African-Americans in Special Education

The studies found that grossly disproportionate numbers of minority students are identified as eligible for services, and too often placed in isolated and restrictive educational settings. When compared with their white counterparts, African-American children were almost three times more likely to be labeled "mentally retarded," according to a paper by Thomas B. Parrish, managing research scientist at the American Institutes of Research."

New statistics compiled on each state show both over and under-representation of minorities in the categories for "mental retardation," "specific learning disabilities," and "emotional disturbance." African-American students in Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Nebraska are more than four times as likely to be identified as mentally retarded than white students living in those states. In Florida, Alabama, Delaware, New Jersey, and Colorado, the number of African-American students identified as mentally retarded was more than three times that of white students.

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University looked to “identify and solve the problem” of minority children being misplaced in special education. Prompting their research, as shown in the Office for Civil Rights U.S. Department of Education, Elementary and Secondary School Civil Rights Reports, African-American students made up only 17 percent of the total school enrollment; however, 33 percent of these students were classified as mentally retarded. This displays a large disparity between African-American students and students of other races or ethnicities in special education. The total school enrollment of white students was 63 percent, while only 54 percent of these were classified as mentally retarded. The total school enrollment of Hispanics was 15 percent; however, they were underrepresented in special education with only 10 percent of their total classified as mentally retarded. Also, the rate for African-American students identified under emotional disturbance (ED) and specific learning disabilities (SLD) grew significantly. The Civil Rights Project “recognize[s] that concerns about special education are nested in concerns about inequities in education generally”.

The disproportionate number of African Americans in special education derives not only from a problem in special education, but a problem in the entire system. As Wanda Blanchett describes in her article published in 2006 in Educational Researcher: “White privilege and racism contribute to and maintain disproportionality in special education by (a) insufficiently funding schools attended primarily by African American and poor children; (b) employing culturally inappropriate and unresponsive curricula; and (c) inadequately preparing educators to effectively teach African American learners and other students of color”. It is problematic that educators are perpetuating the disproportionate number of African American students in special education when their role is often assumed to be working in the best interests of the students.

School psychologists are also involved in the decision making process as to whether a student should be referred to special education or not. A study published in 2005 showed that school psychologists believed cross-cultural competence was one of the greatest factors in making decisions about students, yet the “self-perceived cross-cultural competence was 36.8 out of a possible 56 points”. This means that school psychologists believed they were only around 66% effective in dealing with the greatest factor for making decisions on behalf of students.