Disproportionate Representation of Males in Special Education Services: Biology, Behavior, or Bias?

Article excerpt


It is a common circumstance that males receiving special education services outnumber females nearly two to one. The primary explanation for this has been that boys exhibit behavior patterns that are more likely to result in their referral to special education. A second reason for this situation may be biological differences in boys and girls. A third reason, one not widely discussed in the special education literature, relates to the impact of gender bias on referral and admission. To examine the latter, we conducted a comprehensive records review for all students admitted to special education across three school years to examine gender differences in referral, admission, and placement decisions while accounting for known biological and behavioral variables. Our findings support a hypothesis in the literature that males are not necessarily overrepresented in the special education population, but instead females who could benefit from special education services are underrepresented. One factor accounting for this underrepresentation is gender bias.

One of the most consistent characteristics of special education services in the past two decades has been the disproportionate number of males served. Many reports show that boys receiving special education services outnumber girls 2 to 1. For example, the 1992 Report to Congress on the implementation of IDEA reported that more than two-thirds (68.5%) of secondary age students served in special education were males, even though the percentage of school-age males without disabilities was 49.7%. Males were disproportionately represented in every disability category except for deaf-blindness. Learning and emotional disabilities were the most disproportionate categories, with males comprising 73.4% and 76.4% of each, respectively.

As the Report to Congress stated, the reasons for such a high number of males "is not straightforward" (p. 11). Three hypotheses have been forwarded to explain the preponderance of males in special education. First, overrepresentation is attributable to biological factors because boys are more vulnerable to some genetically-determined disorders and predisposed to have some specific learning disabilities. It is established that females have some biological advantages over males like fewer birth defects and more rapid maturation (Harmon, Stockton, & Contrucci, 1992). Second, because boys are more active and more likely to act out or misbehave in classroom settings, it has also been suggested that the overrepresentation of males is a function of behavior problems. Although genetic, biological or neuropsysiological differences may contribute to activity for boys, behavior problems based on early learning may also influence referral and placement decisions. Kedar-Voivodas (1983) noted that child rearing practice, sex role modeling, imitation, socialization, and a student's individual reaction to school can influence the repertoire of behavior that girls and boys perform in the classroom. Boys may learn early that adults are tolerant of their more active behavior while girls are encouraged to behave in more inhibited manners; passive, quiet, obedient, and pleasant (Wagner-b,1976). Third, researchers in gender equity propose that the disproportionate number of males is also due to influences of gender bias on the referral, classification, and placement process where bias refers to an inclination toward taking a position or reaching conclusions about a person based on their sex or gender. Kratovil and Bailey (1986) suggested that at the root of gender bias in identification for special education services is the gender-stereotyped societal expectations for girls and women, resulting in teachers expecting more from boys and setting high standards, while tolerating lower achievement in girls. Little research has been done t o examine gender bias or discrimination as a contributor to the preponderance of males receiving special education services (Anderson, 1997; Kratovil & Bailey, 1986; Karlen, 1985; Phipps, 1982). …