Date: Jan. 16, 2002
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>

High-Quality Education, Early Screening Are Key
To Nurturing Minority Students With Special Needs or Talents

WASHINGTON -- To ensure that minority students who are poorly prepared for school are not assigned to special education for that reason, educators should be required to first provide them with high-quality instruction and social support in a general education classroom before making a determination that special education is needed, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Educators also should adopt comprehensive screening strategies, particularly in reading, to identify students at risk of school failure as early as possible, and intervene before academic or behavior problems become deeply entrenched. Moreover, states should raise training and professional-development requirements for all prospective and current teachers to help them better meet the needs of atypical learners.

The committee that wrote the report also called for rigorous research on ways to identify talented students who excel in verbal, mathematical, or other skills. Historically, disproportionately low numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians have been placed in K-12 gifted classes -- the opposite of demographic trends in special education.

"Educators should not wait for at-risk children to fail or, conversely, for potentially gifted students to demonstrate success before taking decisive steps to encourage them within the regular classroom setting," said committee chair Christopher T. Cross, senior fellow, Center on Education Policy, and former president, Council for Basic Education, both located in Washington, D.C. "The goal of education systems should be to place only those children who truly would benefit into special or gifted education programs."

The committee proposed that the special education eligibility process begin only after students who exhibit large differences from typical performance in at least one key area, such as academic achievement or social behavior, have been exposed to high-quality interventions that did not ease their learning difficulties. But this approach should not delay the provision of services to prospective participants whose needs are pronounced, or to students who already have been identified for special education.

Because the data regarding the screening, selection, and placement of gifted children are less extensive than those for special education, the committee did not offer specific policy recommendations for gifted programs.

Trends Are a Concern

Since 1975, when Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requiring schools to serve disabled students, disproportionately large numbers of children in some racial and ethnic groups have been identified with developmental labels and placed in special education programs. The labels -- such as learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, and mildly, moderately, or severely mentally retarded -- are intended to identify students who need extra educational support. However, identification also may bring lowered expectations from teachers, other students, and the targeted children themselves, the committee said. Many minority parents and others have long complained about the stigma of certain labels and questioned the fairness or adequacy of referral and screening processes. The legislation is scheduled for congressional reauthorization this year.

Some minority students are at greater risk of school failure and more likely to be considered for special services because their families lack adequate education, health care, housing, or sufficient income to lift them out of poverty. However, the nature of classroom instruction and teacher-student interaction, as well as a school's environment, also influences student achievement and behavior, the report notes. Minority students often attend schools that lack challenging curricula, well-trained and effective teachers, and adequate classroom supplies. In addition, teachers play a major role in referring students for special and gifted education, and school counselors, psychologists, and parents participate in placement decisions — introducing the chance that personal biases may influence outcomes. Standardized testing commonly used in the assessment process also can leave children from different cultures at a disadvantage.

Reading difficulties and behavior problems are two of the most common reasons that students are singled out for special education, the report says. Consequently, states should implement universal screening and intervention strategies in those areas. Relevant federal agencies should support such measures by offering technical assistance and making information easily accessible.

The congressionally mandated report follows a 1982 Research Council study that examined the reasons for large numbers of boys and minorities in special classes for students with mental retardation. Two decades later, much has changed in both general and special education: Minorities now make up about one-third of the nation's school-age population; states have raised academic standards that all students are expected to meet; and the overall number of schoolchildren receiving special education services has grown to more than one in every 10 students, more than half of whom are in the rapidly expanding category of "learning disabled."

Indeed, special education enrollment has increased among all groups, but racial and ethnic disparities persist. More than 14 percent of black students are in the programs, compared with about 13 percent of American Indians, 12 percent of whites, 11 percent of Hispanics, and 5 percent of Asians. The disparities in categories that often carry the greatest stigmas have been of particular concern, the committee said. For example, 2.6 percent of black students have been identified as mentally retarded, compared with 1.2 percent of white students. And roughly 1.5 percent of black students are labeled as emotionally disturbed, compared with 0.91 percent of whites.

Better Training, Preschool Services, and Research Needed

States should make sure that teacher licensing and certification requirements call for training in effective intervention methods to assist students who fail to meet minimum academic standards or who substantially exceed them, the committee said. Teachers also should be familiar with students' beliefs, values, and cultural practices that may affect classroom participation and success.

However, many children may require help and support years before they enroll in school. Federal and state government officials should improve and expand early childhood services related to health care, family support, and preschool education, the committee said.

A major expansion in research and development also is needed to strengthen links between scientific findings about school achievement and everyday classroom practice, the report adds. An important focus of this effort should be on academic improvement in schools with large numbers of children from low-income families.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The National Research Council is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academy Press. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[This news release and the report are available at]

Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences

Committee on Representation of Minority Children in Special Education and Gifted Programs

Christopher T. Cross (chair)
Senior Fellow
Center on Education Policy
Washington, D.C.

Carolyn M. Callahan
Associate Director
National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, and
Curry School of Education
University of Virginia

Beth Harry
Professor of Special Education
Department of Teaching and Learning
University of Miami

Samuel R. Lucas
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
University of California

Donald L. MacMillan
Professor of Education
University of California

Margaret J. McLaughlin
Associate Director
Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth
University of Maryland
College Park

Diana Pullin
Professor and Former Dean
School of Education
Boston College

Craig Ramey
Civitan International Research Center, and
Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, Sociology, Nursing, Maternal and Child Health, and Neurobiology
University of Alabama

John B. Reid
Executive Director
Oregon Social Learning Center, and
Oregon Prevention Research Center

Daniel Reschly
Professor of Education and Psychology, and Chair, Department of Special Education
George Peabody College
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.

Robert Rueda
Professor and Chair
Division of Learning and Instruction
School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles

Bennett A. Shaywitz*
Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology, and Director of Pediatric Neurology
School of Medicine
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Margaret Beale Spencer
Center for Health, Achievement, Neighborhood, Growth, and Ethnic Studies
W.E.B Du Bois Collective Research Institute, and
Professor of Education and
Co-Chair of the Psychology in Education Division
University of Pennsylvania

Edward Lee Vargas
Hacienda La Puente Unified School District
Los Angeles

Sharon Vaughn
Mollie V. Davis Professor
University of Texas


Suzanne Donovan
Study Director

* Member, Institute of Medicine