Rethinking special education in the U.S.

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Carol Kinlan

In “Learning from Finland,” Pasi Sahlberg highlights reasons for the success of Finland’s educational system – noting, in particular, that Finns highly regard and strongly support their teachers, and that local schools are given great independence.

It turns out that there are additional lessons to be learned from Finland when it comes to special education.

In a 2010 paper comparing special education in Finland and the U.S., Tiina Itkonen and Markku Jahnukainen report that Finland’s educational structures are very flexible, with teachers enjoying high levels of authority and autonomy. Diagnostic labels for students struggling with learning disorders are rarely used and students receive immediate support when they begin to experience academic difficulty. A formal diagnosis is not a prerequisite to receiving extra help. Finland’s more open-ended and flexible policies, according to Itkonen and Jahnukainen, result in a radical drop in the prevalence of learning disorders at the secondary-school level.

In contrast to Finland, special-education policies in the U.S. are bureaucratic. Our policies for determining eligibility and services – based on the medical model – are rigid, complex and prescriptive. Navigating the special-education system can be downright nightmarish for parents. And, as special educators know, individualized education programs (IEPs) are products of federal special-education statutes – hardly a model for encouraging parent-teacher cooperation and shaping student performance based on an individual’s learning profile.

Most importantly, the U.S. educational system, in contrast to Finland’s, does a poor job of identifying weak students in the earliest grades and supporting them effectively. The result is a time-consuming and frustrating process for parents who struggle to determine exactly why their child is faltering in school – and what they can do to help them. In the U.S., preschool and elementary teachers are not consistently given training to identify and remediate children who display clear early signs of reading- or other language-based disorders. This is problematic because there’s a critical neural-cognitive window – open roughly from ages 3 to 7 – during which the acquisition of reading skills is optimal. As a leading literacy expert has found, between 65 and 75 percent of children identified as reading-disabled early on “continue to read poorly through their school careers (and beyond).”

Learning disorders, especially in reading, are among the bigger factors impacting the academic success of students in the U.S. According to the National Institutes of Health, 15-20 percent of U.S. children have language-based learning disabilities – and in four out of five cases, the disability is related to reading. This reality helps account for the U.S.’s 12th-place finish in reading literacy among the 34 countries that participated in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment.

MRI brain-based research and recent gene studies on heredity and learning disorders have revealed many new things. Here are two for educators: first, future reading ability can be as strongly predicted in kindergarten as it can be in later grades; second, the likelihood of inheriting a learning disorder (like dyslexia) from a parent is at least 50 percent. This important research, largely conducted in the U.S., should encourage teachers and parents to seek early and intensive remediation when, for example, a young child struggles to name letters rapidly and easily or who has noticeable difficulties with oral language.

This critical research, however, has not been broadly communicated to teachers. Consequently, many elementary-school teachers remain unaware of current research findings about children with dyslexia and other disorders. Worse still, procedures are often not in place for effective and appropriately intensive intervention. Even knowledgeable teachers don’t always have the flexibility and staffing necessary to intervene quickly and help struggling children.

Instead of training a clinical, objective eye on young learners who display troubling warning signs, we have a tendency to wait for testing, further failure by the child and emotional or behavioral decline. This “wait-and-see” approach results in delayed remediation, which – unlike a preventive or highly individualized model – negatively impacts future school success for many of our students. And in some cases, a child in need of support doesn’t receive it because average test scores on standardized achievement or cognitive tests are taken to mean no support is necessary.

The federal government has recently taken steps in the right direction – in particular, by enshrining Early Intervening Services (EIS) and Response To Intervention (RTI) in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – but more work must be done. As noted by the Council for Exceptional Children, “While RTI is a special education initiative, for it to work general education must lead the effort by providing evidence-based instruction to all students, along with  research-based interventions to struggling learners.” Furthermore, RTI interventions don’t always provide the right type and level of remediation to a struggling student – in part because many teachers do not know how to identify specific learning disorders and how to take appropriate action. Given the lack of specific special-education training most teachers receive, this should come as no surprise.

It is imperative that we provide more educational resources and greater flexibility to preschool and elementary teachers. They need to know the current research regarding the relatively narrow window for remediating learning disorders, especially for those related to reading fluency. Finally, they need to have the flexibility to work at the local level, unencumbered by rigid policies and procedures, with the goal of helping each child reach his or her maximum potential.

Carol A. Kinlan is the middle-school director of learning resources at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass., and an educational consultant for families of children with reading disorders and executive-function weaknesses.

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