2004 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Anna Moretto, John Carroll and Erin Gimbel

Developed a training program to identify and reduce the number of minority students mistakenly classified as special education students, giving them a second chance at academic achievement.

A little-known but worrisome trend threatens the nation’s education system: the misclassification of students for special education programs.

Children mistakenly identified for special ed programs often do not benefit from the core curriculum. This leads to a variety of maladies: lower levels of academic achievement, decreased chances of obtaining higher education, and more limited employment opportunities in adulthood. Even worse, research shows that across the United States, a disproportionate number of minority students are misclassified for special ed. But in New Jersey, the Minorities in Special Education (MINSPED) Team is turning this troublesome trend around.

In New Jersey, which has approximately 545,000 school-age minority students, African American males are 30 percent more likely to be separated into special ed classes than white males. Additionally, African American students are twice as likely to be singled out as “emotionally disturbed” than white students. As team leader Anna Moretto points out, the issue is not a matter of attaining a set number of special ed students; rather it is to ensure that the placement of minority students in special ed is appropriate.

The MINSPED Team from the U.S. Department of Education’s New York Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has created a comprehensive training program to assist school districts in identifying misclassified students and correcting the problem. The training program involves teaching district staff how to gather and analyze data relating to each aspect of the special ed process. To facilitate this, the Team developed a simple-to-use computer program that compiles the raw data and simplifies analysis. Any district staff with limited computer experience can easily input the data into the program, and review it for trends that help to identify potential causes of any disproportion. To ensure that data are properly interpreted, the training also consists of several one-on-one sessions with staff geared towards analyzing the collected data. Support is also provided to districts in gathering qualitative data through surveys of staff, parents and even students to understand issues such as how welcome and fairly treated minority students and parents feel when in the school environment, and staff perceptions of minority student success. The Team also developed a training manual that includes frameworks for analyzing the potential causes of disproportionate classification rates, developing data-driven improvement activities, and creating benchmarks for assessing progress.

To date, the MINSPED Team has worked with approximately 40 districts in the state, in groups of 8-16 districts annually. Participating schools benefit from the data collection process that the MINSPED Team has devised to help them understand the nature of their students’ challenges. In addition, because the MINSPED Project is a collaborative/supportive training model, it has given district staff the tools that they can use independently to better determine how to help their students achieve success. By taking the data results and combining them with an intimate knowledge of their own schools, they can fashion their own solutions. As a result of their ownership of the process, districts and their staff have responded very positively to the MINSPED Project.

The MINSPED Team’s efforts have paid off in other tangible ways: according to state research, from 2001 to 2002, approximately 80 percent of the first New Jersey school districts that participated in the team’s new training initiative reduced their rates of disproportionate classification. What makes this Project truly significant for students across the nation is that the training process and data collection tools developed by the Team are transferable: they can be used by states and school districts nationwide. In fact, several states expressed an interest in adopting the program after seeing a presentation about it at a conference sponsored for state education departments.

Access to education has been called the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Thanks to the MINSPED Team, this basic right is being protected for thousands of underserved children—today and for generations to come.