African-American Children in Special Education Programs
The large amount of minority children, specifically African-American children, who have ended up in special education programs for students who have learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities, emotional disabilities, or mental disabilities, has remained a very strong reality even though it has been recognized for more than 20 years (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). After looking at many of these patterns and how often they recur, it is important to look at the assumptions, beliefs, worldviews, and epistemologies that are often used by many who work in special education in order to determine what is causing the disproportionate amount of these individuals in special education programs throughout the country (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996).
This problem, being extremely persistent, is affecting large groups of African-American individuals and their families in a negative way (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). It also affects society in general and the field of special education and research (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). There are sociopolitical and historical roots that are attached to this representation issue and many of these predate the actual field of special education (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Some of these origins go back as far as 1619 (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Many of these are traced to the arrival of African individuals in this country and the unequal treatment that most of them have had to deal with since that time (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996).
Currently, much of the reality of overrepresentation in these types of special education programs where African-Americans are concerned comes from opinions and beliefs that were held many years ago and are still held quietly by many individuals in this country today (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Because of the amount of African-American individuals that were placed in special education classes, the life chances and abilities of many of these individuals are jeopardized (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). In other words, they are made to feel stupid and as though they are incapable of accomplishing very much because they are placed in classrooms that are assumed to be for students who are indeed incapable of accomplishing a great deal (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Large numbers of African-American children and youth are being diagnosed as mentally disabled or challenged in some way and are therefore placed in these special education programs (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996).
Many of these students are placed there inappropriately and this constitutes a very large problem for them and their families (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). The consequences of this misdiagnosis are often hard to determine because there are other factors working against African-Americans in this country today (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Much of this has to do with the fact that a great number of African-American individuals today do not receive good education or any type of life enhancing skills in these special education programs and they often should not have been placed in these programs in the first place (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996).
There is also a certain amount of stigma attached to the label of being in special education programs and when this label is attached to African-American youth today there are negative effects not only on the individual who bears this label that also on those who interact with this person and their families as well (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Many of these students who reside in special education programs often miss out on many of the social and general education opportunities that are seen as being essential for a good education and a higher quality of life in the future (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Because they have such limited exposure to much of the academic curriculum that is seen as the core of teaching for other individuals they continue to have much lower levels of academic achievement (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996).
These lower levels of achievement then lean toward a much more limited opportunity for employment and a strong likelihood that these individuals will not continue on to receive a college education (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). There are larger issues here as well, such as violations of civil rights acts and racial discrimination (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). This comes from the misidentified African-American youths that are consistently and disproportionately placed into various special education programs around the country (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). A great deal of renewed attention has recently been given to this issue in hopes of determining what has caused it and how it can be stopped (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996; Patton, 1995; Scheurich & Young, 1997). Some of this heightened awareness can be noticed in many recent reports that have gone to Congress and various initiatives that have been funded by the U.S. office of education (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996).
The first one of these initiatives was a study that was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences of the national research council (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993). This study was strongly critical of various intelligence testing that was utilized in determining whether someone belonged in a special education classroom (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993). In addition to criticizing these tests alternatives to these were also explored (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993). The lack of benefits that were received from utilizing these tests and the lack of ability to accurately determine whether someone belonged in a special education program was at the heart of this discussion (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993). There was also a second initiative proposed and this involved funding the national association of state directors of special education so that it can examine many of the policy issues that surround the problem of the disproportionate number of African-American students been placed in special education programs (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993).
This funding would also allow for individuals to come up with solutions that were considered practical in the hopes of solving the problem (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993). Even though this area has come under scrutiny recently and more interest has been shown, renewing this interest without utilizing different voices and a different analysis will not work to resolve or correct the problem in any kind of timely manner (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993). It is, therefore, the purpose of this paper to look behind what is going on with special education and look at the factors that are causing this strong overrepresentation of African-American youths in many of the special education classes across this country today. There are many important insights that can come from looking at not only the assumptions and beliefs of many individuals but also their worldviews, their ways of knowing and understanding things, and the cultural inclinations that many of these special education scriptwriters appear to have (MacMillan & Hendrick, 1993).
There are many persistent patterns that are involved in this overrepresentation of African-American youth when it comes to placing them in emotionally disturbed or mildly disabled programs (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996). This pattern is the one that is looked at most strongly because it provides much information about the factors that are utilized what it comes to determining why so many of these individuals are placed in special education programs (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996). As has been mentioned, this issue of overrepresentation has been noted for more than 20 years and even though it has been pointed out there continues to be a disproportionate number of African-American youth placed in special education classrooms (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996).
There are many factors and one of the most strongly noted throughout the literature is a general failure of the education system (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996). There are also inequities noted within the special education process of referral, assessment, and placement (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996). However, there are other problems that have often not been discussed in literature and continue to persist even after many of these various causes have been pointed out (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996; Skrtic, 1991; Hilliard, 1992; Gordon, Miller, & Rollock, 1990). For example, it has been known for quite some time that even though this issue has been brought to light and many concerns have been pointed out, the percentage of African-American students that are being identified as mentally disabled has not changed a great deal (Morrison, White, & Fever, 1996).
In 1975 the percentage of mentally disabled African-American students was 38% (Starratt, 1991). However, these students only made up of 15% of the population of the schools (Starratt, 1991). In 1991, the African-American community made up 16% of the school population but still they made up 35% of the population in special education classrooms (Starratt, 1994). This is a strong indicator that little has been done to correct this problem despite it being pointed out (Starratt, 1996). There is also strong documentation indicating that African-American individuals, especially males, are strongly overrepresented not only…
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