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Self-concept of African-American students: an operational model for special education.

* Despite legislative and legal efforts to provide quality and equity in education for African-American students, problems related to perception, race, gender, and class remain in today's school programs (Obiakor, 199 la, 1992; Staples, 1984). Very often, African-American students are judged as inferior based on the old theory of biological determinism (see Gould, 1981; Minton & Schneider, 1980) and are inappropriately classified, categorized, and placed in special education (Hilliard, 1989; Samuda, 1975). These students experience few realistic African-American role models (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1987; Ogbu, 1990) and frequently are presumed to have "low" or "negative" self-concepts and inferior self-perceptions (Lawrence & Winchell, 1973; Obiakor, 1990, 1991b; Obiakor & Alawiye, 1990). These problems are interrelated because they all affect the identity and pride of African-American students.

This article focuses on the measurement of self-concept among African-American students, because, despite its importance, self-concept remains consistently misused and misrepresented by special educators and researchers working with African-American learners (Obiakor, 1990, 1991b; Obiakor & Alawiye, 1990).

TRADITIONAL PERSPECTIVES OF SELF-CONCEPT

The traditional view of self-concept is that it is a highly integrated perception of the self (McDavid & Garwood, 1978; Rogers, 1951). To some, the self-concept is formed even before a student comes to school (Canfield & Wells, 1976; Robbins & Haraway, 1977; Wood, 1984). This "perceptual" definition of self-concept, however, is inadequate for addressing the specific and unique characteristics of African-American students. First, it is based, to a large extent, on the belief system of the dominant society. Second, it fails to address strengths and weaknesses. Third, it ignores the situation-specific, multidimensional, observable, and measurable nature of self-concept. Fourth, it limits the operational utility of self-concept in special educational settings. These issues make it imperative for special educators who are concerned about self-concept in African-American students to reevaluate the traditional view of self-concept and the assessment instruments, interpretations, and pedagogical strategies that derive from that view.

The traditional view of self-concept is derived from the concept of "biological determinism." This concept implies that behavioral norms and social and economic differences result from inherited inborn distinctions and/or biological conditions. Advocates of "biological determinism," like Herrnstein ( 1971 ), Jensen (1973, 1985), and Shockley (1972), strongly associate failures of African-American students with underlying genetic deficits. These researchers have consistently ignored environmental and situational variables that affect learning and test performance (Hilliard, 1989), as well as cultural biases and prejudices embedded in standardized instruments (Ogbu, 1990; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1992). Gould (1981), in his criticisms of "biological determinism," suggested, "Since biological determinism possesses such evident utility for groups in power, one might be excused for suspecting that it also arises in a political context" (p. 21).

The traditional model of self-concept confirms what the dominant society wants to hear, that African-American students have "low" self-concepts. According to Anastasi (1958), "Many psychological generalizations are based upon data obtained within a single culture. Such community-centrism can be corrected by testing hypotheses in different cultures" (p. 628). Parillo (1980), too, warned about the dangers of generalizations about self-concepts of African-American students based on traditional measures. The problem, it seems, is that many special educators and practitioners accept the presumption of low self-concept as fact and are unwilling to spend the time and energy needed for a more elaborate diagnostic interpretation of specific dimensions of self-concept.

Research and Pedagogical Problems

The traditional view of self-concept is dangerously global. From this theoretical orientation, self-concept is seen as a highly integrated set of perceptions of the self (Canfield & Wells, 1976; Fitts, 1972; Kinch, 1963; Labenne & Greene, 1969; McDavid & Garwood, 1978; Pietrofesa, Splete, Hoffman, & Pinto, 1978). Furthermore, as Fitts (1972) pointed out:

Self-concept research has been particularly plagued with measurement and criterion problems. Many hastily devised, poorly standardized instruments have been employed in self-concept studies and their comparability is exceedingly questionable. (p. 3)

Fitts' analysis was correct, then--and 20 years later the problems persist. Even though many self-concept scales, like other standardized instruments, have produced reliable results, there is a great debate about their validity. Some of these scales (e.g., Piers-Harris Self-Concept Scale and Tennessee Self-Concept Scale) have failed to define the construct that they purport to measure. How can an instrument measure the construct that it has failed to define? This lack of definition becomes particularly difficult, especially in the interpretation of test results for African-American students. This interpretative difficulty creates more burdens and leads to further labels and categorization.

In the traditional perceptual model of selfconcept, intricate variables combine to propel human actions or inactions. Rogers and Dymond (1954); Wright (1960); and Pietrofesa, Splete, Hoffman, and Pinto (1978) agreed that self-concept and behavior are interdependent and that a positive self-concept is a prerequisite to an individual's personal happiness and effective daily functioning. Self-concept measures have been related to factors such as cognitive skills; reading, writing, and mathematical abilities; school grades; test scores; feelings of personal adequacy; classroom behaviors; and teacher ratings (Calhoun & Elliott, 1977; Chapman & Boersma, 1979; McDavid & Garwood, 1978; Purkey, 1970). Although these generalizations make sense, African-American students are not well served by them because of the cultural biases apparent in the research, learning tools, and strategies.

Effects on African-American Students

In their classic study, Clark and Clark (1947) showed black children (ages 3-7) choosing white dolls and rejecting black dolls. Some years later, a replication of this study by Hraba and Grant (1970) produced different findings as a result of blacks' making educational, social, economic, and political advancements into the American mainstream. Twenty-one years after Hraba and Grant's study, Mabry and Rogers (1991) made a disturbing discovery. They found that African-American children preferred white dolls to black dolls. They noted that even though African-American students consistently use the phrase "I'm black and proud," they still perceive their racial difference to be negative. Wilson (1991) made a similar discovery. He explained that African-American students consistently devalue their ability to succeed in school programs. According to Wilson, "These students have low expectations of themselves, and the schools have low expectations of them: thus, self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement is hardly surprising" (p. B1).

Minton and Schneider (1980) have remarked that "situational variables appear to be especially pertinent to the prediction of school achievement when they are interacting with individual difference characteristics" (p. 1S3). Using his personal experience as a student of a white teacher, Steele (1990) confirmed how individuals carry oppressional memories that overshadow their sense of identity. He wrote:

The condition of being Black in America means that one will likely endure more wounds to one's self-esteem than others and that the capacity for self-doubt born of these wounds will be compounded and expanded by the Black race's reputation of inferiority .... Black skin has more dehumanizing stereotypes associated with it than any other skin color in America, if not the world. When a Black presents himself in an integrated situation, he knows that his skin alone may bring these stereotypes to life in the minds of those he meets and that he, as an individual, may be diminished by his race before he has a chance to reveal a single aspect of his personality. (p. 36)

Steele's statement is critical in understanding the self-concepts of African-American students. Hraba and Grant (1970) had noted, some years before, that black/white differences in scholastic pefformanee could be due to (a) personality and motivational variables, (b) family background, (e) school characteristics, and (d) teacher characteristics. According to Hraba and Grant, "the discrimination that blacks have endured enable[s] a black person to attribute his or her frustrations and failure to external sources rather than to perceive them as personal deficiencies" (p. 462). Special educators, even those with good intentions, often sympathize with Afncan-Ameriean learners rather than honestly challenge and uplift them. By doing so, negative attributes of the "self-fulfilling" prophecy are perpetuated, and self-pity results. Mahoney (1990) observed:

Self-pity, when practiced over a period of time, can become a deadly habit. That habit becomes like a chain, heavy enough to enslave us. The result of such enslavement can be physical illness, depression, anger, frustration, and bitterness. (p. A7)

There are many problems associated with the perceptual definition of self-concept and its application to assessment and interpretation of self-concepts of African-American students. Consider a few examples:

1. Instruments that are traditionally used to measure self-concepts of African-American students (e.g., Piers-Hams Self-Concept Scale) have failed to define self-concept or use different definitions for the concept.

2. Interpretations based on the traditional perceptual model are global and fail to identify specific areas of strengths and weaknesses of African-American students.

3. Some self-concept instruments have standardized norms, and it is counterproductive educationally to compare African-American students' specific self-descriptive behaviors to those of other students of different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

4. The typical "high" and "low" or "positive" and "negative" interpretations of self-concept are not useful for designing educational programs for African-American students.

5. Errors in interpretations may affect student behavior. When an African-American student is misperceived or misjudged as having a "low" or "negative" self-concept, he or she might unconsciously develop a behavior pattern that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. A stigma goes along with a wrong label or categorization.

ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVE OF SELF-CONCEPT

The operational model of self-concept is a contemporary, alternative approach to defining selfconcept; and it is appropriate for all students in school programs. An examination of the theory and research supporting this approach will help practitioners understand the usefulness of this alternative model. In addition, there are certain implications of this model for special educators.

Theoretical and Research Support

"Operational" means an operation or a series of operations. Royce (1973) noted that "operationally" defined concepts are limited to observables. Such concepts have a scientific basis. In dealing with exceptional students, functional terms, definitions, and instruments have been found to be more useful. For African-American students who historically have endured negative labels in school programs (Staples, 1984), definitions, interpretations, and instructions that are situation-specific appear to be more functional and beneficial to the enhancement of their self-concepts.

Most contemporary theorists argue that behaviors that are targeted to be changed should be observable, describable, quantifiable, and measurable (Marsh & Shavelson, 1985; Muller, 1978; Princes & Obiakor, 1990). Muller (1978) defined self-concept as an individual's repertoire of self-descriptive behaviors, with the following components:

1. Self-Knowledge:Self-knowledgeis the subset of self-descriptive behaviors that relate to a person's characteristics or qualities. Self knowledge includes self-descriptions of physical appearance, behavior, abilities, and cognitive patterns. Self-knowledge statements simply indicate the presence or absence of a characteristic and are nonevaluative. A sample statement is "I am an African-American student who has some learning problems."

2. Self-Esteem: Self-esteem is the subset of self descriptive behaviors that reflect self-valuations. The student evaluates certain personal characteristics. A sample statement is, "I like myself for being an African-American student, even though I have some learning problems."

3. Self-Ideal: Self-ideal is the subset of self descriptive behaviors that reflects qualities that the student desires to achieve or maintain through the expenditure of personal efforts. A sample statement is "I will try to work hard in spite of the fact that I am an African-American student who has some learning problems."

Muller (1978) believed that these three components of self-concept can be measured from different school-related and nonschool-related behaviors, such as physical maturity, peer relations, academic success, and school adaptiveness. Others have also favored this alternative view of self-concept and have described self-concept as covert or oven, accurate or inaccurate, consistent or contradictory, and extensive or limited. In addition, it has been found that self-concept is a discretely different, operational, multidimensional, situation-specific, and possibly hierarchical phenomenon that changes as the context changes (Alawiye, 1986; Harter, 1986; Marsh & Holmes, 1990; Marsh & Shavelson, 1985; Obiakor & Stile, 1989, 1990; Obiakor, Stile & Muller, 1988; Pottebaum, Keith, & Elly, 1986).

Early self-concept studies have used global and norm-referenced self-concept instruments (e.g., Tennessee Self-Concept Scale, Lipsitt Self-Concept Scale, and Piers-Harris Self-Concept Scale). The data from these assessment tools were not useful in designing individualized education programs (IEPs), especially for African-American students (Obiakor, 1990, 1991b). Some more recent instruments have aimed to assess specific strengths and weaknesses of students in the area of self-concept. For example, Harter (1982, 1985) developed the Perceived Competence Scale for Children and the Self-Perception Profile for Children. These instruments measure the general or global self-worth and specific areas of self-concept, including cognitive or scholastic competence, social competence or acceptance, physical or athletic competence, and behavioral conduct. According to Hoge and McSheffrey (1991), Harter viewed self-concept "as a multidimensional construct rather than a unitary entity" (p. 238). Muller, Larned, Leonetti, and Muller ( 1984, 1986) developed the Student's Self-Assessment Inventory: General and Visually Impaired Forms, which measure the components of self-concept. Marsh (1988), in his extensive research, developed the Self-Description Questionnaire (SDQI, SDQ2, and SDQ3), which assesses general self-concept, as well as school related and nonschool-related aspects of self-concept. The components of self-concept, as measured by these newer tools, are more varied and specific than the typical broad, general perspectives on self-concept available in the past. Implications for Special Educators Working with African Americans

Alternative perspectives of self-concept exist. These perspectives seem to be useful to practitioners and special educators working with African-American students. We must draw a line between being sensitive to African-American students' special needs and feeling overly sympathetic when these students should be honestly challenged. As Minton and Schneider (1980) pointed out:

We cannot limit ourselves to the identification of trait dimensions or typological classifications across individuals without also considering the characteristics of the environment within which individuals function. Nor can we limit ourselves to an analysis of the environment determinants....We have to ask ourselves what kind of society is most desirable for the expression of human diversity--for the opportunity for each of us to grow as individuals and at the same time not infringe on the rights of others to develop their own individuality. (p. 489)

The notion that African-American students are helpless individuals perpetuates negative labels that are counterproductive to learning and pedagogy. Understanding the "total" student should be an integral part of education. Hilliard (1989) argued that "if stylistic differences are interpreted as evidence of capacity rather than as an expression of preference, a long chain of abuses is set in motion" (p. 22). He contended that "greater sensitivity to style issues will make meaningful contributions to future pedagogy" (p. 21). To do so, special educators need to focus more clearly on issues related to self-concept. First, general self-concept must not be confused with specific components of self-concept. Selfknowledge is different from either self-esteem or self-ideal.

Second, instruments used to measure self-concept must also measure components of self-concept; and results must be interpreted with caution. The problems of misdiagnosis and misinterpretation abound from the misuse of the standardized test instruments with African-American students. Special educators must discover the areas of strengths and weaknesses within African-American students' self-concepts.

Third, judgments based on the perceptions of African-American students are counterproductive and self-defeating. Special educators should be sensitive to and not sorry for African-American students.

SELF-CONCEPT ENHANCEMENT STRATEGIES

Dividing the self-concept of African-American students into discrete construct areas provides avenues for uncovering specific areas of self-concept that need enhancement. It is important that special educators and other practitioners understand this operational perspective if they are to reduce the endemic problems confronting African-American students in school programs. Self-concept is not a predetermined variable that remains static across situation and time. Self-concept, like other self-descriptive behaviors, can be enhanced.

To enhance self-concepts of African-American learners, special educators should use the following ten common-sense approaches:

1. Emphasize accuracy of self-concept in the identification of specific self-concept strengths and weaknesses of students (Muller, 1978; Muller, Chambliss, & Muller, 1983).

2. Avoid labels and categorizations that force students to internalize negative options (Obiakor, 1990, 1991b).

3. Modify external contingencies that influence students' self-concepts, such as environments, teachers, teaching strategies, assessment tools, and interpretations (Hilliard, 1989; Marable, 1990; Ogbu, 1990a, 1990b).

4. Provide situations that can challenge students. Sensitivity to needs should be emphasized; being overly sympathetic should be deemphasized (Steele, 1990).

5. Inspire students to control their lives by allowing them to make goal-directed decisions. Failure should not be regarded as a deterrent--it should be an inspiration for students to work harder (Barker & Obiakor, 1992; Obiakor & Lassiter, 1988).

6. Design programs that help students understand who they are, appreciate themselves for who they are, and be willing to expend efforts to achieve their goals and objectives in life (Obiakor, 1990, 1991b).

7. Understand and appreciate different cultures and relate ideas of self-concept to cultural values, beliefs, and history. Such understanding and appreciation will reduce undergirding perceptual assumptions of students' self-concepts (Banks, 1991; Obiakor, 1991a, 1992; Ogbu, 1990).

8. Deemphasize deficit assumptions that hamper the education of students (Gould, 1981; Minton & Schneider, 1980).

9. Design programs that facilitate cooperative community involvement. Parents cannot (and should not) be divorced from self-concept programs for their children (Barker & Obiakor, 1992).

10. Deemphasize the idea that positive correlations exist among students' self-concept, intelligence, and other academic-related areas. Statements that are not altogether supported by research are as dangerous as statements that result from biased, unidimensional research (Obiakor, 1990, 1991b).

FUTURE PERSPECTIVES ON SELF-CONCEPT

Legislative and legal efforts have been made to ameliorate problems facing African-American students in educational programs. Unfortunately, these efforts have not fully deterred discriminatory assessment, placement, labeling, and categorizing of African-American students. Some special educators have continued to make unwarranted assumptions about African-American students' self-concepts based on perceptions or on results derived from instruments that lack reliability or validity. The "success" or "failure" of African-American students in school programs has been attributed to "positive" or "negative" self-concept. This assumption derives from the traditional view of self-concept as a highly interrelated perception of the self. This view is counterproductive, and fails to recognize the situation-specific nature of self-concept. It further ignores the learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses of African-American students.

Some contemporary researchers and educators have developed an alternative view of selfconcept as an observable, describable, operational, measurable, and quantifiable behavior, To meet the needs of African-American students in school programs, special educators should observe, describe, measure, and interpret the self-concepts of their students, and use this information to assist students to make functional goal-directed decisions. Special educators should focus on (a) the reduction of biased perceptions during the identification process of African-American students, (b) the use of good judgment during assessments and interpretations of African-American students' self-concepts, (c) the design and implementation of IEPs with specific considerations of strengths and weaknesses of African-American students' self-concepts, (d) the evaluation of African-American students' progress with adequate considerations for culture and style, and (e) the restoration of identity and pride of African-American students based on an accurate understanding of their self-concepts.

Research is needed in the area of self-concept as it affects not only African-American students, but all at-risk learners. The operational model of self-concept should present some interesting data for researchers who focus on learning styles and pedagogical strategies. As a fundamental aim of American education. self-concept should continue to be an exciting area of study for researchers in special education, school psychology, and other related areas.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

FESTUS E. OBIAKOR (CEC #0534) is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
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Title Annotation:Issues in the Education of African-American Youth in Special Education Settings
Author:Obiakor, Festus E.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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