Deconstructing Disproportionality and Building Positive School Cultures

Feature: CRPBIS - Deconstructing Disproportionality and Building Positive School Cultures

The problem is heartbreaking: Across the nation, students from racial minorities are over identified in discipline cases and special education and underrepresented in gifted programs compared to their white peers.

In Wisconsin, where black and American Indian children make up 9.8% and 1.3% of the public school population, they make up 21.8% and 22.1% of students in special education and 25.1% and 9.4% of expulsion and suspension cases, according to 2010-2012 data from the Department of Public Instruction.

The problem stems from many factors including funding mechanisms, politics and resource allocation. But a lack of cultural understanding among teachers and limited collaboration with minority students’ families consistently remains at the core of the issue.

Professor Alydin balA School of Education research team has partnered with state and local educators on a two-year pilot project to end this trend and serve as a model for districts in Wisconsin and beyond.

"This is not a special education issue – it's a general education issue,” said Special Education Assistant Professor Aydin Bal (right), who is leading the project. "Disproportionality is the tip of the iceberg.”

Bal sees their work as a social justice project that applies quantitative and qualitative research to social change. The project’s goal is to establish school and community cultures in which all students receive appropriate education, support services and learning opportunities, he said.

Courtney Jenkins, a special education consultant in the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), sees Bal’s work as a new, evidence-based approach to a problem that educators have struggled with for decades.

"When we look at opportunity gaps for black and native students in Wisconsin around discipline, around academic achievement, around graduation, and around dropouts, you can always predict success and failure based on race and we want to change that paradigm,” Jenkins said.

The United States Department of Education focused its attention on disproportionality when it reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide services to more than 6.5 million children with disabilities.

The IDEA reauthorization highlighted racial disparities in special education, specifically emotional and behavioral disabilities, and mandated that every school establish evidence-based practices and school-wide prevention programs such as Response To Intervention* (RTI).

Academically focused RTI programs attempted to close the achievement gap by identifying and addressing learning difficulties before referring students to special education. RTI, however, doesn’t systematically address behavioral issues that affected learning gaps.

Some school districts also adopted a new, complementary system to RTI called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports* (PBIS).

PBIS addresses discipline throughout the school with a tiered set of interventions designed to help teachers manage their classes in a positive way and help educators and students better understand and improve their behaviors.

Many districts implemented PBIS to varying degrees and success, including schools in Sun Prairie and Madison that Bal’s team works with. But many educators report that the PBIS system lacks a culturally responsive* component.

In 2007, DPI established the nation’s second statewide center to specifically work with districts with relatively large numbers of minorities in special education. With a budget of about $1 million per year, CREATE* was designed to support school districts’ efforts to promote cultural responsiveness and eliminate disproportionality.

But while some Wisconsin districts have made progress, others continue to struggle, Jenkins said.

"We hear from all of the districts that one of the things they are having a hard time doing is braiding work that they do around different initiatives together," she said. "They want to pay attention to race, but they don't know how to do it at the local level."

So DPI staff recruited Bal for his experience and his social justice and multicultural approach shortly after he arrived at UW-Madison. Bal had just received his doctorate at Arizona State University, which houses the Equity Alliance. The Alliance, a long-standing partner with DPI, works with schools and districts to improve culturally responsive instruction and services.

“No one has figured out how to do it, so we decided that in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, we're taking (Bal’s) research and ideas and putting them on the ground,” Jenkins said. “But it's not just for districts in Wisconsin. Across the country, they are paying close attention to what we are doing."

Madison Metropolitan School District staff and Sun Prairie Area School District staff had also been working with the Equity Alliance and agreed to pilot Bal’s project in two of each of their schools.

Special education leaders in the Madison and Sun Prairie districts reported that they have been relatively successful in addressing disproportionality with existing PBIS methods but still struggle with the culturally responsive component.

Sun Prairie staff adopted PBIS in 2009, at the same time the district was identified as having an overrepresentation of black students in special education for emotional and behavioral disabilities, said Jennifer Apodaca, Sun Prairie’s student services director.

"Our district has recognized that if we're going to reach all of our kids, we have to address the inequities in our achievement – in our discipline data, in our over-representation in special education – every place that we keep data, when we look at it, it should be proportionate," Apodaca said. "We recognize isn't always perfect but where gross inequities exist, that's where we have to do better."

The district won’t be able to address the problem by simply fulfilling a checklist of small actions, such as hiring staff that are representative of the student population, she said.

“That's one thing you can check off, but is that going to solve the problem? Is that the solution?” she said. “Well, no. I think what we've come up with is that there is no simple solution to a complex issue." 

Sun Prairie staff expect that Bal’s team will help them better understand and respond to their schools’ data, develop stronger relationships with their communities, and apply what they learn into culturally-informed systems tailored to the unique challenges of each school, Apodaca said.

“I am hopeful that (the CRPBIS project) will give action to beliefs we have around culturally responsive education and… help everyone in our schools to think more globally about kids we work with,” she said.

The connection between the achievement gap and racial inequities in support services is a complex problem without a straightforward fix, said John Harper, who directs the Madison district’s educational services division.

Several years ago, Madison schools with high poverty and minority populations had a relatively proportionate number of students in special education, while schools with low poverty and minority students had some disproportionality.

But when low-performing schools with large minority populations were required to offer parents the choice of sending their children to higher performing schools that were primarily white, the identification rates dramatically changed, Harper said.

“Schools that rapidly moved from about 90% to 60% white in a relatively short period of time experienced great disproportionality… the numbers skyrocketed,” he said.

Educators must recognize that the current system is fractured, which unintentionally reinforces disproportionality and the achievement gap, Harper said.

Bal began partnering with Madison schools and DPI in 2009 to develop a collaborative project that would synchronize existing but heretofore-disconnected interventions and initiatives.

Based on initial discussions, Bal designed Culturally Responsive Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (CRPBIS) framework. His team hopes that this project will resolve the missing links between RTI, PBIS and culturally responsive teaching before something like PBIS becomes a federal mandate.

Bal’s federal grant-funded study is the first systematic, multi-district study of the disproportional representation of minorities in school services. His plan is to design and implement tailored frameworks for each school, informed by data and based on educators’ and students’ needs and strengths. His goal is for school CRPBIS teams to transform their intervention systems from the ground level.

Bal’s team will develop “CRPBIS learning labs” with teachers, parents and other stakeholders to explore schools’ daily practices within social, historical and cultural contexts.

The labs will help participants by bridging three concepts: cultures in the school – what students and teachers bring with them; the school culture – what's already there; and school cultures – the work that people do together.

“There are interplays and cultural differences that make it hard for teachers who are working with 20, 25, 30 kids and not having a whole lot of time to stop and think through – ‘Is this difference or does this look like a disability that I've seen before?’ – so there's a lot of places where we can work with teachers on that,” Jenkins said.

The learning labs will give staff a safe space to discuss what it means to be a white teacher of black and native students in the classroom and why paying attention to that makes a difference in terms of disciplinary patterns, she said.

“This is creating a professional development community that will understand those differences in such a way that it makes a difference,” she said.

Apodaca and Harper said they hope the CRPBIS project will ultimately eliminate disproportionality in special education, gifted programs and disciplinary practices; help close the academic achievement gap; and improve school-family collaboration for the pilot schools and the rest of their districts.

“If we can develop some good ideas here, and understand decision-making and perceptions with regard to disproportionality, we can begin to better understand it, change it and see different results,” Harper said.

Jenkins said DPI leaders hope the outcomes of the pilot with the Madison and Sun Prairie schools will:

  • reduce racial disproportionality in special education identification rates and disciplinary patterns in the general education environment,
  • provide a replicable model for other districts in Wisconsin to be used to address race in education, and
  • inform the national conversation around PBIS and culturally-responsive practices.

Bal believes his team’s work with educators will positively transform their practices and school cultures, and leave them with a new infrastructure and materials that provide frameworks for future work, he said.

"Harmony is not going to happen (in school systems) – there will always be tensions,” Bal said.

In the end, educators, families, community members and policy makers will be able to create their own unique solutions to those tensions and test them locally... and hopefully will become a supportive, inclusive and democratic model for schools across the country, he said.

Photo courtesy Aydin Bal


  • Culturally Responsive Education for All: Training and Enhancement (CREATE)
    A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction program designed to identify strategies that contribute to eliminating the achievement gap and utilize those  approaches through professional development, training and technical assistance. (from CREATE website)
  • Response To Intervention
    dentifying students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitoring student progress, providing evidence-based interventions and adjusting the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identifying students with learning disabilities or other disabilities. (from National Center on Response to Intervention website)
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
    Changing classroom practices based on better understanding themselves and their students’ backgrounds and cultures; understanding culture and diversity, recognizing the role of power and privilege in both individual and institutional interactions, and developing a philosophy of social justice and equity. (from CREATE website)
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support
    Using a decision-making framework that guides selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidence-based academic and behavioral practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students. (from PBIS website)

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