The Disproportionate Representation of Minorities in Special Education


Injustices and unfairness in life are clearly manifested almost in every field. In sports, for example, the best team does not always win the match. Likewise, in political competitions, the best leader may not be the winner in an election due to challenges like rigging. However, the education system in the United States promises equity through its curriculum. Equity means that all children are subject to a similar curriculum and they must be treated equally regardless of the school they attend. Students are motivated to the effect that the effort they put, with the assistance of class learning material will reflect on their success in life after school. Although the belief has been injected into our circulation system, research has shown a disproportional placement of minorities into special education.

Other findings have shown that biased instruments like culture and race determine a child’s need for special education. A study by Medina (2017) was carried out to determine the correlation between race and special education placement while also examining the representation of minorities in special education. The purpose of the study was to examine how race plays a pivotal role in determining the placement of children with disabilities to special schools. The research findings may help in building an education system that takes care of multiculturalism and race hence promoting the equity element of an education system. This paper will look deeper into the work of Medina (2017), and put the findings into the perspective of other studies on the same subject.


The study by Medina (2017) investigated if minority students are unfairly represented within special education.  The study sample was collected in New Jersey schools in the calendar year 2015/2016. Students aged between six and twenty-one years were enrolled for the study with a representation of White, Hispanic, and Black. The New Jersey Department of Education provided the special education demographics. The research methodology sought to eliminate skewness in data collection, which may lead to misleading conclusions. The number of white students in public schools in the year of assessment was 637,012, where the composition of boys was 329064 and girls 307948. The number of black students was 216,329 while that of Hispanic students was 359,979. The proportion of students in special need schools within the age bracket of six to twelve years was 110,795 students of which 51.84% were White, 17.98% were Blacks, and 24.61% were Hispanic. The population structure of each school was collected and comparisons made to see the differences in special education among similar schools. The total population in New Jersey was used in the study due to missing data in the department of education and in the New Jersey Department of Education for Children Receiving Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE). The study was free from bias and errors due to using of the entire population as provided by public archival.  The study shows that 17.39% of the Whites were admitted to special schools, 17.77% for Blacks, and 14.61% for the Hispanic population. In this case, the results refute the study hypothesis, as it indicates that race does not influence admission to special needs schools. The study results differ from some earlier research that confirmed race as a key determiner in the access to special education.

The study findings reveal that the disproportional representation of the minorities could be due to the higher population in the minority group that is in need of special education. The role of teachers is of concern as they exhibit bias in referring the minority groups for assessment by the child study teams. Further, the assessment tools and tests show prejudice among the minority students.  Once referred, tests and assessment tools are biased against minority students.

What does other studies say?

Earlier research conducted by Zhang, Katsiyannis, Ju, and Roberts (2012) show unfairness in the representation of children between six and twenty-one years under the Individuals with Disability Education Act. The inference was made from data retrieved from the U.S. Department of Education 2010 where among the students with special needs of 2,730,345 students were minorities, while 3,092,463 were white students. The empirical representation also in percentage form reveals that the children placed in special schools population were as follows; Hispanics at 20.41 %, African Americans at 17.13 %, and Whites at 56.42 %. The specific disability proportion was comprised of; Hispanics and African Americans at 51.4% and whites represented the majority at 48.59% of those with intellectual disability. The case of emotional and behavioral disability was represented at 57.20% for Whites and 44.45% for African Americans and Hispanics.  The composition of students with specific learning disabilities was represented at 55.46% for Whites and 21.66% being a figure for the minority class. The unfairness had been addressed by the social scientist as an influence of socio-economic status. Notably, there is a missing explanation in relating poverty and the rate of admission of back students into special education.

Implications of the Case Study by Medina

The analyzed probable reasons that drive the inequality in the representation of races in special education show that the minority groups’ in need of special education is higher than the Whites population bracket. Teachers exhibit bias when referring, and tend to pick more white students and the chain continues. The child study team discriminates against the minority group by creating small slots for them by use of tests and tools that do not consider many of them to be in need of special education. The limitation in terms of space needed to allocate special need children as provided by the United States education system works to the detriment of minority students. The entire assessment process from the role of teachers, child study team, and tools used for assessment are part of a broken education system that seeks to discriminate a minority group from accessing special education.  Morgan (2015), noted that the Federal legislation and policies enacted to restore equilibrium in access to special education by reducing minority disproportionate representation is not effective. The research shows that the policies may only work to extrapolate the inequalities as it is less likely for the minor races, ethnicities, and languages to be identified when few slots exist and there are white students with similar challenges.

Morgan et al (2015), provides that minority children develop risks for impaired, learning, and behavioral disability from biological and environmental factors exposed to them in their childhood. Lead exposure, fewer language interactions, and poverty are some of the risk factors. The research observes that minority families rarely interact with pediatrics and medical workers who deal with birth or environmental related disorders due to language barriers or limited access to health facilities. Such facts limit their expert recommendation for special education. Poverty leads to admission into disadvantaged schools, which reduces their chances of recognition or identification. Their research could not find the impact of federal policies like the Reading Excellent Act, No Child Left behind Act as there were no changes in admission rate for the minority population with disability.

Teachers’ role in streamlining the society has been appreciated and criticized in equal measures. They help in the progress of professions that work to elevate our economy and social status hence providing light for future generations. Despite the positive roles played by teachers, it is worth noting that, they propagate the injustices in the education system by acting to eliminate equity for all children. Their human nature exposes them to bias measure through preconceived notions that the white child deserves better and more share than those from the minority community. According to Tenenbaum and Ruck (2007), teachers exhibit superior and inferior perspectives as well as, expectations when assessing or comparing races and ethnicities. Teachers hold a negative expectation and demonstrate negative behavior towards African American students as compared to Asian or White students who come across as the favored ones. The denotation was made from the assessment of teachers’ speech, referral to special needs schools, and recommendations for gifted children.


The disparity identified in the study is based on the education system adopted in the United States as that harbors both systemic and systematic ideology that works in limiting the number of minorities as compared to the white students. Mcdermott, Watkins, and Rhoad (2014) findings show that bias assessors affect minority students negatively. The study affirms that regardless of race-based discrimination portrayed by teachers and assessors who administer tests, the root of the problem lies with the system that supports such behavior. The idea is to fix the broken education system to do away with the research by Zion and Blanchett (2011) that concludes that the United States education system was not constructed to deliver equality to the minority. Researchers trying to determine the unfairness linked to special education should consider this study in order to inform their methodology or approach.


 Medina, R. (2017). The disproportionate representation of minorities in special education. Theses and Dissertations. 2475. Retrieved from

Zion, S., & Blanchett. W. (2011). [Re]conceptualizing Inclusion: Can Critical Race Theory and Interest Convergence Be Utilized to Achieve Inclusion and Equity for African American Students? Teachers College Record. 113(10), 2186-2205

The Official Web Site for The State of New Jersey. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2017, from

Mcdermott, P. A., Watkins, M. W., & Rhoad, A. M. (2014). Whose IQ is it?—Assessor bias variance in high-stakes psychological assessment. Psychological Assessment,26(1), 207-214. doi:10.1037/a0034832

2015-2016 Enrolment District Reported Data. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2017, from

Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology,99(2), 253-273. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.253

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., Mattison, R., Maczuga, S., Li, H., & Cook, M. (2015). Minorities Are Disproportionately Underrepresented in Special Education: Longitudinal Evidence Across Five Disability Conditions. Educational Researcher,44(5), 278-292. doi:10.3102/0013189×15591157

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