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Minorities in Special Education

Minorities in Special Education

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Published by Joel Wright
Minorities in Special Education
Minorities in Special Education

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Categories:Types, School Work
Published by: Joel Wright on Dec 18, 2012
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12/18/2012

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The paradoxes of overrepresentation of African Americans in special education: a critical racetheory approach
In 2009, I moved from Chicago to Urbana, Illinois. After living in the city, working part-time at on-again, off-again temp jobs and internships, I was pleasantly surprised to get a job inthe neighboring town of Champaign almost immediately. The job was
as a teacher’s assistant,
also known as an aide or a paraprofessional, in a self-contained classroom for middle schoolstudents with mild cognitive disabilities. I had spent a little bit of time before moving to Illinoisworking in education, as a writing tutor in a state prison in New York, and running an after-school creative writing workshop in the town of Hudson, NY, so I knew a little bit about howminorities
 – 
in particular African Americans
 – 
have encountered difficulties in educationalsettings. Even still, though, I was surprised to find that, in a town that is only about 15% AfricanAmerican, about 60% of my students were Black. And as I worked and got to know mystudents, I began to realize that, even though they had all been labeled as having
a “cognitivedisability”,
they all had a very diverse set of strengths and needs. This made me begin to
question why they were all in the same classroom, the “special” classroom, doing the same
things, while all of the other students at the school were someplace else, doing somethingdifferent.After working at the middle school for two years, I left my job to return to graduateschool and pursue my education degree, to become a special education teacher. Part of myprogram at the University of Illinois requires me to serve a teaching practicum in differentspecial education classrooms in the community. In every single one of these classes that I havebeen in so far, the majority
 – 
or the entirety
 – 
of my student body have been Black.
 
By definition, students with cognitive disabilities have
significantly sub-averageintellectual functioning that adversely affects their educational performance.
” (Friend, 2011)
Aneffective special education program ought to alleviate the effects of this disability, allowing thestudents to function at a level closer to their typically developing peers. Of course, in thepopulation that I served was within itself incredibly diverse. Some of the students, both Black and White, were far below their peers in the academic areas of reading, writing, and math, someof whom were reading at a 1
st
grade level at the age of fourteen. Other students in the sameclass, on the other hand, could and would perform at or near grade level in multiple academicareas. And yet, usually, all of these students were being treated the same by the environment inwhich they were in.One thing that I have learned through my work and school experience has been that everystudent is unique and, in order to be an effective teacher, you need to be able respect that
student’s abilities and find a way to play to his or her strengths. But one thing that has bothered
me for the past three years has been this daily reminder that, on some level, students
 – 
especiallystudents with disabilities
 – 
are not treated uniquely, and, therefore, not justly. On some level,consciously or unconsciously, they are treated as a homogeneous group, and this means that theyare not receiving the best possible education.For two generations now, the overrepresentation of minorities in special education in theUnited States has been a major topic of concern for educators, policy-makers, and theorists. Asof 2004, African American students were 1.65 times more likely to be labeled as having adisability than their White peers. (Friend, 2011) This disproportionality is greater within certainspecific disability categories, such as intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances.African Americans with disabilities are more likely than their White peers to have their access to
 
general education classrooms and curriculum restricted. And, despite years of efforts toameliorate it, the overrepresentation of minorities in special education persists, along with thestigma that it carries.Today, I
’m going to try to
consider how the special education system manifests systemicracism by unjustly distributing the services that it provides to students, almost exclusively to thedetriment of African Americans. However, this is not the only function that the systemperforms. In many cases, special education
can also serve to increase minorities’ access to
necessary educational and public services. Yet the ways in which it works to prevent AfricanAmericans from fully participating in their education and, therefore, society, needs to bedescribed and confronted.Another theme that I will discuss is the ways in which much of the academic literaturewithin the field of special education addresses the issues of minority overrepresentation withoutencountering it on a systemic level. The majority of the articles written within the field confrontthe issues of overrepresentation by proposing new teaching techniques or by improving currentpolicies that are already in place. These authors do not consider the overrepresentation of AfricanAmericans through the lens of critical race theory, of social justice, or of systemic racism. Oneof the happy exceptions to this is
“Theorizing social inequity in special education,” by A.L.Sullivan and A.J. Artiles. Sullivan and Artiles suggest that most studies’ explanations of this
phenomenon try to make sense of the data without locating it within a theoretical framework.This is a notion with which I whole-heartedly agree.Sullivan and Artiles go on to suggest that the appropriate theoretical framework throughwhich one should view the issue of overrepresentation is social justice. They define social justice as
“… the pattern
s and distribution of resources, life chances, costs, and benefits among

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