Kathleen King Thorius, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Special Education in Indiana University’s School of Education in Indianapolis. She received her doctorate in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on special education from Arizona State University. Previously, Dr. Thorius was an urban school psychologist, and worked for the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt), which was funded by the US Office of Special Education Programs to address disproportionality in special education. Dr. Thorius is the Principal Investigator for the Great Lakes Equity Center, one of ten federally-funded educational equity assistance centers, and has published and presented nationally and internationally on response to intervention, inclusive education, and higher education access. Her research is concerned with the ways in which multiple levels of educational policy are appropriated in the everyday practice of local educators and mediated by local socio-historical contexts to shape experiences of historically underserved students, particularly those identified with disabilities.
As a school psychologist during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent lots of time carrying out various parts of the process of determining students’ eligibility for special education. I also spent considerable, but not nearly enough, time reflecting on the ways that IDEA eligibility assessments of students of color did or did not contribute to their over- or under-representation in special education: a phenomenon referred to as “disproportionality”. In relation to my professional role, I considered ways in which assessments, including IQ tests, may have unfairly disadvantaged Black and Latino students in the evaluation process, and noted and tried to address weaknesses in the validity of bi-lingual evaluations with students who were learning English as a new language. I thought about how crucial it was to account for the quality of the opportunities to learn of students referred for special education eligibility evaluations, and wondered if I had given this ample consideration in my practice. Yet it wasn’t until my doctoral program in special education that I really began to think about how my whiteness contributed to disproportionality.
A few months ago on this blog, in a discussion on the emergence of “Whiteness Studies”, Zeus Leonardo warned about the need to move beyond a re-centering of whiteness in education analysis, toward facilitating educational leaders’ study of whiteness in critical ways. This suggestion has enormous implications for the study of special education, which has been criticized as a tool for maintaining segregation as well as re-segregating public schools (Ferri & Connor, 2003). While analyses of special education disproportionality have included multiple explanations, to date, Whiteness has not been named explicitly as a tool that functions to stratify special education in disproportionate ways. Yet this is crucial, when for example:
Grounded in this and other critical historical analyses, White educators who excavate and critically analyze their Whiteness attend to the implicitness of Whiteness in special education labeling and placement patterns. For me, this means reflecting on how my whiteness shaped the way I defined and understood learning as a psychological and biological process, rather than a social and cultural one. How did my whiteness contribute to the ways I interpreted (primarily White) educators’ descriptions of the academic and social concerns they had about their students of color?
Will you join me in your own reflections? And more importantly, will you join me in starting these critical conversations and actions toward dismantling the role of whiteness in creating and sustaining disproportionality?
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Deutsch, N. (2009). Inventing America’s Worst Family: Eugenics, Islam and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Equity Alliance at ASU (2011). Data Maps: Least Restrictive Environment in Indiana, 2008. Retrieved from http://gis1.asurite.ad.asu.edu/equityallianceflex/eqalliancev8.html.
Ferri, B., & Connor, D. (2003). Tools of exclusion: Race, disability, and (re)segregated education. Teachers College Record, 107, 453-474.
Stern, A. (2005). Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press.