbance than other

students within the same age, but from different ethnic and racial groups combined.

This paper is reflective of the review of available literature on this topic. Following is a

statement of the problem that provides elucidation of the issue of overrepresentation of African

Americans in special education. This paper addresses culpability in its totality, including the

roles of teachers, parents, institutional & structured racism, societal factors, student attitudes and

behavior, etc. — offering a number of propositional quaesitums to the current disproportionality

in special education.

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Special Education Disproportionality

Statement of the Problem

The Inequity of Resources and Opportunity

The inequality in resources and opportunity in education for African Americans is not a new

dilemma — having been a documented and understood problem for more than a century. One

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

Education would have ending the exorbitant level of inequity in access to an effective and useful

education; however, that ruling only served to create a subtler form of separatism — giving the

impression of improved exposure and opportunity for African Americans (Blanchett, Munford,

& Beachum, 2005; Coutinho & Oswald, 2000; McIntosh, Cook-Morales, & Robinson-Zanartu,


One key stratagem that has remained a constant variable is sustaining segregation in public

education is the use of the disproportionate assignment of special education tags to minorities,

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

this problem has been scientifically documented in an abundance of research literature (Gardner

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

of disproportionality of African American youth (especially African American males) in special

education continues at a rate of at least two and one-half times that of students of non-African

descent (Osward, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999).

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

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

American students who speak what is considered as an African American dialect are also

affected (Baugh, 1995; Champion & Bloome, 1995; Champion & Bloome, 1995).

What exacerbates the reality of overrepresentation in special education learning disorders and

emotional disturbances, is the fact that African Americans, along with other minorities, such as

Native Americans and Latinos, are substantially underrepresented in special education programs

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

Ford & Harris, 1994; Ford & Webb, 1994).

Additionally, the patterns of disproportionality were intensified for African American students

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

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

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The corollaries of the disproportionality that is so prevalent in African Americans are

significantly profound. While some of this disproportionality may be appropriately attributed to

misguided good intentions, the truth remains that African American students that are relegated to

special education classrooms are generally exposed to learning environments that do not promote

Special Education Disproportionality

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

focus in these classrooms is to effectively manage any behavioral or emotional issues, learning

disabilities or other types of impairments that may or may not be present. Rarely is appropriate

attention given to the capacity for proper development, academic excellence or the effective

preparation of the students to be able to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.

In fact, it has been well-documented that the average special education class creates a restrictive

environment that has the capacity to significantly retard academic advancement, limits access to

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

In its current form, special education programs almost always lack the type of pedagogy capable

of challenging and developing students in key areas such as critical thought and analytical

capacity. As a general rule, students assigned to special education programs are held to a

significantly lower standard, primarily due to the low expectations of their teachers — meaning

that these students are basically being conditioned to underachieve — looking to elevate

themselves no higher than the glass ceiling that exists in their classrooms.

The limited access to the general educational curriculum for these students serves to stifle their

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

instruction and attention, which in turn leads to a poor quality of education. In an economic and

social environment in which the quality of holistic education of an individual directly impacts

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

education negatively impacts the forward mobility of our children, stifling the productivity of

subsequent generations.

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

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

some form of learning disability or emotional disturbance in special education classrooms, where

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

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

special education placements that result in segregation from the general student population,

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

Anderson, 1995), the outcomes subsequently reinforce the initial classification.

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

special education needs students have been misdiagnosed, it is important to understand that it is

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

of the stigmatism, labeling, inadequate teacher instruction, lowered expectations, limited access

to services, enrichment resources and opportunities are immensely detrimental and debilitating to

the student.

The negative implications associated with the assignment of special education programming for

culturally and linguistically diverse students are quite extensive, including higher dropout and

arrest rates, lower employment status, lower wages and a reduced rate of independent living

(Affleck, Edgar, Levine, & Kortering, 1990).

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Special Education Disproportionality

The public education system, especially the restrictive settings with special education

classrooms, has served as temporary warehousing for young African American males —

preparing them for long-term and repetitive warehousing in the Private Prison Industrial

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

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

history directly connected to special education.

In summation of the consequences, it is clear that the disproportionate placement of African

American youth in special education programs results in a lifelong reverberation of negative

consequences that work against the personal productivity of the affected individual. The most

prevalent consequence that can be directly associated with the disproportionate assignment of

special education labels for black youth include higher incarceration rates, poor socioeconomic

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

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

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

negative consequences is the fact that culturally and linguistically diverse students, especially

African Americans, are less likely to make the academic progress to ever exit the special

education vortex than their white counterparts (Blanchett W. , 2006) — resulting in a more

emphatic negative psychological, emotional and intellectual imprint that fosters the negative

mindset, which nurtures the negativity associated with poor achievement throughout life. When

the significance of this conundrum is properly elucidated, anatomized and evaluated, the only

conclusion has to be that the overrepresentation of African Americans in special education

extends beyond the description of an educational dilemma and overflows into the realm of

human rights violations. What stands out most is the fact that the special education system is a

major contributor to the “school to prison pipeline.”

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Special Education Disproportionality

Contributing Factors

The New Jim Crow

For decades, the special education system has functioned as warehousing system for black youth,

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

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

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

prison industrial complex” represents the latest evolution of the racial caste in this country that

specifically targets African Americans, with special emphasis placed on African American


The overrepresentation of African American men being warehoused in the U.S. prison system

corresponds emphatically with the overrepresentation of African American male youth in special

education programs. Basically, special education programs should be viewed as another

manifestation of systematic or institutional racism — with specific social structures functioning

as mechanisms through which discriminatory practices can be carried out on a systematic level.

When viewing the special education system in a post-Brown era, it bears a striking simulacrum

to Jim Crow segregation. While the Brown vs. The Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court

decision asseverated segregation, based on race, to be unconstitutional, that decision only led to

more sophisticated, covert and subtle forms of racial discrimination that has permeated the public

education system — being considered perfectly legal and constitutional. Unfortunately, these

pernicious discriminatory practices have cyclopean negative implications.

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

still being denied equal access to a quality education, meaning that African Americans, in

general, will continue to struggle in the area of equal opportunity, with a quality education

playing such a major role in creating opportunities to succeed in a global economy, create

generational wealth and establish equal footing on a socioeconomic level.

The misplacement of African American students in special education programs is a direct result

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

educational system — perpetuating the common, yet fallible, ideology that African Americans

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

an inferiority complex and a poor self-image.

In essence, what we are witnessing is the perpetuation of segregated schooling through the

prolongation of biased policies and practices that unfairly target African American Youth,

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

(Blanchett, Munford, & Beachum, 2005)

Causes of Special Education Disproportionality

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Special Education Disproportionality

Over the course of the last several decades, researchers have offered multitudinous explanations

and causes for the disproportionality of African Americans in the special education system

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

the disproportionality of African Americans in special education is not the result of a singular

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

secondary factoring mechanism that considers socioeconomic variables.

It is important to understand that while causal explanations identify and describe potential

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

necessary to provide proficuous insight into this opaque existence of a special education system

that is antithetical to the progress of African Americans on multitudinous levels. Causation is the

point of initial engagement as we examine possible solutions to the problem of disproportionality

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

within an autogenous African-centered infrastructure that is funded and operated by blacks.

However, for the sake of providing immediate relief, we must diligently search for solutions that

can be implemented within the existing framework. Moving forward, we will make certain

suggestions based on our understanding of the current literature on the topic, addressing the need

for change on a number of different levels. These changes center on school culture, school

psychologists, teachers, student attitudes and behaviors, ideological and political-economic

environments, parental and family factors, or any combination of all of these.

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Systematic Factors that Impact Racial Disproportionality in Special


Institutional Racism

When viewing the issue of disproportionality in special education through the critical lens of

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

direct connection with institutional racism is apparent. The U.S. is a nation that is significantly

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

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

various mechanisms of hegemony that serve to protect their positions of privilege and power.

Education is just one of these mechanisms, and a very influential and powerful one at that.

The acquisition of useful knowledge is the foundation of power, and the power acquired through

knowledge is the necessary instrument through which one develops their potential and abilities to

effectively navigate through the labyrinthine corridors of life — becoming a productive person

— who exhibits prosocial behavior and contributes to the collective rise of their race.

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

access of African Americans to a quality education, subsequently limiting their ability to succeed

on a grand scale.

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

become literate, and even when blacks were finally allowed to attend school, they were exposed

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

Special Education Disproportionality

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

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

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

machination of limiting access to a quality education, the Mephistophelean attitudinal climate —

in the scientific community and within popular culture — promoted an ideology that suggested

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

subsidize the limited access to education, and the suggestion of innate inferiority, was the social

engineering element of “serial forced displacement” conjoined with socioeconomic-engineered

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

systematically corralled in poor, highly disadvantaged, inner-city neighborhoods. This form of

social engineering is accomplished through a system of structured inequalities and

discriminatory practices that involved hiring practices, lending practices and other mechanisms

that are designed to isolate and separate blacks from the European population.

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

railroads to effectively divide and isolate African Americans from white communities (e.g.

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

reality within that isolation is primarily characterized by an underserved student population and

scarce educational resources, including updated text books, qualified credentialed teachers,

computers, advanced and gifted courses and contemporary, well-kept facilities.

There has been no shortage of scholars who have authored literature that highlighted structured

inequities that African American students consistently face. Coutinho and Oswald (Coutinho &

Oswald, 2000) highlighted the prevalence of the historical context that frames the inadequacies

associated with the African American educational experience, suggesting effective advocacy on

behalf of African Americans within the educational process. Powers (Powers, Hagans-Murillo, &

Restori, 2004) did an exceptional job of tracing the history of disproportionality in the state of

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

special education placement of African Americans. Despite the ruling, which was meant to

reduce the disproportionality in the state, it continued, primarily due to educational personnel

violating the spirit of the Larry P. ruling through the implementation and practices of policies

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

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

African American student population was negatively disproportionately represented in the

remedial programs.

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

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

mechanisms of white privilege and systematic racism serve to perpetuate the disproportionality

in special education, while simultaneously promoting biases among teachers and school

psychologists. Robinson (Robinson, 2003) reported that African American youth were inevitably

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

efficaciously address the enigma of structured inequity.

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Special Education Disproportionality

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

Wilson relentlessly attacked the structured racism that was so prevalent in the processes that

facilitated the overrepresentation of African American youth in special education. Dr. Wilson

took on the Herculean task of examining the sophisticated sociopolitical context of public

education in America (Wilson A. , 1992) — leading to his assertion that African Americans have

actually been subjected to pestilential ills of special education since enslavement. Wilson further

iterated that African American slaves were mis-educated, through specific modalities, for the

exact same reasons that contemporary African Americans are being erroneously educated

through the medium of special education — being that African Americans have always been

educated for the purpose of servitude. The main purpose for educating blacks has always been

for the purpose of preparing them to serve the needs of the white power structure in

multitudinous capacities. With any public education program, the ultimate goal is always the

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

In order to develop a perspicuous understanding of the dynamic that is in play in the creation of

the disproportionality that currently exists in the special education system, it is paramount to note

that the relationship between African Americans and Whites is built around power. The group

that has the power will dictate the rules through which the relationship will be governed, and

because the white, wealthy elite continue to possess the power — economically, socially and

politically — they continue to frame the context through which the African American narrative is

being written. In a powerful lecture on the white supremacy agenda in special education (Wilson

A. , 1993), Wilson explained that through a specific seasoning process, public education, with a

specific focus on special education, has served to build, first, an African American population

that were loyal, docile and diligent slaves, in addition to producing other behavioral patterns that

were constitutive to the perpetuation of the slave economy. Wilson went on to assert that this

same practice has continued in public education through the “separate but equal” model that

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

in African American students.

Yet, the primary function of education remains to be a functioning vehicle through which

African Americans will be trained and conditioned to produce maximum profits for white

corporations — whether it is done as an employee or an inmate.

Finally, Wilson closes the loop in his grading of the U. S. special education system through his

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

psychological composition of African American students (Wilson A. , 1993)

Ecological Context

In addition to the inherent structured inequities that are deeply embedded within the public

educational system, consideration must be given to the specific environmental context in which

the disproportionality of African American in special education has occurred. There have been a

number of scholars who have explored the obvious and subtle links between the community

characteristics of students that are overrepresented in the special education system. The findings

of these scholars have revealed that economic, environmental and community factors

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Special Education Disproportionality

differentially affect the vulnerability to educational disability placement (Coutinho & Oswald,


One of the most powerful and constant predictors of special education disproportionality has

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

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

themselves, will have children who will be forced to perpetuate the same vicious cycle of miseducation,

lifelong economic challenges and poor life opportunities (Morgan, Farkas, Hilemeir,

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

access to educational opportunity (Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azziz, &

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

A concomitant dynamic to neighborhood poverty is neighborhood violence (DeGruy, 2009;

Stevenson, 2015; Stevenson, 2006). African American youth who live in impoverished

neighborhoods are exposed to violence at a higher rate than those not living in urban

neighborhoods stricken by poverty — making them more susceptible to academic failure. If there

is to be a significant improvement in the area of disproportionality in special education

placement, the systematic factors in play, regardless of whether they are in the form of structured

inequities or toxic social environments, must be addressed with the specific purpose of

eliminating the current crisis of disproportionality in the special education system.


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

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

that we are not asserting that all teachers, even white teachers, are intentionally targeting black

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

teachers to accurately assess African American youth.

It is important to understand the vital role that teachers play in creating the disproportionality

that we are experiencing in special education today. It is the teacher who will generally make the

initial special education referral.

The Need for Increased Training for Teachers

While teachers will be the ones responsible for making the initial referral for special education

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

large scale, revealed that they are inadequately trained to assess and respect the unique

behavioral styles and educational needs of African American students (Moore, 2002). Moore

also reported that it was discovered that African American teachers innately held higher

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

Another important fact surrounding teachers is that disproportionality decreased in situations in

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

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

presence of teacher-student ethnic and cultural congruence is also important in reducing the

disproportionality of African American referrals for special education placement.

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Special Education Disproportionality

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

interact with students who are economically dis-advantaged, as well as teachers lacking the

understanding of student behavioral styles across cultures (Skiba, et al., 2006).

Cultural Insensitivity by Teachers

Another factor involving teachers that must be considered is cultural insensitivity on the part of

the teacher. There is a wealth of empirical and pragmatic evidence through research literature

that reveals the diacritical polarities between the culture of most public schools and the home

culture of many African American students — with particular interest being placed on those

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

disproportionality present in the referral of African Americans to stigmatized special education

programs, scientific data further suggests that a lack of teacher training, and cultural

misunderstandings, serves as a significant contribution to the underrepresentation of African

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

desegregation of the gifted programs, as well as multidimensional assessment strategies (Ford &

Webb, 1994).

Another study revealed that the misdiagnoses of African American students for placement in

special education programs were due to the fact that general education classrooms were not

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

Furthermore, Amos Wilson pointed out that the vast majority of cases of what is generally

perceived as a learning disability in African American students is a reflection of the conflict

between African American oral tradition and European literary conventions and standards.

There are other studies that suggest that in addition to the general cultural divide that exists in the

classroom, creating a cultural mismatch, the gender of the teacher also plays a significant role —

with African American female teachers being the most sensitive to the needs of the student,

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

Gunter, & Slate, 2001).

The Presence of Teacher Bias

Although most teachers insist that they harbor no biases, education scholars have identified a

significant presence of bias in the perception of teachers that functions as a direct influence in the

disproportionality of African American referrals for special education services. According to

Hilliard, it was common for educators to perceive cultural differences as being indicative of

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

resulted in the misdiagnosis of African American children as being emotionally disturbed,

mentally retarded and learning disabled, classifications that are based on highly subjective

criteria — something that is substantially dependent upon the interpretation by the teacher of

what should be considered normal adaptive behavior.

A specific list of terms commonly associated with the special education industry that are

considered to be highly subjective were identified by T. Armstrong to the predominant basis for

teacher special education referrals (Armstrong, 1995). Additionally, Armstrong experimented

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Special Education Disproportionality

with placing the negative terms juxtaposed to positive reframe of the activity or behavior in

questions. Certain juxtapositional comparisons included impulsive vs. spontaneous, hyperactive

vs. energetic, distractible vs. creative, inattentive vs. global thinker with wide focus and

aggressive vs. assertive, which all served to illuminate the apparent problem with biased

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

represents a statistically significant portion of the diagnoses of African American youth who are

placed in special education makes teacher bias along the lines of these types of behavioral

dimensions immensely significant.

Unfortunately, many teachers have used special education referrals as a response to their

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

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

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

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

influence on the opinions that teachers form about certain children — leading to their referral to

special education (Artiles & Trent, 2000).

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

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

uniqueness and diversity — but through the lens of white norms and standards, it allows the

teacher to abdicate their moral and professional responsibility to ensure that each student

receives the best possible education — choosing, instead, to refer children that don’t adapt to the

white value system to special education (Alexander D. R., 2010).

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

resist the cacoethes to perceive differences as deficits — suggesting that it is necessary for

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

possessed by African American students. Additionally, it has been discovered that public schools

often create an atmosphere of negativity that exists among the staff, and that this negativity is

typically directed toward African American students from low-income families (Harry, Klingner,

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

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

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

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

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

manner of dress (Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson, & Bridget, 2003).

As a general observation, it can be reasonably inferred, and empirically substantiated that the

prejudicial attitudes of teachers will often translate into the teacher referring certain students to

special education programming. It is worth noting that these biases are more regnant as it

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

behavior is less prevalent among African American teachers (Serwatka, Deering, & Grant,

1995). A study was conducted in which researchers observed 364 elementary and middle

schools, and the researchers reported that African American students were two to four times

more likely to be referred based on problem behaviors than were white children who exhibited

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

suspension or expulsion of the children referred.

School Psychologists

The school psychologist also plays an integral role in the perpetuation of disproportionality in

special education. These are the professionals who have been entrusted with the responsibility of

assessing our students to determine if special education placements are necessary; however,

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

as suffering from insufficient training and insensitivities to cultural and class differences

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

engage is the lack of adequate tools of measurement through which to effectively and accurately

assess children who are culturally diverse for special education.

Without proper training, and without having the proper tools, racially biased assessments will

continue to be a primary contributor to the disproportionality in the special education process.

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

deterred educators and school psychologists from using them as tools of measurement to assess

the learning capacity of students who function outside of the cultural center represented within

the test. More than twenty years ago, scientific literature debouched, reporting the problems that

were associated with standardized testing — as well as the classification and placement of

African Americans in special education — based on the results of standardized measurement

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

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

particular case that established the legal precedent that determined that any test that is

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

Since this case, further studies have identified a number of fallible characteristics associated with

IA tests that render them inadequate for the assessment of students for the purpose of special

education placement (Ford & Webb, 1994; Slate & Jones, 1995; Warner, Dede, Garvan, &

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

that protect culturally diverse students from the cultural biases that are ingenerately represented

in IQ tests that are used for the purpose of assessing these students for special education


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

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

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

culturally biased instruments, despite their illegality, likely attributed to the disproportionality

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

only accounted for 17 percent of the school population; however, they represented 41 percent of

all special education students, with the largest prevalence existing in the areas of behavioral

disorders and educable mental retardation. Finally, in instances in which assessment mechanisms

that were not considered to be culturally biased or discriminatory were used to assess students,

African American students were more proportionately represented in special education, based on

the overall representation in the general education population (Serwatka, Dove, & Hodge, 1986).

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Student and Family Factors

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

the educational process from an exogenous perspective, it is also paramount for us to examine

the endogenous elements that contribute to the disproportionality in special education for African

American students.

In the past, a reasonable amount of literature was compiled, suggesting that African American

students contributed directly to their special education placement (Ryan, 1976). Some

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

oppositional attitudes and cultural mistrust that served to inhibit educational advancement (Irving

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

identity within this demographic to reverse the current trend. In similar fashion, Hamovitch

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

to reject the ideology of an afterschool program that promoted status attainment.

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

particular unit of analysis, it was discovered that African American adolescent females who

became pregnant reported problems in completing their schooling (Prater, 1992). Prater

suggested teacher training, school-based clinics and the creation of support systems within the

community and school.

As is the case with many African American students, African American parents have also been

alienated by the public education system (Brandon, Higgins, Pierce, Tandy, & Sileo, 2010),

experiencing substandard access to a quality education. These are parents who are also victims of

mis-education, making it immensely difficult for them to be optimistic enough to encourage their

progeny to attend and participate in the public education system. Zhang reported that parents

who held college degrees, and earned higher incomes, had been successfully inoculated against

this cycle of mis-education and alienation (Zhang, 2005). The problem with these victimblaming

explanations is that they fail to consider the cultural, historical and systemic forces that

directly influence the victim’s complicity to their own victimization,

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Federal law protects the right of all children in this country to have access to a quality education,

regardless of race, background, socioeconomic status. However, while many Americans are

exposed to a free education, that education is not always effective nor appropriate. While efforts

have been made to present the overrepresentation of African Americans in the special education

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

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

with Disabilities Education Act,” we still find ourselves deeply entrenched in the enigmatic

conundrum of disproportionality as it pertains to African Americans being referred for special

education assessments. In addition to the use of the National Center for Culturally Responsive

Educational Systems by the U.S. Congress to track disproportionality in special education,

multitudinous researchers have released data based on in-depth studies — accompanied by

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

Special Education Disproportionality

children remain the most highly misdiagnosed and overrepresented population in special

education, rendering them susceptible to the negative implications that are directly associated

with special education placement.

Each origin or causality associated with disproportionality in special education is, in itself,

suggestive of viable solutions. These multifarious forces that contribute to disproportionality —

when viewed through a historical lens — demands a multifaceted, long-term approach to

developing solutions that will produce efficacious results. The solutions must consider the

totality of causality, meaning that it must involve instruments that will address teacher attitudes,

training and behaviors, the proper training and equipping of school psychologists, the creation of

new and innovative research and policy agendas, the diversification of the professional

workforce to better reflect the diversity in the classroom and the concerted effort to disrupt and

destroy the force of structured inequities and institutionalized racism.

Additionally, the parents, students, families and the community, as a collective will have to

embrace their roles in addressing and redressing the issue of disproportionality in special



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

initiate the referral process for African American students to enter special education

programming, making them the first line of defense. Addressing the issues that are directly

associated with the high rate at which teachers refer African American students for special

education evaluation, will provide an immediate impact on the reduction in the

overrepresentation of African Americans in the special education system.

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

focus on meeting the needs of African American students vs. attempting force the student to

squeeze into a cultural paradigm that is anything but homogenous to their unique culture

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

training on an ongoing basis.

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

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

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

disproportionate number of African Americans being placed in special education, these

mechanisms cannot protect the students from the inherent neglect based on the misconception

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

greater sensitivity to the cultural needs of African American students, making them less likely to

refer black students to special education programming (Serwatka, Deering, & Grant, 1995;

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

African American teachers in public education, the numbers have actually declined in recent

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

immediately (Wood, 2002).

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While there is a need for African American teachers, in general, there is a critical need for

African American male teachers who have the capacity to offer gender and cultural consonance

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

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

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

demonstrate the effectiveness of African American male teachers in engaging African American

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

unique ability to effectively intervene in anger-infused situations, and other behavioral problems

that involved African American male students.

It is imperative that teachers be provided the necessary training that will allow them to make the

necessary adjustments to their pedagogical strategies to consider the ethnic diversity in their

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

implement culturally diverse curricula in order to be responsive to the needs of culturally diverse

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

teaching that not only acknowledges the cultural diversity in the room, but embraces it —

developing respectful relationships, affirming cultural identities and displaying a genuine

concern for all students and the uniqueness they bring to the learning environment (Sullivan,


Finally, a teacher must possess a certain level of multicultural competency. Multicultural

competence can be defined as an interrelated dynamic that involved nine factors:

1. Respect for diversity

2. An intense curriculum

3. Communicating high expectations

4. Motivating students

5. Modeling positive attitudes and behaviors toward learning

6. Using curricular materials that are culturally inclusive

7. Teaching students to be proactive in dealing with prejudice and discrimination

8. Acknowledging linguistic diversity

9. Identifying and utilizing the cultural strengths that students bring to the school

* (Veney, 2008)

Another area of cultural diversity that requires an elevated level of sensitivity from teachers is

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

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

1995; Fairchild & Edwards-Evans, 1990; McCray & Garcia, 2002; Norton, 2009; Seymour,

Abdulkarim, & Johnson, 1999; Sullivan, 2010).

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

as educators. The curriculum that is implemented within teacher education programs should have

a strong focus on addressing institutional racism, involving a mandate for aspiring teachers to

attend anti-racism training, creating an increase cognizance of structured mechanisms that

promote racial biases in the manner in which culturally diverse students are perceived.

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School Psychologists

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

psychologists, for the purpose of eliminating the existing deficit in cultural tolerance of African

American cultural diversity (Harry, Restructuring the Participation of African American Parents

in Special Education, 1992). Additionally, it will also be necessary for school psychologists to

develop strong cross cultural competencies that allow them to effectively assess and evaluate

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

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

Hilliard’s studies revealed that education professionals often view the cultural differences

displayed among African Americans as personal deficiencies (Hilliard A. , 1980). These

misperceptions have the potential to lead to the erroneous diagnosis of being below normal as it

pertains to the measurement of adaptive behaviors — directly impacting the determinations that

are made concerning learning disabilities. In addition to the proper training of existing school

psychologist, an honest effort must be made to recruit African American psychologist, something

that has been admitted by the National Association of School Psychologists. NASP has issued a

directive to increase the efforts to recruit African American psychologist that possess the cultural

competency to help facilitate the cultural diversity that is present in classrooms across the


Another area in which school psychologists must improve is in the area of parental involvement

and in developing a more emphatic resolve to challenge apparent failures within the educational

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

African American students to special education programming, school psychologists need to

focus less on the perceived inadequacies of the student and more on the exploration of potential

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

The instruments of measurement must extend beyond the use of standardized tests that attempt to

measure intellectual aptitude — moving into the realm critical examination of the extent of

person-environment fit.

Finally, when tests are used as instruments of measurement, school psychologists must work to

effectively tergiversate the inherent biases that are currently so prevalent in assessment protocol

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

assessments that have been made must be rigorously investigated to identify all cases that have

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

regulations are set in place by the Board of Assessment and Training, while simultaneously

lobbying for federal laws that prohibit any form of discriminatory assessment processes.

Effective Schools

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

effectively improve the educational and academic potency of schools, especially as it pertains to

African American students. It has been reported that accountability, strong leadership,

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

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

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

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

African American females — underscoring the importance of developing a positive and caring

environment, developing a trusting relationship between the teacher and student, acceptance and

receiving personal attention.

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

formed for African American students, promoting positive teacher and parent relationships,

parent involvement, academically focused teaching and a strong school climate (McDonald,

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

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

(Johnson, 2013).

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

powerful educational processes through the application of new African-centered theories of

pedagogy and education (Wilson A. , 1992). Wilson suggested that schools that are redesigned to

meet the specific and unique needs of children of African descent, and based on African

psychology, will inherently reflect the exceptional learning capacity of our remarkable children.

Student Attitudes and Behaviors

There is no denying the fact that African American students, and the African American

community and culture, in general, have been systematically victimized by a discriminatory,

racially and culturally biased education system that has denied them reasonable and adequate

access to educational opportunities afforded to non-blacks (Fairchild & Edwards-Evans, 1990;

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

against African American students does not relieve them of the responsibility to themselves to

take a lead role in reversing this longstanding problem.

The malignancies of racial and cultural bias within the public education system that has wreaked

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

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

undermine African American Academic achievement (Irging & Hudley, 2005). Studies have

shown that there is a higher level of distrust in the education system by African American males,

who are more vulnerable to the pernicious machinations of racial and cultural discrimination,

resulting in even lower academic expectations and achievements that African American females

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

precursor for school-to-prison pipeline (Alexander M. , 2010).

Often, the mistrust that is harbored toward the public education system by African American

students can be accompanied by attitudes of cultural opposition that directly contribute to

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

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

development of a strong racial identity through proper racial socialization and the development

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of academic self-esteem for African American students for the purpose of enhancing their

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


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

an oppositional cultural attitude — antipathy toward the educational process — may be

implicated in certain aspects of African American youth culture that embraces counter-cultural

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

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

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

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

higher likelihood of a need for special education programming (Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson,

& Bridget, 2003). While Adams and Collins (Adams & Collins, 2010) implementing a program

that would challenge African American males’ patterns of antipathy toward accepted styles of

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

negative peer pressure toward academic success, creating an environment that is similar to the

positive response by peers for athletic accomplishments.

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

possibility that better cooperation of African American students with teachers and one another

can create a more productive and homogenous learning environment. Empirical data exists that

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

(Cochran, Feng, Cartledge, & Hamilton, 1993).

Parental and Community Involvement

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

the public education system. Throughout its entirety, the public education system has been

marred with malignancies that negatively impact the African American population, including

systematic exclusion from educational opportunities through quality instruction — with the

postulation of racial inferiority being the primary impetus. It has been documented that a

significant portion of the cultural mistrust of African American students as it pertains to the

public education system is a direct reflection of a similar or identical level of mistrust of the

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

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

line of defense against mis-education and the disproportionality in special education referrals and

assignments (Harrison, Arnold, & Henderson, 1995).

It has been discovered that much of the disengagement by African American parents is the result

of their perception of the respect, or the lack thereof, that they receive from the school staff

(Zoints, Zoints, Harrison, & Bellinger, 2003). To encourage African American parents to

participate at a higher level, it will require school professionals, including teachers and

administrative staff, to abjure their negative stereotypes of African American families in lieu of

perceiving their cultural strengths and diversity as cultural capital that will be able to add to the

learning experience for all students.

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The Need for Systemic Remediation

The mis-education of African American youth does not take place in a vacuum; it occurs within

the context of social ideologies, institutional processes and economic realities that serve to

promote the biases and discriminatory practices that lead to the disproportionality of African

American representation in the special education.

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

inferiority. One area in which the belief in the inferiority of African Americans has been

constantly reinforced has been in the manner in which this group is represented throughout mass

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

launching a mass media campaign that is designed to challenge the belief in white superiority

and black inferiority. Additionally, there must also be program implemented that focus on

ensuring that education professionals are properly trained to understand and respect cultural

difference. Finally, the economic health of the African American community must improve

(Robinson, 2003).

New Policy and Legislation

Under the 1997 IDEA, the federal government acknowledges that changes were necessary to

effectively address the needs of a population that was rapidly advancing in the area of cultural

variance, ensuring that culturally diverse students would have equal access to a quality

education. In 2004, congress reviewed and reauthorized IDEA, with the monitoring of

disproportionality in special education caring great gravity as far as priorities are concerned.

African-Centered Think Tanks

One area in which African Americans have suffered historically is in the lack of organized and

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

are focused on addressed enigmatic issues associated with African Americans, there are very

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

different fronts, and public education and the disproportionality in special education has been no


The need to develop new policies regarding how referrals are submitted, new culture-specific

standards, special education placement, testing are all standards that should be developed based

on the recommendation of an interdisciplinary, African-centered Education Reform & Review

Think Tank. This consortium would be responsible for functioning as educational consultant to

the U.S. Department of Education, for the purpose of representing the interests of African

American students


While it is obvious that the special education system in U.S. public schools is in need of a

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

system can be properly calibrated to acknowledge the gifts of culturally diverse students, instead

of seeing these gifts as faults, disabilities and deficiencies, it is possible that the special education

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

behavioral problems. However, it is the students that are misdiagnosed and inappropriately

placed in special education programs that suffer and fail to benefit from these placements. If

special education programming is to be a successful alternative teaching mechanism for students

with certain challenges, the level of expectation for the students assigned to the program as to be

raised. The idea for special education should not be to find a place to house and hide students

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

seeks to produce productive graduates.

The federal government must place significant pressure on state education boards and local

districts to aggressively address the racially motivated systems that promote racial bias and

disproportionality in special education. Historically, racism, by its very design, has

systematically denied people of African descent equality in the areas of socioeconomic status,

sociopolitical mobility and economic opportunity. Despite laws that are designed to protect

against racial discrimination, the construction of institutional policies that are highly

sophisticated are designed to circumvent extant legislation, perpetuating the pernicious cycle of


History has proven that the selective enforcement of laws meant to protect minorities is essential

to the perpetuation of white domination. For instance, Africans continued to be captured and

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

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

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

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

education. Amos Wilson (1992) warned against attempted to address a specific problem without

critically examining the economic and political context the frames the problem. We cannot

assume that simply illuminating the problem of disproportionality will result in the necessary

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

cultural biases remain unchallenged. Wilson suggested that the primary function of education is

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

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

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

deficiencies within the public education system. We must become proactive in our engagement

of these enigmatic issues. We must engage the multitudinous mechanisms and machinations that

facilitate the inequities within the public education system, and we must engage it with a passion

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

but thrive.

The type of advocacy that we recommend and promote must take into consideration the

economic and political mechanisms of education, in addition to the immutable underlying

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

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

centered, rarely recognizing the nefarious existence and influence of covert manifestations of

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neo-colonialism — subsequently failing to systematically and consistently dismantle the existing

power relations that maintain the disproportionality in the special education system.

Finally, this new type of advocacy must be undertaken with the vigor and heart of

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

compliance; however, it is this very compliance that has allowed white supremacy racism to

sustain its negative impact on the educational system that has proven to be diametrically opposed

to the progress of African American students. The consistent course of action in the past has

been to seek relief from the very ones who are responsible for the destructive force of

disproportionality. It is exceptionally fatuous to entrust the oppressor with the responsibility of

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


The answer to the current conundrum of disproportionality in special education as it relates to

African American youth will not be discovered through seeking relief from the federal

government, school districts nor any other groups or individuals outside of ourselves. Autonomy

is our only solution. The answers will only come from within once we realistically and

holistically engage the realities of our socio-political and socioeconomic history —

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

continent of Africa, and fully acknowledging that holistic education is inextricably connected to

the internecine and agonists struggle for liberation, elevation and power for our race.

Researched & Prepared by

Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.

Other Resources by Dr. Rick Wallace include:

The Mis-education of Black Youth in America

The Invisible Father: Reversing the Curse of a Fatherless Generation

When Your House is Not a Home

Renewing Your Mind

Visit The Odyssey Project Site Here

The Blueprint 1.0

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