Minority Students' Perceptions of Their Doctoral Programs in Special Education

By Wasburn-Moses, Leah | Journal of Teacher Education, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Minority Students' Perceptions of Their Doctoral Programs in Special Education


Wasburn-Moses, Leah, Journal of Teacher Education


Despite recent inroads, a great shortage of minority faculty and doctoral students persists across discipline (Ellis, 2001). Not only are minority faculty needed to create parity with the broader population, but "all prescriptions for increasing minority success in higher education and creating better race relations on campus include increasing minority faculty, a solution that depends on increasing Ph.D. attainment" (Nettles, 1990, p. 494). In the field of education, an additional incentive for increasing minority faculty involves the need to educate future teachers in connecting with an increasingly diverse student body (Rousseau & Tam, 1995). In fact, many believe that "the absence of minority teachers in the schools directly contributes to the poor achievement records of (minority) children" (Benner, 1998, p. 60).

Perhaps the most critical area for increasing the numbers of minority faculty is in special education. First, the field of special education experiences chronic personnel shortages, from paraprofessionals to teachers to faculty. Second, special education has a persistent overrepresentation of minority students in its K-12 student body, and many argue that this problem underscores further the desperate need for minority teachers (Benner, 1998; Blanchett, 2006). Third, minority faculty are needed to boost enrollment and success of minority preservice teachers as well as minority doctoral students (Rousseau & Tam, 1995). The cyclical nature of supporting minorities in any academic field is important to the success of initiatives targeting any one area (Gardner, in press).

Of doctoral recipients in special education in 2005, 83% were Caucasian, 8% were African American, 2% Asian, 5% Latino/Latina, 1% Native American, and 1% Other or of unknown race. These numbers indicate even less diversity among special education doctoral recipients than in education overall (83% Caucasian in special education, 76% in education). The greatest disparity appears to be in percentages of African American students (8% in special education, 13% in education overall). In fact, special education has the lowest percentage of minority doctoral graduates of any of the 16 reported subcategories of education that produce more than 50 doctorates annually (Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2005). Because of low numbers of existing doctoral programs in special education, most minority students do not have the option to attend historically Black institutions (HBIs) or other minority institutions (OMIs) for doctoral study. Only two institutions offering doctoral programs in special education are listed in the U.S. Department of Education's database on accredited postsecondary minority institutions (U.S. Department of Education, 2005a).

The past 30 years of research have shown many differences in doctoral program experiences by race (Ellis, 2001). In one recent study, the majority of doctoral students surveyed felt that faculty expectations differed by student race (University of Iowa, 2001). The prevailing "survival of the fittest" model of doctoral study does not benefit students of color, and attrition rates further support the truth of this statement (Lovitts, 2001). The literature on minority doctoral students attributes much of the differential experiences and outcomes to differential socialization. In particular, models of organizational socialization have been used widely to explain doctoral student persistence, satisfaction, and attrition (Gardner, in press; Lovitts, 2001; Tinto, 1993). Socialization in the graduate school context is explained as "the process by which students acquire the attitudes, beliefs, values, and skills needed to participate effectively in the organized activities of their profession" (Nettles & Millett, 2006, p. 89).

In short, this socialization process is critical to doctoral student success (Lovitts, 2001; Nettles & Millett, 2006). Although extensive data have been collected on doctoral student enrollment and completion, "the nature and status of socialization of doctoral students for academic and research careers, the reputed hallmarks of doctoral training, have been overlooked" (Nettles & Millett, 2006, p. …

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