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Restructuring the participation of African-American parents in special education.

* This article is concerned with the balance of power between special education professionals and African-American parents. Although it is true that the question of power is central to any consideration of parent-professional discourse in education (Gliedman & Roth, 1980), interactions with African-American parents are marked by certain crucial historical & dimensions. Further, the role of this group of parents is particularly important because their children continue to be designated as students with disabilities in disproportionately high numbers (U.S. Department of Education, 1989).

The literature on parent participation in special education shows that this group of parents exhibits a pattern of relatively low participation and that teachers often interpret this pattern to mean that such parents are uninterested in their children's educational careers (Lynch & Stein, 1987; Marion, 1981; Sullivan, 1980). However, despite the potentially undermining influence of poverty and detrimental urban environments on traditional values, the belief that many parents do not care what happens to their children in school runs contrary to what is known about African-American family life and the values placed on education (Billingsley, 1968; Harry, Allen, & McLaughlin, 1992; Hill, 1971; Marion, 1981).

First, I present an overview of what is known about special education professionals' interaction with African-American parents; second, an examination of two sets of beliefs that underlie this form of discourse; and, third, some proposals for changing the implicit and explicit rules on which this discourse is structured. I posit that the structure of African-American parents' participation reflects two dominant traditions in professional thought: first, the deficit view of African-American families on which compensatory education practices have been based, and, second, the medical model on which special education is based and the resulting deficit view of African-American children that has been promulgated by continued misassessment and miseducation.

I use the term discourse to refer to the entire body of communication practices between parents and special education systems. In this sense, the concept includes not only written and oral communication, but the metamessages conveyed by the way the process of discourse is structured-how, when, where, by whom, and in what sequence information is conveyed (Bowers & Flinders, 1990). This framing of discourse reflects the power and value attributed to various parties and thus determines the type of social interaction that will occur.

Two acknowledgments are important in focusing on African-American parents: first, the impact of the discourse described is likely to be greater for parents of low income or limited formal education, because these factors are known to limit parents' ability to be influential in school systems (Lareau, 1989); second, many aspects of the discussion may also apply to other people of color who have traditionally been placed in subordinate positions within the larger society (Ogbu, 1978). Indeed, in recognition of certain commonalities among cultural minority groups of color in the United States, I will extrapolate from literature on these groups wherever appropriate.


It might be argued that African-American parents simply represent one strand in a pattern of largely passive parental participation in special education generally (for a comprehensive review, see Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990). However, Lynch and Stein (1987) found that African-American and Mexican-American parents' levels of information and participation were significantly lower than that of their white counterparts. Other studies, delineating specific factors that limit the involvement of low-income, African-American parents, have revealed a picture of extreme alienation and markedly low awareness of rights and procedures (Cassidy, 1988; Lowry, 1983; Sullivan, 1980). There are four common interpretations of these patterns: trust, parental apathy, 1ogistical constraints or stressful life circumstances, and parents' disagreement with special education classifications. These interpretations focus on difficulties seen as "belonging" to the parents themselves.

Attitudes and Behavior of Parents

The question of trust is crucial. As a classic example of an indigenous minority group that has historically been ascribed castelike status (Ogbu, 1978), African Americans have an intense awareness of the conflict between the democratic norms of their society and the actual distribution of power. Manon (1981) and Siddle-Walker ( 1991 ) have emphasized that the trust of African-American parents, whose attitude to schools was traditionally very supportive, was substantially undermined by the rejecting ethos of desegregated, traditionally white schools after the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This mistrust has been exacerbated by parents' awareness of the overrepresentation of African-American youth in special education programs (Manon, 1981 ).

The second interpretation is that African-American parents are apathetic. It is commonly heard in professional settings that "these parents just don't care about their children." In a study by Lynch and Stein (1987), teachers cited parental apathy as a source of noninvolvement. Can it be that African-American parents, or other minority parents similarly maligned, have somehow become the exceptions to a rule universally accepted as axiomatic, that is, that parents care about their children? Or perhaps those who exclaim thus really mean to say that they think poor parents of color do not value education, a notion that was promoted by the literature on so-called "cultural deprivation" in the 1960s (Deutsch, 1967; Reissman, 1962).

Researchers must investigate the meaning behind behavior that appears to suggest lack of parental interest. Qualitative methods, such as informal, open-ended interviewing and participant observation, are particularly well suited to this kind of inquiry. For example, in a recent study of another low-status group (low-income Puerto Rican-American parents, the majority of whom also happened to be black), recurrent, unstructured interviews revealed that what was interpreted by professionals as disinterest or apathy was a mask for parents' mistrust and their consequent withdrawal from participation (Harry, 1992).

A third trend in the literature is the observation that 1ogistical constraints and stressful life circumstances act as a significant deterrent to low-income African-American parents' participation in special education matters (Cassidy, 1988; Lowry, 1983; Lynch & Stein, 1987; Marion, 1981; Nazarro & Portundo, 1981). Lowry's investigation of the barriers to participation among inner-city, low-income, black families documented an expressed sense of isolation and helplessness and concluded that parents "appeared to be apathetic and disinterested when in reality they were overwhelmed" (p. 58). Similarly, Cassidy (198 8) found that problems with scheduling, transportation, and knowledge of the individualized educational program (IEP) process were the three greatest deterrents to African-American parents' participation. A related finding was that African-American parents' low level of knowledge regarding their rights and special education procedures may be yet another reason for their low involvement (Cassidy, 1988).

Finally, African-American parents' disagreement with special education classifications may contribute to communication difficulties with professionals. It is a common professional comment that many parents "deny" the validity of a diagnosis of disability, in particular, mental retardation. Indeed, the literature on parents' views of labeling continues to show that milder, less stigmatizing labels are more acceptable to parents (Barsch, 1961; Harry et al., 1992; Smith, Osborne, Crim, & Rhu, 1986; Wolfensberger & Kurtz, 1974).

The objections of African-American families, however, have been specifically targeted at social and cultural biases in the assessment process (Marion, 1981; Mercer, 1972). Moreover, low income, African-American parents' disagreement with school classifications may reflect a wider acceptance of divergent patterns of development than is tolerated by schools. Even when parents agree that a child's development is delayed relative to others in the family, they may not consider this "disabling" if they do not expect it to prevent the child from achieving personal and economic independence. As a result of the historically limited range of occupations available to African Americans, expectations for their children are likely to include unskilled jobs, for which a high level of educational achievement is not deemed necessary. Further, parents whose own success in school was limited may not expect to send their children to school already prepared for reading and writing; they may consider this the school's job. Thus, a judgment based on middle-class norms of earlier acquisition of academic skills would probably not be shared by parents.

The concern about differential levels of preparation for school is not merely a peculiarity of the parental perspective. Indeed, this concern is at the heart of the dilemma concerning assessment of students from cultural minority backgrounds. It is now widely acknowledged that current assessment approaches and tools are inadequate to the task of accurately evaluating the learning difficulties of students whose homes and communities differ substantially from school expectations (Cummins, 1986; Neisser, 1986). The cultural heterogeneity, as well as the socioeconomic inequities of U.S. society, make it impossible for responsible professionals to rely solely on information from current standardized assessment approaches (Cummins, 1989; Ginsburg, 1986). Cummins (1989) and Harry (1992) have called for a recognition that parents' input is as important as that of professionals--indeed, a recognition that poverty and limited format education are not equivalent to limited intelligence or common sense.

The foregoing interpretations of African-American parents' low participation are all based on statements about parents. We must ask what the role of professional behavior is in this pattern.

Attitudes and Behavior of Professionals

Three studies have investigated the actual detrimental patterns of inappropriate professional interaction with parents from diverse cultural backgrounds. Two studies focused on Hispanic populations, but their findings regarding the dynamics of parent-professional interaction are instructive in illustrating how professionals can "frame" (Bowers & Flinders, 1990) both the content and extent of discourse to exclude, rather than include, parents.

In a survey of 355 students referred for psychological services in an urban school system, Tomlinson, Acker, Cantor, and Lindborg (1977) found that professionals initiated significantly fewer contacts with parents of minority students, the majority of whom were African American, and offered a narrower range of services to minority as compared to majority parents. Bennett (1988), using a microethnographic analysis of parent-professional discourse, demonstrated that professional behavior succeeded in placing Hispanic parents "in a stance of noninvolvement" (p. 127). For example, by defining what was and was not legitimate content to be included in a child's IEP, professionals excluded a mother's concern with the effects of classroom structure on her child's behavior. Harry (1992) found that the use of formal, impersonal channels of communication, with an emphasis on written materials, not only failed to inform, but actually alienated low-income Puerto Rican parents. On the other hand, Harry's study also demonstrated the converse, that when professionals framed discourse in terms of personal interactions and placed parents at the center of the information sharing process, parents demonstrated the ability to be effective advocates for their children.

Perhaps most important to this discussion is that professionals and parents alike buy into a structure that reflects shared values detrimental to parents and their children. Mehan, Hartwick, and Meihls' (1986) microethnographic analysis of decision making in special education makes the crucial point that the structure of discourse in conferences reflects three essential assumptions of special education theory and practice: (a) the superiority of technical/theoretical knowledge over common-sense knowledge; (b) the greater importance accorded information given by higher ranking personnel in the school organization; and (c) the power of professionals to define what may and may not be discussed (see also Bennett, 1988).

This tacit negotiation of structures of discourse is no less than a statement of a shared ideology which, according to Cherryholmes (1988), "intertwines with power as individuals accept, believe, and internalize explanations and justifications for the asymmetries of their social world" (p. 5). Though advocacy training aims to teach parents to reject rather than accept these asymmetrics. professionals hold the power to change such beliefs far more quickly and effectively than do low-income parents. However, professionals' unwillingness to do so is the logical outcome of certain basic assumptions in American educational philosophy and in the framework of special education itself.


The issue underlying parent-participation patterns is power. I contend that a combination of two traditions has disempowered many African-American parents: a tradition of cultural-deficit theories regarding African-American family life, and the medical model on which the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), Public Law 94-142, is based.

Parent Education, Parent Participation, and Cultural-Deficit Theory

Current mandates for parental participation in schools are a logical culmination of a century-old movement toward the improvement of parenting practices and the growth of parental influence in schools (Schlossman, 1983). Parent education and parent participation tend to be presented as a joint endeavor, proffering the betterment of students' educational progress as a common goal. But parental education and participation actually reflect opposite sides of the same coin. The notion of parent education presumes the desirability of improving some weakness in existing parenting skills whereas the notion of parent participation assumes that parents have something positive to contribute. Thus, educators have often linked the two, believing that many parents lack the knowledge and skills that are recognized and valued by the school. Educators further assume that it is necessary to educate parents in the needed practices, to enable them to make a useful contribution.

This combination has had particular implications for African-American families, since the notion of parent education took on a somewhat different meaning with the introduction of the federal antipoverty programs in the 1960s. Until that time, the movement had been concerned primarily with the inculcation by middle-class parents of modern child-rearing techniques derived from the behavioral sciences (Schlossman, 1983). The advent of the antipoverty movement, however, framed the notion of parent education in terms of remediating what were seen as the cultural deficits inherent in poor, minority families (Haskins & Adams, 1983; Loasa, 1983). African-American families, in particular, were the target of the"tangle of pathology" image evoked by the much-quoted Moynihan report (U. S. Department of Labor, 1965). The twin goals of parent education and parent participation became cornerstones of compensatory education programs such as Head Start and Follow Through, which made funding contingent on unprecedented levels of parental participation in both policymaking and implementation (Haskins & Adams, 1983).

My argument is that, as long as professionals believe that low-income, minority parents must be "trained" and "educated" in appropriate parenting before their participation can be valued, attempts to alter the balance of power are undermined by lack of respect for differing parenting styles. It is not that parent education is never appropriate or helpful, but that it must be offered in culturally appropriate ways (Linn, 1990) and that professionals must be willing to negotiate with parents from a posture of cultural reciprocity (Harry & Kalyanpur, 1991).

Parent Education, Parent Participation, and Disability Theory

For parents of children with disabilities, the need for both parent education and participation is expected to be even greater. Yet, despite an explicit mandate for parental participation under P.L. 94142, participation rates in special education are much lower than those reported for Head Start and other compensatory education programs. This brings us to the tradition most directly impacting parent-professional interaction in special education--the tradition of a pathological model of disability.

The mandate for parental participation in special education differs from compensatory education in that the former is cast within the framework of a medical model in which children with presumed deficits are identified, assessed, and treated by experts who are, in the course of their duties, required to gain the consent and participation of parents. This is a very different milieu than that of a compensatory education program, in which children are voluntarily enrolled, and parents are afforded a variety of influential roles.

Indeed, there is an inherent conflict between the medical-model/expert-treatment framework within which P.L. 94-142 operates and its mandate for consultation with parents. The positivistic assumptions of the law, driven by the charge to classify children by their deficits, results in the categorical framing of parent-professional discourse: It is the job of professionals to determine whether students have, or do not have, disabilities; and it is the job of parents to agree or disagree with professionals' findings and recommendations. When an educational system imbued with a deficit view of African-American families is combined with a deficit view of students with learning difficulties, the low involvement of the parents should come as no surprise. Parents' mistrust, disagreement, and competing priorities outlined earlier in this article are only one side of the picture.

It might be argued that the view of African-American families as pathological has been rejected by social scientists (Ginsburg, 1986; Wright, Saleeby, Watts, & Lecca, 1983), but it is common knowledge that such beliefs are still alive and well in the world of mainstream America. A widespread view of low-income, African-American families as entrenched in destructive forms of ghetto life has been promoted and perpetuated by the media and offers school personnel a further excuse not to interact with families from such neighborhoods. Many mainstream teachers reflect the society's pervasive fears of African-American neighborhoods and culture generally. Notwithstanding the existence of some crime-ridden areas in large urban centers, most African Americans know that their homes and families are not only safe but loving. How can mainstream professionals be brought to share this knowledge ?


I have argued that the framework for parental participation is inextricably bound to two sets of attitudes that accord African-American parents particularly' low status in the decision-making process. What we need is a restructuring of discourse to radically alter the balance of power between African-American parents and professionals.

The word power is used here in the sense defined by Cherryholmes (1988), "to refer to relations among individuals or groups based on social, political, and material asymmetries by which some people are indulged and rewarded and others negatively sanctioned and deprived" (p. 5). The current state of discourse in special education reflects an imbalance of power: The difficulties that seem to "belong" to parents, as well as the attitudes and behavior of professionals, combine to produce a form of discourse in which power is loaded on the side of professionals.

Professionals must ask whether participation is cast mainly in a framework of mere consent or whether it is conceived in terms of a dialogue whose purpose is to discern the true nature of children's learning difficulties in school. In other words, do professionals really believe that low income, African-American parents have something to contribute to the school's understanding of children who are having difficulty? Or do we assume that professional efforts constitute the only legitimate source of opinion, and that the role of parents is to give permission for professional activities and automatic approval to professional decisions?

Unless parent-professional interactions are based on dialogue, professionals may view themselves or the system as the source of truth--and they may cast parents' interaction within an adversarial framework. In this atmosphere, parents find that they must either passively cooperate or take a stance of confrontation. Indeed, the legalistic framing of parent-professional discourse in special education, with its many documents and rituals, is known to be particularly intimidating to African-American parents (Marion, 1979). Many parents, rather than engage in challenging the school system, react by withdrawing from interaction, creating informal avenues for communication, or limiting their areas of interaction to those where they are more comfortable (Harry et al., 1992).

Developing New Roles For Parents

At present, essentially two roles are offered to parents: consent-giver and educational planner. The first of these is actually all that is required for legal compliance with RL. 94-142. To be in compliance, most professionals make some attempt to see that parents are informed about processes and placement in order to ensure their consent. The second role occurs, in theory at least, when parents collaborate with the teacher in planning a child's IEP; and the regulations require that parents be invited to a conference for this purpose. Despite numerous exhortations to professionals regarding informed consent (e.g., Marion, 1979; Shevin, 1983; Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990), all attempts in the research to ascertain minority parents' level of awareness of this procedure have revealed exceedingly low awareness of either the planning event or the document that records it (Connery, 1987; Harry, 1992; Lynch & Stein, 1987; Sharp, 1983). I would conclude that the only role consistently applied to parents is that of consent-giver. The following are new parental roles that need to be developed.

Parents as Assessors. Parental participation in the actual assessment procedure should constitute the first step in a restructuring of communication. One possible reason for parents' low participation in and awareness of the IEP planning process may be the lateness of the invitation. By the time the IEP is to be developed, professionals have already established power and legitimacy by excluding parents from the assessment process. It is true that a thorough assessment is expected to include a social history given by the parent, and that state-of-the-art theory strongly recommends preevaluation, family-focused assessment. However, in practice, this is often either ignored, or implemented in such a way as to require parents simply to respond to constructs predetermined and presented by professionals.

One of the earliest and best known parent accounts, Park's The Siege (1967), tells of a parent's frustration at not being allowed to engage her autistic daughter in play that she knew would have demonstrated a much wider range of the child's behavior than could possibly be elicited by strangers, no matter how skilled. More than 20 years later, low-income, African-American parents are telling the same story (Harry et al., 1992). The exclusion of parents from the assessment process can be particularly devastating for such populations because of misunderstandings of children's behavior, which can result from the traditional deficit views held by many professionals. Further, most psychologists and speech and language therapists are unlikely to be familiar with African-American culture and, therefore, have difficulty interpreting the meaning of children's nonverbal, linguistic, and social behavior.

Precedent for such inclusion of parents has been documented in several exemplary projects funded by the Handicapped Children's Early Education Program (HCEEP), (Karnes, Limemeyer, & Myles, 1983). By designating parents as part of the official assessment team, professional special educators can go a long way in altering---or even eradicating--the assumption that professionals have a monopoly on knowledge.

Parents as Presenters of Reports. At the time of the placement conference, parents, already members of the team, would be expected to present a report. This report would constitute an official document, to be entered into the record and taken into account in decision making, along with the professional reports. This official parental role would not only increase the value that professionals place on parental input, but this role would signal to parents that their input is not only valued but needed.

To include parental input as valued--and necessary-in the placement process would constitute radically different practice from the current situation, where parents may be told that it is "OK" if they cannot come to a conference since the decisions will be sent to them in the mail (Harry et al., 1992). If parents do attend placement conferences where it is evident that their presence is not influential, why should they continue to attend, especially if attending may mean feeling uncomfortable or intimidated, or, on a more practical level, losing a morning's pay or a day's leave?

The latter point brings us to a much-quoted concern in the literature: the difficulties low-income parents have with scheduling of conferences. Is it too much to ask that, where necessary, conferences be held after working hours, and that parents be polled well beforehand regarding the best times for the scheduling of conferences? Once more, although the latter suggestions have been made in parent-communication models (see Marion, 1981; Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990), it is doubtful that they are widely practiced. The same applies to concerns about child care and transportation. Such concerns are examples of the "material asymmetries" referred to by Cherryholmes (1988), which affect the balance of power.

Parents as Palicymakers. Under the EHA, the only policymaking role provided by parents is membership on Parent Advisory Committees (PACs). These are usually advisory to the local educational agency (LEA), and therefore tend to be concerned with matters considerably removed from individual schools or communities. I strongly recommend school-based, advisory parent bodies for special education programs, as well as active recruitment of parents as teachers' aides. These roles are well established in compensatory education programs such as Follow Through. In these programs, particularly high parental involvement has been attributed to the requirements that (a) more than 50% of the PAC be low-income parents; (b) these members be elected by their peers, rather than appointed; and (c) parental involvement be carefully monitored and documented (Keesling & Melaragno, 1983).

These observations should serve as guidelines for the development of PACs in special education. If each school with a special education program had an active parent group that elected its own representatives on a school-based advisory committee, professionals would be forced to share power with parents. Such a group could also support professionals by taking responsibility for following up parent contacts, providing parents with support at IEP conferences, and generally boosting parent participation in special education events.

Parents as Advocates and Peer Supports. Parent groups serving within schools in both policymaking and support roles can also initiate parent-to-parent advocacy activities, such as those supported by federal funds under P.L. 98-199 (Ziegler, 1988). These could be promoted through existing Chapter 1 liaison activities in individual schools. Professionals may fear that such efforts would become yet another of their responsibilities, but this need not be so. Were schools to reconstruct parents' roles to offer parents meaningful input in the assessment, placement, and remediation of their children, parents would most likely develop a sense of competence and would want to share their learning with other parents.

Research Needs

We need more research regarding parent-professional discourse, particularly for special education settings. Further delineation of how the structure of discourse serves to disempower African-American parents will strengthen the case for radical alteration of these patterns. What we need the most, however, is documentation of genuine attempts at egalitarian forms of discourse with African-American parents. The process of parental empowerment has been documented with low-income, Spanish-speaking families, who, like African Americans, are at a considerable disadvantage in dealing with school systems (Ada, 1988; Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Harry, 1992). In Delgado-Gaitan's study, the researcher combined the role of ethnographic researcher with that of catalyst in the empowerment of families.

We need qualitative, intervention-oriented research that investigates ways to alter the discourse of power between professionals and lowincome, African-American families. Many professionals in the field genuinely want to contribute to the empowerment of African-American parents, but are constrained by deep-seated and pervasive myths about the nature of African-American family and community life and about the presumed cognitive, linguistic, and social deficits of African-American children. Researchers should seek out professionals who are willing to engage in constructive investigations of how their practice can be changed. Until professionals actually see African-American parents functioning as effective advocates for their children, the myth of the apathetic and incompetent African-American parent will survive.


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BETH HARRY (CEC MD Federation) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
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Title Annotation:Issues in the Education of African-American Youth in Special Education Settings
Author:Harry, Beth
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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