What is Disproportionality in Special Education?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines disproportionality as “the over-representation of a racial or ethnic group in a special education program, compared to the group’s representation in the general population.”
In other words, disproportionality occurs when students from certain racial or ethnic groups are more likely to be placed in special education than their peers. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including implicit bias
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There are a number of terms used to describe the overrepresentation of certain groups of students in special education. The term “disproportionality” is most often used to refer to the overrepresentation of ethnic and racial minority students in special education. However, the term can also refer to the overrepresentation of students with certain types of disabilities, such as emotional disturbance or specific learning disabilities.
The term “overrepresentation” is used to describe the situation where the percentage of students in a particular group who are receiving special education services is greater than the percentage of students in the general population who are members of that group. For example, if 20% of the students in a school district are African American, but 30% of the students receiving special education services are African American, then African American students are said to be overrepresented in special education in that district.
What is Disproportionality?
The term “disproportionality” in special education refers to the over-representation or under-representation of certain groups of students in special education programs.
Definition of Terms
Before we define disproportionality, it is important to first understand some key terms often used when discussing this issue.
Racial/Ethnic Group: A category of people who identify with each other based on common ancestral, cultural, social, and/or national experiences.
Minority Group: A smaller racial or ethnic group within a larger community; may be based on race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.
Majority Group: The larger of two groups within a community; may be based on race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.
Culture: The accumulation of a group’s way of life including its knowledge, belief, customs, skills, art, literature, music and tools. Culture is also transmitted across generations through learning. It is not static; it constantly changes and evolves as groups interact with their environment and with each other.
Types of Disproportionality
There are three types of disproportionality that can be observed in special education: racial, ethnic, and linguistic. Racial disproportionality occurs when the percentage of students of color in special education is higher than the percentage of students of color in the general population. Ethnic disproportionality occurs when the percentage of students from a specific ethnic group in special education is higher than the percentage of students from that ethnic group in the general population. Linguistic disproportionality occurs when the percentage of English language learner (ELL) students in special education is higher than the percentage of ELL students in the general population.
Causes of Disproportionality
Disproportionality in special education is defined as the over- or under-representation of certain groups of students in specific disability categories. It is typically calculated by comparing the percentage of students in a particular group who have been identified as having a disability to the percentage of students in the general population who have been identified as having a disability. There are a number of factors that can contribute to disproportionality in special education.
There are many potential individual factors that may contribute to disproportionality in special education. These include:
-Cultural or linguistic factors. Students who are not proficient in the English language or who come from a culture that is not well represented in the school system may be less likely to be identified as needing special education services.
– Gender. Boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and other disorders that lead to special education placement. Boys are also more likely to be diagnosed with intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities.
-Race/ethnicity. Some studies have shown that minority students are more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability than White students. Minority students are also more likely to be placed in more restrictive environments, such as residential treatment centers or hospitals.
There are numerous systemic factors that have been identified as possible causes for the overrepresentation of minorities in special education. These include:
-Poverty: Families living in poverty are more likely to have children with health problems, which can lead to developmental delays or other conditions that may qualify a child for special education services. In addition, poverty can lead to lower-quality schools and inadequate resources, which can compound the challenges faced by students with disabilities.
-Cultural factors: Some experts believe that cultural factors, such as differences in communication styles or value systems, may contribute to the overrepresentation of minorities in special education. For example, some cultures place a higher value on independent functioning, while others may emphasize the importance of interdependence. These differences may lead to misunderstandings between parents and educators, which can result in misidentification of a child’s needs.
-Linguistic barriers: Many minority students come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. This can lead to difficulties in school, as these students may not be able to understand instructions or complete assignments. In addition, linguistic barriers can make it difficult for parents to participate in their child’s education and advocate for their needs.
-Limited access to resources: Minority families are more likely to live in communities with limited resources, such as high-quality early childhood programs or health care providers who specialize in developmental disabilities. This lack of access can compound the challenges faced by these families and make it more difficult for their children to receive the services they need.
Consequences of Disproportionality
Disproportionality in Special Education is a serious issue with long lasting consequences. Some of these consequences include lower academic achievement, greater likelihood of dropping out of school, and increased incidence of juvenile delinquency. Disproportionality also has a negative impact on self-esteem and mental health.
When schools do not appropriately support students with disabilities, many struggles can arise for the individual. Academic achievement is the most common struggle for students with disabilities in school. Being held back a grade, taking longer to graduate, or receiving lower grades are all academic consequences that can occur when school systems do not have the right supports in place. In addition to academics, social skills development can also be hindered when schools lack adequate supports. Friendship groups can become exclusive and foster a sense of isolation and loneliness in students with disabilities. without proper guidance and support from educators, the gap between classmates can widen, leaving students feeling lost, misunderstood, and alone. Emotionally, students with disabilities may internalize their struggles and feel like they are not good enough or that they do not belong in school. This can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Students may start to act out in order to get attention or relief from their feelings of isolation, which can result in discipline problems at school. In some extreme cases, students may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their struggles, which can lead to addiction problems later in life. These are just some of the individual consequences that can occur when disproportionality is present in schools.
Systemic disproportionalities refer to persistent, excessive, and unreasonable overrepresentation of specific groups of students in special education programs as compared to their representation in the general school population. Systemic disproportionalities can be the result of numerous factors, including but not limited to institutional racism, bias, prejudice, and discrimination.
The presence of systemic disproportionalities in special education has been well documented in research. A comprehensive review of the research literature on disproportionality in special education found that African American students are two to three times more likely than White students to be identified as having a disability and placed in special education (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004; National Research Council, 2002). Studies have also found that once African American students are identified as having a disability and placed in special education, they are much more likely than their White counterparts to be placed in more restrictive settings (i.e., self-contained classrooms) and receive less individualized instruction (Fuchs et al., 2003; Skiba et al., 2002).
Systemic disproportionalities in special education can have far-reaching consequences for both individuals and society as a whole. For individuals, being overrepresented in special education can lead to negative academic outcomes, such as lower test scores and graduation rates (Fuchs & Deshler, 2007; Skiba et al., 2002). In addition, overrepresentation in special education can result in increased rates of suspension and expulsion from school (Skiba et al., 2006), which can lead to a heightened sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with school (Meehan et al., 2007). These negative experiences can carry over into adulthood, making it more difficult for individuals to obtain gainful employment and leading to increased involvement with the criminal justice system (Forbes & Skinner, 2011; Skiba et al., 2006).
For society as a whole, systemic disproportionalities in special education can lead to significant economic costs. A recent study estimated that the annual cost of educating students with disabilities is approximately $57 billion dollars—or approximately 12 percent of all public spending on K-12 education (Losen & Flores-Gildea, 2010). In addition, the economic costs associated with lost productivity and increased criminal justice system involvement associated with disproportionality are estimated to be even higher—in the billions of dollars each year (Losen & Flores-Gildea, 2010).
Prevention and Intervention Strategies
Disproportionality in special education is the overrepresentation or underrepresentation of certain groups of students in specific educational programs or services. disproportionality can be caused by a number of things, such as systemic bias, poverty, racism, and other factors. There are a number of strategies that can be used to prevent or intervene in cases of disproportionality.
Individual-level disproportionality prevention and intervention strategies involve supporting the student with a disability within the general education classroom. These strategies can be delivered by the student’s teacher or other school personnel, and may include:
-Differentiated instruction: adapting content, process, and/or product based on students’ learning needs
-Universal design for learning: designing instructional materials and tasks that are accessible to all students
-Positive behavior interventions and supports: proactively teaching social and emotional skills, using positive reinforcement, and consistently applying consequences for inappropriate behavior
-Response to intervention: using data to monitor student progress and making adjustments to instruction based on student need.
Systemic-level strategies target policies and procedures that may be contributing to the disproportionality of specific groups within the special education system. Systemic-level interventions seek to address the root causes of disproportionality and prevent over-identification and underservice of students from specific groups. Systemic-level interventions include:
– examining special education policies and procedures for possible biases or discriminatory practices
– providing training for educators on identifying and addressing bias in the special education referral and eligibility process
– monitoring special education referral and eligibility patterns for evidence of disproportionate representation of specific groups
– collecting data on the academic achievement and functional performance of students with disabilities, by disability category and subgroup, to identify disparities in educational outcomes
– evaluating the effectiveness of current instruction and interven tion programs for students with disabilities, by disability category and subgroup, to identify disparities in program effectiveness
– implementing culturally responsive instructional practices and classroom management strategies that are appropriate for diverse learning needs
– partnering with families and community members to develop a shared understanding of the special education referral and eligibility process
In conclusion, disproportionality in special education is a complex issue with no easy solutions. There are a variety of factors that can contribute to disproportionate representation of certain groups in special education, and addressing these issues requires a multi-faceted approach. While there is still much work to be done in this area, there has been some progress made in recent years in reducing the disparities between groups. With continued efforts to address the root causes of disproportionality, it is hoped that these disparities will continue to decrease.