Race, Poverty, and Disproportionate Representation of Minorities In Special Education

One of the greatest policies to be enacted in the American educational system is the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) of 1990. Formerly termed the “All Handicapped Children Act” (1975). IDEA basically enforces the law that individuals, classed as disabled by the Congress, will have a right to free and appropriate public education. The Individual will receive special education and related services under IDEA from infant up till age 21.

IDEA functions in all public schools across the United States with roughly 6 million students with disabilities, aged 6 to 21, receiving services each year. While it seems quite beneficial for a lot of people who have special needs to get educated, there have been several questions raised over the true representation of minority children in special education programs and the services they receive. John L. Hosp (n.d), Heller et al., (1982), Chinn & Hughes (1987), amongst others, are researchers that have found the issue of disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities in Special Education a volatile and pressing one. Resources are not only being wasted on students that do not need the services(but other interventions instead), disproportionality makes Special Education program not functional.

Not only are minorities seemingly overly-represented in special education programs, they also receive the most restrictive educational placements; they are less likely to be educated in settings where they can access general education conditions and curriculum.

With ‘disproportionate’ meaning that certain ethnic groups, that are culturally and linguistically diverse, are unusually overly represented in the special education programs and perform significantly worse than others. We will be examining the statistics, factors to consider, outcomes for the students and the IDEA policy, and future suggestions.


Per Donovan & Cross (2002), African American children make up for 17 percent of the 33 percent student population in Mental Retardation programs. They explain that this approximately means that 2.64 percent of African American population are diagnosed with Mental retardation compared to 1.18 percent of their European peers. African Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed and placed in mental retardation programs nationally. Some other researchers, Ladner & Hammons (2001), noted that in a state like Virginia, African Americans only makes up 20 percent of the student population, but make up 28 percent of special education population, and 51 percent of Mild Mental retardation programs. Valenzuela et al., (2006) made a notable variation to this issue, that the percentage of African American special education students may be greater in districts where the overall African American population is lower and/or in districts that are more affluent.

Another variability that is seen in the representation of minorities in Special Education is performance. According to the Nations Report Card (2015), 3 percent of Black and Hispanic High School Seniors in special education achieved proficiency in reading, while almost none achieved any proficiency in mathematics. Not only do minorities seem to be overly represented in the Special Education System, they also seem to not do very well. Per 2014 report from the U.S Department of Education, Black students (57%), Latino students (67%), and English language learner students (65%) also have less access to the full range of courses which include Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, compared to only 19% of Asian-American, and 29% of White students. This report also asserts that Black and Latino students are more likely to have less qualified teachers than their colleagues in other schools. This can be because of environments where these minorities attend schools – the more rural the environment, the less experienced, we’d assume, teachers could be, directly or indirectly.

            Factors to Consider

A large part of disproportionality begins with the process of initial referral and assessment of student. For example, an educator who finds that one of his/her student is not making adequate academic progress, can refer the child to get an assessment for intellectual or other disabilities. As schools rely heavily on testing outcomes to define intelligence, standardized tests are often the basis for most special education placements. While there has been much controversy over IQ testing, with many advocates arguing that these tests are biased and not valid for culturally and linguistically diverse learners, there has not been much changes to the way Special Education candidates are being assessed.

Overrepresentation of minorities in Special Education programs could also be because of conscious or unconscious biases that the examiners use to define minor behavioral problems, different speech patterns, or slower learning performance as equal to disabilities. Although, the federal government have set in place, some policies to make examining more “accurate”, personal biases are not easily controlled by a set of rules. Biases may manifest as the examiner’s attitude or personal expectations for the student. Biases might not only be exhibited by the examiner; the educator might also have certain expectations for the student based on his or her background. The attitudes and expectations that these professionals maintain about their students’ performance, motivation, and future potential are factors contributing to the disproportionate representation of African Americans and other minority students in special education.

Using intellectual disabilities as the prime disorder, there are several factors to consider when defining academic and mental abilities of all school-aged children. When an educator finds that a student is not performing to the expected standard, he/she must first pose the question “what are some underlying root causes that could potentially be hindering the success of the student?” “Can the lack of progress in this student be ultimately attributed to an innate deficit, that is intellectual or learning disorder?”  For minorities, there are several factors that could be easily attributed to intellectual disabilities, whereas they are not the contributing factor(s). Socioeconomic status and environmental factors play key roles in a child’s day-to-day functioning, including their intellectual functioning and performance at school.

Disproportionality and Poverty

            According to National Center for Children in Poverty (2018), Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children are disproportionately low income and poor. With Blacks having 61% low-income, Hispanics at 59% low income, and American Indians at a 60% low income level for children under 18 years; these children are considered “at-risk”.  “At-risk” children are easily placed into special education programs due to several underlying factors that examiners do not consider. The term, “at-risk”, in itself is often used synonymously with children from low socioeconomic background, urban dwelling, “low achieving”, and poor. These children are easily targeted for special education referrals. The problem with this is that the examiner, only calculating intelligence and mental performance, fail to examine the student’s background, family, and environment as factors that could play a role in their performance. For example, a student from a low socioeconomic home, might have parents who are either uneducated or under-educated. These parents might not be giving their children the proper assistance they need in completing assignments or other school work; they also might not engage in the necessary intellectual interactions leading to the development of cognitive skills appropriate for the child’s academic achievement. Children from low socioeconomic background might also not be in environments that encourage or function as supportive network that facilitate necessary knowledge and skills that is necessary for school.

Behavioral patterns that might be more often observed in children with low socioeconomic status could easily be assessed as a mental disability, therefore, a referral for Special Education programs. In their recent and extensive study on the effects of socioeconomic status on behavioral problems in preschoolers, Hosokawa & Katsura (2018) found that “lower socioeconomic status at the preschool level negatively influenced behavioral problems upon entering school to a clinically significant degree, suggesting that children from families with lower socioeconomic status have a higher risk of developing behavioral problems.”

Some behavioral problems could manifest as impulsivity, aggression, and or inattention from the student, among other disruptive behaviors. Some of these behaviors might be as a direct or indirect result of stressors from home. Children from low socioeconomic background are usually exposed to more stressors than students who are from higher socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic stress could be in form of environmental violence, noise, discrimination and financial hardships. All these factors could result in students not progressing in their academics, and also failing the test for intelligence and mental abilities, hence, being incorrectly diagnosed with intellectual disability and placed in Special Education programs.

The greater representation of males in special education is often explained according to (1) biological factors, considering that males are more prone than females to certain physical conditions (e.g., birth defects) that are likely to lead to disabilities; (2) externalizing behaviors where males tend to be more active and disruptive in the classroom; and (3) referral bias in that referring teachers may have unrealistic expectations of males (Wehmeyer &Schwartz, 2001).

Problematic behaviors do not always mean intellectual disability and vice versa. In fact, a student that exhibits excessive hyperactivity and inattention in the classroom should be referred accordingly for checkup. Disabilities that do not adversely affect a child’s education should be given due intervention as opposed to referring all children that exhibits any problem behavior to special education programs. Examining underlying causes of problem behaviors and helping the student create a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) will lessen the issue of disproportionate representation of minorities in Special education class.


Disproportionate representation of one group of student in Special Education programs can negatively impact both the student and the program. The current state of educational affairs and special education program seem to suggest that one or some group of culturally diverse student are incapable of learning and making acceptable academic progress. There is an alarming number of minority students that do not complete a 12-year formal education. The U.S Department of Education stated in a related topic that “Black students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of students suspended once, and 48 percent of students suspended more than once.” (Ed.gov, 2014) Disability diagnoses are likely to result in lower academic expectations for students in special education programs, therefore resulting in even poorer performance than that of the “typical” peer; this also prevents the student from reaching their potential academic goals and fuels negative labels and stereotypes.

Disproportionate representation also affects the Special Education program. When schools continue to incorrectly diagnose children with learning disability, there will not be a recognition to the need for implementing teaching methods that will fully accommodate the needs of cultural and linguistically diverse students.


The impact of disproportionality in Special Education program in the American Educational System is a dire issue that needs to be addressed with urgency. The impact of culture on teaching and learning must be brought to the forefront and center of education. Although, there has been some Legislative interventions to help address the issue of disproportionality (IDEA 2004), indicators of racial/ethnic disparities remain high.

Early intervention, Effective instructions and Cultural competence to accommodate all students, Behavioral management planning, and Parental advocacy are some tools that can be used to tackle disproportionality in the Educational system.

Early Intervention

            Early interventions for “at-risk” children have been shown to reduce special education placement in the child’s future. According to Conyers, Reynolds & Ou (2003) “4 and 5-year-olds who participated in half-day preschool had 32 percent fewer special education placements than did their nonparticipating peers. Discrepancies between the two groups were noted as early as first grade, and treatment students who did experience special education had fewer years of placement than did those without preschool experience.” Children born into cultural and linguistically diverse homes with markers that contribute to school failures (extreme poverty, low socioeconomic status, and gender) should be targeted for early intervention.

Effective Instruction and Cultural Competence

            Schools need to recognize the importance of hiring educators that are well culturally competent. To be culturally competent means to be aware of cultural differences of oneself and others, therefore, able to communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures. The American Educational System will need to adjust the curriculum and teaching methods in a way that it will help reach a broad range of instructional needs of a diverse student body. Educators and other school personnels will need to acquire (basic) knowledge of student’s cultural background, so that they are able to accurately and effectively understand and perceive their behaviors and design effective interventions to help the child acquire the skills they need to reach academic success.

Behavioral Management

            Educators and school personnels must not only be culturally competent, they must also be skilled in behavior management strategies that will help create an environment that motivates students to follow the school and class rules. Behavioral management should be proactive rather than reactive. Intervention plans to help manage mild challenging behaviors can also be put in place to help students that exhibits problem behaviors in school.

 Parental Advocacy

            Parents need to become familiar with schooling processes of their children; they need to learn the developmental milestones that their child should be hitting right from infancy until school age. When a parent is vigilant about their child’s development, both physical and mental, they can quickly notice any delay in the child’s development and seek professional assistance, because early interventions are key to ameliorating disabilities in children. Parent’s active involvement in a child’s academic life will not only help the child feel confident about schooling, but also help carry the parent along in the child’s progress.


            Disproportionality in representation of minorities in special education have persisted for decades. Minorities continue to be overly represented in special needs program for having intellectual and learning disabilities than any other group of people. We have found that low socioeconomic status is a big contributor to this issue; children who live in households that are considered “poor” according to the poverty threshold, tend to be more targeted, and easily diagnosed with intellectual disability. Not only are minorities being easily put into special education programs, they also receive the most restrictive placements when compared to their peers. The objective measure of “intelligence” by examiners leave no room for cultural and linguistically diverse students. With early intervention and culturally diverse educators who are not bias about minority student’s ability, disproportionality in special education can be eradicated.


Basic Facts about Low-Income Children under 18 Years, 2016. (2018, February 28). National Center for Children in Poverty. Retrieved from http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1194.html

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Conyers, L. M., Reynolds, A. J., & Ou, S.-R. (2003).The effect of early childhood intervention andsubsequent special education services: Findingsfrom the Chicago Child-Parent Centers.Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25,75–95.

Donovan, M. S., & Cross, C. T. (Eds.). (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Expansive Survey of America’s Public Schools Reveals Troubling Racial Disparities. (2014, March 21). U.S Department of Education. Retrieved from https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities

Hosokawa, R., & Katsura, T. (2018). Effect of socioeconomic status on behavioral problems from preschool to early elementary school – A Japanese longitudinal study. PloS one, 13(5), e0197961. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0197961

Hosp, J. L. (n.d.). Response to Intervention and the Disproportionate Representation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students in Special Education. Retrieved from http://rtinetwork.org/learn/diversity/disproportionaterepresentation

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Wehmeyer, M. L., & Schwartz, M. (2001).Disproportionate representation of males in special education services: Biology behavior orbias? Education and Treatment of Children, 24,28–45.

Adebolanle Ajayi

Ade Ajayi is a behavioral therapist who works with children on the Autism spectrum and related disorder. She runs a lifestyle and personal development website, www.girlunfolding.com, where she shares tools for personal development and mental health.

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