Early Warning Systeme by G. REID LYON & JACK M. FLETCHER Since the 1976â77 school year, when Congress first required public schools to count the number of children with learning disabilities (Learning Disability (LD)), the share of school-age children labeled Learning Disability (LD) has risen from 1.8 percent to 5.2 percent. Learning disabilities now account for more than half of all students enrolled in special-education programs, up from 22 percent a quarter century ago. In the past decade alone, the number of students aged 6â21 identified as learning disabled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has increased 38 percent. The largest jump, of 44 percent, has been seen among adolescents aged 12â17âa significant yet poorly understood increase. Private and postsecondary schools have experienced similar increases. The steadily growing number of students identified as Learning Disability (LD) invites public skepticism. Most scientific experts, however, agree that 5 percent, and likely more, of our school population suffer severe difficulties with language and other skills. Even so, the disproportionate rise in the incidence of Learning Disability (LD), especially among adolescents, does raise questions about the methods of identifying and treating learning disabilities. What explains the rise of Learning Disability (LD)? Is it the result of positive developments, such as improved identification methods? Or is the definition of Learning Disability (LD) too general and ambiguous to catch younger students before they fail? Are some students identified as Learning Disability (LD) simply the victims of poor teaching? Put another way, does the education profession adequately prepare teachers to address differences among children? We propose that the rise in the incidence of Learning Disability (LD) is largely the result of three factors. First, remediation is rarely effective after 2nd grade. Second, measurement practices today work against identifying Learning Disability (LD) children before 2nd grade. Third, federal policy and the sociology of public education itself allow ineffective policies to continue unchecked. The best mainstream researchâstudies that reflect the consensus of experts in such fields as child development, education, and neuroscienceâshows that most longstanding difficulties in defining and treating Learning Disability (LD) stem from inaccurate assumptions about their causes and characteristics. Moreover, the data now justify very early identification and prevention programs for children at risk for Learning Disability (LD). This is nowhere more true than with reading disabilities, which are by far the most common and most troublesome of these disorders, constituting 80 percent of all students with Learning Disability (LD). Fortunately, reading disability is also the best understood and most effectively corrected learning disability. If children receive effective instruction early and intensively, they can make large gains in general academic achievement. Early intervention can greatly reduce the number of older children who are identified as Learning Disability (LD). Without early identification, children typically require intensive, long-term special-education programs, which have meager results. Early intervention allows ineffective remedial programs to be replaced with effective prevention while providing older students who continue to need services with enhanced instruction so they can return to the educational mainstream. The Rise of Learning Disability (LD) The term learning disability traditionally refers to unexpected underachievement in adequate educational settings. Students with Learning Disability (LD) do not listen, speak, read, write, or compute as well as their âpotentialââusually as measured by IQâsuggests they should. Historically, neurobiological factorsâput crudely, glitches in the brainâwere blamed. Conditions resembling unexpected underachievement are found in medical and psychological literature beginning in the mid-19th century, where they are described variously as word blindness, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. In 1962 Samuel Kirk, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, coined the term learning disabilities, which quickly entered professional and popular parlance. Like his more medically oriented predecessors, Kirk focused on unanticipated learning problems in a seemingly capable child. He defined Learning Disability (LD) as âa retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic resulting from a possible cerebral dysfunction and not from mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural or instructional factors.â Kirk posited Learning Disability (LD) as an amalgam of disabilities, all grouped under a single label, just as the federal definition of Learning Disability (LD) has ever since. This was an intellectually bold moveâbut it was at best half right, and today we labor under its adverse consequences. The term learning disability gained rapid acceptance among parents and professionals in the 1960s and â70s. Rhetorically it exuded optimism. It did not stigmatize children; it imputed no shortage of intelligence, no emotional disturbance, no troubled home life, no bad schools. It almost presumed cultural and environmental advantage. Pragmatically it spoke to a real problem: before the 1960s, underachieving children couldnât receive special education unless they were mentally deficient, emotionally disturbed, or physically handicapped. Professional and parental advocacy soon led to the 1969 Learning Disabilities Act, followed by the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990). Most definitions of Learning Disability (LD) have at least four elements in common. The four elements posit Learning Disability (LD) as: 1) heterogeneous; 2) intrinsic or neurobiological; 3) marked by a significant discrepancy between learning potential (measured intelligence) and academic performance (measured skills in reading, writing, mathematics, and oral language); and 4) not caused by cultural, educational, environmental, or economic factors or by other disabilities (such as mental deficiency, visual or hearing impairments, or emotional disturbance). The tenacity of these elements in definitions of Learning Disability (LD) has grounded our public policies and pedagogy in outdated science and flawed understandings of the nature of these disabilities. Their validity is rarely scrutinized, and the results of these occasional examinations are typically ignored. We suspect this impasse owes not to the evidence as much as to professional and political inertia. New Definitions In federal legislation, Learning Disability (LD) is not a single disability but a category of special education composed of disabilities in any one or more of seven skill domains: listening, speaking, basic reading (decoding and word recognition), reading comprehension, writing, arithmetic calculation, and mathematics reasoning. These disabilities can be accompanied by emotional, social, and behavioral disorders, including attention deficits, but they cannot, in the federal definition, be the primary cause of the learning disabilities. If the current policy definition of Learning Disability (LD) creates a deliberately wide net, with seven possible disabilities, it also invites sloppy science. The definition tells us only what Learning Disability (LD) is not. This has provoked recent calls for changing the various domain-specific categories to reflect evidence-based research and to specify criteria for identifying the attributes of different learning disabilities. This recommendation is based on the observation that generic definitions, while useful for political, advocacy, and compliance purposes, get in the way of good practice in identifying and teaching students with Learning Disability (LD) and conducting research. To date this recommendation has made little headway in entrenched special-education communities; it failed to find its way into the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA. Until this bold but elementary initiative is undertaken, the assessment and instruction of children with Learning Disability (LD) will remain unreliable.