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/ Home / Library / Articles on Education / Special Education / Addressing Diversity in Special Education Research
Addressing Diversity in Special Education Research
Author: Cheryl A. Utley and Festus E. Obiakor
Date: June 1997
Over the next two decades, American society will become increasingly multiethnic and
multilingual (Rodriguez, 1990). The number of children living in poverty will substantially
increase, and there will be a significant increase in the number of homes where children
speak a primary language other than English.
Students are at greater risk of needing special education services when they are poor
or of a minority race or language (Baca & Almanza, 1991); therefore, it is critical that
special education researchers address these issues if their results are to apply to the
special education population. This digest reviews scientific and methodological
problems related to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Three areas warranting
specific attention include:
- Defining terms with precision and accuracy.
- Examining epistemological considerations as they relate to the study of racial
and ethnic groups.
- Developing unbiased research methodology and procedures.
Defining Terms with Precision and Accuracy
There are many definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status. Within
these definitions, society creates, constructs, and shapes the criteria for determining
the category to which individuals belong. It is important for researchers to acknowledge
any inherent assumptions or limitations associated with the particular definitions that
they have chosen for their studies. Two examples follow.
Race and Ethnicity
The classification scheme developed by the U.S. Bureau of Census
is the most commonly used method for identifying racial and ethnic groups in the United
States. But, unfortunately, it is not without problems. Enwisle and Astone (1994)
summarize the most critical problems as follows:
- Race and ethnicity are confounded when respondents fall under more than
one category (e.g., Hispanic, Latino, and Puerto Rican).
- The amount of information gathered on the ethnicity of a particular group varies
among groups (e.g., there is an abundance of information gathered on Pacific
Islanders, while little is collected for Haitians).
- Individuals may prefer to be acknowledged by categories different from those
offered (e.g., Black rather than African-American).
The term "social class" has been used to group people by
such criteria as income, occupation, education, values, and behaviors. However,
categories usually include classifications such as lower class, working class, middle
class, and upper class (Banks and Banks, 1993). In traditional research studies,
socioeconomic status is usually determined by an adult member of the household
whose income level has the most influence on the economic status of the family.
Unfortunately, this scheme does not reflect the fact that many racial and ethnic families
in the United States are diverse, with children residing in two-parent, single-parent, and
step-parent families. Thus, the economic status of the family may be influenced by a
variety of sources (e.g., breadwinner within the family of residence or biological parent
living apart from the child) that are not acknowledged by traditional indicators.
Examining Epistemological Considerations
Presuppositions and biases affect the research process. When considering multicultural
issues, two essential epistemological considerations that should be examined,
regardless of methodological approach, are presumptions related to use of racial
categorizations and inferences made to explain differences in group data.
The construction of race categories by social scientists has always been problematic.
Traditional descriptions of racial groups with distinct phenotypic attributes have been
repeatedly linked to presumptions about moral character, personality, interpersonal
behavior, and intelligence -- most of which are often depicted in a negative way (West,
1993). These presumptions not only undermine the integrity of the research, but fuel
stereotypic thinking about diverse cultural groups.
Furthermore, in quantitative research, the use of codification schemes can promote
homogeneous descriptions, since such schemes often use the underlying assumption
that each individual has a similar racial identity. This can cause the results to show
individuals who "look" a certain way and/or who have a certain identity characteristic,
are therefore "alike" (Obiakor, 1994). As an alternative, researchers concerned with
multicultural issues can explore within-group variability based on quantifiable data.
Explaining Group Differences
In status-related research with racial and ethnic groups,
the issues of ethics and human values are extremely important and controversial
(Stanfield, 1993). Value-neutral methods of data collection and interpretation are critical
to ensuring that research findings promote an accurate, not stereotyped, view of racial
and ethnic groups.
In race and ethnicity research, cultural standards of data generalization are typically
based upon universal statements reflecting Eurocentric normative and scientific
principles. Unfortunately, such an approach often assumes that concepts or standards,
such as indicators of achievement, socialization, development, or performance,
transcend cultural barriers. But they may, in fact, differ across cultural groups.
Furthermore, some indicators that are determined to be "problematic" in one culture
may actually have a positive effect on behavior in another culture. Knowledge of such
cultural differences can help researchers avoid many of the procedural pitfalls that can
result in stereotyping of racial and ethnic groups (Obiakor & Utley, 1997).
Developing Unbiased Research Methodology and Procedures
To develop unbiased procedures, special education researchers must consider three
areas: sampling, instrumentation, and measurement.
- Sampling. A clear, concrete definition and description of the
characteristics of the sample under study is key to enabling researchers to replicate
work (Padilla & Lindholm, 1995). At the very least, the racial and ethnic make-up of the
study sample should be described, and there should be a process in place to control for
the confounding of such variables as location (i.e., urban, rural, or suburban),
acculturation, language, and socioeconomic level.
- Instrumentation. Issues of instrumentation and measurement as they
relate to racial
and ethnic groups are central to understanding research conclusions. For example, the
use of research instruments such as rating scales and achievement tests that may be
appropriate measures for middle-class Anglo children and their families, may not be
appropriate for research with other racial and ethnic groups (Hilliard, 1995; Obiakor,
1994; Padilla & Lindholm, 1995).
When selecting instruments, appropriateness or cultural equivalence should be
considered. Key questions include:
- Are the selected instruments appropriate for use with the ethnic group in
- Is there equivalence across cultures of important concepts that are used in
- Have the instruments been accurately translated?
In addition, the cultural relevance of items on instruments can have different
effects on racial and ethnic groups. To address the issues, researchers must decide
whether or not they need instruments with certain specifications to meet the needs of
different populations. Key questions include:
- Is it necessary to use specially designed instruments to assess
such as acculturation, ethnic identity, English-language proficiency, or culturally specific
- How are such instruments identified for use with multicultural populations?
Finally, there is a growing body of research that suggests that different groups may
respond differently to test-taking strategies when responding to the same
information--thereby biasing results. A key question that addresses this issue is: Do
students of different cultures respond to the research questionnaires and other data
collection instruments in the same manner?
- Measurement. Multicultural factors can affect issues of reliability and
1995). There are several ways that researchers might guard against bias. For example,
internal-consistency reliability should be computed separately for each racial and ethnic
group and their comparison groups (Padilla & Lindholm, 1995). Similarly, because
constructs can have different meanings across racial and ethnic groups, exploratory
factor analysis can be used to determine whether the instruments that are to be used in
the research truly measure the construct in question.
Multicultural factors can have a far-reaching impact on special education research, and
they are predicted to have an even greater impact in the future. A conscientious and
thorough effort by researchers is needed to guarantee that research findings result in
informed decisions on special education policy and practice. Special education
researchers can take a proactive approach to assuring unbiased, valid and reliable
research results by addressing issues of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic level in
their research design, methodology, and reporting practices.
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