Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Minority MMR Overrepresentation and Special Education Reform

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Minority MMR Overrepresentation and Special Education Reform

Article excerpt

Minority MMR Overrepresentation and Special Education Reform

One of the most controversial issues in special education and the related services (school psychology, school social work, etc.) is the overrepresentation of minority students, particularly in special class programs for mildly mentally retarded (MMR) students. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel report (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982) is the most important effort to date to analyze this problem. Reviews of this report were part of a symposium at the Annual Convention of the American Educational Research Association in 1983, later published as articles in Educational Researcher, 1984. This review will briefly mention the major points in my earlier commentary (Reschly, 1984) and expand the discussion of key points particularly relevant to current issues.

The NAS panel was comprised of a diverse group. Leading scholars in academic disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, and psychiatry were represented, as were minority social scientists and legal, mental health, and test-development experts. Private conversations with several panelists, presumably off the record, indicated significant disagreement on a number of issues. Wayne Holtzman, Samuel Messick, and Kirby Heller (Chair, Vice-Chair, and Study Director, respectively) accomplished a monumental task in producing a coherent, insightful report despite lack of consensus among the panelists.

THE RIGHT QUESTION

The major breakthrough represented in the NAS report was the recognition of the right question concerning minority MMR overrepresentation. Unlike most previous analyses in the courts and elsewhere, the NAS panel focused on the question, Why is overrepresentation viewed as a problem? rather than the question. Why does it occur? (Heller et al., 1982, pp. 17-18). The question of why overrepresentation is a problem is particularly salient when the additional resources devoted to special education programs for MMR students are considered. Such programs involve substantially greater expenditures, usually on the order of 1.75 to 2.5 times the expenditures per student in regular education, or from $2,000 to $4,000 more per student. These programs also include a number of desirable features such as lower pupil-to-teacher ratio, greater individualization, careful evaluation of needs, periodic review, and greater parent involvement. These normally desirable characteristics were not sufficient in the views of plaintiffs representing minority students in numerous Federal District Court cases over the past 15 years (Bersoff, 1982; Prasse, this issue; Prasse & Reschly, 1986; Reschly, 1987). Perhaps it would be useful to slightly rephrase the NAS report question to, Why are special education programs for MMR students undesirable despite considerably larger expenditures and several desirable features?

The extensive placement-bias litigation, from the early consent decrees in the early 1970s to the court opinions and Appelate Court reviews in the late 1970s and 1980s, involved critical implicit assumptions and underlying issues. A great deal more was at stake than overrepresentation of minority students in educational programs for the mildly mentally retarded. These implicit issues included efforts to reject hereditarian interpretations of group differences on IQ tests, the role of IQ tests in classification and placement decision making, incorrect assertions concerning the nature of MMR, and conclusions regarding the effectiveness of special education programs for MMR students. Each of these implicit issues and underlying assumptions were critical to the consent decrees and trial opinions. Perhaps the single most important implicit assumption was the assertion that special class programs for MMR students are ineffective. This was especially prominent in the Larry P. trial opinion (Larry P. v. Riles, 1979) in which Judge Peckham excoriated special class programs, using extreme language such as "dead end" and "inferior. …

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