EdWeek: Learning-disabled enrollment dips

Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Christina A. Samuels
Education Week

After decades of what seemed to be an inexorable upward path, the number of students classified as learning-disabled declined from year to year over much of the past decade­—a change in direction that is spurring debates among experts about the reasons why.

The percentage of 3- to 21-year-old students nationwide classified as having a “specific learning disability” dropped steadily from 6.1 percent in the 2000-01 school year to 5.2 percent in 2007-08, according to the most recent data available, which comes from the U.S Department of Education’s 2009 Digest of Education Statistics. In numbers, that’s a drop from about 2.9 million students to 2.6 million students.

In Colorado, the numbers of children identified as having a specific learning disability has also gone down. The Department of Education’s Data Accountability Center keeps state-by-state data on special education. In 2004, the state identified 31,236 3- to-21-year-olds as having a specific learning disability. In 2008, the number had dropped to 30,122.

A learning disability—a processing disorder that impairs learning but not a student’s overall cognitive ability—is the largest, by far, of the 13 disability classifications recognized by the main federal special education law. Forty percent of the approximately 6.6 million students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, fall into that category.

Student classification

After climbing for years, the number of students between the ages of 3 and 21 enrolled in special education programs began to turn in the opposite direction around the 2005-06 school year. Much of that decline can be traced to falling numbers of students classified with “specific learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

The decrease in the category goes hand in hand with a decrease in special education enrollment overall, though that change is not as large. The percentage of all students covered under the IDEA fell from a high of 13.8 percent in the 2004-05 school year to 13.4 percent in 2007-08—from about 6.7 million students to about 6.6 million students.

Enrollment in the categories of emotional disturbance and mental retardation also went down, but students in those groups make up a far smaller slice of the IDEA pie. At the same time, though, enrollment of students classified as having an autism spectrum disorder or “other health impairment” rose.

Although the change in direction may appear to be small, experts say it is noteworthy. But a probe into the possible reasons behind the drop in learning-disability classifications suggests that the causes are less clear, and that much is still to be learned about how to classify and treat students with such disabilities.

A positive trend?

About 80 percent of children who are classified as learning-disabled get the label because they’re struggling to read. So, scholars say, the dropping numbers could be linked to improvements in reading instruction overall; the adoption of “response to intervention,” which is an instructional model intended to halt the emergence of reading problems; and a federally backed push toward early intervention with younger students.

All those efforts could be serving to separate students with true disabilities from those who just haven’t been taught well in the early grades. But which program is making the most difference, and how long the effects should last, is difficult to tease out, the experts add.

At the same time, other scholars say, some of the dropping numbers could be unrelated to teaching methods. The decision to label a student learning-disabled carries a sizable dollop of human judgment in a way that classifications like blindness or deafness do not. That means it’s possible schools could be nudging special education enrollment numbers down to avoid academic-accountability sanctions or costly requirements driven by federal mandates, some observers say.

A portion of the decrease could also be tied in part to shifting classifications—moving students, for example, from learning-disabled to some other disability category.

But from the perspective of federal officials, the changes are due mostly to educational improvements. They say the national focus on RTI, and improvement in schools’ core reading curricula are working together in a welcome way to decrease the numbers of students classified as learning-disabled.

“When you take all of this together, to me, that’s what makes all the difference in the world,” said Alexa E. Posny, the assistant secretary overseeing the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services. “I believe we overidentify children as learning-disabled. A number of students have just not been taught how to read.”

As an example, Ms. Posny offered her experiences in Kansas, where she served as the commissioner of education before moving to her current job in Washington. After the state adopted what it called a “multi-tiered system of supports,” which is the state’s version of response to intervention, enrollment in the learning-disability category dropped from 56,328 in 2005 to 55,834 in 2008, she noted.

Reading First and RTI

The response-to-intervention approach was promoted by the federal Reading First initiative, which came to life through the No Child Left Behind Act when it was signed into law in 2002. Aimed at improving reading instruction among struggling readers, the reading initiative required schools receiving the federal grants to incorporate scientifically based reading lessons into their curricula.

“Rather than rushing in to identify a specific learning disability as the primary means of providing support to a struggling student, an RTI approach first considers the overall quality of the instructional program,” said Mary Beth Klotz, a nationally certified school psychologist and the current chair of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.

Then, increasingly intensive instruction, or “interventions,” are offered to students showing early reading difficulties.

In 2009, Joseph K. Torgesen, a psychology and education professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, wrote an article noting a decrease in such classifications among elementary schools in Florida that adopted Reading First: In the first year of implementation, 10.4 percent of 3rd graders were identified as learning-disabled. By the third year of implementation, the classification rate among 3rd graders fell to 6 percent. Drops in identification rates were seen in kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades.

“We’re actually doing a slightly better job in teaching kids to read in kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on,” Mr. Torgesen said. He suggests that general education teachers are more attuned to offering differentiated instruction to their students. In turn, those teachers are choosing not to refer students for special education evaluation.

But Mr. Torgesen, and some other experts, also said that it’s not yet clear if the trend marks a “cure” for those students or just a delay in their classification.

“We don’t have enough knowledge in how they hold their gains,” he said.

Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., cautions that any decrease in enrollment must be compared with academic-achievement data.

“Where are the data to indicate these numbers are going down because of the effectiveness of instruction?” Mr. Fuchs said. “It’s very important to be critical—not negative, but critical—of what these prevalence numbers really mean.”

Early intervention a key

Some evidence of the role that early-intervention services might be playing in the enrollment trends came in a report earlier this year from the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences,the first part of what will be a multi-report evaluation of special education. In it, the authors noted increases in the numbers of infants through 5-year-olds served in special education.

For example, in 1997, 564,270 preschool children ages 3 to 5 were identified for services under the IDEA. By 2006, that number had risen to 706,242. That’s good news for supporters of early intervention, whose mantra is catching learning problems early before they become entrenched.

The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA allows districts the option of using 15 percent of their federal allocations for special education on early-intervention services. When a district is found to have significantly overidentified minorities for certain special education categories, the Education Department requires those early-intervention services to take place.

Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor in the University of Maryland College Park’s department of special education, pointed to early intervention as an important factor in explaining falling learning-disability enrollment.

“There’s a number of forces that kind of converge and come together,” Ms. McLaughlin said. But while early services “may prevent the big bulge [in classification] at the 4th grade,” she said, “there still may be a big bump at middle school. We don’t really know anything about the kids who get ‘declassified.’ ”

Donald D. Deshler, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, said that programs for early learners are widely supported, and “who can argue against it? It’s like arguing against motherhood.”

But even the best early-intervention programs cannot catch all children, and some energy must be saved for older students, he believes. “We are always going to have, in certain places, kids falling between the cracks,” Mr. Deshler said. “You’ve got to have some investment in what’s happening with older kids.”

Non-school factors?

However, a number of the reasons offered for the decline in learning-disability classifications have little do with teaching, and more to do with the structures of school and federal policy. But the effects of those factors are hard to prove, much less quantify.

A 2003 report  from the federally funded Special Education Expenditure Project estimated that, nationwide, districts spent an average of 1.6 times more on a student with learning disabilities than they did on a general education student. Mr. Torgesen, of Florida State University, said that costly voter-approved mandates on matters like class-size reduction may be prompting cash-strapped Florida schools to not identify students.

Administrators “do a lot of negotiation around the issue of classification,” Mr. Torgesen said, because they have to use money to keep class sizes low rather than pay for extra assistance for students.

Stephen E. Brock, a professor of special education and school psychology at California State University, Sacramento, wrote a paper in 2006 saying there is evidence that the growth in low-incidence categories such as autism spectrum disorder and “other health impairments,” or OHI—a catch-all category that includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—correlates with a drop in the learning-disabilities category.

In addition, Candace Cortiella, the author of “The State of Learning Disabilities 2009,” a report she wrote on behalf of the New York City-based National Center for Learning Disabilities, believes that it is suspicious that the drop in special education numbers corresponds so closely to a shift in federal policy, under the No Child Left Behind law, that requires schools to highlight the performance of their special education students, among other population groups, for accountability purposes.

Schools and districts may choose not to count subgroups for accountability purposes if the subgroups are so small they are statistically unreliable. Ms. Cortiella suggested that the risk of sanctions may prompt some schools to keep their enrollment in the special education subgroup low.

“There’s too much correlation between the implementation of No Child Left Behind and the drop in the numbers,” she said.

Ms. Posny of the Education Department said that school districts actually have an incentive to place students in special education because they receive some federal money to educate them. “Yet, I believe that states are stepping up to the plate and saying, we may not need to identify these kids,” she said.

Labels are less important than results, Ms. Posny added. Special education does confer on students certain protections, such as the right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, and those are all protections Ms. Posny said she supports strongly.

But a specific classification isn’t needed for those protections, Ms. Posny said. “When it comes to what we need to know to provide that child’s needs,” she said, “the label doesn’t help us with that.”

Republished with permission from Copyright © 2010 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. For more information, visit

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”