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The EDge newsletter—a publication of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division—informs and supports California’s parents, policymakers, educators, and other service providers on special education topics, focusing on research-based practices, legislation, technical support, and current resources.

Summer 2010 Volume 23 Number 3


Disproportionate Representation

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Volume 23



Common Causes of the Overidentification of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in Special Education: Understanding and Addressing Disproportionality

Edward Fergus PhD, Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, New York University

Since 1968 when Lloyd Dunn* brought to the attention of educators the over-representation of students of particular ethnicities in special education, countless research studies and reports—federal, state, and district—have documented the various facets of educational practice that influence these rates. Based on this work, we know a great deal about the effect of disproportionality on the educational and social mobility of racial and ethnic minority groups. For example, students in these groups are less likely to receive access to a rigorous and full curriculum, and they are more likely to have limited academic and postsecondary opportunities, limited interaction with “abled” or academically mainstreamed peers, and an increased sense of social stigmatization. Finally, these students are also more likely to be identified as needing special education services, saddling them with a disabilities label throughout their remaining school years. 

Even though we are not clear about how or why disproportionality happens, we do know the impact of disproportional representation on Black, Latino, and Native American students in special education. Researchers have added students who come from low-income families to that list, as well. Because the impact of disproportionality is generally negative, we have to examine how our educational policies and practices may be placing these racial and ethnic minority and low-income students at risk. Since 2004 this examination has been the work of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education (also known as the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality, at

Our work at the center has involved helping school districts cited for disproportionality to

(1) understand the citation; (2) identify the root causes of this outcome; (3) develop a strategic plan for addressing the root causes; and (4) implement the plan and develop capacity to continuously monitor rates of disproportionality. Over the past six years we have developed and piloted a data-driven process for identifying disproportionality’s root causes, a process that has also given us insight into the driving forces (internal and external to a school district) behind these root causes. Our work has focused on examining various areas of the schooling process in order to understand the interaction of school practice and student outcomes.

We looked at three areas:

  1. The quality of academic supports (e.g., type of core program, stage of core program implementation, capacity of instructional staff, and learning outcomes of students)
  2. The services provided for struggling students (e.g., type of available interventions, frequency of intervention usage, stage of implementation, length of intervention implementation, and number of students participating in intervention programs by race/ethnicity, gender, and grade level)
  3. The predominant cultural beliefs (perceptions of race and class, perceptions of how race and class interact in school practice, and cultural responsiveness of current policies and practices)
    In examining the data gathered for six years across 30 districts, we have identified common root causes of disproportionality. These causes fall into one of three categories: (1) gaps in the implementation of curriculum and instruction,
    (2) inconsistencies in the pre-referral process for special education, and (3) predominant (and counterproductive) beliefs about ability. While the causes we cite are not exclusive, they tend to be present in every district and to influence in significant ways the rate of disproportionality in school districts.

Gaps in the Implementation of Curriculum and Instruction

Endemic to most school districts is the question of instructional “wellness,” which includes responsiveness. Does—and can—the instruction maximize the learning capacity of all students? In our data-driven process of determining root causes, there were multiple causes related to the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction that emerged as contributing to disproportionality rates.

  1. Minimally articulated core curriculum and lack of consistent support of teaching ability 

Due to various factors, many school districts did not have in place a current curriculum or instructional approach that considered the range of ability among learners. As a result, students who persistently could not attain proficiency on the state exam were promptly considered for special education services. Additionally, some districts were continuously changing or adding curriculum, assessment, and instructional strategies from year to year. Although every school district contends with such changes, we found that in the districts we studied such structural changes affected struggling learners the most. For example, students at the lowest quartile of performance were receiving services to address skill deficiencies while curricular and assessment programs were simultaneously changing. Therefore, instructional staff were going through their own steep learning curve regarding new curriculum and/or assessment while they were working with students to address skill deficiencies based on the prior curriculum or assessment.

Remedy: Identify and sustain the implementation of appropriate reading and math core programs that are sequenced for kindergarten through twelfth grade. Additionally, sequence and sustain support for nontenured and tenured teachers to build their ability to effectively implement curriculum and assessment.

2. Too many interventions for struggling learners

In our examination of curriculum and the related interventions, we found that many school districts maintained an exhaustive list of interventions for students who demonstrate academic difficulty. This overabundance of interventions for struggling learners meant that the core curriculum itself did not have the capacity to provide support for a wide range of learners; it also meant that the related instructional capacity of the staff was not organized to address the needs of these learners. Unfortunately, without a well-articulated core curriculum and instructional program that serves all students, this gap disproportionately affects not only struggling learners but also students new to the districts (including newly arrived English language learners [ELLs]).

Remedy: Identify and implement targeted, research-based intervention programs for students who demonstrate academic difficulty while the core curriculum program is redeveloped.

3. Inconsistent knowledge of the purpose and implementation of curriculum, assessment, or instructional strategy

Various school districts were using inappropriate tools to diagnose reading-skill deficiencies, and because the district staff was not thoroughly knowledgeable in the use of these assessments, teachers used interventions and strategies that were not tailored to meet the specific needs of the children involved. As a result, instructional support teams and/or child study teams would receive information about a child’s reading difficulty after a year of inadequate interventions.

Remedy: Provide continuous professional development on the purpose, application, and interpretation of curriculum, assessment, and instructional strategies.

4. Poorly structured intervention services for struggling learners

Even though legislation in some states requires academic intervention services for struggling learners, particularly in Title 1 school districts, our root cause process revealed that the implementation of these programs was inconsistent, and they became the gateways for special education referrals. For example, students referred and classified for special education tended to have below-basic proficiency, and the staff responsible for academic interventions had not received training in how to help these students become proficient.

Remedy: Develop a tiered system of academic supports for struggling learners; identify research-based interventions for targeted groups of students; and target professional development for academic intervention staff (both nontenured and tenured teachers, including content specialists).

Inconsistencies in the Pre-referral Process

Our process of determining root causes also revealed the following inadequacies that contributed to rates of disproportionality.

1. Inconsistency in the referral process, including intervention strategies and referral forms

School districts are generally good at abiding by special education regulations, including referral timeframes and the involvement of practitioners. We found, however, that school districts maintained inconsistent pre-referral information and used different forms for each school building in a district. While most of these systemic inconsistencies were not intentional, they did reflect the bifurcation that often exists in districts between special education and general education. In many instances, special education directors described how they could only suggest to building administrators that they adopt one common referral form or that the administrators insist that general education teachers fill out the specifics of the pre-referral strategies.

Remedy: Develop a common process and form for pre-referrals, and outline annual reviews for examining the wellness of this process.

2. Limited information regarding intervention strategies

One of our steps in examining root causes involved reviewing a representative sample of records; this ranged from 40 to 100 files, depending upon the number of students in a district receiving special education services. On most forms, we found a place for general education teachers to describe the strategies they already had used in their effort to help a struggling student. In most instances, these teachers noted how certain strategies—such as moving a student’s seat, matching the student with a buddy, or providing the content or skill again but at a slower pace—did not help, even though the teachers considered each strategy viable. The plethora of strategies lacked any documented evidence that they served as a competent response. Nor did teachers note any type of pre- or post-evaluative summary of the strategies’ ultimate impact. Instead, their standard answer was “I tried and it didn’t work.”

Remedy: Provide targeted and embedded professional development for teachers and district staff regarding response to intervention (RtI), specifically research-based interventions, assessments, progress monitoring, and instructional support teams or teacher assistance teams.

3. Limited knowledge of assessment

Through our data analysis process with school districts, we discovered that an inconsistency in knowledge surrounding the purpose and implementation of curriculum, assessment, or instructional strategies also affected the rate of referral to special education. Some school districts, for example, were using assessment tools to diagnose reading skill deficiency when these tools were designed merely to screen students at risk for reading difficulty. The inconsistent knowledge surrounding assessments allowed for interventions and strategies not tailored to meet the specific needs of children. As a result, instructional support teams and/or child study teams would receive information about a child’s reading difficulty after a year of inadequate interventions.

Remedy: Provide targeted professional development on assessments, including those from such clearinghouses as

Predominant Beliefs About Ability

1. Special education is viewed as “fixing” struggling students.

In most school districts the general and special education staff rarely interact with each other. General education teachers recommend students for evaluation based on the belief that special education contains the “magic fairy dust” that will “fix” the learning capacity and outcomes of students. As part of our data analysis process, we developed a multi-disciplinary team comprised of several core members: the district superintendent, principals, special education teachers, general education teachers, content supervisors, a special education supervisor, a psychologist, a parent-group representative, parents, and the pre-referral interventions coordinator. In most instances when the teams were initially convened, many of the individuals did not know each other or understand each other’s mandate. Because many of these individuals rarely interacted, their answers to instruction- and intervention-based questions lacked any cross-disciplinary perspective.

Remedy: General and special education teachers participate together in professional development that focuses on curriculum, assessment, and instructional strategies, including special education regulations. Both general and special educators become involved in the analysis of data regarding interventions for struggling students.

2. Poor and racial/ethnic minority students are viewed as not “ready” for school.

We commonly heard school district staff members struggling with the idea that somehow being from a low-income family and from a racial or ethnic minority group compromises how “ready” these students are for their school environment. More specifically, school and district staff at times perceived that the cultural practices of the home environment made students from low-income and racial/ethnic minority families unable to learn. In one district, many of the educators rallied around the concept of “urban behavior” to explain why Black students were in special education. In another district, an ESL teacher hypothesized that English language learners were over-represented in special education with speech/language impairments because in “Latin culture they listen to music loud.” And yet another district suggested that Latino and ELL students are such a distraction in the classroom that they can be better served with “other” disability groups. Unfortunately, such perspectives are not found solely in school districts cited for racial/ethnic disproportionality. In fact, such perspectives can be found in many urban, suburban, and rural school districts. Part of the difficulty with these kinds of beliefs is that they distract from an educator’s ability to address how teaching matters in learning outcomes. That is, we found practitioners who were willing to cite family and community as the reason why some students were struggling academically, but they credit their own teaching practices for the performance of proficient students. There needs to be a paradigm alignment regarding the connection between teaching and learning.

Remedy: Provide continuous professional development that addresses how to create culturally responsive school environments via leadership, coaching, and mentoring.


No one pretends that these issues are easy to address. Taken together, the root causes of disproportionality represent a significant set of circumstances that few school districts can tackle alone. Support is available in many states, and California is currently designing a system of technical assistance for identifying and remedying the causes of disproportionality (see article, page 3). Whatever challenges a school district faces, it is important to remember that they all do not have to be addressed at once. Small, steady, and determined changes—made with good heart—can lead to major transformations for schools. And more importantly, for Black, Latino, Native American, and low-income students.

overidentification, root causes, race, ethnic, minority, Summer 2010 Volume 23 Number 3

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Last updated: 02/10/2017