Diving in Significant Disproportionality

Significant disproportionally, students of certain racial and ethnic groups being identified for special education at higher rates, is a complicated, nuanced and impactful challenge for school districts. While quantitative data places school districts on a path to remedy disproportionate numbers, it's the qualitative narratives that need to reside at the epicenter of this work.
By Phương Liên Palafox, CCC-SLP

IDEA, Injunctions and Intentions

“Exhausted. We have been putting in the work for our students, and my teams are tired. Now, we just found out that we are significantly disproportionate.” 

The setting doesn’t really make a difference but the sentiments always hold the same verse.  There’s an exhale, and they stoically continue, “OK. Let’s get to work.” It always begins this way as I digest the inaugural moments of my time alongside school district leadership.

As a bilingual speech-language pathologist, I want to get a bit wordy here. What is “significant disproportionality”?  Essentially, it means that the representation of students 1) identified with a disability, 2) placed within a specific setting or 3) given disciplinary removal does not match the student population within the school district.  

Given my roles and responsibilities, I will be focusing on the first two areas of need—disability eligibility and placement into special education. Current data related to Language Learners*, for example, include an overrepresentation (26.5%) in Massachusetts and an underrepresentation (<1%)  in Colorado (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2020).

 At the root of this federal mandate, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) section 618(d), school districts execute the ultimate “First, Then” directive. First, collect data from their students based on race and ethnicity. Then, examine the data to determine whether significant disproportionality based on race or ethnicity is occurring. As a former regional education specialist, I have reviewed the data for school districts. As a former district lead, I wholeheartedly understand the impact of this information, and I want us to talk about what happens next. And, I can tell you that this is not simply a two-step directive. The aftermath of such an outcome is heavy for school districts in impactful ways.

Heart of Humanity

I’ve intentionally provided you all with my educationally relevant credentials in the above paragraph. Because transformation happens within relational (not transactional) practices, it’s meaningful to also digest my humanly narrative. My father, a naval captain, fought for South Vietnam. Following his release as a prisoner-of-war, he navigated a fishing boat with a dead motor across the South China Sea with Má and his younger siblings. Despite colliding with Typhoon Elaine, all 56 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Hong Kong’s harbor in October of 1978, and I was born at 3 a.m. the next morning. This story fuels my days as a bilingual/bicultural human, mother of three, and educator.

 As an immigrant kid, I ingested the tones of my Vietnamese, hidden from all, upon entry into kindergarten. I studied classmates ssssmmMMashing their consonants together and closing their words with the thuD of their tongue. I worked and worked to sound and look like the kaleidoscope of kids and adults around me, and I was a mighty quick student. For self-preservation, I trusted the world around me and glorified English. I buried my inaugural Vietnamese to stay buoyed throughout my days. Alas, with all secrets, the cost is cancerous.

I share this to emphasize the heart of “significant disproportionality”—the students and their families. While quantitative data places school districts on the path to remedy disproportionate numbers, it’s the qualitative narratives that need to reside at the epicenter of this work. 

Let us acknowledge the evidence-based truths: 1) bilingualism/multilingualism does not cause communication disorders and academic delays and 2) centering the home language honors cultural narratives, propels cognitive growth, and maximizes educational experiences. Humanity is the nucleus of this work, and we need to honor all of its members and their sacred languages. Essentially, prescribing monolingualism eradicates all aforementioned considerations.

Disproportionate Demands

Now, there’s one more layer to unveil before diving into considerations for empowering our Language Learners. This mandated work exists alongside the current needs of our educators. Let us acknowledge that the demands of teachers and service providers have increased. For me, I recall a distinct shift about a decade ago when funding for educators decreased in my state of Texas. The outcomes of this fact included: decreasing use of contracted bilingual service providers (and giving more work back to my district employees), retracting paid professional development opportunities and, truth be told, looking into the faces of my team as I gave them more work to meet the compliance demands.

I say this with transparency because we have to acknowledge the realities of our professional peers as we provide them with another training. The work to ensure appropriate and equitable assessments does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it needs to be considered as we focus on another initiative for the district. Without digesting these truths, we are simply adding another demand without giving intentionality toward the conduits of this important work—our assessment staff, our teachers, and our educational support staff. 

In turn, for me, it only feels aligned to provide support for assessments alongside content that 1) speaks to their aches, 2) provides intel on advocacy at the organizational and individual level and 3) re-invests in their current efforts while keeping hope alive.

Expansive Excavation

So, what does this work “look like” for school districts as they work toward “representative and individualized educational supports” (the opposite of significant disproportionality)? Here are 5 considerations:

Human-Driven Data The onramp to addressing significant disproportionality is embedded in the data and the subsequent intersections of student narratives, educator narratives, and current mutual experiences between teacher/assessment staff and student/family. Excavation must be completed. This digging results in acknowledging the demographical data of students, educators, and the (potential) gaps between both groups; meaningful qualitative data from current staff through connection and conversations; and earned obtainment of information from current students and families.

Dissecting District Needs While the above focuses on data from people, systemic processes must also be reviewed. What is currently being done for multilingual evaluations? A review of report samplings with a systematic rubric could yield information related to:

  •   Current assessment tools utilized and their sensitivity to Language Learners (e.g., informal, formal, dynamic assessment)
  •   Considerations for all languages of influence across settings
  •   Family-centered data and its impact as converging data to make educational decisions

Culturally Responsive Assessment Practices Meaningful efforts need to be invested in all aspects of (potential) assessments from obtainment of teacher and family input to the implementation of the IEP. This comprehensive approach, embedded in centering the home language, provides educators with an understanding of historical, cultural, and linguistic implications. It also reflects the value of the home/heritage language in academic growth, and working alongside an interpreter, provides a step-by-step framework for assessing multilingual communicators and considerations for culturally responsive Individual Education Plan (IEP) prep work and execution.

Alignment of Information It is important to dismantle the silos that exist between assessment staff, educators, paraeducators, and service providers. In turn, the conveyed information is also necessary for teachers and para-educators. Truncated courses, through the lens of the educator, serve as a systematic way in which to execute culturally responsive practices.

Complicated Outcomes Results-driven accountability, I admit, is invested in data and numbers. The human component (for students and educators), at times, feels expelled from this process. In turn, it is important to acknowledge that school districts can put forth their best effort to honor narratives, honor languages, and honor individualized student needs and family priorities. And, yet, the outcomes may not represent the intentional work. This, again, is where we center our human efforts above the numerical data.

Hereafter Hope

And, finally, there is privilege within our needs as school districts, educators, and students. This is the opportunity to first know more and then do differently. In this space, we can acknowledge the pain points and vehemently invest in the potential of these efforts to empower our Language Learners and educational staff. 

As I sit here and write, it’s impossible to not think and feel through the lens of little-Phương. So, I shall end with a message to my fellow bilingual-bicultural unicorns:

When we revel in this bilingual space, two languages are colliding in our brains and hearts. When they come together, I imagine, there is so much bright light that shines on our world. The glow, holding sounds and words and experiences, fuels the days of the world around us. So, for worthy us, we are surely twice as perfect as we hold and honor all the parts of us. Let us brazenly make space for the soul of our culture, our language. Digest it, speak it, honor it, live it and allow the world to revel in the magic and comforts of our worthy communication.

*The term “Language Learner” (EL) is used to de-center the majority language—the action required to incorporate culturally responsive practices. However, federal and state agencies often use the term “English Language Learner (ELL).”

Phương Liên Palafox, CCC-SLP
Phương Liên Palafox is a Vietnamese-Chinese bilingual speech-language pathologist, author and advocate. Currently, she empowers clients and their families, professionals and educators across the United States. With a foundation of evidence-based and human-centered practices, she is continually invested in Culturally Responsive Assessment & Intervention Considerations, Advocacy, Narrative-Based Interventions and the Mental Health of Educators. She is the author of The Heartbeat of Speech-Language Pathology. Attendees leave her presentations and storytelling feeling validated, refueled and re-engaged to fuel their meaningful work. You can find more information at www.phuonglienpalafox.com.

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