Current Perspectives on Learning Disabilities: Volume 16


Table of contents

(16 chapters)

Students with learning disabilities constitute the single largest category of special education need. Early identification and intervention of learning disabilities can positively impact a child’s academic performance by making achievement possible. Undetected learning disability may lead even an adult student to struggle with poor grades, low self-esteem, loss of interest in higher education, and reduced employment opportunities. Thus, learning disabilities, though considered both high-incidence and often mild in the continuum of disabling conditions, have a significant long-term impact on education, social adjustment and career achievement.

Four types of calculations are currently being used to identify discrepancies between intellectual ability and achievement. These include deviation from grade level, expectancy formulas, simple standard score differences, and regression-based differences (Fletcher et al., 1994; Gresham, 2001; Sattler, 1992; Van den Broeck, 2002).

Research in the area of NLD reports diagnostic criteria, assessment methods and treatment strategies derived from case studies and clinical experiments involving small number of participants and controls. The American Psychiatric Association reported that approximately 1% of school-age children have a mathematics disability (APA, 2003). Wicks-Nelson and Israel (2003) suggested that there is “scant information about prevalence and outcome for mathematics disorder” (p. 277). The prevalence of NLD has not been reported in research literature.

Based on the aforementioned data, the risk index (RI) identifies the percentage of all students of a given racial/ethnic group in a given disability category. The RI is calculated by dividing the number of students in a given racial/ethnic group served in a given disability category (e.g. LD) by the total enrollment for that racial/ethnic group in the school population. The 1998 OCR data revealed risk indices for all racial/ethnic groups that were higher for LD than those found for MR. The NRC (2002) report stated that, “Asian/Pacific Islander have placement rates of 2.23%. Rates for all other racial/ethnic groups exceed 6%, and for American Indian/Alaskan Natives, the rate reached 7.45%” (p. 47). The second index, odds ratio, provides a comparative index of risk and is calculated by dividing the risk index on one racial/ethnic group by the risk index of another racial/ethnic group. In the OCR and OSEP databases, the odds ratios are reported relative to White students. If the risk index is identical for a particular minority group and White students, the odds ratio will equal 1.0. Odds ratios greater than 1.0 indicate that minority group students are at a greater risk of identification, while odds ratios of less than 1.0 indicate that they are less at risk. Using the 1998 OCR placement rates, the LD odds ratio for American Indian/Alaskan Natives is 1.24, showing that they have a 24% greater likelihood of being assigned to the LD category than White students. Odds ratios for Asian/Pacific Islander are low (0.37). For both Black and Hispanic students, the odds ratios are close to 1.0. The third index, composition index (CI), shows the proportion of all children served under a given disability category who are members of a given racial/ethnic group and is calculated by dividing the number of students of a given racial or ethnic group enrolled in a particular disability category. Two underlying assumptions of the CI are that the sum of composition indices for the five racial/ethnic groups will total 100%, and baseline enrollment of a given racial/ethnic group is not controlled. More specifically, the CI may be calculated using the percent of 6- through 21-year old population with the racial/ethnic composition of IDEA and U.S. census population statistics. For example, if 64% of the U.S. population is White, 15% is Black, 16% is Hispanic, 4% is Asian, and 1% is American Indian these data not interpretable without knowing the percentage of the racial/ethnic composition with IDEA. Hypothetically, IDEA data may show that of the 6–21 year olds served under IDEA, 63% are White, 20% are Black, 14% are Hispanic, 2% are Asian, and 1% is American Indian. To calculate disproportionality, a benchmark (e.g. 10%) against which to measure the difference between these percentages must be used. If the difference between the two percentages and the difference represented as a proportion of the group’s percent of population exceeds +10, then the racial/ethnic group is overrepresented. Conversely, if the difference between the two percentages and the difference represented as a proportion of the group’s percent of the population is larger than −10, then, the racial/ethnic group is underrepresented.

For many years it has been speculated that some learning and attention problems in children are related to underlying problems in neurological functioning. In fact, the IDEA (1997) definition of learning disabilities utilizes terminology that specifically includes neurological processes and conditions: Specific learning disabilities means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.This chapter begins with a review of the role of neuroimaging in advancing an understanding of the basis and nature of learning and attention problems. The ever-increasing sophistication of neurodiagnostic technology has made it possible to obtain more precise information about neuroanatomical and neurophysiological bases of behavior, including learning and attention. Advances in technology have greatly increased the ability to study the functioning of the brain during the performance of relatively complex mental activities. With this advanced technology it is becoming increasingly possible to visualize normal and abnormal brain functioning, including important components of basic academic skills. The chapter includes a discussion of the recent evidence about the neurological basis of learning and attention problems.

Past and current legislative actions have impacted why curriculum must be modified. At the time of writing this chapter, the IDEA 1997 is up for reauthorization. Concurrently, NCLB was signed into law followed by a report submitted to the President by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. This Commission summarized its findings after communications with various stakeholders vested in the educational performance of students with disabilities. In the NCLB report and IDEA reauthorization debates, concerns over students with LD access to the general curriculum were highlighted. There are revelations that limited access to the general curriculum was synonymous with students with LD not participating in state assessments. The standards based reform movement has been anchored in the belief that students with disabilities should be included in state assessments, thus transforming the curriculum to meet all students’ needs.

Consideration can be defined as the process of giving careful thought to something. When an IEP team considers the instructional programming and related goals and objectives for a student identified eligible for special education services, the process gives careful attention to a multitude of factors from different perspectives that result in individualized instruction for that student. Similarly, when assistive technology is considered for students with certain learning characteristics, careful attention must be given to ensure that the recommended assistive technology is required for the student to be successful and reflects an appropriate match between him/her and the tools (Zabala, 1995, 1996). For example, given that prescription eyeglasses can be considered assistive technology, and that a certain degree of visual acuity is generally needed in order for an individual to visually access print, one can see the importance of ensuring that the prescription is indeed required for an individual to perform and is appropriately matched to the visual needs of the individual. If eyeglasses are arbitrarily assigned to an individual, they may serve as an obstacle for the individual to see properly, thus, hampering his/her overall performance.

The National Information Center for Children and Youths with Disabilities (NICHCY, 1999) listed five purposes of assessment: (1) screening; (2) evaluation; (3) eligibility and diagnosis; (4) IEP development; and (5) instructional planning. Screening is concerned with identifying students who are suspected of having a disability. In the area of LD, assessors would be evaluating children who are exhibiting learning difficulties or delays in acquiring academic skills. Data from the screening would point out the degree to which these students with suspected LD are approximating average academic growth patterns. Students with extremely deficient skills would be recommended for a full evaluation. This evaluation would delineate the student’s strengths and weaknesses, and overall academic progress across the curriculum. Evaluation would encompass three areas, namely, pre-academic, academic, and learning style assessment. Pre-academic assessment provides information related to a student’s status on prerequisite behaviors (e.g. attention to task) that need to be acquired before instruction in an academic domain (e.g. math) occurs. Academic assessment allows educators to: pinpoint deficit academic readiness skills; describe a student’s overall skill performance level; identify academic skills necessary for learning a domain area; and delineate the steps of a learning task a student has mastered. Learning style assessment involves the identification of a student’s individual learning pattern that she has acquired based on her learning and behavior assets and weaknesses (e.g. active vs. passive learner, auditory vs. visual learner).

For a number of years, the American School Counselor Association has been working to identify and clarify the role and function of school counselors within Developmental and Comprehensive School Counseling programs. The terms “Developmental” and “Comprehensive” mean that school counseling programs establish goals for their programs that are developmentally appropriate to the age and needs of students and that current and future goals build upon previous goal achievement. Thus, school counseling programs should be in place throughout students’ entire K-12 academic experience.

The ADA provides its own definition of disability. The term is defined as: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment. The phrase physical or mental impairment means: (i) Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfiguration, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; and (ii) Any mental or psychological disorder such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or metal illness, and specific learning disabilities.…The phrase major life activities means functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working (EEOC & U.S. Department of Justice, 1991, pp. 16–18 as cited in Hishinuma & Fremstad, 1997).Apparently, persons identified with specific learning disabilities are covered under the ADA (Hishinuma & Fremstad, 1997). Grant and Grant (2002) affirmed that learning disabilities have been viewed as a perplexing category of exceptionality. Learning disabilities are marked in persons by a discrepancy between intellectual ability and actual school achievement. There are many definitions for the term learning disability. In fact, lack of commonality for defining the term has been cited as the reason for a vast difference in agreement of prevalence (Kirk et al., 2003). As Stanovich (1989) stated, “the decision to base the definitions of a reading disability on a discrepancy with measured IQ is…nothing short of astounding. Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find a concept more controversial than intelligence in all psychology” (p. 487). Even though there is a lack of common definition for learning disability, it is agreed upon that students with learning disabilities comprise the largest proportion of students receiving special education services (Kirk et al., 2003). The Federal Register (1999) has established criteria and non-criteria for identification of students with a specific learning disability. The criteria include: (a) presence of academic difficulties; (b) perceptual disabilities; (c) brain injury; (d) minimal brain dysfunction; (e) dyslexia; and (f) developmental aphasia. The non-criteria include: (a) academic problems due to visual, hearing, or motor disability; (b) mental retardation; (c) emotional disturbance; and (d) environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage (Murdick et al., 2002).

Somewhat parallel to the NCLBA is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. It was intended to provide schools with additional resources and help poor children climb out of poverty by providing them with a better education. Debate about how much ESEA improved the schools persists, but the weight of the evidence seems to suggest that its impact on student learning was modest. Critics suggest that ESEA provided money without accountability. Similarly, critics of NCLBA claim that the law requires strict accountability without adequate resources (Center on Educational Policy, 2003).

The current trends in teacher preparation for educators who will instruct students with learning disabilities reflect larger trends that are influencing teacher preparation in general. Some trends impact the ways in which educators and the public view aptitude and learning, such as the concept of multiple intelligences and the emerging discoveries of the workings of the brain. Some general trends include pre-service teacher testing and screening and specific standards for teacher training programs in efforts to increase educator accountability and classroom performance. Other trends emerge from philosophical and political positions regarding the rights of persons with disabilities to be educated in the least restrictive environment – the general education classroom.

The transition from school to work or to postsecondary training is a critical period for all students. For students with learning disabilities who have the potential to pursue higher education, colleges and universities offer an age-appropriate, integrated environment in which they can expand personal, social, and academic abilities leading to an expansion of career goals and employment options. The transition, however, of high school students with LD to higher education settings has been made difficult by inadequacies in the preparation received in secondary schools. Still secondary schools face serious difficulties in developing effective instructional programs for college-bound high school students with LD (Halpern & Benz, 1987; Mangrum & Strichart, 1983). It appears that many students with LD find themselves unprepared at college entry in a number of areas including inadequate knowledge of subject content, underachieving in academic skills, poor organizational skills (e.g. time management and study skills), poor test-taking skills, lack of assertiveness, and low self-esteem (Cordoni, 1982; Dalke & Schmitt, 1987; Mull et al., 2001; Vogel, 1982).

Wings Academy is a charter school1 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that opened in August of 2002. It is located in the basement of an enormous, beautifully decorated and well maintained convent which houses several social service agencies, retired School Sisters who live there and another charter school. This school was envisioned and created by the authors (Co-Directors), two special education teachers (one is also a parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome) who believed the local districts were not providing an appropriate education for students with special education needs, and those with a label of “learning disabled” in particular. Prior to meeting, the Co-Directors had thoughts of creating their own Utopian school in which all students were taught with appropriate methodologies. By the time they had met, they both knew what their school would look like. Eventually, they combined their ideas and opened a school three years later. In this chapter, they describe the rationale for this school and programmatic realities that they have adapted to achieve their vision.

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Advances in Special Education
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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