Is the Learning Disabilities Epidemic Waning?

Almost a decade ago, Fordham and the Progressive Policy Institute published a phone book-sized treatise, Rethinking Special Education for a New Century. One of its most important chapters was “Rethinking Learning Disabilities,” written by a who’s who of cognitive psychologists and reading experts, including Reid Lyon, Jack Fletcher, Sally Shaywitz, and Joseph Torgeson. This influential article made the following provocative statement:

We contend that sound prevention programs can significantly reduce the number of older children who are identified as LD and who typically require intensive, long-term special education programs. Moreover, prevention programs will prove more effective than remedial programs.

In short, they argued, most children with learning disabilities suffered from poor reading instruction, not an underlying neurological problem.

This thinking found its way into the No Child Left Behind act via the Reading First program, and into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act via “Response to Intervention” strategies.  In both cases, the focus was on identifying children at risk for reading problems early, and intervening quickly with research-based, rigorous, direct instruction.

So what happened? I can’t claim a causal relationship, of course, but look at the trend in the number of students with learning disabilities in recent years. (And consider that before this time period, the percentage of kids with LD was going up, up, up.)

This is an 11 percent drop in  just five years. We might be witnessing one of the great untold success stories of recent educational history. So why isn’t anyone talking about this? And remind me again why Congress and the Administration decided to kill Reading First?

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