Whether it’s dyslexia (a specific learning disability) or writing, attention, organization, or other learning and behavioral difficulties, children who struggle in school need teachers who can help them learn.
Sometimes that help can occur in a general class setting. Other times a child might benefit from small group or individualized assistance. That’s what special education has always been about.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) and Understood.org. published a paper called “Forward Together: Helping Educators Unlock the power of Students Who Learn Differently”. I have skimmed it and will read it more completely. It’s sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The report is like similar recent reports implying that general education teachers are not prepared to teach students with learning disabilities. This raises concerns about teacher training and credentials.
Why do general education teachers feel unprepared to work with students with learning disabilities? Perhaps it’s because they were never originally expected to work extensively with students with learning disabilities.
A trip down memory lane.
In the 1970s, following the signing of Public Law 94-142, the special education bill opening public schools to all students with disabilities, teacher education changed to accommodate students with difficulties learning.
Special education was broken into categories. One was Learning Disabilities or Specific Learning Disabilities.
To teach children with learning disabilities, a teacher had to have special university preparation.
Classes involved psychology, understanding learning disabilities, LD behavior, testing, identification, speech and language pathology, and language classes, some involving what’s called brain science today.
Corrective reading and how to pinpoint math disabilities was especially important.
Coursework concerned curriculum methods and materials and how to work with students. We used textbooks like Children with Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies by Janet W. Lerner.
Teachers participated in practicums and student teaching, which were supervised experiences working with children with learning disabilities in the classroom.
Teachers also had seminars where they wrote research papers about students with learning disabilities. I looked at the connection between juvenile delinquency and learning disabilities.
Once teachers completed their studies, they received state certification in Learning Disabilities to work with children, usually in resource classes. These classes were small. They provided an hour or two of extensive language arts and reading (with phonics) daily and/or math instruction to students with learning disabilities.
Learning disability specialists also collaborated with general ed. teachers to help students in the general classroom. We called it mainstreaming.
Public school administrators took state credentials seriously. For example, I taught in a high school in need of a math teacher with LD credentials. They hired a general ed. math teacher, but the job was conditional until they earned LD credentials.
Why don’t teachers get specialized instruction in learning disabilities like they used to?
Why does it fall on the general ed. teacher to be responsible for students with learning disabilities? Most teachers today get little instruction about learning disabilities.
What happened to strict credential requirements of teachers who will work with students who have learning disabilities?
Politicians and corporate shills never wanted to pay for special education. So, they chipped away at the rules. In the late 90s the federal government decided to reauthorize PL 94-142 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Many activists advocated for children with learning disabilities to be in general classes. Parents were led to believe that special classes weren’t good.
This had a name. It was called the Regular Education Initiative or REI. It was controversial and divided parents and scholars.
Special ed. professor James M. Kauffman said:
The REI is, however, consistent with the Reagan-Bush policy objectives of reducing federal influence and expenditures for education, which have resulted in declining federal support for programs designed to ensure equity in education of the disadvantaged and handicapped.
Laurence Lieberman, former special education teacher and learning-disabilities coordinator for the U.S. Office of Education and chairman of the special education doctoral program at Boston College, described IDEA 97 as changing the focus from individualization, the original intent of the law, to general education.
Parents have been duped into thinking that their children will be better off with group process than with individual attention to their needs.
IDEA was reauthorized further in 2004. As the report above notes: In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reaffirmed the rights of children with disabilities to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
Many parents no longer wanted individual support. They wanted their children to be in general classes where they would do standardized work and take the standardized tests like all students.
They were also originally promised that their children would get support in the inclusive class from a learning disability specialist. I wonder where this still happens.
Intensive teacher preparation for learning disabilities fell by the wayside.
Not only do general ed. teachers take few courses in learning disabilities, most have large class sizes. This makes it difficult to address the individual needs of students with learning disabilities.
Parents don’t seem to question why their child isn’t getting the individualized attention they need and deserve in a resource class.
But they often worry that their children may not be identified as having learning disabilities, or that they aren’t getting the services they need in the general education class.
It could be due to efforts to keep children out of special education. Many politicians and corporate school reformers still want to deny students public school special education assistance.
For children who really do have learning disabilities, the special help they should be getting with a well-prepared credentialed teacher who studies learning disabilities is lost.
It’s a good idea to revisit the past and study how we used to help children with learning disabilities.
And, by all means…start with teacher education.
James M. Kauffman. “The Regular Education Initiative as Reagan-Bush Education Policy: A Trickle Down Theory of Education of the Hard-to-Teach.” Journal of Special Education. 22(3), 1989.
Lawrence M. Lieberman. “The Death of Special Education.” Education Week. 20.