Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Student Representation in Special Education Programs

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Student Representation in Special Education Programs

Article excerpt

In the present quantitative and qualitative study, school psychologists provided responses to a paper-and-pencil survey about their perceptions of the disproportionate representation of African American students in special education. They described their perceptions of the causes and solutions for overrepresentation by providing ratings on structured items as well as responding to open-ended questions. Respondents' previous training in multicultural issues was assessed using an original scale based on recommendations for school psychological practice with racially and culturally diverse students. An important goal of the study was to understand school psychologists' beliefs about disproportionate representation because they are often considered the doorkeepers of special education. Results of a principle components factor analysis revealed that participants considered lack of parental involvement and broadly defined cultural disadvantage, the failures of both the regular education and special education systems, and pressures from parents and teachers to place African American students as the most influential factors that represent African American students in special education. Furthermore, the self-reported cross-cultural competence of participants was found to be associated with the likelihood that solutions to the above named problems would be implemented.


It has been argued that African American and other minority students are overrepresented in special education programs for students with mild disabilities (Hilliard, 1997; Obi & Obiakor, 2001; Obiakor, 1999). It has also been questioned whether overrepresentation is really a problem (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Reschly, 1988). Regardless of one's perspective on this issue, African American students receive special education services at a disproportionately high rate in relation to their overall population in public schools (Obiakor, 1999).

Whether special education services are beneficial to students of any race is questionable (Harry & Anderson, 1994; Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982; Hilliard, 1992; Obi & Obiakor, 2001). The effectiveness of the special education system, especially the assessment and treatment approaches used by educational professionals, are areas in need of further research. Given the exceptionally high percentage of African American students receiving these services, the effectiveness of the special education system and remedial approaches for African American students should be thoroughly researched.


Data collected in the early 1990s estimated that while African American students represented 16.1 percent of students attending public schools, they made up 32 percent of students with a mild mental disability (MMD), 24 percent of students with serious emotional disturbance (SED), and 18 percent of students with a specific learning disability (LD, U.S. Department of Education, 1994). According to more recent reports, African American students account for approximately 17 percent of the public school population, yet 33 percent of all students with a mental disability (MD), 27 percent of students with SED, and 18 percent of students with an LD (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). These figures appear to support arguments that African American students may be over-identified for special education programs (Agbenyega & Jiggetts, 1999; Burnette, 1998; Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Harry & Anderson, 1994; Hilliard, 1992; Morrison, White, & Feuer, 1996; Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999).

Southern Regional Statistics of African American Students in Special Education

This study focuses on the Southern region of the United States because more than one-half of all African American students attending public school are in the South (Ghedam, 2000). In the southern states including Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, African American students are estimated to be overrepresented in special education programs for mild disabilities (U. …

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