Bias in problem solving and the social process of student study teams: a qualitative investigation
Multidisciplinary teams (MDTs), such as student study teams, are mandated to (a) support students’ educational functioning through systematic group problem solving and intervention and (b) offer protection against bias to students who may be referred for special education assessment. Given the proportional overrepresentation of African American students who receive special education services, however, there are concerns about the actual objectivity and fairness of the MDT process. This study is a microethnographic investigation of how the social process and context of MDTs in two rural, southern elementary schools inhibited the teams’ thorough and unbiased discussion of some African American students’ psychoeducational functioning. Although ethnic bias was not documented, four themes related to the social context of the team and bias in the problem-solving process were identified.
Historically, prereferral teams grew out of the mandate in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 requiring the use of multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) in the special education referral and placement process (Rosenfield & Gravois, 1999). MDTs were mandated as a form of “Protection in Evaluation Procedures,” which were intended to reduce the inappropriate and discriminatory referral and placement of students into special education. The rationale behind the use of MDTs was that a group of professionals using multiple criteria would make less-biased referral decisions than an individual acting alone (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1989; Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977; Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983). Another important and concurrent influence on the development of MDTs was the legal stipulation that general education interventions had to be attempted before students could be referred for evaluation for special education eligibility–hence the evolution of the “prereferral” team (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983; Zins, Curtis, Graden, & Ponti, 1989).
Many different types of prereferral teams evolved in response to the mandates for fair and appropriate evaluation; these all became a form of and forum for general education interventions. Generally, the teams were designed as collaborative problem-solving groups in which teachers could consult with peers about problem students and create interventions that could be attempted in the classroom before their students were referred on for special education evaluation (Chalfant, Pysh, & Moultrie, 1979; Fuchs, 1991). Although these prereferral teams typically had a broader focus than the MDT, in practice they were historically, functionally, and legally intertwined with the mandates of the special education process. In the special education referral process outlined previously, the prereferral team may be thought of as the center point.
A student’s referral for special education can be conceptualized as unfolding in three distinct phases:
1. A student’s problems in the classroom lead to a teacher’s initial referral to the prereferral team.
2. The team tries to understand the student’s functioning and suggests interventions.
3. If the classroom interventions do not work, the student is then referred for special education assessment.
In the strict formulation of this process, students are not recommended for special education assessment or placement until the conclusion of the prereferral process. The team is supposed to function as a body that rigorously and objectively conceptualizes the student’s functioning and problem solves to formulate classroom-based interventions. Accordingly, the prereferral team should recommend special education assessment and referral only after a relatively complete, if not exhaustive, exploration of available options in the general education environment.
Because the prereferral team serves as the center point of this process, whereby a student is either referred back to general education or on to special education, the team has dual, and in some ways conflicting, mandates (Friend & Cook, 1992). On the one hand, the goal of the prereferral team is to promote a student’s functioning in general education classes; on the other hand, its goal is to prove that a student cannot appropriately function in the general education classroom and should therefore be moved on to special education. This conflicted mandate may account for the charge that MDTs often tend to more heavily favor referral over intervention (Flugum & Reschly, 1994; Graden, Casey, & Christenson, 1985). Even with the utilization of MDTs to meet the legal mandates for protection, concerns about “how” and “why” students are referred on to and found to be eligible for special education abound. Therefore, as the center point in the prereferral process, the MDT is beset by competing stresses. This is a situation that is rich for further research and refinement.
Problems with Prereferral Teams
Eidle, Truscott, Meyers, and Boyd (1998), Fuchs (1991), Ysseldyke (1983), Weatherly and Lipsky (1977), and others have studied prereferral teams and found that the referral process may not be as objective as was intended, especially in the case of who gets referred to and ultimately placed in special education. Research into decision making in MDTs, as well as into referral procedures, has raised important concerns about objectivity, and even bias, in the special education process Two general issues raised in this research seem particularly salient to the ability of prereferral teams to afford students protection in evaluation procedures: referral bias and the over-referral of African-American students for special education assessment and placement.
Teachers and Referral Bias
Just who is referred for special education, and why, is a topic that has been studied over the past 30 years; numerous investigations have found that there is an “arbitrariness and precipitousness of teacher referrals” (Fuchs, 1991, p. 242) of students for consideration for special education. For example, students whose behaviors “bothered” teachers were most likely to be referred, such that teachers’ referral concerns selectively supported their own subjective perceptions (Gerber & Semmel, 1984F). A second issue is that teachers’ initial referrals, in and of themselves, start a process that usually leads to special education qualification (Poland, Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Mirkin, 1982; Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983; Ysseldyke, Christenson, Pianta, Thurlow, & Algozzine, 1983). The contention is that decisions to place students in special education do not really occur within the MDT process; rather, they occur de facto with the act of referral. The effect of referrals’ being both initially tainted by teachers’ subjective opinions that are then subjectively “rubber stamped” in the MDTs may be that bias is unwittingly being introduced in the referral and then left unexamined in the MDTs’ decisions. These tendencies can be considered as falling under the umbrella of confirmation bias (Darley & Gross, 1983; O’Reilly, Northcraft, & Sabers, 1989). Teachers’ actions are not the only variables that are thought to potentially contribute to bias in referral, however.
Race, Bias, and Overrepresentation in the Referral Process
Student characteristics that have been associated with bias in referral and placement include gender, social class, and ethnicity (Harry & Anderson, 1994; Russo & Talbert-Johnson, 1997). Although none of these characteristics should be the subject of bias, the role of ethnicity in students’ referral and placement has been the subject of especially intense debate and special concern (Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Dunn, 1968; Patton, 1998; Reschly, 1988).
That minority children are referred for, identified for, and receive special education services in greater numbers than their proportion in the general population is not generally disputed; yet, the meaning and cause behind the large numbers of minority students being identified for special education remain hotly contested topics (Serna, Forness, & Nielson, 1998). There is a crucial question: Is this overrepresentation fair (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982)? In other words, are minority children disproportionately placed in special education because as a group they are more likely to be educationally disabled than White children, or instead, for example, are there inherent problems in the referral and placement process that bias the placement of minority children?
Recent figures have suggested that the disproportionate referral and placement of minority students in special education continues to be a fact in our nation’s educational landscape. Both the 1992 Office for Civil Rights compliance report and a more recent U.S. Department of Education report (2000) indicated that in relation to their proportion of the population, minority students continue to be represented in larger numbers in special education than is the general population.
Explanations for Overreferral
The question of whether or not these numbers are fair and appropriate in part depends upon how one understands the issue, and the explanations for minority students’ referral rates range from suppositions about the formulation of students’ educational characteristics to the aforementioned problems associated with the efficacy of initial referrals.
The arguments about students’ personal characteristics tend to fall into discussions about internal and external factors. If one considers the rates of enrollment of minority children in special education to be an accurate reflection of the inherent abilities of minority students who are referred for and placed in special education, then the concerns about fairness are moot. In this model, only those children with internal deficits will ultimately receive special education services (Eysenck, 1984; Kranzler, 1997). From this perspective, low academic achievement is overwhelmingly affiliated with students’ inherent characteristics (Harry & Anderson, 1994).
Of course, there are the counterbalancing, sociocultural arguments in which students’ school achievement is considered to be mainly shaped by environmental forces such as the school’s imperative to find and label students with learning disabilities (R. P. McDermott, 1993); students’ exposure to crime, violence, and poverty (Mamlin & Harris, 1998); students’ historical lack of access to educational resources in combination with exposure to racism (Coulton & Pandey, 1992; S. W. McDermott & Altekruse, 1994); and teachers who do not understand multicultural issues in student development (Kea & Utley, 1998). From this perspective, students who are experiencing trouble in school would not necessarily fit the deficit model (R. P. McDermott, 1993) that is used to categorize students and to give them access to special education. Ideally, MDTs should consider these issues of context and experience as they work to frame the problem of students’ school performance.
Although both intrinsic and extrinsic factors undoubtedly contribute to children’s acquisition of knowledge and subsequent success in school, it is unlikely that these explanations account for all the variables or variance related to the over-representation question. Both of these arguments are “student focused” in the sense that they look at the forces that shape the actual performance of an individual child, but they may not fully account for issues and processes that are in some manner extraneous to the student.
In order to more fully understand the issue of referral bias, some researchers have investigated the association between intrinsic and extrinsic factors in the student and their relationship to issues related to the “referrer” (Bahr, Fuchs, Steckler, & Fuchs, 1991; Tobias, Cole, Zibrin, & Bodlakova, 1982). The results suggested that there is no evidence that race per se is the defining factor in a teacher’s decision to refer students for special education evaluation. While there may be some doubt as to the finality of these findings (Harry & Anderson, 1994), it does appear that the core issues related to bias in the initial part of the referral process, the “pre” prereferral team, have been identified and studied. Further investigation is needed, however, in regards to how bias may or may not be expressed during the actual problem-solving process in socially embedded prereferral teams.
In this study, these problems of potential bias in MDTs are viewed through a sociocultural and ethnographic lens. Although research conducted from many of the previously mentioned perspectives has provided invaluable information about the endpoints of the process (i.e., referral reasons and outcomes), we still do not know much about the midprocess, especially within the MDT itself. The ethnographic approach is one research strategy that allows us to focus on the MDT as the center point of the referral process and to try to understand the social processes involved in this crucial component of the system.
An Ethnographic Perspective
The ethnographic approach is well suited to study the piece of the MDT/prereferral process that is least understood, that is, what goes on in the “black box” of actual MDT meetings. Ethnography in general is concerned with the study of social groups and social systems within a culture (Bogdan & Bicklen, 1992; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). It uses an “emic” approach (McMillan & Schemacher, 2001) that focuses on discovering and understanding patterns, actions, language, and explanations that are unique to the culture of particular groups of people. Microethnographies are a variant of the larger ethnographic tradition and “work to understand the process by which participants in interaction mutually negotiate the detailed verbal and nonverbal requirements for social situations” (Murray, Anderson, Bersani, & Mesaros, 1985, p. 20).
Among the situations that microethnographies focus on are the effect that social forces have on “the way that participants understand the unspoken requirements of social interactions” (Murray et al., 1985, p. 20) and how “the accomplishment of order, no matter how institutionally regressive, can be understood in terms of an effort on everyone’s part to make sense in common with others around them, given their contexts” (R. P. McDermott, 1977, p. 54). Trueba and Wright (1981) discuss how human behavior serves a function and makes sense in a given context and quote Frake’s (1964) definition of ethnography: to “account for the behavior of a people by describing the socially acquired and shared knowledge, or culture, that enables members of society to behave in ways deemed appropriate by their fellows” (p. 132).
To summarize, at its essence a microethnography seeks to understand how unique social situations provide a context and accompanying norms that shape the relationships, behaviors, and discourse among a group’s members. This research approach is well suited to explore how MDTs provide a social context that guides the interpersonal and decision-making processes of its members. It allows for careful examination of how social and interpersonal processes shape and perhaps even inhibit the MDT’s thorough discussion of students.
This study examined how members of student study teams (SSTs), which are a common form of MDT, in two predominantly African American elementary schools conceptualized students’ functioning and then discussed the students’ problems before deciding upon a special education referral decision. In particular, we examined how the social process and context of the MDT may or may not inhibit the group’s thorough and unbiased discussion of students’ psychoeducational functioning.
The study sites were two elementary schools, one “in town” and the other “in the country,” in what might be characterized as a poor, rural Carolina Piedmont community. Financially, the school district was a reflection of the local economy: It was 1 of the 10 poorest in the state, its teacher supplemental pay and local per-student expenditures were far below the state average, and with 18% of its teachers resigning each year, the district had one of the state’s highest teacher turnover rates. Academically, the district’s schools were ranked as some of the lowest performing in the state–typically, the district’s average performance scores in reading, math, and writing were far below the state averages.
The ethnic makeup of the district was predominantly African American (64%) and White (35%), and the district’s state test scores and academic achievement levels tended to bifurcate along ethnic lines.
Both of the schools included in the study had student populations that were predominantly African American (90% or more) and poor (more than 75% of the students were eligible for free/reduced-price lunch). In addition, both sites had student achievement scores that were consistently low–so low that both schools were ranked as “low performing” (lowest 7.6% in state) in the annual statewide report card. Only about 37% of the schools’ students were performing at or above grade level, compared to 54% in the district and 68% in the state.
Given the difficulty with their students’ achievement, it may not be surprising that the schools had high referral rates of students to the SST and, furthermore, that the SSTs then referred many students for special education assessment. In fact, the SST chairs estimated that in the previous year, more than 80% of the students presented in the SSTs were referred for special education assessment. These high referral rates for schools whose students were predominantly African American were alarming because (a) they appeared to mirror the national trend of overreferral to special education of culturally and linguistically diverse students (Garcia & Ortiz, 1988; Patton, 1998), and (b) they foreshadowed the district’s special education enrollment rates.
The researcher was a school psychologist new to the district who had discovered that less than half of the students referred to him by the SSTs for psychoeducational assessment were ultimately found to be eligible for special education services. These questionable referrals were troubling in light of the previously mentioned research about the overrepresentation of African American students in special education programs and clearly needed closer examination. Because African American students in this district tended to test significantly below grade level and both of these schools had predominantly African American student populations, even students who were performing in the average range in their classes were being sent through the SST and on to the special education process. During the months of the study (September-March), the two SSTs discussed a combined 54 cases, of which 46 (85%) were referred for assessment. Of those 46 students, 24 (52%) were found to qualify for special education services.
The SSTs followed a problem-solving process that focused heavily on problem identification and subsequent problem-verification procedures. The typical SST meeting began with the chair (usually the school’s counselor) presenting information from a “Focus of Concern/Screening” form that included space for the teacher to document the meetings and parental contacts, a checklist of problem behaviors and areas of concern, and a chart to document interventions. After the chair read through the form, each member of the team would then add his or her own personal and professional opinions and verifications of the student’s issues before the team finally decided on further actions. Although the SSTs were following a generic problem-solving model (initial referral, problem identification, assessment/intervention, implementation, and assessment), their previously mentioned special education referral rates suggested that the teams were engaged more in problem verification than in problem identification and problem solving.
The two schools were selected for the study because of their student populations and because they both had ongoing SSTs attended by a broad spectrum of the professional and paraprofessional staff. Four to eight members of both African American and European American ethnic backgrounds variously attended each of the meetings. The professions represented in the meetings included teaching, administration, counseling, and psychology. Other frequent attendees included teacher’s aides, parents, and instructional specialists. Length of service on the SST varied from 3 or more years in the case of both counselors and several teachers to less than 1 year in the case of the school psychologist and two newly hired teachers. The author attended the weekly meetings at both schools for 1 school year, amounting to at least 20 meetings at each school.
As the school psychologist at each site, the author was an accepted and integral part of the school staff and began attending the SST meetings at both schools as a participant-observer during the first month of the school year. The author outlined his proposed dual role as a participant-observer to both teams and the assistant superintendent and was granted permission to proceed from all parties. Because the author was not viewed as an outsider, he was able to gain and maintain the trust of the team members and, in the role of the school psychologist, was able to have firsthand experience in the dynamic of the SSTs.
A micro-ethnographic approach, which can be described as an in-depth study of a small number of individuals in a naturalistic setting (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Dyson, 1993; Erickson, 1986; Fetterman, 1989) was used in the collection and analyses of data. The unit of study (focal event) was defined as a collaborative problem-solving event in which school staff members consulted with one another and discussed how to conceptualize and improve a student’s functioning in general education settings. This approach was ideally suited to the study of the effects of the social context of the SST on the problem-solving interactions among members.
Four main types of collection procedures were used to gather qualitative data for the study: (a) participant observation, (b) transcription of SST meetings, (c) collection of documents, and (d) interviews. These data sources formed the basis for daily field notes.
As the data were collected and analyzed, it became evident that some changes were needed in the SST process in the two schools. Because it is beyond the scope of a single article to consider what essentially became two qualitative studies, the data presented herein cover the first two thirds of the school year, before interventions were made to the SST process, and flow directly from the initial research questions.
The data analysis was aimed at both describing and understanding the problem-solving process, especially problem identification and conceptualization, within the unique context of these SSTs. Toward this aim, close attention was paid to the various official and unofficial descriptions of the students, as well as to the concurrent interpersonal process in which the members discussed, negotiated, and settled upon ways to characterize the students and to address the presenting problem(s).
Initial data analysis began with an examination of all the data for evidence of recurring topics and processes within and across SST meetings. Transcripts, interviews, and documents were tagged, and initial categories were developed. This preliminary data analysis produced four general and recurring categories: problem characterization (initial and exit); students’ characteristics (grade, age, SES, school, and identified problem); interventions; and related social–especially speech–interactions (team, team member, and descriptors used). The first three categories contained specific content about what was discussed in the meetings and represented the temporal flow of content through the SST process (student characteristics, problem concerns, and proposed interventions). The latter category was process oriented and focused on the social context of the problem solving.
Upon initial examination of the data it became apparent that at different times in the life cycle of an SST, different kinds of social interactions were prominent. What started out as a relatively individualistic process, as the members each gave their initial personal and professional perspectives, gradually became more interactive as the teams attempted to construct a collective representation of the student and his or her problems. To aid in the analysis of the teams’ social interactions, and to better characterize the teams’ problem-solving processes, the final category was based upon Bakhtin’s (1986) conceptualizations of social language and speech genres.
Bahktin believed that people in similar social strata jointly adopt particular social speech types, such as “social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages” (cited in Wertsch, 1991, p. 58). This general form of social language is used to facilitate the work and goals of these specialized groups. Bahktin also recognized, however, that in order to adequately characterize the social process at play in particular groups, one needed to examine the forms of “concrete language” employed by individual members of the specific group. Bahktin (1986) characterized an individual’s use of all specific, concrete utterances as flowing from his or her repertoire of personal and professional speech genres, that is, a person’s socially appropriated and contextually routinized ways of speaking and sharing meaning.
As people assemble in groups to negotiate with and attempt to understand one another, the words they actually utter reflect their individual and common speech genres. The social process of the SST is saturated with individuals’ utterances (verbal as well as written) in which they reference speech genres to express both their particular perspectives and collective representations. For example, a school counselor’s individual perspectives might be reflected in her use of terms such as “low self-esteem that is reflected in the student’s poor self-concept” and “I just find myself to be totally frustrated with the parent’s lack of follow-through.” Collective representations refer to the use of terms and concepts that several members of the group adopt to describe or explain a student: “This child is another student who has `light bulb problems.'” These examples can be thought of as what Bakhtin defined as genres or forms of speech that are learned by members of a particular group in order to accomplish unique social tasks. In these SSTs, the speech genres referenced by the members reflected the various social influences guiding their participation. Team members selected speech that allowed them a socially acceptable and coherent means to, for example, individually vent about a difficult student or collectively define a child’s learning. In this study, the SSTs’ social contexts during the problem-solving process were seen as reflecting the purpose and goals of these groups.
Once the categorization used for coding was completed, the data were then merged and hierarchically indexed by profession, participant, content category, and subcategory. Each index was then charted within and across SST meetings by profession and participant. This produced a representation of the kinds of problems and interventions that were presented individually and collectively within the SSTs. Finally, the data were coded for social process within and across SSTs and then analyzed for themes and patterns (Bogdan & Bicklen, 1992).
As the integrated data were analyzed for themes, it became evident that the problem-solving process, including a description of the student and a definition of the problem, varied considerably, depending upon the kind of social interactions in which the teams were engaged. The social milieu of the SST was found to be related to the problem-solving process, especially with regard to the quality and nature of the description of the student and the conceptualization of the problem. Four themes related to social context of the team and the problem-solving process were found:
1. teacher’s focus of concern and locus of the problem,
2. SES and problem identification,
3. social status and conceptualizations of the problem, and
4. interventions based upon socially constructed definitions of the problem.
The first three themes were most apparent in the initial diagnosis stage; the latter theme was most evident in the intervention stage. These themes will be discussed in the temporal order in which they appeared in the problem-solving process; the subsequent discussion will focus on their impact.
Teacher’s Focus of Concern and the Locus of the Problem
No other staff member is more identified or professionally linked to a student than the child’s teacher. The teacher typically has more contact with and responsibility for a student than any other member of the school staff. Given this responsibility, the teacher stands to lose more than anyone else if a student is not academically performing up to par, let alone misbehaving. Furthermore, the SST process is set up in such a way that the teacher discusses his or her problems with students in front of an administrator, the counselor, the school psychologist, and fellow teachers. It therefore should come as no surprise that the study teachers’ initial descriptions of the students were the most negative and evaluative of all the team members’. Built into this process is an inherent bind for the teacher: By acknowledging that a student is having a problem, the teacher is implicitly acknowledging that she or he is also having difficulty and may need assistance. Before a single word has been spoken, a social context is set up in which the teacher is in the position of describing either the student or him- or herself as a problem. As noted, this is problematic in a setting in which teachers’ reputations are potentially being evaluated.
Within the SST process, the teachers’ descriptions of the students were especially important because they framed the initial discussion. Being the initiator, the teacher set the tone and, as the referral form said, the “focus of the meeting.” Given the choice of focusing on instructional failings or student failings, the teachers consistently chose the latter. Although the teachers could have chosen to first talk about the 31 discrete behaviors (25 negative, 6 positive) listed on the Focus of Concern form, they instead first described students in more evaluative summations.
As the teachers first discussed the problem, invariably evaluations were made about some quality of the student or an aspect of his or her life. The following discussion highlights the social press to put the locus of the problem on the student:
Counselor: (to the teacher) “Well, we may as well get started. What can you tell us?”
Teacher: “Behavior gets in the way of his work. Martin is the type of person who doesn’t want to try. His problem isn’t attentional disorder, his behavior just gets in the way. And, there’s no father figure at home.”
Counselor: “It’s a really messy situation at home and I should tell you about it. There are five children in the family, three in this school, and all of them under 8. There are two brothers in the same class who have a different father. Mom works and the children set Mom’s trailer on fire earlier this year, they rolled a van into traffic, sat on their infant brother’s legs and broke [one].”
Teacher: “Martin can’t go to the bathroom by himself.”
Counselor: “The mom has a hard time following through, the children go to day care. Mom is not able to go to Community Mental Health because there’s always problems interfering with getting [her children] there.”
Teacher: “I can’t believe that they’re not kicked out yet!”
In this exchange the teacher depicts Martin as a “type of person who doesn’t want to try” and blames his family: “And, there’s no father figure at home.” Instead of asking questions or challenging assumptions, the counselor further elaborates on the teacher’s comments and the team begins the process of creating a minutely detailed representation of the presenting complaint–Martin has behavior problems and comes from a very dysfunctional family. Although the counselor responds with a less evaluative summary of the student’s home life, the die is cast, and over the course of the discussion, the team continually refers to this negative representation, even when team members are discussing his academic functioning.
Teacher: “Martin has some beginning letters, consonants, knows alphabet sounds. He doesn’t read [in class] at all. If the word has an `M,’ it is always `Martin.’ He can retell stories, knows the components of a book…. but he doesn’t want to because of his behavior.”
In spite of his chaotic life, Martin clearly has managed to acquire some important literacy skills; yet as the team collectively builds a representation of his functioning, the descriptors are continually informed by the initial framing of Martin’s behavior and complicated home life.
This example is one illustration of how the social context of the SSTs encouraged the team members to support the teachers’ representation of the presenting problem. At times the interpersonal process was less about reflective problem solving than reflexive acknowledgement of a colleague’s experience. From the first moments of the meetings, reflexive social interactions supported the process of putting the locus of the problem squarely upon the student or his or her family. Teachers, who understandably do not want to be harshly evaluated by their peers, began the sessions by focusing on the problem in terms of students’ failings. The team often tacitly participated in supporting this perspective of the problem by collectively constructing representations that were congruent with the teachers’ initial concerns.
SES and Problem Identification
In the poor, rural county that was the location for this study, a student’s access to resources was a concern that was often on the collective mind of the SSTs. Invariably, a student’s SES would be discussed as he or she was being described during the initial phase of the SST. Although this is not striking in and of itself, the value placed on certain aspects of SES was especially striking because it was often linked to the child’s diagnosis and prognosis. The teams consistently deemed relevant three aspects of a child’s SES: economic level, parents’ marital status, and parents’ education levels and/or their own histories in the county school system.
Economic levels were discussed in various ways, some of them predictable–such as whether or not a child was eligible for free or reduced-cost meals–and some of them unexpected–such as the kind of structure in which a child lived. For the rural school especially, the team emphasized whether the student was living in a “single-wide” or a “double-wide,” terms that were the generic phrases referring to a student’s physical living space. In the meetings, what followed the use of these terms were elaborated characteristics of the child’s home life. If a child was identified as single-wide, which was perceived by the team as a negative, then the descriptors of the child’s family that followed were also invariably negative. Typical follow-up descriptors included portrayal of the parents as especially poor, uneducated, or likely to be in some sort of legal trouble. Conversely, if a child was identified as a double-wide, then the characterizations of his or her home life were made in what were perceived as more positive terms, such as “We can work with this mom.”
At the school in town, a recurring issue related to economic level concerned the motives behind some parent referrals. In some instances, the team’s discussion of the problem was centered on speculation about the parents’ economic motives. The team was sometimes concerned that parent referrals were made not on the basis of a student’s school problems but rather in the hope that a child would qualify for special education services so the family could receive extra disability compensation. Although the team always considered other aspects of the child’s school functioning, it is striking that this issue was even discussed.
Parental marital status and the family structure were also important characteristics, especially in the extremes. Within the teams there existed a hierarchy in the perceived value of the educational and social support offered by different family structures. The traditional nuclear family was considered to be the most beneficial in supporting good students, followed by families with both biological, if unmarried, parents present in the same home. At the other extreme, families that were considered to provide the least educational support for the children were matriarchal, extended families. Although family structure was never explicitly assigned by any team member to any ethnicity, the reality was that many of the African American students who were being evaluated by an SST came from matriarchal, extended families. At the very beginning of the problem-solving process, the teams implicitly had a negative characterization of many African American families’ potential to support their children. This negative characterization was evident during problem identification, when the family was construed to be a part of the problem.
The third and final aspect of SES deemed relevant by the teams was mobility rate. The mobility rate of the population of this county was low, and most people had been there for generations. The students’ parents thus had often attended the county’s schools. During the problem-identification phase, when the student’s known characteristics were being presented, team members would sometimes add their own recollection or personal understanding of a parent’s school experience and then relate them to the child’s current functioning: “This child is a bad apple, just like her mother was.”
In sum, a student’s SES was discussed by the team during the initial part of the process, when the group was creating its own representation of the student and his or her school-related problems. Especially for students from low-SES backgrounds, the social status of the child’s family was often given undue consideration as being a key feature of a student’s school-based functioning. It was true that many of these children were living in poverty (29.10% of all children in the county); however, when the teams conceptualized the student’s SES (over which the team had no control) as being the primary issue, they were left with a problem definition that did not allow for the use of many constructive school-based interventions. As was the case with the teachers’ initial focus of concern (namely, premature summation), the problem-solving process of the SST supported a definition of the problem as occurring away from the school and residing in some aspect of the students or their external environments.
Members’ Social Status and Conceptualizations of the Problem
Over the course of the year, it became evident that not all ideas were created equal. High-status team members, defined as permanent team members with graduate academic degrees and specialized roles, held special sway over how students were described and how their problems were conceptualized by the team as a whole. Social power and influence were reflected in how the larger team adopted the language and conceptualizations used by the high-status members to characterize students’ functioning. The schools’ principals and counselors, and the school psychologist, introduced language and conceptualizations into the discussions that were then adopted by other members. These terms were recycled and reused across students and SST meetings so that a few individual perspectives ultimately became collective terms and thus formed a part of the teams’ lexicon.
Many of the terms were everyday words that acquired a unique meaning within the context of the teams. For instance, the descriptors backwards family or young mother were favored by two high-status members of the rural school, and when they were used, they denoted particular features of a student’s family situation. These terms had a negative association and, when spoken in the stage of problem identification, signified that a particular family or parent were part of the “problem.” Some of these characterizations were used repeatedly across cases as problem identifiers and problem conceptualizers. The following example demonstrates how the ideas and everyday words used by the high-status members, like lightbulb, swayed the discussion:
Teacher: “Her counting is pretty good; she can go up to 15. But she’s inconsistent, today she couldn’t do it. She wasn’t trying today, does not put forth the effort and motivation for very long. Some days she’ll try–some days she doesn’t. Her attitude is not real good.”
Principal: “Her lightbulb is on, but some days it’s off.”
Teacher: “She sits and sings, rocks back and forth, spacey. When the lightbulb is on, she doesn’t move around so much. Her “on” days are infrequent.”
Principal: “[Even] on her “on” days the bulb flickers.”
Teacher Aide: “What time does she go to bed?”
Teacher: “She’s clean, dressed right. I don’t think she’s tired. Shwanda is just not capable of first-grade work. Little difference from kindergarten. Not the (kindergarten) teacher’s fault. She just sat there.”
Principal: “Most of her problem is that she is just not there.”
Teacher’s Aide: “Check her resting [at home]. People here have VCRs.”
(The aide is ignored and the team begins to fill out forms.)
In this example, the principle summarizes a teacher’s description of a student with the characterization of her as a flickering lightbulb. In using the lightbulb characterization, the principle has assigned an internal cause to Shwanda’s low school achievement. The teacher follows the cue and proceeds to build upon the lightbulb characterization. When the teacher’s aide, the group member with the lowest status, attempts to offer an alternative characterization to the group, in terms of the time the student goes to bed, the principle and teacher respond by ignoring her question and further buttressing the lightbulb metaphor. This lightbulb characterization was a favorite of this principle’s; it was used and similarly introduced into the teams’ problem-identification stage across students and meetings.
Social influence was evident not only in how high-status members negatively critiqued students but also in ways of representing students that reflected a less value-laden and more professional description than the more personal type of characterization described previously. Some of these characterizations had a particular saliency with the teams and were adopted by other members to frame a student’s functioning. The school counselors in particular presented concepts and terms that guided the teams to think about the students’ problems in more objective, rather than subjective, perspectives.
Both of the teams were led by counselors who, in addition to chairing the meetings, were responsible for presenting the team with basic family and mental health data about the students. And, as the counselors presented the data, they consistently framed the students’ school functioning in terms of their larger social or ecological contexts. They presented data in such a way that the students’ external circumstances were described to explain the students’ school achievement, without blaming the family. At times, other team members would take cues from these descriptors in building up the team’s representation of the “problem” to include, for example, such issues as lack of access to literacy resources. Of course, even this seemingly positive tendency had a larger negative effect within this social process. If the conceptualization was merely left at the level of “this student comes from an impossible background,” the team found itself in a situation where there was little that could be done to support a child in the general education setting. The problem was merely shifted from the child to the environment, leaving the team feeling helpless.
Whether it had positive or negative effects, social influence was indeed a potent mediator of the problem-identification process in the SSTs. High-status team members would affect the direction and tone of the discussion through their use of descriptors and conceptualizations that other team members found salient and adopted for their own use in the team.
Each of the three larger themes just discussed illustrate recurring processes that took place during the first part of the SST, when the students were described, problems were identified and diagnoses were suggested. The social milieu of the SST was found to support the introduction of subjective, even biased, problem identification into the problem-solving process. And, as the teams’ socially constructed representations of problems moved forward to the intervention stage, they carried with them the shortcomings caused by the social process of their creation.
Bias in Intervention
Interventions were meant to serve two purposes in the SST problem-solving process: They were to function as an assessment tied to hypothesis testing and/or as a strategy to solve the student’s problem. In order for interventions to effectively accomplish these tasks, they needed to be based upon and informed by robust descriptions of the problem, including multiple representations of the issues. Rigorous hypothesis testing relies upon investigating and ruling out as many plausible explanations for problems as possible. Any forces that inhibit the generation and examination of multiple explanations increase the chances for confirmatory bias affecting the use and efficacy of an intervention. In these SSTs, intervention planning for children whose problems were conceived as resulting from behavior or SES was less rigorous than it was for other students.
The social processes previously identified as being troublesome in the problem-identification stage appeared to most affect the interventions developed for students who had been described either as behavior problems or as being from low-SES families. When these factors were present, singly or together, the SSTs’ problem-solving process was less reflective and more reflexive than it was for students who were referred primarily for academic problems or who were from higher SES backgrounds. How the intervention stage unfolded for students who were referred for behavior problems will first be discussed, followed by a discussion of the intervention planning for students who were considered to be of low SES.
Students with Behavior Problems. The problem-solving process for students who were perceived to have behavior problems was far more restricted than was the process for students with other types of referral concerns. When behavior was the initial focus of concern, the social process was more reflexive, the range of possible hypotheses generated by the team was narrower, and the interventions were more concentrated on affirming the initial diagnosis. As previously discussed, at times the social process of the problem-description stage focused essentially on acknowledging the teacher’s experience rather than on generating multiple hypotheses. This reflexive process was especially evident when the focus of concern was a student’s behavior, and it carried over into the generation of interventions.
Interventions invariably focused on controlling the student’s behavioral symptoms in the classroom and often were worked up as a formalized reiteration of the teacher’s previous attempts at behavior control. As a result, these interventions essentially functioned as a formal means to document what was not working. Teachers typically had implemented, or had referred a student for some mixture of, the following interventions: counseling and behavior modification, including contracts, time-outs, detention, and praise. Every teacher was familiar with these forms of intervention and generally had already undertaken them to deal with the student. The SST basically only offered one additional intervention–referral for special education assessment.
Another aspect of the teams’ behavior problem-solving process was the generation of a narrow range of alternative hypotheses and their concomitant conception of a limited range of interventions. The scope of the discussion for a child with a perceived behavior problem was restricted, such that academic concerns were rarely conceived of as an antecedent to the behaviors, and the interventions focused on affirming the initial description of poor behavior. In practice, these interventions acted to serve as proof of the behavior problem and resulted in an extremely high referral rate. For example, during the problem-identification phase, Cory’s teacher reported that “regular Grade 3 was not working, everything has been tried and everything has failed.” During the problem-identification stage, the teacher reported that she wanted Cory to be evaluated for behavioral and emotional handicaps because “his behaviors were saturating and constant.” The interventions the SST decided upon were a formal rendering of what had previously been tried with Cory and had failed. Of course, these interventions failed, and Cory was sent on for special education assessment. Of the students who were initially described as possessing behavior problems, all of them at the country school were eventually referred for special education assessment, and most of the students at the town school were referred. All of the referred students were African American and all but one were boys.
Students From Low-SES Families. The problem-solving process for students who were from low-SES families was also characterized by a narrower range of alternative hypotheses and potential interventions than for other students; ultimately, they were referred more often for assessment for special education. Their problems were often conceptualized by the team as having an etiology and a locus of control that were beyond the bounds of the school, and the interventions reflected this characterization. These students were typified as globally “needing more of something,” such as reading time with their parents or more attention from their fathers. This characterization was often reflected in the global quality of the initial focus of concern, exemplified by statements such as, “The student is illiterate.” Even after being discussed in the SST meeting, the functioning of low-SES students was not as adequately considered from multiple perspectives as it was for students residing in families with higher SES. The resulting interventions often reflected that lack of specificity and linkage to instructional practice, and they usually had the effect of merely “containing” the child in the classroom.
The two interventions of choice for low-SES students labeled as slow or academically challenged were the “buddy” system and some type of formalized after-school tutoring. Unfortunately, because these interventions were based on nonrobust, global representations of the problem, they usually did not result in much academic gain for the student. Occasionally, teachers would undertake some sustained form of modified instruction; however, most teachers resisted this. The teams instead focused on coupling the child with the problem with a peer. The rationale for the buddy intervention came out of the need to provide scaffolding to the student and to manage his or her behavior during tasks. The practical result was that, for a while, the student received attention from a peer and was less of a distraction to the larger class. Over time, however, many of these buddy interventions failed, and the students usually were referred for special education assessment. Although the town school did have some success with tutoring, in the form of after-school clubs, it was with students who had greater access to resources in town.
In summary, the results show that within the problem-solving process of the SST, problem identification and intervention were influenced by the unique social routine of each team. The characterizations of students and their problems were affected by the teachers’ initial focus of concern, the students’ SES, the interplay of social status among the team members, and interventions based upon faulty representations of the student’s functioning. Decisions were not entirely unbiased; instead, because of the effects of the social milieu, there was a complicated interweaving of the objective and the subjective and a resultant skew in the discussions about students who were identified as having behavior problems or coming from a low-SES family.
This study differed from previous investigations in that it used micro-ethnographic methods to explore a relatively unexamined aspect of the prereferral process. By focusing on the social context at the midpoint, the study was able to examine one of the core assumptions about SSTs–the efficacy of the social process based on the concept that “many heads are better than one.” As mentioned previously, the overriding principle of the use of MDTs is that “protection in evaluation procedures” would be afforded students through the process of presenting multiple, independent perspectives of their problems and objectively discussing them in a group of professionals. From their very initiation, MDTs have had the goals of providing a socially mediated problem-solving process to improve the diagnosis of students’ problems, to support valid interventions, and to ensure fairness and objectivity in special education referral (Rosenfield & Gravois, 1999; Ysseldyke, 1983). The results of this investigation, however, indicate that the SST does not always accomplish these goals.
In the SSTs in this study, the goals of objectivity, rigor, and fairness that were assumed to be supported by the inclusion of “multiple perspectives” were not always obtained. In fact, they were undermined by the actual social construction of the SST. Social forces at times served to inhibit team members from putting forth competing representations of students. This study’s results are germane to the discussion of the larger issues of confirmatory bias in teacher referrals and overreferral of African American students to special education.
What is the significance of the teacher’s initial concerns being highly correlated with the eventual placement decision? It has been argued that this congruence between initial concern and final diagnosis is a sign of the ability of teachers to understand and conceptualize students’ problems and to appropriately refer failing students for support (Gerber & Semmel, 1984; Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983). This congruence has also been seen, however, as an indicator of the lack of an objective process within the SST, such that teachers’ initial concerns are merely consented to.
Although the SST was designed to function as a forum in which dispassionate individuals objectively conceptualize and analyze students’ functioning, in reality it is composed of individuals who have professional, as well as social, attachments to one another. In these SSTs, the social milieu of the teams was such that objectivity and rigor were compromised when the students, especially the students who were labeled initially as behavior problems, were referred to the team. For these children, the team process shifted from presenting multiple perspectives of the student’s issues to focusing on validating the teacher’s experience. The unstated goal of the team thus can be conceived of as social support as the members rallied around the teacher and left other, nonbehavioral assumptions unexamined.
Two subtle but consistent characteristics of the social process of each team were associated with this shift in problem focus:
1. the dynamic in which a vulnerable teacher had to sit before a group of high-status, and in some cases supervisory, colleagues and describe how a student was behaviorally out of control in his or her classroom; and
2. concomitantly, how their peers then moved to support the teacher by colluding in the selective use of data.
The abstract ideal of detached professionals dispassionately discussing students was compromised because evocative behavioral representations of students elicited a protective social response. Social constraints on the process did not allow for the problem space to include other conceptions of the problem, such that the locus of the issue was explicitly and narrowly defined as residing squarely within the unmanageable student.
How might SSTs overcome this tendency when it is present? It is well known that effective problem-solving requires ample time to carefully construct a robust representation of the issues (Pryzwansky, 1989). The vulnerability of teachers appears to evoke a social response that negates this stage of the problem-solving process, however. Given that the SST also stands as an evaluation of the teacher, it carries a weight that dampens the objective stance of the process. The interpersonal context of the team therefore needs to be supportive and nonjudgmental. It takes overtly supportive, trustworthy colleagues to inspire responsible practitioners to consider all possible aspects of a student’s failures in a classroom. SSTs may benefit from explicitly adopting ground rules based upon the research on interpersonal influence (O’Keefe & Medway, 1997).
Another possible way to support positive change in the problem-solving process is to guide teams to consider a change in the locus of the problem. Instructional consultation teams offer a problem framework in which the locus of the problem is not considered to invariably reside in the student or the teacher; rather, it is conceptualized as an instructional mismatch (Rosenfield & Gravois, 1996). This approach may be especially useful with students who are referred to the SST for behavioral issues, because up to 50% of such cases are thought to have an antecedent academic issue. A thorough consideration of the problem by the SST may catch a fair number of these academic/behavior cases.
Whatever the context, SSTs may be vulnerable to the reality of an interpersonal process that inhibits an objective, rigorous presentation of the problem. In addition, embedded in these interactions are social issues that have to do with the use of social class, and perhaps race, to characterize students.
Overreferral of African American Students
This study was not designed to directly measure differences in the proportion of referrals of White and African American students for special education assessment. The goals instead were to investigate the problem-solving process at the heart of the referral procedure and examine the process for evidence of bias in referral. The results therefore do not conclusively answer the question about referrals of African American children in comparison to referrals of White children. The study does shed light on how the decision-making process is influenced by the social context of the SST. It is clear that in these SSTs, bias was found to be present when the teams were discussing children who were either relatively poor or perceived as troublemakers.
For children who were flagged by the team as having either of these characteristics, the problem-identification process and the intervention-planning process broke down. What does this finding mean for African American students? How does an African American student’s low SES or behavior issues translate into bias in the prereferral process? If SES confounds the ability of the SST to provide a clear and unbiased description of African American students’ functioning, these students will be predisposed to bias (Coulton & Pandey, 1992; McDermott & Altekruse, 1994). For example, in the community in which the study took place, African American families were proportionally far overrepresented in the U.S. Census indicators associated with low SES, that is, poverty status by race, age, and educational attainment (U.S. Census). More African American students than White students were at risk for bias in their SSTs simply by virtue of being in the “wrong” SES.
The other theme of bias found in the study–that students with behavior problems were subject to confirmatory bias (Algozzine, 1977; Harry & Anderson, 1994)–also worked against African American students. Although the reasons behind it are controversial, it has been documented that African American boys are more likely than their White counterparts to be referred to the SST for behavior problems. As was the case with low-SES students, even if SSTs are “color blind” in the best sense of the word, there still may be a problem with “behavior” bias. And, if African American students are more likely than others to find themselves being referred for behavioral issues, their case may not be as objectively discussed as for students with other, “lower intensity” referral concerns.
The issue of bias in referral is complex and no doubt is the result of many variables. This study focused on an important, but limited, aspect of the problem–the social process at the midpoint of the referral–and used a micro-ethnographic approach to investigate this issue. The research design was therefore limited to two carefully selected SSTs. Generalizability of results is always an important consideration of studies of this nature, and care should be taken regarding possible overgeneralization of these results to other contexts. It can be argued, however, that even when the unique contexts of these SSTs are taken into account, they are in many ways representative of typical SSTs, because all SSTs are composed of individuals whose interactions are shaped by social as well as professional forces. To further investigate the specific question of racial bias in the referral process, future research should include direct comparison of the problem-solving processes for students of different ethnicities and social classes, as well as a comparison of the problem-solving process by the team members across racial and ethnic lines.
MSTs, such as SSTs, were designed as a means to offer protection in evaluation procedures to students who were reported to be experiencing difficulty in their school achievement. The underlying assumption was that problem solving could be made thorough, fair, and equitable because “many heads are better than one.” Although this problem-solving principle may hold for students who do not have extreme problems, it appears that at least in some cases, bias can creep into the process when students are either from low-SES families or construed to have behavior problems. In the SSTs investigated in this study, when students had either of these characteristics, the problem-solving process became more subjective, especially in the problem-identification and intervention stages. It appears that in these instances, the social process of the SST influenced the problem-solving process such that it became more reflexive and less reflective. This tendency may be contributing to the overrepresentation of African American students in referrals for and placement in special education, because when compared to their White peers, African American students are overrepresented in low-SES categories and behavioral referrals. Consequently, African American students are more likely to be exposed to the effects of bias in SSTs.
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Steve Knotek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Address: Steve Knotek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Education, School Psychology Program, CB 3500, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3500.
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