Is it possible to prevent learning disabilities? There's a policy push to do just that, and it was the main focus of the 2004 revisions to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

My afternoon today was consumed with meetings. When I worked at the college level we used to joke that meetings were the logical alternative to work. But today's meetings were less frivolous...

Normally I spend my afternoon working through some very scripted reading interventions with small groups of students that I pull out of their classrooms – some fifth graders, some fourth graders, and a mixed group of first and second graders. Today those students stayed in their classrooms, and my afternoon was instead spent in a series of IEP meetings.

If you're not familiar with IEP meetings, let me introduce the concept. The acronym stands for Individualized Education Program. Students who have been determined to have an educational disability under IDEA have an IEP, a document that describes how their school is accommodating that disability at the moment.

The meetings were chaired by my principal and they took place in her office. A specialist for the central office was present today. Obviously I was in the meetings. The classroom teacher that has the child also sat in on each meeting and contributed to the discussions that took place. And when we're lucky, the child's parent comes to the meeting. At this school, we're generally lucky in that way; but today we didn't have parents in most of meeting - although we'd talked to them about what was going to happen in the meetings.

Five of the six meetings today were routine, almost formalities. We had meetings to discuss whether a particular student needed to continue seeing this or that specialist for a particular problem. We had two meetings to discuss the status of a child's disability; a requirement that comes around every three years.

One of the meetings was not particularly routine. It was a meeting to decide whether a particular student had a disability – whether, under IDEA 2004, they were eligible for services as a special education student. For obvious reasons of confidentiality, I can't say much about the child or the meeting. But I can tell you that the process of identifying some disabilities is vague and slippery.

Emotional disturbance (some states call them behavior disorders) are very real. But federal law is so vague that they are almost impossible to legally define. Children with emotional disturbances make up only a very small portion of those who qualify to be served under IDEA. But students who have learning disabilities make up a much larger portion of the special education population.

Until 2004 we had a pretty clear definition of learning disabilities. It wasn't a very good one. We called it the discrepancy model. It was clear as a bell – a mathematical definition of a disability. Unfortunately, it was a time consuming definition to satisfy and it often meant allowing a child to fail a grade as proof that they needed help. For years we did this to kids...

IDEA 2004 came up with an entirely new definition of learning disabilities. Conceptually, it's rather clear. A learning disability is evidenced by the failure of a child to respond to academic interventions designed to bring his or her achievement up to grade level. Those are my words, not a technical quote. The difficulty now is that we are grappling with just what those interventions should be, and what level of response is sufficient to avoid the determination that a child does in fact have a disability. And as a result, there's not nearly as much certainty in the process as there once was.

If you are an idealistic optimist you will say that one of the main goals of the new law is to use intervention to prevent a child's problems from ever developing into a disability. If you are a cynic you will scoff that the new law's goal is just as I phrased it above - to avoid the determination that a child has a disability, even if they really do. But either way, you are begging the question of what actually constitutes a learning disability. It's a question I expect to keep begging for a few years.

So I go back to my original question: Is it possible to prevent learning disabilities?

The irony of the new law is that a breakthrough in medical research that occurred at about the time the new law was passed challenges some of its assumptions. Somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of children classified as having learning disabilities are thought to be dyslexic. And about the time the President signed the new law on educational disabilities, a medical researcher published findings that showed that a dyslexia gene exists. A year later, two more genes connected to dyslexia were discussed at a meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.

The question of whether we can prevent learning disabilities may now be largely a question of whether or not we can prevent a genetic condition. And as for identifying them, a cheek swab or simple blood test at birth may soon accomplish that.

I suspect that the policy makers will all have to rethink learning disabilities again soon – maybe before the 2004 revisions to IDEA even get fully implemented in most states...

Greg Cruey, Guest Blogger