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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.
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Chapter 30
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.
Introduction
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.
Causes
Systemic Factors
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
domination.
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
failure.
Teachers
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
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
culturally inapplicable.
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).
Solutions
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
possible solutions.
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.
Teachers
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
they serve.
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.
School Psychologists
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
and measures.
Effective Schools
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
and girls.
Effective schools promote strong cultural norms, values and
parental involvement.
“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
Americans.
Special Education is Mis-Education 129
Systemic Remediation
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.
References
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
Black Psychologists.
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?
Book
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Explores the major topics of social psychology and their applications to World Peace: history and methods, social cognition, the self, attitudes and persuasion, person perception, group dynamics, aggression, prejudice and racism, and cooperation and competition. Suitable as a primary or secondary text in psychology, peace studies, and for anyone interested in a more peaceful world.
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This book seeks to analyze the issue of race in America after the election of Barack Obama. For the author, the U.S. criminal justice system functions can act as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it adheres to the principle of color blindness.
Article
Despite the fact that African American and other students of color, students labeled as having disabilities, and poor students in urban schools are indisputably linked in terms of the quality of schooling they have experienced, few attempts have been made to examine the relationship between special education and urban education. Both students placed in special education and those who attend urban schools have a long history of being miseducated, under-educated, and treated inequitably by the American educational system, with the American educational system at times excluding these students altogether from receiving a free and appropriate public education. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide (a) a historical analysis of special education and the treatment of students with disabilities prior to the Brown decision; (b) an analysis of the challenges that students with disabilities, African American and students of color, poor students in urban schools, and students affected by all three have historically experienced in their quest to receive a free and appropriate education in the American educational system; (c) a discussion that illustrates that special education is the new tool for the resegregation of African American and other students of color in special education; (d) a discussion of who the real beneficiaries of failed urban schools are and why they resist providing an equitable education to all children; and (e) specific examples of what it means to go for broke in calling out educational inequities and advocating for African American and other students of color, poor students, students with disabilities, students in urban settings, and students affected by all of these factors and issues.
Special education and the mis-education of African American children: A call to action. (A Position Paper of The Association of Black Psychologists)
  • J Codrington
  • H H Fairchild
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 Black Psychologists.