In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education cited the Stamford, Connecticut, school district with a civil rights violation. Black children in the district were being labeled seriously emotionally disturbed at three times the rate of white children, though they comprised only a third of the school population. As a consequence of this labeling, the students spent the majority of their school day in special education, isolated from their mainstream peers, taught in separate classrooms with a separate curriculum.
The Stamford case is typical of urban districts around the country. Poor and minority students are disproportionately placed in special education programs, driving up district costs and holding back many children from a quality education. Among the many labels that children at risk for school failure can receive, black students are overwhelmingly categorized as seriously emotionally disturbed or mildly mentally retarded; their white middle-class counterparts tend to receive the less stigmatizing label of learning disabled.
While the financial costs to school districts of having so many children misplaced in special education programs are significant, the personal costs are even greater, according to EDC’s Alana Zambone. “Two of the most devastating things you can be called in our society are retarded and crazy,” she explains. “And once you get labeled this way it tends to stick, so everything you do gets looked at through that lens.” In New York State, for example, only 4 percent of the students labeled seriously emotionally disturbed went on to graduate from high school, according to a study conducted by EDC’s Evelyn Frankford.
Despite ongoing attempts on the part of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to address the problem, the practice of tracking minority children into special education programs has persisted for decades. “Too often school staff have only limited experience with the families and communities of students who are poor, minority, or disabled,” Zambone explains. “And these are often the children whose history and experience don’t match the culture of the public schools, making it especially difficult for them to achieve success.” While she is quick to emphasize that “most teachers are of good will and want to do right by children,” she also points to the many competing demands on teachers that can make this difficult: “High-stakes tests, the push toward standards, limited financial resources—then you pair this with long-held ways of looking at certain kinds of kids—ways that are often unconscious—and it can be very hard to see where the problem lies.” She has seen many school districts cited repeatedly by OCR: “The numbers go down, OCR leaves, and the numbers shoot up again.”
A Model For Sytemic Change
Currently, EDC is collaborating with the Institute for Equity in Schools, which has developed a more lasting solution to the problem. Rather than take a strictly procedural approach—revising policy statements, mandates, and accountability programs—the Institute helps district staff examine how deep-seated beliefs about poverty, race, and disability contribute to the problem. “Our method helps teachers recognize how they are looking at kids,” says Zambone, who works at both the Institute and EDC. “We get them to look critically at their own lenses, and then we offer them some new ways of looking.”
The Institute’s systemic change model begins with a collaborative case-study process that brings together diverse representatives from the school community to re-assess how referrals to special education are made. “It’s really a professional development effort at all levels,” Zambone says. Teams consisting of a central office administrator, several teachers—both general and special educators—the school psychologist, and a social worker review actual cases from the district’s files. “We pull anonymous files from their records and use them as case studies,” Zambone explains. “It’s important that the cases come from their districts, so they can’t say, ‘This wouldn’t happen here.’”
Together, the teams carefully review the criteria that were used to refer students to special education, such as the student’s cognitive learning styles, academic performance, health records, family background, and level of acculturation. “We help the staff make distinctions between real data and inferences. Then we ask, ‘Is there enough information here to label a kid?’ Usually, by the second or third case they start to say, ‘We don’t have a lot of real information here.’”
Through the case review process, school staff broaden their focus from an examination of just the child to the larger environment of the school and the curriculum in order to consider how other factors might contribute to a student’s difficulties. “We start by posing two questions,” explains Zambone. “Is the child troubling to us or truly troubled? And do we assess children in order to better teach them, or just to determine eligibility for special education? It can be hard for teachers to look critically at themselves in order to ask, ‘What can we be doing differently?’ We try to get teachers to see that a difficult kid can sometimes represent a limitation in their practice that they’re not seeing.”
Environmental factors involving the family and the community can also contribute to in-class difficulties. “A kid could be having a difficult time, or a difficult year, or a problem with one particular teacher. But once he gets a label, it sticks,” says Zambone. “We reviewed one case of a student who had been labeled emotionally disturbed after developing serious behavior problems in second grade. A handwritten note in his file mentioned that his mother died early that year, but this information had not been factored into the analysis of his behavior and learning needs.” For this reason, Institute staff reinforce the necessity of bringing parents, former teachers, and other community members into the discussion about how to teach a child who may not be succeeding. They learn to look for strengths that the student may exhibit in other arenas—such as the playground, after-school activities, past educational experiences, or at home—that may not be apparent to the classroom teacher. And they work with staff to look at the whole child and develop alternative solutions before making a special education referral.
In Stamford, the case review process yielded some dramatic changes. By the end of the second year, one-third of the black students labeled emotionally disturbed had been reclassified—either they were returned to the general education program or they were re-identified as learning disabled and given more appropriate academic support. Policy changes were also made to shore up the prereferral process, and a districtwide teacher support program was established to support teachers as they deal with challenging students.
Several years after OCR left the district, long-term change is evident in Stamford, according to John Abbott, former director of Pupil Personnel Services. Teacher teams meet in all of the elementary schools, providing a venue for teachers to work through their problems with challenging students before making a referral to special education. “We trained three people from each elementary school to lead the teacher support groups. The teams meet once a week to deal with difficult children and share their expertise,” says Abbott. “They really enhance the general education staff’s ability to deal with all kids. This empowers teachers to deal with individual differences in children without immediately assuming that there is something wrong with the child.”
In addition to this re-evaluation and deep professional development, the Institute also works with districts at the administrative level to effect some quick fixes—everything from being sure that the central office is sending home letters in Spanish to Spanish-speaking families to improving training for paraprofessionals. “All of this helps make some improvements,” Zambone says, “but the real work comes in the groups. We have found that the case method really works. It allows staff to see that they really do have a problem in the way they’re identifying kids, and gets them very involved in figuring out how to fix it.”
Zambone currently leads an EDC project to evaluate the Institute’s work in four urban districts cited by OCR. The project will produce an assessment of the method, case materials, and suggestions for sharing the process in school districts nationwide.
Originally published on May 31, 2000