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Can Teachers Prevent Racially Disproportionate Spec. Ed. Classifications?

As Liana mentioned, the Council for Exceptional Children is meeting in our neck of the woods this week. Yesterday, I caught an interesting session at the conference on the problem of disproportionate representation of minorities in special education. The speaker was Edward Fergus, who is the deputy director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. Metro Center is the entity that, under a contract with the New York State Department of Education, provides technical assistance to New York school districts that have been cited for "disproportionality"—that is, for over-assigning students from certain racial categories to special education.

Fergus emphasized that the causes of unbalanced spec. ed. classifications are generally systemic within a district, or a part of its overarching instructional culture, and that addressing the issue typically requires layers of organizational change. But toward the end of the session, I got a chance to ask him if he had any advice for individual teachers who want to prevent over-assignment as best they can at the classroom level, or at least not contribute to the problem.

He nodded vigorously and said that teachers in diverse classrooms need to perform a continual series of "gut checks" to ensure that they are reaching all their students. First, he said, they need to ask themselves if their lesson plans truly accommodate the students' varied needs and points of entry. Next, they need to continually monitor the progress the kids are making—in the same way, Fergus suggested, that a conscientious parent checks over a child's homework every night. Finally, teachers need to be assertive about asking for help—from other teachers, from specialists, or even from experts outside the school. Teachers, Fergus said, are often isolated professionally and feel they need to go it alone. "Too much gets bound within the four walls of the classroom," he said.

During the session, Fergus also warned about the problem of "cultural dissonance" in a classroom. As he described it, this occurs when a teacher's beliefs and assumptions about academic decorum or attitudes are simply "incompatible" with those of some of his or her students. He suggested that, to avoid discounting students' potential, teachers need to inquire into whether their beliefs are necessarily true or appropriate to the setting and to work to understand students' perspectives.

Fergus also said that, in his work, he comes across many examples of schools providing inconsistent or half-baked academic interventions to struggling minority students. As one of the audience members put it, many teachers and administrators "confuse accommodations with interventions." Changing the seating arrangement, for example, does not qualify as an intervention. Nor, Fergus emphasized repeatedly, does suspending a student.

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