and understanding of the root causes of social inequality are too shallow, then our approach to corrective action will necessarily be superficial and ineffective.
The foundations of the American republic are based on the notion of universal rights, the political rights guaranteed to citizens in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the universal right to an education expressed in compulsory education laws that became the national standard in the early 20th Century. Yet more than 50 years after the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the promise of equal educational opportunity remains unfulfilled for many children in America’s schools. Racial and ethnic disparities remain ubiquitous in our educational system, manifesting themselves in the achievement gap, disproportionality in special education, dropout and graduation rates, racial disparities in school suspension and expulsion, and eligibility for gifted/talented programs. Striving for equity means facing these disparities, and struggling to equalize the opportunity for all children to achieve at the same high educational standards.
The Equity Project at Indiana University has focused primarily on two sources of inequity in American public education: special education and school discipline.
Racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline and special education must be understood in the context of a long history of oppression and discrimination that have characterized race relations throughout American history.
Disproportionality may be defined as the over- or under-representation of a group in a category that exceeds our expectations for that group, or differs substantially from the representation of others in that category. Although concerns have historically tended to focus on issues of over-representation in special education or school suspension and expulsion, groups may also be under-represented in a category or setting (e.g., under-representation in general education settings or gifted education).
In school discipline, African American students have consistently been found to be suspended at rates that are two to three times higher than that of other students, and similarly over-represented in office referrals, expulsion and corporal punishment. Although absolute rates of suspension and expulsion are greatest in urban schools and in secondary schools, racial/ethnic disproportionality in discipline seems to be greatest in elementary schools and in suburban locales.
In special education, analyses of data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have revealed consistent patterns of disproportionality. African-American students are typically found to be over-represented in overall special education service, and in the categories of mental retardation (MR) and emotional disturbance (ED), while American Indian/Alaska Native students have been over-represented in the category of learning disabilities.
It is important to understand that there is no one over-riding cause of racial and ethnic disparities in special education or school discipline. Rather, our best knowledge suggests that a number of factors contribute:
Thus, racial and ethnic disproportionality in special education and school discipline appears to be multiply-determined, a product of a number of forces interacting in the lives of children and the schools that serve them. The multi-determined nature of disproportionality means that there is probably no single cause that can be called upon to explain racial and ethnic disparities in special education in all states or school districts. Instead, local needs assessment, in which diverse teams of educators examine their own data, form hypotheses, and develop evidence-based interventions will be necessary to understand and respond to unique patterns of disparity at the local level.