Truly Handicapped or Catchall for School System Failures? : Educators Seek Consensus on Meaning of 'Learning Disabled'

Associated Press

Twelve-year-old Philip Bergman has an IQ of 145, placing him in the top one-half of 1% of the population. But to study a history text, he needs a special machine that reads passages aloud.

"I'm just not a very good reader," said the seventh-grader at Johnston Middle School in Houston. "If I tried to read the history book to myself, I would get nowhere."

Philip is one of nearly 1.9 million American schoolchildren labeled as "learning disabled," or L.D. That is nearly 5% of the school population and a fifteenfold increase from the 120,000 considered learning disabled in 1969.

But Philip is a relative rarity--a classic dyslexic whose brain reverses the letters he sees on a page, making reading an excruciating task.

'Crossed Wires' Uncommon

By contrast, most youngsters labeled L.D., by far the most common handicap served by public schools, have no such "crossed wires" in their brains.

Critics believe as many as two-thirds of such youngsters are not truly handicapped. L.D. classes, they argue, have become a catch basin for thousands of students who can't keep up--a way to mask the failures of public education.

Most have normal or above average IQs but for unexplained reasons are underachievers. Some may have trouble paying attention. Some are just "a pain in the neck" whom teachers want to send elsewhere. Others have school problems stemming from family difficulties or alcohol or drug abuse.

Visits by Associated Press reporters to schools in 15 states found that the "special" education these children get, typically at double the average $4,000 per student cost of regular education, often isn't special at all.

In some cases, L.D. has become a refuge for parents who don't want their children branded as "retarded." The number of American schoolchildren classified as retarded has dropped from 970,000 to 750,000 since 1976.

"We have a kind of a mind-set now in the country that if you have a learning problem, it's OK to call that child learning disabled or handicapped," said Judy Schrag, Washington state assistant superintendent for special services.

"In our state, in most states, legislatures have said to state agencies: 'Stop. Let's re-examine if that's the appropriate place to serve (these) kids,"' said Schrag.

Some researchers have hypothesized that perhaps 2% to 3% of the nation's 39 million schoolchildren are genuinely learning disabled. Yet every state but Georgia exceeds that level.

Such estimates, however, have "no scientific basis at all," according to education Prof. Maynard Reynolds of the University of Minnesota. He and other experts argue that the number of children termed learning disabled in a given state is really a function of money and how educators want to handle children with learning problems.

In Rhode Island, 9.44% of the school population is labeled as learning disabled. Delaware has 8%.

Baltimore classifies nearly one of every 10 of its pupils as learning disabled. But the problem isn't just urban. Minnesota has school districts with L.D. rates approaching 14%.

'Sustains Status Quo'

"Labeling all those students L.D. sustains the status quo," said Naomi Zigmond of the University of Pittsburgh. "Calling students L.D. takes the responsibility for disaffection and underachievement away from those who are, in fact, responsible--the adults who run the school."

No one questions that these underachieving youngsters need help, and what special education offers is smaller classes and more individualized instruction.

With just six students, Andrea Rinella at Madison Park High School in Boston can spend five painstaking minutes helping 10th-grader Bradley recognize the word "children" on the chalkboard.

But for all the money and effort, the learning disabled often leave school semiliterate, unprepared for college or careers.

Studies by Zigmond and other specialists estimate that less than 50% finish high school, and only 40% are employed.

In rural areas, nearly 50% repeat grades, and almost two out of three fail to graduate.

Educators increasingly question whether labeling children handicapped and placing them in segregated classes with watered-down curricula is the best answer for most.

"A whole generation of L.D. students are facing uncertain futures because we haven't been able to figure out how to serve them well," said Zigmond.

School systems, especially poor ones, counter that they have little else to offer problem children.

"We may have to classify the children (as learning disabled) because that's the way the laws are," said Mamie Johnson, principal of P.S. 146 in the impoverished East Harlem section of New York City. "What happens if I have a kid who I don't want to label? A lot of times I can't do anything."

At Gentry High School in Indianola, Miss., Ervin Ricks, a pre-vocational teacher, supervises seven learning disabled boys in a poorly equipped industrial arts shop, building bookshelves and footlockers. They also learn what Ricks calls "clean-up skills."

Asked whether such activities were likely to produce useful skills for today's job market, Ricks hesitated.

At least, he finally replied, "We want them to be able to do something around the house."

Although educators freely label children L.D., most admit that they cannot agree what the handicap is.

James Chalfant, an education professor at the University of Arizona, counted more than 50 definitions of learning disability in professional literature.

The definitions are so many and so sweeping that "more than 80% of normal students could be classified L.D.," said James Ysseldyke, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

"L.D. children are said to be hyperactive, and hypoactive. Some literature says they sleep too much. Other experts say they don't sleep very much.

"Over time, the learning disabled category has become whatever society wants it to be, needs it to be or will allow it to be," he said. "When the number of disabled kids gets too large, the state convenes task forces and determines they've been using the wrong criteria. They change the criteria and 'cure' thousands of kids overnight."

Some states are considering tighter definitions and criteria to bring the numbers down.

In Delaware, special education chief Carl Haltom says his department may require teachers to document how they tried to help children in regular classrooms before referring them to special education.

Thirteen New Jersey districts this fall are piloting a state-sponsored project aimed at teaching children with mild learning problems in regular classrooms.

In Kentucky, a recent report concluded that 84 of 102 school districts were referring too many children as learning disabled, partly through misuse of intelligence and achievement tests.

sh Stricter Criteria

Minnesota, where costs of services for the learning disabled have doubled to $70 million since 1979, has drafted stricter classification criteria.

In Mississippi, where the number of L.D. children has risen from 8,100 to 24,500 since 1979, special education chief Walter Moore said, "The whole problem is that nobody has a handle on what an L.D .child is."

Some school districts, worried that labeling children L.D. may leave psychological scars or short-circuit careers, are experimenting with ways to keep L.D. students in regular classrooms. The most common approach is team teaching by special education and regular teachers.

At Cannon Falls Elementary School in Cannon Falls, Minn., learning disabled children like 8-year-old Sabrina and Michael never have to leave their third-grade classmates to get extra help. The staff has restructured regular classrooms to allow students of all abilities to learn at their own pace, and reading scores are up throughout the school.

Some students and their parents still prefer the shelter of special education.

At Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn., 16-year-old Corey spends much of his day in special education where the atmosphere is relaxed and homework is rare. "Some people would rather be here than in the mainstream," he said.

For their part, parents sometimes worry that "mainstreaming" learning disabled youngsters into regular classrooms will mean fewer services for their children.

"Parents fear giving up hard-fought victories," said the University of Minnesota's Reynolds. "They're afraid you'd be giving up money. The minute there's a thought that a child has an entitlement, there are lawyers who go at you."

A parent of a learning disabled youngster in Ridgewood, N.J., said, "I have a kid who reacts with embarrassment at not being at the level of his peers. Mainstreaming has to be done very carefully. We're in a very high achieving school district and it's real hard for our kids."

When special education teacher Lea Ann Morris talks about careers to her language arts students at Highline High School in Highline, Wash., she speaks of warehouse workers and parking lot attendants, not lawyers or engineers.

"That's not realistic," she said. "Most of our students are not as academically oriented as the bulk of the mainstream population. The reading level in here is probably fifth- or sixth-grade."

Don't Seem to Mind

Her students don't seem to mind.

"Special ed isn't necessarily slow. For all you know, you could be the smartest person in the world. You just don't learn as fast," said Amy Dorsey, 16, a sophomore who aspires to be a military pilot or a fashion model. "It's not so much learning disability. It's study habit disability."

Federal and state definitions often fail to distinguish the learning disabled from slow learners, or from children whose school problems stem from environmental causes such as drug abuse, poverty or family crises.

Mamie Johnson, the East Harlem principal, scoffs at the suggestion that children can be evaluated without considering their home, background and cultural problems.

"That may be nice for some lawmaker or some nice piece of paper. But we have to deal with the reality," she said. "I really believe things are going to get a lot worse. I see it in my school now. I deal with more crises, and what do I find? Abuse, drugs, alcohol."

In most states, educators need only show, through tests or other means, that a student has failed to live up to "potential," or has problems with attention span, memory or perception.

Said Stillman Wood, special education director in Olympia, Wash., "The definition of who is learning disabled and who is not is global enough that if you have a student who is academically behind, you can probably qualify them through the administration of different tests as learning disabled."

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