Good teaching prevents learning disabilities

The learning disabilities epidemic may be waning, writes Mike Petrilli on Education Next.

In Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, Fordham and the Progressive Policy Institute argued that “most children with learning disabilities suffered from poor reading instruction, not an underlying neurological problem.” Good prevention programs could prevent children from being designated as learning disabled, they wrote.

This thinking found its way into the No Child Left Behind act via the Reading First program, and into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act via “Response to Intervention” strategies. In both cases, the focus was on identifying children at risk for reading problems early, and intervening quickly with research-based, rigorous, direct instruction.

The percentage of kids with learning disabilities, which was rising rapidly, has  dropped by 11 percent in five years, Petrilli writes. Why aren’t we talking about that? It’s not that often that something works in education.

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  1. Oh, yay! I’m so glad this article came out. I wasn’t facing enough guilt and difficulty in negotiating the couldas and shouldas with several of my autistic children. Now I can feel even WORSE that their problems were entirely preventable with better “reading instruction.” The one on one aide my child gets at school is totally unnecessary! He just needs to be read to every now and then, you know? He’s diagnosed as autistic BECAUSE we *must* watch the same TV program over and over and confine our speech to three subjects, not the other way ’round.

    I’m sure that a bit of good reading instruction would totally cure my non-verbal child. I mean, it’s not like true disabilities such as autism or Down’s Syndrome are part of the person and would manifest in some way regardless of educational environment. What a silly thought!

    … ok, sarcasm off…

    This sort of thing is why schools cannot give medical diagnoses. All too frequently, they would excuse “poor teaching” by disguising it as “disability.” Which is a shame, both for the non-disabled students and for those children who have a true disability but are not taken seriously by the public at large. Read a news story about autistic “brats” on airplanes and the like and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

  2. Cynical says:

    Perhaps if you didn’t rail about autism (a developmental and social-awareness disorder) in a post about the misdiagnosis of learning disabilities pursuant to bad teaching, you might have had a worthwhile point to make.

  3. The percentage of kids with learning disabilities, which was rising rapidly, has dropped by 11 percent in five years, Petrilli writes. Why aren’t we talking about that?
    Because the change in reading performance reflects a change in reading instruction from Whole Language to phonics, and thus a malpractice indictment for Colleges of Education.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    “most children with learning disabilities suffered from poor reading instruction, not an underlying neurological problem.”

    This is a strange, and wrong, definition of learning disability. The right way to phrase this (debatable) claim is, “Most children who are classified as learning-disabled turn out to not have any learning disabilities; rather, they are the victims of poor teaching.” I doubt that *most* children who were classified as learning-disabled five years ago were wrongly classified, but certainly a large number of children were misclassified.

    It’s silliness to think that the actual incidence of learning disabilities has changed very much in five years. However, hurray for good teaching keeping kids from being misclassifed!

  5. I do cognitive and academic assessments for schools, here in Texas. With NCLB, a different method of classifying Specific Learning Disabilities was required and has been implemented in the schools.

    Previously, a student was given an IQ test, then that score was compared to academic tests in the areas of reading comprehension, basic reading, math reasoning, math calculation, written expression, oral expression and language comprehension.

    The formula was IQ Score – Academic area > 15, student was learning disabled.

    Those of us with the training argued that it did mask teaching problems, but for administrators it was quantitative and easy to understand.

    Now, we analyze the entire cognitive profile to determine eligibility, and then see what affect the profile has on academic areas.

    This method is a change in diagnostics, and would, account for the declining number of students identified or re-certified as learning disabilities.

    Also, we have started mandating real interventions in the classroom with the teachers having to show explicitly what was done to assist the student. This is called Response to Intervention.

    As a result over the last 5 years, the number of special education referrals that go to evaluation has dropped.

  6. Cynical, the article states that “most children with learning disabilities suffered from poor reading instruction, not an underlying neurological problem.”

    My point being that you cannot HAVE a learning disability without an underlying neurological difference. Implying that you can “reduce” learning disabilities with better instruction is laughable. You can’t!

    What CAN be done is improve instruction to people with true disabilities so that they are able to be as functional as possible. They’re still disabled.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Mrs. C,

    I think the point of the article is that many people who do not have organic disabilities did poorly because they weren’t taught to read.

    The poor reading ability lead to poor performance in other areas and being labeled “learning disabled.” With better reading instruction, this group of people is decreasing.

    The article does not deny that there are a significant number of students who have “true disabilities.”

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Hasn’t this been one of the biggest concerns over the past many many years with education…kids did not know how to read, they could not comprehend and therefore were doing poorly in all subjects, were acting out in class, etc…all of which masked the underlying issue…teachers were failing to teach the students how to read and comprehend in the K-2 grades? Teachers for whatever reason did not have the skills to teach these kids to read. The kids were labeled “disabled” and sent off to life skills, MIP or who knows where. (Isn’t teaching kids to read taught to elementary teachers in ed school?)

    As reading instruction is improved the number of kids labeled special ed should fall. This is a good thing. If kids can read and comprehend maybe there will be less disruption in class, better academic performance, etc…

    My question on autism (and I do not understand the condition) is why does it seem more and more kids are now labeled autstic? Is this the latest fad or is there scientific (i.e. blood and/or chemical analysis) evidence that determines whether or not a child is autistic? I guess my question is this: are there clearer guidelines for diagnosing autism than ADD, ADHD, etc?

    I am truly asking to learn…not to offend. I honestly don’t understand the condition and have only been around one child who we believe is autistic in addition to having several other challenges.


  9. tim-10-ber,

    I’ll answer what I know about autism. There’s disagreement about why the rate of diagnosis has skyrocketed. Some think that environmental pollution or vaccines (largely discredited) are the main culprit. Others think greater awareness explains the increase. Autism is a spectrum disorder and there are no biological tests for diagnosis. A checklist of behaviors determines whether a child is labeled high/low functioning or Aspergers.

    Here is a link to the diagnosic criteria for Autism. Recently the DSM was altered as it relates to Asperger Syndrome.

  10. When it comes to autism, the other factor is that autism spectrum disorder was added as an IDEA eligibility category in the 90s. Before then it was only available under the category of Other Health Impairment. Additionally, before the early 90s, what got classified as autism was the most severe of cases.

    I am of the school of thought that recognition of autism among higher functioning individuals is a major part of the category increase.

    As for learning disabilities, like Mike43, I do a lot of eligibility testing and the change from discrepancy to either Response to Intervention or Patterns of Strengths and Weaknesses models has changed our pattern of identification. Current methods require a match of low performance between cognitive areas and academic performance as measured using the Woodcock Johnson III NU Tests of Cognition and Tests of Achievement (at least in my district). That’s the big change, not teaching methodology.

  11. In the old days, the severely autistic tended to be included in the non-specific “retarded” label and never entered the educational system – like the severe Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy and any other handicaps at that level, including psych.

    Kids on the mild end were unlikely to have had any actual diagnosis; they were just considered odd or geeky. It’s the same with ADD; those kids were just considered itchy and/or drifty (and I think that some normal boy behavior has been re-labelled as ADD, complicated with changes in curriculum and instruction).

  12. SuperSub says:

    Stacy –
    The Autism-MMR vaccine link is not ‘largely discredited’ but instead completely discredited. Andrew Wakefield’s paper was completely retracted by the Lancet and he was banned from practicing medicine in the UK. I don’t mean to be a pain in the butt on the wording, but this is one area where I am really passionate given the consequences of Wakefield’s lie.

    I took a lot of gifted and advanced classes when I was in school in the 80’s and 90’s… and I can tell you that I knew a few students who were considered quirky that would likely now be classified as high-functioning autistic.
    The stigma associated with identification has largely diminished and many parents seem to seek identification for their children no matter how minor the condition to give their children the best opportunity to succeed.

  13. On reading disability: States which compel attendance at age 5 ot 6 have lower NAEP 4th and 8th grade Reading and Math scores than States which compel attendance at age 7 or 8. Later is better. According to a US DOE official quoted in a Cato institute study of homeschooling, the rate of dyslexia in a population is inversely related to the age at which reading instruction is institutionalized. Later is better. Parents can teach infants to decode the phonetic alphabet before they can talk. Strangers will provoke an allergic reaction. There is a complicated relation between “can’t” and “don’t want to”.

    On autism: Autism likely has a strong genetic component. An increase in selective mating by males and females within occupations may explain the increase in diagnosis. That is, where once engineers married Home Ec majors and economists married ballerinas, today they meet their mates in the same classes, and people who take Calc IV marry others who take Calc IV. The sleeping-together of mathematical reasoning brings forth monsters.


  14. Is it correlation or causation? There are lots of other factors, both in-school (curriculum, instruction) and out-of-school (income/SES/education levels, urban/town/rural mix etc) that could affect scores, dyslexia and other LDs.

  15. Supersub, Yep, I agree. Andrew Wakefield is a top-shelf horse’s ass.

  16. My point being that you cannot HAVE a learning disability without an underlying neurological difference. Implying that you can “reduce” learning disabilities with better instruction is laughable. You can’t!
    We disagree. Repetition reduces the reisitance across synaptic gaps. Infant brains grow where stimulated and atrophy where unused. Aversive stimuli inhibit repetition and so influence the direction of growth. Childhood abuse can have lifelong effects, and A LOT of early compulsory schooling is abusive.

  17. Tom Cruise has dyslexia and yet he is a very successful actor.


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