Special Education is Mis-Education
HALFORD H. FAIRCHILD, PH.D.
Abstract: This paper summarizes Codrington and Fairchild (2012),
a Position Paper of The Association of Black Psychologists that
addressed the disproportionate placement of African American
students into special education programs. The disproportionate
placements were due to systemic factors (racism, segregation),
teachers’ attitudes or bias, school psychologists’ misdiagnoses, and
student and family factors. Solutions focused on the ecological
context, teacher and school psychologist training and diversification,
and effective schools. The paper concluded with a call to advocacy
for African American childhood education.
In 2011, The Association of Black Psychologists (The ABPsi)
commissioned a Position Paper on special education. That paper was
published in the early months of 2012 (Codrington & Fairchild, 2012).
This chapter summarizes that effort.
African American students are two to three times more likely to
be herded into special education programs than other students. This
problem intensifies for Black boys. Students are often mis-diagnosed, or
assessed with culturally biased tests and measures.
African American students are more likely placed in classes for
the educationally handicapped, and less likely to be assigned to gifted
classrooms. These patterns of racial disproportionality are magnified
for those living in poverty.
The consequences are educational marginality and failure. Special
education programs are often “warehouses” of benign neglect feeding
the pipeline to prisons. These programs have low expectations and poor
outcomes. They are “the new Jim Crow” (Alexander, 2010).
126 Black Lives Matter
Failure in school equates to failure in life. This is more than an
educational dilemma—it is a violation of basic civil and human rights.
Systemic factors contributing to this “mis-education” include the
ideological climate of White Supremacy that translates into a host of
institutional practices. Throughout U.S. history, African Americans have
been denied equal educational opportunities. Laws specifically prohibited
Black literacy; laws to desegregate public schooling have been resisted
or nearly impossible to implement. Many argue the mis-education of
African people was by design: to ensure African subservience to European
Special education takes place within a particular ecological
context. Residential segregation and poverty are consistent predictors of
special education assignments. Latin@9 and African American youth
are most at risk for racial isolation, community violence, and educational
Teachers refer students to special education. African American
teachers generally have higher expectations for African American pupils,
so their under-representation in school faculties exacerbates the problem
of disproportionality. The congruence between teacher and student race/
ethnicity can be beneficial for student achievement.
Cultural mis-matches of teachers and students are related to
perceptions of learning disabilities, misinterpretations of behavior, and
misunderstandings in communication.
Too often, educators perceive differences as deficits. Teachers
are too quick to refer African American students – especially boys – for
ADHD evaluation. ADD/ADHD represents the largest percentage of
the diagnoses of children in special education. Special education referrals
are often made for behavioral reasons.
9“Latin@” is a term that includes both the masculine (Latino) and feminine
(Latina) forms of the word.
Special Education is Mis-Education 127
School psychologists assess and prescribe special education
placements. Like teachers, they suffer from inadequate training, cultural
insensitivities and prejudices. Similarly, school psychologists are also
saddled with inadequate assessment tools. IQ tests, for example, are
outlawed in California because of their racial biases. Behavior rating
scales often mislabel African American students as their measures are
Student and Family Factors
Any focus on student and family factors risks “blaming the victim”
(Ryan, 1976). Such an orientation suggests that students or families did
something to contribute to their special education placements. These
explanations are invalid in the context of systematic inequalities in
opportunities (see Why Kwame Can’t Read, this volume).
The overrepresentation of African American students in special
education has been a central concern for more than 60 years.
Understanding the causes of disproportionality illuminates their
The Ecological Context
Communities must be safe and clean. Benign neglect of urban
areas or minority communities must end. Schools must be modernized
and equipped to inspire teachers and school personnel to be optimistic.
Citizens need to be fully employed and earning livable wages in order to
provide the basic necessities for themselves and their children. The
ideological climates of racism, classism, and linguistic bias need to be
challenged and changed in schools and the broader society.
The teaching workforce must be diversified. Colleges and
universities have an obligation to rejuvenate and diversify their faculties.
For the entire history of American higher education, minorities have been
underrepresented at all levels – students, faculty, and staff – the result is
a teaching workforce that is overwhelmingly White. Faculty—from
grades K-12 through the university—ought to reflect the student bodies
128 Black Lives Matter
Teachers must have appropriate training to deal with African
American children. They must be sensitive to different styles of speech
and social behaviors; and especially cautious when making special
education referrals for these children.
Teachers must manage classrooms to redirect behavioral problems
into curricular engagement. The curriculum should reflect the cultural
backgrounds of a diverse range of students. The curriculum should excite
the imaginations and intrinsic motivations of students.
A new paradigm of training school psychologists is required to
reverse the deficit view of African American students and their families.
School psychologists must develop cross cultural competencies to deal
with the unique needs of ethno-cultural minorities. Like teachers, the
population of school psychologists must be diverse.
School psychologists should focus on organizational issues, and
treat the systemic viruses (disparate funding, dilapidated physical plants,
prejudicial attitudes) that contribute to educational failure.
School psychologists should use only culturally appropriate tests
Education must incorporate culturally-relevant curricula and
pedagogy that builds the self-esteem, self-image, and racial identity of
African descended children. This can be accomplished through effective
schooling with effective leaders.
Effective schools are accountable, orderly, and focus on
academics. Effective schools may differ for boys and girls. Early
childhood education may be most viable when offered separately for boys
Effective schools promote strong cultural norms, values and
“African–centered” schools have proven effective for students of
African descent. African–centered education is not designed to address
the dilemma of disproportionality in special education specifically, but
rather to remedy the chronic failure of the general education system to
provide equal educational opportunities—and outcomes—for African
Special Education is Mis-Education 129
The mis-education of African American children occurs within a
societal context that includes ideological beliefs, economic realities, and
institutional processes. These must be redressed with a comprehensive
plan to correct the problem of disproportionality.
The mistaken belief in White superiority/Black inferiority must
be challenged and disproven. A mass media campaign, coupled with
relevant training of education professionals (teachers, social workers,
school psychologists, administrators, etc.), must be launched to counter
the pernicious myths of African American intellectual inferiority. These
changes in ideologies must accompany changes in institutional practices
that perpetuate the cycles of mis-education.
The economic well-being of communities of color must improve.
We must halt the punishment of innocent children, victimized by societies
unable or unwilling to conquer their problems of structured inequality.
Investments in community revitalization, the provision of high
quality health and social services, and the creation of jobs that pay livable
wages must be embraced at the local, national, and international levels.
Current investments in the prison-military-industrial complex must be
redirected to education, health, holistic human development, and efforts
towards achieving world peace.
Conclusion: A Call to Advocacy
The disproportionate assignment of African American students
to special education has been a longstanding problem; its remediation
requires multi-faceted and long term strategies.
Educators, policy makers, social scientists and regular citizens
must adopt a “go for broke” mentality (Blanchett, 2009) in our role as
advocates for our children and our children’s children. Such advocacy
must embrace all at-risk children – physically challenged, homeless, and
poor children of all ethnicities – in the U.S. and internationally.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of
colorblindness. NY: New Press.
Blanchett, W.J. (2009). A retrospective examination of urban education: From Brown
to the re-segregation of African Americans in special education – It is time to
‘go for broke’. Urban Education, 44(4), 370-388.
130 Black Lives Matter
Codrington, J., & Fairchild, H.H. (2012). Special education and the mis-education of
African American children: A call to action. (A Position Paper of The
Association of Black Psychologists). Washington, DC: The Association of
Editor’s Discussion Questions
1. What can be done to eliminate racism?
2. The problem of racial disproportionality in special education
occurs in other countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, for
example. What accounts for this coincidence?