I am a certified teacher in Canada who has been working in the field of education for over 26 years. I have taught secondary math and science in a regular education classroom, but in my current role, I am working as a senior school learning support teacher in the province of B.C.
Significant Disproportionality: Concerns and Implications in Educational Practice
Early identification and well-developed individualized support are imperative for students with disabilities in order to reach their full potential. However, if a child is placed into special education services or disciplined without understanding their needs, the outcome of these actions not only affect a child’s academic opportunity but there is a higher probability for detrimental long-term impact on their social-emotional wellbeing. For minority students in the United States, disproportionality can result in the under or over-identification, incorrect placement, or improper disciplinary actions of students with disabilities within a local education authority (LEA) (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). Disproportionality illuminates significant concerns that beg for ongoing monitoring by each state education agency (SEA). Data collected at the LEA level ensures proper and adequate identification of students without over or underrepresentation of individuals within differing genders, ethnicities, and race.
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Outlined by the U.S. Department of Education’s Dear Colleague Letter:
Preventing Racial Discrimination in Special Education (2016b), both over and under-identification are concerns that directly result in disproportionality when discrimination based on race, colour, or ethnicity. Such representation violates a student’s rights to Title VI obligations and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 impeding and limiting their access to educational opportunities that are equitable and just (U.S. Department of Education, 2016b). Under-identification occurs when a student with a disability or behavioural concern is not appropriately identified as a student who requires disability services (U.S. Department of Education, 2016b). By contrast, over-identification results when a student is incorrectly or inappropriately determined to have a disability or behavioural concern, and they are provided with disability services (U.S. Department of Education, 2016b). Gender, ethnicity, and race create further complication to the identification process resulting in significant disproportionality amongst certain individuals of smaller populations within a school setting.
In consensus with the reported data contained in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First look (2016a)and Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot; School discipline (2014), black or African American students are 1.4 times more likely to receive special education services in a separate setting, they are over twice as likely to be identified with a disability, and are two times likely to be identified as having an emotional disturbance. Moreover, students with disabilities, in general, are more than twice likely to receive disciplinary actions that result in either suspension or expulsion beginning at the pre-school level (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).
Additional concerns lie in how individuals with certain disability groups fit into the ethnic and race break down of disproportionality. As maintained by the U.S. Department of Education (2017), each state education agency (SEA) is tasked with having local education authorities (LEA) determine and monitor the significance of race and ethnicity when it comes to identifying children as having a disability, and use a standardized approach when determining over or under-identification at a district and school level. The information contained in the U.S. Department of Education’s IDEA Part B Regulations (2017) promotes the creation of national uniformity when it comes to equity in educational practice and opportunity. However, the outlined regulations still permit enough flexibility at the state level to apply risk ratios that protect individuals in the LEA from the likelihood of misidentification when compared to the outcomes of the larger group (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). The ability to be tractable allows states and local educational authorities to reflect exceptional circumstances that are unique to their state while addressing small populations within the larger group. Furthermore, students with disabilities and even preschool-aged students can now be served by comprehensive, coordinated early intervening services (CEIS) funding using 15% of the money from IDEA Part B in an attempt to retract significant disproportionality within the LRE (U.S. Department of Education, 2017).
Implications in Practice
For individuals with autism, there is an inherent at-risk for being disproportionately represented given the defining features of the developmental disability itself; this risk is significantly pronounced if they are also a minority and male. The implications of significant disproportionality on educational practice illuminates the importance of addressing contributing factors such as the need for evidence-based instruction that is steeped in research, establishing a system for identification and disciplinary removals of students, and considering how students who are within the minority group are evaluated and screened (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). Correspondingly, it is indispensable to include thoughtful collaboration with vital stakeholders regarding student program placement while having sensitivity towards cultural, social-economic, and linguistic differences. At the local level, schools and LEAs can address significant disproportionalities by knowing what their focus should be. The U.S. Department of Education (2014) identified that, “students of certain racial or ethnic groups and [those with] disabilities are disciplined at far higher rates than that of peers, beginning in preschool.” This means that schools and LREs could revisit their discipline policies and implement positive behaviour intervention and supports that cultivates school climate and does not automatically result in the suspension or expulsion of the student.
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Comparatively, excluded students lose significant instructional time when prevented from attending school and removed from educational programming. For individuals who are on the spectrum and fall into this example of discipline disproportionality, they may be incorrectly and unfairly disciplined, lose out on vital educational opportunities that impact equitability and opportunity over the long term. Public school districts are obligated to provide equitable educational opportunities to all students, independent of race, ethnicity, gender, or ability (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).
Finally, the information contained in the IDEA Part B Regulations (U.S. Department of Education, 2017) means that comprehensive, coordinated early intervening services (CEIS) funds can be used with significantly disproportionate groups of individuals, opening up the door to programming and supports that better serve individuals with and without disabilities. The comprehensive CEIS funds could address the need for early screening, assessment, and intervention, which may be identified as primary factors contributing to the resulting disproportionality within the LRE. This availability of funding could also target the need for culturally sensitive assessment practices and improve family education and awareness about the early signs of autism. In turn, children who are Hispanic or black and African American, according to the would benefit from earlier intensive interventions thus closing the gap for the average age of diagnosis which is 1.4 years later than their non-white peers and significantly improving a child’s cognitive and language outcomes (McPheeters, Weitlauf, Vehorn, Taylor, Sathe, Krishnaswami, et al., 2016). Conversely, for individuals already diagnosed with autism, this might mean that money is available to improve current services and be used for professional development so that teachers are better equipped to address the needs of individuals with ASD. The ear-marked funding could also give way to providing more universal screening opportunities, conducting FBAs, creating intervention plans that target behaviour earlier and give the prospect to develop positive behaviour supports that offset significant disproportionality within this minority group (Kansas State Department of Education, 2019).
Kansas State Department of Education. (2019, August). KSDE Frequently asked questions on significant disproportionality. Retrieved from https://www.ksde.org/Portals/0/SES/KIAS
McPheeters, M. L., Weitlauf, A., Vehorn, A., Taylor, C., Sathe, N. A., Krishnaswami, S., et al. (2016). Screening for autism spectrum disorder in young children: A systematic evidence review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi
U.S. Department of Education. (2014, March). Civil rights data collection data snapshot; School discipline. Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://ocrdata.ed.gov
U.S. Department of Education. (2016a, October 28). 2013-2014 Civil rights data collection a first look. Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr
U.S. Department of Education. (2016b, December 12). Dear colleague letter: Preventing racial discrimination in special education. Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://www2
- U.S. Department of Education. (2017, March). IDEA part b regulations significant disproportionality equity in IDEA. Office of Special Education. Retrieved from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/significant-disproportionality-qa-03-08-17.pdf
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