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The actuarial turn in the science of learning disabilities.

Abstract. In the mid-1970s, Donald Hammill and his colleagues authored three scathing critiques of the two most trusted scientific traditions of learning disability treatment--movement education and psycholinguistic training (Hammill, 1972; Hammill & Larsen, 1974; Hammill, Goodman, & Wiederholt, 1974). These critical reviews of research rejected the older model of clinical science that had served as the foundation of the field of learning disabilities and celebrated an actuarial form of research. Was Hammill actually proclaiming a change in the orientation toward scientific research, a paradigm shift involving philosophical commitments and methodological practices? This article explores the history of both the foundational clinical science and the new actuarial science that rose to prominence in the field of learning disabilities in the 1970s.


Between 1972 and 1974, three articles authored by Donald Hammill and his colleagues turned the young field of learning disabilities in the United States upside down (Hammill, 1972; Hammill & Larsen, 1974; Hammill, Goodman, & Wiederholt, 1974). These critical reviews of the empirical literature at the time depicted the most prominent and trusted research and treatment programs in the field as something akin to traveling medicine shows. Not only did Hammill upbraid the two most trusted of the scientific learning disability treatment traditions--movement education and psycholinguistic training--he cast doubt on the very science itself, the entire tradition of neurological and psychological research that had developed the learning disability construct over many decades. At the historical moment when the field of learning disabilities was enjoying rising popular and political support--the construct would formally enter federal special education law in 1975--Hammill and his colleagues made the stunning claim that the scientific foundations of the field were deeply flawed (Hammill, 1993; Hammill & Larsen, 1978; Kavale, 1981, 1984; Larsen, Parker & Hammill, 1982; Lund, Foster, & McCall-Perez, 1978; Minskoff, 1975; Sowell, Parker, Poplin, & Larsen, 1979).

The scientific work that Hammill's group degraded was built over many years. Beginning with the research of Alfred Strauss and Heinz Werner (Strauss & Werner, 1938, 1939; Werner & Strauss, 1939) before World War II, the field of brain injury science (renamed learning disabilities in the 1960s) was a congenial alliance of somewhat parochial research units operating in a small number of American universities, institutions, and psychoeducational clinics. Charles Bazerman (1983, p. 171) coined the term "invisible college" to describe this kind of budding field of study, a small and loosely knit network of similar researchers whose informal communications greatly defined a field of intellectual practice.

By the late 1960s, this network consisted of two general avenues of scientific work, a movement education tradition that attempted to develop the child's neurologically based skills of perception and a psycholinguistic research line that emphasized a child's psychological capacity to process language. Researchers working within the two strands greatly respected and collaborated with one another. They typically viewed the two approaches as offering different yet mutually beneficial ways of understanding and addressing a shared set of childhood learning issues.

Movement Education Tradition

Drawing heavily from the work of Alfred Strauss, Heinz Werner, and Laura Lehtinen at the Wayne County Training School (e.g., Strauss & Kephart, 1955; Strauss & Lehtinen, 1947; Strauss & Werner, 1941, 1942; Werner & Strauss, 1943), the movement education tradition of learning disability research emphasized the young child's development of sensory motor and perceptual skills. This approach to science and treatment constructed learning disability as a brain-based disorder resulting in the misperception of environmental stimuli. Lacking an effective sensory orientation to physical reality, children with learning disabilities, it was thought, struggled with the usual early schooling challenges involving printed symbols such as letters and numbers. Leading movement education researchers such as Raymond Barsch (1968, 1976), Marianne Frostig (1969, 1976; Frostig & Maslow, 1973), Newell C. Kephart (1961, 1968), and Gerald N. Getman (1968, 1976) developed extensive programs of movement activities and perceptual development tasks designed to prepare the central nervous system for academic learning.

The psycholinguistic tradition framed learning problems as psychological difficulties in the mental management of spoken and written language. The problem, it was thought, was in how the mind mishandled and misinterpreted symbolic information. Top researchers such as Sam Kirk (1966, 1976; Kirk & Kirk, 1971; Kirk & McCarthy, 1961) and Helmer Myklebust (Johnson & Myklebust, 1964) viewed learning disabilities as psychological disorders involving deficits in the mind's interpretation of linguistic meaning. They developed programs of clinical treatment that targeted areas of language processing for educational remediation.

Hammill's critique targeted both research traditions. In his analysis of Kirk's psycholinguistic processing treatment activities, Hammill found instructional efforts to enhance the psychological activities of human communication to be fruitless. Kirk had developed the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities (ITPA), an assessment instrument designed to help pinpoint areas of relative strength and weakness in linguistic processing activity. The presumption was that once identified, areas of inadequacy could be remediated with instructional intervention. Hammill found that, while the ITPA worked as a fairly reliable approach to cognitive assessment of language functions, those psycholinguistic abilities seemed to be "impossible or extremely difficult to teach" (Hammill & Larsen, 1974, p. 12). Simply put, there was no reason to believe that the deficient psycholinguistic processes were amenable to educational improvement.

The sensorimotor and perceptual development programs offered by the movement educators fared much worse in Hammill's appraisal.

Any interested person who reads the efficacy literature will conclude that the value of perceptual training, especially those programs often used in schools, has not been clearly established. If he concludes that such training lacks solid support, he may begin to question the purchase of attractively packaged materials which some companies offer teachers along with unsubstantiated claims concerning their merits, the practice of providing perceptual-motor training to all school children in the name of readiness training, and the assumption that a lack of perceptual-motor adequacy causes a considerable amount of academic failure. (Hammill et al., 1974, p. 476)

After reviewing studies in the field, he condemned the movement education programs as completely ineffective in training the processes of visual perception (Hammill et al., 1974). Only 4 of 16 published studies of Kephart's treatment approach resulted in statistically significant gains. Of eight studies of Frostig's program of perceptual education, "six studies reported no statistical difference between trained and untrained subjects" (Hammill et al., p. 472).

Perhaps even more alarming, Hammill found virtually no relationship between perception training and school learning. The movement educators had long claimed that a child's ability to accurately perceive (mostly visual) the world around him was a neurological prerequisite to successful academic learning. Hammill's examination of literacy research clearly demonstrated that "training in perception does not positively affect reading" (Hammill, 1972, p. 556). Twenty-three studies attempted to find a relationship between visual-motor training and measured gains in academic functioning. The training was effective in only 7 of those 23 studies. Visual-motor and perceptual training was not an effective intervention for basic psychomotor processes. It had little or nothing to do with preparing young children for school learning. In Hammill's analysis, the central claims of Kephart, Frostig, and the movement educators were rendered as little more than well-intentioned quackery.

Hammill summoned the leading perceptual-motor training developers by name--"Frostig, Getman, Kephart, Barsch"--and castigated them for peddling treatment programs without sufficient scientific backing (Hammill, 1972, p. 556). Tossing out decades of research conducted within intensive clinical work with children and families, he urged the leading figures in the field of learning disabilities to do science properly: to "set up efficacy studies utilizing respectable research designs" (Hammill, p. 567).

To many readers, it may have seemed that Hammill's three articles constituted a comprehensive and balanced review of the scientific research on sensorimotor or perceptual treatment and psycholinguistic process training. He summarized many research studies and quite logically concluded that the two main traditions of scientific research concerning the educational treatment of learning disabilities were profoundly deficient.

A more critical, incisive reader, however, would notice that Hammill's analysis hinged on the selection criteria that he employed in deciding which studies were worthy of inclusion in his review. His process of selection displayed his philosophical orientation to social science. What read as a direct and resounding critique of the profoundly flawed science of learning disabilities was, in terms of philosophy of science, an objectivist confrontation of the epistemological breadth of the prior generation's tradition of clinical science. In the three reviews of research, Hammill included "only studies which applied statistical analyses" (Hammill, 1972, p. 554). He explicitly left out the decades of clinical case studies of individual children undergoing various forms of educational treatment. In his review of studies of visual-perception training, he included only studies that were published after 1955, a strategy that ignored the entire catalogue of foundational research by Alfred Strauss, Heinz Werner, and Laura Lehtinen at the Wayne County Training School that formed the conceptual basis for programs of perceptual development (Strauss & Kephart, 1955; Strauss & Lehtinen, 1947; Strauss & Werner, 1941, 1942; Werner & Strauss, 1943).

Hammill's analysis of the relationship between visual-perception training and reading skills included only research studies that involved "tests of reading comprehension, rather than word-call or word recognition ability" (Hammill, 1972, p. 554). This effectively dumped investigations of the early reading skills of basic decoding in favor of the more advanced, later skills of comprehension, thereby shifting emphasis away from the early development of young children. In his review of the relationship between reading achievement and visual perception, he utilized only 12 of 42 published studies. Similarly, in his summary of research on Kephart-based treatment programs, he included only what he called "better research" (Hammill et al., 1974, p. 474), rejecting 26 of the 42 published studies due to what he described as "weaknesses in their designs" (Hammill et al., p. 472). Poorly designed research, by Hammill's interpretation, "used small samples, had no control groups, and/or trained for shorter periods of time" (Hammill et al., p. 472). He deemed the common practice of closely examining a small number of cases over weeks or even months of treatment through clinical observations as well as a battery of psychological and educational measures as unscientific. Acceptable research projects used a single, favored research design, the statistical comparison of pre and post-treatment, standardized measures in "an experimental group design" with "at least twenty experimental subjects" (Hammill et al., p. 474).

While Kirk and Kephart, Frostig, and the rest had worked for decades within a very eclectic, clinical approach to conducting scientific research on childhood learning, Hammill embraced an objectivist, actuarial orientation. His scathing critique of the foundational science of learning disabilities was more than a rejection of the work of the early pioneers who built the learning disability construct and launched it into scientific and political legitimacy. It was a dramatic, very public declaration that the philosophy and practice of science among learning disability researchers was out of date, that the field was shifting away from the pluralistic epistemological stance of the early clinical researchers and toward a new, actuarial objectivism. The old science was out, and the new was in.

Purpose of Article

My purpose in this article is to examine this claim. Was Hammill merely making a strong argument in favor of a paradigm change that never actually occurred? Or was Hammill's public dressing down of the leading figures in the field of learning disabilities an accurate declaration that a seismic shift in the science of learning disabilities was taking place as the young field expanded and changed during the 1970s?

In order to examine these questions, I will first explore the old science, the clinical research tradition that served as the foundational crucible for the learning disability construct in the United States from the late 1930s to the late 1960s. From that basis, my historical analysis will investigate the rapidly expanding scientific literature in the field of learning disabilities during the 1970s in relation to philosophy and practice of scientific research. I will specifically explore the learning disabilities research literature of the 1970s in order to appraise the state of both the older tradition of clinical science and the actuarial science brazenly championed by Donald Hammill. Finally, after finding that an actuarial turn had indeed taken place, I offer a preliminary exploration of how that shift from clinical science to actuarial science altered the actual content of learning disabilities research.

Philosophy of Science: Basic Terms and Concepts

Before I begin, it is important to present a set of terms and concepts that allow us to thoughtfully sort through the various philosophical orientations toward scientific activity in the field of learning disabilities. I will begin with two specific sets of oppositional terms, atomism versus holism, and objectivism versus subjectivism.

The polarity between atomism and holism maps the two main orientations in the American social sciences to the scope of analysis. At the most micro-analytic extreme, atomism "demands that all phenomena be understood as analytically decomposable into discrete, isolated, and fixed elements that operated jointly in a strictly additive fashion" (Overton, 1994, p. 216). An atomistic science seeks to identify the distinct subcomponents of the entire entity in order to examine each in isolation. The assumption is that the additive aggregation of the small units of knowledge constitutes a total picture of the whole. Atomistic forms of social science frequently involve the measurement of parts of the whole within mechanized schemes of causal interaction between the parts.

Holism, at the contrary extreme, involves an assumption that the structure and character of the total entity greatly determines the functions and meanings of individual parts. Those parts only gain meaning in relationship to the structural whole. Human science of a holistic orientation offers organic interpretations of the structure of and relationships between operating parts given the overall functionality of the total entity.

The opposing poles of objectivism and subjectivism constitute the two primary epistemological traditions in the human sciences. Objectivism generally appropriates the philosophy and methods of the natural sciences to the study of human thought and action (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Skrtic, 1995). It asserts "the belief that a mind-independent fixed reality forms the essential absolute or foundation for all knowing" (Overton, 1994, pp. 215-216). An objectivist approach to social science tries to accurately represent, frequently through measurement instruments and statistical algorithms, realities of human activity understood to exist independent of scientific observers. Objectivist social scientists tend to seek nomothetic knowledge, rule-like generalizations that apply with precision across a universality of cases.

Subjectivism, in contrast, assumes that scientific work is socially and historically situated. Scientists involved in acts of observing and interpreting social realities are both limited and propelled by ideological frameworks existing within social contexts. In this light, social science produces multiple interpretations from many social perspectives, offering useful but partial insights. Subjectivist social scientists create ideographic knowledge that illuminates the unique features of individual cases and notes commonalities across cases (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Overton, 1994; Skrtic, 1995).

A Clinical Science

American brain injury/learning disabilities researchers of the 1950s and 1960s freely mixed the objectivist and subjectivist tools of inquiry in a clinical approach to scientific investigation. Samuel Kirk expressed the general scientific orientation of his generation--a group that included Strauss, Werner, Lehtinen, Kephart, Getman, Barsch, and Frostig--when he described himself as working in the tradition of American functional psychology first developed at the University of Chicago before World War II.

Harvey Carr articulated a vision of a psychological science delicately balanced between extremes of objectivism and subjectivism. The early functionalists espoused a pragmatic science giving little credence to strong claims of epistemological or theoretical superiority. It was an opportunistic and utilitarian science built of mixed elements, an alloy of psychological measurements, statistical calculations, clinical observations of behavior, and insightful phenomenology of individual case studies (Benjamin, 2007; Carr, 1961; Kingsbury, 1946; McKinley, 1978; Whitely, 1976).

The clinical science practiced by the brain injury/ learning disability researchers of the 1950s and 1960s used an extensive array of research methods, the tools of objectivism and subjectivism routinely mingled and subordinated to the larger mission of understanding and treating learning problems. Their orientation to scientific activity was overwhelmingly eclectic, flexible, and innovative.

A clear example of this posture was described by Marianne Frostig in her 1955 doctoral dissertation, in which she offered a contrast between an actuarial science and clinical science (Frostig, 1955; Meehl, 1954). An actuarial approach enacts the philosophical positions of atomism and objectivism, seeking to predict human behavior through the application of mathematics to lived events. Large sets of quantitative data, measurement of discrete and isolated bits of human activity, are subjected to statistical processes in order to develop probabilities of specific outcomes. Thus, an actuarial science pursues a prediction based on statistical probabilities involving categories of people or classifications of events. The weakness of the actuarial approach, argued Frostig, was in the application of categorical analyses to the unique case of an individual. There it failed because of the inability of standardized systems of social classification to adequately apprehend and appreciate individuality.

But actuarial science's weakness was clinical science's strength, Frostig argued. She described clinical science as the traditional psychological and medical practice of case study based on a subjective interpretation, the informed and elevated subjectivity of a trained psychologist or physician homing in on the salient details of a given case. In terms of philosophy of science, clinical science embraces the concepts of holism and a mixture of subjectivism and objectivism. Thus, it was common practice among clinical researchers to employ a variety of psychological measurements to produce useful quantitative data that were then combined with phenomenological observations of the child's behavior under a variety of conditions. The investigative process mixed quantitative and qualitative data under the authoritative, guiding the rationality of the well-trained researcher.

It would be a gross misunderstanding of the clinical scientists to describe them as opposing the use of quantitative instruments or statistical calculations. In fact, many of them developed and used their own psychological measures. For example, Marianne Frostig developed her Frostig Developmental Test of Visual Perception (Maslow, Frostig, Lefever, Whittlesey, 1963). Newell Kephart and his colleague Eugene Roach created the Purdue Perceptual-Motor Survey (Roach, 1966). And Sam Kirk created the widely used Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities (Kirk & McCarthy, 1961).

Within the common case study research format used by the clinical researchers, mathematical precision and subjective insight based on observations were united as necessary complements. The goal was to arrive at an expansive and useful understanding of the growing child, comprehending and tracking the development of numerous mental and practical skills and deficits over time. Exemplifying the clinician's desire for a balanced, multidimensional analysis, Frostig concluded that both actuarial science and clinical case studies are of equal importance. She believed that the child is best understood when the researcher combines subjectivism and objectivism, atomism and holism, in a thoughtful and purposeful analysis (Frostig, 1955, p. 26).

In her dissertation, Frostig (1955) presented in-depth case studies of 8 children who were "not mentally retarded but who does not learn" (p. 9). Readers can gain a quick understanding of the voluminous quantity of information gathered from many data sources by noting that her dissertation accomplished 8 case studies, following the children closely from initial diagnostic assessment through months of educational therapy, in just under 600 pages. Frostig viewed learning problems as complex, involving a "multiplicity of causation" requiring a "pluridimensional diagnosis" (p. 36) that accounts not only for pertinent factors in the child's school, home, and community life but also the relationships between those factors.

Frostig's extensive narrative analysis of each case involved close examination of both quantitative data (tests, instruments) and qualitative data (observations of child) in regard to visual perception, emotional factors, personality, general intelligence, and academic achievement. Her analysis offered rich qualitative descriptions of the child's learning under various conditions, the specific educational interventions implemented, and the child's response to those instructional attempts.

Frostig's case studies clearly demonstrate how the clinical scientists framed the inseparable unity of research and practice. The science attempting to understand the child with a learning disability was wed to the professional activities of educational or psychological treatment. The practitioners of clinical science typically worked in settings that provided educational services of diagnosis and remediation to children and families. Marianne Frostig operated her own educational clinic in Los Angeles. Newell Kephart directed a clinical institute at Purdue University while also working with children in a summer camp in the mountains of Colorado. And Gerald Getman treated learning disabilities in his optometry practice in Minnesota. In 1950, Kephart and Getman began a collaboration that later resulted in Getman joining the clinical team at Purdue. All of these educators combined the treatment of educational disorders with intensive scientific study. Their case studies involved a unity of investigation and treatment, a complex, practical narrative consisting of data collection, analysis, and intervention within a single scientific process.

Exploring the Actuarial Turn

Did the dramatic clash between Hammill's objectivist science and the epistemological balance espoused by the prior generation of learning disabilities researchers mark a turning point in the scientific character of the young field of learning disabilities? In the 1970s, did the field largely set aside the clinical science of Alfred Strauss, Sam Kirk, Newell Kephart, and Marianne Frostig in favor of a highly technical, actuarial orientation to scientific investigation? Was Hammill's alarming critique really an accurate proclamation of a tectonic movement in the field's orientation to science--a paradigmatic turn from clinical to actuarial science?

In order to answer these questions, I gathered all journal articles on the topic of learning disabilities published in 1971 and 1979. I specifically chose the bookend years of the 1970s because that was the decade when Hammill's critiques were published. It was also the era when learning disability became, due to federal mandate, a construct utilized by public schools across the country. This sampling strategy draws manuscripts from a time span effectively encompassing one fifth of the decade. Moreover, by intentionally selecting from the start and end of the decade, the sample taps into both the growth of the field and any possible changes in theoretical or methodological content that occurred during that period.

My goal in the analysis was to examine the epistemological and methodological orientation of a sample of published manuscripts in order to gain insight into the nature of scientific research in the field of learning disabilities in the 1970s. Using the ERIC database, I searched for the term learning disability in article titles, article abstracts, or journal titles. I found 52 articles published in 1971 and 107 published in 1979.

The increase in the number of articles within the short time span is not surprising given the growth in the field during that decade. The passage of Federal Law 94-142 in 1975, enacted formally in 1978, required public schools across the nation to identify and educate children with learning disabilities. Opportunities for publication likewise expanded during those years. The Journal of Learning Disabilities, the first research and practice publication devoted solely to the subject, was launched in 1968. The Learning Disability Quarterly, a second leading journal with a similar emphasis on psychological and education research, was started in 1978.

As the field of learning disabilities grew during the 1970s, the published professional conversation involved contributions from numerous professionals in multiple disciplines. Practitioners in the fields of education, psychology, medicine, and speech and hearing science offered insights from their work with children and families. State and national policy makers described efforts to support and coordinate professional activities in relationship to the public schools and other service organizations. School leaders and university faculty produced theoretical accounts of learning disabilities and service provision. Researchers based in hospital clinics, public schools, and universities conducted empirical investigations of many questions.

Table 1 provides an overview of the number of articles published in three distinct categories based on the overall purposes of each manuscript. Practical articles consisted of descriptions of professional practices, including psychological or education treatment programs, diagnostic procedures, counseling approaches, or instructional methods. Many of these articles referred to research, theory, or specific data, but they did not constitute systematic, intensive, and original investigations involving data collection and interpretation.

The primary goal of practical articles was to offer experience-based advice to practitioners. For example, Sutaria (1979) described a summer educational program for children with learning disabilities jointly sponsored by a university special education department and a local chapter of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (ACLD). The author outlined the components of the program as well as benefits and problems encountered. Similarly, Brunner (1971) provided an overview of an experimental program in Baltimore, MD, designed to prevent the development of learning disabilities through the early education of children from low-income families.

Theoretical articles typically brought together prior conceptual, practical, and/or empirical writings in an attempt to offer a new understanding of an issue or problem in the field. In this category, I included reviews of research and critiques of current research, theory, and practice. The main purpose of theoretical articles was to articulate a new perspective on a current issue in the field. Wong's (1979) analysis of different theoretical conceptions of learning disability serves as a good example of this type of article. In that paper, Wong summarized seven competing theories of the causes and psychological activities that constitute a learning disability.

Less than half of the articles examined were pieces of empirical research. I defined empirical science broadly to avoid excluding any orientation to the practice of social science. In this category, I included any examination of one or more inquiry questions based on a systematic collection and analysis of data (quantitative, qualitative). These empirical articles were written within the rhetorical norms of contemporary social science (e.g., sections describing data collection methods, subjects/participants, data analysis), strong indications that the authors viewed their own work to be scientific.

Even before analyzing the philosophical orientations of the empirical research articles, it is important to note that the journal publications in learning disabilities in the 1970s consisted primarily of non-empirical articles. The growth of public and private educational programs for children with learning disabilities, as well as the proliferation of active professions offering services to this population, turned the rather intimate research conversation of the invisible college of clinicians in the prior decades into a burgeoning national dialogue. The parochial discourse that had unified research and practice among a few clinical scientists had, by the 1970s, multiplied into a complex, multi-dimensional conversation that, to a significant extent, separated the concerns of school-based practitioners from the empirical work of the scientists.

Practice-focused articles were often written by educators and other professionals working in schools or clinics. Empirical science publications were frequently authored by researchers working in university teacher education programs that did not provide direct services to children. In a manner, that broke with the tradition of the clinical science of the prior generation, in that research and practice were greatly divided, both as professional activities and as distinct subsets of the broader conversation.

Next, I categorized the empirical science articles (see Table 2) based on the philosophical orientation to science they demonstrated. I found numerous examples of both actuarial and clinical science. The actuarial studies adopted the philosophical positions of objectivism and atomism through the use of a variety of mental measurements and statistical procedures. They also displayed a general assumption that research and practice are isolated activities, the former informing the latter. The clinical studies enacted a mixed epistemology (objectivism and subjectivism) through the collection and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data, often with the case study genre. They also effectively combined research and practice in the course of the activities described in the article.

Only one research study did not fall easily into the actuarial or clinical categories. Morsink, Blackhurst, and Williams (1979) employed a qualitative research method within the tradition of educational ethnography to explore the experiences of new special education teachers. Awkwardly, the article did not include references to any ethnographic research methods literature available at the time (e.g., Erickson, 1977; Fienberg, 1977). Qualitative research approaches, generally speaking, re-animated the holism and subjectivism of clinical science in a broader form of social analysis. Where clinical science focuses almost exclusively on the individual child, qualitative methods investigated the cultural contexts surrounding the child. Only a small amount of ethnographic research was published in the field of special education before the 1990s.

By the 1970s, the field of learning disabilities had clearly undergone a thorough actuarial turn, with the old tradition of clinical research giving way to a more dominant actuarial orientation to inquiry. Thus, actuarial studies constituted 75% of the published empirical research in 1971 and 93% of the learning disability science in 1979. Of the 1971 studies, 25% were clinical case studies. By 1979, less than 5% of learning disabilities research was produced within the clinical science tradition.

These data offer compelling evidence for the thesis that Hammill's strong embrace of an actuarial objectivism demonstrated not merely his own epistemological preferences but a general trend across the empirical field of learning disabilities in that decade. Thus, the philosophical and methodological character of scientific literature on learning disabilities in educational and psychological journals in the 1970s clearly displayed a strong preference for atomistic, objectivist forms of research. Actuarial science was in, and clinical science was out.

Content Implications of the Actuarial Turn

One must wonder what this paradigmatic shift in learning disabilities science in the 1970s meant in practical terms to researchers, teachers, and policy makers. The abridged story was that the methods of data collection and analysis employed by researchers had changed. But what did the move from a clinical science to an actuarial science mean in relation to the actual content of research? Did the rise of actuarial objectivism involve a change in the topics, issues, and problems examined by learning disabilities researchers? Did this shift entail changes in the intellectual and practical priorities of the field?

In this limited analysis of the 1971 and 1979 articles, I will point to two specific ways that the actuarial turn in the field of learning disabilities yielded substantive alterations in the content of research. First, the actuarial science of the 1970s, when compared to the emphases and priorities of the prior clinical science, demonstrated a significant reduction of research interest in examining questions of how children learn. The actuarial studies of the 1970s stepped back, at least to some extent, from the clinical science research tradition of close and intensive examination of the psychological or mental processes of childhood learning. Simultaneous to the diminution of learning disabilities research on the psychology of child learning was a concurrent increase in attention to the technical features of psychometric tests. Many actuarial scientists in the 1970s turned their statistical skills to examinations of the mathematical relationships between different tests or within the internal subscores of various psychological measures.

The Demotion of Learning

The diminished interest in examining childhood learning among the actuarial researchers in the 1970s must be contrasted to the prior tradition of clinical investigation. From the late 1930s through the 1960s, the clinical scientists scrutinized child learning activities at the level of psychological processes and mental activities, attempting to understand why some children failed to learn. The basic concept was best articulated by Wayne County Training School researcher Heinz Werner in a paper he wrote during in 1936 while serving as a visiting scholar at Harvard University. An immigrant from Germany, Werner found that American academic psychology too often assumed that the sum total of mental activity could be represented by a single IQ score. Werner (1937, p. 366) critiqued the common conflation of mental activity with intelligence measures and offered a more dynamic theory of learning that emphasized "the underlying mental processes." Psychometric tests, Werner explained, "reveal the product of thinking, not the processes responsible for the product" (p. 366). Werner articulated the clinical science devotion to conducting research that sought to understand "the manner in which the pupil thinks" (p. 366), how young minds operate, how learning occurs or fails within the realm of mental processes and functions. This dynamic formulation guided the work of clinical researchers such as Ray Barsch, Arnold Getman, Newell Kephart, Marianne Frostig, and Sam Kirk.

Given the strong emphasis on examining the psychological processes of learning in the clinical science tradition, I next evaluated how many of the actuarial and clinical studies in my 1970s sample involved an attempt to understand child learning, including failures of learning. I did so based on two specific criteria.

First, for each empirical article, I asked if the study involved procedures that attempted to teach or train one or more children in a subject-matter or skill area. I construed teaching or training very broadly, including any intentional activities designed to bring about changes in child thinking, perception, or behavior. These activities included any instruction or training provided by public and private school personnel, public or private clinics, or by the researchers themselves. Second, for each study, I asked if data had been gathered and analyzed for the purposes of improving scientific understanding of how children learn or fail to learn. How many studies, of either the clinical or actuarial types, actually looked closely at the learning of students with learning disabilities?

My findings are summarized in Table 3. As illustrated, of the seven clinical research studies, four featured an intensive focus on child learning. Although this is a very small sample of clinical science research, it does meet our expectations by generally continuing the child learning emphasis developed in the prior decades.

In fairly sharp contrast, only 15 of the total 61 (just under 25%) actuarial science articles published in 1971 and 1979 involved an examination of child learning. Some studies examined extended programs of intensive, school-based intervention. For example, Ferinden, van Handel, and Kovalinsky (1971) followed the growth of 11 students with learning disabilities over the course of an 8-month remediation program. Instruction focused specifically on improving perceptual abilities, reading and math skills, and prosocial behavioral skills. Over a dozen different psychological and educational measures, including the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), and the Gates-McGintie Reading Tests, were employed in a pre-post comparison design.

In another apt example, Gottesman (1979) followed the reading achievement of a group of 43 young children with learning disabilities over a period of 5 to 7 years. She correlated two measures of reading achievement with a variety of intervening factors, including educational placements and social class, to explore how and why these children developed as readers over many years. These two studies are representative examples of the use of quantitative research designs to investigate how much children with learning disabilities learned under various instructional conditions.

Other studies evaluated the effects of highly specific psychological or perceptual training provided by the researchers in order to explore and enhance the learning characteristics of children with learning disabilities. For example, Raskin (1971) assessed the visual perception memory of children with learning disabilities under multiple training conditions. He trained subjects in the visual perception of apparent motion, a version of Max Wertheimer's (1912) Phi Phenomenon, wherein a visual presentation of two projected objects in rapid succession is interpreted by the viewer as a motion from one object to the other.

Using an experimental design with two matching groups, Schworm (1979) trained eight children to focus their attention on spelling patterns and the medial position of words. His research explored the ability of trained subjects to utilize that spelling strategy on unknown words. These two studies exemplify the common actuarial emphasis on measuring the effects of training discrete psychological skills and processes viewed as often problematic among the learning disability population.

Of the 15 total actuarial science articles devoted to issues of child learning, one third (5 articles) were behavior modification studies published in 1979, suggesting that behavior modification was gaining prominence as a central approach to pedagogy in the field of learning disabilities. A representative example is the Hallahan, Lloyd, Kosiewicz, and Graves (1979) single-subject design study of the on- and off-task behavior of an l 1-year-old boy. Researchers taught the subject to use a number of self-monitoring and self-praise strategies designed to improve the amount of on-task behavior. Data collection consisted of multiple observers taking behavior tallies using a time-interval procedure. This style of behavioral psychology, often using single subject design and multiple shifts in the experimental conditions, would become a central component of the science and practice of special education in the upcoming decades. One possible hypothesis deserving further historical investigation is that the apparent lack of a strong strand of research on child learning in the 1970s in learning disabilities created a vacuum that was filled by the importation of a science of behavior modification from the field of psychology.

The Elevation of Psychometry

An area of increased emphasis within the growing actuarial science of learning disabilities in the 1970s was the technical development and refinement of tests and measures. In 1971, 5 of the 15 actuarial articles focused explicitly on improving measures of intelligence, perception, and other skills. In 1979, 11 of the 43 actuarial publications were devoted solely to the technical refinement of psychological and educational tests.

A wide range of instruments were examined. Some researchers validated instruments designed to efficiently screen large populations of young children for possible learning disabilities (Beatty, 1979; Colligan, 1979; Dinero, Donah, & Larson, 1979). Others appraised the capacity of a variety of tests, including the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test, the Developmental Test of Motor Behavior, the KeyMath Diagnostic Arithmetic Test, and Woodcock Reading Mastery Test, to wholly or partially diagnose learning disabilities in children (Ackerman, Peters, & Dykman, 1979; Harber, 1979; McCullough & Zaremba, 1979). Still others attempted to devise and validate general measures of intellectual functioning, such as the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Ability (Reeve, Hall, Zakreski, 1979) and the Slosson Intelligence Test (Baum & Kelly, 1979).

A common purpose of the empirical work in the area of psychometry was to improve the technical capacity of available instruments. At the practical level, the guiding assumption was that better tests would allow researchers and practitioners to both accurately decide which children had learning disabilities and locate the specific psychological or educational deficits needing remediation in individual cases. Numerous researchers believed that "testing is the core of learning disabilities diagnosis," and therefore "more attention should be paid to the reliability and validity of the tests used in ... screening and diagnosis" (McCullough & Zaremba, 1979, p. 69). There was a widespread concern that existing diagnostic measures were technically flawed.

Many of the numerous teacher checklists and screening devices available for such identification purposes are of doubtful reliability and validity because of restricted samples, weak criterion measures, lack of cross-validation, and other faults. (Colligan, 1979, p. 59)

Researchers were concerned that the lack of valid educational measures threatened the validity of diagnostic processes that schools and researchers relied on.

Thousands of individually administered tests of intelligence and academic achievement are given daily. More importantly, results from such tests are used to make critical decisions about children's school placements. Given the magnitude and importance of psycho-educational assessment, one would assume that a number of technically sound instruments were available to measure intelligence and achievement. Unfortunately, few quality tests exist. (Reeve, et al., 1979, p. 63)

If the field of research and practice gathered around the learning disability construct could not effectively identify children with learning disabilities, the legitimacy of the field's professional endeavors would be jeopardized.

As noted earlier, the effort to develop high-quality educational and psychological instruments for the purposes of diagnosis did not begin with the actuarial turn of the 1970s. The prior generation of clinical scientists had pursued similar work in the area of test development and improvement. What marked the empiricism of the actuarial scientists of the 1970s was the staunch belief that mathematical analyses of the internal, technical properties of psychometric instruments constituted a way of, by statistical analogy, conducting "inquiry into the nature of learning disabilities" (Vance & Singer, 1979, p. 63). Quantitative data elicited from tests not only provided useful diagnostic information about children with learning disabilities. Those data, properly configured and precisely calculated, served as proxy for the psychological and neurological activities of the children themselves.

Intensive examinations of the mathematic relationships between different measures and within the items and subtests of instruments became a primary way of doing research on the mental functions of children. Essentially, the technical terrain of tests, a landscape of complex algorithms and seemingly endless scores and subscores, was understood as offering a direct analogy to the psychological activities of children. Exploring the inner workings of psychological measures was equivalent to dissecting the internal operations of the learning disabled mind.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this elevation of psychometry was the concentrated effort to mine the popular Wechsler intelligence scales (WISC, WISC-R) for "characteristic WISC profiles" (Ackerman et al., 1971, p. 33) for children with learning disabilities (Blaha & Vance, 1979; Vance & Singer, 1979). For example, Ackerman et al. urged their learning disability research colleagues to scrutinize the WISC to discover "(w)hether the profiles of the generally slow learners differ from those of children with learning disabilities" (p. 47).

Undoubtedly, individual intelligence tests were the oldest and most highly regarded psychological measurement instruments. IQ testing, originally developed during and in the years immediately following World War I served as the conceptual and practical foundation of the American field of educational measurement (Chapman, 1988; Evans & Waites, 1981; Kevles, 1968; Spring, 1972). Many psychologists and educators of the 1970s searched the internal landscape of the subscores and subtests of the WISC for patterns of data that differentiated children with learning disabilities from other children. Perhaps the key to learning disabilities was hidden in the intricate symbolic codes of the intelligence test.

One possible location of the psychometric essence of learning disability was the WISC subtest scatter. The WISC consisted of 10 subtests that contributed equally to the total IQ score. The diagnostic use of subtest scatter assumes that "the variability or profile of an individual's scaled scores across the subtests of an intelligence test have meaning beyond that provided by global IQ measures" (Watkins, 2003, n.p.). It was often thought that the arrangement of subtest scores, the specific configuration of highs and lows, enabled a diagnostician to discern the existence of a learning disability. In 1979, Swerdik and Wilson observed that
   many diagnostic personnel often differentially
   diagnose and several states have considered moving
   toward an established operational definition
   for distinguishing learning disabled children from
   those not learning disabled (normal) based, in part,
   on the interpretation of Wechsler Intelligence Scale
   for Children (WISC) subtest scatter. (pp. 46-47)

Swerdik and Wilson found this effort to be hampered by the lack of equivalency across subtests between the original WISC and the updated WISC-R. If a learning disability profile of subtest scatter existed in the WISC, the same pattern would not show up on the WISC-R. Such imprecision stymied the search for a characteristic profile.

Perhaps a learning disability profile existed, not at the subtest level but in the relationship between the two subscores of the WISC. It was thought in many circles that one could diagnose a learning disability based on a discrepancy between the Performance Intelligence Quotient and the Verbal Intelligence Quotient (Vance & Singer, 1979). Byron Rourke and his colleagues (Rourke, Young, & Flewelling, 1971; Rourke & Telegdy, 1971) conducted two studies that confirmed the thesis "that WISC verbal-performance discrepancies can be used to predict rather consistent differential performances on a whole variety of ability tests for children with learning disabilities (Rourke et al., p. 478). Children with specific profiles of Verbal and Performance scores "exhibit patterns of abilities and deficits which are consistent with (theories) regarding the relative specialization and intactness of the two cerebral hemispheres" (Rourke & Telegdy, p. 882). Intelligence scores could allow researchers to understand the mental activities of the two halves of the learning disabled brain.

Taken together, the reduction of empirical investigation of childhood learning coupled with the increased emphasis on refining the technical features of mental measurements presents a picture of a research field redefining itself in a mathematical mode. The learning and behavioral problems of childhood, traditionally framed as psychological process difficulties to be understood by wise clinicians, were now greatly portrayed as puzzles to be decoded through systems of advanced algorithms and precise computations.

The simultaneous ascent of technical psychometry and descent of research on the psychology of learning also recast learning disabilities researchers as detached technical experts operating at a distance from the vagaries and uncertainties of educational and psychological practice. The particular brand of actuarial research that replaced clinical science in the 1970s repositioned the researcher as the producer of knowledge above and behind the practitioner, the teacher or therapist, who was to put research knowledge into action. The very authority of the research product was based on a mathematical rigor that defied and defeated the ambiguous messiness of daily life in instructional settings.

Viewed in this light, the shift from clinical science to actuarial research initiated--or at least, strongly encouraged--what later became known as the ubiquitous "research to practice gap" (Carnine, 1997, p. 513). Special education researchers in more recent years have lamented the degree to which school-based practitioners have ignored research findings or have created programs and practices without seeking the support of empirical social science (e.g., Abbott, Walton, Tapia, & Greenwood, 1999; Carnine; Kaufman, 1996). The reality is that split was promoted by the rise of actuarial research that often isolated research from practice. The actuarial understanding of the relationship between the two activities consisted of an epistemic hierarchy between knowing and doing, between the technical activities of scientific discovery and the practical activities of professional implementation.

This was a sharp divergence from the prior generation of clinical scientists, who had pinned their claim to epistemic authority to the practical quality of their therapeutic or educational methods. In response to Hammill's critique, Arnold Getman (1976) wrote, "When a method works with a child, averages, means, and standard deviations lose all meaning and relevance" (p. 226).

Clinical scientists typically worked directly with children, and they believed in their scientific activity because they saw results with their daily work. Scientific knowledge, in this light, was a practical implement, an active therapeutic tool, in the hands of professionals whose activities fully unified knowing and doing, scientific thought and action. Epistemic authority was embodied in professional action and gathered in an informed phenomenology of lived experience. The value of clinical science was enacted in the professional delivering instruction or training that, at least by the accounts of the clinical researchers and the national media (Maisel, 1964; Murray, 1958; Oppenheim, 1961; Staff, 1966; Tompkins, 1963), yielded positive change in the abilities of individual children.


If a graduate student studied with a leading learning disabilities researcher in the early 1960s, she was certain to be educated in the prominent science of the day, the clinical tradition. A graduate student who worked with a leading learning disabilities researcher in the late 1970s also received an education in the main science of the day, the actuarial tradition.

It is likely that each student learned a thoughtful rationale for the supremacy of the dominant orientation to scientific practice at the time. But neither argument would satisfactorily explain to scholars today why the two doctoral students received such different scientific educations. Neither argument would explain that the philosophy of science and research methods of the field are historical artifacts, cultural features of a given period of human, social activity taking place within the profession. Neither argument would expose how the dominant understanding of what constitutes "science" changes over time as the cultural norms of the field of research shift.

Perhaps most strikingly, neither of the two rationales--the first in support of the superiority of a clinical science, and the second touting an actuarial science--is capable of out-arguing the other. Each frames a distinct series of epistemological and practical priorities that guide and justify the thinking and actions of its scientific practitioners. Neither clinical nor actuarial science provides a way of analyzing the epistemological or practical claims of other scientific orientations. Neither is a meta-discourse that leaps above scientific reasoning and research to somehow declare a best science.

It is possible that this history of the changing orientation to science in the field of learning disabilities leaves readers feeling less secure and satisfied working in the current platform of epistemological and methodological norms. There is a tendency among each generation of researchers to view their own methods and theories as superior to the scientific ideas and practices used in the past. This self-congratulatory assumption is often based on little examination of the history of the scientific field and even less analysis of the philosophical and practical commitments of varied orientations to doing scientific work. A careful examination of the history of a field of research can supply some insight into how a given set of philosophical beliefs and investigatory practices achieved the status of prominent science of the day. Such an examination of the history of a field of research helps us to understand how an old science became "old" and how the "best" science became viewed as the "best."


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Scot Danforth, Ph.D., College of Education and Human Ecology, The Ohio State University.

Please address correspondence about this article to: Scot Danforth, College of Education and Human Ecology, The Ohio State University, 250 Arps Hall, Columbus, OH 43210; e-mail:
Table 1
Types of LD Articles Published in 1971 and 1979

       Practical    Empirical    Theoretical   Total

1971   13 (25%)     20 (38.5%)   19 (36.5%)      52
1979   33 (30.8%)   46 (43%)     28 (26.2%)     107

Table 2
Types of Empirical Articles Published in 1971 and 1979

        Actuarial   Clinical   Ethnographic   Total

1971       15          5            0          20
1979       43          2            1          46

Table 3
Research Studies Focused on Child Learning

              Actuarial                  Clinical

                   Percentage                 Percentage
        Number   of all studies    Number   of all studies

1971       2         13.3%           3          60%
1979      13         28.3%           1          50%
Total     15         24.6%           4          57.1%
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Author:Danforth, Scot
Publication:Learning Disability Quarterly
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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