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 Home > News > How Clip 'N Snip's Owner Changed Special Education by Brent Staples (New York Times, Jan 5, 2002)

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New York Times logo

January 5, 2002

How the Clip 'N Snip's Owner Changed Special Education


The people of Florence, S.C., know Shannon Carter as the owner of Shannon's Clip 'N Snip, a barber shop where the locals get haircuts and conversation. The Clip 'N Snip has room for seven barber chairs, but Shannon is limiting the business to two for the moment and renting out space until the economy improves enough for the barbering business to expand.

Shannon's public school teachers are no doubt surprised to see her running a business and working out a financial plan. During the 1980's she finished ninth grade failing virtually every subject, and was nearly illiterate. The schools told Emory and Elaine Carter that their daughter was terminally lazy and would "never see a day of college."

In truth, Shannon was suffering from a common but undiagnosed learning disability that made it difficult for her to comprehend the little that she could read. Alienated and depressed, Shannon became suicidal. In desperation her parents placed her in a private school for disabled children, where she jumped several grade levels within a few years and graduated actually reading on grade level.

The Carters then sued the school system for private-school tuition and were upheld in the landmark Supreme Court case known as Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter. The law before this case limited parents of disabled children to schools approved by the state. But the court ruled in Shannon's case that the school system lost its right to plan a disabled child's education if it failed to provide an "appropriate public education" as required by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, known as the IDEA.

Ask about Shannon Carter in New York or Los Angeles, and you see school board lawyers snarling or hanging their heads in dismay. The school boards see Carter cases as "a voucher program for the rich," in which affluent parents reserve spaces in private schools and then badger the school systems into paying burdensome tuition costs. Critics have a point when they note that small districts can be destabilized by the cost of one student's stay at an expensive residential school, and that urban districts with too few textbooks are sometimes forced to underwrite lavish private school tuition.

But as Congress prepares to reauthorize the federal special education program, it should bear in mind that the Carters went to court only after the public schools failed at their most basic mission: teaching Shannon to read.

The task of teaching reading is undermined by the common but mistaken belief that children are somehow neurologically "wired" to read. This view led to the "whole language" fad of the 1970's, in which children were allowed to wander through books, improvising individual approaches to reading. The whole language technique works well with some children.

But data from four decades of studies by the National Institutes of Health show that it is disastrous for the 4 in 10 children who have trouble learning to read. Nearly half these youngsters fall behind in the early grades, never catch up and eventually drop out.

In the most extreme cases, children seem to have abnormal activity in the parts of the brain that process phonemes — the basic sounds that correspond to the letters of the alphabet. The simplest rules of language make no sense to them. Asked for a word that rhymes with "cat," for example, they simply draw a blank. The disorder strikes children of all backgrounds. It afflicts those who are read to as infants as well as those who grow up without a book in the house.

The fortunate children are diagnosed early and assigned to smaller classes where teachers take special care to teach them the fundamentals of written language that others take for granted. The children are walked through the alphabet again and again, learning to connect the letters to the sounds, the sounds to the syllables, the syllables to words and so on.

The good news from the N.I.H. findings is that 95 percent of learning-impaired children can become effective readers if taught by scientifically proven methods. The bad news is that less than a quarter of American teachers know how to teach reading to children who do not get it automatically. At the moment, nearly half of all children placed in special education are there for reading difficulties. Federal scientists commonly describe them as "casualties of bad instruction."

Part of the blame lies with colleges that have resisted federal attempts to improve teacher education programs. Part of the blame lies with Congress, which has clung to the view that curriculum is a state and local matter in which the federal government should not meddle. Congress failed to even notice the reading research until just recently, when the Bush administration made reading a priority.

Congress has focused almost solely on the fact that special education is expensive — and that it takes away money from regular education. The debate will go nowhere until lawmakers begin to view special and regular education as part of a single system that is being hampered by an all too pervasive problem — that schools are teaching reading in a way that fails to effectively reach millions of children. The basic lesson of the Carter case and the tens of thousands that have followed is that the country needs a national reading campaign, based on science. The longer we delay, the more families like Shannon Carter's will bolt the system, taking public dollars with them.

Download "How the Clip 'N Snip's Owner Changed Special Education" by Brent Staples. New York Times, January 5, 2002.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Subscribe to The New York Times


Shannon Carter's Case

Shannon Carter's case is  Florence County School District IV v. Shannon Carter, 510 US 7 (1993). Pete Wright was Shannon's attorney and argued the case before the U. S. Supreme Court on October 6, 1993. The Court issued a unanimous decision in Shannon's favor on November 9, 1993.

Go to the Carter links page to more learn about Shannon's case, download all decisions and the transcript of oral argument before the Supreme Court.

Three Generations at the Supreme Court by Pete Wright. The International (Orton) Dyslexia Society had a significant role in Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter. The seeds were first planted in the early 1950's.

The Untold Story by Pete Wright. The story behind the story. Pete describes preparing for oral argument before the U. S. Supreme Court.


Photo of Shannon being interviewed on steps of U. S. Supreme Court while Elaine Carter looks on.

Photo of Pete being interviewed after oral argument before U. S. Supreme Court.

Links to Reading & LD Research Info

Learning Disabilities & Reading Problems

Learning Disabilities Research by Dr. Reid Lyon, NICHHD. "The psychological, social, and economic consequences of reading failure are legion . . ." This powerful article was adapted from testimony given by Dr. Reid Lyon before the Committe on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Key Components of Early Reading Instruction by Susan Hall and Louisa Moats. Excerpt from new book, Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference During The Early Years - An overview of the basic instructional principles necessary for sound early reading instruction, plus acitivities that parents can do with young children.

Keys to Successful Learning: NICHD Research Program in Reading Development, Reading Disorders and Reading Instruction. "Learning to read is critical to a child's (and an adult's) well-being. Unfortunately, the rate of reading failure and illiteracy are unacceptably high in the United States. Over 40 percent of fourth grade students performed below basic levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both 1994 and 1998 . . .'

Teachers: The Key to Helping America Read by Louisa Moats, Ed.D. Testimony given to the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding the lack of adequate preparation of reading teachers.

Why Reading is Not a Natural Process by Dr. Reid Lyon. Article provides an overview of the research findings of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

Free Pubs

IDEA & Special Education

Finn, Chester E., Andrew J. Rotherdam, Charles R. Hokanson, Jr. Rethinking Special Education for a New Century (2001).

Volume of 14 papers jointly published by The Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute. Examines special education provided to 6 million children with disabilities, identifies problems, analyzes causes, suggests solutions; recommends sweeping changes in federal special ed policy. Consumers and providers should read this book. Download (374 pages) Order a free bound copy from The Fordham Foundation at 1-888-823-7474.

Lyon, G. Reid, Jack Fletcher, Sally E. Shaywitz, Bennett A. Shaywitz, Joseph K. Torgesen, Frank B. Wood, Ann Schulte, Richard Olson, Rethinking Learning Disabilities (2001).

All-star group of researchers advise that persistent problems in defining LD are caused by reliance on inaccurate assumptions about causes and characteristics of LD disorders; they recommend that early intervention and prevention programs for at risk children, especially reading programs, could reduce the number of children served in special ed programs by 70 percent. Download in pdf

Reading & Reading Instruction

American Federation of Teachers, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do by Louisa Moats (1999). (36 pages, pdf)

"Reading is the fundamental skill upon which all formal instruction depends. Research shows that a child who doesn't learn the reading basics early is unlikely to learn them at all. Any child who doesn't learn to read early and well will not easily master other skills and knowledge and is unlikely to ever flourish in school or in life."

Moats, Louisa, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of "Balanced" Reading Instruction (2000).

"Three things are clear about early reading: First, it isn’t being handled well in American schools. Four in ten of our fourth-graders lack basic reading skills. Millions of children are needlessly classified as “disabled” when, in fact, their main problem is that nobody taught them to read when they were five and six years old."

"Second, we know what works for nearly all children when it comes to imparting basic reading skills to them. Third, we also know what doesn’t work for most children. It’s called “whole language.”

"Yet whole language persists, despite efforts by policymakers and reading experts to root it out. Today, though, it often disguises itself, not using the term “whole language” but, rather, wearing the fig leaf of “balanced” instruction." Download

National Institutes of Health. Report of the National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction (2000).

To order as NIH Publication Number 00-4769, contact NICHD Clearinghouse at 1-800-370-2943.

More Free Pubs

Last revised: 10/30/08

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