Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education Thesis

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Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education

This research explores the fact that many minority groups are overrepresented in populations of students enrolled in special education programs. Unfortunately, racial categories continue to impact how students are place din special education programs, and minorities including African-Americans are often penalized by the current system of categorization and enrollment. The research examines previous research and how a structural theory can be used to explain the racialization within this social phenomenon.

The Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education

The field of special education is continuing to develop as new efforts bring forth even more detailed and thorough questions regarding the efficiency of the contemporary system here in the United States and elsewhere. What was once a very unorganized and unexamined field is now continuing to shed new light on the nature of disabled learners and how the systems in place are effective in catering to their unique needs. However, this attention to detail within the modern context does not always show clear positive improvements in practice. Unfortunately, much contemporary research now focuses on the inefficiencies of the system, which is often criticized for being biased and even directly ineffective. This is where the concept of overrepresentation of minorities fits into the modern discourse, highlighting the various racial constructs that tend to negatively impact the modern special education strategies seen in today's schools.


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Students with a wide variety of disabilities are often placed within special education programs in order to best facilitate learning in a more tailored

TOPIC: Thesis on Overrepresentation of Minorities in Special Education This Assignment

Often times, urban education system find themselves victims of still-existing racial hierarchies which cater to outdated, but still powerful stereotypes within larger society. Yet, this is occurring in an environment where all students, disabled or not, are supposed to have guaranteed equality in terms of the educational opportunities provided to them in accordance with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and the desegregation legislation that came about in the Civil Rights movement (Thorsen et al., 2011). Despite legislative efforts, categories for labeling students as having special needs continue to isolate minorities.

Nature of the Problem

In many urban schools around the country, there is a clear overrepresentation of minority groups within special education programs in comparison to white students with similar learning, behavioral, or development issues. Beginning in the 1960s, there has been a call to address the issue and understand why it is such a problem within contemporary special education programs. Today, the data shows that the trend is only continuing, despite a growing notion that the United States is reducing its racial hierarchy.

Significance of the Problem

There are a number of problems within this phenomenon, many of which have significantly negative influences on the lives and education of the students affected by these external racial hierarchies. Many of these students are negatively impacted and "fail to receive a quality and life enhancing placement as a result" of the stereotype of needing special education (Patton, 1998, p 25). Moores-Abdool et al. (2008) insist that the overrepresentation of minorities can impact the effectiveness of special education teachers. As there are so many culturally different students present, many educators fail to simply immerse themselves in the culture of these racial groups. This presents a strategy of education that is devoid of cultural sensitivity, which can hamper the ability for an educator to relate to a minority student and thus come up with the most effective educational strategies to improve educational opportunities (National Education Association, 2007).

Purpose of the Project

The purpose of this paper is to emphasize that race is one of many ways that researchers and practitioners might begin to understand and respond to the complex ways in which the institutional cultures of schooling and the cultural histories and trajectories of students and families collide, are conflated, and often essentialized. Rather than use race as a substitute for all these difficulties, this research will apply a structural theory (internal organization of invisible demands/codes by which the family operates and interact with one another) which provides a framework for understanding the roots of dis-proportionality of minorities and the mechanisms through which disproportionality occurs by locating the basis of racial inequity in the structure of society and racial-ized social systems. This exploratory study will add a current perspective that applies a structural theoretical lens as a means of understanding racial inequity in special education across analytical scales, racial groups, and dis-ability categories. These social subsystems seem to follow a pattern which is dynamic, hierarchical, and socially constructed, resulting in racial ideology (or racism) that influences the behaviors of individuals within the system. There are no universal indicators of inequity and the nature of the relations in any given locale is dependent on the socio-historical context.

Research Questions

Based on the nature and background of the problem, there are clearly elements of this phenomenon that deserve further investigation. A review of the literature also reveals gaps and inconsistencies that fail to provide researchers and educators with strong evidence for potential reform and other solutions for curbing the racialization of special education students. As such, this current project has several research questions that will help guide further analysis to address these concerns. The research questions of this project are as follows:

1. What racial structures are contributing to the overrepresentation of minorities in special education programs?

2. What minorities are most overrepresented and why?

3. How does location impact the overrepresentation of minority groups in special education programs?

4. Are there common patterns that are occurring on a larger scale, or is this phenomenon dependent on regional differences?

5. What types of conditions facilitate the greatest overrepresentation rates?

6. How can research expose this phenomenon and help facilitate reform movements that will better serve minority students from a non-racialized perspective?


There are several hypotheses that this research is proposing. First, it is the hypothesis of this research that overrepresentation will be more apparent in the more subjective categories of conditions which place students in special education programs. Second, it is believed that African-Americans will be the largest group that is overrepresented in special education because of the volatile relationship the racial group has within the racial hierarchy of the United States. Finally, the research expects to find that the larger the size of the district, the less racial competition will be present because of an increase in resources. Thus, there is the hypothesis that overrepresentation of minorities in special education programs will be greatest in smaller districts and least in larger ones.

Significance of the Project

The proposal is significant in that it aims to help bridge some of the major gaps within the research regarding the problem at hand. This project aims to bring more of a theoretical foundation to the ongoing social phenomenon in an analysis that will transcend analytical scales that were so limiting to studies in the past. With a stronger foundation in theory, more meaningful assumptions can be made about why this trend is continuing to occur and how advocates can best address the problem at its source, rather than simply explaining the fact that there is a problem at all. Greater cultural sensitivity is needed not only in teaching minority special education students, but also in how such students are classified as needing special education programs (Kagan, 1992). This research could generate the evidence needed for reform in such areas.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

Definition of Key Terms


This term refers to the concept of various groups being misrepresented in particular categories in comparison to other groups. Thorsen et al. (2011) defines disproprtionality as the "over or underrepresentation" of a group within a given context. This empirical analysis focuses specifically on overrepresentation, which is essentially how a particular group is reflected in terms of its enrollment in special education programs (Murtagh, 2003).

Racial Minority

This term signifies minority groups that are other races than White or Caucasian. The most referenced group is African-Americans, although Native American, Latino and Asian are all considered racial minorities as well. These groups are typically set at various rankings within the racial hierarchy of the United States, but all have a stigma of being below the white majority.

Mental Retardation.

Mental retardation is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is "associated primarily with the functioning of the neurological system and brain" (Environmental Protection Agency, 2011, p 2). This is primarily a disorder that has a number of causes, including physical trauma at an early age, genetic conditions, and environmental toxins (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007).

Learning Disabilities.

These disabilities are another controversial category because of their subjective nature. These again are neurodevelopmental disorders that impact a student's ability to learn and focus on educational content (Environmental Protection Agency, 2011). It is estimated that over 12% of children in the United States under the age of 18 are affected by these types of conditions.

Emotional Disorders.

These types of disorders are witnessed in students who have a difficult time interacting with fellow students or educators because… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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