An examination of referral and eventual placement of African American students and English language learners in special education

Eneas Ruel Deveaux, University of Southern Mississippi


The purpose of this study was to investigate the factors that educators in a large, suburban, public school district in the southeastern United States believe contribute to African American and English Language Learners (ELL) being referred to special education at a higher rate than traditional students by exploring the attitudes and perceptions of teachers, administrators, and psychologists using surveys. Data were analyzed to test for difference in perceptions by educator demographics (i.e., age, race, gender, experience, and educational level). The second purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of educator's perception of referral to Response to Intervention (RTI) eventual placement into special education programs for African American students and English Language Learners. The study employed a mixed method design that combined quantitative and qualitative methods in order to determine the attitudes and perceptions of educators regarding the high referral rate of African American students and English Language Learners (ELLS) to the RTI process in a large suburban school district in the southeastern United States. Quantitative data were collected via surveys that were administered to teachers, school psychologist, and school counselors involved in the RTI process in their respective schools. In addition, demographic data reflecting age, gender, education level, experience, and race were collected. Qualitative data were collected from general education teachers, special education teachers, school psychologist, and school administrators following a review of observational records, RTI meeting minutes, and open-ended survey questions. All research questions were addressed using a series of one-way ANOVAs with position (teachers, administrators, counselors, and psychologists) as the grouping variable and responses to the survey items as the dependent variables. All significant effects with independent variables having more than two levels were followed with Tukey's Honest Significant Difference (HSD) analyses. Results revealed that position differences related to differences in perceptions of classroom needs with regard to minority students. Special education teachers scored lower on these items with higher scores indicating agreement that "classroom teachers have the same learning/behavior expectations" for students in their classroom without regard for minority status. In addition, general education teachers scored lower than counselors on these items with administrators and psychologists not statistically different from either general education teachers or counselors. General education teachers scored highest on both items, while special education teachers scored the lowest on gender differences in lesson planning. The special education teacher, general education teacher, administrator, counselor, and psychologists scored within the same range with their responses to professional development about individual differences. There were no differences between counselors and psychologists regarding their response to the item regarding gender differences in lesson planning. Special education teachers scored the lowest of the other educators regarding the extent to which classroom observations are used to refer students to RTI. A number of factors contribute to disproportionality, including test bias, socioeconomic status, special education processes, issues of behavior management, imbalance in general education, and inadequate teacher preparation. All children have the ability to learn and succeed, however, not in the same way or on the same day. More times than not educators develop an opinion about a student before they have had an opportunity to work with them. These perceptions are developed as a result of stereotypes, personal experiences, the media, inexperience working with a particular demographic, and influences from colleagues. Students have no control over these variables; however, they are subjected to the scrutiny of individuals that are responsible for providing them with a quality education. Educator's perception of the students they serve plays a vital role in their expectations, interactions, and relationships with students they work with. These perceptions tend to hinder an educator's ability to work with students in an unbiased manner in order to get the maximum effort out of their students. Ultimately, these variables contribute to differential rates of referral for minority students across the nation.