Understanding Equity

  • Roots of Racial / Ethnic Inequity
  • Disproportionality
  • Causes

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

What are the roots of racial and ethnic inequity in education?

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.[3]

  • 1787: Thos. Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, advances his “suspicion” of black inferiority
  • 1853: Margaret Douglas sentenced to one month in jail for her attempts to teach the children of freed slaves to read and write.[4]
  • 1894: Plessy v. Ferguson legitimated the doctrine of separate but equal, leading to the proliferation of Jim Crow laws throughout the nation.
  • Late 19th and Early 20th Century: Attacks on Black communities during race riots included the burning of Black schools.[5]
  • Early 20th Century: Early mental testing grounded in the premise of American eugenics that races other than those of northern European stock were intellectually inferior, and that the purity of the superior races should be preserved by vigorously segregating the “feeble-minded”.[6]

What is disproportionality and how great a problem is it today?

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 intellectual disability and emotional disturbance (ED), while American Indian/Alaska Native students have been over-represented in the category of learning disabilities.

What are some of the causes of disproportionality in special education and school discipline?

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:

  • Poverty: Family and community poverty have been shown to create educational disadvantage, and poverty affects students of color to a disproportionate degree. But poverty does not fully explain racial and ethnic disparities in either special education or school discipline; race also contributes independently above and beyond poverty.[7]
  • Unequal Educational Opportunity: The educational opportunities of students of color are often limited by poor facilities and inadequate resources, under-representation of students of color in curriculum, and fewer highly qualified teachers.[8]
  • Special Education Eligibility Process: It is unclear to what extent special education decision making contributes to disproportionality, but the system is often geared to providing services only after children fail.[9] Although in general there is not extensive evidence of test bias, some studies have shown the possibility of bias due to administration or language issues.
  • Behavior and Discipline: Although consistently disciplined at a higher rate, there is no evidence that such discrepancies are due to a higher rate of school misbehavior among black students. If anything, studies have shown that African American students are punished more severely for less serious or more subjective infractions.[10] Some evidence suggests that the over-use of school exclusion with African American students begins with racial disparities in rates of office referrals from the classroom.
  • Cultural Mismatch: In schools that are becoming highly diverse in many school districts, the nation’s teaching force remains predominantly white.[11] Concerns have been raised that issues of cultural mismatch may contribute to disproportionality in achievement and discipline.

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.


  1. 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, 74, 264-288. Download
  2. Skiba, R. J., & Rausch, M. K. (2006). Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion: Questions of equity and effectiveness.
    In C. M. Evertson, & C. S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook for classroom management: research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 1063-1089). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Download
  3. Achievement gap: Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U. S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35 (7), 3-12. Available at http://edr.sagepub.com/content/35/7/3. Special Education: Donovan, M. S., & Cross, C. T. (Eds.). (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council. National Academies Press. Available at http://www.nap.edu/read/10128/chapter/1.
  4. Dropout/Graduation: Wald, J. & Losen, D. J. (2007). Out of sight: The journey through the school-to-prison pipeline. In S. Books (Ed.) Invisible children in the society and its schools (3rd Ed., pp. 23-27). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  5. Suspension/Expulsion: Skiba, R.J., & Rausch, M.K. (2006). Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion: Questions of equity and effectiveness. In C.M. Evertson, & C.S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (pp. 1063-1089). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Download
  6. Gifted/Talented: Milner, H. R., & Ford, D. Y. (2007). Cultural considerations in the under-representation of culturally diverse elementary students in gifted education. Roeper Review, 29(3), 166-173.
  7. Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: Origin and evolution of a worldview (3rd Ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  8. Blaustein, A.P., & Zangrando, R. L. (Eds.) (1968). Civil rights and the Black American: A documentary history. New York: Clarion Books.
  9. Harmer, H. (Ed.) (2001). The Longman Companion to slavery, emancipation, and civil rights. Harlow, England: Longman.
  10. Terman, L. M. (1916). The measurement of intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  11. Skiba, R. J., Poloni-Staudinger. L., Simmons, A. B., Feggins, L. R., & Chung, C. G. (2005). Unproven links: Can poverty explain ethnic disproportionality in special education? Journal of Special Education, 39(3), 130-144. Download
  12. See e.g., Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of a nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown.
  13. Donovan & Cross (2002).
  14. Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The Urban Review, 34(4), 317-342. Download