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Understanding, Addressing Disproportionality in NJ Schools

Disproportionality can be defined as an over-representation of students from certain racial/ethnic groups in special-education programs

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The prevalence of racial achievement gaps on standardized tests has been widely reported. However, education-equity advocates point out that there is a lesser known — yet far larger and more complex parallel issue — that is dramatically impacting the ability of schools to teach and support struggling minority students.

The issue is known as disproportionality — an over-representation of students from certain racial/ethnic groups, particularly black/African-American, and Hispanic students, in special-education programs. Affected students are disproportionately isolated, spending more time in restrictive environments relative to their nonaffected peer students and facing greater rates of suspension and expulsion. Because affected students are less likely to access a rigorous curriculum, these students experience limited post-secondary opportunities and marginalized employment opportunities thereafter.

Disproportionality includes both the over-representation and the under-representation of a “specific population or demographic group in special or gifted education programs, relative to the presence of this group in the overall student population,” according to the National Education Association. It can be present, for example, in any or all the following ways:

  • Over-identification of students as disabled, or under-identified as gifted/talented;

  • Over-identification of students in students’ classification, placement, and suspension rates;

  • Higher incidence rates in specific special-education categories, such as intellectually disabled or emotionally disturbed;

  • Under-representation in intervention services, resources, access to programs, and rigorous, high-quality curriculum and instruction; or

  • Excessive incidence, duration, and types of disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions, among others.

Fortunately, there are a number of recommended steps that education leaders can take to address and prevent over-representation issues in their schools. Experts support the notion that highly functioning problem-solving teams, utilizing a consistent progress-monitoring system within a framework of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), have the potential to target and provide appropriate academic and behavioral supports for struggling learners and, thereby, positively affect the culture of a district. Public Consulting Group supports this position.

Current research has shown that reducing disproportionality requires a comprehensive, multifaceted approach that encompasses a data-driven decision-making process, cultural responsiveness, a high quality and culturally appropriate core instructional program, universal screening and progress monitoring, evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions and support, and home and school collaboration. At the crux of this work is a highly functioning school-based problem-solving and intervention team, charged with implementing MTSS. According to research by the National Association of School Psychologists, positive effects from MTSS have been shown in “preventing behaviors before they occur through direct teaching of behavior to all students in the building… (and providing) supplemental academic supports to groups of students and individualize interventions for those most in need.” Local districts are only recently, with guidance and support from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), starting to implement a comprehensive MTSS framework. One of the expected outcomes of developing this system, known locally as New Jersey Tiered System of Supports (NJTSS), is to reduce disproportionality.

While this is no easy task, timely conversations are happening to unpack and demystify disproportionality. On November 2, 2017, the second annual New Jersey Special Education Summit will focus on the issue of disproportionality, providing an opportunity for educators from across the state to meet with and learn from national and local experts who are effectively sizing up and tackling the challenge of disproportionality. For the one-day conference, a white paper titled, “Reducing Disproportionality in New Jersey Schools,” has been prepared. This paper frames the issue of disproportionately in the national and local New Jersey context through a series of charts and graphs that clearly define the challenge, while providing six practical strategies that teachers and administrators may consider implementing as they seek to mitigate disproportionality in New Jersey schools.

A copy of the white paper may be accessed by clicking here. The New Jersey Special Education Annual Summit website, where you can access the agenda and additional resources from the current and prior summits, may be accessed by clicking here.

Matthew Korobkin provides internal and external leadership and expertise in matters of special-education policy, compliance, operations, and instructional practice for PCG. Prior to joining PCG, Matthew was the special education officer for strategic planning and evaluation in the office of the Secretary of Education at the Delaware Department of Education. Prior to his work in Delaware, Matthew supported the state director of special education at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He spent the first three years of his career in the classroom, working as a certified teacher and assistive-technology specialist at a residential school for students with disabilities and the FLLAC Educational Collaborative, a public education service agency in Massachusetts. Matthew earned an M.S.Ed. in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University. He also holds a certificate of Graduate Study in Assistive Technology from the California State University. Matthew also maintains an assistive technology professional (ATP) credential from the Rehabilitative Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA).

Dr. Jennifer Meller, former director of operations for the office of specialized instructional services for the School District of Philadelphia and current senior consultant with PCG Education, leads the firm’s efforts in providing districts with comprehensive special education program evaluations and technical assistance in the areas of staffing, stakeholder engagement, compliance, finance, data use, and best instructional practices for students with disabilities. Currently, Dr. Meller focuses on research engagements that support districts and state departments of education with special-education compliance and results-driven outcomes. She also assists districts in several states with implementing special-education technology systems and recently administered PCG’s first national survey on the use of IEP systems. Dr. Meller earned an Ed.D. in educational and organizational leadership and an MS.Ed. in higher education management, both from the University of Pennsylvania. She received a B.A. in English from Dickinson College.

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