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Presentation of African Americans in Education Programs

Literature Review of References used in the Overrepresentation of African Americans in Special Education Programs.

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The following literature review looks at peer-reviewed journals whose research topics relate to culturally diverse pedagogy, the teaching of students of color, and the experiences of special education, segregation, equity in educational opportunity, and African American student experiences in general and special education. The reviewed literature seeks to give support to the study of the topic of the overrepresentation of African Americans in special education programs.

Given the nature of special education and its primary beneficiary, the study by Blanchett (2009) supports the notion that African Americans, who are the major recipients of special education, of making the vast majority of the poorly educated population. This follows the fact that special education is different from regular education. With the historical analysis presented in the study by Blanchett (2009), one can see the relevance of the current problem and understand its origin. The review of the historical treatment of disability, challenges of education that people with disabilities face, and the use of special education to ‘resegregate’ African Americans are the concepts that the study highlights. The importance of the study by Blanchett (2009) is in the fact that there are only a few attempts made on the examination of the relationship between special education and urban education.

African American students who attend special schools unwillingly lose their right to equal protection. In fact, public schools have only recently begun taking students with disabilities seriously in their education programs (Blanchett, 2009). Previously, they were not under the obligation of the law. As such, 2 million out of 4 million children with disabilities do not have sufficient education and education infrastructure (Blanchett, 2009). Given the high number of American Americans being part of the number representing children with learning disabilities, the expectation is that they will form a vast majority of the population in special schools.

The aim of special education, in theory, was to increase the ability of instructors and students to utilize the individualized teaching environment to achieve better grades (Irving & Hudley, 2008). The student would return to regular schooling upon achievement of the student’s potential. The development of the special education theory only led to the development of many self-contained educational settings that did not reflect the curricular content that general education schools provided (Blanchett, 2009). The theory of inclusion then emerged as a remedy to the self-contained nature of special education. It was aimed at preventing further segregation of people with disabilities (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). Today, children with disabilities receive significant recognition and inclusion in the typical education classrooms, at least a part of their special education program. The exclusiveness of special education, in theory, should subside with increased access to general education (Blanchett, 2009).

However, in reality, the choice of attending special education is made by school administrators. As such, students can still be misled into receiving individualized instruction when they are capable of attending general education classes (Blanchett, 2009). A question that has been troubling to researchers is why there are so many African American students in special education. Besides, the existence of secluded special education programs and institutions and their high population of African Americans are also causes for concern. Therefore, evidence in the study by Blanchett (2009) provides support to the idea that African Americans, as the majority of the attendees in secluded special education schools, are the ones suffering most from unequal distribution of educational opportunity. The situation will persist as long as special education benefits and opportunities follow a distribution pattern that reflects race and social class dominance. Given that the majority of African Americans being in lower social classes, they become the main victims of an inequitable special education distribution system (Blanchett, 2009).

With a research base of the cognitive and social development theory, Irving and Hudley (2008) highlight the fact that African Americans end up struggling to understand their ethnic or racial identity because the American social milieu follows racial lines. Hypotheses on the difficulties that African Americans will face in their quest to find balance, identity, and embrace opportunities for education will always emerge because of the many negative racial stereotypes. Scholars can link the issue of discrimination and dominance of African American males in areas considered as highlights of under-achievement in education by drawing on historical marginalization and oppression of African Americans.

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The problem highlighted by Irving and Hudley (2008) does not point to a lack of awareness by the African Americans regarding the importance of education. Rather, it brings out the lack of opportunities, which male students from the studied population experience. Furthermore, school practices increase the risk profile of African Americans, who have difficulties in establishing their identities amid racial and social class segregation problems. Schools that lack an identity development policy end up reinforcing social structures that oppress African Americans, despite their good intentions to provide education and other growth opportunities. Besides, African American males have to identify education as a means of achieving their desired identity outcome. The African Americans will participate in the education process half-heartedly as long as they remain ignorant of opportunities or abilities of being able to use education to get their desired identity goals. As a result, they will perpetuate systemic processes that limit their educational achievement (Irving & Hudley, 2008).

Cultural mistrust as a construction provides a basis for understanding the influence of discrimination on academic motivation in America. When African-Americans do not hold the belief that the education services are available and accessible on an equal footing in the United States, they end up mistrusting the system’s ability to benefit (Irving & Hudley, 2008). As such, researchers attribute this trend to the lowered expectations and devaluation of striving for achievement that African American adolescents’ exhibit. This also comes from the realization that the adolescent period is also the ripe age of discovery of identity among individuals as they interact with social, political, economic, and physical identities (Irving & Hudley, 2008).

The theory used by Irving and Hudley (2008) to explain African Americans’ devaluation of education potential is cultural-ecological. This theory sees African Americans as a caste-like minority. Consequently, low achieving students from the community will adopt an oppositional identity to the education system and strong ethnic group identification. This will further their belief in the education system is unable to assist them to achieve their goals (Irving & Hudley, 2008).

Irving and Hudley (2008) also highlight moderating factors that affect the observation, which also play a role in testing their hypothesis that academic outcomes will depend on cultural mistrust, social, economic status, and oppositional cultural attitudes. The researchers confirmed their hypothesis through a survey done on 72 items of study to capture the variables highlighted in the hypothesis. As such, the study gave support to the observation of African Americans being overrepresented in special education. They have oppositional cultural attitudes that, together with cultural mistrust, provide sufficient reasons for the majority of general education programs to consider them candidates for special education (Irvine, 2010).

According to Irvine (2010), many teachers have little understanding of culturally relevant pedagogy. As such, they are unable to teach effectively in a culturally diverse classroom (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). Consequently, they cause culturally diverse students to perform poorly in general educational systems. The expectation here, as reflected by Irving and Hudley (2008) and Blanchett (2009), is that the poor performing students who incidentally happen to be from culturally diverse backgrounds end up receiving recommendations for special education. With the mediating factors studied by Irving and Hudley (2008), there is a high potential that the behaviors of the students and attitudes will justify additional reasons of the general education system to keep the students in special education. Moreover, the socioeconomic status can aggravate the situation.

A predicted trend in the U.S. is that its schools, and the nation would become increasingly racial, cultural, and linguistically diverse. This prediction continues to become true and is part of the discourse that Ford (2008) focuses on. With an examination of historical, current, and future characteristics of the U.S. society, the scholar brings out the challenges that equity seekers in society will continue to face. The presentation of students from culturally diverse backgrounds as part of the population that does not achieve equity in standard systems makes the study relevant for highlighting and supporting issues that correspond to the hypothesis that African Americans are overrepresented in special schools.

The question of diversity will continue to be controversial, partly because of its reliance on perception. Scholars who explore different themes in diversity present some challenges that populations with racial, cultural, or linguistic minority characteristics will face. In regards to students, who form the focus of the special issues on exceptional children, as forwarded by Ford (2008), they are the ones who stand to benefit most from the realization of solutions to the challenges identified by many researchers regarding equity in education. There will be improvements in the way students and their families from culturally diverse backgrounds end up interacting with education systems. It is still important to bring out the challenges and limitations of traditional practices as precursors to their improvement. The inclusion of families by one of the researchers featured in the “Exceptional Children” publication creates a new understanding of special education in the context of family diversity. As such, it is possible to see what is likely to continue to hinder equitable delivery of education and aspects of the educational practices that hold promise, especially in the implementation of law in education (Ford, 2008).

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Teachers of color are likely to experience challenges in teaching a culturally diverse class (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012). In a 5-year study following 17 new teachers of color, Achinstein and Ogawa (2012) revealed that the teachers face three main pressures. These tensions match the following dimensions in culturally responsive teaching: cultural and linguistic relevance against the standardization and the community of learners against teachers’ transmission (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012). Another dimension is social justice as contrasted to enhanced test scores. The teachers have to provide an equitable education to children, yet they continue to face challenges in the structures, tools, and environment they get in the delivery of education. Research by Skiba et al. (2011) shows that students of color end up having different conceptions and expectations in school settings. Consequently, they end up exhibiting a high risk of disciplinary contact. However, the sources of discrepancies in behaviors observed for students of color are not very certain, as several researchers have found out (Skiba, et al., 2011).

Consequently, teachers of color end up enacting contradictory systemic demands (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012). They do this because of the existing government policies and their professional obligations. They also rely on the individual efforts required for their particular jobs. The significance of the study is that it presents the dimension of cultural diverse educators in a question that mostly focuses on the beneficiaries, who are children. Therefore, it helps to build up the context for the reader to understand how the numbers of African Americans in special education end up being dominant. In addition, the researchers, Achinstein and Ogawa, are white, which allows them to provide a research perspective from an observer’s point of view that is likely to offer additional validity for lack of biased influences.

With a research focus on commitments and practices of culturally responsive teaching and factors that shape teacher’s enactment of culturally responsive teaching, Achinstein and Ogawa (2012) can demonstrate that teachers also face or express oppositional cultural attitudes. The research report shows that teachers feel it is important for them to do something for the community (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012). In this regard, teachers of color express that they would like to intervene in any way possible to alleviate the suffering of their people. Teachers get the additional motivation to keep intervening in the education process as necessary to increase the benefits of their studies to their community whenever they interact with members of their community that has been through the education program. However, the teachers also explain that they end up failing to teach in culturally relevant ways when focusing much on standards. This leads to the conclusion of the study that teachers of color face various tensions. They have to choose between following the teaching expectations of a general education system that is supposed to provide an equitable education to all or intervene in particular ways to ensure that their teaching is culturally relevant (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012).

This research highlights the fact that teachers of color lack a relevant, general education program that will be useful in the culturally diverse pedagogy (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012). It contributes to the hypothesis that the preferred option to get an equitable education or culturally diverse education would be to attend special education for students of culturally diverse backgrounds. They may get the same in general education, but it is only a percentage of teachers working against standards in delivering culturally diverse education; not all students from culturally diverse backgrounds stand to benefit (Anderson & Larson, 2009).

In questioning the kind of classroom that prevails, Achinstein and Ogawa (2012), show through quotes of surveyed teachers that providing a community of inclusivity and equality for learners is beneficial. However, the formalized structure of tests undermines the community concept of learning where students are free to speak their opinion and contribute to the learning environment for other students, as well as the teacher. Testing structures eliminate the provision for students to have their opinion of the learning process. With cooperative learning, students get an opportunity to incorporate their previous knowledge to their current learning experience. However, students end up developing a different perspective of the overall education process because testing only caters to their current education. Such findings support the notion of opposition’s identity to educate as described by Hudley (2008). It also shows that teachers are the primary agents for presenting conflicting views of education to students. However, teachers do not do so on purpose. Rather, they are compelled to deliver their teaching through the available policy and testing structure.

The evidence by Achinstein and Ogawa (2012) challenges the idea of leaving no children behind, given that educational accountability that should lead to equity relies on a testing system that increases imbalance. The researchers fault education accountability measures because they promote equity without making the backgrounds of students relevant to their evaluation of educational gains (Card & Rothstein, 2007). The research also shows that high-performing schools face less pressure to provide educational accountability by doing well on test scores. Their low-performing counterparts, which may perform poorly because of additional factors, end up being the most pressured to focus on test scores, which eliminate opportunities for cooperative and community learning (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2012).

With the highlight of testing as presented by Achinstein and Ogawa (2012), it is important to also look at the test performance of the students to understand further the implication of the current education policy and structure on equity in education. According to Card and Rothstein (2007), students from black and white backgrounds should perform equally well when presented with the same challenges and learning environments. The authors allay fears that some particular cities or schools in cities will hinder learning and the development of students by showing that there is no understatement or overstatement of school segregation in the cities. However, this is only true for cities that have highly segregated neighborhoods. An additional finding is that integration efforts in schools become weak because they are affected by programs and behaviors, which end up increasing segregation in schools.

Eventually, the researchers show that the achievements of black students in SAT outcomes from the 1998 to 2001 cohort should be the same as those of white students, only that the existence of school and neighborhood segregation end up affecting black students’ performance negatively. This evidence is in line with the developing theory that the expected performance in the education of the minority will be poor in cities where the culturally diverse students are recognized as minorities and segregated. With blacks being the culturally diverse group in the Card and Rothstein (2007) study, there is evidence to show that they will end up being the most affected in a standardized education policy in a city. African American students will keep on going through education as a disadvantaged group unless the causes and effects of segregation in cities or schools are addressed.

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On the other hand, the recognition of this shortcoming and effort to create a compensating environment will continue to fail, as long as there is no correction of the factors that lead to school and neighborhood segregation. The authors conclude that segregation should be taken seriously in programs aiming to ensure that black students achieve excellent educational performance. They also highlight the influence of neighborhood composition as a factor that ends up influencing school composition. This indicates that school segregation environments mimic their neighborhoods (Card & Rothstein, 2007).

In the interpretive case study by Anderson and Larson (2009), the researchers look at the Upward Bound program that seeks to expand educational opportunities. The program focuses on poor urban youth and contributes to the understanding of other studies on urban neighborhoods and education performance of students, such as the one by Card and Rothstein (2007). The research by Anderson and Larson (2009) gives a rich information context for neighborhood influences on identities, learning, and social experience by looking at three young men as the case study participants. Most importantly, the research validates the concerns of teachers of color about having to deal with standardized testing programs that do not provide room for cooperation and culturally diverse teaching. Achinstein and Ogawa (2012) agree with these findings. The Upward Bound program examined by Anderson and Larson (2009) focuses on the ethic of rugged individualism, and intense academic and test preparation program, in addition to the motivation for young men to concentrate on the future. It does not provide avenues for incorporating culturally diverse backgrounds of the participants in their learning process. Besides, it fails to increase young people’s freedom for focusing on academic achievement or to stay in the program. It emerges as a program whose structure and motivating goals are incongruent with the educational demands of the young men that it targets.

Anderson and Larson (2009) validate their study as a contribution to the understanding of why education equity and opportunity programs have failed to create positive outcomes by highlighting the fact that African Americans and Latino students are always lagging behind their white counterparts. The study is also important because it provides specified evaluation results of the Upward Bound program. As such, its recommendations can help transform the program into an achievable one, which serves as an example for practitioners and scholars to emulate.

It is also important to note that the evaluation of the Upward Bound program has been an annual process since the 1990s, yet there are still insights presented by Anderson and Larson (2009) showing that past evaluations were not elaborate in highlighting culturally diverse background issues for young men. The main agenda of the study was to find out why the Upward Bound as an intervention program was failing to enhance educational opportunities. Going with the social justice discourse, education should develop the human capability. In deprived communities, education is supposed to help children and youth to overcome hardships and be able to achieve a better social life as their non-deprived counterparts. While the goal is very clear, its realization is often a matter of debate with many trials and errors by policymakers dominating the equal educational opportunity scene.

Unfortunately, policies come with standardized formats for testing their education programs. These tests become influencing factors on the teaching methods of schools and other education intervention programs. Eventually, students end up being trained ways of passing tests, given that the tests are a representation of the attainment of educational levels capable of lifting them out of poverty. The reality is very different. Concentration on testing dilutes the essence of education and does not equip the target population with the appropriate skills for accomplishing the goals set for them. Nevertheless, the narrowing of the curriculum and increased focus on testing continues to be a trend (Anderson & Larson, 2009).

Programs like the Upward Bound increase educational access and experience by extending learning duration and opportunities. While this appears like an achievement of the goals of equitable educational opportunity, it does not meet the threshold of social justice researchers. It delivers the same education for an extended period with no lasting and widespread improvement in outcomes. In fact, Anderson and Larson (2009) quote other researchers who state that this type of education translates into too much schooling and too little education. Moreover, Anderson and Larson (2009) were able to come up with comprehensive results by spending time observing their research participants, in addition to interviewing them. Through bracketing and construction as methodologies of their research, Anderson and Larson (2009) were able to bring out factors that stood out within the context of their participants’ experiences. They then contextualized their findings to develop an understanding of how other factors like the economic, social, and emotional realities of young men ended up as factors affecting their access to opportunities for achievement.

There is an Upward Bound program that supports African Americans, Caribbean Black, Latino, and Hispanic, as well as multiethnic groups of young men who apply. Its difference from reasonable education programs begins with the location of the facility delivering the intervention. It is located outside the central campus at the Eastern University. The expectation is that the students in the program will appreciate their proximity to college life and the ability to interact with bright and motivated Eastern University students. The program concentrates on immersing students in challenging academic work so that they qualify for college. On the other hand, the program claims that it leads to increased freedom of students by offering a choice to be motivated or not. There is a realization that not everyone can be helped, with the goal of the program being to prepare students for entry into the most demanding universities. Grades and test scores matter most, and the intention of focusing on test scores is to increase the motivation of the students in the program so that they get better college opportunities and become more capable of overcoming poverty. This is similar to the claims for the education that is promoted by social justice researchers (Anderson & Larson, 2009).

There are students failing to achieve the required motivation, despite the goals and the rigors of the program. Students that were targeted by the program become disillusioned due to the lack of jobs without a college education. Economic situations such as recessions and high unemployment rates worsen the matter as they contribute to the disappearance of low-skilled jobs in urban areas. To succeed, students have to qualify for the challenging college education requirements, which include a lot of tests (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). In this regard, the program appears to fail in educating a majority of young people into finding jobs because it uses a method that puts the stakes so high that participants are in constant fear of failing. There are no options for gradual development. One has to commit fully to the program from start to finish and succeed (Anderson & Larson, 2009).

The head of the Upward Bound program admits that putting students under constant surveillance and having them as suspects whenever there is a crime committed by a performing student from a minority background is traumatizing. Regular ID checks done on black students increase the problems that participants of the Upward Bound program face because the checks are harmful to their human identity (Anderson & Larson, 2009). The reports of the study, which include accounts of racism, provide support to the findings by Achinstein and Ogawa (2012) that segregation is a major limiting factor in the educational performance of black students.

Given the above highlights of the challenges that students and teachers face in trying to achieve equity in education in a culturally diverse context, researchers have sought to come up with a framework that would provide a direction towards workable solutions. Brown-Jeffy and Cooper (2011) look at the culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP). The method holds that teachers should refrain from the judgment of student backgrounds. Teachers should be mindful of all the backgrounds of their students and focus on that when facilitating learning in classrooms (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). The CRP approach presents an opportunity to bring equality in educational opportunities. It arises from studies that examined the mismatch of teaching styles and home community culture of students. It borrows from the findings of research in India that show it is possible to have the mainstream social culture introduced in a way that is less threatening to a child’s appreciation of his or her culture that is different. The emphasis is on having culturally competent teachers that are able to transition the student into the social mainstream culture while retaining the student’s identification with his or her background culture (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).

The pursuit of the CRP framework requires an exploration of race in the United States. Focusing on racial effects using the critical race theory allows scholars to bring out the effects of racism to educational inequality. The theory also helps to challenge hegemonic practices presented by the White supremacy. It makes it possible for researchers to review hegemonic practices of White supremacy objectively, which expresses itself subtly in the system of meritocracy. Addressing these concerns should lead to true equality in educational opportunities (Card & Rothstein, 2007; Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).

The CRP conceptual framework uses five principles. The principles are identity and achievement, equity and excellence, developmental appropriateness, and teaching the whole child. These principles relate to the relationship between teachers and students. The intention of the framework is to identify variations within the classroom so that teachers can embrace the reality of diversity and work with it. In addition to acknowledgment, teachers must also see diversity as an asset that assists them in delivering education objectives. Under development appropriateness, teachers use learning styles, teaching styles and cultural variation in psychological needs to achieve their teaching objectives. These approaches also correspond to the suggestions by Ansalone (2010) on promoting equity or academic achievement. The researcher called for the establishment of alternatives to tracking, which would go beyond highlight test scores and use factors presented by the modality theory and cooperative learning. In fact, the research by Ansalone (2010) shows that tracking, also captured in academic meritocracy by Brown-Jeffy and Cooper (2011) is a defective system.

Such a conceptual framework must be used in special education programs, as well as normal education programs. Research by Skiba et al. (2011) confirmed that in a national sample, there were significant disparities existing in African Americans and Latino students in school discipline. However, the patterns are complex and can be moderated by the type of offense that students commit. Skiba et al. (2011) reached a conclusion that differential selection at the classroom level can contribute significantly to addressing an already disproportionate representation of African Americans and Latino students in matters related to discipline. The findings contribute to the suggestions by Anderson and Larson (2009) on the Upward Bound program on maintaining student perception of education and equality to limit the association of the program with racial profiling. The factor that also contributed to the findings by Skiba et al. (2011) that the opportunity to stay within an academic program remains as the single most significant predictor of academic success, which should go on to inform interventions and policies. This finding also cements the understanding of other researchers that concentrating on student testing structures is not effective (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).


Achinstein, B., & Ogawa, R. T. (2012). New teachers of color and culturally responsive teaching in an era of educational accountability: Caught in a double bind. Journal of Educational Change, 13(1), 1-39.

Anderson, N. S., & Larson, C. L. (2009). “Sinking, like quicksand” Expanding education opportunity for young men of color. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(1), 71-114.

Ansalone, G. (2010). Tracking: Education difference or defective strategy. Education Research Quarterly, 32(2), 3-17.

Blanchett, W. J. (2009). A retrospective examination of urban education: From brown to the resegregation of African Americans in special education—It is time to ‘go for broke’. Urban Education, 44(4), 370-388.

Brown-Jeffy, S., & Cooper, J. E. (2011). Toward a conceptual framework of culturally relevant pedagogy: An. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38(1), 65 – 84.

Card, D., & Rothstein, J. (2007). Racial segregation and the black-white test score gap. Journal of public economics, 91(11/12), 2158 – 2184.

Ford, D. Y. (2008). Culturally diverse exceptional students: remembering the past, looking toward the future. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 262-263.

Irvine, J. J. (2010). Culturally relevant pedagogy. Education Digest, 75(8), 57-61.

Irving, M. A., & Hudley, C. (2008). Journal of Advanced Academics. Cultural identification and academic achievement among African American males, 19(4), 676-698.

Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C., Rausch, M., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85-107.

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