Addressing Inequitable Outcomes
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+ Using Data
The first step in addressing inequitable outcomes in education is to clearly recognize that disparities by race and ethnicity continue to exist. In order to come to that recognition, it is necessary to have a standard set of measures of disproportionality in order to provide an agreed upon baseline describing the extent of current disparities.
How do we measure whether disproportionality exists?
Although the concept of disproportionate representation seems relatively straightforward, measurement of disproportionality can be quite complex. In measuring disproportionality, one may assess a) the extent to which a group is over- or under-represented in a category compared to their proportion in the broader population (composition index) or b) the extent to which a group is found eligible for service at a rate differing from that of other groups (risk index and risk ratio).
What is the composition index?
The most intuitive method of measurement of disproportionality, the composition index (CI), compares the proportion of those served in special education represented by a given ethnic group with the proportion that group represents in the population or in school enrollment; that is, it provides a measure of representation in the target phenomenon compared to our expectations for that group. At the national level, African-American students account for 33% of students identified as intellectually disabled, clearly discrepant from their representation in the school-aged population of 17%.
What is the risk index?
An alternative to the composition index for describing disproportionality is to measure a group’s representation in special education compared to other groups. The risk index (RI) is the proportion of a given group served in a given category and represents the best estimate of the risk for that outcome for that group. Donovan and Cross (2002) reported for example that, at the national level, 2.64% of all African-American students enrolled in the public schools are identified as intellectually disabled.
How is the risk index interpreted?
By itself, the risk index is not particularly meaningful. In order to interpret the risk index, a ratio of the risk of the target group to one or more groups may be constructed, termed a risk ratio (RR). A ratio of 1.0 indicates exact proportionality, while ratios above or below 1.0 indicate over- and under-representation, respectively. Comparing African-American risk for MR identification (2.64%) with the risk index of 1.18% of White students for that disability category yields a risk ratio of 2.24 (2.64/1.18), suggesting that African Americans are over two times more likely to be served in the category intellectually disabled than White students.
Are there any guidelines for calculating measures of disproportionality?
In order to aid states in the reporting of disproportionality data, the U.S. DOE Office of Special Education Programs and Westat convened a national panel to consider methodologies for monitoring disproportionality. Guidance developed as a result of that panel: a) recommends the use of a risk ratio approach to measure disproportionality; b) provides guidance on the calculation of those measures; and c) recommends an alternative “weighted” risk ratio when there are fewer than 10 students from a target group in a given school district, or to compare risk ratios across districts. Absolute criteria for significant disproportionality are left undefined by federal guidelines however, in order to allow each state to set its own guidelines.
What are factors that need to be kept in mind in interpreting data?
The effectiveness of an intervention chosen to address disproportionate representation depends, to some degree, upon the accuracy of diagnosis of the causes of disparity. Early intervention appears to be an extremely promising intervention for a range of developmental issues related to socioeconomic disadvantage. Yet early intervention approaches could be expected to reduce disparities only to the extent that economic disadvantage is at work. Early intervention would not be expected to address systemic failures or bias and would, hence, fail to address disproportionality due to institutional inequity.
Unfortunately, interpretation of data on differential racial treatment itself appears to be conditioned by race. A number of authors have noted that it is common for interpretations of equity data to be based on a majority viewpoint. Recent history from the Simpson trial to reactions to Hurricane Katrina indicate that, at this point in our nation’s history, interpretations of data on racial and ethnic disparities will vary depending on the cultural makeup of the audience confronting the data. Thus, educators and policymakers seeking effective interventions to close special education equity gaps must be willing to openly discuss and address issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, culture and language. Moreover, processes chosen to address inequity must have at their core a mechanism to ensure that the perspectives of all stakeholders, especially those of historically marginalized groups who have been the recipients of unequal treatment, are represented when interpreting data on racial and ethnic disparities. The last section, Talking About Race, discusses both the difficulty and the critical importance of directly and openly addressing the topic of race in education.
See also: Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. D., Ritter, S., Gibb, A., Rausch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. G. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: History, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children. Download.
- Donovan, M. S., & Cross, C. T. (Eds.). (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
- Hosp, J.L., & Reschly, D.J. (2003). Referral rates for intervention and assessment: A meta-analysis of racial differences. Journal of Special Education, 37(2), 67-81.
- Westat (2004). Summary of task force meeting on racial/ethnic disproportionality in special education. Washington, D.C.: Author.
- Westat (2005). Methods for assessing racial/ethnic disproportionality in special education: A technical assistance guide. Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. (Downloaded October 5, 2006 from IDEAdata.org, direct link to article here).
- King, J.E. (Ed.) (2005). Black education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates for the American Educational Research Association.
- Patton, J. M. (1998). The disproportionate representation of African Americans in special education: Looking behind the curtain for understanding and solutions. The Journal of Special Education, 32(1), 25-31.
- Parrish, T. (2002). Racial disparities in the identification, funding, and provision of special education. In D. J. Losen & G. Orfield (Eds.), Racial inequity in special education(pp. ). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
+ Taking Action
What’s Your Plan? The Local Equity Action Development (LEAD) Process
- The process begins with the formation of a team representative of building level and corporation stakeholders. The team should be as diverse as possible and representative of the corporation with respect to program areas, race, ethnicity, and veteran/newer teachers.
- The first step for the team is to review and discuss disproportionality data with a facilitator to guide the discussion.
- Following the initial consideration of data, the team engages in a facilitated discussion on why disproportionality is occurring. Since the district’s action plan is driven by what the members of the team believe is causing disproportionality, the hypotheses that are brought to the table are key to the development of a successful plan. Thus, it is crucial to have a diversity of views represented during this phase of the work, in order to ensure that a full range of hypotheses are represented. A discussion of the current literature on disproportionality is an important part of the process. In the past, we have drawn on resources developed by NCCRESt as well as the work of recognized leaders in the field such as Singleton, Tatum, Nieto and Ladson-Billings.
- Once the hypotheses are developed and a consensus has emerged the team begins to develop an action plan.
Key Points for the Action Plan
- Plans require collaboration across and ownership of general and special education.
- Plans must be integrally linked with existing initiatives and draw upon the resources being used for those initiatives.
- The proposed interventions should clearly address disproportionality. While the last point may seem obvious, we have found that, without such direction, teams will often look for “comfortable” solutions that may or may not address disproportionality.
- Start small but recognize the complexity of addressing inequity.
- The action plan outlines specific steps for the corporation to implement, usually beginning in a few pilot sites. The team then closely monitors the pilot and adapts the plan as necessary for the pilot to be successful. This phase can last from a few months to a school year and is followed with broader implementation of the successful steps that have been developed in pilot sites.
+ Talking About Race
Why is it so hard to talk about race, ethnicity and issues of equity?
Disproportionality is a racial issue and in order to address it we must talk about race , its historical context, the complexity of culture, the intersections of race and poverty, and how all of these aspects effect teaching and learning
When asked why it’s difficult to talk about race some typical responses are:
- “It’s uncomfortable.”
- “Can’t we all just get along?”
- “I don’t notice the color of my students, I just want them all to do well”
- “I don’t want to appear insensitive”
- “The conversations may stir up bad feelings”
What do we mean by cultural competence and culturally responsive practices?
Cultural competence means having the knowledge, skills, experience and tools necessary to work effectively across cultures. Gaining cultural competence is a developmental process (see image below) and includes engaging in conversations about race and equity, reflecting on one’s own culture and beliefs and gaining awareness of other cultures.
Culturally Responsive Practices are the result of gaining cultural competence and implementing the tools, skills and perspectives into every aspect of education; curriculum, instruction, interventions, communication and policy decisions.
There are lots of terms being used. What’s the difference?
There are lots of terms being used. What’s the difference?
A number of terms are used interchangeably with cultural competence; cultural awareness, cultural responsivity, culturally relevant teaching, culturally responsive practice, and multiculturalism however, each term may be applied somewhat differently and indicate graduated steps along the cultural competence continuum and the developmental process of becoming culturally competent.
- Cultural awareness is having sensitivity to cultural differences such as language, customs and traditions. This is a necessary step along the developmental process of gaining cultural competence but does not necessarily indicate a change in practice.
- Cultural responsivity is adapting actions or behavior to accommodate others’ cultural norms, traditions and beliefs.
- Culturally relevant teaching or culturally responsive practice, in education indicates that teaching and learning is revised to build on, address and respect the cultures of all individuals, enabling students to maintain their own cultural identity while gaining the skills necessary to succeed at school.
How do we begin these conversations?
There are a number of ways to begin conversations about race, however a facilitator is key to the success and continuing development of the process as well as considering the culture of your school and school district.
Three initial ways to begin to have conversations about race/ethnicity and equity are:
Using Data – Disaggregating special education data, discipline data, achievement data, and graduation rates and then having a conversation to explore what the data indicates and what hypothesis might be applicable to your school or district as to why there are inequities. (See The Equity Project’s LEAD brief, Using Data to Address Equity)
Text Based Discussions – There are many excellent articles and books which can form the basis for study groups or discussions at staff meetings. Using a protocol for a text based discussion is a tool to keep the focus on the material and provide varied opportunities for participants to share (see Resources).
Experiential Workshops – If viewed as a starting point a well facilitated workshop in developing cultural competence can help develop a common language and act as a catalyst to continue conversations in ongoing small groups. If it is a one time event its effectiveness will be very limited for most participants.
How do we continue to deepen the conversations?
Culturally Responsive Practice means asking difficult questions, and ensuring that those questions are discussed from many different perspectives. One of the core ideas in culturally responsive practices is that there is a multiplicity of truths in any given situation.
Some questions to consider are:
- Who is not at the table? Why?
- Why do some groups of students consistently succeed while others don’t?
- Do all our students have the same access to opportunities in our schools?
The Cultural Competence Developmental Process
- Cultural destructiveness acknowledges only one way of being and purposefully denies or outlaws any other cultural approaches.
- Cultural incapacity supports the concept of separate but equal; marked by an inability to deal personally with multiple approaches but a willingness to accept their existence elsewhere.
- Cultural blindness fosters an assumption that people are all basically alike, so what works with members of one culture should work within all other cultures.
- Cultural pre-competence encourages learning and understanding of new ideas and solutions to improve performance or services.
- Cultural competence involves actively seeking advice and consultation and a commitment to incorporating new knowledge and experiences into a wider range of practice.
- Cultural proficiency involves holding cultural differences and diversity in the highest esteem, pro-activity regarding cultural differences, and promotion of improved cultural relations among diverse groups.