Is it possible to prevent learning disabilities? There’s a policy push to do
just that, and it was the main focus of the 2004 revisions to the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

My afternoon today was consumed with meetings. When I worked at the college
level we used to joke that meetings were the logical alternative to work. But
today’s meetings were less frivolous…

Normally I spend my afternoon working through some very scripted
reading interventions with small groups of students that I pull out of their
classrooms – some fifth graders, some fourth graders, and a mixed group of first
and second graders. Today those students stayed in their classrooms, and my
afternoon was instead spent in a series of IEP meetings.

If you’re not familiar with IEP meetings, let me introduce the concept. The
acronym stands for Individualized Education Program. Students who have been
determined to have an educational disability under IDEA have an IEP, a document
that describes how their school is accommodating that disability at the

The meetings were chaired by my principal and they took place in her office.
A specialist for the central office was present today. Obviously I was in the
meetings. The classroom teacher that has the child also sat in on each meeting
and contributed to the discussions that took place. And when we’re lucky, the
child’s parent comes to the meeting. At this school, we’re generally lucky in
that way; but today we didn’t have parents in most of meeting – although we’d
talked to them about what was going to happen in the meetings.

Five of the six meetings today were routine, almost formalities. We had
meetings to discuss whether a particular student needed to continue seeing this
or that specialist for a particular problem. We had two meetings to discuss the
status of a child’s disability; a requirement that comes around every three

One of the meetings was not particularly routine. It was a meeting to decide
whether a particular student had a disability – whether, under IDEA 2004, they
were eligible for services as a special education student. For obvious reasons
of confidentiality, I can’t say much about the child or the meeting. But I
can tell you that the process of identifying some disabilities is vague
and slippery.

Emotional disturbance (some states call them behavior disorders) are very
real. But federal law is so vague that they are almost impossible to
legally define. Children with emotional disturbances make up only a very
small portion of those who qualify to be served under IDEA. But students who
have learning disabilities make up a much larger portion of the special
education population.

Until 2004 we had a pretty clear definition of learning disabilities. It
wasn’t a very good one. We called it the discrepancy model. It was clear as a
bell – a mathematical definition of a disability. Unfortunately, it was a time
consuming definition to satisfy and it often meant allowing a child to fail a
grade as proof that they needed help. For years we did this to kids…

IDEA 2004 came up with an entirely new definition of learning disabilities.
Conceptually, it’s rather clear. A learning disability is evidenced by the
failure of a child to respond to academic interventions designed to bring his or
her achievement up to grade level. Those are my words, not a technical quote.
The difficulty now is that we are grappling with just what those interventions
should be, and what level of response is sufficient to avoid the determination
that a child does in fact have a disability. And as a result, there’s not nearly
as much certainty in the process as there once was.

If you are an idealistic optimist you will say that one of the main goals of
the new law is to use intervention to prevent a child’s problems from ever
developing into a disability. If you are a cynic you will scoff that the new
law’s goal is just as I phrased it above – to avoid the determination that a
child has a disability, even if they really do. But either way, you are begging
the question of what actually constitutes a learning disability. It’s a question
I expect to keep begging for a few years.

So I go back to my original question: Is it possible to prevent learning

The irony of the new law is that a breakthrough in medical research that
occurred at about the time the new law was passed challenges some of its
assumptions. Somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of children
classified as having learning disabilities are thought to be dyslexic. And about
the time the President signed the new law on educational disabilities, a medical
researcher published findings that showed that a dyslexia gene exists. A year
later, two more genes connected to dyslexia were discussed at a meeting of the American
Society of Human Genetics

The question of whether we can prevent learning
disabilities may now be largely a question of whether or not we can prevent a
genetic condition. And as for identifying them, a cheek swab or simple blood
test at birth may soon accomplish that.

I suspect that the policy makers will all have to rethink learning
disabilities again soon – maybe before the 2004 revisions to IDEA even get fully
implemented in most states…

Greg Cruey, Guest Blogger