Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education
Placing students in special education has historically been a contentious issue in the United States, and it continues to be difficult in the context of No Child Left Behind. Battles over special education placement have a long history of prejudice and injustice, including potentially pejorative labels and restrictive educational settings that have stigmatized and isolated those identified as disabled. This is even more troubling, given the questionable practice of overrepresentation — that is, when the proportion of minority students with special education labels is higher than what would be expected, given their prevalence and proportion in the school system as a whole — of racial and linguistic minorities in special education.
In Harry, Klingner, and Cramer’s new book, Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education, the authors provide a multifaceted perspective on disability and special education placement. This volume is specifically intended for graduate and undergraduate readers, but is also useful for a broad audience, introducing the notion that the overrepresentation of minorities in special education is the result of systemic problems in schools, as opposed to individual problems residing in children. The book focuses on the process by which a child acquires a disability label and obtains placement in or out of special education, which is depicted through twelve case studies that highlight a myriad of voices, including teachers, clinicians, and parents.
The book is organized into two parts. The first focuses on the placement process: referral, assessment, placement, and the social forces that complicate decisions made at each stage. The second part contains case studies conducted over a period of approximately four years. These vignettes illustrate the placement process described in the book’s initial section and their accompanying dilemmas, highlighting the ambiguity of disability categories and the quandary of differentiating between a disability and the opportunity to learn. The questions and scenarios presented at the end of each case study require readers’ active participation in analyzing the validity of labels, engaging in perspective taking, relating to classroom experiences, and considering queries for additional research and scholarly discussion.
The authors argue that as a result of mandated deficit criteria, school personnel often engage in a search for such deficits without taking into account the numerous contradictions and discrepancies in the construct of each disability category. To demonstrate these difficulties, the authors track the “cracks,” “redundancies,” “discrepancies,” and “disturbances” of these high-incidence disability categories — meaning that the process and labels used in special education can be so ambiguous that one might ask whether and why labels are a necessary part of receiving services. This question becomes the running dialogue throughout the case studies in the latter half of the volume and is acknowledged in the questions and scenarios in each chapter.
The case studies, which span various racial and linguistic student groups, follow several students through at least three years of schooling. Readers are brought into students’ classrooms and homes to observe teachers like Ms. Lopez, who have little training, and parents like Ms. Volts, who feel antagonistic toward schools and psychologists. These scholastic trajectories — each altered by special education placement — sometimes help students improve and sometimes contribute to academic failure. By juxtaposing these students’ divergent experiences of special education placement, the authors situate disability in a scholastic context where services may define educational outcomes.
Although this book’s case studies are engaging and detailed in their exploration of the placement process, several topics needed further examination. While the book documents the experience of minority students in special education, the first part of the book, which is ideologically focused, does not adequately posit a sociocultural or psychosocial explanation for these racial and linguistic injustices. Given the thorough discussion of the construction of disability, both an analytic discussion of the role of race in schools and the theoretical underpinnings for the intersection of race and disability seems warranted. In addition, the first part of the volume includes a brief discussion of the Response to Intervention (RTI) as a useful framework for services, but this method is not highlighted in any of the cases. RTI is becoming more popular in circles of practice and policy, and an applied example could have supported the authors’ call for appropriate services rather than labeling.
This book is one of several analyzing the role of the school context in the construction of disability. The case studies in this volume highlight the multiple factors that complicate special education placement, and they will surely be useful for teachers in training, preparing them for the realities of challenging classroom scenarios.