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Truly Handicapped or Catchall for School System Failures? : Educators Seek Consensus on Meaning of 'Learning Disabled'

November 15, 1987|CHRISTOPHER CONNELL and LEE MITGANG | Associated Press

Twelve-year-old Philip Bergman has an IQ of 145, placing him in the top one-half of 1% of the population. But to study a history text, he needs a special machine that reads passages aloud.

"I'm just not a very good reader," said the seventh-grader at Johnston Middle School in Houston. "If I tried to read the history book to myself, I would get nowhere."

Philip is one of nearly 1.9 million American schoolchildren labeled as "learning disabled," or L.D. That is nearly 5% of the school population and a fifteenfold increase from the 120,000 considered learning disabled in 1969.

But Philip is a relative rarity--a classic dyslexic whose brain reverses the letters he sees on a page, making reading an excruciating task.

'Crossed Wires' Uncommon

By contrast, most youngsters labeled L.D., by far the most common handicap served by public schools, have no such "crossed wires" in their brains.

Critics believe as many as two-thirds of such youngsters are not truly handicapped. L.D. classes, they argue, have become a catch basin for thousands of students who can't keep up--a way to mask the failures of public education.

Most have normal or above average IQs but for unexplained reasons are underachievers. Some may have trouble paying attention. Some are just "a pain in the neck" whom teachers want to send elsewhere. Others have school problems stemming from family difficulties or alcohol or drug abuse.

Visits by Associated Press reporters to schools in 15 states found that the "special" education these children get, typically at double the average $4,000 per student cost of regular education, often isn't special at all.

In some cases, L.D. has become a refuge for parents who don't want their children branded as "retarded." The number of American schoolchildren classified as retarded has dropped from 970,000 to 750,000 since 1976.

"We have a kind of a mind-set now in the country that if you have a learning problem, it's OK to call that child learning disabled or handicapped," said Judy Schrag, Washington state assistant superintendent for special services.

"In our state, in most states, legislatures have said to state agencies: 'Stop. Let's re-examine if that's the appropriate place to serve (these) kids,"' said Schrag.

Some researchers have hypothesized that perhaps 2% to 3% of the nation's 39 million schoolchildren are genuinely learning disabled. Yet every state but Georgia exceeds that level.

Such estimates, however, have "no scientific basis at all," according to education Prof. Maynard Reynolds of the University of Minnesota. He and other experts argue that the number of children termed learning disabled in a given state is really a function of money and how educators want to handle children with learning problems.

In Rhode Island, 9.44% of the school population is labeled as learning disabled. Delaware has 8%.

Baltimore classifies nearly one of every 10 of its pupils as learning disabled. But the problem isn't just urban. Minnesota has school districts with L.D. rates approaching 14%.

'Sustains Status Quo'

"Labeling all those students L.D. sustains the status quo," said Naomi Zigmond of the University of Pittsburgh. "Calling students L.D. takes the responsibility for disaffection and underachievement away from those who are, in fact, responsible--the adults who run the school."

No one questions that these underachieving youngsters need help, and what special education offers is smaller classes and more individualized instruction.

With just six students, Andrea Rinella at Madison Park High School in Boston can spend five painstaking minutes helping 10th-grader Bradley recognize the word "children" on the chalkboard.

But for all the money and effort, the learning disabled often leave school semiliterate, unprepared for college or careers.

Studies by Zigmond and other specialists estimate that less than 50% finish high school, and only 40% are employed.

In rural areas, nearly 50% repeat grades, and almost two out of three fail to graduate.

Educators increasingly question whether labeling children handicapped and placing them in segregated classes with watered-down curricula is the best answer for most.

"A whole generation of L.D. students are facing uncertain futures because we haven't been able to figure out how to serve them well," said Zigmond.

School systems, especially poor ones, counter that they have little else to offer problem children.

"We may have to classify the children (as learning disabled) because that's the way the laws are," said Mamie Johnson, principal of P.S. 146 in the impoverished East Harlem section of New York City. "What happens if I have a kid who I don't want to label? A lot of times I can't do anything."

At Gentry High School in Indianola, Miss., Ervin Ricks, a pre-vocational teacher, supervises seven learning disabled boys in a poorly equipped industrial arts shop, building bookshelves and footlockers. They also learn what Ricks calls "clean-up skills."

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