From an international perspective, the over-representation of students from minority groups in special education placement is well documented in the research literature (Artiles et al., 2011; Ahram, et al. 2011; Skiba, et al. 2006; Valencia, 2010; Zion and Blanchett, 2011). My recent research in Ireland builds and expands on such research as it brings the intersectionality between social class and placement in special education centre-stage. The research highlights empirically, the disproportionality of students from lower socio-economic status (LSES) backgrounds in special education programmes. Moreover, empirical data illustrate that ‘students least likely to encounter widely available educational resources at home are also least likely to encounter them in school’ (Darling-Hammond, 2010, p. 22). These observations of discomfort mirror the seminal work of Illich (1971) that school can be the problem not the solution to in/equity because it creates mechanisms to discriminate against some and to privilege others.
A correlation between local constructions of dis/ability and social class was unearthed in the research. This ‘construction’ leads to particular forms of school ordering, and the construction of those who have and have not the opportunity to create intelligence. Deconstruction of special/inclusive education in my recent study questions several factors that have been associated with the traditional professional knowledge. For example, the reliability of diagnostic categories that present as absolutes, with no consideration of social and environmental factors or spectrum of dis/ability, i.e., a bio-psycho-social understanding. The process of referral and diagnosis remains deeply rooted in deficit thinking that not only ‘pathologises’ the child but also the family. While I am critical of findings that suggest that children coming from LSES backgrounds can be constructed as having a learning disability, I do agree that many children need support with the transition from home to school. My argument is that the phenomenon of disproportionality in special education could be better understood as home/school discontinuity as opposed to disability. These students could benefit from transitions programmes as opposed to placement in special education programmes.
Bourdieu’s theories of cultural and social capital usefully explicate this phenomenon, which is social reproduction. Individual teacher habitus, which is predominantly middle-class, collectively forms school culture, where the curriculum is enacted by middle class actors who have significant agency in this culture or field, in the Bourdieuan sense. The status quo remains, school reproduces the middle-class. Therefore, it is understandable that the transition to school is challenging for many students coming from LSES backgrounds. Consequently, we need to think differently about the difficulties encountered by many of our students.
A sociocultural perspective or a ‘whole community’ approach to schooling could harmonise this discontinuity. Extra teaching resources granted to schools could be usefully employed in this harmonising process. I would argue that the way in which teaching resources are used in schools, is more to do with mind-set, how teachers frame issues of social justice, social class, dis/ability, and inclusion. It is critical that funding be targeted at greatest need, which may be related to transition needs for many students from LSES backgrounds as opposed to need arising from locally constructed ‘disability’. For this reason, resources should be targeted to ensure a ‘whole community’ approach to intervention support in order to realise education that is holistic and inclusive, respecting children, young people and their families.
Dr Margaret Egan is a faculty member of the Department of Special Education at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Her PhD study is on Inclusion Policy with a particular focus on models of funding.
Ahram, R., Fergus, E. & Noguera, P., (2011) Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education: Case Studies of Suburban School Districts. Teacher College Record. USA: Teachers College Record.
Artiles, A. J., Kozleski, E., B., & Waitoller F. R., (Eds). (2011). Inclusive education: examining equity on five continents. USA: Harvard Educational Press.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. USA: Teachers Colleges Record.
Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. New York: Marion Boyers.
Skiba, R., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Kohler, K., Henderson, M., & Wu, T. (2006). The Context of Minority Disproportionality: Practitioner Perspectives on Special Education Referral. Teachers College Record.
Valencia, R. R. (2010). Dismantling contemporary deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice. NY: Routledge.
Zion, S. D. and Blanchett, W. (2011). [Re]conceptualizing Inclusion: Can Critical Race Theory and Interest Convergence Be Utilized to Achieve Inclusion and Equity for African American Students? Teachers College Record.