Fergus picDr. Edward Fergus is Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. A former high school teacher, he has and continues to provide technical assistance and analysis on education policy and research to school districts. He has published various articles on disproportionality in special education, race/ethnicity in schools, and author of Skin Color and Identity Formation: Perceptions of Opportunity and Academic Orientation among Mexican and Puerto Rican Youth (Routledge Press, 2004).  He is currently the Co-Principal Investigator of a study of single-sex schools for boys of color (funded by the Gates Foundation), the New York State Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality, and various other research and programmatic endeavors focused on disproportionality and educational opportunity.

The disproportionate representation of Black and Latino students in special education is not new. Disproportionality in special education since 1968, is a critical federal concern. In 2004, the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education was founded with funding support from New York State Education Department – VESID the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality – www.steinhardt.nyu.edu/metrocenter/tacd).

What are common causes of disproportionality?

The examination of data for the last 6 years across 30 districts has resulted in identification of common root causes of disproportionality. The following are the most common root causes and remedies school districts implement as a result of this root cause examination:

1. Minimally articulated core curriculum and consistent support of teaching ability.  Due to various factors, many school districts did not have in place a current curriculum or instructional approach that considers the range of learners. As a result, students that persistently could not attain proficiency on the state exam were promptly considered for special education services.

  • Remedy: Identification and sustained implementation of appropriate reading and math core program that is sequenced K-12. Additionally, sequenced and sustained support for non-tenured and tenured teaching staff to build ability to effectively implement curriculum.

2. Too many interventions for struggling learners. In our examination of curriculum and the related interventions, we found that many school districts maintained an exhaustive list of interventions for students demonstrating academic difficulty.  The overabundance of interventions for struggling learners meant the core curriculum and the related instructional capacity of staff was not organized to address the needs of a range of learners.

  • Remedy: Identification and implementation of targeted intervention programs for students demonstrating academic difficulty while core curriculum program is re-developed.

3. Special education is viewed as fixing struggling students. In most school districts, the general and special education staff rarely interact with each other. General education teachers recommend students to building leadership for evaluation based on the belief that special education maintains the “magic fairy dust” that will “fix” the learning capacity and outcomes of students.

  • Remedy: General and special education participate in professional development regarding curriculum, assessment and instructional strategies together, including special education regulations.

4. Intervention services for struggling learners are not well structured. In New York State and New Jersey academic intervention services are legislated to exist for struggling learners, particularly in Title 1 school districts. However, our root cause process revealed the implementation of these programs was inconsistent and became the gateways for special education referrals. For example, students referred and classified tended to have below basic proficiency. Meanwhile academic intervention staff did not receive training on moving below basic proficiency only those students that would assist a school in reaching Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

  • Remedy: Re-development of a tiered system of academic supports for struggling learners. Identification of research-based interventions for targeted groups of students. And targeted professional development for academic intervention staff (i.e., non-tenured and tenured, including content specialists).

5. Poor and racial/ethnic minority students are viewed as not “ready” for school. We commonly heard school district staff struggling with the idea that somehow being poor/low-income and being from a racial/ethnic minority group compromises how “ready” these students are for their school environment. More specifically school and district staff perceived at times the cultural practices of the home environment as making low-income and racial/ethnic minority children unable to learn. For example, in one district, many of the participants rallied around the concept of “urban behavior” as a driving force of why the Black students were in special education. In another district, English Language Learners (ELL) were over-represented in special education with speech/language impairment because in “Latin culture they listen to music loud”; this was hypothesized by an ESL teacher. And yet another district hypothesized the Latino and ELL students are such a distraction in the classroom that they can be better served with other disability groups.

  • Remedy: Continuous professional development on creating culturally responsive school environments.

6. Inconsistent knowledge of the purpose and implementation of curriculum, assessment or instructional strategy. Various school districts were utilizing assessment tools that were developed to screen students at-risk for reading difficulty as measures of diagnosing reading skill deficiency. The inconsistent knowledge surrounding assessments allowed for interventions and strategies not tailored for meeting the specific needs of children. Therefore, instructional support teams and/or child study teams would receive information about a child’s reading difficulty after a year of inadequate interventions.

  • Remedy: Continuous professional development on purpose, application and interpretation of curriculum, assessment and instructional strategies.

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13 Responses to “The Common Causes of Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education by Edward Fergus”

  1. Sandra Gillins on 4/21/10 2:22 PM US/Eastern

    Between the years of 2000-2002, I served as a Linking Agent for EMSTAC (Elementary &Middle School Technical Assistance enter). Through our joint efforts, we conducted a study regarding disproportionate representation in our district. Once we presented the findings to officials, they did not allow us to publish them for fear of retribution.

  2. Steven Rosenberg on 4/21/10 2:24 PM US/Eastern

    Something to consider is the under enrollment of children in early intervention. There have been several studies that have documented lower rates of participation in early intervention by African American children who are likely to be eligible for Part C services.

  3. joe sosa on 4/21/10 2:25 PM US/Eastern

    The elephant in the corner is not tooooo
    obvious….disproportionality is another form of social stratification!!

  4. Robert Hull on 4/22/10 8:32 AM US/Eastern

    Great work Dr. Fergus.

    I have been working on the misidentification and inappropriate direction of interventions for students with trauma histories. I think these students are often placed in long term special education placements when often their symptoms resolve when their lives stabilize.
    Have you experienced this?

  5. Paula Burdette on 4/22/10 9:26 AM US/Eastern

    Thanks for such a practical blog Dr. Fergus. I agree that ongoing professional development (and preservice preparation) would solve a lot of these problems mentioned. Attitudes need to be addressed during preservice and continually during inservice. Teachers and other practitioners get ‘beat down’ by the mundane aspects of working in education (e.g., scheduling issues, lack of a collaborative environment, etc.) and quickly begin to lose their attitude that all students can learn. These leadership-related issues can cause practitioners to simply go for the lowest common denominator and ‘blame’ students rather than see the underlying problems of perhaps one small team within a school, the entire school culture, or the district leadership issues. Keep kids first!!!
    On NPR this morning, they highlighted a USED funded project in Boston about training teachers in a clinical setting. I think it will work – since there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that training teachers with real students helps weed out the ones who aren’t committed and prepares those who are to be better teachers. Good luck to those industrious researchers and teacher candidates.

  6. Jon Eyler on 4/22/10 4:49 PM US/Eastern

    It seems that we (educators) have a general tendency to focus primarily on minority populations when discussing issues of equity and disproportionality in education. In the field of special education we have, historically, focused on assessment or “gate-keeping” practices to uncover possible causes of disproportionality. Why is it that our primary focus is on minority populations? Why don’t we shift our focus to include the practices and/or elements of the mainstream cultural that marginalize particular subsets of students?

    I view the underlying causes of disproportionality through the lens of social capital and privilege. I would like to see more research regarding your proposed root cause #5 (minority students are viewed as not ready for school). In additional to creating more culturally responsive school environments, I believe we need to establish systems that (1) identify underserved populations via local data and (2) change practices, within the institution, that marginalize the identified populations. With this approach the focus is on changing the system of privilege, not solely on the deficiencies of the identified population(s).

    With this approach it is implied that a system would need to focus on the underserved population(s) to (a) determine deficits in social capital (institutional discourses (i.e. learning to “do school”), connections to school staff, access to extracurricular activities, problem solving and advocacy skills, etc.), and (b) change the system to include intentional efforts for building social capital (i.e. similar to the AVID program, but targeted to specific needs of the underserved populations). Whether intentional or not, we expect our students to conform to the mainstream norms of schooling in the United States. Unfortunately, when they don’t conform we typically refer to special education or push them out of system (i.e. suspension, expulsion, dropout).

    1.Identify and minimize institutionalized systems of privilege that marginalize specific populations
    2.Maximizing intentional efforts to build social capital for specified populations

    To conclude, I want to suggest two foundational questions regarding equity in education
    (1)Who is responsible for teaching our students to crack the code?
    (2)Who is responsible for teaching our students to code switch between cultural norms?

    If even part of the responsibility lies within the public education system, we need to focus on establishing systems that increase social capital.

    This is an uncomfortable topic to address as those charged with exploring issues of inequity and disproportionality are the individuals most likely in positions of privilege. To change these systems of privilege would create a imminent threat to the very mechanisms that put them into the privileged position they enjoy today.

  7. Edward Fergus on 5/27/10 11:22 AM US/Eastern

    Your comments are wonderful and further highlight the complexity of this issue. The first comment as to the fear of retribution is an ever present reality in many school districts – identifying the problem is only one step, the more substantive step is the action taken to remedy the cause; not every district leader is able to do that, unfortunately. The second comment regarding the under enrollment of students in early intervention is a significant issue that undermines opportunities to learn for all children, especially struggling learners. This issue is closely tied to the availability of intervention resources and knowledge capacity of what is an intervention. And finally the issue of children who experience varying levels of trauma is significantly pertinent, especially in the ways in which practitioners understand trauma. The Andrus Center on Learning and Innovation, (http://www.andruschildren.org/ACLI.htm) has been working with human service organizations on how to think about serving children that have experienced trauma. One of their working assumptions is that we need to develop trauma-informed practitioners that focus less on asking “what’s wrong with you” instead start asking and considering “what’s happened to you.” Such a shift in paradigm allows us to consider our roles, perspectives and actions as practitioners as potential triggers of further trauma.

    All of these issues are so complex and require for our field to become much more adaptive in understanding that differences do not equate a disability.

  8. Dr. Andrea B. Rodriguez on 2/1/11 7:03 PM US/Eastern

    Things not mentioned are teachers’ expectations about a student’s ability to learn (Ferguson), inadequate training in educational methods, and the inability to use the creative SCIENCE of teaching or instruction to improve student learning. I strongly believe that there can never be too many ways to teach a child IF the instruction professionally presented and and effectively executed by the teacher, and takes into account what the student brings to the table. We CAN do this!

  9. Brenda Stewart on 2/8/11 12:09 AM US/Eastern

    Greetings to all, what has been left out of the conversation is the denial that institutional racism exist. White supremacy in the United States educational system is never discussed. Black Boys and children of color have been suffering in these toxic environments for years. Special Education is the political word for legalize segregation.
    I am a parent, and have experienced racial discrimination by white educators.The abuse and maltreatment that Black Boys and children of color experience in the education systems is criminal and should be treated as such. Please contact me on my personal journey with the Indiana public school system.

  10. Brenda Stewart on 2/8/11 9:12 AM US/Eastern

    Greetings to all, what has been left out of the conversation is the denial that institutional racism exist. White Supremacy in the United States educational system is never discussed. Black Boys and children of color have been suffering in these toxic environments for years. Special Education, is the political word for legalize segregation. I am a parent, and have experienced racial discrimination by white educators. The abuse and maltreatment that Black boys and children of color experience in the education systems is criminal and should be treated as such. Please contact me on my personal journey with the the Indiana public school system.

  11. Belinda Lopez on 3/13/11 10:50 AM US/Eastern

    An equally important consideration in this equation has to do with the quality of pre-service teacher training and professional development for existing teachers around issues of culture, race, privilege, and difference. As a dual certified teacher (special ed and general ed elementary), I’ve only had a “diversity” workshop once at my school, and the brief segment I had when I was attending the university was insufficient.

    The “diversity” workshop was supposed to help me understand the ways different groups of students communicate. I’ve read a lot of things about diversity, but not in this workshop. Instead, this workshop was weak in substance, not informative, and pushed stereotypical beliefs about diverse learners.

    We will continue to have problems with disproportionality until we “get real” about diversity.

  12. Michael H. on 9/23/11 9:45 PM US/Eastern

    This was a great blog with many real situations that I experience at my workplace. The one point that I feel that I deal with a lot on my high school campus is your point #2, which is the implementation of too many interventions for struggling learners. So many students with disabilities are receiving an overabundance of intervention instruction, while the core curriculum is lost.

    If the remedy listed in your blog was implemented on our campus, I would assume that our students and staff would be less frustrated and more benefited.

    Great Blog!

  13. Rosey Hernandez on 9/26/11 1:17 AM US/Eastern

    Hello Dr. Edward Fergus,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. I agree with the points you mentioned. In the second point you mentioned that often times their were too many interventions occurring for students who were experiencing academic difficulty. I would also like to add that sometimes the interventions are not addressing the area the students are having difficulty with. For example, a student might need help in phonemic awareness and the intervention is geared towards only letters and sounds. I have also heard of individuals using interventions that are not researched based. In your third point you mentioned that special education is seen as a place where students who are struggling get fix. I remember when a colleague and I started the school year one time our administrator mentioned that she felt like buying us a fairy wand. A fairy wand for what I wondered and then I got her joke several years later. I do feel that my school is moving away from this type of believe. In your fourth and sixth point you mentioned intervention services and their structure or lack of. At my school we are currently conducting universal screening. After we finished with the screening we will sit down as a team to discuss how to best address the students needs and look into what type of research base intervention the child will receive. It reminded me of the Response to Intervention model that we are working in at my school. We develop our own three-tiered system that describes how students who may be struggling move from one tier to another and the type of research-based interventions we may use to address the students academic needs. The fifth point you mentioned that some school district may view students as not “ready.” I also read the same article you cited. I was taken aback at those educators’ responses. I agree with your recommendation. I was happy that my school is implementing some of the recommendations you suggested. This just serves as a reassurance that we are stepping towards the right direction.

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