Education Opinion

Facing the ‘Learning Disabilities’ Crisis

By Diane McGuinness — February 05, 1986 10 min read

The recent drive to promote excellence in education and the accompanying cutbacks in federal funding due to the budget deficit predict a stormy passage ahead. As the effort to improve educational standards and to accomplish this with dwindling resources goes forward, though the educational community may become poorer financially, one hopes it may become richer in wisdom. With every crisis comes a reexamination, and with a reexamination comes greater insight.

A major confrontation has already occurred between Massachusetts and the U.S. Education Department. Last summer, the department cut the state’s funding for its grant under P.L. 94-142 because the state had exceeded the limit for special-education aid-set at 12 percent of a state’s total 5- through 17- year-old population. (See Education Week, Oct. 2,1985.) It is revealing to focus on this issue, because it highlights a number of problem’ in our education system, not merely the plight of students in need of special remedial help. The major question to be addressed is why Massachusetts and other states’ as well are nearing, or have reached, the 12 percent limit. Part of the problem, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, is states’ extension of the age range to cover 3- to 21-yearoIds, instead of the original mandate of ages 5 to 17. But more important is the growing number of “learning-disabled” children in the special-education population, which more than doubled in the period from 1976-77 to 1983-84.

This fact poses two key questions. First, how is it possible for learning-disabled populations to increase when they are calculated on the basis of a percentage of student norms? And second, what does the term “learning disabilities” really mean?

The first question is easier to answer. In current practice, a child is classified as learning-disabled if he or she falls at some point below national norms on achievement-test batteries, most typically reading tests. In other words, an L.D. child is one who is statistically below some arbitrary cut-off point. If the norms are not revised annually, and if the reading scores in many districts are declining, then more-and more children will fall below the cut-off. This problem would be solved if the norms were revised and the cut-off score moved down accordingly.

Current belief about what constitutes a learning disability, however, is not confined to the mere fact that a child is statistically below some average. That brings us to the second question. The answer it generally, it is impossible to define learning disabilities. This is because the term reflects a categorical error in thinking. “Learning disabilities” is used as a superordinate category to include a number of different learning problems in the same way that “furniture” refers to a range of objects used around the house. True superordinate categories are not only rare, but also difficult to define. For example, furniture can be defined as: everything found around the house or workplace that makes it possible to avoid having to conduct one’s daily activities on the floor. When one attempts to use learning disabilities as a superordinate category, this definition results: the failure to learn anything at a normal rate for whatever reason.

This immediately highlights a number of interesting issues. Does the inability to play baseball, perform on a musical instrument, or tap-dance constitute a learning disability? And if not, why not? Does a learning problem arise because of a low I.Q., a lack of interest in or talent for the particular activity, a dislike of the teacher, emotional problems at home, or just plain bad pedagogy? In other words, the term “learning disability” is so vague that it has no explanatory power.

Viewed in this way, it is obvious that, in practice, the learning-disabled child is any who fails to learn what society wants him or her to learn. We do not call children learning-disabled because they show no musical or athletic ability. Instead, we refer to this deficiency as a “lack of talent.” Whereas we acknowledge a broad range of individual differences in talent, we assume that all children should show an identical aptitude for equally difficult skills such as reading and writing. Furthermore, they should exhibit this aptitude no matter how badly they are taught.

In the final analysis, L.D. populations include two major categories: “dyslexia” (reading poorly) and ''hyperactivity’’ (getting on everyone’s nerves). In some school districts, difficulties in mathematics--often referred to as “math phobia"- are also included.

During the past decade or so, as the numbers of these dyslexic, hyperactive, and math-phobic children have expanded, more and more parents, teachers, and clinicians have come to view these children as exhibiting some neurological disorder. Indeed, the terms “hyperactivity” and “minimal brain damage” are often used interchangeably. What has happened is that pupils of completely normal intelligence who fall afoul of the educational system for one or more of a multitude of reasons have come to be viewed as yet another category of brain-damaged children, along with the mentally retarded, the autistic, and those with Downs Syndrome. This categorization has occurred despite the fact that-in more than two decades of research-scientists have been unable to determine any type of brain damage, minimal or otherwise, in either dyslexic or hyperactive children.

Although some forms of brain damage can disrupt the reading process, one cannot reason in reverse that an inability to read is indicative of brain damage, because the brain is not biologically programmed to read any more than it is programmed to compose music, repair washing machines, or build a rocketship. All of these abilities depend on both individual talent and the acquisition of a learned skill. A phonetic alphabet, musical form and notation, electronics, and mechanics are inventions, and not biological propensities of every human brain. Learning to read is not the same thing as learning to walk or talk.

Hyperactivity accompanies a variety of types of physical or chemical brain damage, but only in a minute fraction of the population-less than 1 percent. Yet some districts classify up to 10 or 15 percent of schoolchildren as hyperactive. When one considers that 90 percent of these hyperactive children are boys, this represents a figure of 20 to 30 percent of all schoolboys. In addition, boys make up 75 percent of remedial-reading pupils. Though we know that children often become ''hyperactive” because they have learning problems, this means that----even allowing for some overlap-many school districts are classifying up to 35 percent of all male students as abnormal or brain-damaged. That makes complete nonsense of the word “normal.”

These examples show that the problem of overinclusion is not just a minor statistical shift, but a major social disaster. It is estimated that approximately 750,000 schoolboys are being treated with psychostimulant medication for “hyperactivity.” Reducing these children to a semi-stuporous state gets them out of the teachers’ hair, but there is no evidence that passivity or drugs improve academic performance (and much evidence to the contrary).

Research continually fails to di cover any difference between hyperactive boys and normal boys, if achievement scores and I.Q. are controlled, except that the hyperactive ones seem relatively immune to adult control, especially in the classroom. Furthermore, scientists interested in the motivational impact of a drug regime have discovered that drugs become a psychological crutch, leading the child to believe that his irritating behavior is not his fault-thus perpetuating his failure to acquire self-discipline.

How and why has this problem of overinclusion arisen? Does it have something to do with the fact that as more children are classified as learning-disabled and more L.D. categories are invented, more federal and state funding pours into school coffers? Does the explosion in the number of hyperactive children have something to do with the marketing efforts of drug companies? Does the diagnosis of hyperactivity, which is carried out entirely by the teacher and/or parent (there is no clinical diagnosis), represent a lazy solution to teaching self-control? Does the problem have something to do with declining standards in the schools? Is it the result of poor teaching?

I think that all these questions can be answered in the affirmative. The problem is not unidimensional, but multidimensional. There are thousands of children in need of remedial help because of problems in our educational system. We need extra funds to help those children who have missed out on critical skills. But what is really needed to change the situation is more funds for programs that have been shown by experimental test to prevent problems in learning and behavior from arising in the first place. If, given increasing federal and state fiscal troubles, schools are going to have to work with more limited budgets, they had better understand which eggs go into which basket. It is time that the scientific research on learning to read, on learning math, and on acquiring self-control be brought into the mainstream and taught in teachers’ colleges.

There is not space in this essay to consider in detail the many outstanding techniques that have been developed to teach children the concepts essential to reading and math and to help them overcome behavior problems. I can, though, mention a few of the most noteworthy approaches.

A relatively recent method of teaching reading, developed by Pat and Charles Lindamood of the Lindamood Clinic in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has been shown by rigorous experimental testing to be 100 percent effective, even with adult dyslexics and children with extreme language delays. In a recent experiment with 1st-grade children who used the Lindamood method, not one child entered 2nd grade with a reading level below 3rd grade. At the end of the 1st grade, approximately one-third of the children had “word attack” skills at the college-age level. There is no reason why the method cannot be taught in teachers’ colleges. Instead, the current situation is that the Lindamoods are singlehandedly attempting to retrain teachers through workshops.

A method with a similar success rate in teaching math has been devised by Patricia Davidson at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Davidson, like many others, has discovered that math concepts cannot be taught in the absence of any understanding of the concrete principles involved. But she has also been able to formulate and devise a number of manipulatives and to discover which work best for which particular types of skills. Like the Lindamoods, she has not been able to implement her outstanding methods at the teacher-training level, but instead conducts workshops that attempt to undo the damage already wrought.

As for behavioral problems, 20 years of work by Daniel and Susan O’Leary at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has shown that ''hyperactive’’ children can be induced to learn self-control through behavior modification in conjunction with a focus on academic pursuits-but not in the absence of this focus. In other words, children with problems in conduct or self-discipline need to know why they are in school and must acquire the confidence that competence affords. Some children become hyperactive because of learning problems, and the method relates directly to their needs. Others, who are hyperactive because of temperament or a failure in self-discipline, giving rise to sloppy and ineffective work habits, are provided with a temporal structure that enables them to achieve the sustaining impact of accomplishing short-term goals. The O’Learys have been able to train classroom teachers and parents in this regime in a matter of weeks. Thus it is well within the capability of teacher-training institutions to instruct their students in the use of such techniques.

It is clear that we are in a crisis in dealing with the learning-disabled. A radical change is required to get us on the right path. All of the techniques are available to enable us to prevent children from failing to learn what we want them to learn. It is time that these techniques were brought into the mainstream, and it is time that we stopped blaming children for our failure to understand how they need to be taught.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1986 edition of Education Week