By James Aycock

American schools are giving kids disabilities.

It sounds shocking, but it’s true. Kids become disabled by attending school. And that’s why we so badly need special education reform.

An estimated 80% of students diagnosed with a specific learning disability are diagnosed as such because they never learned how to read. So says the 2002 President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. That’s over a third of all students receiving special education services.

Let that sink in for a second. These are kids who, had they been taught how to read, would not have a disability. These are kids with average cognitive abilities, kids who should never need special education services, yet kids who now have a disability diagnosis because of ineffective literacy instruction.

Thus, it could be said that these kids have school-induced disabilities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 1990s, the number of students with disabilities nationwide grew at nearly double the rate of their nondisabled peers. (While that growth finally plateaued over the past decade nationally, it has continued here in Tennessee.) And so students who receive special education services now represent about 14% of total students nationwide, much more than was ever intended. No wonder special education seems so underfunded!

There is a twofold consequence of this increase in students receiving special education services.

On the one hand, the purpose of special education has shifted, away from the original focus on children with significant disabilities, the types of children who were previously denied access to public education. As special education has expanded to include kids were are behind because of substandard education, less attention has been given to those with the greatest needs.

On the other hand, when these students lacking basic literacy skills enter special education, they often fall further and further behind, as access to the general curriculum is limited and expectations are low. In addition, middle and high schools aren’t usually equipped to teach kids how to read.

There are ways to combat this national trend.

The following strategies can help schools and districts:

  • provide a heavy focus on literacy so that students never fall so far behind;
  • identify struggling students earlier, then provide quality interventions that will reduce the need for special education services and allow us to focus more on those students with more severe disabilities;
  • include more students with disabilities in the general curriculum and raise expectations in our special education programs;
  • work with parents so that they can be true partners, reinforcing in the home what their children are learning in school; and
  • partner with community groups to ensure that families have the resources, services, and support to meet the needs of the whole child.

As a teacher or a parent, what can you do to help?

First, don’t accept disability diagnosis as a given. With the right supports, even struggling students can learn to read without special education. The average 6th grader enters our school reading on a 3rd grade level, and 15% enter on a Kindergarten level. With our intense focus on literacy, our scholars average over two years of growth per year – and our lowest readers average three years growth. Only accept a learning disability diagnosis when high-quality interventions have proven unsuccessful.

Secondly, push for more robust Response to Intervention (RTI) systems. Tennessee is launching a statewide initiative around RTI, which you can read about here. Other states can learn from what our state is doing. But, regardless of what state leaders do, districts and schools can lead the way.

With the right interventions and supports, we can end school-induced disabilities and reduce the reliance on special education. This will save money in the long run. In turn, special education can return its focus back to those kids with more significant needs.

James Aycock is currently the Director of Scholar Support at Grizzlies Prep, an all-boys public charter middle school located in downtown Memphis. He previously served as the founding Special Education Coordinator with Tennessee’s Achievement School District, after several years as a special educator and baseball coach. Contact him at jaycock@grizzliesprep.org with questions.