Dr. 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.