ERIC Identifier: ED447627
Publication Date: 2000-08-00
Author: Warger, Cynthia - Burnette, Jane
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Arlington VA.
Five Strategies To Reduce Overrepresentation of Culturally and
Linguistically Diverse Students in Special Education. ERIC/OSEP Digest #E596.
Children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds comprise a
large percentage of public school students. Diversity is increasing, and one of
the most troublesome issues associated with its growth is the overrepresentation
of minority children in special education--that is, more minority children are
served in special education than we would expect based on their percentage in
the general school population.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the issue of
disproportionality of minority students in special education first received
national attention. Since that time, researchers and practitioners have studied
the issue in an effort to understand and explain how the processes used to
identify, assess, and place students in special education programs may
contribute to the overrepresentation of minority students. In addition, they are
identifying processes that successfully prevent inappropriate placement and
ensure that the opportunities for educational achievement offered to minority
students equal those offered to the majority group.
To this end, researchers Beth Harry and Janette Klingner, with support from
the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), are investigating
exemplary special education referral and decision making processes for
culturally and linguistically diverse students. Although Harry and Klingner are
in the early stages of their work, they are finding that professionals generally
attribute overrepresentation to one of the following sources: family and
community issues, external pressures in schools (e.g., mandated curriculum, high
stakes assessments), classroom instruction and management, and teacher
perceptions and attitudes. There is widespread recognition that supports
provided to teachers and other professionals by the school district are
essential to building the capacity of district personnel to work with students
of different cultures and languages. This digest provides examples of strategies
created by researchers and practitioners to address some of these issues.
PROMOTE FAMILY INVOLVEMENT AND RESPECT DIVERSE
Researchers continue to point to family involvement in the
school and its operation as a major factor in improving student achievement.
However, researchers also show that for successful collaborations to occur,
school personnel must respect the cultural background of the family.
Several years ago, the Highland Park School District in Michigan received
support from OSEP to develop a demonstration model to prevent emotional
disturbance and treat children with emotional disturbance in a culturally
competent manner. Family involvement is a key component of the Highland Park
approach. Throughout all aspects of the program, families are essential team
members. They are key in identifying supports and designing implementation plans
for the services they and their children receive. The success of the approach is
based on an underlying belief that families are not the source of their
children's difficulty, but rather are partners in planning for their children's
Program staff have learned much about being culturally sensitive when
interacting with families. LeVann Townsel, director of the program, offers the
* Take time to educate the family. Many families do not
know what emotional disturbance means. They may not feel comfortable asking
questions or they may view the process negatively. It is important to view this
situation from the family's perspective.
Go to the family. Whenever possible, meet with the family in the home.
Arrange parent support groups. Help parents come together to support each other.
Encourage them to develop advocacy skills.
Find out what the parents need. Often, parents need support or an extra boost.
Find out what might help them feel more confident.
Push for parent membership on school and community teams and boards. Parents
should be given opportunities to contribute their expertise in ways that are not
directly related to their own child.
Encourage parents to talk about their dreams for the child. Don't tell parents
what is wrong with their situation. They already know.
Know the difference between the culture of the family and the economic situation
of the family. It is important to understand how poverty affects families. For
example, families may have experience working with welfare agencies who do
business differently than schools. It is important to understand behaviors from
many contexts and to take an integrated approach to understanding people.
Learn as much about the family's culture as possible. Find out the values-how
they view disabilities and mental health issues.
MAKE THE CURRICULUM RELEVANT
Children's learning is
enhanced when they have opportunities to learn new skills in meaningful
contexts. They respond positively to curricula that draw upon their own
experiences and celebrate their heritages and cultures. When motivation is high,
children tend to be more actively involved in learning.
With OSEP support, Susan Fowler, Dean at the University of Illinois, and her
colleague, Beverly Lewman, in the Department of Special Education, have
developed and are assessing the impact of a culturally appropriate preschool
curriculum. SPARK, which stands for Skills Promoted through Arts, Reading, and
Knowledge, is a preschool creative arts curriculum for teachers of young
children with developmental delays or at risk of developing delays. SPARK is
based on stories and resources from many cultural and ethnic traditions. It
provides opportunities for preschool children to achieve developmental and
school readiness skills by actively attending to stories and participating in
activities based on music, art, and drama. Staff members report that the
curriculum helps students who speak English as a second language learn English
faster than students who were not exposed to the curriculum. Formal evaluations
indicate that the curriculum helps children develop early learning skills,
particularly increased vocabulary, print awareness, ability to print, and
BUILD ON STUDENTS' STRENGTHS
Building on students'
strengths has long been a principle of special education, but is a particular
challenge in teaching students whose home language is not English. With OSEP
support, Robert Jimenez has been studying the literacy strengths and
difficulties faced by language minority students with learning disabilities in
grades 4 to 6. He has been developing instructional interventions based on
teaching the strategies of high-performers to low- performing students, and
these interventions have produced excellent results.
Low performing readers often have naive conceptions about the purpose of
reading. For example, students from language-minority backgrounds often pursue
finishing the task as their primary objective and believe that reading is
synonymous with decoding and pronunciation of isolated words. Jimenez supports
explicit instruction of strategic reading processes, including how to access
what students know in their primary language. Strategies that successful
bilingual readers share with successful monolingual readers include making
inferences, drawing conclusions, integrating prior knowledge into ongoing
meaning construction, and asking questions when comprehension breaks down.
In addition, Jimenez has identified some strategies that he suspects may be
indicative of a bilingual schema for reading. Jimenez provides the following
example. Searching for vocabulary is a reading strategy that draws on the
native-language strength of Spanish-English bilingual students. When students
are confronted with unfamiliar vocabulary, they check to see whether they know a
related word in their own language. Related bilingual reading strategies include
translating, transferring information across languages, and reflecting on text
either in Spanish or English. These are strategies that help low performing
bilingual students improve comprehension, but they also appear to be indicators
of a fairly well developed Spanish- English bilingual scheme for reading.
TAKE THE TEACHER PREPARATION PROGRAM TO THE COMMUNITY
is no better way to develop understanding of a culture than to live within it.
With OSEP support, the University of Northern Arizona (NAU) is partnering with
the Kayenta Unified School District to prepare teachers. Referred to as RAISE
(Reaching American Indian Special/Elementary Educators), the project prepares
both Navajo and non-Navajo university students to earn dual certification in
special and elementary education.
Most of the Navajo students are currently working as paraprofessionals or
general educators with the district. Non-Navajo students live in Kayenta, which
is a very remote community in the Navajo Nation. The district provides the
non-Navajo students housing at no cost, and in return the university students
work in the schools daily from 8:00 a.m. until noon.
In addition, a NAU faculty member lives in Kayenta and teaches on site.
According to Greg Prater, Program Director, having a faculty member on site,
working and interacting with the students and school district community,
provides university students with an increased opportunity to learn more about
the culture and the language.
PROVIDE DISTRICT SUPPORT TO BUILD THE CAPACITY OF
With OSEP support, the Tucson Unified School District is designing
and implementing a plan to reduce disproportionality. According to Gail
Bornfield, Director of Special Education for the district, the goal of this plan
is to bring supports to children and instructional staff prior to referral for
special education evaluation. The process allows instructional staff to look at
children with high expectations and the belief that all children can and do
The first and crucial step was to provide significant training in cultural
awareness to instructional staff. As they put their training into operation, the
district provides several levels of support:
Behavioral specialists observe children in the classroom, prepare functional
behavioral assessments, and work with the teacher to develop behavior management
Social workers work with families around problems that the child is experiencing
at school, and in some cases, develop behavioral plans for the home.
Instructional specialists are assigned to the classroom and to individual
children as needed. They are responsible for carrying out the behavioral plan
and monitoring interventions.
A member from the child's cultural background on the IEP team provides essential
information, especially when the team is determining eligibility for services
for emotional disturbance.
Teacher tips are written by staff and are available on the web or in print form.
The tips offer practical ways to integrate positive strategies to address
culture in the classroom and through instruction.
Study area departments are established for each of the following cultural and
linguistic groups: African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian
American. The department provides specialists and tutors.
These support systems provide additional perspectives and approaches to aid
teachers and other district staff in developing their ability to work with
students of different cultures. Such knowledge is essential if we are to reduce
disproportionate representation and offer equal educational opportunity to all
Burnette, J. (November 1999). Critical behaviors
and strategies for teaching culturally diverse students. Reston, VA: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. http://ericec.org (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service Number ED 435 147). Available for a fee through
the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS) 800.443.3742.
Burnette, J. (March 1998). Reducing the disproportionate representation of
minority students in special education. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education. http://ericec.org (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service Number ED 417 501). Available for a fee through the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS) 800.443.3742.
Jimenez, R. (1997). The strategic reading abilities and potential of five
low-literacy Latina/o readers in middle school. Reading Research Quarterly, 32,
Markowitz, J., Garcia, S.B., and Eichelberger, J.H. (1997, March). Addressing
the disproportionate representation of students from ethnic and racial minority
groups in special education: A resource document. Alexandria, VA: National
Association of State Directors of Special Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service Number ED 406 810.) Available for a fee through the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS) 800.443.3742.
Santos, R., Fowler, S., Corso, R., & Bruns, D. (2000). Acceptance,
acknowledgment, and adaptability: Selecting culturally and linguistically
appropriate early childhood materials. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 32 (3),
14-22. Available for a fee through the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS)