Congress has the opportunity to make real and needed changes in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In fact, some of the working drafts of the reauthorizing legislation that have been circulating did indeed include many of the much-needed revisions. But suddenly, Congress seems staged to cave in to special interests who would benefit from perpetuating the status quo-and substantially undermine the suggested changes that would most benefit the children served under the IDEA.
While many are concerned that special education populations are at an all-time high and rising steadily, too few seem concerned that there is substantial evidence that far too many special education programs do not produce an acceleration of academic achievement. The situation seems most untenable for the largest and fastest-growing special education population: children identified as learning-disabled. These are children and adolescents with normal intellectual capacity but who experience unexpected difficulties with academic learning, especially learning to read and write. Most studies suggest that about 80 percent of all children identified as learning-disabled experienced some substantial difficulty in learning to read. But few of these students seem to learn to read in special education classes or with assistance from a special education teacher, a school psychologist, a speech therapist, a physical therapist, or the other professionals who provide services reimbursable under the current IDEA. It is difficult to arrive at any firm estimate of the successes of these children after participating in special education programs because neither state nor federal education agencies have ever routinely collected outcome data for them. What we do know, from several federally funded studies, is that the student identified as learning-disabled is far too likely to drop out of school and is unlikely to achieve more than the most basic levels of literacy.
On the other hand, we have good evidence from researchers like Robert Slavin, Frank Vellutino, Irene Gaskins, Donald Deshler, and Carol Lyons that most children who will be identified as learning-disabled can, in fact, be taught to read and write---effective instructional programs do accelerate their literacy learning. Mr. Vellutino’s work (noted in the August 1995 issue of Scientific American) indicates that only 0.5 percent of the children failed to make adequate reading progress when provided intensive, effective, and early literacy instruction (a failure-to-thrive rate far below current levels of identification a learning- disabled). Both Mr. Slavin and Ms. Lyons, in particular, provide similar evidence of the effectiveness of providing children who find learning to read and write difficult with access to high-quality early-intervention programs.
But most school districts do not provide effective early, intensive intervention for these struggling early readers. Cost is the usual explanation. But the answer goes beyond just costs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not reward districts for providing early intervention unless the child is identified as having a disability. Even then the early intervention is often delivered by personnel not well-trained in early literacy but whose salaries are reimbursable under IDEA. Thus, children who need effective early-literacy interventions are served instead by specialists in learning disabilities, speech therapists, physical therapists, or, too often, by an untrained special- education-funded paraprofessional.
It is no wonder that children who have early, and often severe, difficulties with literacy acquisition seldom become fluent readers and writers in this system. Unfortunately, few state certification requirements for special education personnel require in-depth professional preparation in literacy instruction or acquisition. In fact, many preparation programs for special education personnel require no such preparation before students earn their graduate degrees in special education. (The situation is similar for mathematics).
So districts hire the personnel with the appropriate certification but too often without the professional preparation needed to adequately address the most common and compelling difficulty faced by students identified as learning-disabled. Congress has three opportunities to alter this situation but seems poised to ignore all three.
Requiring that all special education students’ achievement be reported with other achievement reports would be a good first step (for example, requiring participation in district, state, and national assessment programs). Shining the light of public accountability would, perhaps, force educators (and legislators) to confront the terrible realities that many students in special education face each day: They benefit little academically from participating in these programs. Without requiring participation in current public accountability, Congress is effectively allowing education’s dirtiest little secret to remain a secret. Of course, requiring participation will force us to confront any number of psycho metric and ethical issues, but these issues must be confronted to shed light on the larger issue of student benefits from special education services. Allowing schools to continue to exempt students with disabilities from public-accountability frameworks also continues the current incentive to identify low-achieving children as disabled in order to artificially enhance reported student-achievement levels (removing the lowest-achieving children from the public-accountability reports raises the reported achievement).
Second, Congress could include content specialists under the “related services” provisions of the IDEA. Including reading and math specialists in this category would allow districts to garner the much-desired monetary reimbursements for assigning these personnel to work with children with disabilities. Of course, given the enormity of the reading problem among children with disabilities, some are very concerned about the potential added costs such a shift might entail. But the cost issue is largely irrelevant. How many econometric studies must be done that show that effective and appropriate early intervention is far more cost-effective than the current common practice of later, ineffective, and long-term interventions? Some seem to fear that including reading and math specialists in the related-services category might be interpreted by some parents as suggesting that their children, too, should learn to read, write, and calculate. One opponent went so far as to suggest that such a provision might open the door to more lawsuits if students identified as learning-disabled failed to learn to read. Possibly. But that possibility exists now, especially given the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Shannon Carter v Florence County, S.C. case. The real issue here is whether schools should be required to offer teachable kids sufficient opportunities to learn to read, write, and calculate. Such opportunities are available only when these children have access to intensive, appropriate instruction. And such instruction seems more likely when the professional personnel have had sufficient professional preparation themselves in the processes that need to be taught.
The third action Congress could take is to require that schools actually demonstrate that some adaptation of regular-education instruction was attempted and failed before the child is identified as handicapped. Some have suggested that schools be required to provide a year of individual tutoring before classifying any student as learning-disabled. Others have suggested that schools provide at least a summer school intervention before classification. In both cases the issue is an attempt to rule out inadequate instruction a the source of limited academic progress. Given the evidence on the effectiveness of tutorials and extended-time interventions, such a requirement should get serious consideration. But at the very least, schools should not be allowed to continue to identify children as disabled with no requirement that modifications to regular practice have been attempted and demonstrated to be unsatisfactory. The House version of the IDEA reauthorization contains a new provision that would not allow schools to identify a child as having a disability if that disability was determined to arise from a “lack of instruction, including instruction in reading and math.” But that language suggests that only children who have not attended school or who never received any reading or math instruction would be disqualified. What about the many children that only receive the standard classroom instruction in reading and math and fail to benefit much from it? Do we really need to perpetuate a system that literally requires identification as a child with disabilities before any extraordinary instructional support is offered?
Opponent of this provision worry about the extra paperwork that might be involved in demonstrating that extraordinary instructional support was offered and failed to much benefit the child. But what about the unnecessary expenses and unfortunate futures of children misidentified when schools refuse to adapt, improve, or intensify the instruction that proved ineffective in the first place?
Congress is a political place, and political expediency is overtaking common sense right now. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a boon for many children identified as handicapped. But it needs substantial revision if children with disabilities are to be better served. Currently, the IDEA provides enormous incentives for dumping low-achieving children into special education and then providing services that produce minimal academic benefits. Unless Congress acts swiftly and decisively, children who find learning to read and write difficult will have to wait another five years for the changes that might improve their access to effective academic instruction.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 1996 edition of Education Week