Kathleen King ThoriusKathleen 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:

  • In my home state of Indiana, the Eugenics movement led to the sterilization of about 2500 individuals because of their “feeble-mindedness” and “idiocy” between 1907 and 1974 (Stern, 2005), including a group living in Indiana in 1876 composed of Native Americans, families and individuals who were freed or escaped African slaves, and escaped white indentured servants (Carlson, 2011). These “Ishmaels”, named with an Arabic-sounding name by a White Indianapolis minister, was a deliberate move to differentiate them from Whites, and invoke fear of Islam (Deutsch, 2009). Here, and throughout the Eugenics movement, Whiteness was used as a tool to not only stratify, but to sterilize society.
  • Also in Indiana, less than 20% of African American special education students are educated in general education classrooms more than 80% of the day (i.e., Least Restrictive Environment) while over 70% of White students participate in the general education classroom more than 80% of the day.  (Equity Alliance at ASU, 2011). In this example, and in relation to similar trends in other states, restrictive special education placement has been criticized as a tool that disproportionately excludes special education students of color from general education classrooms, curriculum, and instruction, in relation to their white counterparts (Ferri & Connor, 2003).

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?


Carlson, E. A. (2011).  The Hoosier Connection: Compulsory Sterilization as Moral Hygiene. In P.  Lombardo (Ed.),  A Century of Eugenics in  America: From the Indiana Experiment to the  Human Genome Era. (pp. 11-26). Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

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.

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11 Responses to “The Need for an Excavation of Whiteness in Dismantling Disproportionality by Kathleen A. King Thorius”

  1. Althea Pennerman on 12/14/11 7:15 PM US/Eastern

    I agree that it is a necessary conversation that is crucial in initiating any meaningful change in the current system. But it must not be led by a minority figure for obvious reasons.
    Althea Pennerman.

  2. Paula Earley on 12/15/11 8:09 AM US/Eastern

    The analysis of disproportionality can not be done without the examination of the “white” part of the ratio. Would like to learn more.
    Paula Earley

  3. Cynthia on 12/15/11 12:13 PM US/Eastern

    Althea – I would love to hear more about your comment. Can you elaborate?

  4. David Hernandez-Saca on 12/15/11 6:44 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Kathleen,

    Thank you for your thought provoking blog. The criticality in your language speaks truth to power: the hegemonic order within our current educational system that positions whiteness as common sense and benign.

    Your blog reminds me of the importance of history, power and culture in all human activity. Especially in the human activity that we call public education in the United States.

    Your blog pushes our thinking as educators and human beings in the educational system to think critically about the business as usual in our schools that historically benefits some and not others. Those who benefit are usually from white middle class, who often times are also able bodied. Those who do not (since the ideological and material structures of schools have been taken for granted to benefit some and not others) are students and families of color who happen to be from marginalized communities due to the sociopolitical-economic contexts that exist beyond the school walls. Nevertheless, the latter of which also (unfortunately) also enacted in our schools.
    I not only learned the unfortunate statistics that you provide for us to show the fallout of whiteness historically, but your insight that as agents within schools that we must remain vigilant about the institutional roles that we occupy since historically they have a legacy that has, directly and indirectly, caused harm/injustice to those in society that have been socially constructed as ‘powerless.’

    Thank you, david

  5. Barbara Beattie on 12/19/11 4:09 PM US/Eastern

    For 7 years in the 1990’s, I taught in a school for adjudicated youth. I observed that in every incoming group of 40 students in the 15 week program, 9-10 were identified as special education and 7-8 of those identified as special ed. were Blacks and Latinos. Most of them could not read. Without any corroborating data, I just knew there was something wrong with the picture. Because of that experience, I became certified to teach ESL where I can help to positively affect the education of my Latino students. This “whiteness” problem affects more than educational institutions.

  6. Barbara on 12/21/11 9:23 PM US/Eastern

    I am not sure I agree with all this “whiteness”. I have taught in white communities and an African country and in a Native American community. My approach to these children was to not look at my whiteness but at themselves and be proud of who they are. They are special and they should never forget who they are but respect me for who I am. I will do the same for them. I had a Native American third grader tell me that he wished he was white. I told him that he was created for he was and he was special for that reason. If we teach respect for each other then this problem would not exist. There would be equity for every child with no regard to their “color”. I know of situations where the white child was not give attention to his needs because the “others” needed to have what they needed. There are situations when the white child has to take the back seat to make room for the black child because he is black. I think this is so wrong, we should never look at skin but the need.

  7. CeCe on 12/30/11 3:46 PM US/Eastern

    I respect the idea Barbara suggests about teaching students to be proud of who they are. However, I believe it is imperative to look at skin color – particularly when a pattern exists that serves to benefit or harm certain individuals because of the color of their skin. However in so doing, we must also look at patterns or trends that affect students due to their cultural background, race, national origin, gender, or other “difference” in order to do our due diligence in creating equitable opportunities and access.

    I would use caution in taking “whiteness” out of the equation, because unless we understand our own privileges associated with our skin color, we can not come to recognize the inequities others with darker skin color face. This is a prerequisite to dismantling disproportionality.

  8. Kathleen on 1/25/12 4:25 PM US/Eastern

    Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. I am excited to see that a dialogue, with differences in perspectives with the goal of understanding and pursuing critical points of view, is prominent in our conversations. Part of the purpose of such conversations, I believe, is to acknowledge and examine our tensions and discomfort as we grapple with the role of race, and whiteness in creating and maintaining discrepanies in student access, participation, and outcomes in inclusive educational systems.

  9. Stan Weser on 2/15/12 10:41 PM US/Eastern

    Our public school system (and the offshoots – Charter and Private schools) have done a marvelous job of sorting and ranking children. This was and is inherent in the initial design and has been fortified by the current trend of determining a child’s future by a narrow range of abilities measured by high-stakes testing. The level of disenchantment is apparent when you look at our dropout rates and teacher attrition.
    I feel these issues are further exacerbated for students of color by the cultural, social and economic implications of not being a WASP. While I feel some progress has been made (leaps and bounds from the days of eugenics [although there are still those in power who believe this is not such a bad idea]); it is glacial, and I fear we are in a period where we are going backward (the opposite of Progress is Congress?)

  10. Geraldine L. Oberman, Ph.D. on 3/13/12 6:17 PM US/Eastern

    I am a white retired education administrator/program evaluation coordinator/school counselor/classroom teacher. I was educated in an all-white setting through high school. I worked in private, semi-rural, large urban inner city school districts. As I worked, I also pursued several graduate degrees. I studied to prepare myself to provide educational/support services to students, teachers, parents, principals, other administrators. I provide such details to explain that the education profession requires, no demands, that we who labor in it see the child first as a unique individual entitled to the best we can provide, irrespective of characteristics that may set the child apart. I was not raised to understand, respect and value “all children” no matter their race, culture, ethnicity, capabilities, etc. Through long study, years of experience, trial and error, I refined my repertoire of skills to reach the most unreachable child or adult. My whiteness did not prevent me from developing a strong advocacy approach for those less fortunate but instead increased my fervor to serve the needs of society´s overlooked children.

    I realize that today´s education policy-makers and school administrators at the federal, state, and local levels have adopted a business approach to the education enterprise. Our educational systems have lost a great deal with the focus solely on the bottom line via targeting resources, sorting, etc. – look at the statistics cited in dropout rates, teacher and principal attrition rates, disengagement on the part of students, etc. As a society we have sacrificed the art of teaching for the science of number crunching, the qualitative for the quantitative. Perhaps this partially explains the state of affairs of our schools, school districts, state departments of education, teacher/administrator training institutions, federal education policies. We need to find our way back to a more balanced approach to satisfying the needs of public education with the resources available and to accomplish this with heart and sensitivity for our students.

  11. Andrea Rodriguez D. Ed. on 4/13/12 6:30 PM US/Eastern

    In my humble opinion, it is not the individual’s ‘whiteness’ that is at issue here. It is the individual and institutional formation of white privilege. My thirty years as a School Psychologist in the largest urban school district in the nation has shown me that all schools work for some children if there is a belief that students can learn. If we (individuals or institutions) believe consciously or unconsciously that language differences or cultural differences or color, or gender or any combination defines what a child can be expected to achieve, we expect failure is inevitable, and that the perceived learning ‘weakness’ is within the individual and no matter what we do, ‘those children’ will not succeed. Institutions are made of individuals and perhaps all of us have benefited from white privilege from time to time, (even persons of color such as myself), but do we see what it does to those who do not have it?

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