Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership PhD

First Advisor

James A. Tucker

Second Advisor

Shirley A. Freed

Third Advisor

Elvin Gabriel


Statement of the Problem: There is an over-representation of Black students in special education. Black students are typically referred for special education consideration by the end of the fourth grade. One effort to reduce the large number of referrals in Connecticut was Courageous Conversations About Race. Courageous Conversations About Race is designed to address what educators, families, and other community groups can do to improve teaching and learning across racial lines. It served as a strategy for educators to confront and deinstitutionalize racism. Courageous Conversations About Race is an effective means to address the issues of race in schools/districts where over-representation exits. Although various Connecticut schools have participated in Courageous Conversations About Race over the past 5 years, the State Education Resource Center (SERC) and the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) are uncertain about its usefulness in changing the perceptions of teachers regarding race and referrals of students to special education.

Research Design: A qualitative study was used to examine the perceptions of fourth-grade general-education elementary teachers about the over-representation of Black students in special education, specifically why and how Black students are referred to special education. This qualitative study was to gather information about the perceptions of teachers regarding referrals to special education and race. The study captured the perceptions of 16 general-education elementary teachers from three districts in Connecticut about the over-representation of Black students in special education.

Results: Research Question #1: How do teachers describe the classroom challenges that lead them to refer students to special education?

One of the themes that emerged in the analysis of the data was A Teacher's Dilemma. Teachers in this study described the difficulty they had in providing services for their students. They spoke about crowded classrooms consisting of 20 to 25 students, which makes it difficult to provide students with the attention that they need.Teachers in this study also mentioned that there is a wide spread of levels of students. Many of their Black students are reading below grade level (e.g., reading on a first- or second-grade level). They found themselves using referrals to special education as a way to cope with the many challenges in their classrooms and to get students extra support.

Research Question #2: How do teachers describe the changes in their processes, attitudes, and behaviors as a result of their district's participation in Courageous Conversations About Race?

Three themes describe the perceptions of the teachers regarding how the training influenced them: I See Color Now, Teacher Mis-Match, and Affirming a Need for Ongoing Professional Development.

In the theme I See Color Now, teachers reported that student data are being reviewed more through the lenses of race. The teachers in this study noted that through CC About Race their racial consciousness has been increased. In addition, they shared that the CC About Race has taught them that they should see the color of their students and that if they did not see their color, then they did not see their students.

The next theme that emerged was a Teacher Mis-Match. Teachers in this study reported that there is a disconnection between students and teachers. They spoke about the demographic of Connecticut's teachers being majority White, female, and from middle-class backgrounds, whereas the student population is Black or of color and from low income backgrounds. Teachers in this study noted that CC About Race illuminated for them that a teacher does not necessarily need to be Black in order to teach students of color; however, they need to have a clear understanding of their own culture and understand the various cultures of their students in their classrooms.

In the final theme, Affirming a Need for On-going Professional Development, teachers in this study commented that the CC About Race seminars affirmed for them a need for on-going professional development with effective instructional strategies and training about different cultures, norms, and values. They spoke about a significant need for professional development in the areas of race, diversity, culturally relevant instruction, and racial equity.Teachers in this study noted that with the demographic shifts in the student population along with accountability legislation, there is need for on-going, on-site, job-embedded/follow-up professional development.

Conclusions: Although this qualitative study showed promise for identifying factors contributing to the over-representation of Black students in special education, engaging in courageous conversations about race is clearly not an institutionalized practice in the schools represented in this study. However, as we consider the statistical facts, it is difficult not to think about racial inequality as a predominant factor causing today's achievement gap. It is our responsibility, as educators, to garner the courage to disaggregate and interpret the data through a "cultural eye." (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Subject Area

Students, Black--Connecticut, Students, Black--Education, Special education--Connecticut, Racism in education--Connecticut