Administration & Leadership

How to Avoid Overidentifying Black Male Students for Special Education

Black males in grades 3 to 8 are often incorrectly assigned to special education, but other supports could better help them succeed in school.

August 25, 2021
SDI Productions / iStock

Black male students are far more likely than their White peers to drop out of school—only about 60 percent earn high school diplomas. In part this may be because Black males are three times more likely to be suspended than White males. But research shows that a big part of the problem young Black males have with schools is that they are far more likely than their White peers to be placed in special education classes.

This is a tragedy for the students who get this placement incorrectly because their access to rich educational experiences can be sharply limited as a result. This misidentification affects their peers as well, who see that Black males like them are often wrongly underestimated and undervalued. It also negatively impacts teachers by hindering their ability to engage and teach all students. And if school districts are not strategic and culturally aware, the rates at which Black male students are marginalized may get worse as many schools return to in-person learning after almost a year and a half.

Because special education identification practices and patterns vary widely in different states and school districts, how data is interpreted varies considerably. The tendency in many cases, particularly now, is to see any learning loss that students—and particularly Black males—have experienced as something that is cognitive when it is instead often due to limited access to certain resources. In 2018 about 30 percent of Black families didn’t have broadband internet service, meaning their children did not have either access to the rich educational experiences available online or practice navigating the internet, which is a valuable skill in itself.

Stopping the overidentification of Black male students for special education starts with understanding access deficits like this—and not mistaking them for cognitive deficits. What can educators, administrators, and school districts do to better understand access deficits? Better professional development is needed to help teachers and administrators effectively engage and teach Black male students.

The five-step process for school leaders presented here can help bring about equity and fairness in educating Black males students, and help decrease the process of overidentifying them for special education.

1. Educate Staff

Talk to the entire staff about Black male students and why the way teachers approach these students needs to change. Use the term Black often to underscore your intentions—while it may make some educators uncomfortable, that’s to be expected. Educators often say they don’t see color when they are educating students—please remind them that they should see it.

Jawanza Kunjufu, author of Black Students, Middle Class Teachers, wrote: “The most important factor impacting the academic achievement of African American children is not the race or gender of the teacher but the teacher’s expectations.” What teachers believe and how they perceive Black male students has a large and fundamental impact on how successful those students will be in school. How we engage students sends a message to them. If a teacher sees behaviors that they don’t understand, they should seek advice from colleagues to become aware of the cultural norms underlying these behaviors.

2. Identify Students Who Need Support

About 13 percent of the student body in public schools receives special education services. Look at the percentage of Black male students in your school who are identified for special education, and compare that to the demographics of your school. If the number of Black male students being identified is high, have a conversation about changing the criteria, particularly now as so many have been away from school for over a year.

Form a committee to go over all the data you have, with an eye to identifying the supports that struggling students will need—the goal here is not to assign them all to special education, but to find specific supports for literacy, math, etc., that will help them make needed gains. Include general and special education teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, ancillary staff, and a nurse. Keep the committee at odd numbers for voting purposes. Look at grades and state and local assessments, and thoroughly examine discipline referrals that were written about behavior.

Examine when those referrals were written—they could indicate what the students’ triggers were. This part is critical: If educators are able to identify when, why, and where certain behaviors occurred, they may be able to better prevent them from happening. Having a committee allows various points of views and different perspectives to be heard, which will help you avoid assigning students to special education for disciplinary issues when they could be better supported in other ways.

3. Support Students

Once the students who need help are identified, start matching interventions with their needs. The key is to make certain of three important points:

  • Make certain help is communicated by first identifying strengths the students have, and be sure not to suggest the students are slow—this automatically promotes a defensive posture by students.
  • Providing students with culturally sensitive and responsive reading materials will promote a greater acceptance of reading, if that is a deficit. Dr. Alfred W. Tatum, a professor of literacy, has written that texts that promote cultural uplift and economic advancement could help foster a desire and love for reading in Black male students.
  • Set goals that are reasonable and attainable—1.5 years of growth in reading and math would help students who are performing below their peers improve their chances of narrowing the achievement gap. This is a lofty goal, but with the proper interventions it should be possible.

4. Assess Students

How we assess students is central to evaluating what is working and what needs to change. We often use standard forms of assessments to show us how students are performing, but as schools respond to the impact of Covid-19 on students who may be achieving at lower levels than expected, assessments need to include a more subjective lens as well.

Ask students what is working—engage their viewpoint more now than ever before. Their thoughts, what they have been exposed to, and their emotional state, all matter in how they interact with the texts and subjects they’re learning.

For example, a teacher may be doing a lesson in math on measurements and connecting it with cooking. A student may respond not with a math answer but with what life is like in their home, where they lack food or ingredients to make a certain meal. Or perhaps the teacher is having a math talk and asks students to come up with various ways to arrive at the number 20. Students may begin to talk about the number of people in their family who got sick as a result of Covid-19. Different topics may elicit unpredictable responses from students, and teachers should make space for those responses before moving on with the lessons.

5. Evaluate What Works

The evaluation stage should be ongoing. We educators often want results immediately to determine if our interventions and lessons are working, but the minds of students are constantly evolving. Some students may demonstrate that they are progressing at an optimal level, and others may not demonstrate that at one point in time—that doesn’t mean the intervention is not working. While we must have standards and time frames in which we evaluate, it’s important to be flexible enough to give students more time, if it’s clear there is some progress.

Keep in mind the phrase access deficits. Many students did not have access to the resources that others had over the last year and a half, and understanding that can result in a more relaxed classroom environment, one that can prompt students to work harder and feel they are valued and supported.

Once you and your team have evaluated the data and determined what has been effective, duplicate those efforts and share the data with all the staff members who help educate the students, including paraprofessionals. The need for fidelity is at an all-time high.

There are far too many Black male students underperforming in schools, and the five-step plan here is one attempt to change this. The work starts with recognizing that this problem still exists, and realizing that the decisions we make now will impact these students for the rest of their lives.

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  • Education Equity
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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