Disability is real

Two-thirds of students diagnosed with learning disabilities are normal kids who’ve been taught poorly, argued Jay Greene and Greg Forster on Pajamas Media. The blame the “special education epidemic” on financial incentives to classify struggling students as disabled.

Not so, counters Laura McKenna of 11D, who’s dealt with the system as a parent. Most special-education students have real disabilities that may not have been recognized in the past, she writes.

Many of us can think back to our own childhoods and remember the kids who were ostracized, lonely, strange, smelly, weird, hyper, and angry. Today, those kids have a much better shot at life, and at an education because they are getting appropriate services. With help, they are more likely to finish high school and even attend college. They will be able to more fully function in society and provide for themselves, rather than spend a lifetime on welfare.

Anecdotally, I haven’t seen a single kid in my kid’s special needs classrooms that I thought should not be there. In fact, after having compulsively reading every article and book on neurological disabilities, I see undiagnosed kids (and adults) all the time.

In her suburban school district, administrators see special ed as a huge financial burden.

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  1. –In her suburban school district, administrators see special ed as a huge financial burden.

    REALLY? This is not the norm anywhere I’ve talked to folks. Spec Ed through Title I is pouring money into schools, and parents are clamoring to get their kids labelled with “mild” learning disabilities so they can get the tutors, extra teachers, etc.

    btw, anyone care to define “mild dyslexia” to me? I’ve heard it too often, but every time I ask, there seems to be no such definition.

  2. Spec Ed through Title I is pouring money into schools, and parents are clamoring to get their kids labelled with “mild” learning disabilities so they can get the tutors, extra teachers, etc.

    Really? This is not the norm anywhere I’ve seen. In fact, I doubt it’s true in most places.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    The financial thing is a mixed bag. The fed money covers less than 40% of the cost. If the kid needs the resources, yes, it’s better to have the identification. On the other hand, the district picks up some obligations to the kid that they may not want–involving the parent in an annual IEP meeting, providing the services. There have been other incentives that have affected the size of the SLD population (this is one of the squishier definitions). One is that in some accountability systems at some times, these kids either were exempt from testing or the schools were exempt from the consequences. This is why NCLB has been so insistent on including kids with disabilities in testing and accountability.

    As the parent of a kid with disabilities, I would say that his level of academic achievement at this point in his life is partially a function of his disability, but also partially a function of the expectations that were attached to him as soon as he was identified, the education that has been available to him ever since he was identified and the overall education and expectations that attached to all students in the building that he has attended.

    A whole lot rides on the legal definition of disability. It is very difficult sometimes to let go of that definition and to see just the person, just the student. I am very interested in the countries that have stopped labelling in favor of providing more personalized and appropriate education for all students.

  4. Mrs. Davis says:

    If kids with disability are at the max percentage eligible for funding, they’re doing it for the money. If they’re significantly under or over the cap, I’ll believe they’re truly disabled. My bet is most districts hit the cap with mildly “disabled”.

  5. “Most special-education students have real disabilities that may not have been recognized in the past, she writes.”

    Nonsense. Most students classified as LD meet no legal or research criteria for the disorder. We have published three studies with postsecondary students classified as LD and found that almost 60% in each study do not meet even the minimum criteria for LD. We are about to publish another with similar findings. Our studies with postsecondary students have findings similar to those published on school-age children in the 1980s. Nothing has changed except that even more students are being falsely classified as LD.

    It is entirely a separate question as to whether children falsely classified as LD need intervention.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    People who write about publishing three studies should provide URLs so others can look at the studies.

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    I’m with Cardinal Fang. To talk anonymously about publishing three studies calls to mind McCarthy waving his lists.

    But, beyond that, yes, many things have changed since the 1980’s. The definitions of LD have been refined in the law, as well as the diagnostic criteria. In the 80,s the criteria were primarily discrepancy based (performance below ability), which meant that a low IQ score (if it was too high to qualify for MR/DD criteria) excused low performance. There was also the two standard deviations below the mean criteria–also not current. And, as I pointed out, the incentives may have changed. Where labelling a kid was previously a way to move them out of the accountability system (as well as the classroom, or even the school), there are more protections now that disincentivize that option. In fact–wasn’t there a school in California that was relabelling kids as non-disabled to get below the “n” size for required reporting?

    anon should also be careful about equating “legal and research criteria for the disorder.” There are legal definitions and there are diagnostic criteria. The legal definitions have a purpose (although, again there are countries that have done away with them in favor of providing services to meet the learning needs of every child). Diagnostic criteria for a variety of handicapping conditions are a different matter altogether. ADD/ADHD is a condition found in the DSM. It is not an identified criteria for receiving special educational services. The legal criteria looks at whether the condition interferes with the process of education to the degree that additional services are warranted. Two very different things.

  8. Didn’t it seems like the first linked commentary was about increase in LD students and the second linked comment responded with comments about a “special needs” classroom. In my experience LD students aren’t in special needs classrooms very much; they’re the kids most likely to be “included” for all or most of the school day.

  9. Margo/Mom said it very, very well. I believe the most common diagnosis among students who have IEPs (special education) is specific learning disability-reading, or dyslexia (sorry, can’t find a quick source for that assertion — feel free to correct me).

    Those interested in learning more about dyslexia and remediation might well visit the Florida Center for Reading Research(FCRR)’s and download some of their “technical assistance” papers — particularly #8, Dyslexia: A Brief.

    From page 8-9

    Can reading difficulties in dyslexic students be prevented?

    The best answer to this question from current research is that serious reading difficulties can be prevented in most students with dyslexia if the right kind of instruction is provided with sufficient intensity early in development. For example, in one study conducted in Florida several years ago (Torgesen, et al., 1999), the 12 percent of students most at-risk for reading difficulties were identified in kindergarten based on their performance on measures of letter knowledge and phonemic awareness. Students received 1:1 intervention in reading for 20 minutes a day, four days a week, starting in the second semester of kindergarten and extending through the end of second grade. However, by today’s standards, these students’ regular classroom teachers did not provide systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics during the regular reading block.

    At the conclusion of instruction, children in the strongest instructional condition performed in the average range on measures of phonemic decoding (average score = 48th percentile) and reading accuracy (average score = 45th percentile) However, there was substantial variability in response to the instruction, and 30% of the group scored below the 30th percentile in phonemic decoding at the end of the study. The corresponding figure for reading accuracy was 39 percent. Since the children in this study were selected to be the 12% most at risk for reading failure, the authors estimated that, if the strongest condition from this study were available to all students who needed it, approximately 4% of all children would remain weak in phonemic decoding ability and 5% would perform below the 30th percentile in sight word reading at the end of second grade.

    In a follow-up study conducted by the same research team (Torgesen, Rashotte, Wagner, & Herron, 2001), students who were the 18% most at risk for reading failure at the beginning of first grade (based on performance on letter knowledge and phonemic awareness) were provided with small group (3 students) reading instruction for 50 minutes a day, four days a week, from October through May. This study was conducted only in schools in which the classroom teachers provided systematic and explicit instruction in phonics (also vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) during the regular reading block, and the interventions were offered in addition to that instruction.

    At the end of first grade, students in the strongest instructional condition scored at the 74th percentile on a measure of phonemic decoding (they had scored at the 4th percentile at the beginning of the year) and at the 67th percentile on a measure of reading accuracy. The percent of children obtaining scores below the 30th percentile on these measures was 12% (phonemic decoding) and 10% (reading accuracy). Using calculations similar to those applied to the previous study, the authors estimated that, if interventions and classroom instruction as strong as those provided in this study were available for all students who needed them, only 2% of students would remain seriously impaired in phonemic decoding and reading accuracy at the end of first grade.

    Other recent intervention studies tell a roughly similar story. If strong interventions are provided to “at risk” students as early as kindergarten and first grade, the overall percentage of students who continue to struggle with basic reading skills can be reduced to under 5% (Mathes et al., 2005; Scammacca, et al., 2007; Torgesen, 2002).


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