To refer or not refer: Making decisions about potential special education students in urban schools

Sonya Fay Ferraro, Fordham University


P.L. 94-142, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, established strict rules and regulations for the referral and treatment of special needs students in American schools. One result of the law created tremendous increases in special education, a concern by educators that large numbers of students are being inappropriately classified and placed in special education. Therefore, several school districts created informal teacher-assistance teams to make decisions about difficult-to-teach children. New York City experimented with Pupil Personnel Committees (PPCs), an informal approach, to assist children who may need special help in schools. The purpose of this research was to examine how different schools made decisions on referring children to special education. The research questions included: (1) What are the informal procedures and activities in the decision-making process in referring students to Pupil Personnel Committees and formal referrals to the Committee on Special Education? (2) How do goals, leadership styles, staff attitudes, activities, and decision-making processes affect the outcomes on referrals to special education? Using the comparative case study to analyze four elementary schools in a large high-referring district, the study examined the decision-making process of two schools with and two schools without PPCs. Variables included the goals, leadership styles, staff attitudes, outcomes, and referral procedures. The study found two emerging themes: collaboration among staff and administrative leadership which affected the decision-making process. The most positive results were in PPC schools with strong, supportive leadership and high collaboration. The application of criteria for averting inappropriate referrals showed that the most successful schools more often assisted children within regular education and had fewer referrals to special education. The implication of this study showed that informal procedures should be expanded, staff development programs should be established, and school leaders should actively participate in PPCs. Both strong, supportive leadership and high collaboration were critical for successful PPCs and for stopping the cycle of referring every difficult-to-teach student to special education.

Subject Area

Special education|School administration

Recommended Citation

Ferraro, Sonya Fay, "To refer or not refer: Making decisions about potential special education students in urban schools" (1993). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9328409.