Over Representation of African Americans in Special Education

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Matt Wainright

Troy State University


Dr. Thompson


The overidentification and overrepresentation of minority students in special educational classes has been a cause for concern (Bernahu, 2008). This literature review will discuss the prevalence of overidentification of African-American students in special education by presenting statistics and data showing that this race is overidentified and overrepresented as having intellectual, learning and behavioral disabilities. The review will also examine several theories on the probable causes of overidentification of African-American students. It will focus in particular on three studies: The Disproportionate Representation of African Americans in Special Education: Looking Behind the Curtain for Understanding and Solutions by James M. Patton, Self-Concept of African-American Students: An Operational Model for Special Education by Festus E. Obiakor and Disproportionate Representation of African Americans in Special Education: Acknowledging the role of White Privilege and Racism by Wanda J. Blanchett.

The following research has shown that the problem is so complex as it involves a change in the educational system of the country, law enforcement on the part of the Government, a change in perspective of educators and knowledge providers, more awareness of parent's on the rights of their children to appropriate education all the way to racial and White supremacy issues.

The review will conclude with the possible solutions to the overidentification as suggested by the aforementioned authors.

The Magnitude of the Problem
The terms "overidentification" and "overrepresentation" will be used repeatedly in this study to refer to the tendency of educators to send African-American children to special education classes more than they do with white children. In the context of this study, overidentification will refer to the excessive identification of African-Americans as having learning, mental and behavioral disabilities. While overrepresentation happens when a specific group or demographic that has exceeded normal representation of any said group, and is therefore represented greater than it should be or is represented in excessive or disproportionately large numbers. Which brings us to the term "disproportionality" in the context of special education, which was defined by Blanchett (2006) as that which exists when students' representation in special education programs exceed their proportional enrollment in a school's general population.

Various studies have found that compared to White students and other minority students, African-American students are most likely to be placed in special education (Dawson, 2008). Not only is there a racial discrimination against African-American students, but their number is disproportionately greater than any race of students being referred to special education (as cited in Terry, 2007). The overrepresentation of African-American students in special education programs has been recognized for years, ever since the 1960's, and yet there has been little action on this problem (Tidwell, 2001) which continued to persist until today (Patton, 1998).

According to Patton (1998), in 1975, African-Americans constituted 38% of those classified as mentally disabled in the school population. Sixteen years later in 1991, they made up 35% of the special education population (as cited in Patton, 1998).In 1998, the number the U.S. Office of Education reported that 18% of the special education population was made up of African-Americans. Not only that, 24.6% of those categorized with serious emotional disturbance and 34.3% of those with mild retardation in students were represented by African-American students (Tidwell, 2001). According to Tidwell (2001), in the year 2001,...
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