Special Ed Disproportionate Representation of Minorities in Research Paper

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Special Ed

Disproportionate Representation of Minorities in Special Education

Special Education is intended to function as a powerful resource for giving extra attention, assistance and educational resource to those with severe and irreparable learning deficiencies. However, there is also a danger that situational learning deficits may be perceived as deficiencies, leading to the incorrect classification of young students as special needs. Where improperly classified, the results to one's learning potential and academic advancement may be disastrous. This is why the disproportionately high representation of minorities in American special education contexts is so troubling. As the discussion here will show, this disproportion suggests that there may be some cultural, sociological and global forces that are responsible for an unequal placement of minorities in special education settings.

Current Theories:

One of the most compelling theories in circulation in the literature is that of the 'normal child.' As identified in the research by Ahram et al. (2011), this notion establishes a standard of academic proficiency that has clear roots on culturally driven perceptions of normalcy. According to the research by Ahram et al., the Normal Child Theory provides the explanation that minority students such as Latino and African-Americans are more systemically classified as special education candidates because they conflict with the conception of the 'normal child.' The is a theory of great importance as we attempt to better understand the reason for an unequal distribution of mintorities in special education settings. According to Ahram et al., "the overrepresentation of Black and Latino students in special education suggests a convergence of two distinct processes: (1) assumptions of cultural deficit that result in unclear or misguided conceptualizations of disability and (2) the subsequent labeling of students in special education through a pseudoscientific placement process." (Ahram et al., p. 1)

This suggests that ideas about the cultural predisposition of these minority groups toward learning deficiencies creates the burdensome self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. This means that, as a consequence of the 'normal child' construct, minority students aren't just disadvantaged in their learning opportunities but are also perceived as being the product of disadvantage. This impression can result in the undue relegation and detention of minority students to special education contexts.

This construct bears an interesting relationship with the construct of Disproportionality, which is explored in the research by Anyon (2009). Here, the research uses the sociological lens to investigate the idea that minority populations are disadvantaged in a host of ways that drive greater tendencies toward learning deficits. The article provides some important conceptual grounding, pointing out that "in 2001, more than half of the students in special education were identified as having a specific learning disability, more than any other disability that qualifies youth for such services. Since 1977, after special education categories such as 'culturally deprived' were eliminated, learning disabilities have constituted the fastest-growing special education population, particularly for students of color." (Anyon, p. 44)

Using the social mode theory to assess the relationship between minority status and disability classification, the article reveals argues that factors such as economic disadvantage, geographical context and degree of cultural isolation must be considered among numerous other factors in order to understand why minority populations struggle in comparison to culturally mainstream populations. This theory interacts with the 'normal child' construct in interesting ways. Particularly, one may suggest that many of the conditions which are found, through this sociological lens, to contribute to minority disadvantage are, through the scope of the 'normal child' theory, used to further justify the special education classification of minorities.

Another study which is particularly compelling is that which introduces a Global Theory into the discussion of minority over-representation in special education. The article by Gabel et al. (2009) proposes that the inequality of minority learning capabilities is not an isolated phenomenon but a global one brought on by the increasing growth of cross-border migration. Gabel et al. indicate that the growth of minority populations in special education contexts the world over is directly connected to immigration patters. What this Global Theory shows is that the classification of special education may have more to do in some cases with a broad socio-academic failure to accommodate the needs of the culturally distinct. Linguistic, philosophical and experiential differences are manifested as learning deficits, a classification which may compound rather than relieve certain limitations on the academic potential of immigrant populations.

The text by Samson & Laseaux (2009) reinforces this theory by focusing on the conflation of linguistic differences and learning disabilities. The article by Murtaugh (2003) suggests that some of this may come from teacher bias as opposed to broader institutional bias. According to the research conducted by Murtaugh, "African-American children were 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teachers as having mental retardation than their white counterparts. The overall proportion of black students in districts sampled was 25.8% in 1980 and 16% in 1990. However, in 1990, 21% of students were receiving special education services thus showing that a disproportionate amount of African-American children were being served in special education (Murtaugh, p. 3)

This provides at least concrete working evidence that the phenomenon under discussion here truly does impact minority groups disproportionately.


Not every research endeavor confirmed the presumption of bias and inequality the placement of minorities in special education settings. Indirectly the research by Hosterman et al. (2008) investigates the idea that observational biases among teachers may produce unequally high negative behavioral assessments of minority students. The hypothesis aimed to test whether these biases may be present in the observational determinations that classify students as ADHD. This offers a useful parallel to the classification of students as needing special education services. The findings, ultimately, contradict the assumptions of research as well as some of the assumptions driving the present research. Indeed, Hosterman et al. conclude that "Contrary to hypothesis, results showed teacher ratings of ethnic minority students were more consistent with direct observation data than were ratings of Caucasian students. Findings suggest teacher ratings of ethnic minority students may more accurately reflect true behavioral levels." (p. 418)

This suggests that extra effort is expended to ensure fairness and objectivity in relationship to minority students, something of a tacit effort to resist or undo the disadvantages that minority groups face otherwise. This provides some ambiguity in our research discussion. Indeed, this makes it more difficult to conclude as to exactly where biases originate in the classification of students. The research suggests that those in a position to observe and classify students may not be driven by the same cultural or racial biases that are seen as existing on a more institutional level.

Another study which suggests some inconsistency is that by Hibel et al. (2010), which used minority-dominated schools to draw its observations. In this context, the researchers actually found that the opposite conditions were true in such schools. According to their findings, "social class background displayed a weak or statistically nonsignificant relation with special education placement. However, girls are placed less frequently than boys. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students are placed less frequently than non-Hispanic whites. The under- or equal-placement rates for racial/ethnic minorities are partially explained by their concentration in high-minority schools." (Hibel et al., p. 312)

This indicates that within minority-dominated contexts, it becomes more difficult to observe any biases or inequalities in the way that special education needs are determined. This appears to suggest that absent the hierarchical dimensions of a white-dominated educational context, such biases began to dissipate. While this does not correspond with the driving premise of the research, it does suggest that in non-minority dominated schools, minorities may fare worse in terms of special education classification than they would in non-minority dominated contexts.


Ultimately, the fact of minority inequality cannot be much in dispute. Instead, those studies which provide counterpoint to the driving theoretical explanation…[continue]

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