How to overcome disproportionality in our schools

Here are five action items to help prevent and address significant disproportionality. We must take a proactive, preventative approach to increase equitable practices.
By: | March 18, 2021
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Jason Botel is the VP of Strategic Partnerships for FullBloom.

Jason Botel is the VP of Strategic Partnerships for FullBloom.

Educating children who have disabilities can be complex work — for districts, schools, families, and, most importantly, the students themselves. Let’s avoid exacerbating the issue by inequitably establishing which students actually merit the designation.

The term “educational disproportionality” refers to when a racial or ethnic group’s representation in a particular education category is inequitable compared to their overall enrollment.

Our country’s history is replete with policies, practices, and outcomes that have been disproportionately negative for certain groups, including Black people, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color, and those with disabilities. So, unfortunately, we should not be surprised that we see disproportionately negative policies, practices, and outcomes for students of color and students with disabilities.

For example, in 2017, according to the latest available data in the U.S. Department of Education’s Annual Report to Congress, American Indian or Alaska Native students, Black or African American students, Hispanic/Latino students, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander students ages 6 through 21 were more likely to be served under the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) than were students in all other racial/ethnic groups. Under the categories of emotional disturbance and intellectual disability, Black students were more than twice as likely to receive that classification.

Correcting this disproportionality is daunting.

Research identifies a range of school practice factors implicated in these patterns of disproportionality. These include effective tiered interventions, consistent implementation of interventions, and understanding of diagnostic assessment data. The inequitable access to such high-quality school practice factors sends some children down a path where they can be misidentified with a disability and/or other instances where they become overrepresented in the category of children who have disciplinary problems.

To correct these inequities, IDEA requires states to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” for any racial or ethnic group in special education, suspension, or placement in more restrictive settings.

One common mistake that districts make is delegating these issues to their special education departments. While disproportionality often manifests there, its root causes are typically found before students receive disability designations. To be effective, superintendents and chief academic officers, with special education and student support service directors as partners should lead efforts to address disproportionality.

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Getting an accurate sense of the root causes in a particular district may take an external partner that knows what to look for in the district’s policies and practices, and that understands how to deliver effective professional development and coaching based on sound research. This process should be undertaken without implications for employee evaluations, giving everyone an opportunity to embrace the improved policies and practices.

Action plans for preventing and addressing significant disproportionality should include:

  • Starting with a data review that assesses whether all students have access to high-quality, engaging instruction and are treated equally, regardless of race or disability
  • If the review uncovers disproportionality, conducting a root-cause analysis can help determine the factors leading to disproportionality and an approach for course correction
  • Implementing strong early literacy learning offerings, with sound assessment and intervention programs
  • Putting in place proven multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), implemented with fidelity and in which teachers and leaders are thoroughly trained
  • Hosting professional development and coaching for leaders and teachers — both those working with the general population as well as those working with students with disabilities — in cultural competence; diversity, equity, and inclusion; meeting the needs of diverse learners; social-emotional learning; and building positive classroom cultures

We must take a proactive, preventative approach as the means to reducing rates of disproportionality and increasing equitable practices throughout schools and districts.

Taking action now will lead to better outcomes for current students long after they have graduated and provide more welcoming and inclusive learning environments for future generations.

Jason Botel is the VP of Strategic Partnerships for FullBloom. Earlier in his career he worked at the U.S. Department of Education as a senior White House advisor for education. He later served as acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the DoE.