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Spring 2002 Vol. 2 No. 1

Table of Contents

African-American student ©PhotoDisc

Racial, Ethnic Disparities in
Special and
Gifted Education

High-Quality Instruction and Early Intervention Are Key to Meeting Children's Needs

At one time or another, parents may question whether local schools are up to the job of teaching their kids. But the concern can run deeper among minorities, whose children often attend schools that lack challenging curricula and well-trained teachers.

When school administrators tell some minority parents that their children may need special education, the alarm bells ring even louder. That's because since a federal law began requiring all schools to meet the learning needs of disabled students, disproportionately large numbers of children in some racial and ethnic groups have been identified with disability labels and placed in special ed programs. The labels are intended to identify those who need extra educational support, but identification also may bring lowered expectations from teachers and others.

Some minority children are indeed at greater risk of school failure and more likely to be considered for special services under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act because their families lack economic or social resources. But the nature of classroom instruction and a school's environment also play a prominent role in influencing learning and behavior.

To make sure that minority students who are poorly prepared for school are not assigned to special education for that reason, educators should be required to first provide them with high-quality instruction and social support in a regular setting before determining whether special services are needed, says a new report from the National Research Council. States also should beef up training requirements for prospective and current teachers so they can better meet the needs of atypical learners.

The committee that wrote the report emphasized that its recommended approach should not delay services to schoolchildren whose needs are pronounced, or to students who arrive at school with a disability label.

To root out many students' school troubles, government officials should improve and expand early childhood services, the report adds. Because reading difficulties and behavior problems are two of the most common reasons that students are singled out for special education, states also should implement universal screening and intervention strategies in those areas.

At the same time, the report calls for rigorous research on identifying students who have special gifts and talents. Historically, disproportionately low numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians have been placed in K-12 gifted classes -- the opposite of trends in special education.   -- Vanee Vines

Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education. Committee on Representation of Minority Children in Special Education and Gifted Programs, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2002, approx. 350 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07439-8; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $49.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Christopher T. Cross, senior fellow, Center on Education Policy, Washington, D.C. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences