On the Record about Special Education in America with Pete and Pam Wright
Pete: We've come a long way. In the early 1950's, the teachers told my parents that I was borderline mentally retarded and definitely emotionally disturbed. By chance, I was evaluated because a friend of the family was testing children as a course requirement for graduate school. As a result of that testing, they discovered that I had strephosymbolia - what we now call dyslexia and dysgraphia.
SK: What sort of remediation did you receive?
Pete: I had very intensive one-on-one remediation with what is known as the Orton-Gillingham approach - it's been around since the 1940's and it worked for me. This was one-on-one remediation, an hour a day, every day after school, for two years. My tutor was Diana Hanbury King, who later founded the Kildonan School in Amenia, New York.
At the same time, children just like me were being legally excluded from school. If you used a wheelchair, the school viewed you as a fire hazard and that sufficient to put you or keep you out of school.
If you had learning disabilities or emotional problems and you attended a public school in Washington, DC, until the early 1970s, you were routinely expelled from school. The school claimed they didn't have the money or trained teachers to provide the services you needed.
In 1975, the original special education law was enacted. That law evolved over time and is now called Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA 2004. After this, the doors began to open for children with disabilities to attend school and receive appropriate services. Unfortunately, the quality of these services has a long way to go.
SK: With regard to quality of programs and services, what do you think the problem is?
Pete: Parents tell us that their child's school refuses to recognize that the child has dyslexia, even though Dr. So-and-So, renowned expert in the education of students with learning disabilities and an expert in dyslexia, says he does. The school says this is a "medical condition" so they have no responsibility to do anything to help the child learn to read and write. That's ludicrous.
Pam: I think we're doing a better job of identifying children with learning disabilities, but the services provided by schools tend not to be effective because teachers are not receiving the training they need.
Very few teacher colleges and schools of education train special ed teachers in how to remediate kids with learning disabilities. We need to have well-trained teachers who can work intensively with these kids - one-on-one or in small homogeneous groups, using methods that work.
Now, schools say "You have a reading problem, you're a non-reader. We'll give you talking books or we'll have someone read to you. Too many many schools do not say, "We will teach you how to read."
Pete: There's a tremendous focus on modifications and accommodations ...
Pam: ... making things easier and easier and easier. But that doesn't prepare the child for life after school.
SK: Do you find the quality of programs is a function of the state, or is it district-related?
Pete: There are a few states that are better overall, but in most cases, there are disparities within states. Very affluent school districts are generally not the best because they tend to have a belief system that they are superior. Because they have deep pockets, they are more likely to adopt fads that don't work in the end.
It's interesting that more rural school are quicker to adopt changes and less likely to adopt fads than affluent districts. They send their staff to intensive training because"We're not like the so-and-so affluent suburbs so we need to send our teachers to the experts for training." And they do.
Pam: In looking at battles fought in some affluent school districts, they are remarkable in their refusal to change. Once teachers receive training in a program that is not effective, they continue to use it. The administrators seem to be powerless to do anything about it ... In most fields, we are expected to learn new things. In healthcare, we continue to innovate. But that is usually not the case in schools.
SK: For real change to happen, at what level does that change need to occur? Is it at the superintendent level? Is it principals? Special education directors?
Pam: School boards have enormous power. And school board members tend to rely on advice given by superintendents who may or may not be giving them good advice.
Pete: The real catalysts for change are parents. Parents are the enforcers of IDEA, the special ed law. Several years ago, the National Council on Disability issued a report called Back to School on Civil Rights. NCD did an intensive analysis of compliance and litigation issues. They found that not one state was in compliance with IDEA and that parents are the enforcers of the law -- not the state departments of education, not the U. S. Department of Education.
In fact, the National Council on Disability recommended that since the Education Department is a funding and training entity, that enforcement of the special ed law be shifted to the Department of Justice.
Pam: I agree that parents are the catalysts for change. Parents represent their children's interests so, in effect, they are the consumers of services. And it doesn't take an army of parents to begin to educate school board members and superintendents -- or even to run for school board, and change the system at that level.
I have a little article on the Wrightslaw site that begins, "One parent is a fruitcake. Two parents are a fruitcake and a friend." By the time you get 10 people together, you are becoming a powerful group. By the time you reach 25 or 50, you are a powerful organization and "we'd better meet with you."
Pete: You are a force to be reckoned with.
SK: What concerns do you have about current developments in LD law and how it's being interpreted?
Pete: The evolution of law in any field is like a pendulum that shifts back and forth over time. The last decision from the U. S. Supreme Court in Schaffer v. Weast, did not open the doors to education for kids with disabilities. A decision in Arlington v. Murphy is expected soon.
I was present at the oral arguments in both cases. From the questions asked by the justices, I am concerned about how that case will be decided. I think we're seeing a tightening up in certain areas of special ed law.
At the same time, we're seeing some really nice judicial decisions from judges who I think may have a grandchild with a disability because they are very detailed. They really understand the law. These are not broad-brushed or white-washing decisions. So I think we are seeing better judicial decisions that are making it clear that there is an expectation that schools are to educate these children, not just shove them aside.
Pam: I see some good things too. There are two laws that affect kids who attend public schools. One is the general education law, No Child Left Behind, which puts a high premium on teaching all children to read on grade level by the end of third grade - regardless of what it takes ... and the merger of that law with the latest reauthorization of IDEA and the plan to use Response to Intervention with kids who are suspected of having a learning disability.
If this is done properly and well, kids with learning disabilities stand to benefit tremendously. But the devil is in the details. Successful implementation will require teaching teachers how to use research-based methods - and that's going to take time.
SK: Even though NCLB is not funded.
Pam: NCLB is funded - (it's always been funded since it was enacted as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965). Funding has increased over the years.
Pete: And funding has actually increased dramatically over the past few years ...
Pam: We have links to graphs of funding increases for NCLB (formerly ESEA) and federal funding for IDEA on the Wrightslaw site. There is also an interestng graph of federal funding and the percentage of children who are proficient readers. Despite substantial increases over the past decades, schools continue to complain that the federal government is not giving them enough money to do the job.
SK: Any final thoughts?
Pam: We want parents to be proactive, and not throw in the towel. Parents need to educate themselves, learn advocacy skills, use their emotions as a source of energy, and never let their children stop believing in themselves.
With all the problems Pete had in school, his parents never lowered the bar for him. They didn't feel sorry for him. They encouraged him to work hard and never stopped believing in him.
Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities