11. Special Education Overidentification Causes: Agencies

The more one becomes familiar with the history of special education over-identification (including disproportionality) the more one sees the anemic efforts made by private and public institutions.  The problem should not be regarded as a current “hot topic.”  It is a neglected topic, even ignored.

For example, Edward Fergus, writing for Essential Educator (http://essential educator.org/), ”Distinguishing Difference from Disability: The Common Causes of Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education,” reports:

“Since Lloyd Dunn’s report (1968) on the overrepresentation of Black and Latino students in special education countless federal, state and district reports, as well as research studies exist that document the various facets of educational practice impacting these rates. Most recently the over-representation picture is troubling:  in 2008, the school enrollment of Blacks (15.5%) differed greatly from their representation in special education (20.4%) and among students with an Emotional Disturbance classification (29.1%); while enrollment of Whites (55.5%) was mirrored in special education (55.9%) and among students with an ED classification (56.3%).”

We pay decision makers good money to address these historic problems and make them right.  Let’s give some suggested grades based on what we are seeing in 2011.


College Instructors:  D-.  Classroom instruction comes up short.  After 40 years we should be seeing more leadership from education to sort out misidentification.

Principals:  B-.  Manage an enormous volume of work and will help improve special education when asked.  Often do not have enough authority to make changes. Poor managers of Title 1 programs.

Attorneys:  C+.  Despite public suspicion, attorneys bring rational thinking to special education policies.  They support parents and disseminate legal opinions. Important cases brought to the courts have changed education for the better.

Congress:  B+.  IDEA 97 turned the corner and put in place the equipment needed for equal opportunity in education.  Light on workable solutions, however. For example, recommendations to train teachers seldom work, and money has provided “perverse incentives.”

Related Services Personnel:  F.  Too busy getting to the next appointment.  Failure to take on roles in education.

General Education (SEA):   F.  Dropped the ball on title 1 programs, turning out to be ineffective for providing remedial support, while allowing over-referral to special education programs. 

Cabinet:  D.  Our presidents and secretaries of education have jaw boned too little on the subject of over-identification.  The “culture of compliance” has continued without innovation in total special education management.  

Parent Groups:  B-.  They keep special education issues in front of the public eye but favor special education as a substitute for general education remediation.  They do not worry enough about stigmas of placement and least restrictive environment nearly enough.

Special Education Directors:  D+.  Do a difficult job efficiently but typically lack adequate knowledge for the complexities at hand.  Fall into the compliance game to satisfy state auditors.  Are over-shadowed by other school administrators in general education.

State Governments (SEAs):  D-.  Wide variation in performance state-to-state but overall not much push for substantive change in special education beyond what is expected of them. Sometimes cause more problems than they are worth.

School Psychology:  D-.  Does try to quantify behaviors, but ends up with invalid instruments for classifying learning disabled children and lending support to the growth of  the emotional disturbance category where misplacement abounds.  Some positive signs for reducing over-identification now.  

Local Superintendents:  C-.  They do try to implement laws as they come down to them and this helps at-risk children but they get caught up in money issues and community pressures.  

Curriculum Directors:  F.  Failure to  show up.  Leave superintendents twisiting in the wind.

State Legislatures:  F.  Do not seem to know much about education and special education policies.    

Advocacy Organizations:  I.  Difficult to separate out their agendas, some of which are tied to political positions.  As non-profit organizations they have built in conflicts of interest, too many masters to serve.

Citizen Tax Payers.  D-.  But how can they know when schools lack transparency? When they care, they are great.  Parents of handicapped children must be admired.

Department of Education:  C.  Yes, they do form the regulations and do some spot reinforcement but put very little force behind curbing misidentification.  Too insular and passive.

Professional Organizations:  D-.  Are in the bind of having to protect jobs for their graduates.  They too suffer from conflicting goals brought on by their non-profit status.

Medical doctors:  B+.  Still a solid link in the system of judgment and placement. They often lack follow up skills to help handicapped children pull through and do not have a clue about education assessment.

Journalists:  D+.  Difficult to generalize because of major news investigations but very little cultural memory for this recurring problems.  The New York Times is an exception, with its excellent archives.   Local news organizations are too caught up in news cycles and fad issues.  Don’t say, “Didn’t this happen last year?”

Teachers:  C+. They have the spirit and the competence but are overly compliant because of heavy work demands.  Their problem is they are all too willing to ship mis-fit kids off to special education, a kind of “get them out of my hair” approach.

Clerical:  I.  Contribute to the compliance problem but are badly needed and often are very helpful.  Lack perspectives on their important jobs in education and can’t see beyond clerical deadlines.

School Boards.  D+.  Have a difficult job given their knowledge, time and community pressures. They rely on the professionals for good advice and often do not get it.

Websites Authors:  D-.  Preoccupied by procedural issues and the “how to.”  Difficult to assess.  Lack follow up and conclusive accomplishments.

Academic / Scholars:  B.  Scholars write helpful papers forming an archive overcoming historical shortsightedness.  Archival research is the only protection we have against political repetition and impulsivity.  


“Grading” only serves to pinpoint responsibilities in the chain of decision-makers who can do something about over-placement and over-retention of at-risk American school children but drop the ball.   We rely on the good sense of Linda Schrock Taylor to remind us of the stark facts:

“So, do not underestimate the strength of this black hole, and the power of federal monies – education and Medicaid – to create and sustain the energy force that entraps and holds these children. Do notice how few honest steps are taken to bring about real reform – ones that would actually, and effectively, educate American children in general, and special education students, in particular. The most shocking and inexcusable aspect of the pretense, the mouth-service, given to “accountability,” is the dearth of professionals who actively attempt to get students OUT of Special Education. Few see any value in specifically structuring special education programs towards ‘repairing’ and releasing children; few feel any urge to commend an exiting child; few see the importance of choosing curriculum and methods that would prevent the need for such programs in the first place.“

Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 40 years to pull up our grades to passing marks.

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