Teaching Disabled
Special ed is especially vulnerable to the problems of public education.

By Jim Williams

Americans are generally supportive of "special education." Educating disabled children so that they can live independent and satisfying lives appeals to our sense of fairness and shared responsibility.


But too often, special education inflicts harm by keeping children from reaching their potential. Instead of giving these students an extra hand, the special-education bureaucracy unnecessarily segregates them while passing them from one grade level to the next, irrespective of how well they've mastered material. The result is a system that creates in these students a crippling sense of helplessness and entitlement. This is certainly the case for the least well-defined subgroup of special-ed students, those designated learning disabled (LD).

Though the LD label is used for a wide array of learning problems, there is a thread that ties these diagnoses together: flawed "basic psychological processes," which are required for spoken or written language. In other words, students who don't listen, think, speak, or read on grade level are often labeled LD. Any number of disorders can cause a breakdown in listening, reading, or writing. Some, such as acute brain injury, are legitimate medical conditions that require special attention. Too frequently, however, the only problem a child has is that he or she never learned to read and write effectively in the lower grades. (The primary culprit here is trendy, "progressive" teaching methods. See Louisa Moats's Fordham report.)

A child with poor reading skills finds learning increasingly difficult beginning in third or fourth grade, when school shifts from learning basic skills to acquiring knowledge in various content areas. Struggling readers hit a performance wall over the next few grades and experience failure in class after class. Significantly, many of these students become disruptive and disinterested (especially boys), and/or they withdraw (especially girls). These behaviors, and the poor performance driving them, most often appear at ages 10-12, when children are tested for LD.

Unfortunately, the tests used to diagnose LD aren't designed to recognize reading deficiencies. Many of them are built on the "discrepancy model," which measures individual intellectual ability and achievement to determine if a "severe" gap exists between the student's ability and achievement. In short, before a reading problem is diagnosed, students must establish a record of "low achievement" (i.e., failing) before anyone bothers to ask why they are not learning.

In 2002, the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) recommended abandoning the ability-achievement-discrepancy classification method because of the problematic measurement and conceptual problems surrounding it. Nevertheless, it's still the basis for LD classification in most educational jurisdictions. The latest version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) made some progress on this front, allowing (though not requiring) states to move away from the discrepancy model and supporting early identification and intervention. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has failed to complete the law's regulations, so the old, flawed method marches on.

The co-occurrence of serious reading difficulties with LD classification raises a fundamental question: What is the root cause of these students' difficulties? In a very real way, classifying as LD a struggling reader who has fallen behind in academic performance (using the discrepancy model described earlier) is little more than an institutionalized way to escape the fundamental question: Is the student legitimately handicapped, or just incapable of reading well? In addition, because special education places no meaningful emphasis on remediation, but rather on "accommodation" to help students progress to subsequent grades, a high proportion of LD students never acquires effective reading skills.

Interventions for struggling readers that produce significant and comparable performance-improvement results for both "disabled" students (classified as LD) and general-education students are readily available. A growing body of research on these interventions clearly locates the cause of reading difficulties (and consequent academic underperformance) in the child's educational experiences, and not in something deficient in the child. In other words, the child's capacity to learn to read is not the problem.

This is not an indictment of special-ed teachers (I'm one of them, after all), who work under oftentimes outrageous institutional constraints imposed by public education. Instead, it's an indictment of a system that has refused to measure and test students adequately.

NCLB is helping. Special-education students are now required to participate in statewide testing to determine whether schools are making "adequate" progress and performing effectively. The system is far from perfect. But the test has administrators demanding that special-education teachers immediately address (and solve) the academic-performance shortfall of their students. Rather than resisting the expectation that students must be measured against the same standards, educators might more productively argue that — because many special-ed students have been left behind — school officials should be prepared to accept responsibility for working with these students to meet the standards, but on an appropriately modified timetable.

A clear-eyed assessment of special education shows that it is bedeviled by the same cultural and institutional constraints that explain the inadequate performance of public education in general. Special education is an extreme example of the shortcomings of public education as a whole: Resources are squandered because of a general lack of accountability, a preoccupation with process rather than results, and a hostility to change and innovation. These shortcomings reduce the chances for millions of children to complete public school with the skills and capabilities to live independent, productive lives.

Jim Williams is a former business executive turned special-education teacher, now teaching in northern Virginia. Read about his experience as a mid-career-switcher here.

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