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Achieving Equity in Special Education: History, Status, and Current Challenges

Source: Exceptional Children

Among the most-longstanding and intransigent issues in the field, the disproportionate representation of minority students in special education programs has its roots in a long history of educational segregation and discrimination. Although national estimates of disproportionality have been consistent over time, state and heal estimates may show varying patterns of disproportionality. A number of factors may contribute to disproportionality, including test bias, poverty, special education processes, inequity in general education, issues of behavior management, and cultural mismatch/cultural reproduction. This article provides a report on the history, measurement, status, and factors contributing to disproportionate representation in special education, and offers recommendations based on an understanding of racial and ethnic disparities in special education as a multiply determined phenomenon. Special education was borne out of, and owes a debt to, the civil rights movement. That is, the inspiration for, and the strategies used by, advocates whose efforts resulted in the first national special education legislation emerged from the struggles of the civil rights movement (Smith & Kozleski, 2005). Concerns about racial inequity were central to litigation (e.g., Mills v. Board of Education, 1972) that led to the promulgation of the first special education legislation (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, Public Law No. 94142, 1975). Thus, it is highly ironic that racial disparities in rates of special education service remain one of the key indicators of inequity in our nation’s educational system.

The disproportionate representation of minority students is among the most critical and enduring problems in the field of special education. Despite court challenges (Larry P. v. Riles, 1972/1974/ 1979/1984; PASEv. Hannon, 1980); federal reports (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Heller, Holtzman, & Messick,1982); and abundant research on the issue (e.g., Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Harry & Klingner, 2006; Hosp & Reschly, 2003; Losen & Orfield, 2002; Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999), the problem of disproportionate representation of minority students in special education has persisted. Indeed, although consistently documented, it is fair to say that the full complexity of minority disproportionality has not yet been understood, nor has a clear or comprehensive picture emerged concerning the causes of disproportionality (Donovan & Cross; Harry & Klingner). To address the issue of disproportionate minority placement, the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 97, Public Law No. 105-17) stressed the importance of efforts to “prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling and high dropout rates among minority children with disabilities” (p. 5) and that effort has been further amplified in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004, Public Law No. 108-446).

This article provides a status report on minority disproportionality in special education. What is the historical context for current problems of racial/ethnic disparity? What are the current levels of disproportionality and how are those measured? What are the possible causes and conditions that create or maintain disproportionality? What interventions have been suggested? Finally, the history and current status of the field suggests that any comprehensive strategy for addressing disproportionality must attend to three aspects of the issue: (a) examination of current data, (b) comprehensive hypothesis formulation and interpretation, and © culturally responsive intervention and evaluation.


The initial identification of the problem of disproportionate representation of some groups, most notably African American students, in special education is often traced back to Dunn’s (1968) classic critique of the field. Yet the problem itself has its roots far deeper, in the problems of oppression and discrimination that have characterized race relations throughout American history (Smedley, 2007). In 1853, Margaret Douglas was sentenced to 1 month in jail for her attempts to teach the children of freed slaves to read and write (Blaustein & Zangrando, 1968). In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson legitimated the doctrine of separate but equal, even though segregated education in the Jim Crow period was by no means equal (Jackson & Weidman, 2006). In the late 19th century and early 20th century, attacks on Black communities during race riots included the burning of Black schools (Harmer, 2001). Early 20th century mental testing was 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” (Terman, 1916). From Reconstruction until the 1950s, the dominant view of African American education was that it was intended not to educate for equal citizenship, but rather for the lower ranked positions that it was assumed African Americans would occupy (Rury, 2002).

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