Mar 17, 2003 by

Jimmy Kilpatrick, Senior Fellow
Alexis de Tocqueville Institution

There is a national epidemic of children, especially minority children, being classified as special-education students.

This is not the result of a dramatic rise in the number of children with physical or emotional disabilities, which has remained fairly steady for the last three decades.  Rather it is the increase of those labeled with “specific learning disabilities” that is fueling this epidemic.  It is troubling, not because these students have legitimate disabilities, but because many of them don’t.

Jimmy Kilpatrick

According to Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., “evidence of rampant subjective diagnosis is abundant. Last year, a report by the President’s Commission on Special Education estimated that some 80 percent of students assigned to special-education programs as a result of a severe learning disability were assigned ‘simply because they haven’t learned how to read.’”  Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. is the Weinberg Fellow in statistical policy research at the Heritage Foundation and former director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  He continued to explain that in 2001 The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded “that there is no way to distinguish between a child diagnosed with a severe learning disability and one who simply has low reading achievement.”

Reading is the foundational skill for learning in American schools.  Without developing the ability to use and understand the written word, children face significantly diminished academic and occupational opportunities.  Although special-education programs are intended to keep students from this fate, this is not usually the case.

The identification of a child as learning disabled, and the subsequent move to a special-education program, does not lead to improvements in learning, particularly for students aged nine and above, according to Reid Lyon, Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

This is especially disturbing for African-American children who are disproportionately diagnosed as learning disabled in school districts across the country.  “The fact is African-American children are three times as likely as white children to be labeled mentally retarded and placed in special education,” Congressman Fattah (D-PA) has explained.  “The over identification of minority students in special education and the subsequent isolation, stigmatization, and inferior treatment they receive reconfirms the notion that education in America falls short of offering a level playing field for all.”

A recent article by George Scott published on EducationNews.org uncovered the shocking fate of minority students in Texas: “The Texas Education Agency has consistently misrepresented the State’s success in closing the academic equity gap between white and minority students.  The misrepresentation was not an accident.  The State of Texas deliberately allowed the grade level academic integrity of its TAAS testing program to be compromised so that politically acceptable academic standards would insulate the TEA from true accountability.”

School districts in Indiana have been asked to evaluate the process by which African-American students are place in special-education programs after a study by the Indiana Policy Center, authorized by state education officials, question whether student misbehavior is used as the basis for moving students into special-education programs instead of actual disability.  A number of Indiana school districts are now looking into whether there are cultural factors contributing to the disproportionate number of minorities being labeled as students with special education needs.

Obviously there are many students in need of the services provided by special-education programs.  Unfortunately, these students are not receiving adequate attention as resources are spread thin with the huge influx of students who are not legitimately disabled.

All students, regardless of their challenge, deserve the resources and attention to help them succeed.  However, special-education programs are not the place for students who are not disabled.  In fact it does them an injustice to be labeled as having special needs, because the program fails to rehabilitate students so that they can rejoin their peers as successful students.

There is an antidote to this epidemic.  Intervene early; first grade is not too soon to provide remedial education for students struggling with learning to read.  Entertain the likelihood that misbehavior and low achievement may be symptomatic of other problems, not necessarily the result of a disability. Labeling students as learning disabled is an easy out for educators; but it doesn’t just end the student’s participation in this inning, it stymies their participation in the game of life.

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