Complex relationships between multicultural education and special education: an African American perspective

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Date: September-October 2012
From: Journal of Teacher Education(Vol. 63, Issue 4)
Publisher: Corwin Press, Inc.
Document Type: Report
Length: 5,025 words

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Multicultural education and special education share historical roots, philosophies, theories, and pedagogies that provide unique opportunities to address the many challenges of underserved K-12 students. Without a more refined and critical analysis, however, the shared similarities could possibly mask the tensions and the complexities inherent in a relationship that directly confronts thorny and nuanced intersections of race, social class, gender, disability, and culture. This article focuses on the complexity of the relationship between multicultural education and special education from an African American perspective by exploring areas of divergence and conflict between special and multicultural education, specifically issues of disproportionate representation, cultural misunderstandings, tensions between home and school, and competition for limited resources. Finally, recommendations are offered that can more effectively prepare K-12 special education teachers who serve students who are culturally diverse and disabled.


African American education, multicultural education, urban education

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Multicultural education and special education share historical roots, philosophies, theories, and pedagogies that provide unique opportunities to address the many challenges of underserved K-12 students. Both fields are committed to democratic ideals of fairness, equity, social justice, activism, and critical consciousness. Instruction in both types of classrooms is student centered, focusing on the needs of individual students. Multicultural education and special education teachers maintain high expectations for all students, avoid deficit thinking and stereotypes, and advocate for their students.

Without a more refined and critical analysis, however, the shared similarities could possibly mask the tensions and the complexities inherent in a relationship that directly confronts thorny and nuanced intersections of race, social class, gender, disability, and culture (Blanchett, Klingner, & Harry, 2009). Special education teachers, like other teachers, often struggle with these fractious issues and tend to think of their students of color as belonging to one identity category, usually the identity related to their disability. The reality is that special education students of color have multiple identities that are often context dependent and evolving.

This article focuses on the complexity of the relationship between multicultural education and special education from an African American perspective. First, I explore areas of divergence and conflict between special and multicultural education. Second, I propose ways that one tenet of multicultural education, culturally relevant pedagogy, can more effectively prepare K-12 special education teachers who serve students who are culturally diverse and disabled.

Areas of Divergence and Conflict

There are four topics that will be used to discuss how the fields of special education and multicultural education often conflict: "Disproportionate Representation," "Cultural Misunderstandings," "Tensions Between Home and School," and "Competition for Limited Resources."

Disproportionate Representation

The suspicion and mistrust of special education in the African American community may be justified because data document decades of disproportionate representation. According to Skiba and colleagues (2008), the disproportionate representation of students of color in special education continues to be a critical and persistent problem, and this imbalance, particularly among African American students, exists in almost every state. Disproportionate representation is greater in the judgmental or "soft" disability categories of mental retardation (MR), emotional disturbance (ED), and learning disability (LD) than in the nonjudgmental or "hard" disability categories, such as hearing impairment, visual impairment, or orthopedic impairment (Donovan & Cross, 2002). Although African American students account for only 14.8% of the general population of 6- to 21-year-old students, they are enrolled in 20% of the special education population across all disabilities (Blanchett, 2006). Moreover, Blanchett cited research from the U.S. Department of Education that found African Americans spend 60% or more of their school day in segregated special education placements with their disabled peers when compared with the White disabled peers. Equally disturbing is the fact that African American students with disabilities have substantially lower graduation and dropout rates than their White disabled peers (Center for Public Education, 2009).

Cultural Misunderstanding

Research suggests that racial disparities in the classification of disabled students begin at the stage of initial classroom referral. Reviewing records of students referred for special education evaluation in an urban school system, Gottlieb, Gottlieb, and Trongone (1991) found that teachers referred students of color more often than White students and tended to refer students of color for behavioral rather than academic issues.

Teacher judgment clearly plays a critical role in how and why students are referred to special education. In Williams' study (2008), teachers thought African American students were uncontrollable and disruptive when they shouted out answers instead of raising their hands. These types of cultural misunderstandings can lead to special education misplacement and unwarranted school suspensions. Data from the National Education Policy Center (Losen, 2011) reported that students with disabilities experienced high rates of out-of-school suspensions. A review of state reports to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs in 2006 found that at least one district in each of 46 states imposed long-term suspensions or expulsions on students with disabilities significantly more often than nondisabled students. When the data were disaggregated by race, more than one in five Black students with disabilities was suspended. In Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Nevada, more than 30% of all Black students with disabilities were suspended.

When teachers are unaware or dismissive of the salience of culture in teaching and learning, they may make referrals and placements that are inappropriate and inaccurate. Cultural variables are powerful, yet often overlooked, factors that help to explain how some culturally diverse students understand and interpret their school experience. Culture is an important survival strategy that is passed down from one generation to another through the processes of enculturalization and socialization, a type of roadmap that serves as a "sense-making device that guides and shapes behavior" (Davis, 1984, p. 10). Culture includes forms like rites, rituals, legends, myths, artifacts, symbols, language, ceremonies, and history. Longstreet (1978) identified five aspects of ethnicity that are useful guidelines for understanding how cultural differences are manifested in classrooms and how they influence teaching and learning. The five aspects are verbal communications, nonverbal communications, orientation modes, social values, and intellectual modes. For example, in the area of verbal communications "language and culture are so inextricably intertwined that it is often difficult to consider one without the other" (Padron & Knight, 1990, p. 177). Not only are there obvious differences in ethnic students' pronunciation, vocabulary, and phonology (rhythm, tempo, pitch), but there are also differences in assumptions regarding what is spoken and left unspoken, whether one interrupts, defers to others, and asks direct or indirect questions. Similarly, nonverbal communications can raise questions about the cultural meanings of interpersonal space, eye contact, body language, touching, and gestures (Samovar, Porter, & McDaniel, 2008).

Tensions Between Home and School

Special education teachers, like other teachers, need more training in understanding how semantics, accents, dialect, and discussion modes manifest themselves when they communicate with their diverse students and their families. Culturally diverse students' distinctive set of cultural values, beliefs, and norms is often incongruous cultural norms and behaviors of schools. When there is a cultural mismatch or cultural incompatibility between students and their school, certain negative outcomes might occur, such as miscommunication, confrontations among the student, the teacher, and the home; hostility; alienation; diminished self-esteem; and possible misclassification in special education programs.

Research suggests that the tensions and lack of communication between teachers and African American families and communities persist. In a qualitative case study by Williams (2008), African American parents thought their children were placed in special education because teachers were pressured to assign low-performing students in special education to maintain accountability standards. The parents thought that once their children were placed in special education, they would never exit the program. Obiakor, Harris, Offor, and Beachum (2010) call this phenomenon "trapped in circle of labels and failures" (p. 40).

The tension between African American parents and special education is often attributed to racism and prejudice (Klingner et al., 2005; Skiba et al., 2008). I will share a personal story that illustrates the pervasiveness of the racial and cultural implications of these issues in the African American community. I remembered some advice that I was given when my daughter was born 40 years ago and weighed less than 5 pounds. The advice was that African American parents should be wary of divulging their children's low birth weight to school personnel because they might use that information to justify placement in special education. This warning continues to circulate in the African American community, and some parents believe that some teachers look for signs of developmental delays, like low birth weight, to justify attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mental, or behavioral problems (Blanchett et al., 2009).

The literature (Harry, 1996, 2008; Harry & Klingner, 2006, 2007; Harry, Allen, & McLaughlin, 1995) discloses some special educators' misperceptions and racial stereotypes about African American families' educational level, marital status, and social class. These racial stereotypes, particularly about the role of poverty in academic underachievement, have associated poverty and single parent households with emotional and behavioral problems resulting in disproportionate referrals of African American students to special education. Poverty is often used by educators as a proxy for dysfunctional families, drug abuse, malnourishment, tobacco use, lead exposure, child neglect, low intelligence, and as a justification and rationale for the placement of students of color in special education (Harry, Klinger, & Hart, 2005; Skiba et al., 2008).

Adding to the miscommunication and tension between African American parents and special educators is the legal and heavily bureaucratic special education system that focuses on paper documentation and legal compliance. The many and ever-changing labels of classification often confuse less educated African American parents and render them unable to advocate for their children. However, educated, well organized, and politically savvy majority parents of special education students often belong to local, state, and national networks that assist them in advocating and lobbying for their special needs students. Many African American and other parents of color are not involved in these political advocacy efforts that could potentially benefit their children.

Competition for Limited Resources

Tensions between the fields are also related to competition for limited financial resources from local, state, and federal resources. Because of limited resources, some urban school districts have a financial incentive to classify students of color as disabled to attract additional funds to their school district.

Limited resources translate into reduced educational resources, fewer opportunities for quality instruction, and an educational system in which low-income special education students of color routinely receive an inferior education. This inequity in the quality and quantity of educational resources has been extensively documented ranging from inadequately prepared and inexperienced teachers to teachers' reticence to teach in high-poverty, high-minority schools.

The Educational Testing Service (Barton & Coley, 2009) reported that among eighth graders in 2007, 52% of African American students had a teacher who left before the school year ended compared with 28% of White students. Equally disturbing is the finding that 11% of African American students, as compared with 8% of White students, attended a school where 6% or more of the teachers were absent on an average day. Research suggests that the absence rate of teachers is important to track because it is associated with low student achievement (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2007).

Teacher attrition and absences are not the only concerns in predominantly African American high-poverty schools; students in these schools are also twice as likely as students in other schools to be taught by the most inexperienced teachers. Studies of inexperienced teachers consistently find that they have difficulty with curriculum development, classroom management, student motivation, and teaching strategies (Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden, 2005). A study of 12 metropolitan District of Columbia school systems revealed that in schools where fewer than 10% of the students received free or reduced lunch, 1st- or 2nd-year teachers made up only 12% of the staff. In high-poverty schools in these districts (75% or more subsidized meals), the percentage of novice teachers rose to 22% (de Vise & Chandler, 2009). Researchers have noted that experience alone does not make for an effective teacher. However, most novice teachers improve their practice over time. Unfortunately, many African American special education students in high-need schools are taught by a revolving door of mostly inexperienced, poorly trained teachers.

Recommendations for the Inclusion of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) in the Preparation of Special Education Teachers

Studies of special education preservice teachers' perceptions of their preparation programs reveal they feel inadequately prepared to teach culturally diverse students and provide cultural pedagogy (Artiles, Trent, & Palmer, 2004; Chu, 2011). There is much work to be done in teacher education around issues of culture and how culture affects the teaching and learning process. Special education students, like other students, are cultural beings and bring their culturally influenced cognition, behaviors, dispositions, and cultural repertoires with them to school. Consequently, the inclusion of culturally responsive instructional practices holds promise in the preparation of special education teachers and can potentially be beneficial for their students. Many African American students are misdiagnosed because special education teachers are not trained to make the connections between the content and their students' existing mental schemes, prior knowledge, learning preferences, and cultural perspectives or build on the strengths of the students' families and community.

Descriptions of and related research about CRP have appeared for decades in the fields of anthropology and education (Gay, 2010; Hollins & Oliver, 1999; Irvine & Armento, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995; Nieto, 1996; Sleeter & Cornbleth, 2011; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). However, many educators erroneously believe that CRP is not relevant to the field of special education and is simply a motivator and self-esteem builder for students of color in high-need schools. Moreover, there is the misperception that CRP does not have a body of empirical research that shows its effects on student learning. CRP has four important interrelated pedagogical influences on student learning that should be included in the training of special educators:

* Developing caring relationships with students while maintaining high expectations;

* Engaging and motivating students;

* Selecting and effectively using learning resources; and

* Promoting and learning from family and community engagement (Irvine & Hawley, 2011).

Developing Caring Relationships With Students While Maintaining High Standards

Classroom interactions between teacher and students should be respectful and reflect genuine warmth and caring and sensitivity to students' cultures and levels of development. A common research finding about African American students is the importance of positive teacher-student relationships (Allen et al., 2011). The research literature on culturally responsive African American teachers and care (Roberts & Irvine, 2008) emphasizes that caring is related to high expectations and the structured discipline these teachers impose in their classrooms. The literature also suggests that some students of color, especially African American and Latino students, tend to be more dependent on teachers than their other-race peers, and tend to perform poorly in school when they do not like their teachers or feel that their teachers do not care for them (Ferguson, 2002; S. T. Johnson & Prom-Jackson, 1986; Slaughter-Defoe & Carlson, 1996; Wilder, 2000). For example, Ferguson's (2002) investigations in 95 ethnically diverse schools in 15 school districts concluded that teachers' affective behaviors are a source of motivation and influence the achievement of African American and Hispanic students. In addition, students of color often respond positively to teachers who show interest in and respect for their racial and ethnic identity.

Engaging and Motivating Students

Culturally responsive learning activities build on the lived experiences of diverse learners and support instructional outcomes. Culturally responsive teachers engage students in high-level cognitive activity and acknowledge issues of culture and language facility. Cohen and his colleagues (2009) looked at the effects of student engagement by using culturally centered instruction. In a randomized field experiment to decrease psychological threat related to negative stereotypes in school, Cohen found that a series of structured writing assignments focusing on self-affirming values improved African American students' achievement.

Boykin and his colleagues conducted several experimental studies that support his contention that communalism, a form of African American group orientation, is an important cultural consideration in the instruction of African American students. One study (Hurley, Allen, & Boykin, 2009) investigated the interaction between student ethnicity and the reward structure on math estimation task. The researchers found that the African American and White students performed best in different learning contexts. Black participants scored significantly higher than Whites in the communal context, and Whites scored higher at posttest in the interpersonal competitive context.

Student engagement has also been considered in the research on cooperative and group learning. Well planned and carefully constructed cooperative/team learning strategies and flexible ability grouping are particularly effective in classes containing diverse learners (Slavin, 1990; Stephan, 1999). When groups are employed in CRP, they are based on prior achievement and for specific purposes. Racially and ethnically homogeneous groups are avoided when possible. Early reviews (D. W. Johnson & Johnson, 1989; Slavin, 1980, 1983) of research on cooperative learning revealed positive effects for all students on such variables as student achievement, peer relationships, and classroom climate.

Selecting and Effectively Using Learning Resources

Culturally responsive teachers link learning objectives to a variety of materials that reflect the cultural diversity of the school and the students' community. In an extensive review of the research on the academic impact of ethnic studies curricula on student outcomes, Sleeter (2011) concluded that well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students. In addition, Sleeter found several studies that show when students of color use learning resources that involve the study of people from their own race or ethnicity or study events and experiences with which they can identify, they are typically more engaged and improve their academic performance.

Promoting and Learning From Family and Community Engagement

Culturally responsive teachers interact frequently with families with professional and cultural sensitivity to inform them about their students' progress. These teachers learn from families so that they can use this information in selecting learning resources and adapting instruction. Culturally responsive teachers probe the school, community, and home environments, searching for insights into diverse students' abilities, preferences, and motivations. In other words, culturally responsive teachers build two-way bridges to families and respect cultural differences that might affect the forms of communication and collaboration. Among the most often-cited research on the efficacy of culture-based learning is that from the Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP) in Hawaii (Au & Mason, 1981). The work of Luis Moll and his colleagues also supports the view that teacher communication with families and observation of students in community and home settings can enhance diverse students' learning. Moll suggests that teachers talk to parents about their household and parenting practices, skills, and interests, and incorporate these "funds of knowledge" into the curriculum and their teaching practices (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005).


There are many challenges that have to be addressed to further the conversations among teachers, school leaders, and teacher educators in multicultural and special education. The challenges involve resolving issues like disproportionate representation, cultural misunderstandings, tensions between home and school, and competition for limited resources. The four CRP principles discussed in the article (developing caring relationships with students while maintaining high expectations, engaging and motivating students, selecting and effectively using learning resources, and promoting and learning from family and community engagement) are widely used and accepted frameworks in most teacher education curricula. Consequently, the incorporation on these CRP principles and other precepts of the sociocultural context of teaching and learning can serve as vehicles for collaboration and conversations between teacher educators in multicultural education and special education teachers. Pugach and Seidl (1995) argue that this type of framework "allows us to see diversity as normal" (p. 381) and focuses attention on effective instruction for all students.

I suspect that the ways in which schools, colleges, and departments of education (SCDEs) are organized contribute to the limited conversations across teacher education programs about curriculum, field experiences, research methodology, pedagogy, and assessments. Hence, structural changes are also necessary if the divide between multicultural and special education is to be addressed. These organizational changes would include such components as school and community partnerships, reconceptualization of college teaching to include strategies like coteaching between special and general education faculty, inclusion of K-12 teachers in planning new models for teacher training, and implementation of professional development programs for teacher educators.

Teacher education programs enroll too few students of color. McLeskey, Tyler, and Flippen's (2004) review reported that although 38% of the students with disabilities are culturally and linguistically diverse, only 14% of special education teachers shared their students' ethnic backgrounds. These percentages are not likely to increase in the future. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that the number of special education teachers of color is declining (Boone & King-Berry, 2007). The solutions to this problem involve different recruitment and retention effort, adequate funding for students, support and mentoring as well as collaborative interventions from school districts, colleges of education, and state and federal policy makers.

Finally, teacher education institutions need to find ways not only to attract more teachers of color but also to motivate and educate all preservice teachers to become culturally relevant educators who are persistent, open minded, reflective, complex thinkers, and risk takers. Culturally relevant teachers assist students to change the society, not simply to exist or survive in it. They directly confront inequities in society such as racism, sexism, and classism. Far too many teachers appear to be not only colorblind but also unable or unwilling to see, hear, or speak about instances of individual or institutional racism in their personal and professional lives. Teacher educators should encourage their students to see themselves as social reconstructivists who dismantle systems of racism, inequality, and oppression, and advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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Jacqueline Jordan Irvine (1)

(1) Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA

Corresponding Author: Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, Emory University, Division of Educational Studies, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA Email:

Jacqueline Jordan Irvine is the Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus at Emory University and an elected member of the National Academy of Education. Dr. Irvine's specialization is in multicultural education and urban teacher education, particularly the education of African Americans. Her books include Black Students and School Failure, Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools, Critical Knowledge for Diverse Students, Culturally Responsive Teaching. Lesson Planning for Elementary and Middle Grades, In Search of Wholeness: African American Teachers and Their Culturally Specific Classroom Practices, and Seeing With the Cultural Eye.

DOI: 10.1177/0022487112447113

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