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Adding Injury to Insult for Learning Disabled Students

As the Head of The Windward School, which serves students with language-based learning disabilities, I am distressed, but not at all surprised, by the results of a recent survey that was conducted The National Committee on Learning Disabilities (NCLD).
The Survey of Public Perceptions of Learning Disabilities was conducted in August 2012 by Lindberg International, which collected data from a random sampling of approximately 2000 adults across the United States via an online survey. These are a few examples of the results:
  • Many respondents (43 percent) wrongly think that learning disabilities are correlated with IQ.
  • Nearly a quarter of respondents (22 percent) think learning disabilities can be caused by too much time spent watching television; 31 percent believe a cause is poor diet; 24 percent believe a cause is childhood vaccinations (none are factors).
  • Over half of the respondents (55 percent) wrongly believe that corrective eyewear can treat certain learning disabilities.
  • Over a third of respondents (34 percent) believe that students with a learning disability harm the overall classroom experience.
  • Over a third of parents (36 percent) said that their child?s school inadequately measured for learning disabilities.
  • Over two-thirds of parents (64 percent) said that their child?s school doesn?t provide information on learning disabilities.
This sampling is thought to be representative of the American population. While these results are clearly cause for concern, the experiences of learning disabled students and their parents with education professionals are far more troubling.
Over just the past few years, I have encountered hundreds of cases where families were given unacceptable responses to children's learning issues from school professionals who were supposed to be assisting them. A few examples will illustrate the scope of the problem. One Windward parent had her child evaluated by her local school district. The psychologist who conducted the testing reported to the parent that her son could not be learning disabled because "his IQ scores are too high." Another parent of a bright kindergarten student confided to her daughter's teacher at a respected independent school that she was concerned because her child seemed to be struggling with the alphabet. After being told by the teacher not to worry and to give the child "the gift" of another year, the family had the girl evaluated privately and was told that she was dyslexic. The family was relieved to have identified the problem and happily shared the results with her school in expectation that the school would be able to address the girl's learning disability. Instead, the school told the family that it would be impossible for their daughter to continue there.
Far too frequently learning disabled students directly suffer significant negative consequences due to misconceptions that poorly informed teachers have about learning disabilities. One Windward student wrote: ?At my former school, if I didn?t answer a question correctly, the other students would laugh at me and I would feel very stupid and embarrassed. Being different felt awful.? Another student wrote: ?Imagine going to school everyday and praying that you won?t be called up to read. ... imagine knowing that you try your best in school every day but still have report cards that say you are failing, not trying and need to start making an effort in school.? No child should ever have these horrible memories of school!
Unfortunately these are not isolated cases and the damage is not limited to emotional scars. Between 10 to 20 percent of all students are learning disabled and dyslexia is the most common of the language-based learning disabilities. Countless studies confirm that there is a wide gap between the instructional programs that these students currently receive in public and private schools and the research-based program that they need to be successful. Abysmal results on standardized tests of reading provide stark evidence of the lack of effective instruction for all disabled students including those with language-based disabilities such as dyslexia. On the 2011 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 68 percent of disabled 4th graders and 65 percent of disabled students in grade 8 scored below the basic level. According to NAEP, "fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate relevant information, make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion." NAEP reports that "eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author's purpose; and make simple inferences from texts." More simply put, basic level reading skills are the minimum skills necessary to be successful in secondary school. Results on the New York Sate English Language Arts (ELA) exams are equally dismal. On the 2011 version of the ELA 84 percent of all disabled students in grades 3-8 were found to be below proficient in their reading skills.
The scope of the problem is enormous. In schools across the country, bright, capable, learning disabled students face plummeting self-confidence simply because there is a lack of understanding about their true capabilities. They are threatened with academic frustration and outright failure simply because they are not receiving appropriate research-based instruction. At Windward we have clear, unequivocal evidence that students with language-based learning disabilities can succeed. Windward is committed to making research-based instruction the norm for all students rather than the rare exception that it is today and to dispelling the harmful misconceptions about learning disabilities that are so common among the general public and educators. Clearly, Windward alone cannot accomplish these ambitious goals. We believe that it is time to elevate the discussion of dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities to a national level so that the vast potential of learning disabled students can be realized in every school.

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