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Improving Results for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students
Research Connections
Fall 2000

Improving Results for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

More minority children continue to be served in special education than would be expected from the percentage of minority students in the general school population.
IDEA Amendments of 1997, P.L. 105-17



Children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds comprise a large percentage of public school students, particularly in large-city school districts where the percentage of minority students may be as high as 80 percent. In response to the nation's shifting demographics, the U.S. Congress stated in the 1997 Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that the Federal Government must be responsive to the growing educational needs of an increasingly more diverse society. Congress has called for greater efforts to ensure that minority children are classified accurately and appropriately placed. According to the 19th Annual Report to Congress, problems associated with inappropriate classification and placement include:

  • Being denied access to the general education curriculum.

  • Being placed in separate programs with more limited curriculum that may impact the student's access to post secondary education and employment opportunities.

  • Being stigmatized with a misclassification that may negatively impact the student's self-perception, as well as the perceptions of others.

Reducing disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education is not a new concern. Researchers and practitioners have long debated the issue with varying results.

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is committed to supporting research that addresses disproportionate representation. OSEP funds research and technical assistance activities that provide insight into the issues and strategies related to this complex issue. This Research Connections takes a look at how selected researchers are investigating ways to prevent and reduce disproportionality of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education.

Ongoing Research: Identifying the Issues Related to Overrepresentation

Over the years, both OSEP and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) have funded research investigating this issue. Researchers have moved from looking at the data to determine if a problem exists, to investigating what can be done to reduce or eliminate it. Two examples follow.

Looking to the Past for Insights Into the Present

With OSEP funding, the National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is undertaking a two-year study of the representation of minority children in special education and gifted and talented programs. The committee carrying out the Congressionally mandated study is composed of researchers in education, developmental psychology, neuro-pediatrics, sociology, law, education policy, and special education. The study, which the Academy expects to release in March 2001, follows an earlier l982 report on a similar topic.

The present report will look at how minority representation has changed since l982. Among the factors to be considered are early biological, environmental, social, and economic factors that influence health and development, as well as the availability and quality of early intervention and preschool programs, and the school experience itself.

Throughout its deliberations, the committee plans to address the following the following questions:

  • When, under what conditions, and for whom is special education a benefit or a risk factor?

  • Can the number of children who require special education services be reduced by improving the quality of general education, improving the capacity of the schools to prevent and address behavioral problems early on, and by early intervention efforts for children at risk for disability?

Understanding Complexity

Overrepresentation of minorities in special education is clearly a complex issue. Over the years, researchers have considered many entry points for investigations.

With OSEP support, Beth Harry and Janette Klingner are investigating exemplary special education referral and decision making processes for culturally and linguistically diverse students. "Through our research we are seeking to understand and explain how the processes used to identify, assess, and place students in high incidence special education programs may contribute to the overidentification and overrepresentation of ethnic minority students in such programs," Harry explains. "However, our emphasis also is on identifying processes that successfully prevent overrepresentation while providing beneficial educational results for students."

The research— Klingner describes as looking beyond the surface information of numbers and rates— being conducted as a three-phrase process. "We are moving from a description of countywide placement rates and referral/placement policy, to an examination of the implementation of the referral/placement policies in individual schools, and then to individual case studies of students," Klingner states. The subject group for the study includes children in grades K-3.

Although they are in the early stages of their work, they are finding that professionals generally attribute overrepresentation to one of the following sources:

  • Family and community issues.

  • External pressures in schools (e.g., high stakes assessments, mandated curriculum).

  • Classroom instruction and classroom management.

  • Intrinsic characteristics of children themselves.

  • Teacher perceptions and attitudes.

"We are currently analyzing observations for evidence— examples and counter examples— professionals' explanations," Harry points out. "This will help us develop a theory that takes account of the perspectives of practitioners (insiders) as well as our own observations as researchers (outsiders). "

Next:  Promising Strategies that Support Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with Disabilities

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