Posted October 28, 2015
The University of Wisconsin-River Falls is one of several institutions working on reducing bias in education against students of color. Leading the effort is Donald Lee Stovall, a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology.
The Reducing Bias in Education project, according to its website, is concerned that “American Indian and African American students are disproportionately represented in special education programs and discipline procedures involving suspensions and expulsions.” The project aims to reduce the number of African American and American Indians placed in these programs.
The program focuses on African American and American Indian families, care givers and the students themselves who are located in Minnesota. The federal Office of Civil Rights monitors the data related to the two groups.
“This project actually dates back 1998,” Stovall said, “when the state of Minnesota produced a manual called ‘Reducing Bias for American Indians and African American Students’ because back even as 1998 people were looking at data and seeing that there was some significant issues in terms of representation with those specific groups in special education programs and also in discipline.”
Three years ago Minnesota offered a grant to renew the manual. Stovall applied for the grant and got it. He started his work with a clear goal to update and reduce the amount of African American and American Indian students in these programs. He did so by looking at what can be done so that services regarding special education placement decisions, for those two groups, are fair. Stovall said that these two groups “are by far more likely to be in those programs than white students. So it’s more than chance that that is happening. So there is something breaking down in the system where those students are being placed in those programs, and sometimes it’s a fit and other times it’s not a fit.”
Among theories that try to explain what is happening is that students of color are not getting the same quality of education as others, and that may be related to understanding of cultural differences. Since everyone does not have the same background, people do not know how to handle the culture of others and it is often ignored or misunderstood.
“I think that in our society we don’t do a good job talking about culture,” Stovall said. “We don’t do a good job talking about race; we don’t understand race. It’s kind of a taboo subject for people.”
Another factor that Stovall and his colleagues have noticed is the climate of the school. Teachers need to be aware that every student does not come from the same background and skill set. If students walk differently or talk differently, that should not be labeled as a problem but as a difference and teachers need to make the adjustment.
A way to help fix the overrepresentation of these two groups in special education programs and discipline procedures is that people should be talking more about race, culture and differences, Stovall said. Another way is by teaching teachers that if a student is different they shouldn’t be referred to a special program. The connection between the staff and the parents of these two groups is also very important because, as Stovall explained, they don’t want the parents to think the teachers are biased against their child.