Can We Prevent Learning Disabilities?

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


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

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

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

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

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Five of the six meetings today were routine, almost formalities. We had\nmeetings to discuss whether a particular student needed to continue seeing this\nor that specialist for a particular problem. We had two meetings to discuss the\nstatus of a child's disability; a requirement that comes around every three\nyears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greg Cruey, Guest Blogger

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