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date: 09 July 2020

Racial and Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education Programs

Summary and Keywords

The disproportionate representation of students of color in special education has been an established issue in school systems around the world. The over-representation of students from racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse (RCLD) programs has been documented since the late 1960s. Scholars have included several reasons for the existence of disproportionate representation including (a) systemic racism present in school systems, (b) schools as colonial spaces, and (c) the intersections of race with poverty and health. Previous research on disproportionality in the U.S. context has posited two overlapping types of rationales: those who believed disproportionate representation is linked to poverty and health outcomes versus those who believed in the systemwide racist practices that contributed to over-representation of RCLD students. The former rationale has led to more recent tensions in special education, namely, with research suggesting that RCLD groups were actually under-represented in special education and that issues of health and poverty made it more crucial to identify individuals for needed educational services. Since the early 2000s, however, has highlighted the need for in-depth qualitative research that might illustrate how students from RCLD backgrounds are being deprived of meaningful curriculum and placed in low-tracked (often known as remedial) courses. Lastly, RCLD groups such as Asian Americans have within-group differences that problematize traditional ways of identifying overrepresentation. Ultimately, there is a need to address current tensions and recognize future directions of research in the area of disproportionate presentation.

Keywords: disproportionality, overrepresentation, special education, low track, racial, ethnic, culturally and linguistically diverse

In the context of special education, disproportionate representation, often referred to as overrepresentation or under-representation, is the differential opportunity to receive a dis/ability label and/or services for special education based on intersecting social identity factors such as race, culture, language, and gender (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999). Historic and current concerns that disproportionate representation has created inequitable opportunities for students from racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse (RCLD) backgrounds has led to (a) policy briefs such as the those disseminated by the National Educational Association (NEA); (b) position statements (Skiba, Shure, & Williams, 2012); (c) federal mandates through the Individuals with Disabilities Act in the United States (IDEA, 2004); and (d) contentious debates (Collins, Connor, Ferri, Gallagher, & Samson, 2015; Morgan et al., 2015).

Cooc and Kiru (2018) note that, internationally, disproportionate representation has mainly been studied in English-speaking and European contexts, where students from predominantly immigrant and/or Indigenous backgrounds are often overrepresented in these contexts. The authors also indicate that much of policy level research on disproportionality has focused on the assessment and identification processes involved in special education and how sociodemographic factors contribute to overidentification. Several authors have cautioned how a hyper-focus on socio-demographic characteristics of RCLD families and children could have the negative effects of substantiating deficit-oriented beliefs about these populations while ignoring funds of knowledge that these groups bring to education (Blanchett, 2006).

Further, most research that centers disproportionate representation comes from large data sets and school- or district-level data that provide the relative risks of identification and numbers of students who are over-represented from a particular group (Cooc & Kiru, 2018). There is a need for additional research that centers on the voices of youth who have been overrepresented in disability categories, their families, and school practitioners who may have participated in the referral and identification process. Such analyses of individual-level factors are also critical in understanding how socio-historical context influences the lives and experiences of RCLD youth (Waitoller, Artiles, & Cheney, 2010). Therefore, there is a need to understand the historical, cultural, and policy-level implications of disproportionality through a variety of contexts.

This article reviews the disproportionate representation of RCLD students in special education programs. It begins with an overview of the historical context that raised questions about overrepresentation of RCLD students in the United States; provides a review of global contexts in order to illustrate how disproportionate representation is understood and studied in different countries; and discusses how rationales for over and under-representation of RCLD groups tend to be caused by factors at the intersections of socioeconomic status (rural vs. urban settings), minority status, and cultural perceptions of disability. The article concludes with recent debates centered around U.S. disproportionate representation and future directions and methodology considerations for additional research.


In 1968, Lloyd Dunn published one of the first articles to critique special education practices in the United States. On the brink of his departure from special education and the United States, Dunn (1968) remarked how the field had been “living at the mercy of general educators who have referred their problem children to [special education]” (p. 5). He suggested that education policy makers and researchers “stop being pressured into continuing and expanding a special education program that [was known] to be undesirable for many of the children [they] are dedicated to serve” and implored that “a better education than special class placement is needed for socioculturally deprived [sic] children with mild learning problems” (p. 5).

In particular, Dunn’s (1968) paper catalyzed early considerations about how special education segregated students considered too difficult to educate in general education settings. It solidified the argument that students from RCLD backgrounds were being overclassified by labels such as mildly mentally retarded [sic]. He noted that RCLD students were being represented in special education at rates that were not aligned with their potentials for learning and success, and included this rationale as a reason for leaving the field. In far too many instances, race, language and non-dominant status in the monoculture of schools have been conflated with disability and low-track-status educational programs (Hosp & Reschly, 2004).

Mercer (1973) also found that there were a disproportionate number of African American and Mexican American students who were labeled as mentally retarded (MR) [sic] because of the implementation of certain culturally biased assessments that were used to determine intelligence level. She wrote that these tests mirrored the “skills valued by the American core culture” (p. 32) meaning white, middle-class values. She also highlighted the importance of microcultures, such as those for African American and Mexican American children, which are not necessarily aligned with the core American culture. She explained how this mismatch created an educational deficit of opportunities provided to these students and a socially determined status as MR. Placement in low-tracked educational programs such as special education exacerbates the self-fulfilling prophecy; students begin to act and perform in ways that reflect their teachers’ attitudes and perceptions of them (Banks & Banks, 2010).

Disproportionate Representation in Special Education

Disproportionate representation, or disproportionality, can be formally defined as the “unequal proportions of culturally diverse students in special education programs” (Artiles & Trent, 2000, p. 514). In most cases, disproportionality refers to groups that are either under-represented or overrepresented with respect to particular special education eligibility categories. Donovan and Cross (2002) referred to disproportionality as a paradox: the intent did not match the outcomes. Although the intent was to allocate supports and services for students with disabilities and their families, the outcomes have included a history of segregation, low expectations, irrelevant curriculum, and poor post-school outcomes (Sullivan & Bal, 2013).

Institutional factors related to placement and separation are also important to the research on the disproportionate representation of RCLD students in special education programs (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010b; Waitoller et al., 2010). Disproportionate representation occurs most frequently in high-incidence disability categories such as emotionally disturbed (ED), mild intellectual disability (ID) and specific learning disability (SLD; Sullivan & Bal, 2013). The U.S. Department of Education (2010) cites that students identified as black/African American are twice as likely as white/Caucasian students to be labeled with one of these disabilities. By contrast, scholars have also recently begun to review the under-representation of Asian American students in special education and lack of research on this population (Cooc, 2018; Cooc & Yang, 2017; Kulkarni, 2017). Gender disparities have also received limited attention, although most early research cites that RCLD males are most at risk for being overidentified for special education (particularly black and Native American men; Coutinho, Oswald, & Best, 2002).

Harry (2007) explained how an international lens on disproportionate representation in special education programs suggests that, rather than racial differences, which tend to account for much of overrepresentation in the U.S. context, there is an “enduring history of discrimination and exclusion” in these contexts (p. 68). Past studies by Skutnabb-Kangas and Cummins (1988) as well as Gibson and Ogbu (1991) indicated that there is a global pattern of disproportionate representation among RCLD groups. Cooc and Kiru (2018) determined that the majority of articles that discussed disproportionality were based in “European countries (Czech Republic, England, Finland, Greece, Ireland, and Sweden) and four from Australia” (p. 5). In these contexts, disproportionate representation was defined through the following populations: ethnic minorities, immigrants, Indigenous groups, and males (p. 6). Across these international contexts, rationales for disproportionate representation ranged from structural barriers (Berhanu, 2008; Gabel, Curcic, Powell, Khader, & Albee, 2009) to sociocultural barriers (Banks, 2015). These studies suggested the need for school changes (Anastasiou & Polychronopoulou, 2009; Cashman, 2017) and institutional changes (Bruce & Venkatesh, 2014; Cashman, 2017).

Bruce and Venkatesh (2014) looked at country case examples from the United States, Germany, Kenya, and India to compare two industrialized and developing nations. In Kenya, although students with physical disabilities and visual impairments may be identified, provided services, and segregated from typical peers, students with mild disabilities are instead included in general education, without any supports or services (Mukuria & Korir, 2006). Often, these more subjective categories are under-represented as schools for special education are only located in three regions of Kenya (Mutua & Dimitrov, 2001). This suggests that students with disabilities from more rural or faraway regions in Kenya are required to live away from home to access education (Kiarie, 2004). However, some students in Kenya may be overrepresented in the category of emotional disturbance because of a lack of understanding of assessment, misidentification, and ignorance of RCLD groups in this context. Societally, there has also been a long-standing challenge of stigma associated with disability that has created challenges for families who may require supports or services for their children (Bruce & Venkatesh, 2014).

Similarly, as of 2006, less than 1% of children with disabilities attended public schools in India (Singhal, 2006). The perceptions of gender and disability also impact supports and identification of disability in India. Both boys and girls with disabilities are underidentified for a disability, though gendered expectations have dually prevented girls from accessing education (Kalyanpur, 2008). Additionally, social constructions of difference along lines of socioeconomic status (caste system), gender, and disability result in exclusionary educational policies (Kalyanpur, 2008).

In Germany, like the United States, there is an overrepresentation of boys, with about 64% of the special education population in the country being male (Werner, Löser, & Urban, 2008). Most students in the educational system are first identified as requiring services and then placed in a separate setting that matches the disability category. Decisions to place a student in these separate settings is often the result of school failure (Desfoges & Lindsay, 2010). The assigning of disability status to a child in Germany, like in the U.S. context, is often based on within-child perceived deficits rather than systemic structures such as poverty. German schools additionally privilege homogenous grouping and those with extensive financial resources to support education. Also like the U.S. context, few students who enter the German education system exit (only about 5%) (Powell, 2009).

Language and Disproportionality

Further compounding the issue of overrepresentation/under-representation by racial and cultural group is the overrepresentation of students whose first language is not English (known as English language learners, or ELL) in U.S. schools. There have been difficulties in determining whether students who are ELL present language learning disabilities that require additional support; thus, there tends to be an overrepresentation of ELL students in special education as well, especially students from Latinx backgrounds (Klingner & Eppolito, 2014). A lack of meaningful curriculum and instruction for ELL students, as well as inappropriate assessment tools and procedures, has contributed to this overrepresentation (Echevarria & Graves, 2007). Therefore, there is a lack of meaningful, responsive instruction that is delivered in ways to support ELL students, including supports to strengthen their first language (Klingner & Eppolito, 2014).

In Germany, the status of Turkish immigrant children has also been relegated as low performing as compared to native-born/-speaking German students. Söhn and Özcan (2006) report that a lack of language supports for Turkish immigrant children has created educational gaps and low-academic achievement for this group. Native German children obtain German language abilities through socialization and family, whereas many Turkish immigrant children do not have exposure to the language until kindergarten, already creating inequities in experiences as the language of schools is German. Often, language inabilities in German can be misinterpreted as cognitive deficiencies (Söhn & Özcan, 2006). The relative risk of being misidentified for special education services in Germany has continued to be higher for non-native German students such as Turkish (1.9%) and Serbian (4.9%) immigrant communities (Gabel et al., 2009; Kornmann & Kornmann, 2003).

Why Disproportionate Representation Is Problematic

Hosp and Reschly (2003) described three main reasons why overrepresentation in special education among RCLD students is problematic. First, the systematic labeling and separating of students creates stigma and lowered expectations in ways that are similar to low-track educational programs, but with the added internal bodily deficits being located within the RCLD student (Connor, 2009). Teacher expectations also tend to be lowered when they are told that students present academic and behavioral challenges (Patton, 1998). Further, RCLD students tend to be systematically and historically undervalued and discriminated in U.S. public schools, which, compounded with a disability label, creates another layer of deficit-based thinking. Further, bias in assessment and referral processes also undervalues RCLD students and their abilities to be seen as smart and good (Broderick & Leonardo, 2016).

Additionally, RCLD students labeled with a disability are then exposed to irrelevant curriculum and instruction that is not designed to meaningfully address and support their potential needs (Klingner et al., 2005). RCLD students, as opposed to monoculture white/Caucasian students, are also more likely to receive educational placements that are more racially and physically segregated from mainstream classrooms (Skiba, Poloni-Staudinger, Simmons, Feggins-Azziz, & Chung, 2005).

Finally, there are issues related to the value of being placed in segregated special education programs. Lipsky and Gartner (1997) explain how inclusive educational opportunities, a right for all students, produce stronger academic and social/emotional outcomes for both students with and without disabilities. In Urban Narratives: Portraits in Progress, Connor (2009) wrote of the stigma faced by high school RCLD students in New York in disclosing a special education label and the struggles of being in a separate educational setting from their peers.

Causes of Disproportionate Representations

Several authors provide consideration about the root causes of disproportionate representation (Ahram, Fergus, & Noguera, 2011; Skiba et al., 2005). Shealey, Lue, Brooks, and Mccray (2005) contend that disproportionality is a constant reminder that white privilege and racism are engrained into the fabric of American history and society. Research in the early 2000s suggested that disproportionate representation was caused by factors such as teachers’ interactions with the behaviors of RCLD students, inappropriate and culturally biased assessment procedures, and difficulties in distinguishing between a language learning difficulty and a need for special education services (Klingner & Eppolito, 2014).

Additionally, Cooc and Kiru (2018) looked at explanations of disproportionate placement in special education in a global context. The authors found that most international studies explain disproportionality in two major ways: sociocultural barriers and structural barriers. In England and Wales, teachers tended to misinterpret behaviors of Afro Caribbean youth and frame them using a deficit lens. Similar findings were noted in Ireland, where those who were labeled with an emotional behavioral issue tended to be students from RCLD backgrounds. A mismatch between schools and cultural norms of RCLD groups in international contexts was also thought to be a rationale for overrepresentation of this group (Graham, 2012).

In most cases internationally, special education tended to stem from structural issues such as school inequities, issues with identification procedures, and the underlying structures that reproduced existing inequities in schools. RCLD students such as Maori youth in New Zealand, Aboriginal youth in Australia, and Afro Caribbean and Arabic youth in Europe tend to face poor learning outcomes because of these structural barriers to education. Gabel et al. (2009) also suggests that exclusionary policies related to language differences presented by immigrant populations can also contribute to overrepresentation and subsequent poor outcomes.

Kozleski (2015) also argues that Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) “approaches to counting and sorting students contributes to a persistent pattern of disproportionate representation of African American, Latino, and American Indian students in special education” in the United States (p. 101). As Artiles (2014) indicated, data without a strong theory guiding them see compromises in design and structure. Using the concept of infrastructural inversion, Kozleski (2015) explains that any set of data used to count disproportionate representation relies on the ways in which it is organized and used, and different kinds of human variation all influence and contribute to disproportionality, as data rely on socially constructed notions of meaning.

Similarly, how data are used to make decisions about student educational trajectories and outcomes can also cause disproportionate representation, both within and outside U.S. contexts. The role of biased, inconsistent practices for identification and referral also affect RCLD youth internationally (Cashman, 2017). A lack of accountability related to identification and referral, poor assessment practices, and limited infrastructure in schools all contribute to overrepresentation of RCLD youth and disparities in special education (Parsons, 2008).

With Romani children in the Czech Republic, Cashman (2017) found that teachers referred children for psychological testing at the very first sign that they were struggling in class. Rather than implement supports and strategies to mitigate difficulties, several teachers indicated that Roma children were better off with practice-based skills than access to standard curriculum. Cashman (2017) indicated that this parallels how, in the United States, white children with referrals to special education often received meaningful supports while black children were often segregated and taught in settings that reduced their opportunities.

As noted in the section on why disproportionality is problematic, some groups are also under-represented because of lack of services and because of stigma related to disability status. Dinero (2002) found that Arab parents refused to put their children in special education because of inferior services offered and a lack of transportation, especially in rural neighborhoods and districts. In some cases, Arab Palestinian children who have disabilities are ignored because of living in a war-torn context (Kasler & Jabareen, 2017). Cooc (2018) notes that some reasons for under-representation for Asian American students include cultural barriers and model minority statuses that may prevent access to services.


Ahram et al. (2011) similarly note that solutions to disproportionate representation should utilize institutional approaches by using a team-based approach, action plans, and new program development. Although institutional change is required, there has been little attention to shifting the beliefs of teachers and school stakeholders (Ahram et al., 2011). Without attention to beliefs, teachers are more likely to use special education referrals as a safety valve while pathologizing academic and behavioral discrepancies (Harry & Klingner, 2014). Shifts in culturally deficient thinking are required to truly address disproportionate representation and causes. Much of the work directed toward understanding beliefs related to disproportionate representation in special education examines white, female teachers’ beliefs about RCLD students (Fergus, 2018), but studies from 2017-2020 are also beginning to look at how teachers of color are upholding and/or disrupting systemic structures that marginalize RCLD students (Kohli, 2018; Kohli & Pizzaro, 2016). In particular, there is a need to understand and help teachers deconstruct how their beliefs, perceptions, and actions contribute to or disrupt the cycle of racism that then leads to disproportionate representation.

Measurement and Reduction of Disproportionate Representation

Early efforts to begin to address issues of disproportionate representation looked at ways in which it is measured. Chinn and Hughes (1987) were among the first to create the composition index, which allowed school leaders and scholars to measure disproportionate representation. The composition index reviewed the total number of students of a particular racial group who were present in a particular school and compared this with the number of students of that racial group in special education. Comparisons that showed high differences in these two percentages indicated disproportionality. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) adopted this measure and helped set a cut-off point for the definition of disproportionality at 20 points difference between the total population and the representation in special education (Coutinho & Oswald, 2004).

Following the efforts to use the composition index, several scholars began to use odds risk ratios (ORRs) to measure disproportionate representation. The ORR is a comparison of the index of risk for a particular RCLD group and constitutes the rate at which the disability occurs in a group as a percentage. The rates are placed into a ratio by using a comparison group to present a single number that characterizes the intensity of disproportionate representation for the RCLD group. One of the problematic aspects of measuring disproportionate representation this way, however, is that the comparison group used most often is white students (Coutinho & Oswald, 2004). Additionally, there is an issue where the majority of students in a particular district may be RCLD students, and this raises issues about using white students as a comparative group (Coutinho & Oswald, 2004; Westat, 2003). Another issue with ORRs is that there is no determination cut-off for when the risk ratio is large enough to be significant. A way around this issue is to arbitrarily set a cut-off such as 1.5 times; however, the complexities of the context, comparison group, and variation across district may make it difficult to set a universal ORR.

Waitoller et al. (2010) explain how efforts to reduce the number of RCLD students in special education must include policies and legislation geared toward addressing these issues. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004 recognized disproportionate representation of RCLD students in special education and suggested the use of data reporting and accountability to help reduce these numbers. Fifteen percent of federal funds under Part B of IDEA must also be reserved for schools and districts to reduce disproportionality through efforts to provide early intervention. A layer of complexity to this process, however, is that states can set their own definitions of what is.

The OSEP has additionally included, under IDEA Part B, 611 and 619, funds that are set up for maintenance of effort reduction (MOE) and coordinated early intervention services (CEIS) from which states can utilize 15% to make efforts to reduce significant disproportionality. The OSEP report includes the number and percentage of local education associations (LEAs) and educational service associations (ESAs) that were required to utilize the 15% funds for each state (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2018). Recent efforts in the United States by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, however, have attempted to reduce or delay these funds, aiming to push back against the Obama administration, when the IDEA Equity clause was included in 2016.

Banks and Banks (2010) explained that reducing disproportionate representation must attend to three important issues: assessment, culturally responsive supports and services, and family–school connections. Assessment procedures must be adequate and culturally sensitive, and ensure that special education services are aligned with documented needs based on comprehensive assessments rather than biased referrals (Utley & Obiakor, 2001). Highlighting the needs of RCLD students to enhance their educational experiences and programs is also a critical component of reducing disproportionate representation. This would include providing in-service and professional development trainings for teachers, having bilingual aides in the classroom, and making peer support available (Banks & Banks, 2010). Teachers and staff also need to understand family values and home life in ways that respect differences. Partnerships between families and educational professionals should be meaningful, to reduce disproportionate representation.

Response to Intervention

Several scholars have also suggested the importance of using a response to intervention (RTI) system of tiered supports to mitigate issues related to disproportionate representation of RCLD students in special education (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Klingner & Edwards, 2006; Weddle, Spencer, Kajian, & Petersen, 2016; Xu & Drame, 2008). These scholars suggest that, through a tiered intervention process, RTI can reduce biases that are based on culture and/or language acquisition (Weddle et al., 2016). Students receive tiered instruction based on evidence-based practices through whole group instruction. From there, students who are still struggling after 6 to 8 weeks receive slightly more intensive instruction in small group settings. If students still fail to make progress in small group settings, more intensive individual instruction is provided. Students who are still having difficulty after the three-tiered process are then referred for additional evaluation for special education.

Despite the support for RTI, other authors have critiqued the intervention system as yet another way that students are stratified and segregated into low-track programs and special education (Artiles, Bal, & King-Thorius, 2010a; Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, Higareda, 2005; Klingner & Edwards, 2006; Klingner & Solano-Flores, 2007). Klingner and Edwards (2006) proposed a four-tiered RTI model for RCLD students that allows for more time to determine if a student truly needs special education services or whether he or she needs additional intensive instruction prior to being referred to special education. Others have critiqued RTI on the basis of the vague understandings of the label of learning disabilities that is often overused for RCLD students, and have suggested a clearer definition of the meaning of learning disability (Kavale, Holdnack, & Mostert, 2005). The potential of RTI to reduce disproportionate representation exists; however, it does not disrupt the mainstream U.S. school culture of white, middle-class students or the curriculum and instruction utilized in schools.

Formative Interventions

To address the issue of re-designing the system itself, Bal, Kozleski, Schrader, Rodriguez, and Pelton (2014) use a formative intervention called Learning Lab. These authors stated that disproportionality is an “adaptive systemic issue that is not under any entity’s control; thus, it demands collaboration and critical dialogue among local stakeholders” (Bal et al., 2014, p. 327). The Learning Lab (LL) process holds promise in addressing disproportionate representation using a variety of school stakeholders. Started by University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Culturally Responsive Positive Behavior Intervention Support (CRPBIS) team, LL examines the “double bind” of overrepresentation of RCLD students and disciplinary issues by implementing collaboration among local school stakeholders such as administrators, teachers, family members, higher education faculty, and district leaders. Its systematic process was structured through Engström’s (2001) cycle of systemic change that focused on questioning, contradictions, implementation, and consolidation (see Bal et al., 2014, p. 331). Participant stakeholders in the Wisconsin study moved toward a commitment to implement inclusive programming to support all learners and toward an asset-based framing of RLCD students. In 2018, research on LLs suggested that the bringing together of stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, students, and family members, with faculty members created an equity-orientated coalition group that re-examined how disciplinary issues in schools were racialized and how disproportionate representation and discipline were entwined (Bal, Afcan, & Cakir, 2018). Participants of this LL also moved from deficit framings and quick responses to challenging behaviors, to solutions that were rooted in causes and deeper understanding of RCLD backgrounds (Bal et al., 2018).

Debates Surrounding Disproportionate Representation

Recent debates around disproportionate representation suggest that (a) students from CLD backgrounds are actually under-represented in special education; (b) the compounding effects of low socioeconomic status, environment, and health outcomes all increase risk of disability for students from RCLD backgrounds; and (c) students from CLD backgrounds may require additional services to be supported in schools (Morgan et al., 2015, 2018). These arguments internalize deficits to students from RCLD backgrounds, their families, and their communities, instead of addressing school-based complexities of dominant, monoculture curriculum and instructional practices that reproduce existing inequities (Collins et al., 2015).

Morgan et al. (2015) suggested how RCLD students were under-represented in special education classes when compared with white children with similar levels of achievement, behavior, and family resources. The authors claimed that an under-diagnosis of disability occurs across five disability categories including speech/language, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, health impairments, and emotional disturbances following their longitudinal study of children from kindergarten to grade eight (Morgan et al., 2015). A subsequent review by the authors (Morgan et al., 2018) was also conducted using a regression analysis of previous research in the area of disproportionate representation. Although the systematic review included a total of 90 articles, the selection criteria excluded any descriptive articles and omitted those that did not control for individual-level academics.

Collins et al. (2015) also critiqued Morgan et al. (2015) and utilized a Disability Studies in Education (DSE) framework to negate deficit framings of race and ability in the article. Skiba, Artiles, Kozleski, Losen, and Harry (2015) also responded to the claims made by Morgan et al. (2015) through a technical comment piece in the Educational Researcher journal. Their argument centered on the fact that the original piece had sampling errors and inadequate grounding in the literature, and failed to understand disproportionate representation as a complex system of intersecting factors (Skiba et al., 2015).

Enduring Questions on Disproportionate Representation

The recent debates about the overrepresentation or under-representation of RCLD students in special education has further intensified the camps that were once used to explain its existence. Morgan et al. (2015) continue to believe that disproportionate representation is the result of the intersections of socioeconomic factors such as poverty, health, and environment, whereas DSE scholars and sociocultural understandings of disability dictate causes linked to schools as colonial spaces and ever-present systemic racism in schools (Artiles et al., 2010a; Collins et al., 2015; Skiba et al., 2015). Morgan and Farkas’s explanation for the under-representation of RCLD students in special education is linked to their description of these students as having individual deficits that are not being addressed while Artiles et al. (2010a), Collins et al. (2015), and Skiba et al. (2015) all contend that schools perpetuate existing inequities that then result in an overrepresentation of RCLD students. It is anticipated that such a debate will continue into the future as scholars and leaders continue to disagree on the best ways to structure schooling for a variety of learners.

Another one of the ongoing areas of consideration with disproportionate representation in special education and low-track educational programs is the under-representation of other RCLD groups beyond the black–white binary. For example, Asian American students are sometimes overlooked despite requiring supports and services from special education (Cooc, 2017; Kulkarni, 2017; Palmer & Jang, 2005). This is in part due to the stigma around disability and the hesitation families may feel about seeking out services for their children, as was noticed in the Indian context (Singhal, 2006). However, professionals may also overlook Asian American students in need of services because of the “model minority myth” (Lee, 2015), which suggests that Asian Americans are depicted as high-achieving and hardworking and therefore less in need of special education services. Such depictions of Asian Americans fail to recognize the within-group diversity (Kulkarni, 2017).

Cruz and Rodl (2018) similarly identified several areas of future study with disproportionate representation of RCLD students. First, they describe how much of disproportionality data includes a snapshot of data across a short amount of time. Thus, they suggest that longitudinal studies are required to “capture the various points at which a student may enter or exit special education” (p. 61). They also emphasize the need for a theoretical and/or conceptual framework to guide designs of disproportionality studies. Further, the authors caution against using academic measures in understanding disproportionality, as these tend to equate disability with low performance.

Future Research Directions

Although some recent work on disproportionate representation in low-track and special education programs has started to examine local understandings and the experiences of RCLD students who have been tracked and labeled, these studies are still few (Annamma, 2018; Connor, 2009). Further, as Waitoller et al. (2010) mentioned, there is still a need to examine curriculum and instructional tools that are used to assess, refer, and teach RCLD students. In many cases, these tools are a mismatch and culturally irrelevant.

Gabel et al. (2009) describe how a new neo-colonialism has flourished through attitudes that heavily privilege Western ideals of knowledge and attitudes toward recent shifts in migration. The authors indicate that the role of special education and low-track programs for RCLD students is one of assimilation into dominant culture and, consequently, also a tool for exclusion (Gabel et al., 2009). Therefore, there is a need to review the actual purpose of special education and low-track programs. We must ask why such programs are important to the educational structure and if there are other ways to support students in need of additional educational services without the sorting, separating, and labeling that constrains the potentials of RCLD students.

Future research should also address the intersections of dis/ability and race as it relates to education (Fergus, 2015; Gregory & Roberts, 2017). This scholarship moves toward an understanding of dis/ability and race as interdependent through (a) an examination of the ways these social identities manifest in urban school settings (Blanchett, Klingner, & Harry, 2009), highlighting perspectives and experiences of being raced/labeled (Petersen, 2009); and understanding dis/ability and race through an inter-categorical framework and analysis (Erevelles & Minear, 2010). As Connor, Ferri, and Annamma (2016) suggest, racism and ableism are interdependent entities that must be examined, especially as they interact with overrepresentation in public schools.

In the United States, the majority of disproportionality research related to special education has continued to employ odds risk ratios (ORRs) to determine a particular racial/ethnic group’s risk of being identified for special education as compared to white students. Much of the research on disproportionate representation has also used quantitative methods, particularly through the analysis of existing school equity data to examine and improve outcomes. Artiles et al. (2010b) have also used geospatial mapping to examine areas of high disproportionate concentration. The efforts of schoolwide PBIS have also been used to reduce inequitable disciplinary practices that may also be linked to particular disability labels such as emotional disturbance.

There are fewer studies that describe disproportionate representation from the perspective of the students who experience these labels (Annamma, 2018; Connor, 2009). Peterson explains that researchers “should not fear simpler methods that can provide elegant answers to our important questions” (p. 7). Increasingly, there is a strong need for qualitative research in order to express the complexities of disproportionality in special education and low-track programs. This is especially true of the studies that highlight perceptions of disability across both U.S.-based RCLD contexts and cultural groups internationally (Kulkarni, 2017).

Discussion and Conclusion

In the U.S. context, rationales for disproportionate representation tended to fall into two general camps: those who believe that it is a result of poverty, socioeconomic status, and environmental issues; and those who believe that it is a result of a school system and institutional racism that has continued to segregate and separate RCLD students.

Waitoller et al. (2010) highlighted the fact that, in the U.S. context, many of the studies that use poverty as a causal point for the overrepresentation of many RCLD groups do not posit why overrepresentation continues to exist even in schools including RCLD groups who are wealthier. Further, the authors noted that the large focus of disproportionate representation on ORRs and statistical differences has, in some cases, come at the expense of local understandings.

In contexts around the globe, groups of students who are marginalized and deemed non-dominant at the intersections of race, culture, language, and disability tend to be overrepresented or under-represented in special education programs. In many international cases, when RCLD status also intersects with areas such as socioeconomic status and migration, those students who present these differences are overrepresented in low-track educational programs including special education. These patterns are similar to what is seen in the United States, where the promise of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was never truly realized for RCLD students in the school system (Cavendish, Artiles, & Harry, 2015). Laws such as the United States’ Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) or the United Nations Education for All (2000) are important pieces of legislation that demand educational equity for all learners, yet the language is not enforceable, nor does it provide solutions that can be implemented to reduce or eradicate disproportionality. Instead, Cavendish et al. (2015) explain:

We must heed the lessons learned in the sixty years after Brown that top down legislation, without set criteria, timelines and resources, will not result in equitable outcomes for students. More importantly, research that helps us understand the complex technical, cultural, historical, and political processes that mediate practitioners’ efforts to remedy disproportionality is urgently needed (p. 9).


The author would like to acknowledge Dr. Federico Waitoller for the invitation to write this article and the reviewers and editors at Oxford Research Encyclopedia, who helped to make this work possible.

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