Are some ethnic groups over-represented in special education? The data suggest they are.

The National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems supports schools in efforts to reduce inappropriate referrals to special ed. At the NCCRESt website, a “Note from the Principal Investigators” includes this observation:

As researchers have studied the trends in special education over time, they have noticed that some ethnic groups seem to be over- or under-represented in special education.

For example, according to nationally-aggregated data (Office of Civil Rights and Office of Special Education Programs) black students are over-represented at a rate approximately twice that of whites in programs for children and youth with mild cognitive disabilities and at a rate approximately one and one-half times that of whites in programs for children with emotional/behavioral disabilities….

Increasingly, researchers are coming to wonder if some of the under- and over-representation of students of color may stem from problems within the educational system. For instance, it may be that opportunities for early intervention are not readily available. Perhaps, students referred to special education have not had high-quality reading instruction. Potentially, supports for learning and adapting to the norms of classroom and school codes of conduct have not been available. Researchers also consider the role that poverty may play in the onset of educational disabilities….

NCCRESt is dedicated to helping the education community develop a deeper and more thorough understanding of the intersection of ethnicity, disability, and education. Teachers, other practitioners, and school administrators need more information to help them develop culturally responsive practices and systems that embrace the multicultural diversity of the school-age population and their families….

To that end, NCCRESt offers a Practitioner Brief with the somewhat unwieldy title, Preventing Disproportionate Representation: Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Prereferral Interventions, which deserves attention from general and special educators. It outlines “best practices for professionals who encounter culturally and linguistically diverse students in their classrooms” and contains “detailed information(on) how to create a positive learning environment along with suggestions for opening communication lines with families.”

The idea, says the federally funded Center, is to focus onpreventing disproportionate referrals — rather than having to figure out how to correct the imbalance after the fact.

You’ll find other resources that support cultural responsiveness at the NCCRESt website, including an upcoming professional development module on responsive intervention.

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