Specific Learning Disabilities –  What we don’t know has hurt us

Specific Learning Disabilities –  What we don’t know has hurt us

For anyone who has been involved in special education as a practitioner or policy maker for more than, say, 10 minutes, the term “specific learning disability” must have an odd connotation because there is nothing “specific” about the diagnosis.

On the contrary, the label SLD covers a broad range of difficulties that may be associated with reading, math, writing, spelling, attention, motor skills, or memory – to name just a few. And the approaches to teaching and remediation for the wide range of students who fit into this broad categorical description are every bit as diverse as the traits associated with the disability itself. 

So the authors of the “State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues,” recently released by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, certainly had their work cut out for them as they attempted to navigate their way through the various facts, numbers, legal requirements, state regulations, and philosophies associated with SLD.

They did it, though, and they did it well, beginning with an overview of the topic then proceeding through public perceptions, LDs in the schools, learning disabilities in adult life, and finally concluding with a look at future possibilities in the “Emerging Issues” chapter. The report is imminently readable and a scrupulous resource for statistics and relevant information pertaining to this disability category – the largest group – 42 percent – identified under IDEA, according to the document.

But, for all its merits, the report fails to resolve – perhaps because they extend beyond the scope of this release but more likely because they are unresolved in the literature at this point in time – the three crucial questions pertaining to the topic:

  • Why do the identification rates vary so dramatically from state to state and among ethnic categories?
  • What are the underlying mental functions that result in learning disabilities?
  • And finally, most importantly, what is the best way to approach instruction with this group?

These issues are summarily addressed but barely explored and that treatment is indicative of the way special educators throughout the nation have considered their approach to teaching young people with learning disabilities.

With respect to that first question: If Iowa identifies 8.42 percent of the school population with an SLD and Kentucky finds 2.04 percent eligible in in this category (as of 2009-10 as stated in another recent study released by the Fordham Institute), then something is amiss with the definition, or the standardization of the assessment procedures, or the manner of interpretation of the guidelines for eligibility, or all three.

In regard to the second: If a processing disorder is cognitive as opposed to perceptual or neurological then the diagnostic element in the instructional design must be radically different.

And finally, pertaining to the third issue, remediation requires a conscious choice between content-based teaching in contrast to instruction directed toward the thinking process itself while most teachers only have training in the former, in spite of evidence from researchers like Feuerstein, Sternberg, and Deshler (who actually wrote the foreword for “The State of Learning Disabilities”) to the contrary.

There is an invaluable trove of research regarding learning disabilities but what is lacking is a model that synthesizes the data into a theoretical framework that can be used for planning and program development. What is necessary is a sort of unified field theory of learning and concomitant deficits that is widely accepted in the schools. Then and only then will educators be able to sharpen their perspective on this sprawling disability category and then effect a change for the better in the way these students learn.

Dr. Lee Funk served more than 30 years in the public schools, including stints as a superintendent, director of special programs, principal, and teacher. Most of his career has been dedicated to working with or on behalf of students with disabilities or conduct problems and today he serves as Director of Special Education at School Innovations and Achievement. His columns are now a regular feature of Cabinet Report.

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