Addressing Diversity in Special Education Research.
by Utley, Cheryl A. - Obiakor, Festus E.
Over the next two decades, American society will become increasingly
multiethnic and multilingual (Rodriguez, 1990). The number of children
living in poverty will substantially increase, and there will be a significant
increase in the number of homes where children speak a primary language
other than English.
Students are at greater risk of needing special education services when
they are poor or of a minority race or language (Baca & Almanza, 1991);
therefore, it is critical that special education researchers address these
issues if their results are to apply to the special education population.
This digest reviews scientific and methodological problems related to race,
ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Three areas warranting specific attention
* Defining terms with precision and accuracy.
* Examining epistemological considerations as they relate to the study
of racial and ethnic groups.
* Developing unbiased research methodology and procedures.
DEFINING TERMS WITH PRECISION AND ACCURACY
There are many definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic
status. Within these definitions, society creates, constructs, and shapes
the criteria for determining the category to which individuals belong.
It is important for researchers to acknowledge any inherent assumptions
or limitations associated with the particular definitions that they have
chosen for their studies. Two examples follow.
Race and Ethnicity. The classification scheme developed by the U.S.
Bureau of Census is the most commonly used method for identifying racial
and ethnic groups in the United States. But, unfortunately, it is not without
problems. Entwisle and Astone (1994) summarize the most critical problems
* Race and ethnicity are confounded when respondents fall under more
than one category (e.g., Hispanic, Latino, and Puerto Rican).
* The amount of information gathered on the ethnicity of a particular
group varies among groups (e.g., there is an abundance of information gathered
on Pacific Islanders, while little is collected for Haitians).
* Individuals may prefer to be acknowledged by categories different
from those offered (e.g., Black rather than African-American).
Socioeconomic Status. The term "social class" has been used to group
people by such criteria as income, occupation, education, values, and behaviors.
However, categories usually include classifications such as lower class,
working class, middle class, and upper class (Banks and Banks, 1993). In
traditional research studies, socioeconomic status is usually determined
by an adult member of the household whose income level has the most influence
on the economic status of the family. Unfortunately, this scheme does not
reflect the fact that many racial and ethnic families in the United States
are diverse, with children residing in two-parent, single-parent, and stepparent
families. Thus, the economic status of the family may be influenced by
a variety of sources (e.g., breadwinner within the family of residence
or biological parent living apart from the child) that are not acknowledged
by traditional indicators.
EXAMINING EPISTEMOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Presuppositions and biases affect the research process. When considering
multicultural issues, two critical epistemological considerations that
should be examined, regardless of methodological approach, are presumptions
related to use of racial categorizations and inferences made to explain
differences in group data.
Race Categorization. The construction of race categories by social scientists
has always been problematic. Traditional descriptions of racial groups
with distinct phenotypic attributes have been repeatedly linked to presumptions
about moral character, personality, inter-personal behavior, and intelligence,
most of which are often depicted in a negative way (West, 1993). These
presumptions not only undermine the integrity of the research, but fuel
stereotypic thinking about diverse cultural groups.
Furthermore, in quantitative research, the use of codification schemes
can promote homogeneous descriptions, since such schemes often use the
underlying assumption that each individual has a similar racial identity.
This can cause the results to show individuals who "look" a certain way
and/or who have a certain identity characteristic, are therefore "alike"
(Obiakor, 1994). As an alternative, researchers concerned with multicultural
issues can explore within-group variability based on quantifiable data.
Explaining Group Differences. In status-related research with racial
and ethnic groups, the issues of ethics and human values are extremely
important and controversial (Stanfield, 1993). Value-neutral methods of
data collection and interpretation are critical to ensuring that research
findings promote an accurate, not stereotyped, view of racial and ethnic
In race and ethnicity research, cultural standards of data generalization
are typically based upon universal statements reflecting Eurocentric normative
and scientific principles. Unfortunately, such an approach often assumes
that concepts or standards, such as indicators of achievement, socialization,
development, or performance, transcend cultural barriers. But they may,
in fact, differ across cultural groups. Furthermore, some indicators that
are determined to be "problematic" in one culture may actually have a positive
effect on behavior in another culture. Knowledge of such cultural differences
can help researchers avoid many of the procedural pitfalls that can result
in stereotyping of racial and ethnic groups (Obiakor & Utley, 1997).
DEVELOPING UNBIASED RESEARCH METHODOLOGY AND PROCEDURES
To develop unbiased procedures, special education researchers must consider
sampling, instrumentation, and measurement.
Sampling. A clear, concrete definition and description of the demographic
characteristics of the sample under study is key to enabling researchers
to replicate work (Padilla & Lindholm, 1995). At the very least, the
racial and ethnic make-up of the study sample should be described, and
there should be a process in place to control for the confounding of such
variables as location (i.e., urban, rural, or suburban), acculturation,
language, and socioeconomic level.
Instrumentation. Issues of instrumentation and measurement as they relate
to racial and ethnic groups are central to understanding research conclusions.
For example, using research instruments such as rating scales and achievement
tests that may be appropriate measures for middle-class Anglo children
and their families may not be appropriate for research with other racial
and ethnic groups (Hilliard, 1995; Obiakor, 1994; Padilla & Lindholm,
When selecting instruments, appropriateness or cultural equivalence
should be considered. Key questions include:
* Are the selected instruments appropriate for use with the ethnic group
* Is there equivalence across cultures of the important concepts that
are used in educational research?
* Have the instruments been accurately translated?
In addition, the cultural relevance of items on instruments can have
different effects on racial and ethnic groups. To address the issues, researchers
must decide whether or not they need instruments with certain specifications
to meet the needs of different populations. Key questions include:
* Is it necessary to use specially designed instruments to assess characteristics
such as acculturation, ethnic identity, English-language proficiency, or
culturally specific learning strategies?
* How are such instruments identified for use with multicultural populations?
Finally, there is a growing body of research that suggests that different
groups may respond differently to test-taking strategies when responding
to the same information--thereby biasing results. A key question that addresses
this issue is: Do students of different cultures respond to the research
questionnaires and other data collection instruments in the same manner?
Measurement. Multicultural factors can affect issues of reliability
and validity (Hilliard, 1995). There are several ways that researchers
might guard against bias. For example, internal-consistency reliability
should be computed separately for each racial and ethnic group and their
comparison groups (Padilla & Lindholm, 1995). Similarly, because constructs
can have different meanings across racial and ethnic groups, exploratory
factor analysis can be used to determine whether the instruments that are
to be used in the research truly measure the construct in question.
Multicultural factors can have a far-reaching impact on special education
research, and they are predicted to have an even greater impact in the
future. A conscientious and thorough effort by researchers is needed to
guarantee that research findings result in informed decisions on special
education policy and practice. Special education researchers can take a
proactive approach to assuring unbiased, valid and reliable research results
by addressing issues of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic level in their
research design, methodology, and reporting practices.
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