The state of learning disabilities in the U.S.

The National Council on Learning Disabilities has compiled an extensive trove of data on the state of learning disabilities in the United States — I wasn’t surprised by much in the downloadable published report (PDF), which is a mixed bag of encouraging and discouraging trends, but it is a great source of easily-digestible information for those who like to pore over this kind of thing.  Some key facts:

  • About 2.7 million public school students–almost 6 percent of public school students nationwide–have been identified as having learning disabilities (in San Francisco we have about 2,400 students identified as learning disabled, about 4 percent of the district’s total enrollment). Nationwide, two-thirds of students identified as learning disabled are male;
  • The number of school-age children identified as having learning disabilities escalated rapidly during the 1980s and 1990s but dropped by seven percent between 1998 and 2007. No one is quite sure what is behind this decline but most think it is some combination of stricter standards for identifying learning disabilities and better instructional strategies that have led to earlier identification and better outcomes for younger children;
  • Students with learning disabilities are far more likely to be held back in school or involved in disciplinary actions than their non-disabled peers;
  • The high school dropout rate among students with learning disabilities was 25 percent in 2007 — down from 41% in 1997 but still unacceptably high. Of all the different disability classifications, only students identified as emotionally disturbed drop out at a higher rate than students identified as learning disabled;
  • Despite a renewed focus in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) on preparing students for postsecondary education, only one in three students with learning disabilities reported enrolling in any kind of postsecondary educational program since 2000. And while students with learning disabilities enrolled in two-year community college programs at roughly the same rate as their non-disabled peers, they were far less likely to seek out and enroll in four-year college programs;
  • A shortage of qualified teachers and inadequate teacher training continues to severely impact students with extra needs. According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, at least 11 percent of special education teachers are not “highly qualified” as defined by IDEA.  Another study found that just 57 percent of special education teachers said they were very prepared to teach their state’s academic standards; in a third study, fewer than half of principals surveyed said their general education teachers were well-prepared to improve the performance of their students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) — this is particularly worrisome, since the general trend over the past decade (though not in San Francisco!) has been to educate students with learning disabilities in the general education classroom, offering supports and individual “pull-out” sessions where needed and maximizing students’ exposure to the general curriculum.

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