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Special Learners        < Previous        Next >



Special Learners: Overview


Q. There's actually less poverty today than in past generations, and better nutrition. We have better early-detection systems in place in health care, and better treatment regimens. Our government is spending far more money on education than ever in our history. With so many more teachers holding master's degrees than ever, we know more about teaching than ever before. With all these resources employed, surely we should be seeing some rewards. Then why does it seem as though there is an epidemic of students labeled "at-risk" of school failure? And why are we seeing more and more kids in costly special education?


Schools today devote extra attention to a number of different kinds of special learners:


         Students with mental or physical handicaps


         Students with "learning disabilities" such as ADHD, dyslexia and other conditions which may or may not be medically diagnosed


         Students whose academic, artistic or other needs cannot be met by the regular classroom because of their gifts and talents


         Students who are "at risk" of underachievement and dropping out because of a wide range of factors, including poverty


         Students who are "at risk" of underachievement and dropping out because they are "English language learners" -- immigrants from foreign countries who don't read, write and speak English very well


About 20% of the children labeled as needing special education have medically-diagnosed physical and mental problems that they can't help. They command our best efforts to help them overcome their "differences" so that they can learn to their fullest potential. There are a lot of marvelous things being done to help children with physical impairments, speech disorders, mental challenges and the like.


BUT . . . 80% of children bear the label of "special education" or "learning disabled" chiefly because they can't read, or they read beneath their grade level and IQ. That's the "presenting" factor: reading disability. Nothing shows up on an X-ray; nothing requires surgery or medication. They just can't read very well. It's not a disease. It's an instructional deficiency . . . that can be fixed. Even mentally handicapped children can learn to read, if they are taught right.


These children don't need to be in special ed programs at twice the cost of the regular ed programs, or at least not for their entire school careers. They don't need over-the-top discipline, or medication, or simplistic assignments, or to be excused from proper academics and have their schooling relegated to mere job training.


They're only labeled "SPED" because they can't read! They just need better reading instruction in the early grades. True, because of brain differences, many of them may never be doctors and lawyers and scholars. But the truth is, with proper reading instruction, just about 99% of the population can read at grade level, and should be doing so. They should NOT be in costly special education programs.


That may be a bitter pill to swallow for teachers struggling with the disruptions and headaches that "at-risk" students, especially those whose symptoms are often labeled BD (Behavior Disability) and ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder). But you can chart the explosive growth of "at-risk" students over the past generation right next to the explosive growth in reading disability. The two go hand in hand.


According to nationally-known teacher and author Bill Page, and a growing number of parents and teachers alarmed about the high numbers of children being labeled "at risk" in our schools, misbehavior is an effect, not a cause, of reading disability. Both misbehavior and reading disability can be corrected and prevented, with a back-to-the-basics approach to reading.


Page, also a motivational speaker, has published a book, At-Risk Students, which contends that students who have perfectly normal IQ's but are struggling in school are reacting normally to the stress and pressure of appearing not to keep up academically by trying to excel in a negative way. If you can't be the "best" at schoolwork, the theory goes, at least you can be the "best" at being "cool" by defying authority, focusing on what you want to focus on, clowning around, or pretending to be apathetic so that you don't have to try and possibly fail.


Page says that rebelliousness and delinquency are cover-ups for students' fears of being labeled "dumb." They get entangled in crime and rebellion because they don't want to be exposed as what they are: fearful, embarrassed, worried and extremely frustrated.


Page is among the growing voices of education advocates who say that well-meaning teachers who continue to shame and scar "at risk" students - by criticizing them for not achieving while failing to give them the skills to achieve -- are actually committing child abuse.


He's calling for teachers to reflect on their part in the dance of failure, and respond with empathy and positive practicality, rather than punishment. And that starts with Job One: getting a strong, new hyperfocus on kindergarten through second grade, repairing our curriculum and instruction techniques in those crucial early grades, and teaching them how to read.



Homework: See the book, At-Risk Students, by Bill Page, on


By Susan Darst Williams Special Learners 01 2008


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