Do schools create learning disabilities?

How many learning disabilities are school made, caused by teaching methods or curricula? Vicky S asks the question on Kitchen Table Math.

Catherine Johnson comes up with one estimate: 70 percent of significant reading problems, which often lead to a learning disability diagnosis, could be eliminated by early identification and intervention.

In 2008, I visited two charter schools that specialized in integrating special ed and mainstream students, including gifted students. At both schools, the principal said entering kindergarteners were screened for developmental issues — movement, coordination, vision, hearing, etc. — that often lead to school problems and a disability diagnosis. Those who needed help got it immediately. Very few went on to need special education.  The principal at one school said he thought few learning disabled students had a genuine, unpreventable disability.  I can’t remember the percentage he came up with. Ten percent? Twenty percent? It’s part of the Hopes, Fears & Reality 2008 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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  1. SuperSub says:

    Well, if I remember correctly, “learning disabilities” are commonly defined simply as being behind 2 years or so in a certain area.

    That being said, inadequate instruction would obviously result in a large number of LD diagnoses by late-middle or high school.

    But, according to many progressive teachers, inadequate instruction is not defined by student acquisition of knowledge and skills but instead how entertained students are.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    There are lots of dynamics that feed this reality. One is that the primary way to fund supplemental instruction is through identification as a student with a disability. Couple that with the lack of classroom support for regular education teachers in providing intervention to kids who need it, and the identity issues of special education teachers, who get much of their affirmation from “rescuing” kids that are considered to be “unteachable” in the regular classroom. I have known teachers who bragged about the number of kids that they were able to have identified–and moved out of their classrooms–for various disorders.

    IDEA actually requires an examination of the adequacy of the classroom instruction (as regards it fitting the needs of the particular child), but in my experience, no one takes this very seriously. School psychologists, who do evaluations to identify kids, have very little in the way of training in pedagogy, and are generally reluctant to make recommendations to a classroom teacher. So, these questions are answered with a list of what teaching methods (or programs, or strategies) were attempted–Reading program A, small group instruction, conference with mother–to establish that the child has not responded to interventions.

    Response to Intervention attempts to clean up the funding issues by allowing/requiring a percentage of federal special ed money to be allocated for intervention services prior to identification. As with the earlier screening, this can be very helpful, if performed appropriately, with some sincerity about finding solutions. It does, however, put some special ed teachers into a tail-spin, feeling that their identity is threatened. If we save kids before they get to the special ed teacher’s classroom, what happens to the special ed teacher? Of course, this overlooks a key role for special ed personnel to identify and support appropriate classroom interventions. There is a fear–likely reality based in many cases, that when a special educator steps into a regular classroom, they forego their teacher status and become merely an “aide.”

    Finland has a good model that differentiates between highly trained special educators, who educate students with severe disabilities; aides who assist at the direction of the classroom teacher; and in-school special educators who perform a collaborative function with teachers, both in and out of the classroom, but whose role is to get kids “back on track” in order to rejoin their peers. That is a vision that we, in this country, have seldom shared.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    SS–I have no doubt that you have been told that LD is defined by being two years behind. This has been a functioning definition in the past in many districts. It is not the definition prescribed in the law, and has been clarified by both the Dept of Ed and the courts. This definition has in the past led to a delay in testing prior to third grade for many students (can’t be two years behind until you have been there for two years, is the logic). There are in fact a number of possible indicators, including descrepancy between cognitive ability and achievement (which has sometimes been used to EXCLUDE kids from identification, if their cognitive ability was deemed to be low). More generally applicable is the identification of various conditions that impact the ability of the student to learn without supports or services of various kinds (this is an oversimplification, I know), or a history of non-responsiveness to progressively more intensive interventions (Response to Intervention).

    My guess is that we are not identifying lots of kids in late middle or early high school. By that time, learning problems have become commingled with various behavioral manifestations, or the kids just magically disappear.

  4. I find SPED staff to be largely uninterested in working with non-identified kids who may be borderline LD — in their defense their case load is already high, but it is a problem. We almost never label at the high school level; in fact, we cannot label any new black students because it is a civil rights issue that we have so many identified SPED (some sort of big state brou ha ha, even though the state didn’t take into account several families in the district who adopt disabled black children and provide wonderful homes to them and that we are “fed” by a private K-8 school for children with disabilities).

    In my experience, the SPED staff demote themselves to aide status in my classroom. Very few will take any sort of responsiblity for planning instruction, and I can’t even count on them showing up if I’ve planned something such a group activity during which I know an autistic kid will need extra support. The aides are thoroughly useless — some are continual distractions with their GD cell phones, talking to the kids while I’m trying to teach etc. — I won’t have them in my room anymore.

    RtI is attractive because it has the potential to reduce remediation expenditures on the front end. I see it as a different issue in urban vs. suburban districts, though. It may simply be inadequate instruction for a middle class kid, but the interventions need to be more holistic for the kid in poverty with issues on top of inadequate instruction. I do a lot of RtI, and it is a good approach, but only one of many.

    As to the original question, do schools create LD’s — possibly they exacerbate them — and we’ll see it become even worse as districts adopt lock-step curriculum pacing. If it is October 23rd, we’re studying linking verbs, whether part of the class has no idea a verb is and another group already knows all the linking verbs is irrelevant.

  5. CharterMom says:

    Well, here is my anecdote on the subject of nature vs nuture on LD.

    Given there was a strong history of LD on my husband’s side (likely including my husband if such a thing had been diagnosed then) I did a lot of research into reading curriculums before my older son started school. I chose a charter school based in part because it used SRA Open Court while my local public schools all told me “well some teachers do this and some teachers do that” There was no standard curriculum.

    Fast forward to 4th grade — after observing that spelling and written output are evidently lagging his reading ability (and other indicators of his overall ability), I ask (with full teacher support) for an evaluation. He is identified as having an output related LD. At that time I’m also told that his tests also indicate a reading deficiency but since he’s reading above grade level he won’t receive services for that. However the output related services should also help with reading.

    My conclusion — LD definitely has a “nature” component but that with nuture in the form of a good curriculum, it can be overcome or at least compensated for. In my older son’s case the compensation wasn’t total as the spelling and output related issues remained. However when I compare him to his much older half-sister who was taught reading via whole language and whose LD was still severe enough that she was allowed to take her SATs auditory, he is way ahead.

  6. Barry Garelick says:

    CharterMom’s point is very well taken.

    Over the past two decades, the number of students with learning disabilities has increased. In 2006, approximately 2.6 million students were identified with learning disabilities, more than three times as manyas were identified in 1976-1977. Although one reason for this growth might be better means of diagnoses of specific disorders, there has still been growth. Between 1990 and 2004, 50,000 additional students were identified with learning disabilities, representing a 31% increase at a time when the overall student population grew by only 15%.(U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

    The increase in the number of students with learning disabilities raises the interesting question (if not uncomfortable for some), of whether the older way of teaching and textbooks now held in disdain by many ed schools (direct instruction and mastery learning) may have had unintended benefits. According to Rosenberg, et. al. (2008), one factor associated with the identification of students with learning disabilities is the lack of access to effective instruction.Rosenberg et. al, also note that up to 50% of students with learning disabilities have been shown to overcome their learning difficulties when given high-quality instruction. Is the shift toward inquiry-based, student-centered teaching (with curricula to match thanks to funding such programs by the Education and Human Resources Division of NSF) resulting in more students being identified with learning disabilities? Are these students who in earlier days would have swum with the rest of the pack?

    U.S. Department of Education. 2006.Individuals with Disabilities Eduation Act (IDEA) data. Available at:

    Rosenberg, Michael S., Westling, D.L., McLeskey, J. 2008. Special Education for Today’s Teachers: An Introduction. Columbus: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    Charter Mom, if your step-daughter was taught reading via the whole language fraud, isn’t it possible that she simply didn’t learn to read, not that she couldn’t, or may have had problems doing so?

  8. According to a Federal Department of Education official quoted in a Cato institute publication on homeschooling, the rate of dyslexia in a population falls as the age at which reading instruction is institutionalized rises. Later is better. Young children will work their hearts out for the love of their mother. Reading instruction goes down like tapioca pudding if the infant, basking in the warmth and security of mom’s lap, follows the moving finger across the printed page. Subject that same infant to a roomful of crying strangers, to the shouted commands of an apparently angry strange adult (SHUT UP! SIT DOWN! LISTEN!: “A”, “B”, “C”…) and you lose that child for a very long time.

    I know three people who actively dislike classical music. Their parents compelled them to study piano when they were small.

    From Karl Bunday’s site: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.
    “Autobiographical Notes,” in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist , Paul Schilpp, ed. (1951), pp. 17-19 © 1951 by the Library of Living Philosophers, Inc.

    Evolution shaped the human brain. Unless current instructional methods work equally well with humans, dogs, and nematodes, variations in genetic endowment influence variations in learning ability. Parents roll dice when they put their kids together, and some kids come up snake-eyes. Politicians can do little to change that. The next generation’s genetic endowment is not a policy variable. As a wise Israeli politician once said: “No solution? No problem.”

    Differences in instructional methods strongly influence differences in instructional performance (as measured by student performance on standardized tests of Reading and Math) between teachers, schools, school districts, and countries. The range of curricular methods available to parents is a policy variable. Open enrollment between numerous small independent school districts, tuition tax credits, charter schools, school vouchers, subsidized homeschooling, and (my preference) “Parent Performance Contracting expand the range of instructional options available to parents.

  9. Mom of Three says:

    Diane Macguinness has written a wonderful book on learning to read that sets out a clear case that there’s a biological imperative behind learning to speak. Learning to read though is not something that is evolutionary.

    Most kids need to be taught the rules of what the symbols probably represent. It wasn’t intuitive throughout most of human history. Why should it have become accessible through exposure in the last few decades?

  10. Redkudu says:

    I’m not sure MacGuinness’s book (“Why Our Children Can’t Read” is the one I assume you’re speaking of) is one teachers of classrooms of students will be able to work with when simpler methods (based on direct instruction and solid phonics) may produce the same results.

  11. Margo/Mom said, “There are in fact a number of possible indicators, including descrepancy between cognitive ability and achievement (which has sometimes been used to EXCLUDE kids from identification, if their cognitive ability was deemed to be low).”

    You are both right and wrong. Discrepancy has been used to exclude kids from identification as having a reading disability. However, discrepancy between cognitive ability and achievement is an indicator of nothing at all. Since the late 1980s, research has shown consistently that: a) IQ is not a strong predictor of reading skills; b) there are no reading-related cognitive deficits between students with and without discrepancies; and c) students with discrepancies do not respond to treatment better (or faster) than students without discrepancies. These are robust findings that have appeared in the literature since the late 1980s and been replicated time and again over many years. Because of its continued use of discrepancy, the LD field has been called a pseudoscience by Stanovich (see 2005 paper in LD Quarterly) and others who have investigated this issue since 1990. (See also the reviews by Steubing, et al., 2002 in the American Educational Research Journal; F. Vellutino, et al, 2004 in the J. of Child Psychology and Psychiatry; and Vellutino, Scanlon, and Lyon, 2000).

    Of course, one problem with the use of IQ-achievement discrepancy is that its use results in the identification of students as disabled who achieve in the average range who are not disabled. The classic example is the student with an IQ of 125 and a reading score of 100. The student has a discrepancy but is not disabled.

    Regarding diagnosis of reading disabilities, diagnosticians familiar with the reading literature understand that reading disabilities are the result of phonological processing deficits. Measures of phonological processing (word decoding, pseudoword decoding, phonemic awareness) are used to diagnose the reading problems, not IQ-achievement discrepancy. Again, these findings have been replicated and have been described in the literature (e.g., see Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001)

    With regard to the assertion that LDs in reading are “teacher disabilities,” Velltino and his colleagues published a study in 1996 which showed that the majority of reading probelms in entry level students were caused by experiential and/or instructional deficits, and when given appropriate intervention, 67.1% of the poor readers in the study performed as well in reading as the normal readers (Scanlon, D., and Vellutino, F., 1996). The results of other studies have yielded similar results.

  12. William Blake said it a long time ago: The Schoolboy

  13. Mom of Three says:

    That is the correct book.

    Most teachers say they were never taught the alphabetic code in ed school and all their prof development courses push whole language or its rhetorical successor, “balanced literacy”. MacGuinness’ book explains why direct instruction of the phonetics works so well. She does a wonderful job of explaining all the different ways to use letters to represent the same sounds (quire vs choir) and how confusing it is for kids without instruction.

    Her statement that “letters don’t have sounds, sounds have letters” is a pithy way to explain the true logic of the code.

    A teacher who has read that book will always recognize the statement that “we don’t know what works best in teaching reading” is wrong and he or she will know why it is wrong.

  14. CharterMom says:

    Bill Leonard — you said “Charter Mom, if your step-daughter was taught reading via the whole language fraud, isn’t it possible that she simply didn’t learn to read, not that she couldn’t, or may have had problems doing so?”

    That is a good question — I do think that the whole language approach greatly contributed to her issues through the years. That was one of the reasons I researched reading curriculums before sending my sons to school and was so determined not to send them to a school that used whole language. However given the pattern of LD across my husband’s side of the family (including most likely my husband) — different generations, different school systems, different genders — I think a fairly good case for there also being a genetic component can be made.

    (By the way my step-daughter did graduate from college, has been successful at her job and even reads for enjoyment now.)

  15. FWIW, my own child, who is (was) language impaired, spent years not learning to read with a standard phonics curriclum. As soon as she switched to whole language instruction in 3rd grade, she leaped from being a non-reader (not even basals) to a 6th grade level in one year. So yes, instruction can be a big factor, but not always in politically expedient ways. I’m not saying phonics or whole language is better than the other, but I think each has its place.

  16. Margo/Mom says:

    I recall a bit on NPR years ago talking to someone who was suggesting that the best methodology for learning to read depends upon right vs left brain dominance. While we always have kids who will get what they need regardless of the teaching method, we also have kids who really need either to construct meaning from putting together the individual pieces to see the whole OR from seeing the whole in order to be able to understand the pieces.

    As we seesaw back and forth, all we are doing is redefining which group of kids needs remediation. Don’t know what the research says, but it has always made sense to me.

  17. CharterMom says:

    Hmmmm — to Lightly Seasoned’s point about his/her child learning to read in 3rd grade with a curriculum change to whole language. I wonder if it was the curriculum or just the age when the “lightbulb went on”. I once remember reading some research that said that there were brain connections that needed to be formed for reading and that for some kids that didn’t happen until they were as old as 8 or 9 (ie third grade). So it still could have been developmental rather than curriculum.

    That being said — I personally don’t have any problem with remediation trying a new approach if the one being used isn’t working. That just makes sense.

  18. Dunno. You’re referring to Worf, though, which is very whole language.