Learning Disabilities or Language Proficiency? Mapping a School’s Understanding of English Learners’ (In)competence

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Special education identification processes related to English language learners (ELs) in the United States have puzzled the field for decades. The phenomenon of referrals, the first step toward identification, is

Special education identification processes related to English language learners (ELs) in the United States have puzzled the field for decades. The phenomenon of referrals, the first step toward identification, is complex since it requires deciphering the root cause of students’ learning struggles—e.g., second language (L2) factors, the possibility of a learning disability (LD), or the combination of multiple other influences. To investigate the various influences contributing to learning difficulties, I centered this study on three potential sources, individual, institutional, and interpersonal. I aimed to answer, how did sociocultural influences mediate a teacher’s understanding of ELs’ competence? How did sociocultural influences mediate whether a teacher referred ELs to special education services? Using a cultural-historical theoretical approach, I sought deeper theoretical and empirical understandings into how institutional factors (e.g., tiered intervention contexts, policies), combined with other influences, mediated ELs’ referral decisions. I used a multiple parallel case study design following two fifth-grade ELs who faced the possibility of a referral. Interested in the interpersonal domain (e.g., interactions and communication among people), I zoomed in to a local process, student-teacher conferences to examine how classroom processes shaped teachers’ thoughts of students’ competence, and ultimately, referral decisions. I video-recorded teacher-student conference sessions over 14 weeks, and audio-recorded viewing sessions of the recorded conferences to understand teacher and student interpretations of learning competence. To understand how other dimensions (individual and institutional) contributed to teachers’ overall views about the student competence, I interviewed parents and school personnel, wrote observational field notes, and examined archival documents related to student learning over the entire fifth-grade year. I used inductive and iterative qualitative analytical approaches to craft the findings. My findings reaffirmed the complexity involved in finalizing ELs’ referral decisions. I found cultural factors intertwined with structural forces, driving students’ special education candidacies in divergent directions: one evaluated (LD); the other, retained. I also found the referral decisions were based on narrow understandings of learning and behaviors, lack of attention to students’ L2 needs, and faulty and overpowering structural forces which undermined teacher’s professional opinions about the referrals. These findings have implications for research, practice, and policy.