Children and Special Education Services
Improving Educational Programs for Pupils with Disabilities
For educational programs for pupils with disabilities to improve, several things must occur:
- Regular education personnel must become collaboratively involved in identification, instructional adaptation, IEP development, and the monitoring of the learning progress.
- Special education personnel must become collaboratively involved with regular education personnel and develop a close familiarity with regular education curriculum goals and materials.
- The educational focus for pupils with disabilities must become success on achieving state academic standards in the regular classroom.
- Special education must be viewed as a short-term intervention in most cases, and some near-term end point must be identified when a student will no longer need special education support.
- Special education programs cannot be administered from afar. Each school must have the flexibility to design appropriate interventions without much regard for past practices or some standard program.
- Accountability for academic acceleration of the academic growth of students with disabilities must be implemented.
Children and Special Education Services
Three categories of special education classifications account for about two of every three children identified as pupils with disabilities: learning disability, attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, and behavior disordered/emotionally impaired. Because these classifications are so prevalent and because so little evidence exists to support current educational interventions as providing any substantial academic benefit, we discuss each of these classifications in some detail.
It has been 30-plus years since learning disability (LD) became a recognized (and reimbursable) handicapping condition. Today over half of all children receiving special education services are pupils identified as persons with learning disability. Spear-Swerling and Sternberg (1996) provide a readable and comprehensive treatment of the development of the LD field and the issues to be confronted. Suffice it to say that even today there exists little evidence that children identified as having learning disability differ cognitively from other low-achieving students. The former are usually children experiencing difficulty in learning, especially in learning to read and write. They are usually children from low-income families. They often exhibit some difficulties in social skills or aggressive behaviors. They often exhibit difficulties in language-learning areas. But LD is a socially constructed belief system, not a demonstrated cognitive/neurological disorder or deficit. Identification of learning disability depends on the beliefs of the school personnel, not on a particular array of behaviors or test results. The child with LD in one school is the child with attention deficit disorder in another, the slow learner in another, the emotionally disturbed child in another, the remedial reader in another, and the language-impaired child in yet another school (Allington, 2002b).
This is not meant to deny that some children experience substantial difficulties with literacy learning. Instead, it is meant to point out simply that the label of learning disability does little to address the instructional problems some children present. There is good evidence that children identified as having learning disability benefit most from larger amounts of higher-quality literacy instruction than is usually needed by other children to succeed (Foorman & Torgeson, 2001). There is no good evidence that children with learning disability benefit from specific curricular approaches often touted as the solution to their problems. Some children simply need more and better instruction, and children with LD are among those children. Vellutino and his colleagues (1996) provided dramatic evidence that only 1 to 2 percent of students proved resistant to intensive remediation. He provided individual tutoring or very small-group intensive remediation to all K–2 students who needed it, regardless of the reason (e.g., absences due to illness, inadequate classroom instruction, difficulty learning). His tutoring was generally modeled after the lesson design offered in Reading Recovery sessions (Clay, 1991) and offered lots of reading and writing combined with explicit skills and strategies instruction. At the end of second grade, roughly 1 percent of all children met the achievement criteria for identification as children with LD, far fewer than the roughly 5 to 10 percent of students so identified in most schools.
Mathes and her colleagues (Mathes, Denton, Fletcher, Anthony, Francis, & Schatschneider, 2005) contrasted effects of two quite different early interventions. One was a direct instruction intervention with scripted lessons and a sequential organization of decoding lessons. The other provided no scripted guidance and offered no sequential organization of decoding; it instead relied on the tutors to organize lessons based on student responses. Intervention lessons were offered to groups of three low-achieving readers daily. The interventions were delivered by certified special education or reading teachers who selected which intervention model they would teach.
The results indicated both interventions were comparably effective with both reducing the proportion of kids performing below the 30th percentile to roughly 1 percent of the total population. Both had comparable impacts on achievement as measured by effect sizes. Small differences did appear with the direct-instruction students demonstrating better word attack, while the responsive intervention students had better fluency performances. But there were no differences on broad measures of reading achievement. No child characteristics were found to interact with intervention type. In other words, both early intervention models worked to accelerate the reading achievement of struggling readers. This raises the question of whether we debate the specifics too much while ignoring the generalized finding that intensive, expert early intervention is a critical component in schools where all children become readers and writers.
These researchers noted that many of the children they served found learning to read difficult. But these children were not "disabled" in any medical, physiological, or neurological sense. They just needed more intensive and more expert instruction than most children. We agree with the researchers' assessment. The danger in identifying such children as "disabled" is that expectations have often been lowered, curriculum was watered down, and the intensive intervention needed was not offered.
In addition, the current fragmented curriculum that many students with learning disability receive produces disastrous results, which seem to stem from the fact that these children benefit most from a consistent and coherent curricular approach to teaching them to read and write. Very simply, LD might be thought of as "cognitive confusion" about literacy learning. Programs that present children with LD with multiple curriculum emphases and changing curriculum demands cannot be expected to produce "cognitive clarity" and successful literacy acquisition. But many schools continue to buy and use an alternative curriculum approach in a pull-out program with these students. Unfortunately, such decisions reflect nothing that we have learned about teaching struggling readers, including students with learning disability, to read.
The exemplary teacher studies (Allington & Johnston, 2002; Pressley et al., 2001; Taylor et al., 2000) suggest that the best hope for children with LD is a strong classroom literacy program taught by an expert classroom teacher who is provided adequate support in adapting instruction in a highly personalized fashion. Currently, children with learning disability are among those students most likely to drop out of school and most likely to enter adulthood with low levels of literacy and limited employment skills. Obviously, the programs now in place too often fail to provide substantial academic benefit to those students.
© ______ 2007, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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