The Quest for Equity: Maintaining African American Teachers in Special Education

By Talbert-Johnson, Carolyn | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Quest for Equity: Maintaining African American Teachers in Special Education


Talbert-Johnson, Carolyn, The Journal of Negro Education


The diminishing number of African American teachers in the field of special education continues to be a pervasive problem in education. Minority children, especially African American children, are subject to the pernicious effects (e.g., inappropriate identification, assessment, and placement) of the misperceptions and attitudes of European American teachers who tend to be discordant with these youth. A review of the existing literature relevant to the disparity between the cultures of educators and students, the subjugation of minority students into inequitable learning environments, ineffective recruiting practices, and the inability to provide pedagogically sound practices are presented. The author proposes recommendations for overcoming obstacles mitigating the potential for African American teachers to influence special education classrooms and practices.

Maintaining an adequate supply of African American teachers in special and gifted education continues to be a daunting task for the field of education. The reality is that while the ethnic diversity of the school-aged population is increasing, the P-12 teaching population is becoming more homogeneous in terms of ethnicity. Nettles and Perna (1997) report that African Americans comprise 6.8% and 9.6% of elementary and secondary special education teachers, respectively. By contrast, approximately 18.4% of special education students are African American (U.S. Department of Education, 1995). This is a problem of critical magnitude. The increasing numbers of culturally diverse students in the public schools create a corresponding need for well-prepared teachers who can communicate with students within the context of their cultures and/or native languages. The literature supports that the scarcity of African American teachers in special education limits opportunities for these individuals to know and communicate in more than one culture (Dilworth, 1990). In addition, Irvine (1989) suggests African American teachers are able to serve as cultural translators, as conduits through which culturally encapsulated monocultural minority children become multicultural. African American teachers are catalysts in the academic process for bridging the gap between home and school and for providing crosscultural exposure to all students.

There are approximately 52 million school-aged students in the United States; by 2008, enrollments are predicted to reach 55 million (National Commission on Teaching & America's Future [NCTAF], 1996). Approximately 35% of our school children are from linguistic or racial minority families, and that figure is expected to increase 40% in less than a decade. At the same time, demographics within the teaching profession are moving in the opposite direction. Nearly 3 million teachers work in our P-12 schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 1998). Of that number, only about 5% are from racially diverse groups (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1990).

African American teachers can be instrumental in the education of African American students as they act as role models for these children. The reality is that all children can benefit from the experience. African American teachers can influence students positively as they provide important contributions to the school, enriching both the environment and the curriculum with their diversity.

In this article, the author explores the prominent issues regarding the diminishing number of African American teachers in special education. The author proposes recommendations for overcoming obstacles mitigating the potential for African American teachers to influence special education classrooms and practices.

Cultural Concerns

The population of educators in the United States remains primarily European American, monolingual, and female (Talbert-Johnson & Tillman, 1999), whereas the demographic profiles of students indicate they are and increasingly will be children of color and secondlanguage learners (Hodgkinson, 1985).

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