Many “learning disabled” students in special ed programs have no identifiable disability: For a variety of reasons, they didn’t learn to read well in first grade. If there’s a gap between a student’s IQ and achievement, a “learning disability” is assumed to exist. So I’m very pleased to see a federal initiative to improve reading instruction in the early grades in order to keep students out of special education who don’t belong there.
Half of the nearly seven million special ed students have a learning disability, usually involving reading. Often poor readers are classified as “learning disabled” in third or fourth grade. Critics call that a “wait-to-fail” approach, AP reports. Early intervention — such as spending more time to teach phonemic awareness — works much better than waiting till students are far behind.
Under the new rules, states can no longer rely solely on the IQ-vs.-achievement method. Instead the guidelines give states more latitude, allowing them, for example, to observe how well children respond to intensive instruction in the subjects where they’re having problems.
The new federal rules also make another important change: they allow schools for the first time to use up to 15 percent of their special education funds to provide the required early intervention. That could help reduce the number of children who ultimately are labeled as learning disabled
When I was reporting on Success for All, principals told me that implementing a successful reading program dramatically reduces the number of children who end up in special ed. They didn’t identify students with learning problems; they just worked hard to teach reading well to everyone.