Education Week reports (subscription?) that the number of special education students in the United States has been declining recently.
Several explanations are offered.
Ed Week says:
“About 80 percent of children who are classified as learning-disabled get the label because they’re struggling to read. So, scholars say, the dropping numbers could be linked to improvements in reading instruction overall; the adoption of “response to intervention,” which is an instructional model intended to halt the emergence of reading problems; and a federally backed push toward early intervention with younger students.”
Amplifying this point of view, Alexa E. Posny, the assistant secretary overseeing the US Department of Education’s office of special education and rehabilitative services says, “I believe we over identify children as learning-disabled. A number of students have just not been taught how to read.”
Ms. Posny talked about her experience in Kansas. She says that after the state adopted a “multi-tiered system of supports,” which is Kansas’ version of ‘Response to Intervention (RTI),’ enrollment in the learning-disability category dropped from 56,328 in 2005 to 55,834 in 2008.
RTI is a learning program for students who are encountering early learning problems. It is just starting to take hold in Kentucky. Under RTI, educators look first at their teaching methods rather than almost automatically blaming the child for having learning disabilities.
Of course, some nay-sayers have chimed in to blame No Child Left Behind, saying schools are just trying to avoid identifying too many kids as learning disabled so they won’t be held accountable for them separately under the federal accountability system. Maybe, but schools lose money when they don’t identify kids who need extra help. I’ll bet this is only a factor in a few schools that are right on the edge with their learning disabled student count.
For most schools, I think Ms. Posney’s comments are more on target. For years we over-identified kids as disabled when the real problem was bad teaching approaches like Whole Language Reading that didn’t work. Now, with better reading programs slowly coming into more widespread use, the learning disabled landscape is coming into sharper focus. The data are starting to show that there never really were all those learning disabled kids, just bad teaching programs.