Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Thus, the relation between students is imperative for determining such disorders (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2007). As with the previous two categories, this is seen as incredibly subjective in the idea that no medical diagnosis or visible physical symptoms are needed to be placed within the category.


Stratification is essentially the ranking of individuals within a hierarchy based on the structures present in a functioning society. Sullivan and Artiles (2011) define stratification as "the patterned and differential distribution of resources, life chances, and costs / benefits among groups of the population" (p 1529). One's rank on this hierarchy determines one's quality of life and opportunities in relation to the structures and the groups these structures serve.

Literature Review

Overrepresentation and Segregation of Racial Minorities in Special Education.

According to the research, there are much higher rates of overrepresentation of minorities in what is known as high-incidence categories, such as learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, and mental retardation (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011).

Sullivan and Artiles (2011) state that "these categories are regarded as the most subjective of the educational disabilities due to the reliance on professional judgment in identification as opposed to physical markers or medical diagnoses" (p 1527).

These more subjective categories become major sources of disporportionality because they rely so heavily on comparison to others in determining the presence of abnormalities (Anyon, 2009). As such, these categories are the most dominate in terms of how they "serve particular interests of individuals, institutions, and society" (Anyon, 2009, p 46). Essentially, these more mild categories of learning disabilities and conditions have invoked a strong negative response from researchers as tools for the further subjugation of racial groups here in a contemporary American society. This leads Blanchett (2010) to posit that "the American educational system has used mild disability special education categories to sort students on the basis of perceived disability, race, culture, language, and social class."

The general consensus in the discourse today is that minorities are much more represented in special education programs than their white counterparts. Various studies have focused on which particular minority group tends to be overrepresented in more specific areas. For example, African-American students are most often overrepresented in mental retardation and emotional disorders, where as Native American students have more issues with learning disabilities, and Latino and Asian students are often found to actually be underrepresented in these high-risk categories (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011). Not only do Native Americans face issues of being a minority group, they suffer from some of the worst cultural discrimination and misunderstandings, which makes life for students in special education programs even more difficult with fewer resources in small districts (O'Connell, 1987). Still, African-American students tend to have the worst overrepresentation in these subjective categories. Oswald et al. (1999) show that nationally, African-American students made up 16% of the student population in 1990, but over 21% of the student population in special education programs. This is clearly a disproportionate number when compared to general population of school districts across the country. Additional research conducted by Patton (1999) shows that African-American males are the worst minority group hit and make up the largest majority of minority students enrolled in special education programs. Research conducted by Ladner and Hammons (2006) shows that "in Virginia. African-Americans represent 20% of the state's population but 28% of its special education students, including 51% of those labeled educable mentally retarded" (p 86). There definitely needs to be better cultural considerations for students within the African-American minority group (Hollins & Spencer, 1990). Additionally, several studies have related a growing trend in minority poverty rates as being correlated with increasing overrepresentation in special education programs. Here, MacMillan and Reschly (1998) suggest that mental retardation rates in African-American students were seen to raise in correspondence with rising poverty rates for the minority group.

Gaps in Prior Research.

Unfortunately, there are clear gaps in the contemporary discourse that make this phenomenon still very much perplexing to researchers and potentially damaging to students. The research as a whole is generally incomplete, failing to look at more comprehensively at how regional and category patterns transcend into the larger shared problem. Studies examining the issue have previously been very limited, focusing on a specific concept rather than making larger assumptions that may help push towards reform of special education programs on a larger scale (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011).

Moreover, more recent studies show that not all minority groups have been studied in the same extent of detail. African-American students have been the predominate focus of prior research; however, this has left significant gaps in the understanding of how other minorities stand in the situation (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011). Most prior research focuses on understanding risk ratios and how they impact misrepresentation of minorities in special education programs. However, these risk ratios are often limited to individual regions, and fail to compare different regional trends and patterns. As such, Coutinho and Oswald (1999) posit that "in general, research has supported the public concern but the picture is unclear because studies have varied so much with respect to definitions of minority representation in findings across ethnic groups and technical methods" (p 66). Overall, the research shows a clear racial bias in the practices of many special education programs across the nation. Minority students are even forced to endure greater segregation in comparison to similar white students (Anyon, 2009).

Theoretical Framework

The predominate theory that sits at the very foundation of this phenomenon is structural theory. In this theory, social interactions and relations are a product of various structures within society that are correlated to the relationships established among different groups within a society. According to Blau (1977), "people engage in intergroup associations under specifiable structural conditions" which can "be deduced from analytic propositions about structural properties" (p 26). As such, structuralism aims to explain social phenomenon and relationships as they correlate with social structures that stratify our society.

Structural theory can be used as a way to examine the current educational field and how it relates to the structures within society that impact how we all think and act. According to the research, "Race relations are at the heart of educational stratification and disproportionality can be conceptualized as a means of maintaining educational stratification" (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011, p 1529). Structure theory helps add to this concept by formulating educational institutions as another social institution in place to augment the racial segregation and disenfranchisement of minority groups like African-Americans. This theory helps connect the ideas behind increasing poverty rates and enrollment of minorities in special education programs. Anyon (2009) connects the concepts set out in social constructivist theory to the fact that disproportionality serves a function to maintain the racist structural hierarchy of the United States.

As such, structural theory has long tied racialization to the structures within society that aim to continue to place the majority racial group in a position of power. Thus, Sullivan and Artiles (2011) claim that "the racial group in the position of most power benefits from greater social estimation (e.g. being viewed as smarter or better behaved) economic returns (e.g. higher pay), political positions, occupational prospects, and authority in determining social norms and physical boundaries" (p 1530).

Moreover, it is clear that within a very competitive modern environment, racialization is being used as a strategy to keep white racial groups at the highest competitive advantage. Thus, "structural theory also involves the notion of racial competition; that is, there is competition for limited resources, which results in the use of racial ideology to advantage White communities" (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011, p 1530). Structuralism has long posited that competition has fueled the process of stratification that serves to benefit some groups, while disenfranchising others (Burt, 1995). Thus, from this perspective, local LEAs, or local education agencies, are seen to have higher rates of disproportionality than larger state education agencies also known as SEAs (Thorsen et al., 2011). Anyon (2009) agrees that racial competition is a major contributor to the ongoing misrepresentation of minorities in the school environment.

What this implies for the field of special education is that the white majority is purposely allowing minorities to be overrepresented in special education in order to maintain a stigma that white students are innately more capable. Essentially, special education has become a tool for the further stratification and racialization of the United States because it promotes the segregation of students-based predominately on weak conditions of special needs for education (Blanchett, 2010).

White students, on the other hand, enjoy a greater privilege within this particular context. Blanchett (2010) shows how many white students who could be seen as meeting many of the same categories as their minority counterparts are simply labeled as having a learning disability, and are allowed to remain in normal student population, rather than being segregated into special education programs. This provides them with a lesser stigma while continuing to solidify the racialized concept that white groups are more powerful and capable compared to…

Sources Used in Document:


Anyon, Y. (2009). Sociological theories of learning disabilities: Understanding racial disproportionality in special education. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 19(1), 44-57.

Blanchett, Wanda J. (2010). Telling it like it is: The role of race, class & culture in the perpetuation of learning disability as a privileged category for the while middle class. Disability Studies Quarterly, 30(2). Retrieved from http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1233/1280

Blau, Peter M. (1977). A macro social theory of social structure. American Journal of Psychology, 83(1), 26-54.

Burt, Ronald S. (1995). Structural holes: The Social Structure of Competition. Harvard University Press.

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