For many students with brain-based learning disabilities, the unrelenting frustration involved in taking in, processing and producing information is a rather chronic condition. Way too many kids with LD experience school as a difficult, frustrating and emotionally unsettling place. Too few know the joys that come from repeated successes; too many are beaten down very early by the implied message that they are supposed to be able to do what the other kids do, and do it as easily.
In the pre-inclusionary times of the mid-seventies and early eighties, college graduates who had trained to be special educators found work in learning centers, resource rooms or self-contained programs that were designed to meet the needs of students with Learning Disabilities. They had the time to work with a relatively small number of students and provide them with intensive, direct instruction -- an approach that these newly-minted teachers had learned would be effective with these students. When well implemented, that model of service delivery worked amazingly well. Kids with learning disabilities learned. They moved through school with a feeling of competence, and many became successful, happy and productive adults. Many of us who worked in schools at this time thought that these were the "glory days" of the field of Learning Disabilities. But as it often does in special education, the pendulum of change began to swing.
Over the next several decades -- primarily as a consequence of the inclusion movement and the ascension of high stakes testing -- we have witnessed a dramatic reduction in specialized, intensive instructional programs for students with LD, and a corresponding large-scale return of students with LD and other types of disabilities to regular classes. While the intentions of the inclusion movement were admirable -- a long overdue chance for handicapped individuals to experience the dignity that comes from equal opportunity -- the efficacy of so-called inclusion for students with learning disabilities was, and continues to be, a huge disappointment.
A majority of the teachers working in general education classrooms had been trained as "regular" teachers and not as special educators. Despite excellent training and praiseworthy teaching skills, many of these professionals find themselves insufficiently prepared or inadequately supported to meet the special needs of students with LD who have been assigned to their classes. If you doubt this, all you have to do is ask them when their boss is not listening. The public assertion that inclusion is an effective approach for students with LD is simply an updated version of Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. The failure of a general education delivery model for students with LD continues to result in long waiting lists at many excellent independent LD schools across the country. Just ask any special education director whose budgets are busted by "out-of-district" placements!
Despite abundant research and clinical observations that students with LD require and benefit from intensive instruction, this model is not often offered in public schools. Intensive instruction is characterized by flexible teaching approaches, use of a wide variety of instructional materials and technologies, and a belief that the goal of teaching is to accelerate student progress by any means possible. This is a species of education that would be headed for extinction, were it not for the visions of a few brave souls who are breeding the few remaining specimens in an effort to increase the herd. And there is a correlation between those out-of-district placement budgets and the efforts to breathe life into an old model. (Which, incidentally, turns out to be much less expensive than the private school option. Ask special education directors how many parents would be overjoyed if the school set up a self-contained, highly specialized, well-staffed in-house LD classroom.)
Suffice it to say that I am worried. As a psychologist specializing in the interaction of stress and learning disabilities, I am worried about the mental health of kids and I am worried about their families. And as a teacher educator, I worry about teachers. A lot. Thousands of good general educators are being asked to educate millions of kids who need more than they have the time or expertise to give. And don't get me started about the over-use of poorly trained instructional aides to solve this problem!
All is not gloom and doom. There is hope. From my perspective, one of the major contributions of inclusion when well conceived and well supported, has been the transformation that takes place when talented and motivated regular and special educators work together as members of a collaborative team. In schools that have "done inclusion right" I have witnessed the emergence of a new breed of professional who creatively builds bridges between curriculum and kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and other conditions that can derail learning. In my next blog, I would like to introduce you what I have come to call the Hybrid Teacher. Not a solution for the dearth or (death) of self-contained specialized programs in which intensive specialized instruction can take place (clearly my preference), but perhaps a way to do some damage control.
Dr. Jerome Schultz is the author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It (Jossey-Bass, 2011). He is a Lecturer on Psychology, Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A former middle school special education teacher, Dr. Schultz is a consultant to several large school districts and a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is on the Professional Advisory Board of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (www.ldanatl.org). He can be reached at www.jeromeschultz.com or by tweet@docschultz