AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Although public school districts in Southern California are experiencing declining enrollment overall, accompanying this decline is a continuing increase in the percentage of students classified as English language learners (EL). Of the 1,515,074 public school students enrolled in K-12 schools in the state of California in 2008-2009, over 24% were identified as EL (California Department of Education). More than 50% of EL in California begin their school experience in Kindergarten (EdSource, 2008).
In one Southern California school district with an enrollment of approximately 5,500, EL represented almost 31% of students. This district employed one teacher on special assignment (TOSA) as the District English Language Development (ELD) Coach. As is common for ELD specialists, this person mentored teachers in utilizing instructional strategies for EL and provided professional development; however, an additional responsibility was added to the already full list: attending all Student Study Team (SST) meetings held for EL throughout the entire school district.
The impact this action had would prove dramatic. Calendars began to look more like completed crossword puzzles. The meetings were numerous and occurred at every school and every K-12 grade level plus preschool. Over the course of four years, the number of SST meetings for EL attended by the TOSA totaled more than one hundred and expanded to include students from pre-school to high school.
Numerous experiences at SST meetings for EL led to a reexamination of the teacher's role in the pre-referral process until it became a central focus for professional development and new teacher training, especially for cases involving EL. The need for teachers to understand and be more prepared for their role in the pre-referral process became evident, especially for beginning teachers without the advantage of years of classroom experience.
This article is a brief compilation of some of the observations made during this time, including the proposition that a study of the classroom teacher's role in the pre-referral and referral process, especially in relation to EL, should be included in teacher preparation programs in collaboration with special education professionals. Finally, recommendations for further research in this area that arose will be discussed.
Over-Representation of Language Minority Students in Special Education
The complex issue of overrepresentation of language minority students in special education settings is nothing new and remains an area of concern for both regular education and special education (Harry & Klingner, 2007). One of the main factors is that the characteristics of second language learning can easily be misinterpreted as signs of a learning disability. Other factors leading to overrepresentation include cultural and linguistic bias in testing and discriminatory practices in the assessment of bilingual children (Becker, 2001).
In fact, one recent study found that personnel responsible for assessing a student's eligibility for special education services, school psychologists, did not assess or investigate the possible confounding effects of bilingualism on tests, testing, and diagnoses (Figueroa & Newsome, 2006). Other factors plaguing the placement of minority children in special education involve the lack of adequate classroom instruction prior to the student's referral, the pressure of high-stakes testing, inconsistencies in policy implementation, and arbitrary referrals and assessment decisions.
Harry and Klingner (2006) found that each school creates a "culture of referral" that reflects the attitudes and beliefs of administrators and teachers regarding children's performance in the regular education setting and beliefs about special education. Their research indicated that these were "greater determinants of these patterns [of referral] than were the characteristics of the children themselves" (p. 95). The researchers recapitulate by stating that:
The real problem is the arbitrariness and stigmatizing effects of the entire process. Students shouldn't need a false disability label to receive appropriate support. They also shouldn't acquire that label because they had inappropriate or inadequate opportunities to learn. And they shouldn't end up in programs that don't offer the truly specialized instruction they need. (2007, p. 19)
Language minority students often experience learning difficulties related to learning in a second language. Each case requires a careful examination of many factors to create a holistic picture of the learner.
Although academic difficulties may become evident in students even in the early grades, some studies have found "significant over-representation" at the secondary level (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005). In addition, when the data regarding the EL in the same study was disaggregated into subgroups based on various factors such as proficiency level in English and the student's primary language, it was found that the subgroup with limited proficiency in both the native language and English were more than four times as likely to be …