Setting the Stage
Academic achievement, classroom behavior, race/ethnicity: three phrases that, when uttered together, communicate complexity and controversy. When the focus is on the extremes of the distribution—on students with pronounced achievement and behavior problems or students considered gifted and talented—complexity and controversy multiply.
In the opening two chapters, we sketch the dimensions of the complexity as we see them. In Chapter 1 we put the current study of minority disproportion in special and gifted education in historical context. We provide the conceptual framework that the committee used to capture that complexity, and a description of the current education context (political, financial, and demographic) in which it is manifest.
In Chapter 2 we provide an analysis of federal data on the representation of minority students in special and gifted programs during the past three decades, as well as a discussion of studies that use more disaggregated data to examine disproportion and its correlates. We make recommendations regarding data collection and usage at the end of Chapter 2.
Controversy will not be quelled by our data analysis, nor should it be. Analysis should inform understanding and decision making; it should not tyrannize it. A thorough grasp of what the numbers do and do not tell us, however, provides a point of departure for more productive discussion, investigation, and decision making.
The Context of Special and Gifted Education
The history of universal public education in the United States is one in which marked student diversity has presented a persistent challenge. Universal K-12 education is founded on the notion that groups of children (typically 20, 30, or more) of similar chronological ages can be effectively taught together by a single teacher using a common curriculum. The greater the diversity of the students in the classroom, the greater the challenges posed by this model. The expectations and demands of the classroom may reinforce the familiar for many students yet be indecipherable for others. While some students may be hopelessly left behind, others may be frustratingly bored.
The evolution of special education programs in the public schools has been inextricably linked with the challenges presented by diverse learners in general education. For some children receiving special education, the diversity is defined by certain physical or medical conditions, such as visual or hearing impairments or a physical disability, that must be accommodated or supported for instruction to be effective. For other students, the ability to comprehend or learn required content at the same pace as others may be impaired to a level that requires both instructional and curricular modifications. For students at the other end of the learning continuum, who may learn at a pace exceeding that of typical classroom instruction, insufficient challenge in the general curriculum may lead to disengagement and underachievement. This report is concerned with the intersection of racial and
ethnic diversity and achievement and with why certain children are overrepresented in some special education programs and underrepresented in those for the gifted and talented.
Since the passage of the federal special education law in 1975, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), there has been racial disproportion in the assignment of students to special education, most persistently in the category of mental retardation but also in the categories of emotional disturbance and, increasingly, learning disabilities. Studies conducted early in the history of Public Law 94-142 (Brewer and Kakalik, 1974) noted that one of the major implementation problems associated with federal policy on special education was the mislabeling of students as handicapped. These studies note the vague and varying definitions of disability used across states and the confusion regarding both type and severity of educational need. The reports concluded that a fundamental issue confronting special education administrators was to identify and use nondiscriminatory devices and procedures. A 1970 survey of the 50 special education directors across the nation conducted by Goldstein et al. (1975) indicated that 56 percent considered mislabeling of students to be “the major controversy in special education today” (p.11).
In 1979 the National Academy of Sciences was asked to conduct a study to determine the factors accounting for the disproportionate representation of minority students and males in special education programs, specifically for students with mental retardation, and to identify placement criteria or practices that do not affect minority students and males disproportionately (National Research Council [NRC], 1982). Twenty years later, concern about the disproportionate representation of minority children in special education persists, and the NRC has been asked to revisit the issue.
Since the first NRC report, there have been a number of changes in general education as well as in special education. Increasing numbers of students are identified for special education services, and more students are receiving more of their special education and related services in general education classrooms. For example, between 1987-1988 and 1998-1999, there was a 35 percent increase in the number of students aged 6-21 served under the IDEA. Furthermore, 46 percent of all of these students spend less than 20 percent of their instructional time outside general education classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). For almost three decades, however, the basic tenets of the law covering the specific eligibility categories and criteria have remained virtually unchanged.
The country has also become increasingly diverse, changing the mix of children by race, ethnicity, and primary language in many school districts.
In 1950, 86 percent of the K-12 population was white. By 2000, that proportion dropped to 65 percent while the proportion of Hispanic students grew from 2 to 15 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1950, 2000). Furthermore, according to a 1995 Census Bureau report, 31 percent of minority students have difficulty speaking English.
At the time of the earlier report, the controversy surrounding overrepresentation focused almost exclusively on the category of mental retardation—and more specifically on the milder cases of “educable mentally retarded.” In fact, the earlier NRC report is devoted almost exclusively to the mental retardation category (NRC, 1982). Since publication of that report, there has been a dramatic reduction in the rate at which children are classified by the public schools as mentally retarded (MacMillan et al., 1996d). In many states the label “mentally retarded” is being reserved for children with only the most patent disabilities. Most children receiving services are currently labeled “learning disabled,” a category that has in recent years accounted for over 50 percent of all children served under IDEA (and over 5 percent of all children in the total school population). Moreover, attention has also shifted to the emotionally disturbed category, as surveys have noted a disproportionate enrollment of black students in that category.
This committee, unlike its predecessor, has been asked by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to broaden its charge to consider the representation of minority children in gifted and talented programs. For students identified as gifted and talented, an almost inverse relationship to special education is observed, with minority student groups who are overrepresented in programs for those with disabilities being underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. The issues are clearly parallel in many respects. The committee agreed to take on this expanded charge with the understanding that the analysis would be far more limited in this area. In some part, the limitation was one of resources. Perhaps more importantly, however, the field of gifted education has been given far less attention than has the field of special education. Support for research on interventions for students with disabilities has not been matched in the field of gifted and talented education. Nor is there a parallel to federal law protecting children with disabilities. As a result, data collection and monitoring have been more limited. The research base on which the committee could draw was therefore a meager one. We accepted the expanded charge, however, because the issues overlap in many respects, and drawing the parallels can strengthen understanding of both arenas.
Paradox of Special Education
Like the earlier committee, we recognize the paradox inherent in a charge that posits disproportionate placement of minority students in special education as a problem. The same program that can separate disadvantaged students from their peers, distinguish them with a stigmatizing label, and subject them to a curriculum of low expectations can also provide additional resources, supports, and services without which they cannot benefit from education. Like the previous committee, we conclude that disproportionality in eligibility for special education many not be problematic when the effect is to enhance opportunity to learn and provide access to high-quality curriculum and instruction. However, disproportionality is a problem when it stigmatizes or otherwise identifies a student as inferior, results in lowered expectations, and leads to poor educational outcomes such as dropping out, failure to receive a meaningful diploma, or diminished chances of moving to productive postschool endeavors.
We also acknowledge that the problem confronted by the earlier NRC committee persists despite almost 20 years of public scrutiny and discussion. Nonetheless, we recognize that changes in understanding of how children learn as well as of effective special education assessment and instructional practices have increased and deserve reexamination. In addition, our view is that the questions that might be asked about special education identification are relevant to those pertaining to placement in gifted and talented programs.
Approach to the Charge
The data, which are discussed in more detail in Chapter 2, suggest that there is in fact disproportion in the representation of some racial/ethnic groups in the three special education categories of mental retardation, learning disabilities, and emotional disturbance, although for learning disabilities the proportions are still in flux. There is substantial disproportion by race in the assignment to gifted and talented programs as well. However, the data have no straightforward interpretation. In view of the profound developmental impact of adverse life circumstances on racial and ethnic groups in U.S. society, proportional representation of groups of children needing services might be inequitable. Without a measure of true incidence of special needs or giftedness, we cannot know whether there are too many or too few students in any racial/ethnic group assigned to any of the categories. Nor in the case of special education do the data indicate whether disproportion is a problem. As noted above, special education placement brings additional resources and individual attention to a student’s needs that are potentially beneficial, at the same time that it potentially brings
stigma, separation from peers, and other adverse effects. From the committee’s perspective, it is problematic when a child does not receive needed services as well as when a child is inappropriately placed in special education or passed over for placement in gifted and talented programs. We therefore set out to understand why current placement patterns exist and how the outcomes for minority students might be improved.
To address our charge, the committee asked four questions:
Is there reason to believe that there is currently a higher incidence of special needs or giftedness among some racial/ethnic groups? Specifically, are there biological and social or contextual contributors to early development that differ by race or ethnic group?
Does schooling independently contribute to the incidence of special needs or giftedness among students in different racial/ethnic groups through the opportunities that it provides?
Does the current referral and assessment process reliably identify students with special needs and gifts? In particular, is there reason to believe that the current process is biased in terms of race or ethnicity?
Is placement in special or gifted and talented education a benefit or a risk? Does the outcome differ by racial/ethnic group?
To structure our deliberations, the committee adopted a conceptual framework that reflects the complexity of the issues pertinent to the identification of any child as an atypical learner. We recognize that designation of a child as having a disability or a gift is in part the result of what happens in general education. We therefore first sought to revisit how special education and gifted and talented programs have evolved within the larger public education context.
INTERSECTION OF GENERAL AND SPECIALIZED EDUCATION
The development of special education and gifted and talented programs in public schools corresponded to the establishment of compulsory attendance laws and the ideology of education as the central remedy for social and economic opportunity (Cohen, 1970). Coinciding with the influx of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, this philosophy resulted in a flood of students who differed ethnically, culturally, and linguistically.
However, with the initiation of universal public education, schools began to confront large numbers of children who were not succeeding in or conforming to the demands of general education classrooms. Cohen (1970) notes that many of these students were immigrants, notably central and southern non-Jewish Europeans. In response to schools’ frustration and lack of understanding of how to cope with students exhibiting severe aca-
demic deficits as well as behavior problems (Hoffman, 1975), administrators began to develop educational alternatives, including ungraded classes.
The origins of disproportionate representation began with the classification of mental retardation, as we discuss further in Chapter 6. Prior to 1900, children with mental retardation were almost exclusively those with conditions of “severe” intellectual retardation associated with some biomedical conditions that resulted in central nervous system damage and inadequate functional levels in different contexts. Ungraded classes for children with significant learning difficulties predated the use of intelligence testing by more than 10 years (Hendrick and MacMillan, 1989). But increasingly the concept of mental retardation was broadened to include both cases of severe retardation with biological underpinnings and cases of milder mental retardation associated with poverty. In other words, there were qualitative differences in these two groups of mentally retarded individuals (Zigler, 1967). The expansion of the concept of mental retardation (see Clausen, 1967) during the first half of the 20th century resulted in ever-greater proportions of the general population being considered mentally retarded. At the same time, there was recognition that while there were no dramatic social class or racial differences in the prevalence of severe forms of mental retardation, low social class was highly implicated in the cases of mild retardation, which was estimated to account for 75 to 80 percent of all cases of mental retardation. The disproportionate numbers of some minority group families living in poverty, in turn, gave rise to the observation that certain minority group children were disproportionately represented in this group of mildly mentally retarded children (Robinson and Robinson, 1965).
Mackie (1969) reported that between 1948 and 1966 there was a 400 percent increase in the number of students identified as mentally retarded served in the public schools. By the time President Ford signed P.L. 94-142 into law in 1975, mild mental retardation had the highest count of any exceptional child diagnosis (Reschly, 1988a). Those working in the public schools, particularly in urban settings, were aware that a disproportionate number of poor and/or minority youngsters populated the burgeoning classes for educable mentally retarded (EMR) children. A number of forces would coalesce during the 1960s to bring the issue of overrepresentation of minority students in this category to the forefront. Publication of a highly influential article by Dunn (1968) noted the disproportionate enrollment of poor minority children in EMR programs, while questioning the benefits of such services and proposing a plan for changing the system. His position was joined by minority scholars (e.g., Johnson, 1969) who, in some cases,
viewed the EMR programs as the public schools’ means of excluding minority students from mainstream education.
Emotional Disturbance and Learning Disabilities
Like programs for mentally retarded children, school-based programs for children classified as emotionally disturbed also began with ungraded classes designed for truant, disobedient, and insubordinate children (Hoffman, 1975). Similarly, throughout the 20th century, the numbers of both school programs and residential psychiatric and clinical programs continued to grow and serve both students with clinically diagnosed emotional disorders and those for whom the initial ungraded classes were designed. Attempts to discriminate between “true” emotional disturbance and social maladjustment have marked the history of classification for emotional disturbance, but the distinction has not been supported by research (Forness and Knitzer, 1990).
The category of specific learning disabilities has been among the fastest growing and is as contentious in terms of diagnostic criteria as emotional disturbance. The term was coined in 1963 by Samuel Kirk to explain students who were experiencing significant academic difficulties and “developmental disorders [in a number of language areas]; that does not include sensory handicaps or mental retardation” (Kirk, 1963). Due to concerns voiced by Congress at the time of passage of P.L. 94-142 that the term was so broad as to potentially swell dramatically the numbers of students who would need special education, the definitional criteria require that the problems with academic achievement not be the result of visual, hearing, or motor impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage (34 C.F.R. §300.541(b) 1999).
Gifted and Talented Programs
The history of differentiated treatment of students at the high end of the achievement distribution also stretches back to the turn of the century. As the influx of immigrants and compulsory education laws summoned large numbers of children into the schools in the early 20th century, accelerated programs were “welcomed wholeheartedly as a policy by school administrators seeking to bring efficiency to their overpopulated schools” (Resnick and Goodman, 1994:113).
The federal government has no legal requirements concerning gifted students analogous to those for students with disabilities. As a result, most gifted children do not have a legal entitlement to an ability-appropriate education (Heim, 1998; Bittick, 1995; Marquardt and Karnes, 1989).
Among the states, definitions of giftedness and commitments to publicly funded special programs for gifted students vary widely (Zirkel and Stevens, 1986). Although some states have specific requirements for gifted education, most merely recommend offering such education, leaving the choice and funding up to local districts (Bittick, 1995).
For example, in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, gifted students are entitled to some of the same legal protections as students with disabilities under state special education laws (Marquardt and Karnes, 1996). In Pennsylvania, state courts have found that the state’s special education statutes protect gifted and talented students as well as students with disabilities and that these protections include the right to appropriate individualized education and individualized education programs. However, these courts also determined that schools do not have to provide services that are not already available in their districts (Marquardt and Karnes, 1996). In Connecticut, state courts found that services to gifted students are discretionary on the part of schools and that while the state’s constitution created a fundamental right to education, for gifted students the right is one of access to education, not a right to a particular kind of instruction (Marquardt and Karnes, 1996; Padula, 1997). These types of provisions mean that gifted and talented students in effect have only a few, if any, of the legal protections afforded to students with disabilities and that the protections that do exist are not available in all states.
The earliest federal legislation pertaining to gifted and talented students called for a study, which resulted in the first federal definition of giftedness establishing broad, general, and overlapping categories (P.L. 91-230). It provided the guideline that one could expect 3 to 5 percent of the population to be gifted. At that time, the task force that produced the “Marland Report” (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1972) studied services to gifted and talented students in the United States estimated that only 3 to 5 percent of all gifted students were receiving any services at all. As an outgrowth of the Marland report, in 1976 Congress established the Office of Gifted and Talented in the U.S. Office of Education with authority to fund special projects to develop professional expertise and programs.
The limited funding for these programs was eliminated with the institution of block grants, and no federal money was allocated to gifted students again until the passage of the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act in 1988. While it has been documented that the number of gifted programs and level of support for programs declined during that period (Purcell, 1994), no systematic national data were collected on the numbers or percentage of students identified or served. The federal report National Excellence (U.S Department of Education, 1993) documented the wide variation by state in percentages of gifted students identified. In 4
states more than 10 percent of their students were identified as gifted and talented, while in 21 states fewer than 5 percent were identified. In 1988 only 65 percent of public schools at the middle school/junior high level reported some opportunity for gifted and talented 8th graders (National Center for Education Statistics, 1998). Passage of the very modestly funded Javits Act (just under $10 million) was distinguished from the earlier funding by short-term support for demonstration projects on the identification of gifted students from populations of students traditionally underserved in gifted programs: students who are economically disadvantaged, students who speak limited English, young gifted children, and children with disabilities.
Interrelationship of General and Specialized Education
As this brief history suggests, who is classified as disabled or gifted at a point in time is in part a function of the diversity of students and the issues that diversity poses for general education. But it is also a function of social policy, the scientific and philosophical understandings that guide it, and the resource allocation that is determined by it. For special education, entitlement to additional resources, specialized personnel and services, as well as unique civil rights protections, is dependent on an individual classification of disability. While federal law does not require the use of particular disability categorizations, the establishment of a recognized disability is a prerequisite for securing the entitlement. Thus, definitional criteria and assessment procedures become critical elements of special education. Yet, the line drawn between those who do and do not require special services is artificial and variable. Eli Bower, whose definition of emotional disturbance was partially incorporated into federal law, stated, “Definitions are usually clear and concise at the extremes of a condition...As one moves from the extreme...toward the mean, one reaches a point where the waters are sufficiently muddied to cause...problems. However where such definitions limit or prescribe who may or may not receive services, the definitional problem becomes significant for children, their families, and school systems” (Bower, 1982:55).
The historical concept of a student with a disability or of a gifted student suggests that the characteristics of concern are within the child—an individual or fixed-trait model of ability—and that the student with a disability or a gift is qualitatively different from peers. However, for the high-incidence disabilities with which we are concerned, as well as for giftedness, both of these propositions are called into question.
In terms of cognitive and behavioral competence, students fall along a continuum depicted in Figure 1-1 in shades of gray; there is no black-and-white distinction between those who have disabilities or gifts and those
who do not. At the far ends of the continuum there is little dispute about a child’s need for something different—for example, children who are severely mentally retarded, severely dyslexic, who have pronounced behavioral disorders, or whose cognitive function is years beyond that of peers. In Figure 1-1 these students fall at the far ends of the continuum where specialized curricula and instruction are required. Without special supports, placement of these children in a general education classroom is clearly inappropriate, and even with supports a separate educational environment may be required. But as one moves away from the extremes, where the line should be drawn between students who do and do not require special supports is unclear. A variety of forces push on the lines from opposing directions. As standards for students’ performance rise, more students will appear to need special supports. As resources for remedial education or for students with limited English proficiency increase, the number of students whose needs can be addressed in the general education context applies an opposing force on that line.
While a line is drawn between those who do and do not receive special or gifted services, there is substantial variation in the type of service received. Placement in special education can occur even when a child requires only accommodations in the general education setting to learn the required curriculum. These accommodations can include increasing time and opportunity through multiple presentations, more intensive instruction, or more structured learning environments. Some students may need to learn certain meta-cognitive strategies. Other students may need more modifications and
changes in the curriculum or entirely different sets of programs and services. In any event, the primary components of education are designed to aid the child in accessing and progressing in general education. The services may require additional personnel or specialized training, smaller groups, or specific settings that general educators are unable or unaccustomed to providing. For gifted students, accommodations in the classroom are not mandated by law and will occur at the teacher’s discretion.
Figure 1-1 depicts the various settings in which services are provided. Like the line between general and special or gifted education, the line between those served in general education classrooms, and those served in separate settings speaks to the social policy and resource allocation at a point in time. For any individual student, the requirement for specialized supports and services can vary by age and by subject matter. It can even be teacher specific. The degree of diversity that can be accommodated in an individual classroom varies and represents an interaction between what the child brings to the learning environment and the characteristics of that environment.
The identification for special education or gifted and talented programs that we set out to understand has at its core the phenomenon of individual student achievement. We have argued that where along the continuum of achievement the lines are drawn for specialized education is artificial and variable. Perhaps of greater concern, however, are factors that affect where a student falls along the continuum. For students having difficulty in school who do not have a medically diagnosed disability, key aspects of the context of schooling itself, including administrative, curricular/instructional, and interpersonal factors, may contribute to their identification as having a disability and may contribute to the disproportionately high or low placements of minorities. The complexity of issues of culture and context in schools makes it nearly impossible to tease out the precise variables that affect patterns of special education placement. In a parallel vein, the child who may ultimately exhibit exceptionally high performance is a product of the interactions of those same variables of school context and interpersonal factors.
The extent to which the ability or behavior of concern in school performance is an intrinsic characteristic of the child or a consequence of the child’s context is difficult to determine. The steady rise in IQ scores of about 3 points per decade—well publicized as the “Flynn effect” (Flynn, 1984, 1987)—has presented a significant challenge to those who argue for a fixed-trait model of intelligence (Neisser, 1998). The malleability of mea-
sured IQ scores with early intervention programs also suggests a powerful influence of environment on cognitive performance.
We attempt to capture relevant elements of the complexity that lies behind student achievement in Figure 1-2. What the child brings to the teaching-learning interaction is certainly influenced by individual biological traits or genetic endowment, as well as environmental and health influences on the child’s biology. But it is also influenced by the child’s family context, including the level of income and education of the parents and the family and community cultural environment.
As Figure 1-2 suggests, a student’s achievement is the product of an instructional process and set of interactions that directly involve the teacher. Teachers differ in the individual characteristics (ability and temperament) they bring to the classroom just as students do. Teacher education and certification and several years of experience in the classroom have been demonstrated to positively influence student achievement (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). The teacher’s ability to manage the classroom has been shown to affect student achievement and behavior as well (Betts and Shkolnik, 1999; Levine and Ornstein, 1989; Martens and Kelly, 1993; Pierce, 1994; Wang et al., 1994). Other characteristics, such as the teacher’s familiarity with students of various cultural backgrounds, may have an influence on teacher effectiveness with particular subgroups of children.
Finally, the classroom environment itself exerts an influence on individual student achievement. Salient features of the classroom include the size (number of students), the diversity of the student body including the cognitive and behavioral development of peers, the curriculum that the teacher is assigned or chooses, the materials and resources she or he has available to work with, and the other support personnel, such as school psychologists, administrators, and special education teachers, on whom she or he may rely for support.
In our effort to understand minority disproportion in special and gifted education, then, the committee set out to understand each of the three arenas that contribute to achievement. The domains of policy that we considered central to the task of addressing disproportion included not only those that define special and gifted education, but also those that affect the early developmental trajectories of children, the quality of teaching to which children are exposed, and the classroom environments in which children must learn. Our perspective is one in which special education and gifted education are viewed as integral parts of the general education system, and addressing disproportion in special and gifted education will require addressing the entire educational system.
THE CURRENT EDUCATION CONTEXT
As noted earlier, the issues addressed by this committee are much like those confronted by the NRC panel in 1979; however, much has changed in public education in the intervening two decades. Medical advances mean that more children are living with medical conditions that can cause significant barriers to school achievement (Berman et al., 2001). The biological challenges brought by children to the classroom are thus different than they were two decades ago.
The past 20 years have brought considerable demographic and economic changes. As noted earlier in this chapter, the nation continues to become more ethnically diverse, changing the mix of children by race, ethnicity, and primary language in many school districts. Wealth and economic opportunities have increased for many, but disparities by race persist. Between 1980 and 1997, poverty levels among white, black, and Hispanic school-age children remained relatively constant. However, while the proportion of white students living in poverty hovered around 15 percent, the rates for Hispanic children were between 35 and 40 percent and for black children, rates varied between slightly below 40 and 45 percent (Lloyd et al., 2001).
Minority and poor children are increasingly concentrated in urban areas in which schools were constructed decades earlier and are poorly maintained and inadequately staffed by educators who are often poorly qualified. These children live in urban areas “characterized by a set of problems so severe that some see them as threatening the long-term viability of American society” (NRC, 1999a). Blacks and Hispanics are especially likely to live in neighborhoods where educational and economic opportunities are the most limited and where these problems are worsening, rather than improving with the nation’s economic robustness (NRC, 1999a; Lloyd et al., 2001). The economic context affects the environmental influences on a child’s development, and where poverty is concentrated, it affects the classroom influences as well.
Capacity of Educational Personnel
As Figure 1-2 suggests, teachers play a key role in student achievement. One of the greatest future challenges facing the effort to obtain appropriate educational opportunities for children in the nation’s schools will be an unprecedented demand for new teachers to teach an increasingly pluralistic student population (Darling-Hammond, 1997; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996; Melnick and Pullin, 2000). There are 3.22 million teachers currently working in the nation’s schools (Gerald and Hussar, 2000). But it is estimated that more than 2 million new teach-
ers will be needed in the first decade of the 21st century (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001).
There is currently a severe shortage of special educators and related personnel (Council for Exceptional Children, 2001). Nearly 98 percent of public schools currently report a shortage of special education teachers (Boyer, 2000). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of special education teachers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2008. The Department of Labor attributes this employment growth to the increase in the enrollment of students with disabilities, legislation pertaining to the education and employment of people with disabilities, and education reform movements (National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education, 2001).
Changing Education Policies
The dividing lines between general education and special or gifted education, as we argue above, reflect the conditions of the entire educational system at any point in time. In the past two decades, several trends in public policy have exerted pressure on those lines, sometimes in competing directions. One of the more powerful influences is the political pressure for greater accountability and productivity in schools. While public commitment to the importance of elementary and secondary education as a social and economic equalizer remains strong, new strategies for achieving these goals have emerged.
Over the past two decades, there has been increasing emphasis on closing the achievement gaps between white and minority students and between the economically disadvantaged and the middle class. Previously, as Tyack and Cuban posited (1995), we tinkered with education reforms in a series of ongoing but unsuccessful efforts at achieving equality and excellence. Now there is increasing evidence that more substantial education reforms are needed, and many are being implemented. These include the imposition of high uniform standards and universal public accountability for student performance as well as increased flexibility and choice in how communities decide to educate students. New standards raise the bar for acceptable achievement and, all other things being equal, define the group of students who need special supports to meet expectations more broadly.
While there was initially little consideration of the impact of standards-based reform on students with disabilities (see NRC, 1997a), recent efforts have begun to address this issue. Changes in Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the 1997 amendments to IDEA include sev-
eral new provisions that seek to align certain special education practices with a standards-driven reform model. These include the requirement that students with disabilities participate, with appropriate accommodations, in state and local tests of student achievement and public reporting of student scores. Changes to the IEP (individualized education program) process require greater attention to ensuring that individual students have access to the general education curriculum. But growing controversy over the depth of the nation’s commitment to educating all children to high standards (NRC, 1999b) is even more salient for special education.
The Goals 2000: Educate America Act (20 U.S.C. § 5801 et seq.) and the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (20 U.S.C. § 6301 et seq.) require participating states to develop and implement state improvement plans that must include state content standards and state student performance standards for all students (20 U.S.C. § 5886 (c)(1)(A); see also 20 U.S.C. § 6311(b)(1)(A) (IASA)). The law explicitly defines “all students” as including students with disabilities (20 U.S.C. § 5802(a)(1); see also 20 U.S.C. § 6315(b)(2)(A)(i) (IASA)).
The new federal requirements were adopted as part of changes that also expanded the use of funds from the federal government’s largest aid program for elementary and secondary schools: Title I (20 U.S.C. § 6315(b)(2)(A)(i)). Under Title I, a school must provide opportunities for “all” children, including those with disabilities, to meet the state’s student performance standards (20 U.S.C. § 6315(b)(2)(A)(i); § 6315(c)(1)) and yearly assessments for accountability on how those standards are met. The requirements of the new law are designed to have several consequences for students with disabilities.
First, educational standards will be articulated and incorporated into special education. Second, there must be accountability for the education of students with disabilities. As in general education, the changes in special education law are motivated by the desire to improve educational outcomes of students with disabilities and to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to learn the same challenging and presumably essential and enduring content as all other students. Aligning special education with standards-driven reform offers an opportunity to refine the goals and functions of special education in contemporary public education but also exerts counter-pressure on the special education/general education dividing line. On one hand, special education identification no longer exempts the school from accountability for an individual student’s achievement; on the other hand, the demands of new content and performance standards can create conditions in classrooms that are less tolerant of children who are slower to learn.
While the above changes directed at raising achievement standards are likely to exert pressure on the line between general and special education in
the direction of requiring additional supports for more students, some policy changes exert countervailing pressure. Proposed 2001 congressional reauthorizations of Title I and other sections of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would affect the delivery of services to students at high risk of educational failure through the inclusion of new emphases on reading and limitations on bilingual education. The availability of additional resources for compensatory and bilingual education allows for the needs of more students to be addressed in the general education context, reducing pressure to expand the numbers of students requiring special education.
The impact of the standards movement and high-stakes testing on disproportionality in identification of and services for gifted students remains to be seen. The imposition of high-stakes testing may reduce the amount of time that is devoted to teaching high-end learning that will stimulate the talent and thinking of the gifted student, particularly in classes in which many students struggle to meet the standards.
PLAN OF THE REPORT
Our first task as a committee was to look at the data on students assigned to special education and gifted education by racial/ethnic groups to determine whether and to what extent disproportion exists. We present our analysis of the available data in Chapter 2. Part II of the report looks at early experience. To understand the observed disproportion, we address our first question in Chapter 3: “Is there reason to believe that there is currently a higher incidence of special needs or giftedness among some racial/ethnic groups?” We look at influences in the early childhood period that may affect the cognitive and behavioral development of children in ways that raise the probability of later special education placement—or lower the probability of being identified for gifted and talented programs. In Chapter 4 we look at early intervention programs designed to improve the developmental trajectory of disadvantaged children.
In Part III we look at the school experience, beginning with general education and then special and gifted education. In Chapter 5 we address our second question: “Does schooling independently contribute to the incidence of special needs or giftedness among students in different racial/ ethnic groups through the opportunities that it provides?” The chapter spans issues of educational resources, potential bias toward minority students, and instructional and classroom management practices that may be helpful in placing at-risk students on a path to school success.
In the next three chapters we look at referral and assessment practices in special and gifted education. Here we address our third question: “Does the current referral and assessment process reliably identify students with special needs and gifts? In particular, is there reason to believe that the
current process is biased in terms of race or ethnicity?” In Chapter 6 we focus on the legal context and the referral process. In Chapter 7 we discuss current assessment regulations and practices in the categories of learning disabilities, mental retardation, and emotional disturbance and assessment for gifted and talented students. In Chapter 8 we consider the major challenges to existing practices and alternative approaches to assessment.
In Part IV we look at improving student outcomes. In Chapter 9 we address our fourth questions: “Is placement in special or gifted and talented education a benefit or a risk? Does the outcome differ by racial/ethnic group?”
Throughout the report we present recommendations in context. Recommendations regarding data collection appear in Chapter 2, and those regarding early childhood intervention appear in Chapter 4. In Chapter 5 our recommendations focus on improving teacher quality, and in Chapter 8 we propose an alternative approach to special education identification, and research to support improved assessment and intervention in gifted and talented programs. Recommendations for additional research and development appear in Chapter 9.
The report covers a great deal of territory. In Chapter 10 we bring together the conclusions and recommendations as an integrated presentation of an approach to special and gifted education that begins early and focuses on continual efforts to identify and respond to children’s needs as they arise. A central element of our proposal for change is the ongoing capacity building required to use the best of the existing knowledge base to support the achievement of children from all racial/ethnic groups, as well as continued research and development to extend the knowledge base in ways that are directly useful to educational practice.