Monthly Archives: September 2009

Teacher Referrals

How regular classroom teachers understand at risk children and then decide what special help they need is a critical factor as to the number of children who end up in special education. For example, there are more boys than girls in special education. We learn: “e.g., evidence that female teachers are more likely than male teachers to refer boys for special education coupled with the predominance of female teachers in the teaching force, especially in the elementary grades” (Policy Archive).

Although some special education referrals come from child find activities and parents, most come from the teaching faculty. Indications are teachers refer too many children to special education.

One hypothesis is that teachers view special education as a remedial support service rather than a disability-only service. Modern classrooms are full of “difficult-to-teach” (DTT) children, whatever the problems the children have. They do not easily follow the standard lessons teachers are prepared to conduct. When 20% or more of the children in a teacher’s classroom are difficult-to-teach, it is hard to achieve instructional goals.

“Children who are ‘difficult to teach’ (DTT) are those who experience considerably greater difficulty learning new educational material and mastering academic concepts than do their typical peers of the same age. Difficult-to-teach students may also display significant behavior problems (e.g., chronic inattention, a tendency to act impulsively, verbal defiance, or physical aggression). This group can be thought of as falling along a continuum, ranging from less severe to more-severe learning problems. In some cases, DTT children are classified as having a special education disability and receive special services. Many of these students, however, have no identified disability and are enrolled in general-education classrooms without additional support” (Jim Wright).

Teachers may have difficulty adapting their standard classroom methods for special needs children. They may lack training in “differential teaching.” Therefore, they are inclined to fall back on the special education services.


28. Causes: Parent Pressure

In 2009 the consensus is there are too many children in special eduction programs. Public pressure from parents and attorneys is a factor to examine.

Public opinion has had immense success bringing handicapped children into mainstream education. At the 25 year anniversary of IDEA the U. S. Department of Education published this: “Before the enactment of Public Law 94-142, the fate of many individuals with disabilities was likely to be dim. Too many individuals lived in state institutions for persons with mental retardation or mental illness. In 1967, for example, state institutions were homes for almost 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Many of these restrictive settings provided only minimal food, clothing, and shelter. Too often, persons with disabilities were merely accommodated rather than assessed, educated, and rehabilitated” (History of IDEA, 1997).

The National Conference on Charities and Corrections (1903) promoted the view that the handicapped were dangerous and should be segregated. “By 1920, every state in the country adopted statutes which by force of law in every state excluded handicapped children from the schools; provided for their segregation into lifelong custodial institutions, and provided for their involuntary sterilization” (Nappe).

By reasonable standards, the social movement to educate the handicapped was noble: “The Civil Rights Movement and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which extended equal protection under the law to minorities, paved the way for similar gains for those with disabilities. Parents, who had begun forming special education advocacy groups as early as 1933, became the prime movers in the struggle to improve educational opportunities for their children” (Rethinking Schools, 2002).

But an unintended consequence followed: Parents and attorneys began to drive eligibility questions. Educators became afraid of lawsuits, as famous cases went to the U. S. Supreme Court. At IEP meetings members were afraid to disagree. It helped create a “culture of compliance” where the importance of IEP paperwork was elevated to protect schools and state departments rather than to ensure quality instruction. When in doubt, IEP teams placed children in special education to avoid parent disputes. The stigma of having a child in special education (least restrictive environment) was pushed aside by the parents rights movement. IDEA 2004 sought to reduce conflicts between parents and schools.

Administrators advocated for compliance, sometimes at the expense of special education teachers, school psychologists, SLPs and related services personnel obliged to provide the IEP services. A “litigious climate” was created.

Sensory Problems and Over-identification

Some children referred to special education for SLD evaluations have undiagnosed sensory problems — vision, dyslexia and hearing.

“According to research, as many as 75% of children that are considered learning disabled have clinically significant visual problems. Yet, these children are often labeled as having a specific learning disability, dyslexic or as having ADD before vision is ruled out as a possible contributory factor. Once labeled and eligible for special education services, most of the time good visual skills are NOT a goal listed on an Individual Education Plan set forth by Multi-Disciplinary Teams” (Vision Association, 2009).

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities….About 13–14% of the school population nationwide has a handicapping condition that qualifies them for special education. Current studies indicate that one-half of all the students who qualify for special education are classified as having a learning disability (LD) (6–7%). About 85% of those LD students have a primary reading and spelling tasks, especially with excellent instruction, but later experience their most debilitating problems when more complex language skills are required, such as grammar, understanding textbook material, and writing essays” (Dyslexia, 2001).

Schools screen for hearing problems but some go undetected. There are periodic ear infections reducing alertness and learning ability. Follow-up audiology is not carried out. Poor hearing-aid maintenance lets the hearing problem impact classroom communication.

“Childhood hearing loss is a very common problem within our schools. There are an estimated 8 million children in North America who have some degree of hearing loss. Even a very mild loss can affect how a student learns. Every teacher in the early elementary school can expect to have one-fourth to one-third of his or her students without normal hearing on any given day. Children spend at least 45% of their day engaged in active listening activities. It is obvious that teachers need to be aware of the impact such a loss can have on learning” (MSN Education).

Hearing problems mimic attention deficits.

Learning Disability Identification

LD diagnosis is not easy: “Because there are lots of kinds of learning disabilities, it is hard to diagnose them and pinpoint the causes. LDs seem to be caused by the brain, but the exact causes are not known. Some risk factors are: Heredity; low birth weight, prematurity, birth trauma or distress; stress before or after birth; treatment for cancer or leukemia; central nervous system infections; severe head injuries; chronic medical illnesses, like diabetes or asthma; poor nutrition. LDs are not caused by environmental factors, like cultural differences, or bad teaching. Sometimes a sight or hearing problem, family stress, worry, or communication problems can affect a child’s ability to learn well (Boyse, 2008, University of Michigan Health System).”

The critics (e.g., President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002) said it was necessary for psychologists to move away from the “discrepancy model,” the search for differences between general intelligence and academic learning. Though the concept is right (dating back 50 years to childhood aphasia), the misdiagnosis was in the area of statistical prediction. A score on a standardized test does not necessary predict learning potential, along the lines of response to intervention, nor does it separate out children whose learning patterns mimic learning disability, English language learners.

In proposed rules for IDEA 2004, the misdiagnosis opinion was made unequivocally: “There are many reasons why use of the IQ-discrepancy criterion should be abandoned. The IQ-discrepancy criterion is potentially harmful to students as it results in delaying intervention until the student’s achievement is sufficiently low so that the discrepancy is achieved. For most students, identification as having an SLD occurs at an age when the academic problems are difficult to remediate with the most intense remedial efforts (Torgesen et al., 2001). Not surprisingly, the “wait to fail” model that exemplifies most current identification practices for students with SLD does not result in significant closing of the achievement gap for most students placed in special education. Many students placed in special education as SLD show minimal gains in achievement and few actually leave special education (Donovon & Cross, 2002).”

It is unclear how SLP statistics are affected by the “wait to fail” model. Often SLPs place such children in the SLI category and begin treatment for oral language and phonology. Perhaps the number of SLI placements might be reduced if SLPs placed more children in the SLD category in the first place. Intervention could start early and be conducted by special education teachers.