Troubling “The Problem” of racial overrepresentation in special education: a commentary and call to rethink research

Wendy Cavendish, David Connor, Taucia Gonzalez, Patrick Jean-Pierre, Kenneth Card

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Despite decades of research, there has been limited reduction in the overrepresentation of students of colour in high incidence special education categories. This commentary article seeks to problematise the notion of overrepresentation as it is currently conceptualised in educational research, and serves as a call to rethink how, why, and for whom we do this research, contextualised within a history of both racism and ableism in the United States. First, we assert that the field of special education, as epistemologically configured, has framed the problem of overrepresentation in ways that it cannot resolve, leaving us to call for a much needed change in how we research this phenomenon. Second, we challenge some basic assumptions within existing research practices to date, countering them with alternative knowledge claims. Third, to engage with, and potentially reframe researchers’ understanding of overrepresentation, we pose a variety of questions to contemplate within the interconnected domains of research, theory, practice, and policy. Fourth, we list promising existing research practices around overrepresentation by scholars committed to exploring its complexities. Finally, we offer further suggestions for potential ways to address challenges by centring the framework for considering overrepresentation as primarily social, cultural, historical, and contextual, that would move beyond the limited and ineffective response of special education to date.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)567-582
Number of pages16
JournalEducational Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Equality/inequality
  • diversity
  • race and ethnicity
  • research methods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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