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AFRICAN AMERICAN TEACHERS' PERCEPTIONS
OF SPECIAL EDUCATION REFERRAL
TARCHA F. RENTZ
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Tarcha Folston Rentz
I give thanks to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who has granted me unmerited
favor. I am indebted to the caring teachers in our public schools for my own education
and the existence of this study. My sincere appreciation and respect go to the five African
American teachers who dared to be a part of this study. Their time and commitment were
I am thankful for my committee chair, Dr. James McLeskey, and cochair, Dr.
Elizabeth Bondy, who provided excellent examples for balancing work and family. To
my other committee members, Dr. Holly Lane, Dr. Brenda Townsend, and Dr. Mirka
Koro-Lunjungberg, I extend my gratitude for without their expertise this dissertation
would not have been possible.
I am thankful for my husband, Ishmael, and my son, Ian. Their love, support, and
patience motivated me, encouraged me, and propelled me to the next level of excellence.
I love them both.
I send thanks to my dad and mom, and I thank them for believing in my ability to
finish as well as for babysitting.
I thank Mother Alice for her many prayers.
I thank Daddy Saul and Mother Deloris for encouraging me to strive for
I dedicate this dissertation to the many African American teachers and educators
who wish other teachers knew what they know about maximizing the potentials of
African American children and their communities; my husband, Ishmael, and son, Ian;
my godchildren (Nayshma and Steve Jr.); my siblings (Zeriah, Ira [Monique], Alonozo
[Tabrica], Nakoto [Keisha], Priscilla [Douglas]), nephews (Jalen, Nehemiah, and Noah);
my dad (Ernest) a UF alumni for being my example, my mom (Dorothy), and
grandmothers (Ruthie and Victoria), who never attended college, but encouraged me to;
Dr. Cecil Mercer, who believed I should pursue a PhD; Regina Bradley, Janivea Lewis,
Lashawn Williams, and the late Twanna Markham, who stopped everything at the office
to pick me up or drop me off on campus whenever I called; and the many Pastors and
friends (Sandra Folston, Frederica Johnson, Tonya Foster, Elois Waters, Dr. Pam
Williamson, Dr. Karen Kuhel, Dr. Barry Bogan, Tyran Wright, and Angela Oats) who
prayed with me through this process, my battle with breast cancer, and the birth of our
The Lord is Good and His Mercy Endures Forever.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .................................. ............ iii
LIST OF TABLES ..................................................... vii
LIST OF FIGURES ....................................... ........ viii
ABSTRACT .............. ......................................... ix
1 INTRODUCTION .......................................... 1
Background ............... ............................. 1
Purpose of the Study ................. ............................ 6
2 REVIEW OF LITERATURE .......................................... 9
Overview of the Study ............................................. 9
Introduction ..................... ................................. 10
Overrepresentation of African Americans in Special Education ................ 10
Teacher Beliefs: An Introduction ......................................18
Teachers' Perceptions about Special Education Referral ..................... 24
Conclusion ............ ............................................ 39
3 RESEARCH METHODS ............................................ 42
Introduction to Phenomenology ................... .................... 42
Subjectivity Statement ............... .......................... 46
Methods ................. ...................................49
4 FINDINGS ............... .................................. 59
David ................ ......................................60
Rebecca ................. .....................................71
Composite Textural Description (All Participants) ....................... .. 90
Composite Structural Description (All Participants) ....................... 97
Essence ............ ............................................. 102
5 DISCUSSION .....................................................108
Introduction ............ .......................................... 108
Key Findings ................................................... 108
Connections to the Existing Literature ............................... 112
Limitations ............ .......................................... 115
Implications for Research ........................................... 117
Implications for Practice ................ .......................... 119
A AFRICAN AMERICANS AGES 6-21 SERVED UNDER IDEA 2001-2002 .... 122
B RECRUITMENT LETTER .......................................... 123
C DEMOGRAPHIC SURVEY ................ ....................... 125
D RECRUITMENT FLYER ........................................... 127
E INTERVIEW PROTOCOL ................. ...................... 130
F THANK YOU LETTER TO CORESEARCHERS ........................ 132
REFERENCES .................... .............................. 133
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ............... ......................... 143
LIST OF TABLES
3-1 Participant demographics ........................................... 52
A-i Percentage of students served by disability and ethnicity in the United States 122
A-2 Percentage of students served by disability and ethnicity in the State of
Florida during the 2001-2002 school year ........................... 122
LIST OF FIGURES
D-1 Front and back cover of the recruitment brochure for African American teacher
participants ........... .........................................128
D-2 Inside of the recruitment brochure for African American teacher participants 129
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
AFRICAN AMERICAN TEACHERS' PERCEPTIONS
OF SPECIAL EDUCATION REFERRAL
Tarcha F. Rentz
Chair: James McLeskey
Cochair: Elizabeth Bondy
Major Department: Special Education
This qualitative study examines African American elementary teachers'
perceptions of special education referral and particularly the referral of African American
students. This investigation describes teachers' experiences with referral for subjective
disabilities (i.e., mental retardation, emotional disturbances, learning disabilities) and not
gifted and talented programs. Using phenomenological research methods, 15 interviews
were conducted with 5 African American elementary teachers who taught at schools
where 25% to 50% of the student population was African American. The study
participants were male and female teachers who had taught at least 3 years and had been
a part of a School Study Team and/or initiated special education referral. The two main
questions that guided this study were (a) how do African American teachers perceive
special education referral and (b) how do African American teachers experience the
referral of African American students?
Findings suggest that the teachers experienced similar positive and negative
feelings about referral. Wanting special education referral to be helpful for students,
teachers questioned whether teachers were referring students for an actual disability or
because of a cultural difference. Teachers preferred the referral process to be one of
maintaining students in general education by identifying their strengths and weaknesses
and developing appropriate interventions and strategies to enhance and motivate students.
They contended that the referral process is detrimental to African American students who
often receive pull-out services in special education resource rooms. Teachers proposed
that African American students can be maintained in general education with proper
supports in place.
Despite the academic and social gains of African Americans over the past 40
years, African American children continue to lag academically behind their White
counterparts (Artiles, Harry, Reschly & Chinn, 2002; Hoffman, Llagas & Synder, 2003).
For example, although African American students made reading gains since the 1970s,
their reading performance in 1999 remained lower than their White counterparts. More
specifically, African American students' average scores among "9 year-olds were 16%
below Whites' scores (a gap of 35 points), among 13 year-olds they were 11% below
Whites' scores (a gap of 29 points) and among 17 year-olds they were 10% below
Whites' scores (a gap of 31 points)" (Hoffman et al., 2003, p. 48). Similar differences
were found when comparing math performance for African American and White students
(Hoffman et al., 2003).
Academic differences between White students and African American students
continue throughout their school years. For example, high school students who seek entry
into United States colleges and universities take the American College Test (ACT) and/or
Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). Students whose composite scores are below 19 on the
ACT are likely to need remedial courses before taking courses for college credit. In 2001,
African American students' average composite score (16.9) was lower than average
composite scores of other racial/ethnic groups (Hoffman et al., 2003). In the same year
African American students scored lower than any other ethnic/racial group on the SAT.
On average, African American students "scored 96 points lower than White students on
the verbal section .. and they scored 105 points lower than White students on the
mathematics section" of the SAT (Hoffman et al., 2003, p. 62).
African American students have higher grade retention (Hoffman et al., 2003),
higher suspension/expulsion rates (Townsend, 2000), lower standardized test scores in
reading and math, and higher dropout rates than their White counterparts (Hoffman et al.,
2003). In 1998, 71% of kindergarteners from African American families were more
likely to have one or more "risk factors" than their White counterparts (Hoffman et al.,
2003). In the following year, compared to 9% of Whites, 18% of African American
students had repeated at least one grade (Hoffman et al., 2003). Thirty-five percent of
African American students in grades 7 to 12 had been expelled or suspended in their
school careers compared to 15% of White students (Hoffman et al., 2003). Compared to
7% of Whites, 13% of African Americans ages 16 to 24 had not earned a diploma or
General Educational Development (GED) credential (Hoffman et al., 2003).
Added to African American students' academic issues, they are often taught by
teachers who misunderstand them. In classrooms where the educators are often White,
female, and middle class, they experience cultural dissonance between home and school
(Villegas, 1988); teachers' expectations are unfamiliar to them (Harry & Anderson,
1994). Cultural mismatching and incongruence between teachers and African American
students can limit or enhance the academic success of students depending on how the
teacher perceives differences (Ross, Kamman, & Coady, in press). Ross and her
colleagues further explained that students' actions can be implicitly perceived as
abnormal when they differ in significant ways from the teachers' culture. Harry and
Anderson (1994) purported that instead of building on students' cultural repertoires,
"teachers typically aim to extinguish and replace these behaviors with conduct more
acceptable to them and to move quickly to find the deficit in those children who prove
less malleable to conformity" (pp. 610-611).
Teachers' knowledge and acceptance of cultural difference influence their
perceptions and expectations of African American students (Ross et al., in press). Pugach
and Seidl (1998) suggested that teachers are more likely to misinterpret students'
behavior and development and label it negatively when they do not share a common set
of experiences or common language with their students. Hoffman et al. (2003) disclosed
that lower percentages of teachers reported African American kindergartners were on
task, eager to learn, and paying attention "often or very often" as compared to White or
Asian first time kindergarteners. Similarly, in a study of prospective teachers'
perspectives on the teachability of students from various ethnic groups, Tettegah (1997)
noted that teachers consistently rated White and Asian American students higher than
Hispanic and African American students on cognitive and motivational measures.
The academic challenges of African American students as well as general
education teachers' perceptions and beliefs regarding these students are reflected in
special education identification rates. African American students are often labeled
disabled and/or "at-risk" and are overrepresented in special education (Artilles, Harry,
Reschly, & Chinn, 2002; Coutinho, Oswald, & Best, 2002; Office of Special Education
Programs [OSEP], 2005; Hoffman et al., 2003). To illustrate, in the 2001-2002 school
year, the proportion of African American students served by the Individuals with
Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act was higher than the proportions of Whites, Hispanics,
and Asian/Pacific Islander (OSEP, 2005). Nationally, Black children represented 15% of
the resident population ages 6 to 21, yet they were overrepresented in specific learning
disabilities (18%), mental retardation (34%), and emotional disturbance (28%) categories
(OSEP, 2005). In the same school year, Blacks were 21% of Florida's school population
and overrepresented in the same categories 24%, 49%, and 39%, respectively (OSEP,
When teachers are uncertain about how to meet the needs of students, they often
seek help through special education referral. Relying on local and classroom norms,
teachers make decisions concerning whether a student's behavior is cause for alarm
(Bocian, Beebe, MacMillian, & Gresham, 1999). Zigmond (1993) explained, "The
referral is a signal that the teacher has reached the limits of his or her tolerance of
individual differences, is no longer optimistic about his or her capacity to deal effectively
with a particular student in the context of the larger group, and no longer perceives that
the student is teachable by him or herself' (pp. 262-263). He or she initiates the referral
process believing that he or she has exhausted all of his or her resources (Logan, Hansen,
Niemnen, & Wright, 2001). Through the referral process, the referring teacher hopes to
receive confirmation of a "problem" and/or insight into the child's strengths and
weaknesses (Donovan & Cross, 2002).
Various examinations of referral and the overrepresentation of African American
students have resulted in the banning of IQ tests and discriminatory practices, yet little
change has occurred (Hosp & Reschly, 2003). Missing from the referral and
overrepresentation research are the voices of African American teachers. Scholars
contend that African American teachers can assist their colleagues in making appropriate
judgments concerning the academic placements of African American students (Delpit,
1995; Foster, 1990, 1993; Irvine, 1989; King, 1993; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Patton, 1998;
Sexton, Lobman, Constans, Synder & Ernest, 1997). Having African American teachers
is not the cure-all, or a guarantee, that all African American students will be successful,
but these teachers have "a deeper reservoir of skills and abilities on which to draw" as
they have more commonalities with their students' experiences (Ladson-Billings, 2001,
In addition to being role models for students, Ewing (1995) suggested that
African American teachers impact schools in several positive ways including their ability
* Foster improved cross-cultural understanding and diverse cultural tolerance.
* Understand cultural diversity so as not to label a disability inappropriately.
* Provide non-African American teachers with relevant on-site collaboration that will
promote more successful learning environments.
* Provide a positive school climate that meets the academic, social, and emotional
needs of minority students.
* Provide on-site conversations about culturally relevant curriculum matters (e.g.,
textbook adoptions, real life experiences, community involvement, policy and
Studies suggest that there is a correlation between the percentage of African
American teachers and African American students' academic and social performance and
placement. In their investigation of 174 United States school districts with a minimum
enrollment of 15,000 students of which 1% were black, Meier, Stewart, and England
(1989) examined equal educational opportunities. Meier et al. (1989) stated, "In every
case, blacks are overrepresented in every category with a negative connotation and
underrepresented in every category with a positive connotation" (Meier et al., 1989,
p. 107). Meier and his colleagues (1989) noted the more African American teachers in a
school district, the lower the ratio of African American students suspended, expelled,
served in special education classes, and dropping out of school. On the other hand, the
more African American teachers in a school district, the higher the ratio of African
American students who were served in honors and gifted programs and who graduated
from high school with diplomas.
In a similar vein, Serwatka and Deering (1995) studied 67 Florida school districts
and found that 58 of 67 Florida school districts had African American students
overrepresented in emotionally handicapped (EH) classes. Noting several correlations,
they found that as the percentage of African American teachers increased at the
elementary and secondary levels, the overrepresentation of African American students in
EH programs decreased. The researchers disclosed, "School districts that had higher
disproportionate representation of African American students in specific learning
disability classes tended to have higher overrepresentation of African American students
in EH classes" (Serwatka & Deering, 1995, p. 499). They found a similar correlation in
school districts with greater underrepresentation in gifted and talented programs; such
districts also had higher overrepresentation of African Americans in EH classes. The
current study seeks to shed some light on why such correlations exist.
Purpose of the Study
Research literature describing the special education referral process is
overwhelmingly presented from a White middle class perspective. The lack of literature
describing African American teachers' perceptions and experiences with special
education referral, and particularly the referral of African American students, led to my
interest in African American elementary teachers' perceptions of special education
referral. Irvine (2002) stated,
Researchers often ignore or devalue the culturally specific pedagogy and teaching
beliefs of African American teachers; that is the culturally specific ways in which
African American teachers see themselves ... as part of the solution. This
oversight in the research is a serious issue because it leaves the perspectives and
voices of African American teachers and the African American community
silenced, marginalized, and invisible. (p. 140)
To meet the academic and social needs of African American students, the voices
of African American teachers must be heard. As Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) stated,
"Without authentic voices of people of color it is doubtful we can say or know anything
useful about education in their communities" (p. 8). In a similar vein, Patton (1998)
stated, "A system is needed in special education that nurtures, develops, and allows for
the voices of African American knowledge producers to be heard, confirmed, and
affirmed. Their voices will more closely represent those who are studied, tested,
identified, labeled, and placed in special education programs-often at levels well
beyond accepted rates" (p. 30).
The purpose of this study is to add authentic voices of African American teachers
to the teacher discourse and research literature regarding special education referral. More
specifically, this study investigates African American teachers' perceptions and
experiences regarding special education referral of African American students. This
study centers on two questions: (a) "How do African American elementary teachers
perceive special education referral?" and (b) "How do African American teachers
experience the referral of African American students to special education classes?" These
questions are meant to explore African American teachers' experiences and perceptions
of African American students with and without disabilities, as well as their experiences
with the special education referral process. This study focuses on referral of students to
disability categories, and not the referral of students to gifted and talented programs. In
an effort to understand special education referral from a diverse perspective, this
investigation seeks to evoke the voices of African American teachers.
Chapter 2 describes how special education referral and the referral of African
American students have been addressed in the professional literature, focusing on the
history of African American students in United States public schools, teacher beliefs and
efficacy, and the special education referral process. Chapter 3 includes a brief
introduction to phenomenology, defining characteristics of phenomenology, a
subjectivity statement, as well as the methods used in this study. Chapter 4 presents the
findings or descriptions of special education referral from African American teachers'
perspectives. The textural and structural descriptions of two key informants (i.e., David
and Rebecca), and the group's textural and structural descriptions are presented. This
chapter concludes with a discussion of the essence of special education referral. Finally,
Chapter 5 presents a discussion of the key findings, connections and differences between
the findings and the professional literature in this area, implications for practice and
future research, and a presentation of the limitations of this study.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
The classroom teacher has a powerful influence on the referral process.
Ultimately "it is the classroom teacher who makes the comparison [between what is
acceptable and unacceptable] and decides whether referral is appropriate" (Donovan &
Cross, 2002, p. 227). Only students who are "referred" are given full and individual
evaluation mandated by law. After considering all of the data (e.g., teacher observations,
prereferral interventions, psychoeducational assessment results) placed before them, the
multidisciplinary team determines if the student is eligible or ineligible for special
education services. Typically, multidisciplinary teams consist of a regular (general)
education teacher, special educators, parents, guidance counselor, and a school
administrator. The multidisciplinary team (e.g., School Study Team [SST], Student Study
Team [SST]) decides whether the student will receive special education services, where
the student will receive special education services and for how long. Ysseldyke,
Vanderwood, and Shriner (1997) revealed that over 70% of those students referred to
special education are placed. Clearly, an important predictor of special education
eligibility is the classroom teachers' referral of the student for assessment or intervention
(Artiles & Trent, 1994; Hosp & Reschly, 2003; Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983).
Overview of the Study
The purpose of this study was to add the voices and experiences of African
American teachers to the research literature by examining African American teachers'
perceptions of special education referral. Another purpose of this study was to discover
how African American teachers experience the referral of African American students to
special education programs. The study addressed the following questions: (a) "How do
African American elementary teachers perceive special education referral?" and,
(b) "How do African American teachers experience the referral of African American
students to special education classes?" By interviewing teachers using open-ended
questions (about their past, present, and future experience with special education
referral), the study attempted to disclose the perception of African American teachers.
This chapter provides a review of literature related to the overrepresentation of
African American students in Special Education and the influence of teachers'
perceptions on the referral process. The review consists of (a) an overview of the
overrepresentation of African Americans in Special Education, (b) an overview of the
literature on teacher beliefs, and (c) a review of the literature regarding influence of
teachers' perceptions on the referral process.
Overrepresentation of African Americans in Special Education
In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the United States Supreme
Court declared the claim of separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional. With this
ruling came the desegregation of public schools. Black teachers and students from
previously segregated schools faced new challenges. When schools in the South
eventually desegregated, the African American community quickly recognized a
dismantling of many "all-Black" schools (Etheridge, 1979; Foster, 1997; Siddle-Walker,
1996). Rather than have White students integrate newly built all-Black schools, most all-
Black schools were forced to close and Black students were assigned to existing "White"
schools (Foster, 1997). In addition, Black administrators and Black teachers were
removed from their positions at all-Black schools and assigned to previously all-White
schools in low numbers (Etheridge, 1979; Foster, 1997). Black teachers often had more
academic training and years of teaching service than their White counterparts, yet White
teachers had more employment opportunities (Foster, 1997). In addition to staff and
faculty changes, Black teachers and students were challenged to adjust their behaviors
and beliefs to the expectations and culture of White schools (Foster, 1997; Irvine, 1990;
Watkins, Lewis, & Chou, 2001).
As a result of desegregation, White teachers had the responsibility of teaching,
interacting with, and motivating Black students. The previous inequities of segregation
and the unwillingness and unpreparedness of White teachers to accept and teach black
students led to other forms of segregation within integrated schools (Artiles & Trent,
1994). A teacher from Foster's (1997) study stated,
The teachers made it clear that Blacks were not welcome. In the classroom, the
White teachers would put the Black kids on one side of the room and the White
kids on the other side. This is so that they wouldn't touch or mingle. (p. xxxiv)
Noticing academic and social differences between White students and Black students,
teachers intentionally and unintentionally "contributed to the establishment of special
education classrooms that would enroll disproportionate numbers of Black students"
(Artiles & Trent, 1994, p. 417).
Later, Lloyd Dunn (1968) was the first to address the overrepresentation of
children of color with mental retardation in special education classrooms. In comparison
to the student population found in general education classrooms, Dunn (1968) noted that
60% to 80% of the students taught by special educators were children of color (Dunn,
1968). Since Dunn, many researchers have examined the overrepresentation of minority
students in special education. Overrepresentation in special education occurs when a
group's (e.g., African American) membership in the program or a given disability
category is proportionately larger than its resident population (National Alliance of Black
School Educators [NABSE] & ILIAD Project, 2002). For example, previous researchers
and studies often focused on statistics indicating that the percentage of African American
students enrolled in special education was significantly higher than the percentage of
African American students in the overall, school age population (Artiles et al., 2002;
Artiles & Trent, 1994; Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Harry & Anderson, 1994, Hosp &
Reschley, 2002, 2003; Oswald, Coutinho, Best & Singh, 1999; Zhang & Katsiyannis,
2002). Evidence has shown that the overrepresentation of African American students in
special education remains prevalent today (OSEP, 2005; Appendix F).
During the 2001-2002 school year the proportion of African American students
served by IDEA was higher than the proportion of Whites, Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific
Islander (OSEP, 2005). Nationally representing 15% of the resident population, Black
children ages 6 to 21 were overrepresented in specific learning disabilities (18%), mental
retardation (34%), and emotional disturbance (28%) categories (OSEP, 2005). In the
same school year, representing 21% of Florida's school population, Black children were
overrepresented in the same categories 24%, 49%, and 39%, respectively (OSEP, 2005).
The current research literature reveals several contributing factors to the
overrepresentation of African American students in special education. These factors
* The educational system's inability to educate African American students.
* Discrepancies in the referral and placement process.
* Overreliance on intelligence tests.
* Lack of access to appropriate forms of instruction in general education.
* Inadequate resources and underqualified teachers. (NABSE & ILIAD Project,
All these factors influence whether students are referred for special education services
and labeled with a disability.
Historically, the segregation and integration of racial and ethnic groups has been
instrumental in the development of public schools in the United States. Between 1875
and 1914 "public schools were transformed from a minor social institution that largely
catered to the middle class, to one that was available to all levels of society, legally
compelling all children to attend" (Hoffman, 1975, p 416). Soon after the serious
enforcement of compulsory school attendance, educators were speaking of separate
schools and separate classes to accommodate students they defined as "unmanageable or
mentally deficient" (Hoffman, p. 416). Special education and gifted and talented
programs in public schools were established, corresponding to the ideology that
education was the solution to social and economic progress (Cohen, 1970). During the
1920s many schools placed Italian, Polish, and southern Black children in special classes
for the purpose of "social adjustment" (Thomas, 1986, p. 10). To handle the greater
cultural diversity these pupils brought into schools, social adjustment classes were used
to help them assimilate into the dominant culture (Thomas, 1986).
At a critical time (e.g., Civil Rights movement, War on Poverty initiative, and the
Coleman Report), Dunn (1968) publicly voiced his concern with the effectiveness of self-
contained special education classes for children with mild mental retardation, and a need
for educational alternatives in general and special education classrooms. He asserted that
60% to 80% of the students placed in classes for the mildly retarded were from "low
status backgrounds" (Dunn, 1968, p. 6). Dunn believed that a better solution was needed
to provide better outcomes for these students. He suggested that homogenous groupings
of students with mild learning problems was harmful, and that these students could learn
more from being in the general education classroom with supports from special
Dunn (1968) pointed out that removal of slow learning students from general
education was done to remove pressure from general education teachers at the expense of
the students. In concluding his article, Dunn stated,
The conscience of special educators needs to rub up against morality. In large
measure we have been at the mercy of the general education establishment in that
we accept problem pupils who have been referred out of the regular grades. In
this way, we contribute to the delinquency of the general educations since we
remove the pupils that are problems for them and thus reduce their need to deal
with individual differences. The entente of mutual delusion between general and
special education that special class placement will be advantageous to slow
learning children of poor parents can no longer be tolerated. We must face the
reality-we are asked to take children others cannot teach, and a large percentage
of these are from ethnically and/or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Thus much of special education will continue to be a sham of dreams unless we
immerse ourselves into the total environment of our children from inadequate
homes and backgrounds and insist on a comprehensive ecological push-with a
quality educational program as part of it. This is hardly compatible with out
prevalent practice of expediency in which we employ many untrained and less
than master teachers to increase the number of special day classes in response to
the pressures of waiting lists. Because of these pressures from the school system,
we have been guilty of fostering quantity with little regard for quality of special
education instruction. Our first responsibility is to have an abiding commitment to
the less fortunate children we aim to serve. Our honor, integrity, and honesty
should no longer be subverted and rationalized by what we hope and may believe
we are doing for these children-hopes and beliefs which have little basis in
reality. (p. 20)
Also in the 1960s, educators adopted the theory that the culture of African
American students was inherently inferior, and therefore, the students needed exposure to
"good" (e.g., Euro-American) culture (Bolima, 2004). Cultural deficit (also known as
deprivation) theorists suggested that African American students were not born inferior
but possessed a culture that caused them to be socially, emotionally, and cognitively
delayed (Bolima, 2004). Engelmann and Bereiter (1966) (as cited in Bolima, 2004)
stated, "Until dealt with, these cultural differences, would make it 'impossible for'
culturally deprived students 'to progress in academic areas'" (para 4). Schools operating
under the cultural deprivation theory believed special classes and ungraded classes would
assist teachers in coping with students exhibiting academic deficits and behaviors
different from the norm.
Later, cultural deprivation theory was discounted by cultural discontinuity theory,
which argued that differences between the home culture of African American students
and the school culture explained their academic and social challenges (Irvine, 1990;
Ladson-Billings, 1994). According to cultural discontinuity theory, when there is a
cultural mismatch between teachers and students, behaviors are often misinterpreted
because the teacher and the student are not aware that they are using equally important,
but different codes (Irvine; Ladson-Billings).
Eight years after Dunn's article, PL 94-142, also known as "The Education for
All Handicapped Children Act," was passed in 1975. This act was passed into law for the
* To ensure that all children with disabilities have free appropriate public special
education and related services designed to specifically meet their unique needs.
* To protect the rights of students with disabilities and their parents.
* To assist states and localities in providing a free and appropriate public education to
all children with disabilities.
* To assess and assure the effectiveness of the special education and related services
for all children with disabilities. (OSEP, 2005)
As amended in 1990, PL 94-142 became commonly referred to as the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Regulations governing assessment and decision making for children and youth
with disabilities were put into law by the 1977 Protection in Evaluation Procedures
Provisions (PEP). Influenced by previous consent decrees that settled class action court
cases, PEP required: "(1) a comprehensive, individualized evaluation;
(2) nondiscrimination regarding ethnic and cultural minorities; (3) consideration of
multiple domains of behavior and not just a single measure such as IQ; and (4) decision
making by a team of professionals with the participation of parents" (Donovan & Cross,
2002, p. 214). Under PEP regulations, all students with potential disabilities would be
considered for special education services, while those students who appeared to have
learning and/or behavior differences due to cultural differences were determined
ineligible for special education services (Donovan & Cross, 2002). These regulations
changed in 1999 when the regulations for IDEA 1997 were published as Procedures for
Evaluation and Determination of Eligibility (PEDE) (Donovan & Cross, 2002).
Historically, the goal of IDEA had been to provide an equal opportunity for
students with disabilities to have a public, free, and appropriate education like that of
students in general education. The 1997 amendments to the IDEA placed more emphasis
on curriculum and objectives to address students' educational outcomes. The integration
of PEDE, other IDEA (1997, 1999) regulations and Individual Educational Program
(IEP) regulations required the following:
* Participation of someone who can interpret instructional implications based on
* A statement of the student's current educational performance level and how the
disability will impact his success in the general education curriculum.
* Inclusion of all students in state and district-wide assessment, including
modifications and accommodations that the student may need.
* Measurable, annual and short-term goals and objectives. (Donovan & Cross, 2002)
* A general education teacher as a mandatory member of the IEP team. (Special
Education & Rehabilitative Services, 1999)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, which is the
reauthorization of IDEA 1997, continues to support the mandatory requirement of a
regular education teacher in the referral and IEP process.
Since the desegregation of public schools in the United States, laws have been
enacted to ensure that all students receive a free and appropriate public education, yet the
segregation of African American students continues. Theories (i.e., unpreparedness of
teachers, low teacher expectations, and cultural deficit theory) influenced by beliefs
about race and culture have attempted to explain why African American students are not
faring well in schools. Specifically, these theories have resulted in the overrepresentation
of African American students in special education programs and disability categories.
In contrast to these theories, other researchers disclosed that African American
students are neither genetically inferior or a part of an inferior culture, but they
experience cultural discontinuity in schools (Irvine, 1990; Ladson-Billings, 1994). The
cultural mismatch between African American students and White teachers often result in
African American students and African American culture being misunderstood and
As members of SSTs, general education teachers make judgments about which
African American students' behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. In addition to
assessments, teachers' judgments determine the types of help African American students
receive. Knowing the origin of beliefs (also known as judgments or perceptions), how
teachers' beliefs develop, and the use of teacher beliefs is pertinent to understanding why
some teachers refer African American students.
Teacher Beliefs: An Introduction
Teachers' beliefs allow them to make sense of their worlds by defining the
teaching task and organizing knowledge and information for retrieval in the teaching
process (Nespor, 1987). In fact, a teacher's beliefs may have more influence on what
goes on in a classroom and between a teacher and his or her students than teacher
knowledge and/or training (Nespor). Nevertheless, researchers reveal that there is no
consensus on a definition for teacher beliefs (Eisenhart, Shrum, Harding, & Cuthbert,
1988; Kagan, 1992; Pajares, 1992).
Concepts of teacher beliefs have been used in various ways, from general terms to
specifically shared ideas to individualistic perceptions (Kagan, 1992). Kagan defined
teacher belief as "a particularly provocative form of personal knowledge that is generally
defined as pre- or in-service teachers' implicit assumptions about students, learning,
classrooms, and the subject matter to be taught" (pp. 65-66). In addition to having
multiple definitions, the term "teacher beliefs" is not consistently used in the research
literature (Eisenhart et al., 1988; Fang, 1996; Pajares, 1996). The term is interchanged
with teachers' private views (Buchmann, 1987), theories (Fang, 1996), perceptions (Bahr
& Fuchs, 1991; Uhlenberg & Brown, 2002), personal epistemologies (Gordon, 1990),
perspectives (McLeskey, Waldron, & So, 2001) or orientations (Kagan, 1992).
In his review of teacher beliefs, Pajares (1992) explained that
defining beliefs is at best a game of player's choice. They travel in disguise and
often under the alias of: attitudes, values, judgments, axioms, opinions, ideology,
perceptions, conceptions, conceptual systems, preconceptions, dispositions,
implicit theories, personal theories, internal mental processes, action strategies,
rule of practice, practical principles, perspectives, repertories of understanding,
and social strategy, to name but a few that can be found in the literature. (p. 309)
Most teachers are apprehensive about publicly expressing their beliefs because
what teachers know and believe about teaching is often implicit and invisible (Kagan,
1992). Kagan suggested that asking students about their teaching philosophies is often
ineffective or counterproductive. Furthermore, beliefs are difficult to change, and when
they do, the change occurs over time and as a last alternative to one's deeply rooted
values and judgments (Nespor, 1987; Pajares, 1992).
Researchers struggle with the distinction between knowledge and beliefs
(Buchmann, 1987; Fang, 1996; Pajares, 1992). Evidence suggests that beliefs are a form
of knowledge (Fang, 1996; Nespor, 1987; Pajares, 1992). Kagan (1992) further explained
a teacher's knowledge of his or her profession is situated in three important ways:
in context (it is related to specific groups of students), in content (it is related to
particular academic material taught) and in person (it is embedded within the
teacher's unique belief system). (p. 74)
Teachers may have similar knowledge, but their thought processes and expectations of
students cause teachers to practice differently (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Kagan,
1992; Pajares, 1992; Semmel, Abernathy, Butera, & Lesar, 1991). The nature of teaching
and the teacher's work is an often ill-defined and entangled domain wherein entities are
diverse, partially overlapping, and connections are incomplete or unclear (Nespor, 1987).
Beliefs are created through the process of cultural transmission (Pajares, 1992).
Drawing from Melville Herskovits's Cultural Anthropology (1963) and Man and His
Works (1956), Van Fleet (1979) suggested that the cultural transmission process consists
of enculturation, education, and schooling. Enculturation is a learning process that occurs
throughout a person's life, consisting of the training he or she receives from others and
the implicit assimilation of elements from his or her culture (Van Fleet). Through
observation, imitation of others and the transmission of elements of culture, individuals
are implicitly and explicitly taught what is "normal" and "abnormal" behavior (Ross,
Kamman & Coady, in press). Formal and informal educations are used to bring behaviors
in line with specific cultural requirements (Van Fleet, 1979). Van Fleet further explained
that schooling uses specific learning and teaching processes outside the home in specific
places, at definite times, and by prepared persons.
Formal and Informal Teacher Education
Similar to the process of cultural transmission, teaching involves teacher
enculturation, teacher education, and teacher schooling (Van Fleet, 1979). Like their
students, teachers do not enter classrooms or colleges of education as blank slates upon
which to write. Teacher enculturation occurs early for teachers. Nimmo and Smith (1994)
suggest that teacher enculturation is comprised of teacher socialization and teacher
development. Teachers are presented with images of teaching through both formal and
informal knowledge (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Lortie, 2002). Like Van Fleet's
(1979) 8-year-old niece playing school, teachers have watched teachers, heard others talk
of teachers, and been exposed to teachers throughout their lives. Teacher socialization
occurs before and after entering the classroom. Teachers' different life perspectives,
colleagues, and work culture form their images of teaching (Zeichner & Gore, 1986).
Whether positive or negative, these images form a teacher.
Research suggests that "student teachers have spent thousands of hours in an
apprenticeship of observation (Lortie, 2002) leading to the development of a body of
values, commitments, orientations, and practices" (Calderhead & Robson, 1991, p. 1).
Apprenticeship observations by preservice and inservice teachers help form images of
good and bad teaching. In addition, these images influence their decisions to become
teachers and the type of teacher they wish to become (Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Fang,
1996; Lortie, 2002).
According to Nimmo and Smith (1994) teacher development is a multi-faceted
process that is often nonlinear and unique. They suggest that it involves teachers'
backgrounds interacting with various dispositions and situations that produce personal
and professional development and growth (Nimmo & Smith, 1994). Through formal
teacher education, teachers begin to understand the behaviors, thoughts and feelings of
teaching (Van Fleet, 1979).
Most people are aware of the formal teacher education that occurs in colleges of
education and teacher education institutions, but few are aware of the teacher education
that occurs in schools, during conferences, and outside of school when teachers advise
each other at social events (Van Fleet, 1979). Cooperating teachers fill the role of teacher
educators for pre-service teachers during field placements, and in-service teachers often
have peer teachers to orient them to the specifics of school culture (Irvine, 1990; Ishler,
Edens, & Berry, 1996; Ladson-Billings, 1994). Teachers inform other teachers regarding
students' behaviors and what school policies must be followed.
Van Fleet (1979) reported that teacher education "includes directed learning
experiences that aim to bring teacher behavior in line with specific requirements
sanctioned by the school culture"(p. 283), revealing school context and educational
policy as key factors in influencing teacher beliefs and actions. In the teacher education
process, people who want to teach are often removed from the public school environment
to be "instructed in the profession and mythology, in making practical implements, and in
proper etiquette and social relations among professionals. Trainees participate in work
settings and mock battles. When finished, they are ceremonially certified and returned to
the public school" (Van Fleet, p. 284). These teachers are expected to utilize the skills
and strategies from years of schooling to maximize the academic and social potentials of
their diverse students.
Function of Teacher Beliefs
Nespor (1987) conveyed, "Beliefs perform the function of framing or defining the
task at hand" (p. 322); however, teachers' knowledge and action are not necessarily a
function of their beliefs. After following seven preservice teachers during a year,
Calderhead and Robson (1991) reported that preservice teachers may possess teacher
knowledge, consisting of formal knowledge of theories, pedagogy, and strategies, but not
utilize this knowledge in their actual classrooms or interactions with certain students.
Similarly, in their 4-year study of teacher beliefs and conceptions about reading, Duffy
and Anderson (1984) reported that teachers provided distinct reading theories outside the
classroom, but the teachers' actual instructional practice was governed by changes in
grade level and/or changes in the ability levels of the students being taught in the class. In
a similar vein, surveying 381 regular and special education teachers, Semmel and
colleagues (1991) revealed that teachers' beliefs do not necessarily appear in their
actions. They found that general education teachers believed that students with mild
disabilities had a basic right to be included in general education classrooms, but they
preferred pull-out programs and felt inclusion would have a negative impact on students
with and without disabilities.
Recalled Images Shaping Teachers' Beliefs and Practices
For a teacher to solve a certain problem, he or she has to develop a mental model
or image of the problem, as well as possible solutions (Calderhead & Robson, 1991;
Nespor, 1987). The emotions, feelings, moods, and subjective qualities that often
envelope beliefs are important to facilitating memory (Nespor). Nespor conveyed that
affection serves the purposes of facilitating recall, providing cohesion to the pieces of the
memory, and constructing and reconstructing the memory processes. Calderhead and
Robson (1991) stated "being able to recall images, and to adapt and manipulate these
images in reflecting about action in a particular context is possibly an important task of
teaching" (p. 3).
Studies have revealed the influence of teachers' recalled images of their
cooperating teachers and/or mentor teachers on their perceptions of good or bad teaching
(Calderhead & Robson, 1991; Lee, 2002; McCray, Sindelar, Kilgore, & Neal, 2002;
Mitchell, 1998; Walker, 2001). In McCray and her colleagues' (2002) study of African
American teachers' decision to become teachers, participants' images of effective
teachers were reflective of the impact of a recalled image of a teacher from a book:
[Marva Collins's] expectations and methods were very inspirational because she
had students in her classroom that were labeled mentally retarded. She was told
that they were not able to learn. But she didn't let that stigmatize the way she
taught them, and she had great expectations for them. In the end, one girl in
particular ended up graduating from college summa cum laude. That's the kind of
teacher I want to be. (p. 282)
Similarly, African American teacher Beverly Cokerham disclosed that her field
experience and cooperating teacher had the greatest influence on her evolution as a
teacher (Lee, 2002). Calderhead and Robson (1991) suggested that recalling the images
of past teachers who were perceived as unsympathetic, intolerant, impatient teachers who
frequently shouted and were generally distant from children shaped teachers' beliefs and
practice into becoming what they desired as students and/or their teachers lacked.
Teacher beliefs can be defined as teachers' implicit assumptions about teaching,
students and subject matter. In research literature various terms (e.g., perceptions,
judgments, assumptions, theories) are used for teacher beliefs. Teacher beliefs are
developed by formal education and life experiences (before and after entering the
teaching profession). They inform teachers' teaching practices and images of teaching.
In addition, teachers' beliefs inform teachers' visions of who they are able and willing to
teach. Using their perceptions, teachers determine what is academically and socially
appropriate for students. When students do not match teachers' perceptions of "normal,"
teachers are likely to refer them.
Teachers' Perceptions about Special Education Referral
Influence of Teachers' Perceptions
Referral research suggests that teacher perceptions are pertinent to the referral
process (Abidin & Robinson, 2002; Giesbrecht & Routh, 1979; Kauffman, Swan &
Wood, 1980; Kelly, Bullock, & Dykes, 1977). In a study representing three elementary
schools, Abidin and Robinson asked 30 teachers to identify three students from their
classrooms who they would refer for psychoeducational assessment. They found that
teachers' perceptions were based on observed behaviors of students and not demographic
characteristics. Abidin and Robinson found that teachers' judgments about the presence
of behavioral problems and students' academic competence were the best predictors of
special education referral. Racial bias, socioeconomic bias, and teaching stress were not
significant in the study.
In a similar vein, Gresham, MacMillan, and Bocian (1998) investigated 60
teachers on School Study Teams (SSTs) and reported data suggesting that
classification decisions are being made in public schools based on the child's
perceived educational needs by school study team members rather than scores
obtained from intelligence and achievement tests and the extent these scores meet
some arbitrary criteria for the presence of a mild disability. (p. 189)
Gresham and his colleagues (1998) found low levels of agreement with the Office of
Special Education Programs' (OSEP) definitions of mild disability groups. These
teachers relied on their individual judgments and did not give great weight to
Geisbrecht and Routh (1979) examined 104 elementary teachers' responses to
artificially constructed cumulative folders. They reported that teachers perceived students
to more likely need special education assistance if cumulative folders included negative
teacher comments. Teachers in the study were more likely to suggest referral for Black
children whose parents were less educated. In cumulative files with more negative
teacher comments, students were more likely recommended for behavioral help than
students without comments.
In an examination of the referral and placement process, Argulewicz and Sanchez
(1983) found that if placements were based only on teachers' perceptions, the
representation of minority students in special education would be higher (Argulewicz &
Sanchez). The researchers contended that psychoeducational evaluation conducted by
special education services often served as a moderator for special education placement.
Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Ritchey, and Graden (1982) examined 20 videotaped placement
team meetings. They observed that "a good deal of the information (83%) presented at
the team meetings was irrelevant to final placement decisions made by the placement
team" (p. 42). According to the researchers, SST members used assessment data to
confirm or justify previously made assumptions about students and did not use specific
criteria in making their decisions. In addition, the more information that was provided to
the placement team, the greater the likelihood of the student being identified for special
education services. Ysseldyke and his colleagues (1982) concluded that eligibility
decisions are made independent of tests supporting or contradicting teachers'
Teachers' perceptions are instrumental in determining what children are
appropriate for special education referral. With the exception of keeping larger numbers
of minority students out of special education, assessment appears less significant than
teachers' perceptions in the referral process. As members of the SSTs, teachers influence
other teachers in their judgments of which students need special education services and
placement. Not only do teachers consider other teachers' judgments in referral decisions,
but they also ponder how outside resources should be utilized.
Teacher Perceptions of Outside Resources
Research suggests that teachers' perceptions of outside resources influence their
decisions to refer students (Waldron, McLeskey, Skiba, Jancaus, & Schulmeyer, 1998;
Wilton, Cooper, & Glynn, 1987; Winfield, 1986). Wilton et al. (1987) investigated the
personal and professional characteristics of general education teachers who had referred
or would refer struggling students in their classrooms. All of the teachers in the study had
at least one student who would qualify for special education referral. The researchers
concluded that referring teachers more likely had previous and better access to the school
psychologists. These teachers believed that school policy encouraged referrals.
Similarly, in a study of 24 high and low referring elementary teachers, Waldron
and her colleagues (1998) found that high referring teachers often used outside resources
to confirm or disconfirm their suspicions of a disability. Waldron et al. revealed that low
referring teachers used information from previous teachers and consultants to obtain
additional ideas on how to assist students and adapt curriculum. They concluded that the
goal of low referring teachers was to "exhaust all options" (p. 37). Teachers who
perceived they had options available to them and were able to use them appeared less
likely to refer.
In their investigation of student and classroom factors that placed students at risk
of referral, Skiba, McLeskey, Waldron, Grizzle, and Bartley (1993) found the classroom
referral rates to be significantly related to the use of a variety of management strategies.
Low referring teachers had higher rates of intervention and used a variety of strategies to
address inappropriate classroom behavior (Skiba et al.). Added to this, Waldron et al.
(1998) interviewed 24 high and low referring teachers on their perceptions of the students
they referred, and the criteria and resources they used to make referral decisions. The
researchers reported that low referring teachers implemented 50% more interventions
than high referring teachers. In contrast, high referring teachers provided little detail
regarding the interventions previously implemented for students. They found that flexible
grouping patterns were utilized in the low referring teachers' classroom to accommodate
students' diverse needs. High referring teachers were less flexible in their classroom
groupings, placing students having difficulties in already existing groups or looking for
out-of-class alternatives (Waldron et al., 1998).
In a study of 24 general education elementary teachers' perceptions of Student
Support Teams (SSTs) and the students they brought to SST for referral, Logan et al.
(2001) reported that teachers believed that they and their colleagues had done all they
could to help the referred student and that the sole purpose of the SST was to test
students and place them in special education. Students with whom teachers had not been
successful or who required too much time to teach or manage were sent to the SST. In the
teachers' minds, special education provided what general education could not. Teachers
often cited special education as the place for students to receive small group instruction
and 1:1 teaching.
Logan et al. (2001) reported that teachers did not want fellow teachers to think
they had not done their job by not referring students. The teachers viewed the referral
process with the SST as difficult, time consuming, frustrating and threatening (Logan et
al.). They wanted the process to move quickly, considering that they documented their
actions, contacted the parents, and sought help from the special education teacher. Added
to their anxiety was the fear that administrators were covertly evaluating teachers during
the referral process (Logan et al.).
In a similar vein, Christenson, Ysseldyke, and Algozzine (1982) examined 52
Minnesota and Florida general and special education teachers' list of barriers to and
factors facilitating the referral process. Seventy-seven percent of the teachers noted
barriers to referral. Christenson et al. found organizational factors, availability of
services, and "hassle" (e.g., paperwork, meetings, time, scheduling meetings) as the most
reported barriers to referral. Teachers in their study often noted their skepticism about the
payoff of referral.
Teachers' perceptions assist them in determining which resources are appropriate
for students. Low referring teachers believe they have resources available to assist them
with students who are difficult to teach. These teachers tend to use a variety of strategies
and interventions to maintain students in general education. They refer for the purposes
of developing appropriate strategies and general education classroom environments to
meet the needs of students. In contrast, high referring teachers perceive that all of their
resources are exhausted with the exception of special education. These teachers have few
strategies and interventions, and are reluctant about changing the general education
classroom and/or curriculum to appropriately help students. Teachers who often refer
students use the process to remove students from general education. They also have
difficulty envisioning success with students who are difficult to teach.
Influence of Teachers' Self-Efficacy
Research suggests that decisions to refer students are influenced by teachers'
beliefs in their abilities to effectively instruct students. Bandura (1993) stated, "Among
the mechanisms or agency, none is more central or pervasive than people's beliefs about
their capabilities to exercise control over their own level of functioning and over events
that affect their lives" (p. 118). Teacher education programs attempt to build teaching
efficacy by providing teachers with diverse teaching methods and strategies as well as
proper field experiences. Teaching efficacy is the belief that various teaching strategies,
pedagogy, and curriculum are effective and bring about success for students (Bandura,
1993). Researchers revealed that many teachers might possess teacher efficacy, but lack
Examining teacher efficacy and self-efficacy is critical to understanding why
some students are successful in school and others are not (Jordan, Kircaali-Iftar, &
Diamond, 1993; Podell & Soodak, 1993; Soodak, Podell & Lehman, 1998). "The task of
creating environments conducive to learning rests heavily on the talents and self-efficacy
of teachers" (Bandura, 1993, p. 140). Teacher self-efficacy is the belief in one's ability to
motivate, promote learning and create an environment where even the most difficult
students excel academically and socially (Bandura). According to Bandura, "Efficacy
beliefs influence how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave" (p. 118).
Teachers with high self-efficacy visualize success scenarios that serve as guides and
motivation for performance (Bandura). Having high expectations of students, these
teachers demand better performance from students and give students praise. In contrast,
teachers who doubt their self-efficacy visualize failure and the possibility of things going
wrong (Bandura). They are likely to accept poor performance from students for whom
they have low expectations and are less likely to praise poor performing students when
they perform well.
Teachers' self-efficacy influences their beliefs and expectations of learners, and
therefore their decision to refer (Jordan et al., 1993, 1997). Jordan and her colleagues
(1997) examined nine elementary teachers and their third grade students' conversational
reactions during an academic lesson. The researchers categorized the teachers' beliefs as
either "interventionist" (preventive) or "pathognomic" (restorative). Teachers who
possessed pathognomic (restorative) beliefs assumed that problems largely resided within
the child, and the responsibility of the teacher was to have the child assessed for
confirmation. These teachers possessed little belief in their ability to provide academic
and/or social success for the students who were struggling and/or "at-risk." In contrast,
teachers with high self-efficacy possessed interventionist (preventive) beliefs. They
attempted prereferral interventions and requested assessment for the purpose of
pinpointing possible strategies to change the classroom environment as well as
instruction. Jordan et al. (1997) revealed that teachers with high personal efficacy
engaged in more academic interactions and exhibited greater use of various strategies to
extend students' thinking. Using higher levels of cognitive extension, teachers with high
self-efficacy interacted more positively with typically achieving students, students with
disabilities and students labeled "at-risk."
Researchers found that teachers with low personal efficacy often sought
nonteacher based solutions for problems with students, and blamed the homes of students
or the students themselves for the academic and/or social problems (Jordan et al., 1993,
1997; Soodak & Podell, 1994). In their study of 110 elementary teachers' decisions with
difficult to teach students, Soodak and Podell (1994) reported that teachers with low
personal efficacy wanted other professionals to fix their problems with difficult to teach
students rather than attempting to develop effective strategies. The researchers contend
that teachers' personal efficacy influenced the type of personal responsibility teachers
accepted for difficult to teach students. Teachers with low personal efficacy were
reluctant to ask for help and prone to seek professional assessment for students. They
perceived special education as the logical place for students that were difficult to teach
(Podell & Soodak).
In another study, Podell and Soodak (1993) investigated 192 general and special
educators' judgments of referral, using case studies describing a student with a learning
disability and/or behavior problem. They found that general education teachers with
greater personal efficacy were more likely to perceive general education as more
appropriate for students with a learning disability and/or behavior problem. Teachers
with high self-efficacy preferred collaboration with other professionals to develop
diverse strategies and skills to provide success for students (Soodak et al., 1998).
In a similar vein, Soodak and her colleagues (1998) surveyed 188 general
educators' responses to including students with disabilities in their classrooms. They
discovered that collaboration with other teachers and development of differentiated
teaching practices appeared to reduce teachers' anxiety and increase receptivity toward
inclusion of students "at-risk" and/or with disabilities (Podell & Soodak, 1993; Soodak et
Similarly in a study of 26 elementary general education teachers, Jordan and her
colleagues (1993) reported that teachers with high personal efficacy preferred
cooperative consults rather than pull-out programs that removed students from the
general education classroom. High personal efficacy teachers were confident in being
able to create positive student outcomes. The researchers concluded that teachers with
"restorative" beliefs (low personal efficacy) viewed "problems" within students, the
parents and others outside the classroom as being more influential on students' social and
In a study of teacher beliefs about academically "at-risk" students, Winfield
(1986) categorized ways that teachers conceptualized four teacher behaviors for dealing
with students who were struggling: (a) tutors; (b) general contractors; (c) custodians; and
(d) referral agents. The tutors were the teachers who indicated it was their responsibility
to improve all students' reading, even the lowest reading group. Teachers who expressed
that remedial instruction was needed for students, but the responsibility for instruction
should be given to another, were categorized as general contractors. Custodians were
teachers who conveyed concern for supporting low achieving students in the general
education classroom, but also expressed that nothing or little could be done for the
struggling students. Referral agents had a similar attitude as the custodians; however,
referral agents shifted the responsibility of maintenance to other teachers and specialists.
Smart, Wilton, and Keeling (1980) compared general education teachers who
referred students to special education (SC) and general education teachers who had
students who qualified for special education classes, but had not referred these students
(NR). NR teachers strongly believed in the benefit of mainstream classes for low ability
students, and in their personal ability to accommodate students with special needs.
Higher proportions of low achievers were reported in the classrooms of NR teachers. In
contrast, mainstreaming did not seem important to SC teachers, who were older, had
more teaching experience, but were not as qualified as the NR teachers.
When teachers cannot visualize success scenarios for students, they are likely to
refer those whom they perceive cannot be helped. Teachers with high self-efficacy
visualize success with students, even the students that are challenging. These teachers use
outside resources to help students remain in the general education classroom. They utilize
outside resources to gain various strategies and interventions to appropriately change the
general education classroom environment and curriculum for students who are
In contrast, teachers with low self-efficacy are likely to use outside resources to
confirm their suspicions of a "problem." They believe that students' problems reside
within the student and/or student's family. These teachers see themselves as not having
appropriate resources or the ability to teach students whose behaviors are different from
the "norm" they envision. In addition, teachers with low self-efficacy are challenged with
identifying the specific problems they have with students.
Teachers' Perceptions of the "Problem"
When teachers refer students they often provide vague reasons for referral.
Anderson, Cronin, and Miller (1986) examined the referral reasons for 269 students with
learning disabilities from four elementary schools. The researchers found that referral
statements tended to be general and unclear about the particular concerns. Forty-two
percent of the referrals were nonspecific academic referrals, and 41% percent of the
referrals were both academic and behavioral (Anderson et al., 1986). Seventeen percent
of the referrals focused solely on student behavior. In a similar vein, Pugach (1985)
studied 39 elementary and junior high classroom teachers. She found that what teachers
said as the reason for referral often did not match what they wrote on paper.
Using actual referrals, Christenson, Ysseldyke, Wang, and Algozzine (1983)
investigated teachers' specific reasons for referring students. Teachers in the study
attributed 97% of elementary students' difficulties to nonteacher and nonschool causes.
Within-student characteristics (e.g., birth deficits, potential; 61.7%) and home causes
(e.g., family difficulties; 35.6%) were most often cited (Christenson et al., 1983).
Hutton (1985) reviewed referral information on 215 students from five different
school districts referred to school psychologists. Most of the referrals reported behaviors
that were described as conduct and personality disorders (Hutton). Hutton reported seven
frequently stated reasons for referral:
* Poor peer relationships
* Frequent displays of frustration
* Performance below academic expectations
* Shy and withdrawn behavior
* Disruptive behavior
* Refusal to work
* Short attention span.
Hutton (1985) found that poor peer relationships was reported as the number one reason
for referral. Kindergarten to third-grade teachers most often cited fighting as their reason
Referring teachers who have low self-efficacy struggle to identify students'
problems. These teachers often provide unclear, general, and/or nonacademic reasons for
referring students. They are likely to believe that the referred students' academic and/or
social issues are out of their control and that the problems reside in the student or
students' family. These teachers are less likely to appreciate and respect students'
differences. General education teachers who have few positive experiences with African
Americans are more likely to misinterpret African American behavior and the influence
of African American culture in their classrooms.
Influence of Teachers' Views of Behavioral and Cultural Differences on Referral
Research suggests that teachers' acceptance and perceptions of behavior influence
their decision to refer students. McIntyre (1990) studied 88 teachers from 11 public
schools and found that teachers with strict classroom standards were more likely to refer
students with low aggressive behaviors than teachers with more lax classroom standards.
In contrast, the students with high aggressive behaviors were less likely referred by
stricter teachers than lax teachers. The students labeled learning disabled were typically
viewed as having low aggressive behaviors in comparison to students labeled
emotionally disturbed (McIntyre).
Kelly, Bullock and Dykes (1977) investigated 2,664 regular education teachers'
perceptions of the behavior levels of their students in 13 Florida school districts. They
found that teacher perceptions of behavioral disorders gradually increased between
grades K-5. In addition, for every White student perceived to have a behavioral disorder,
approximately two Black students were perceived to have a behavioral disorder in grades
K-7 (Kelly et al.). Researchers revealed that "in general, White teachers perceived more
Black students as exhibiting behavioral disorders when contrasted with the perceptions of
Black teachers" (Kelly et al., p. 317).
Additional research suggests that referral may be influenced by students and
teachers' racial and cultural similarities and differences. Tomlinson, Acker, Canter, and
Lindborg (1977) studied the gender and minority status of 355 students referred for
psychological services "in relation to the frequency of referral, type of problem, and
nature of subsequent psychological services" (p. 456). Noting a significantly higher
percentage of the minority population being referred for psychological services, the
researchers found no difference with respect to the type (e.g., academic or behavior) of
problem for which students were referred. Tomlinson et al. found that psychologists
significantly more often contacted majority parents and provided them with suggestions
for helping their children. In contrast, the researchers noted that the parents of minority
students were less likely contacted by the psychologists and more often recommended for
special education resource services and placement.
In a 3-year ethnographic study of African American families in the special
education referral process, Harry, Klinger, and Hart (2005) found "stark discrepancy
between school personnel's views of Black families and the views developed through
research interviews and home visits" (p. 104). In most cases school personnel had not
visited students' homes and had made negative assumptions about families based on
unfounded evidence. Harry and her colleagues observed conferences in which teachers,
from various racial groups including African American, treated African American
parents and caregivers respectfully and disrespectfully. Educators in the study by Harry
et al. ignored parent/caregiver's comments and questions, tended to respond to
parents/caregivers with sarcasm, and overused educational jargon during meetings.
In a study of White and Black parents, teachers, psychologists, and educational
diagnosticians, Kaufman et al. (1980) examined the perceptions of problem behaviors of
194 White and Black children labeled emotionally disturbed. They found that Black
parents often perceived their children differently than the teachers. Teachers' perceptions
more often agreed with White parents than Black parents. The researchers did not record
the race of the teachers, but disclosed that between 75% to 80% of the teachers in the
study were White and 25% were Black (Kaufman et al.).
More pointedly, using constructed case histories to study 199 teachers, Tobias,
Cole, Zibrin and Bodlakova (1982) investigated the influence of students' race and
teachers' race on special education referral. The researchers purported no difference in
referral recommendations based on students' ethnic background; however, they revealed
that teachers were less likely to refer students whose backgrounds were identical to their
own. Researchers concluded that teachers who were familiar or had identical
backgrounds to minority students were more aware of students' culture and perceived
certain behaviors as acceptable based on this knowledge (Tobias et al.).
Investigating the impact of race and social behavior on teacher recommendations
for referral, Pernell (1984) examined questionnaire responses of 275 secondary teachers.
He found that Black teachers identified other races for referral before their own. Black
teachers in the study often predicted higher levels of social adjustment and reading for all
students than White students.
Similarly, in a study of Black teachers and White teachers' perceptions of
possible causes and potential solutions to the achievement gap between White students
and Black students, Uhlenberg and Brown (2002) surveyed 26 Black, 25 White and 2
multi-racial teachers. Researchers found that "issues that are based on making racial
distinctions or that are perceived to affect Black students more than White students tend
to produce perceptional disparities between Black teachers and White teachers"
(Uhlenberg & Brown, p. 519). Black teachers in the study viewed teachers with low
expectations for Black students, teachers not meeting the instructional needs of Black
students, and teachers acting in a racist manner (whether they meant to or not) as
significant factors in the achievement gap (Uhlenberg & Brown). The authors found that
Black teachers perceived factors such as Black students misbehaving, lacking effort and
lacking potential, as less significant factors. In contrast to other teachers in the study,
Black teachers believed Black parents' level of education, income, and parenting
techniques were less significant contributing factors for the achievement gap between
Black and White students (Uhlenberg & Brown). Black teachers in the study perceived
"more parental outreach and education, more mentoring programs, recruiting more Black
teachers, and better classroom instruction as relatively useful and effective solutions to
the achievement gap" (Uhlenberg & Brown, p. 516).
In an attempt to replicate their previous study, Tobias, Zibrin, and Menell (1983)
studied 320 teachers' responses to an adapted case history that investigated the influence
of student gender and ethnicity and the gender, ethnicity and teaching level of the teacher
on referral. They failed to replicate the findings of their earlier study where teachers
referred fewer students of their own race. Tobias et al. (1983) found that
recommendations for referral were influenced by teachers' ethnicity and teaching level
rather than students' gender or race.
Similarly, Washington (1982), using interviews and descriptive evidence with in-
service teachers, and identified six positive and six negative student characteristics as
important in the school context. Teachers were asked to assign two students from their
classrooms to each of the characteristics. She found that Black teachers viewed Black
boys, Black girls, and White boys more negatively than positively. Washington reported
that, with the exception of academic competency, "teachers tended to designate pupils of
their own race to negative characteristics" (p. 71). Two possible explanations are
provided. One, students' academic strengths are more uniformly evaluated. Two, teachers
are more sensitive to and/or aware of normative traits in their race and are therefore
better able to discriminate between students of their race who fall below the norm
In a similar vein, Bahr and Fuchs (1991) investigated whether teachers'
perceptions of difficult to teach students of 40 classroom teachers were racially based.
They found that both White and Black general education teachers rated Black students as
more appropriate for referral than White students. Both groups of teachers perceived the
classroom behaviors of White and Black students to be the same. The researchers noted
that behavior did not appear to be the basis for more Black students being referred.
Teachers in the study appeared to be more concerned about students' work issues than
behavior. Bahr and Fuchs concluded that the teachers perceived Black students as weaker
students and in need of specialized instruction.
General education teachers are more likely to refer African American students to
special education than White students. These referrals are generally based on the general
education teachers' perceptions of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. White
teachers' perceptions are often similar to perceptions of White parents and in contrast to
the perceptions' of African American parents and African American teachers. African
American parents and teachers are less likely to refer African American children and
have them removed from general education. African American teachers are often familiar
with the experiences of African American students and are more likely to have high
social and academic expectations for them.
Legislation such as Brown v. the Board of Education and PL-94-142 opened the
doors for African American students to receive an equal, free, and appropriate public
education. With the eventual integration of public schools, White educators were given
the responsibility of educating African American students in racially and academically
mixed classrooms (Foster, 1990, 1997). These educators perceived academic and social
differences in African American students. Researchers asserted that educators'
willingness to work with and perceptions of African Americans have led to the
overrepresentation of African Americans in special education and disability categories
(Artiles & Trent, 1994).
Using their individual perceptions and cultural experiences, teachers judge which
students are teachable and "normal" in the general education classroom (Donovan &
Cross, 2002; Ross et al., in press). Students who do not match teachers' "norm" are
perceived to have a deficit. Researchers suggest that general education teachers'
perceptions of African American students' behaviors influence SSTs more than
psychological assessments (Abidin & Robinson, 2002; Giesbrecht & Routh, 1979;
Gresham et al., 1998). Teachers' perceptions are developed before and after they enter
the classroom, and influence how they view teaching and students (Fang, 1992; Kagan,
1992; Nespor, 1987; Van Fleet, 1979). Teachers visualize the types of teachers they wish
to become and the students they are able and willing to teach (Calderhead & Robson,
1991; Nespor, 1987).
Teachers' beliefs in their abilities to teach African American students influence
whether they refer students (Jordan et al., 1993; Logan et al., 2001; Podell & Soodak,
1993; Smart et al., 1980; Soodak et al., 1998; Winfield, 1986). Teachers who believe in
their ability to teach African American students, even the most challenging ones, are less
likely to refer them (Jordan et al., 1993; Podell & Soodak, 1993; Soodak et al., 1998).
These teachers use outside resources (i.e., special education referral, parents, and other
teachers) to change the general education classroom and curriculum to accommodate
students who are struggling (Skiba et al., 1993; Waldron et al., 1998).
Teachers who believe they cannot teach African American students who are
struggling are likely to refer them (Jordan et al., 1993; Podell & Soodak, 1993; Soodak
et al., 1998). They tend to be less flexible in their grouping of students and provide little
changes to their teaching and curriculum to accommodate students (Waldron et al.,
1998). These teachers use outside resources to confirm problems within students and
remove students from the general education classroom (Jordan et al., 1993; Podell &
Soodak, 1993; Logan et al., 2001; Soodak et al., 1998).
This investigation adds the voices of African American teachers whose
perceptions are largely missing from the special education referral research (Irvine 2002;
Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Patton, 1998). Past research has often been presented
from the perspective of White teachers (Graham, 1992) who are often unfamiliar with
African American culture and its influence on academic and social interactions between
the teacher and African American student (Irvine, 1990, 2002).
The teachers in this study are more likely to have a cultural match to African
American students. Because their life experiences are more similar to African American
students and families, they are less likely to misinterpret African American students'
behaviors. By examining African American teachers' perceptions of special education
referral, we can come closer to learning how African American teachers make sense of
their worlds. Understanding how these teachers make sense of their worlds will add
multicultural voices to the special education referral discourse.
The purpose of this study is to examine the phenomenon of special education
referral from the perspective of African American elementary teachers. The guiding
questions for this study are (a) "How do African American elementary teachers perceive
special education referral," and, even more specifically, (b) "How do African American
teachers experience the referral of African American students to special education
classes?" Using phenomenological methodology, I want to understand how African
American elementary teachers make sense of special education referral. This chapter
begins with a brief description of the phenomenological research approach. I will present
the defining characteristics of a phenomenological study and what it offers to this
investigation. The chapter describes my experiences related to special education referral.
What follows are a description of participant recruitment and selection process, and
specific information about each of the participants. The chapter concludes with a
presentation of data collection and analysis procedures.
Introduction to Phenomenology
In qualitative research, it is important for the researcher to consider and reflect on
his or her assumptions about knowledge (Crotty, 1998). These assumptions are inherent
in the theoretical perspective and methodology that has been chosen (Crotty). The
philosophical stance that lies underneath the chosen methodology "provides a context for
the process and grounds its logic and criteria" (Crotty, p. 7). Interpretivism is the
underlying philosophical stance in phenomenology. The interpretivist approach "looks
for culturally derived and historically situated interpretations of the social life-world"
(Crotty, p. 67). Phenomenology is one kind of interpretive research.
Phenomenology is grounded in the epistemological assumption that the world is
made up of phenomena and experiences (Crotty, 1998; Husserl, 1931; Moustakas, 1994).
Miller and Crabtree (1999) suggest that phenomenology "seeks to understand the lived
experience of individuals and their intentions within their 'lifeworld'" (p. 28). In search
of essences, the researcher asks questions such as "what is it like to have a certain
experience" and "what is the essence of the particular experience" (Miller & Crabtree).
This is accomplished by an investigator bracketing his or her preconceived ideas, and
entering into the participant's lifeworld and using the self as an experiencing interpreter
(Miller & Crabtree).
Perceived through physical senses, experiences are the initial focus of a
phenomenological study (Husserl, 1964). The researcher seeks to understand the
phenomenon by observing physical manifestations and experiences of the phenomenon in
order to describe "a new meaning, or fuller meaning, or renewed meaning" of the
experience (Crotty, 1998, p. 82). By reflecting on all of the possible meanings of the
experience, the researcher comes to know and fully describe all aspects of the experience
identifying essential characteristics that surpass specific incidences (Moustakas, 1994).
Experiences often influence perceptions and perceptions experiences. Considered
the primary source of knowledge in phenomenology, perceptions are different from
experience in that perceptions are mental processes involving thoughts and reflections,
and based on various assumptions and/or beliefs. Moustakas (1994) noted that "with
every perception we experience the thing perceived as one-sided adumbrationn' while at
the same time apprehending and experiencing the thing as a whole object" (p. 53). One or
multiple perceptions enhance the possibilities of knowing and experiencing (Moustakas,
1994). New perceptions make possible the addition of new knowledge. Each perception
adds to the experience. Observing each angle of the object allows various perceptions
(horizons) to emerge.
The epistemology of phenomenology is both objective and subjective.
Phenomenology is objective in the sense that phenomenological research is focused on
seeing the object from a fresh, unbiased perspective free from prior experiences with the
phenomenon (Husserl, 1964). After focusing on the experiences of the phenomenon from
multiple points of view, the researcher conducts a subjective activity of reflecting on
possible meanings of the experience. Phenomenology is subjective in that the laborious
process of developing the essence of an experience occurs in the mind of the researcher
(Moustakas, 1994; van Kaam, 1966). Approaching the phenomena from both objective
and subjective perspectives enables the researcher to arrive at universal aspects of the
experience (Husserl, 1964).
Intentionality lies at the heart of phenomenology (Crotty, 1998). By intentionally
laying aside preconceived ideas and prevailing understandings of the phenomena,
researchers can revisit the experience anew and witness the possibilities of new meaning
or authenticate and enhance former meaning (Crotty, 1998). The presumption is that
there are 'things themselves' (objects) to visit in our experience (Crotty, 1998, p. 79).
When the investigator intentionally focuses on the phenomenon and reflects on its
meaning, he or she is able to describe the universal truths, or essences of the phenomenon
Like many other theoretical frameworks, phenomenology has evolved over time
(Crotty, 1998; Schwandt, 2001). Husserl (1931), van Kaam (1966) and Moustakas (1994)
described Transcendental Phenomenology as the search for universal truths of
experiences that form a single objective reality that is shared by all people. This universal
truth is considered objective and the essence of the phenomenon (Husserl, 1931, 1964;
Moustakas, 1994). Modem researchers (Seidman, 1991; Worthen & McNeill, 1996) in
the United States are interested in viewing phenomena through the lenses of others.
These multiple truths created from viewing the phenomenon from different perspectives
(Schwandt, 2001) form essences. Descriptions of universal truths of experience
(objective phenomenology) have evolved to characteristics of the experience as situated
within the context of the participants being studied subjectivistt phenomenology) (Crotty,
The evolution of phenomenology is pertinent to this study. I believe that there is
an essence of special education referral rooted within the context of the individual and
group of African American elementary teachers being studied. This study would not be a
true representation of the essence of special education referral that Husserl refers to. The
culture and ethnicity of the participants are relevant to this study. From this study,
multiple truths will be created by viewing special education referral from diverse
perspectives. Following the approach of phenomenology, this study seeks to describe the
phenomenon of special education referral from the perspective of teachers who are often
silenced in the literature. By providing African American teachers the opportunity to
describe how they perceive special education referral, a diverse view and dialogue of
special education referral will be created.
The ultimate goal ofphenomenological research is to thoroughly describe all
aspects of the experience in as much detail as possible (Husserl, 1931, Moustakas, 1994).
Using careful and intense study, phenomenology endeavors to "go back to the things
themselves" (Crotty, 1998, p. 59) to experience phenomenon from a fresh perspective
free from bias and judgments, from as many perspectives as possible (Crotty, 1998;
Moustakas, 1994). Intentionally setting aside, as best we can, the prevailing
understanding of special education referral and revisiting special education referral
allows opportunities to verify or enhance former meaning or derive new meaning for
special education referral (Crotty, 1998). This intentionality is essential to experiencing
the object, special education referral, from the vantage points of the subjects, African
Various subjectivities make up a researcher's autobiography and, to know which
subjectivities are engaged in the research, researchers develop subjectivity statements
(Glesne, 1999). The subjectivity statement candidly discloses the experiences of the
researcher. This disclosure reveals who I am in relationship to what I am learning from
the research and what I may be preventing myself from learning (Glesne, 1999). As an
African American researcher engaging in a phenomenological study of African American
teachers' perceptions of special education referral, I have many life experiences that are
bracketed in order to examine the phenomenon from an unbiased and fresh unadulterated
perspective (Crotty, 1998). I am a middle-class female who has lived in the state where
the data was collected for most of my life.
My interest in African American teachers' perceptions of special education
referral originates from my experiences as an African American student and a teacher.
After more than 12 hours of labor, my earth days began on Friday, February 18, 1972.
Doctors told my young parents (ages 21 and 17) that their first child, a daughter, had
suffered multiple seizures immediately after delivery and may have developmental
problems in the future. Thankfully, my parents sought a second opinion, finding a doctor
who told them that there was nothing wrong with their first born other than she had been
allowed to stay inside of her mother too long. I entered a world that was rapidly changing
for African Americans. The establishment of affirmative action programs and social
programs such as Head Start, public housing, Medicaid, and other programs during the
late 1960s and early 1970s suggested that the United States was ready to acknowledge its
wrongs and mistreatment of poor people and people of color.
My mother, a graduate of the last segregated class of Lincoln High School, and
my father, one of the first to integrate Newberry High School, imparted their dream of
academic, social, and political empowerment for the African American community to
their only daughter. My earliest memories are that of school, church, and service. Public
schooling began with Head Start and elementary school in a small rural community. By
my seventh birthday, my father entered the Christian ministry, which provided me the
opportunity to speak candidly and sing before congregations on special occasions, as well
as serve those in the community.
In the seventh grade, my family and I moved from one small town to another.
With the move came a new neighborhood and new school. For the first time we lived in a
neighborhood where we were the "only" persons of color. In the midst of our move to the
new school, my school records were misplaced. Neither my parents nor I were aware of
the mishap or my placement in a remedial reading class, until my report came home with
an "A" and the comments "reading below grade level." Immediately my father went to
the school to inquire about the mistake. It was revealed that my school records never
arrived from the previous school, and that I had been arbitrarily placed in a classroom. I
was quickly placed in an on-grade-level reading class. In eighth grade, I became an "A"
student in advanced placement courses. I suppose this placement would be considered
today's gifted and talented programs. During the next years, it quickly became apparent
that I would become one of the "first, only, and few": one of six African Americans to be
accepted in the International Baccalaureate Program at Eastside High School, and the
first female in my family to complete a bachelor's degree.
As an alumnus of the University of Florida, my father was not too thrilled about
his daughter attending Florida State University as an undergraduate, but the experience
would forever change my life. My junior year, I blindly entered Dr. William Jones'
"Race, Racism, and Institutions" class. Dr. Jones spoke ofmarginalization, racism,
institutionalized racism, power, blaming the victim, praxis, and hegemony. Having come
from an emerging middle class, immediately I became intrigued by this man who many
believed to be radical and fanatical. By the end of the semester, I had changed majors to
sociology, American history, and Black studies. For the first time, I began to question the
many privileges based on race and class that many others and I had taken for granted.
After graduation, I needed a job and decided to enter into teaching temporarily. Teaching
would forever change my life. I taught in the Alachua County public school system for
5 years, entering the field of special education through an alternative certification in
middle grades social science.
As an African American middle school special education teacher and a graduate
student, I became sensitive to the disproportionate numbers of my students who were
African American. Initially, I believed that the overrepresentation of African American
students in special education was an isolated occurrence, until later reading data that
explained it as national trend. During my 5 years of teaching, my class sizes fluctuated
from 8 students to 27 students, often with one or no aide. Even more troubling to me was
the inappropriate instruction and mislabeling of students who were falling behind their
peers in general education. I remember thinking during Individual Education Program
(IEP) meetings, "I don't observe the issues you're having with this student," and often
volunteering my help to the newly mainstreamed students and general education
teachers, while some of my special education colleagues predicted automatic failure.
Rarely was a student mainstreamed without one or more teachers angrily questioning
another's rationale for wanting to expose students with disabilities to the possibilities of a
general education curriculum and environment. Feeling like a trader, I began to question
my expectations of students and my ability to provide individualized instruction. Did my
colleagues and I have low expectations of our African American students? What were we
providing students with disabilities that was so "special" that it could only be provided in
certain classrooms on one side of the school, closest to the parking lot?
During the week of ninth grade registration, one of my eighth grade students
questioned me about the benefits of special education. "You all never teach anything
new. We learn the same thing every year. It's just switched around. How are we going to
be able to work with letters [variables in algebra] if you all never give us a chance?" she
asked. My conscience was pricked by her words.
The methods selected and utilized for this study were aligned with the
assumptions of transcendental phenomenology and guided specifically by the work of
Moustakas (1994) and van Kaam (1966). This section describes the strategies used to
recruit participants and to collect and analyze data. The rationale for the choices made is
Selection criteria. Purposeful and homogenous sampling was used (Glesne,
1999) and participants met several criteria. They were African American elementary
teachers, with at least 3 years of teaching experience, who had referred a child to special
education and/or had been a part of a School Study Team. All of the teachers who
participated in the study taught in elementary schools during the 2004-2005 school year.
The race of the participants is important because the purpose of the study is to
convey perspectives and provide voice to an underrepresented group in educational
research (i.e., African American teachers). The minimum of 3 years of teaching
experience was important, as teachers who have taught at least 3 years are certified, have
completed some beginning teacher induction, and have been observed and evaluated by
their school principals. To develop in-depth descriptions of special education referral, it
was necessary for teacher participants to have experienced referring a child to special
education or been a part of a School Study Team. Elementary teachers were selected
because most children referred to special education are in elementary school. To ensure
that teacher participants had experience teaching diverse learners, teachers were selected
from schools that had African American student populations from 25% to 50%.
Twenty-one invitations to participate in this study were sent to African American
elementary teachers at seven schools in a small urban community. Eight teachers
returned signed informed consent forms, but only five teachers met the study criteria.
Using the five participants' perspectives of special education referral, "info-rich cases,
in-depth understanding" are presented (Glesne, 1999, p. 29).
Selection procedures. After receiving IRB approval, I contacted the School
Board to obtain study approval. My contact person at the school board sent my study
information (Appendix A) to elementary principals who had African American teachers
on staff and whose African American student population met the criteria for the study.
Seven out of 14 principals gave me approval to contact their teachers. After meeting with
the principals or designated contact persons at interested schools, I took packets and/or
truck-mailed a study packet consisting of consent letter (Appendix B), demographic
survey (Appendix D), and a study flier (Appendix A) to the 21 African American
teachers in the seven schools. The study flier was added to address a low initial response.
After several phone calls, e-mails, reminders, visits, and resending packets, 5 of 7 teacher
respondents were selected based upon study criteria. Selected teachers were contacted to
schedule an informed consent meeting and first interview. Those who did not meet the
study criteria were called and thanked for their interest in the study.
Demographic information. Demographic information is summarized in
Table 3-1. Participants had 4 to 32 years of teaching experience. The highest educational
level attained for these teachers ranged from a bachelors degree to a doctorate. All had
been part of a school study team and, with the exception of one teacher, had initiated a
referral to special education. Three teachers had referred African American students
while two had not. Unlike the general teaching population, the majority of the
participants were male.
Data collection consisted of participant interviews. The specific strategies for data
Table 3-1. Participant demographics
Teacher Paul David Rebecca Sarah Michael
Been apart of a school study team?
Number of referrals of in the past 5
Number of referrals of African
American students in the past 5
Number of years teaching
Current annual household income
Family household income growing
School experience (elementary, high
$30,000- $40,000 Above $50,000
Less than $30,000 $40,000-50,000
Participant interviews. In a phenomenological study, the methods selected for
data collection should focus on the participant's perceptions (Moustakas, 1994; Seidman,
1991). Typically in phenomenological research multiple, semi-structured, and interactive
interviews are used to gather data (Moustakas, 1994, Seidman, 1991). With proper
interview structuring, researchers reduce researcher bias as well as leading participants'
description of the experience (Seidman). Utilizing open-ended comments and questions
the researcher elicits participants' descriptions of the experience (Seidman). Using
Seidman's interview model, three interviews per participant were conducted in the
In addition to the interviews, multiple meetings with each participant allowed me
to establish rapport and trust necessary for in-depth descriptions (Seidman, 1991). Most
of the interviews were scheduled no more than 2 weeks apart, and none occurred on the
same day (Seidman). In line with Seidman's 60-minute interview duration, the interview
duration for each interview was between 30 to 70 minutes. Importantly, busy teachers
were given reasonable time to talk about their experiences, but not so much that they or
the researcher became inattentive or tired. Due to the teachers' schedules and my
availability, the data collection process occurred from January through May of 2005.
The purpose of interview one was to establish the context of the participants'
experience with the phenomenon (special education referral). The first interview
(Appendix C) asked them to reconstruct early life experiences with families, friends,
school, the African American community, and work as each related to special education
(Siedman, 1991). Because I am examining the African American experience of special
education referral, participants were asked to describe their communities and family as
they grew up, as well as African American students in their schools. I wanted to know
what special education referral meant to these teachers before they became teachers.
Second interviews (Appendix C) began with a brief member check using the
words of the participant the researcher summarized from interview one. Participants were
then given the opportunity to agree or disagree with my synopsis of interview one. The
second interview asked participants to describe special education referral currently.
Participants were asked what they currently do in their classrooms with students they
would refer, and to talk about their interactions with students, parents, and other school
staff as these relate to special education referral.
Beginning with another member check, the third and final interview (Appendix
C) was centered on the meaning of special education referral and, more pointedly, the
referral of African American students. During this interview, teachers were asked the
following questions: "How should special education referral affect your African
American students?", "What changes do you expect when they are referred?", "If you
could design the steps for special education referral, what would they look like?"
Reflection on the meaning of referral encourages participants to reflect on the meaning
their experience holds for them and how their experiences, past and present, influence
their understanding regarding what should happen in the future with special education
referral (Seidman, 1991).
To make the interviews convenient and comfortable for the teachers, interviews
were scheduled according to the teachers' availability and location. The majority of the
teachers asked to be interviewed after school on their school's campus. I met teachers in
their classrooms, teacher lounges, conference rooms, and offices. One teacher decided to
come to my home during the early evening hours. Meeting at the end of the school day
eliminated distractions from students and coworkers.
All interviews were audiotape recorded and transcribed verbatim by the
researcher. After the transcriptions were complete, the researcher took the transcriptions
and listened to the audio recordings to conduct a side-by-side check for accuracy. After
doing my own check for accuracy, each participant was sent a copy of his or her
transcripts for the purpose of adding comments or making corrections to elaborate on his
or her experience with special education referral (Appendix E).
Defining Characteristics of Phenomenology
Epoche is a process through which the researcher actively sets aside or brackets
all assumptions, bias, understandings, and experiences related to the phenomenon being
studied (Moustakas, 1994). The researcher begins his or her research by identifying all
assumptions, life and personal experiences, and describing them in written form for the
purpose of ignoring them for the duration of the research (Moustakas, 1994). By
bracketing or setting aside the researchers' preconceived notions, special education
referral is revisited from a fresh unadulterated perspective free from bias from as many
vantage points as possible to describe the phenomenon as fully as possible (Crotty,
1998). The participants in this study were the direct experiences of special education
referral and as a result of epoche, I am present to it only through their descriptions
(Giorgi, 1985). I have presented a subjectivity statement and bracketed my assumptions
and experiences to describe the phenomenon, special education referral, through a fresh
and unbiased lens. Despite my experiences and notions, I remained focus on what is
After collecting the data, the researcher progresses to the next stage of
phenomenological research, phenomenological reduction (Moustakas, 1994). During this
stage the transcribed interviews are examined for themes. Each participant's transcribed
interview is examined for all aspects of their experience that are unique to special
education referral (phenomenon). Statements that are irrelevant to special education
referral or that are repetitive are eliminated. Using the participants' words, relevant
themes are identified and a reduction of the data occurs. The experiences are developed
into relevant and invariant themes from which individual textural descriptions are
developed. Invariant themes and meaning units illustrate lack of variance in the data.
They are "unique qualities of an experiences, those that stand out" (Moustakas, 1994,
p. 128). At the core of the data shared ideas (essence) can be found amongst participants.
The textural descriptions are descriptions of the observable characteristics of the
phenomenon (Moustakas, 1994). Individual textural descriptions are combined to
develop a composite textural description of special education referral.
After phenomenological reduction is complete, the researcher returns to the
original data to conduct imaginative variation. During imaginative variation, structural
descriptions of the phenomenon are developed. The structures of the experience are the
meaning and causes of the textural description (Moustakas, 1994). The relationship of
texture and structure is that both the appearance and the hidden come together to create
full understanding of the essences of a phenomenon and experience (Moustakas, 1994,
In this phase, the researcher focuses on meaning and essences rather than
empirical data (Moustakas, 1994) using a procedure known as free fantasy variation. Free
fantasy variation is a reflective phase in which the researcher examines and reflects on
many possibilities, giving full and detailed description to the search for essences
(Moustakas, 1994). Possibilities imagined are "structures of time, space, materiality,
causality, and relationship to self and others" (Moustakas, 1994, p. 99). Thus, by using
the information provided by the participants, and unbiased ideas that come from free
fantasy variation, individual structural descriptions for each participant are formed
(Husserl, 1931; Moustakas, 1994). The individual structural descriptions are combined to
create a composite structural description that is representative across participants.
Finally, the textural and structural composite descriptions are combined to construct the
essence of the phenomenon (Moustakas, 1994).
I began analysis with analyzing first the data of two key participants, David and
Rebecca, followed by the three other participants. First, I open coded each participant's
three interviews. From the open codes, I developed horizons for the experience. Each
participant's transcripts were examined line by line for words, phrases, and statements
significant to the special education referral experience (invariant meaning units), and
then placed in themed categories. Next, the invariant meaning units and themes were
synthesized together to form one textural description (descriptive summary) of the
experience of special education referral. Actual data from the participant's transcriptions
were used as examples.
After reflecting on each participant's textural descriptions, I developed structural
descriptions (interpretative summaries) for each participant using free fantasy. Free
fantasy is a written expansion of the participant's textural description through my eyes,
while continuing in Epoche. Next, I combined all of the participants' textural
descriptions to develop a group textural description. From the group's textural
description, the group's structural description was developed. During the final phase of
analysis, I integrated the verbatim descriptive summaries and the interpretative
summaries to form the groups' synthesis textural-structural description of special
Trustworthiness of the Study
Validity in qualitative research can be defined as verification that the findings,
bound to a particular context, are truthful and accurate (Borkan, 1999). I chose the term
trustworthiness because it not only emphasizes trustfulness of my interpretation, but also
affirmation of the data by my colleagues and the participants being studied (Glesne,
1999). Several steps were taken to ensure the trustworthiness of the findings. Using a
subjectivity statement, I clarified my biases. In addition to the subjectivity statement, I
remained in epoche byjoumaling my personal reflections and experiences during each
phase of the investigation. During member checking, study participants were given the
original transcripts for the purposes of ensuring clarity and adding any relevant
information. With the exception of one participant, none of the participants made
changes or additions to their transcripts. As a part of the member checking, participants
were also given their textural and structural descriptions to review for accuracy.
External auditing occurred through biweekly meetings with my professor for the
purposes of reflection and critique of my writing, the research process, and data analysis.
Peer reviewing and debriefing took place at the beginning and end of the data collection
and analysis. I presented my work and talked with doctoral students about the challenges
of data collection, the analysis and arriving at findings.
This chapter highlights the descriptions of two key participants, David and
Rebecca (all of the names of participants are pseudonyms), followed by the group's
description of special education referral. David and Rebecca were chosen to be key
participants because of their diverse experiences with special education referral, as well
as the richness of their special education referral description. David, a special education
teacher, had a childhood friend and a cousin who were referred and placed in special
education. He and his childhood friend attended the same schools but experienced school
differently. As a special education teacher, David observed his cousin's educational
decline and eventual withdrawal from school. When referrals occur in his school, he is
generally the teacher who is given the primary responsibility for the referred students'
academic and social progress. Rebecca, a general education teacher, experienced her
daughter being referred to special education; therefore, she has experienced the roles of
teacher and parent of a referred student. At the time of the study, Rebecca's daughter was
preparing to graduate from high school with honors.
In this chapter the key participants' textural and structural descriptions are
presented. After David and Rebecca's descriptions, composite textural and structural
descriptions, which include the voices of all participants, are presented. To respond to the
primary research questions, the chapter concludes with a description of the essence of
special education referral from the perspective of the African American elementary
teachers in this study.
Early experience with referral
David recalled his early experience of special education. He remembered one of
his childhood friends, an African American male, who was regularly pulled out of class
in elementary school. David "didn't really know what he was getting pulled out of class
for." Eventually, he found out that his friend was labeled emotionally handicapped and
was on medication. He said, "I can remember he was the only kid that I went to school
with that had a label." David recalled that other Black students stayed in class together.
This friend would get pulled out of class right before lunch and a couple of additional
times a week. David and the other students would ask, "Why can't we go to speech," not
realizing that it was a part of a special education program. "We just thought he was
getting privileges that we weren't getting," David concluded.
When David and his peers transitioned to middle school, they recognized their
classmate as "different" when they rarely saw him during the school day. Eventually,
someone stated that David's friend had a "skill-pack." David explained, "Back then,
skill-packs was an indication that he was behind." David pointed out that later in high
school, his friend would be placed on the "wang." He reported, "At GHS we had this
thing we used to call "wang" where, like all the ESE kids went. You don't hang out with
them, and you never really see them." David's friend was unique in the eyes of his peers,
"a celebrity type, an athlete and real popular amongst the girls so everybody of course
wanted to be cool with him." He and David have remained friends.
Before becoming a teacher, David presumed the students in special education
were retarded. Thinking the students in special education had "a real big problem," he
and his peers made comments like, "Oh they need to get a check and their mental
capacity is shot." In hindsight, David wished he had "504 accommodations like all the
extra time on tests." He has noticed that the students at his current school ask to come to
his classroom, unaware of the referral process or that he is the special education teacher.
David suggested that if children need help "they should get it as early as possible, when
it's not so much attention brought to the situation." He purported that "when kids are old
enough to understand, it's [being referred] actually depressing." In elementary school
they are too young to understand the referral process "or they're just having too much fun
in life to know, but every year [they] get older, things get a little bit more serious and I
think that's when they realize, [they are different]."
The "bittersweet" of the referral process
David described the referral process as "bittersweet." According to him, in an
effort to achieve a "perfect class," general education teachers remove students who are
different or stand out from the rest of the class. The general education teacher
get [s] them out because they're causing your [her] reading group to go a little bit
slower ... for the ESE teachers ... it's bitter ... for the regular ed teachers that
can dump on the ESE teachers, it's sweet because they don't have to put up with
He perceived that regular education teachers make few adjustments in their teaching style
or lesson plans for students who are struggling.
David contended that referral becomes inevitable for those who do not match the
"norm." He explained, "once you get into the referral process, most likely they are going
to find some kind of, you know ... disability." He noted,
If 100 students are referred, 60 of them will qualify for something. Once they get
you ... in for speech and language, if you qualify in speech and language
eventually that kid ends up ... in for math, spelling .. then the whole academic
David observed that at the end of the school year students are often staffed for speech and
then all of the sudden when the school year starts back because they didn't score
this on the FCAT or placement test .. they're [general education teachers]
calling for another IEP meeting saying, "Oh these kids need small group
instruction in reading or math or writing."
Students that were doing well after being referred are caught by the referral process and
removed from general education.
David noted experiences where
a referral might have started a year before and this kid, you know, is doing well
and they figure well this kid qualifies for SLD, they place the kid on consult, by
time the kid gets two referrals oh he needs to get ESE minutes.
He attested that referral becomes an easy way out for general education teachers. David
explained, "How much easier is it to teach a class with no behavior problems, it's great.
You're never having to redirect the student." In the end the referral process often
becomes more bitter than sweet for the referred student, who is removed from general
education to special education where he or she receives inappropriate behavioral models
Elements influencing the referral process
David recognized teacher tolerance, guidance counselor support, and "bogus"
interventions as major factors influencing the referral process. According to David,
referral starts with a teacher not wanting to deal with "inappropriate behavior." Teachers
have different levels of tolerance and they give different definitions of a "normal
student." David explained that the general education teachers' definition of a
normal student is as soon as they come in, [they] do what they are asked to do the
first time, you don't have to redirect them, you don't have to go slow ...
everything is done at normal speed and you don't have to worry about this kid not
understanding this and understanding that.
David revealed that for some teachers a problem 2 days in a row is a cause for
referral. David purported, "If you're not normal for some reason, you know, whichever,
whatever normal may mean, you know it gives the teacher an opportunity to get you
removed from that class." Teachers can be intolerant of students due to current academic
or social performance, and due to family history. David reported teachers many times
saying, "Oh, I had his sister or I had his brother and ... I'm not going to put up with that
David preferred the referral process to be "an effort to keep a kid out of ESE," but
he has observed referral meetings being used to push students into ESE. He revealed,
"The guidance counselors and all play a big part you know with these kids getting ...
once they get referred getting put into ESE." He recalled sitting in meetings and hearing
"parents be persuaded into signing, you know, the documents, you know to get their kids
into ESE." According to David, guidance counselors informed the parents, who are often
poor, of possible economic benefits (i.e., a disability check) they could receive because
of the child's label. After the teacher and guidance counselor explain the referral, the
referral process does not sound serious. David observed,
ESE gets smoothed over as, you know they [students] get extra time on their tests,
you know, even the FCAT, you know they [students] get questions read aloud,
even on the FCAT if they [students] need it, you know, they [teachers] can write
for them [students] on the FCAT, if they [students] need it.
To a trusting parent, ESE sounds as if their child "is just getting an edge."
David revealed, as a part of the School Study Team, members (e.g., general
education teachers, special education teacher, school administrator, school district
representative, guidance counselor, and school psychologists) are faced with the dilemma
of using referral to maintain students in general education with supports and resources or
remove students from the general education classroom. David illustrated,
If a teacher is coming to her [guidance counselor] saying, "You know, [David]
he's tearing up my class. I can't have him in there, Ok we'll refer him for EH."
Ok, you totally refer him so at the same time are you going to put everything out
on the table with his parents and tell them, "Well you know maybe you can do
this, maybe this will work," or are you going to set up some type of bogus
interventions to make sure this process works?
He pointed out that interventions are developed solely by the general education
teacher or with the help of the guidance counselor. David reported that he has seen
interventions implemented as well as merely written down on paper. According to him,
"Bogus interventions are set up to make the whole process work." Teachers "cook up
referrals based on just about anything." During a previous referral meeting David
The regular ed teacher kept referring back to the intervention that was written ...
she kept saying, "Well let me see the folder so I can remember." You've only got
one referral in your class, if you're really going forth with these [interventions],
it's something you're going to recall easily in your mind.
Plans for interventions were written up, but they often were not implemented.
Parents' understanding of the referral process
David perceived parents as lacking understanding of the referral process and its
implications, being nonparticipatory and unempowered, and motivated by money during
the referral process. According to David, "Parents are just kind of taking trust in the
school ... to make sure their kids' education is, you know, taken in their best interest."
Parents do not understand what referral and placement mean. David admitted, "Working
in the school system doesn't help you understand it. Depending on who's putting this
information across to them, they [parents] may develop limited understanding." Unaware
of the referral process and its long-term effects "parents come in here and don't ask one
question and will tell you, 'Well, just give me everything you need me to sign.'"
David detected differences in the referral experience when referring African
American students versus White students. At the two elementary schools in which David
has taught, "the majority of White kids [were] on consult services and the Black kids are
the ones receiving the minutes (in a special education class)." David described attending
meetings for students he did not know and hearing things that made him think, "If it was
my brother, or my sister I'd say hold on what's going on here, but you know, when it's
another student and not your relation and you're really part of this team, you know it's
just not my role."
In contrast, "White parents think of, you know, different ways they can help their
kid out." David observed that the involved parents who volunteer at school and are a part
of PTA catch on to the process quickly and ask for clarification. A lot of Black parents do
not understand. David suggested that before a child receives ESE services, parents should
be educated about the short-term and long-term implications of referral, "even if you
have to go to the house, the home, or wherever, to have a meeting with them." Before
parents sign any papers, they should "realize that your [their] kid may never get out of
this process and the way they're going to feel you know in 11th grade if they don't drop
David alleged that a lot of students are borderline ESE and can do without ESE
services if their parents support and push them. Often parents do not show up to the
meetings "so then it's like a 10-day process, and then whatever the committee wanted to
happen, happens and the parent has no say about it and don't even really technically
don't even know about it." When parents are not involved in their children's school, they
are often unaware of their academic and social progress. David illustrated, if
I sit at this table and I say, [David] he's reading at a start level or 1.5 and he's in
the third grade and he's doing this and he's doing that, the only thing you're [the
parent] thinking is "Oh no, he's so behind, I've got to get him some help," never
mind you know whatever you've tried.
On several occasions David observed Black parents "sitting over there and they
are just like, 'Ok whatever you can do to help' and at the end they [parents] ask, 'Uh, is
there any paper I can [sign to] ... get financial benefits or something for this?'" David
grappled with who should help parents understand their decision regarding whether they
should support referral. Whose position is it to explain, "Ok, if you get this ball rolling
downhill, it may never stop and it may hit something that totally tears up your kid's life.
How can that be explained to a parent?" David questioned.
Student perceptions of referral and teacher perceptions of referral
David's childhood perceptions of referral differed from the perceptions he
developed as a teacher. His childhood friend was the only person David knew that had a
special education label. He noticed and did not understand why his friend, an African
American male, was pulled out of their general education classroom. His friend seemed
happy to go with the special education teacher and always returned with treats, pencils, or
stickers. David and his classmates wanted to go with him to the place that made him so
happy and gave him such wonderful things. "Why can't we go to speech?" David and his
classmates asked. They did not know he was in special education. They thought, "He was
getting special privileges."
When the transition to middle school occurred, David and his peers realized there
were differences between themselves and their classmate. They rode with him on the bus
each day, but never saw him during the school day. "Where did their classmate spend his
day?" they wondered. As time passed, the secret was exposed when someone saw the
classmate carrying a "skill-pack". Everyone in middle school knew what a skill-pack
meant. It meant you were slow, behind, or lacking something. To be caught with a skill-
pack was embarrassing and a secret that no one wanted others to know. David's school
day separation from his childhood friend continued into high school, when everyone
knew this friend was on the "wang." Most schools have a "wang," the area where the
portables and/or classrooms are closest to the parking lot and/or away from the general
education population. General education students quickly learn to shun the "wang," and
the students with disabilities were encouraged to stay "in their own area."
With the exception of his friend and before becoming a teacher, David thought
students referred to special education must really have something wrong with them. In
college, David found little difference between himself and students with disabilities. As
an athlete, he met teammates who had disabilities and benefitted from accommodations
he wished he had.
David contended that referral becomes inevitable for those who do not match the
norm, and typically results in the segregation of those students. Once the referral process
is initiated, the student is bound to receive a label. In David's mind, if a student is
evaluated, the chances of being labeled and eventually removed from general education
In the beginning, the referral process appears minimal, but the consequences
become greater with time. For example, David pointed out that students may start out
being referred for speech and language, but they often continue to be referred for other
subject areas until they are eventually removed from the general education setting.
Students are quickly and easily placed into more restrictive settings rather than supported
in the general education classroom. Referred students are allowed few lapses in
academics and/or behavior. If a referred student does well for a while and then has a
lapse in academics and/or behavior, that student is quickly moved for more of the day to
a special education classroom.
Teachers' use of referral
In David's mind, referral is an easy way out for general education teachers who
do not want challenging behaviors or struggling students in their classrooms. These
teachers want classrooms with "normal" students who do what is requested the first time,
grasp concepts and ideas quickly, and do not need redirection. Students who do not
match the "norm" quickly provide reason for referral. The referral process often starts
with a teacher's refusal to deal with what he or she considers inappropriate behavior. Not
only are teachers intolerant of students' inappropriate behavior and poor academic
performance, but they are also intolerant of families. Teachers sometimes hold grudges
or reflect on encounters with parents or older siblings when dealing with a current
David would like for special education referral to be a genuine effort to keep
students out of special education, but he has experienced it to be a push to remove
students from general education. Once the referral process starts, there appears to be no
turning back. In most situations, the general education teacher and guidance counselor
collaboratively work to have the student removed from the general education classroom
and placed elsewhere.
While in the general education setting, some students receive collaborative
consultation. These students are often White and have parent support and involvement.
Black students are more likely to be pulled from general education and provided
increased time in the special education classroom.
During the meetings for referral, parents are often persuaded to sign documents
for referral and placement. When the teacher and/or guidance counselor explains referral,
it does not seem serious or harmful. Parents are told their child will receive extra help,
more time, assistance on FCAT, and/or assignments read or written for them. Parents
leave meetings with the impression that eventually the child will catch up with his or her
classmates. Parents who are uninformed or uninvolved are often trusting of teachers and
schools. They rely on the teacher and school to do what is academically and socially
beneficial for their child.
School Study Team members are faced with the dilemma of maintaining referred
students in general education with supports and resources, or having students removed
from general education. A frustrated teacher who is having daily issues with a student
often views removal from her class as the only alternative. She has spoken with the
guidance counselor about her concerns, and the strategies and interventions she has tried
to no avail, and she concludes that there is nothing to do but refer the student.
Teachers who are determined to have a student removed from their classrooms
can easily make it happen. The interventions developed by the School Study Team
become a formality. Often they are identified with little thought given to the student's
needs. Simply words on a page, they are generic rather than tailored to a particular
student. David suggested that if a teacher were serious about helping a student, the
interventions would be diverse, genuine, and applicable to the student's needs.
Role of parents in the referral process
Part of David's experience of the referral process for African American students
involves the important role of parents. In general, parents fail to understand the process.
They trust the school to do what is best and do not ask questions or know what questions
to ask. David explained that even parents who work in the school system fail to
understand referral and placement. Depending on who is presenting the referral and
placement information, parents may develop a limited or no understanding of its short-
term or long-term effects.
When White parents participate in referral meetings, teachers and administrators
tend to identify with their concerns and desires. White parents tend to think of ways to
help their children succeed. They are quick to catch on to the referral process, and do not
hesitate to ask for clarification. These meeting typically result in their children receiving
collaborative consultation services.
In contrast, African American parents tend to be less involved with schools and
their children's academics. David observed that they are often uninformed, uninvolved,
and unempowered. There is often a disconnect between the school and African American
parents' concerns and desires. African American parents do not come to the referral
meetings with suggestions for how to help their children succeed. Uninformed about the
referral process, African American parents tend to be unaware of the short-term and
long-term implications. Referrals for African American students typically result in
placement in a special education class and eventually full-time placement. David stressed
that before parents sign any papers, they should consider that their child may never return
to general education, and how they will feel in high school when they realize their
academic and social opportunities are limited. He recognized a necessity for active
involvement and the empowerment of parents in their children's academic and social
futures. David alleged that many students are "borderline" and can do without special
education services if they have parent involvement and support. By not attending referral
meetings, parents release their power and influence to schools, who decide on the
placement and type of services their children will receive.
Use of referral
Rebecca described special education referral as a collaborative effort to help
students. She reported that special education referral helps us [teachers] help the
students to gain the services they need to support them throughout their educational life."
Teachers, with the help of parents, "recognize the learning level, strengths, and
weaknesses or deficiencies of the student" as a result of the process. Like a doctor, the
teacher notes the areas of concern in order to refer the student for the appropriate
services. "The teacher is there ... to watch, to observe, to do different interventions, and
then to help to write a prescription for what the child needs to help them to be successful
in a learning environment."
Rebecca considered several things before referring an African American student to
special education. She stated that she tries to make a referral for students who she believes
will be helped as a result of the process. In her decision-making, Rebecca disclosed that
she takes some direction "from professionals that are there to analyze the student's
progress and determine what their needs may be." However, "Before I refer a student, I
would like to see how much they are able to do their work, to what level, how much they
can achieve if given the opportunity to strive for higher standards of production and
learning, and achievement." Rebecca also makes her decision from "talking with the
parents, watching the kid, taking documentation of how their work habits and their study
habits are." She notes what kind of learner the student is, what strategies work and do not
work with the student, how much information the student retains and how well he or she
does on tests. Rebecca also examines African American students' interactions with other
students, and their academic and social level in comparison to where they should be.
As an African American teacher she disclosed that she felt bad about the use of
referral for African American students to special education. "It is very, very, very, very
embarrassing for me within my own self" seeing so many African American students
referred for special education. "I know that some of them [African Americans students]
are really nice sweet kids, they just come with like a little attitude" which leads them to
being referred. Rebecca continued, "To send them down for referral because they didn't
do what I said when I said do it and they have an attitude, I don't think that's something
you send the kids down to be referred for."
In cases where an African American student is being referred to special
education, Rebecca said she wanted to learn more about the student. Rebecca wanted to
"see if I can extend the learning and see how far they can go give them some
enriching activities to see if they can handle any of it... try to see what's the highest
level I can take them and get a positive response." Her objective was to avoid placing
African American students in "an ESE class and have the work watered down and do the
bare basic minimum and they sit around all day doing nothing." From her perspective,
teaching students basic concepts is a necessity, but "do not get stuck on the basics."
Rebecca wanted African American students to remain challenged and motivated.
"Good" and "bad" referral process
Rebecca had mixed feelings about the referral process. She experienced the
process from the roles of teacher initiating referral, teacher on School Study Team, and
parent of a child being referred. She expressed that her referral experiences have been
both "good" and "bad." Having the parents and professionals work together to determine
the needs and appropriate interventions was helpful to Rebecca:
I felt good about the parents and the professionals being there and everyone
putting in their opinion and documenting what they felt was needed. Finding out
what the student's medical or psychological needs were and what interventions
were tried was beneficial. Everybody seems to have some information that you
could put together.
However, she noted several issues that have made the experience difficult. One,
Rebecca revealed that "Sometimes the little goals we put down are so minimal that it's
like, that's what we would have done anyway so where's the challenge here to move
them up." The goal becomes keeping the students happy without really challenging them.
When the student whines, the challenges stop, "but yet, you know, it [testing] shows that
they have the ability, but they do have a learning deficit." Two, she disclosed, "the
meetings are so long." Everyone is allowed to talk without getting directly to the point.
"Meetings, meetings in the morning, in the am in the pm, everyone's talking, you know,
In addition to the minimal goals and long meetings, Rebecca revealed a concern
about "people like parents trying to manipulate the system to get additional stuff when
the kid really doesn't need it. It gets to be a power struggle. What I can do or what I can
get. Which is great if you need it." Four, in her experience Rebecca found that "Parents
don't a lot of times, know the gaps that we teachers see, they don't know where most of
the class is now in their learning process versus where your kid is and they don't know
the range." She conveyed that parents often compare their children to themselves when
they were their age and in a particular grade level: "They can't fathom that the first
graders are reading what they call second-grade material now until they come here and
actually see it and process it. They really don't quite understand the level that kids are
reading at these days."
Rebecca noted that the referral process generated a variety of feelings for her as a
teacher and a parent of a child who has been referred. These feelings included fear,
depression, expectation, intimidation, and confusion. Rebecca revealed in her experience
as a teacher with "bad" special education referral, "It gets to be what am I going to write
on this sheet. Something I know I can cover or something I think he really, really needs
that would challenge him." Fear sets in because "if you write more, something
challenging, then you're called on the carpet for not having reached a goal." The rules
and procedures "put more fear in the process than support to really help the kid. All "t's"
must be crossed, and all "i's" dotted in fear of being sued or losing your job."
As a parent, she struggled with similar emotions when her daughter was referred.
"I felt bad. I'm a teacher, and she's being referred. I was very depressed." Later Rebecca
agreed to have her daughter tested to find out what was going on. She reported, "But it
was a hard question to say, 'yes, let's do it [test her].' That was very, very hard." Once
she agreed to the referral process, "the time frame from being referred to being tested is a
long one and uh, you kind of don't know what path to take so you're constantly up and
down, 'what should I do,' 'what do you need', 'can they do it,' 'can they not do it,' 'is
there a problem,' or 'no problem at all.'" Not knowing what to do, Rebecca questioned,
"Should I help her with her homework or should I, you know, should she be able to do it
on her own. We were confused." In hindsight, the referral of Rebecca's daughter became
a "good" experience because she became aware of her daughter's academic strengths and
weaknesses as well as appropriate strategies and interventions to help her.
Reasons for referral
Reflecting on her experiences with School Study Teams and referrals, Rebecca
noted several reasons for referring students to special education: (a) behavior issues; (b)
academic problems; (c) lack of parent involvement; and (d) difference in mannerisms.
Rebecca disclosed that if she were to refer,
it would be because they're [students] definitely lacking some skills and even
though we've tried different interventions, they still don't seem to grasp it.
Referral would not occur until I had extinguished various types of teaching
strategies for the point in time, the student's age frame and grade level.
Rebecca purported that African American students struggle academically because they
"just don't know what to do because they just didn't listen or they didn't understand the
directions, or the directions weren't presented in a manner that they could understand and
then work with, independently."
In Rebecca's experience with School Study Teams and referral, student behavior
plays a significant role in placement. The behavior issues may stem from "not doing well
in class." She noted that students who are referred for behavior issues do not stop
misbehaving even when asked to. Rebecca disclosed, "For a lot of students, if they did
not have a behavior issue, which could be the signs of a learning disability, they wouldn't
be referred. For some of them, they are just having a behavior problem." She purported
that for many African American children "if they in any way show out [explicitly
misbehave] or have a behavior problem, and are lacking just a little bit in their school
work, that behavior issue is going to catapult them right into the referral list."
Rebecca observed problems not only in the classroom, but also between home
and school. She revealed, "There are issues between home and school with things you
can do at school, and things you do at home." Rebecca revealed, "I see a lot of students
that are being referred that are indeed the ones that bring behavior from home to school."
Many of these students have behavior cards. She pointed out "You have a class of 25 and
5 walk into the room with these cards, and they are all Black." At the end of the day the
students with behavior cards report to the behavior resource teacher (BRT) to assess how
well they did for the day. The severe cases are then walked to the buses in a single file
line. "When they walk them down, it may be 10 or 15 of our [African American] students
in that line of behavior kids."
Rebecca conveyed, "It just seems to be strange and it hasn't just happened, it's
been like that for years. Each year you see the same students and you know, African
American students, still in the BRT office, in [in-]school suspension, in [out of] school
suspension, being suspended, etc." The severe behaviors are those involving hitting or
tagging others "just their way of saying hi or whatever," talking back to the teacher,
voicing that they are not going to do something and not doing it. Rebecca remarked, "A
lot of them may have said something in a rude way. They may be used to saying it that
way, at home, so why would it be a problem here."
The number of times a student goes to the BRT is documented, as well as who
goes and why they go to the BRT. Rebecca disclosed that their information goes on a
report to the school board "and it's our [Black] kids, our kids, our kids." When the
student spends time at the BRT office, the student cannot get his homework or
schoolwork done and "this [school] is the only place [he is] going to get it done."
Students then fall into "the well let's refer them to ESE because they haven't done
anything." Rebecca noted, "around this time of the year (spring) the line [to the bus] gets
Rebecca believed that parent involvement is important to the referral process. In
her mind, without parent involvement teachers inappropriately address the needs of
African American students. Rebecca purported that for some students, a push and
additional supports from teachers and family may be all they need to move ahead
academically and socially. She believed that "there just needs to be something else in
place with parents to be involved." Teachers and parents should have the opportunity to
work on intensive behavior modification before making referrals to special education.
Some kids need parental support and help getting work done."
Rebecca also believed that parents' expectations play a significant role in the
placement of students. She perceived that parents initially think referral helps students,
but "after a while they may notice that the student has less work to do and that keeps
them sort of pacified." Parents who have high expectations for their child "ask that they
not be pulled out [of general education] and be kept in the classroom with the rest of the
students so they can be exposed to the same material in the sequence that it is brought
forth in that grade level." These parents are aware of how referral influences their child's
academic and social futures. As time passes, students "get to the high school level and
[they're] faced with a special diploma, no diploma, regular diploma, or university ready
diploma, it [referral and placement] becomes the concern." By high school the student
"has been in that cycle and .. it's hard to pull them out."
In addition to problems between home and school and lack of parent involvement,
teachers' abilities to understand students influences whether students are referred.
Rebecca believed that many teachers do not possess the skills to relate to or handle some
of their students. She pointed to "the teacher lacking the strategies, the motivation, or
support that causes students to act out. As a result of the students' acting out, the teachers
and others say, 'Well let's refer them.'" Rebecca further revealed, "Some children are
used to different mannerisms and their teachers have some mannerisms that they don't
seem to respond to." For example, "Some kids are used to certain kinds of words or
actions to let you know that [certain behaviors or words] really means this or not. Some
of them are used to being yelled at and then when you don't, they are like, 'Oh I got
[you]' and the student feels empowered".
Added to students' different mannerisms, African American students bring
neighborhood situations that many teachers do not understand. For example, a student
may have had a fight in the neighborhood, which is carried on to the school bus and then
into school. "Everyone in the school doesn't understand it, what's going on." When he
arrives at school he carries the anger and frustration into the classroom setting where his
or her education and that of his or her peers are placed in jeopardy. Using his or her
judgment the teacher determines whether the student's behavior is cause for alarm.
Consequences of referral on teachers and African American students
Rebecca perceives special education referral to have helped some African
American students, but for many others it "has been a determent to their educational
growth." She believes that referred students work less than other students in the general
education classroom, and that the students are academically losing out because work is
made easy for them. As a result the students produce lower quality work and look for the
"easy way out. They won't go over and beyond because they know they can get by with
doing less. The kid loses because they don't try to push hard to strive for excellence."
During their school careers, students are expected to have skills that will enable
them to join the military, enroll in college, or obtain a job. Rebecca purported, "The kids
[referred students] don't have them [skills] because they've taken the least amount of
work as possible. The ESE classrooms are filled with our [Black] students." Special
education is "just a cycle that doesn't help them in the end." According to Rebecca, once
African American students are referred, they get caught in a cycle of watered-down
curriculum that is "detrimental to their progress as they go throughout the educational
levels." She disclosed "that we just have too many students in that cycle that really don't
need to be there." Once parents are educated on what they can do to help students and
develop collaboration with schools, then the "expectations need to be raised, [for African
American students] not lowered .. according to what is expected."
Rebecca believed that African American students must be encouraged to strive
for excellence early. "It's hard to just start doing it all of the sudden." She observed that
when students are referred they feel 'Oh, but I'm special, I'm ESE I can't do that." They
use the idea of being in special education as their reason for why they cannot do higher-
level reading or higher-level math. Rebecca suggests, "In actuality they could if they tried,
and they had the support, and they didn't take the 'I can't because' attitude." When it is
determined that the student has a learning disability and needs help learning basic skills,
then the question becomes "Why would you want them to do more, or try to do more,
what makes you think they can do it?" The achievement gap between students with
disabilities and students without disabilities becomes wider and wider. Rebecca
disclosed, as a teacher
you're working on their basic addition with the group instead of moving on to
algebraic equations. If you don't sometimes tell them, 'this might be difficult for
you' and just give it to them, sometimes a lot of them will do it and move on.
According to Rebecca, referral has its benefits and can initiate positive change.
Referral of students helps teachers realize "how they [students] learn best." Teachers are
made aware of students' learning styles, strengths and weaknesses, and the tasks and
assignments that are easy and difficult for them. Rebecca suggested that from the referral
process teachers learn "how to make adjustments and accommodations to compensate
for, you know, other skills they may or may not have." The teacher and parents are able
to work together to help support the student. Rebecca pointed out, as a result of the
referral process "we've [teachers] had to do more faculty, professional development on
the topic of management of behavior and working with ESE students and understanding
what their needs may be."
In Rebecca's mind, referral should impact African American students in positive
ways. As a result of referral, African American students' potentials should be maximized.
Teachers should feel they are "helping the student and not hindering them by referring
them." Rebecca believed that students should move from "surface level understanding to
a more in depth understanding" of concepts. African American students should be
provided with various strategies and opportunities to enhance their learning, "not be
given watered down curriculum or no curriculum or haphazard curriculum or if you're in
third-grade, first-grade curriculum." The accommodations given to students should "help
them to learn and to stay, you know, in tune with the classroom or the grade level" so
they make academic and social progress. According to Rebecca, referral should help the
student "stay at or above, but not always working below the rest of the class." When
referral is done in conjunction with parent participation, the process is made easier;
however, when it is left solely to the teacher who has other students with special needs,
the process does not work well.
General education and special education collaboration to help students
Rebecca believed that "for the most part, it's possible to keep referred students
within the classroom [general education]" by bringing in the special education teacher to
assist the classroom teacher with accommodations. In her mind, general education and
special education "need to work together .. almost in the same classroom because what
the homeroom [general education] teacher is expecting the kid to do when they go to
special ed doesn't necessarily happen." General education is expecting special education
to take the general education curriculum and teach it using accommodations at a slower
pace. Rebecca noted that special education "may do a couple of chapters and the teacher
[general education] has done 30 and they [general education] are expecting that the kids
were exposed to all of it and it doesn't happen."
In Rebecca's mind, general education and special education teachers should
collaborate throughout the entire school year to appropriately support each other's work.
Rebecca suggested that general education and special education teachers
meet weekly to go over what chapters we're [they're] going to be working on,
what strategies we're [they're] going to use with these students, what do you
expect them to know, what are they expected to know, and let the parents know
where they are.
She revealed that teachers do not have time to collaborate during the school day. Rebecca
suggested that teachers be paid to meet after school. Teachers should "get stipends for an
hour where they can talk together and develop the plan for the week for the student." She
found that when teachers and/or parents do not meet for "weeks and weeks at a time,
everybody kind of gets off level."
Purpose of referral
Rebecca does not make referrals for students who she thinks will not be helped by
being referred. She believes that all students can be successful if given appropriate
supports. Before referring a student, Rebecca closely examines the work the student is
able to do and provides opportunities for the student to maximize his or her potential.
Rebecca revealed that before she refers a student, she wants the opportunity to observe
the student's strengths and challenge the student to take advantage of opportunities to
enhance his or her learning and achievement. She believes that some students only need
teachers and families to collaborate to enhance their social and academic well-being.
Rebecca views special education as the place where students should be provided
the support and opportunities to maximize their potentials. Their differences are
appreciated and seen as "normal." Students are provided the best resources and personnel
to meet individual needs, which may be emotional, academic, or physical. Special
education referral helps students to receive life-long support. It helps teachers and parents
collaborate to determine students' strengths and weaknesses. The role of the group,
similar to that of well-trained doctors, is to diagnose and solve the student's problem.
The teacher plays a major role in the examination process, having observed the child and
used various strategies that have failed to produce the desired results.
Rebecca believes that some teachers lack the strategies to help students who are
struggling in school, particularly those with behavior challenges. Referring these students
appears to them to be the only way to get help for the student and relief for the teacher.
After dealing with the problem behavior for a period of time, some teachers lack the
motivation or support to help the struggling student, who, out of frustration begins to act
out in class. Having gathered support from others, the teacher throws up his or her hands
and cries out, "Refer him!"
How the referral system should work
In Rebecca's mind, referral of students should not occur until all resources and
interventions are exhausted. Through the referral, the teacher will become aware of a
possible underlying problem of which she was unaware. The problem could be within the
student or within the teacher and/or classroom. As a result of the referral process, the
teacher will be provided with insight into how to redirect or support the child. Rebecca
described two phases of referral: informal referral and formal referral. Informal referral
occurs before formal referral, and begins with observations by the teacher. She examines
whether the child's classroom performance (i.e., academic and/or behavioral) is cause for
a referral. After she has decided that the child's performance is cause for alarm or too
much for her to successfully address, she speaks with the school guidance counselor. The
teacher and the guidance counselor discuss the student of concern and set a time for the
guidance counselor to come into the classroom to observe the student.
After the guidance counselor observes the student, the teacher meets with the
guidance counselor again and possibly the principal, parents, and other relevant
individuals. At this point they discuss accommodations and interventions to help the
student achieve the academic and behavioral success expected at his or her grade and age
level. With the agreement of the interested parties, teachers return to the classroom to
implement the suggestions and plans for the student. If the teacher continues to see little
or no progress, the teacher has the option of meeting with the SST and the parents, and
decides whether to make a formal referral. During the formal referral, testing occurs. The
student is given a battery of tests to confirm suspected deficiencies or underlying issues
and a determination is made as to whether the child should be labeled and receive special
Pitfalls of the referral process
Although she has strong beliefs about how the system should work, Rebecca
describes referral as both a positive and frustrating experience. A positive aspect is that
teachers, parents, administrators, and other professionals work together to provide the
best learning opportunity and environment for the student. Everyone provides his or her
perspective about the child's performance in and outside of school. The student's medical
and psychological information, along with the failed interventions, are discussed in hopes
of getting him or her the appropriate help. Teachers who had been frustrated by a
problem they were not able to previously identify are given a name and label.
A troubling aspect of referral is that everyone has an opinion about the student's
problem, often resulting in a lengthy process. Rebecca revealed that there are several
meetings where everyone continuously talks without getting to the issue at hand, "How
can we in general education best help this student?" When goals are finally developed for
the student, they are often unchallenging, providing no opportunity for academic and/or
social growth. She reported goals being implemented to keep students content rather than
challenge students to maximize their potentials. Through the referral process, tests reveal
that the student has a disability; however, in an attempt to keep him happy, goals are
written that do not challenge him.
Another difficult aspect of referral is the power struggle that can arise between
parents and educators. Rebecca disclosed that informed of possible services and
assistance available to students with disabilities, parents makes requests that they do not
necessarily need. In addition, parents have a difficult time understanding the educational
gaps educators see. She pointed out that parents are not in the classroom and are unable
to compare their child's performance with the other students in the class. Uninformed
parents often compare themselves to their children when they were their age and grade
level: "When I was a kid I could not read as well as Mike." But it was over 20 years ago
since some parents were in third grade. It is difficult for parents to understand the
academic or behavioral gaps their children may be experiencing in comparison to their
It is no surprise that referral elicits feelings of fear, depression, intimidation, and
confusion for teachers, parents, and students. If a teacher documents that she will cover
three-digit addition and subtraction with a student, she is expected to meet the goal or
face possible scrutiny from the administration and parents. Rebecca revealed that
teachers experience a tension between writing goals that are convenient for the teacher or
goals that help and challenge students. She purported that fear sets in because you do not
want to appear to be a bad teacher. Rebecca disclosed that teachers fear developing goals
that are in-depth and challenging because of the possible consequences of not meeting
goals. In her mind, the rules and procedures of the referral process invoke fear and
intimidation rather than help for the students. Teachers could help students more if the
fear of not reaching goals and being fired or sued was not so dominant in the process.
Reasons teachers refer students
Rebecca pointed to teaching style and academic issues, behavioral challenges, and
cultural differences as reasons why teachers refer students. She was concerned about the
numbers of African American students who are swiftly swept out of general education to
special education classrooms when they show signs of a problem. Rebecca believed that
if sincere efforts were made to include African American parents in the educational
process and to provide African American students with additional strategies,
accommodations, and modifications, African American students would excel in general
education, rather than waste away in special education.
Rebecca had concerns about the overrepresentation of African Americans in
special education, particularly the number of African American boys labeled learning
disabled and/or emotionally handicapped. She did not want to see the majority of the
special education classrooms filled with African American students and particularly
African American boys. Rebecca believed there should be balance in the numbers of
African American students served in special education programs in comparison to their
representation in the school population. She wanted African American students to have
the most appropriate educational environment and questioned, "Why are there not more
African Americans students in gifted programs? Are African American children more
disabled than gifted?"
Rebecca disclosed that many children are referred because of teaching style
and/or academic challenges. She reported that African American students are less likely
to respond to the teacher's teaching style. The student is either inattentive to instruction
or does not comprehend the curriculum to a level of independence. Rebecca reported that
when African American students leave the classroom they do not know how to complete
the assignments and are less likely to have the resources at home to assist them in their
understanding. She purported that teachers do not present the assignments in a manner
that the African American student can understand and work with appropriately. Often
these teachers struggle to teach ethnically and racially diverse students.
Some students misbehave because they are not doing well in school. They lack
academic skills and are challenged to complete assignments with few supports at home
and/or in school. Other behavior problems stem from home and neighborhood issues.
Rebecca pointed out that many students who are referred bring "inappropriate behaviors"
from home to school. Students also have family and neighborhood challenges over which
they have no control. Once students arrive at school, they may have difficulty turning off
home and neighborhood issues in order to focus on school responsibilities.
Rebecca revealed that many students who have not mastered the skill of turning
off the home and neighborhood issues have behavior cards and are in the referral process.
At Rebecca's school, all of the students with behavior cards are African American. At the
end of the school day, all of the children with behavior cards report to the BRT's office
where their performance is assessed. Rebecca purported that every year African
American students are continuously contained in the BRT office. In addition to the BRT
office, African American students, are in [in-]school suspension, in [out of] school
suspension, and being suspended. When the school day is over the students are marched
to their buses in a single file line. School year after school year it has been the same, a
line of Black children escorted to the bus.
Rebecca noted that teacher perceptions of differences were important to the
referral process and particularly the referral of African American students. She believed
that the teachers and African American students are culturally and socially disconnected.
Most teachers operate from a White perspective in contrast to their student population
that is increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. Teachers struggle with identifying
with their students' lives. Rebecca explained that she is a teacher who knows the
backgrounds of African American children, but is sometimes surprised by their
neighborhood and family situations. She revealed that she forgets that students do not
live in ideal home situations where both parents work, children and parents respect each
other, and there are desks, supplies, and a computer to complete assignments.
Recognizing and appreciating individual differences, Rebecca builds upon students'
Rebecca cited that cultural mismatching between the teachers and students often
results in teachers not wanting to teach African American students. Many teachers are
not prepared for the culture African American students bring to the classroom. Rebecca
disclosed that most African American students are accustomed to certain mannerisms of
which their teachers are unaware. She reported that teachers with a sweet and soft tone of
voice have difficulties managing and teaching African American students, who often
respond better to authoritative behavior management. According to Rebecca, a power
struggle begins when the African American student does not respond to his or her
teacher's method of behavior management.
According to Rebecca, a teacher's ability to tolerate and/or manage behavior
influences whether a student is referred. The students with "severe" behaviors, who are
often African American, are sent to the BRT's office. Rebecca defined "severe"
behaviors as hitting or tagging others, talking back to the teacher, and defiance. The
teacher may perceive that the student behaved in a rude way, but Rebecca points out that
the student may have simply behaved as he or she would at home. She discloses that
when a student is sent to the BRT's office, every visit is documented and reported to the
school board. While students are in the BRT's office, they miss instruction, assignments,
and examples of positive behavior, as well as possible help from their teacher. After a
period of time, students fall further behind their peers academically. Rebecca purported
that often school is the place where students have the resources and supports available to
complete their assignments and homework. Removal of students from their general
education classroom becomes detrimental to their academic and social growth.
Significance of parent involvement
Rebecca identified parent involvement as the missing link for African American
students' academic and social success. In her mind, teachers and schools should willingly
invite parents to spend time in their child's classroom. These visits would allow parents
to observe their child and the teacher's interaction, as well as the instruction, resources,
and teaching strategies used. Rebecca suggested that teachers can train parents to use
strategies and instructional resources at home. She explained that many parents believe
that teachers have the sole responsibility of educating children. This belief is detrimental
to the academic and social success of many African American students, who are often
academically behind the average White student, and do not receive continued academic
review and practice at home. Early parent, student, and teacher communication and
training on school and academic expectations would result in fewer referrals to special
The outcome of referral is strongly influenced by parent expectations. Rebecca
perceives that parents initially think that referral is going to help students. Soon the
parent may notice that their child has less work, which they may view as positive
(e.g., less stress, more free time) or a negative (e.g., less or no challenge, too much free
time) for others. Rebecca reported that often African American parents are unaware of
the school's expectation of how parents will provide academic support to their children.
Often they leave the educational responsibilities to the teacher. Not understanding the
long-term educational and social outcomes of referral, these parents are unaware of the
consequences of special education referral. Other parents who are aware of the
consequences request for their children to remain in the general education classroom
where they are exposed to the general education curriculum and general education peers.
Rebecca revealed as time goes on the child gets to the high school level and is faced with
the decision of pursuing a special diploma, no diploma, regular diploma, or university
ready diploma referral and placement becomes the concern. In elementary and middle
school the referral placement appeared to be a blessing, but by high school, when
students have been in the cycle of special education placement for years, it is difficult to
pull them out.
A collaborative approach to help students
Rebecca concluded that by bringing the special education teacher into the general
education classroom it is possible to keep students who would be referred in the general
education classroom. She suggested that the general education and special education
teachers work together to provide necessary supports in the same classroom. As it is now,
general education teachers expect special education teachers to teach the same
curriculum as general education at a slower pace; however, this does not happen in
special education because of the various levels and needs of students.
When special education teachers and general education teachers collaborate on
curriculum and strategies, all students as well as the teachers benefit. They are able to
discuss appropriate strategies and curriculum for students, what is expected of each
teacher, what they expect students to know, and they can collaborate to form proactive
communication with parents. Rebecca suggested that general education and special
education teachers receive stipends that will encourage them to meet and develop weekly
lesson plans for students. She cautioned that when teachers do not consistently and
collaboratively meet, students' needs are often inappropriately addressed. Through
consistent teacher collaboration, students have multiple teachers, and referred students
are provided with role models of positive behavior and grade level academic success in
the general education classroom.
Composite Textural Description (All Participants)
All of the teachers in this study wanted special education referral to be a
collaborative effort to help students. Many hoped that the process would reveal where the
student was performing academically and how best to help the student. In deciding
whether to refer, they considered whether referral would "be something that will
definitely help the child move forward" (Rebecca).
When describing the referral process, teachers in the study noted students being
referred for the sole benefit of the referring teacher. Teachers suggested in an effort to