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The profession of learning disabilities: progress and promises.

Abstract. An earlier version of this paper was presented as the 14th Annual Distinguished Lecture at the 23rd International Conference on Learning Disabilities, October 21, 2001. It focuses on the status of the field of learning disabilities, including the accomplishments as well as elements of the unfinished agenda that are needed to move the field forward. Drawing on the contributions of the greatest generation of special educators, the paper discusses how these foundations provide a basis for future developments in the field.


In considering perspectives to be developed for my presentation at the 2001 Conference of the Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD), I was reminded of an incident that happened some years ago. During the height of my running career, I was running with four colleagues one day when we came to a blind corner and a driver ran a stop sign and almost plowed through all five of us. Once we had caught our breath, we evaluated the situation and realized the varied resources of our group should a crisis have struck. We had in the group: a cardiologist if there was need for that form of intervention; a plastic surgeon whose skills would potentially have been very timely and important; an attorney who certainly could have made the driver regret this action for a significant period of time; and a business manager who could make sure that everyone received their just due. We all thought we were quite clever coming up with these roles and expanded on them at length.

Then the question ensued: What role does a special educator play in an instance like this? My thoughts ran to rounding up the usual suspects: establishing present levels of performance; developing annual goals and short-time objectives; establishing and writing transition plans; and perhaps the more exotic: implementing perceptual-motor training (angels in the snow) or a behavior change program using differential reinforcement of low rate for stop-sign-running behavior. But my colleagues came up with the more obvious: What a special educator could do is be the witness to the event.

Being a witness relates to the focus of this paper. I welcome the chance to have an opportunity to share my perspectives on what I have witnessed through 30 years in the field of special education, and in particular, in the field of learning disabilities.


At the turn of the millennium, I exercised an editorial digression for one of the few significant times since assuming the senior editorial responsibilities for the journal Remedial and Special Education. Enchanted with the lists in the popular media (e.g., Time magazine) identifying the top 100 individuals to do almost anything within virtually all disciplines, it occurred to me that one place where no such list had appeared was in special education. Hence the publication (Polloway, 2000) of a manuscript listing influential persons in the development of the field of special education. Fifty-three individuals were on the list ranging from A to Z (from Nathan Azrin and the development of toilet training programs for individuals with severe disabilities to Naomi Zigmond and her work with adolescents with learning disabilities).

There are two discernible subgroups within the list. The first consists of the true pioneers of special education including, for example, Jean Jacques Itard, Sam Kirk, Lloyd Dunn, William Cruickshank, Burton Blatt, and Doris Johnson. These were individuals committed to advocacy, who virtually created fields of research and practice where they did not exist and made among the first significant contributions to the literature in many areas of concern to teachers, college and university faculty, community service providers, parents, legislators and persons with disabilities. Without these individuals, it's unclear where we might be today.

But a second important group also clearly emerges from this list as a representative sample. I have used Brokaw's (1998) term "the greatest generation" to refer to them in this paper.


The greatest generation of special educators in my mind are those individuals throughout the country--some recently retired, but many of them still teaching students as they have been for the last 25-35 years--who virtually invented programs for students with learning disabilities on the local, regional, state, national, and international levels.

There is a subset of this greatest generation that warrants particular recognition. These are the individuals who initially created teacher preparation programs, secured federal funding for faculty and student support, wrote key textbooks, pursued important research agendae that enabled us to validate assessments and interventions, and established and strengthened professional organizations such as CLD that serve this field.

The most significant aspect of this greatest generation is their mentoring of future teachers and future teacher educators and researchers. I believe that there are approximately 75-100 persons in the field of learning disabilities to whom most professionals can trace their lineage, the critical learnings, and the essential foundations we have either because of their own work directly and/or because of the work of the individuals they trained, modeled for, and mentored. Many of these persons are at or near retirement; are we prepared to fill this void?


As I pondered my identified goal to focus on achievements and challenges in the learning disabilities field, I looked to individuals who well represent this generation and have made and are still making a difference in the field. As a good "witness," I then realized that their perspectives were more compelling than would be just my perspectives. Therefore, I enlisted the support of 12 such individuals, who consented to interviews.

There were three rules to the interview procedures: (a) focus on the last approximately 30 years of the field (roughly separating the more medico-clinical phase of the field of learning disabilities from the subsequent specialized instruction phase and general education-driven phases); (b) identify the 3-4 most significant achievements in the field of learning disabilities; and (c) identify the 3-4 failures of the field and/or challenges that remain. I acknowledged that quotes would be used anonymously to encourage a freer flow of ideas. While most of the observations focused on learning disabilities, some persons also addressed broader issues in special education.

As I share highlights of these responses, please consider whether or not we have a "profession of learning disabilities"? Have we reached the definition of what a profession is (e.g., do we set standards? control licensure and certification? establish ethical principles and enforce them?)? Or does our field reflect what has been referred to as a semi-profession (i.e., we endeavor to address these types of concerns but fall short of a full commitment)? Are we then closer to medicine or to cosmetology? Are we ready for the challenges that face the field? Can we respond to them to enhance our teaching? Are we open to new perspectives and willing to emphasize empirically supported, evidence-based promising directions and differentiate them from attractive and seductive but nonvalidated directions?


Input from this august group of professionals yielded some intriguing patterns. There were both ,significant commonalities of interest and a fair degree of divergence. Eight main themes emerged, and I will use selected quotes from these individuals to address each of them briefly: the general field of learning disabilities, educational interventions, definition and identification, laws and regulations, assessment, research, inclusion and collaboration, and teacher preparation.

Field of Learning Disabilities

Before categorizing perspectives within specific themes, let me share what I learned in general from these personal perspectives; it provides a global sense of the perceived "state-of-the-art and -practice" for the field. Several persons pointed to what we have achieved while acknowledging that achievements are often a two-edged sword.

Four persons spoke to the status of the field. In several cases this was linked to federal legislation:
 Getting LD into the regulations of Public Law 94-142 made learning
 disabilities a true field. [It gave us] a national presence [and resulted
 in] funds, acceptance, and legitimacy.

Consistent with this view, another person expanded on the benefits and potential problems:
 After a long struggle, learning disabilities have achieved equal status
 with other disability groups; by being part of the larger special education
 community, decisions are made, right or wrong, for all kids. As a
 consequence, [children with learning disabilities] will be treated the same
 in terms of inclusion even though they are not similar to children with
 physical disabilities and mental retardation in terms of needs.

Another individual highlighted the identity of the field:
 In the early 1960s, a number of schools were running a learning
 disabilities-type curriculum which included the traditional emphases on
 perceptual training programs and the ITPA, but also Orton and Gillingham.
 Maybe some of these things were misguided and wrong, but to their credit,
 they knew what they were doing and they had a mission. Later, we moved to
 applied behavior analysis and to the advent of direct instruction.
 Gradually, the field focused on mild disabilities and as a result lost the
 [earlier] learning disabilities focus.

This quote resonates, I am sure, with many of us for several reasons but certainly because of the challenge of the term "mild disabilities." As Martin (2001) recently noted "the myth of mildness ... works against students with learning disabilities and the bad news is that some current beliefs about education seem destined to make things more difficult for the children we hope to help" (p. 1). As a consequence, many persons in the field advocate for referring to learning disabilities rather as a "high-incidence disability" as a partial response.

Several respondents identified general considerations that represent significant challenges for our field. Perhaps some of these would have been unanticipated 30-40 years ago but now loom as important concerns. One area is collaboration:
 We have not done a great job collaborating across professional and parent
 organizations. [We seem to forget we are a] small, vulnerable field and we
 fight battles between organizations too often. We need to do more than we
 have done, and more than the National Joint Committee could accomplish. We
 need to close ranks in the [LD] field politically when there are challenges
 and crises [and collaborate with other colleagues in special education].
 [The need exists] to work together rather than split [apart] and argue.

Another concern of several persons was for the consequences of rapid growth and the resultant quality issues:
 The [field's] big mistake was growing too fast with excessive claims of
 success, an underestimating of the difficulty of the task and the amount of
 time to do it and with inadequate teacher preparation and leadership
 training [necessary for success].

A similar concern is expressed here:
 The problem is that as the field of learning disabilities has achieved
 success and enhanced access to programs, the quality of programs has too
 frequently been found wanting. We need stronger, more systematic programs
 to serve the needs of individuals with learning disabilities across content

One other respondent addressed a broad philosophical concern in the field of special education in general:
 Popular ideas regarding special education foretell its demise. [These
 popular ideas include] service without labels, all children getting the
 same results and the same thing, that good teaching is the only thing
 needed, and so forth. All of this is a cruel focus because if we say that
 all children are special, then nothing is special.

A final comment relates to expectations:
 The field has demonstrated learning in students with disabilities which has
 led to increases in expectations for the students by parents but
 [unfortunately] less so from the perspectives of both general and special
 education teachers.

Perspectives become more crystallized in considering the seven more specific themes that emerged.

Educational Interventions

Most consistently addressed, and perhaps most encouraging, is the generally positive view of the achievements made in the development of effective interventions. Each of the 12 respondents emphasized some aspect of educational programs and most spoke to the progress that had been made and identified challenges that remain. Positive observations of achievements included this general statement:
 [There are many] positives ... research on treatment interventions [within]
 academic and content areas, the social realm, and through delivery
 approaches such as peer-mediated instruction, cooperative learning, peer
 tutoring, cooperative teaching, and the use of paraprofessionals. The
 development of treatment interventions and the development of delivery
 approaches has overall been a significant plus. Inclusion with IDEA has
 been a plus in terms of due process.

Similar is this statement concerning achievements:
 [There is] much more information available on what is good instruction for
 most kids and what is required to teach kids with disabilities such as
 direct instruction and curriculum-based measurement.

The broader, far-reaching benefits of these achievements and their potentials are reflected in this observation:
 The field has developed advanced methods for the prevention of problems for
 students in general [e.g., self-regulation, curriculum-based measures, peer
 tutoring, memory strategies]. Their development has led to their use in
 general education. The tools are there, even if they are not being used.
 Thus they do not have as great an impact as a consequence (e.g., direct

At the same time, with the significant progress that has been made, this quote suggests one of the many challenges that remain. A number of respondents stressed concerns of which a number of areas stand out. The first mentioned by several persons is fragmentation:
 We read that teachers are told that the methodology is there, just put it
 in place. [However,] many of the things we are promoting are fragmented
 [and emanate from] short studies of a month or less (e.g., dissertation
 research). Unique methods have been developed to teach a particular skill
 but not often have they been linked together to create an option to the
 fragmented curriculum. Research needs to continue (e.g., researchers need
 to stay in one class) to continue with a focus and to link these emphases
 together. Thus, teachers are unprepared for, and do not have the time, to
 implement the `cool' research that has been reported and package it

This sentiment was noted also by another respondent:
 There is fragmentation of the field and no cohesive approach to using
 knowledge. Thus, for example, teachers are packaging math to pull together
 and make a difference for practitioners. Packages are available more in the
 reading area but less so in other areas.

A second concern focuses on how whether we use what we have learned in this field:
 We have forgotten or devalued the contributions of special education,
 particularly for programs for adolescents where the differences are
 accentuated and where the needs are more at variance with the regular
 curriculum. [In addition,] alternative diplomas present additional
 challenges here.

A more generic observation reiterates this same concern of failure to use what works:
 Children who have learning disabilities are not getting the benefits of
 methods that work. Teachers don't know of them, or the inclusion movement
 does not promote the use of the strategies for individualized educational
 programs. Paperwork detracts time from instruction (see the CEC website for
 recent research on the low percentage of time involved in teaching). These
 factors all work to prohibit the use of effective strategies.

These points reflect Kauffman's (1994, p. 616) assertion "that we have conveniently sidestepped the issue of insisting that our teachers use those methods with the strongest support in theory and reliable empirical research." Similarly Sasso (2001) noted the frustrations within a field when it fails to take advantage of interventions that reflect a solid theoretical foundation, empirical research and an association with achievement gains and meaningful outcomes.

A third concern has to do with the need for additional research on effective classroom practices with a particular focus on what Torgesen (2000) has referred to as "treatment resisters." An illustrative quote follows:
 The downside is though we have been good at developing a number of models,
 still a number of children with and without disabilities don't respond to
 these approaches. There is no model for ALL children. The federal
 government should rethink where their money goes and put money in research
 on nonresponders.

A fourth concern involved early intervention:
 Have we forgotten about the need for early intervention for children with
 learning disabilities? Do we now wait too long, and does the prereferral
 intervention process inadvertently let things go too far and too long in
 terms of allowing failure?

In addition to interventions in general, one area received particular attention from four respondents: phonological and phonemic awareness initiatives to promote early reading in students who are at risk or who have disabilities. Consistent with much of the encouraging literature in the field, three of four persons spoke positively about the accomplishments in this area. For example:
 Research on early reading is a key accomplishment, including phonological
 awareness, phonetic analysis, and fluency. Phonological or phonemic
 awareness is good, depending upon whether it is a goal in and of itself, or
 a basis for further reading instruction. [Phonological awareness is also]
 good when it [involves] a limited number of activities that are directly
 related to reading, and the behaviors that are involved [are part of] the
 reading act. [Furthermore,] these activities are [positive] if the nature
 of the activities [promotes] brain improvement, and if they are based on
 effective practices.

One other respondent who commented on phonological awareness noted:
 This movement [phonological awareness] has been a big plus. [I] am not
 really concerned in general that these interventions relate to the problems
 of the old perceptual training approaches.

One respondent, however, did express concern about whether this work indicated that the field of learning disabilities was unable to learn from its own history of process training:
 It is the reemergence of information-processing models, and thus it is
 another form of perceptual training with better research. At best it is a
 correlate. The issue is whether the training is really a way to enhance
 phonemic awareness or whether it actually transfers to reading. [Some]
 folks never saw a hypothetical construct they didn't love, and therefore it
 must be real: a correlate but no pay-off. We forgot our history of process
 training. [If there is] no grapheme [phoneme link], there is no connection.

Finally, there is the continuing concern for generalization, evoking the "train and hope" dilemma that Stokes and Baer (1977) emphasized nearly 25 years ago:
 [We have given] insufficient attention to transfer and maintenance and
 skills for kids with disabilities. When given attention, modest benefits
 are realized, but without that attention, achievement is minimized.

It is interesting to note that, in the early days in the field of learning disabilities, we had a strong commitment to advocacy, which was unfortunately accompanied by some interventions based on questionable science. However, if perceptual training did not yield the dividends sought, we might now charitably say: what else was there to do? At this time, obviously such a response does not suffice. Teachers and teacher educators now have years of validation research on many approaches that can make a difference for students with learning disabilities; the challenge is to continue to put them to use (even in cases where they were validated 15-20 years ago and may seem out of fashion) and find ways to package them into successful programs that are increasingly teacher-friendly.

Definition and Identification Procedures

Has there ever been a time when the definition of learning disabilities has not been under discussion and provided fuel to the fires of debate within the field? Not surprisingly, six individuals commented on the definition and on the development and implementation of identification procedures. While the former received a positive reception, the latter clearly remains problematic. This next quote typifies the sentiments of five respondents.
 [We have made] progress in the acceptance of the concept of learning
 disabilities beyond the idea of just `social invention' only, but we are
 still arguing about the definition and wondering why so many have this
 disorder. Thus, what we can do about operationalizing the definition is the
 issue and not the definition itself.

Similar views and concerns are reflected in this observation of achievements and challenges:
 One of the greatest accomplishments is we have agreed on the definition.
 The NJCLD definition is identical with the federal definition and the fight
 is over on what learning disabilities is. [The definition] could be
 operationalized to guide identification of approximately 3-5% of students.
 We could be able to guide identification, which could be a major
 achievement, but the definition only lays the foundation and the
 identification criteria are a mess. School identification processes are out
 of sync with the definition, and thus allow the field to deteriorate. Kids
 are not recognizable from the definition, and the aptitude/achievement
 discrepancy results in problems such as incorrect [identifications]. There
 is a need to go beyond test-based decisions. What are the procedures for

Continuing with this theme is this related commentary on the consequences of identification practices:
 The use of aptitude/achievement discrepancy results in problems and the
 identification of the wrong cases. We have a vested interest in high
 prevalence in terms of books, tests, and teachers but are we willing to do
 something about this?

A further view of the consequences of these practices follows:
 If we use the current definition, the result would be a reduction in
 prevalence. School programs have become polluted with the wrong children.
 The private sector has had to move in as the public schools have [moved] to
 underachievement as a frame of reference; at least the private programs
 pretend they know the kids and have a learning disabilities frame of

The discrepancy concept found few allies in my sample and was cited as the root of the field's challenges. As one person indicated, "it's time to rein in this process." It was cited by four as a primary challenge as reflected here:
 Among the worst events was the invention of the discrepancy definition. [It
 is] good because it allows schools to help kids who are failing and anyone
 can have learning disabilities. But bad measures and [more] bad measures
 result in kids who do not reflect the heart and soul of what learning
 disabilities was--a processing dysfunction. [Thus the discrepancy formula]
 both saved and killed us. It provided an excuse to not go back to the
 definition and develop reliable measures. The formula ignored attention,
 social aspects, and so forth. A great revelation [occurred] when the
 Minnesota Center found that for every child identified as having learning
 disabilities, there was a match of a child with the same test scores who
 did not have learning disabilities. Later research said that there was a
 difference, but it was not reflected in the tests. Thus problems were
 created. The difficulty is not the definition but operationalizing the
 definition, [which is] the same problem as in other areas.

One view of the overall results of this practice in the field is reflected here:
 [Having] no serviceable definition (one that is not operationlized yet)
 results in the proclamation that learning disabilities is an invented
 concept and an oversophistication of underachievement. We lose the hard
 core of students who are truly disabled and we don't have the technical
 expertise or the commitment and will to move on this issue.

To summarize, if you tend to view the future positively, there is cautious optimism that resolution could be achieved through a closer scrutiny of effective ways in which the definition is operationalized. If you are not an optimist, you will predict that we will still be having this discussion for the next 30 years. There are increasingly strident calls for more systematic research on the discrepancy concept (e.g., Swanson, 2000) or for the elimination of the use of discrepancy formulae and the shifting of focus to options such as a student's lack of responsiveness to effective interventions (e.g., the Fordham Foundation Report, 2001).

Legal Aspects and Public Policy

While it can be argued that legal aspects and related public policy impact on all of the other themes, there are unique features that warrant particular attention. Any discussion of this area engenders an acknowledgment of positive accomplishments with corresponding concerns. Eight individuals expressed opinions about this area such as this positive view of contributions:
 Laws and legislation are the greatest achievement [in the field]. We did
 not have to provide services before and now we have mandates. Though
 problems remain, at least the law supports what we are doing in providing
 special education.

However, the ambivalence many feel about legal initiatives is clear in this quote:
 94-142 passed [and produced] a mixed bag regarding effects: [it certainly
 was] good to ensure the rights of kids to an appropriate education. This
 [law] has not played out as intended. Some elements destined our failure as
 procedural foci became primary. This allowed an emphasis and focus on
 "where" [i.e., placement] to become more important than on "what" (that is,
 the services to be provided).

Finally, for those who struggle every year with end-of-the-year obligations, consider this view of procedural concerns:
 [There is a] trade-off on legal/procedural issues vs. academic outcomes and
 thus on kids' rights vs. making sure that kids get effective education.
 IEPs [are unfortunately frequently] devoid of the substantive aspects of

Similarly, one other individual questioned the efficacy of the legally required planning structures:
 IEPs and 504 plans are okay perhaps, but have [students] really gained from

One perspective suggests a concern that may become more significant in the near future:
 A challenge in the area of accountability is moving from IEPs as a basis
 [for evaluation]; teachers may define a performance level too low to cover
 themselves and the IEP is a failure. We don't know how to know how much
 achievement is appropriate. [In the near future] we will find out what the
 gap is [through the administration of] standardized state tests; IDEA 1997
 will push us there.

If this sample is representative and their perceptions accurate, we can only conclude that whenever our solutions to educational problems lie in legal remedies, we will likely experience both help and hindrance.

Assessment and Testing

Six individuals expressed opinions about assessment (including diagnostic, classroom, and high stakes measures), both in terms of achievements and as remaining challenges. In this case, the glass was perceived as half full for a number of reasons, including the development of numerous valid assessment tools. One was the attention to individual learners seen as a singular contribution of the LD field:
 Progress [has been] made [in this area]. Even if the initial ITPA was
 flawed, it still resulted in increased focus on individual attention to
 children's needs vs. global scores. We were able to build on the concept
 [that] children are complex and assessment now reflects that fact.

Several specific assessment initiatives were highlighted. One mentioned several times was the link to instruction:
 Instruction related to assessment is a plus and progress [has been made in
 such as with] functional behavioral assessment and curriculum-based
 measures--very good ideas even if they are not well practiced. It is
 [certainly beneficial] to tie assessment more carefully to instruction.

The benefits of such effective assessment foci are further affirmed here:
 Assessments defined as continuous progress monitoring (curriculum-based
 measures, precision teaching) get us back to our `special education core,'
 which includes trial-by-error elements, [and evoke] the fundamental
 elements since the time of Itard--using reliable data to gauge
 instructional effectiveness.

At the same time, the half-empty glass revealed a number of concerns. For example, high-stakes, statewide assessment programs received special attention:
 Little attention is given to state standards tests as to whether learning
 strategies were learned, adaptations are effective, and so forth; therefore
 they do not measure what many kids are learning in school.

One individual encapsulated the frustrations about high-stakes assessment that many have expressed:
 Why would we imagine that children with serious reading problems should
 take (and be evaluated on) such tests [as standardized statewide

One respondent expressed concern about subtypes and assessment:
 A lot of work has been done in the area of assessment, and there is still
 too much emphasis on subtypes. Are there beneficial analyses of some types
 of learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder, and what will be
 the results of these efforts? Special education supervisors are not
 interested in this type of work.

Finally, there was the perennial, and still significant, concern of ensuring that assessment measures are unbiased and relevant:
 We still need to respond to [several issues including]: bilingual issues
 and minority issues, bias, and technical inadequacies of some instruments
 still being used. But the overriding problem is the use of a test score as
 a basis for placement and diagnosis. We remain a test-oriented society with
 too much weight on IQ and standard scores. The issues regarding, the
 exclusion of children with disabilities from test norms and the fact that
 minorities are now becoming majorities have not been resolved.

What can we conclude about assessment? A plethora of tools are available but a continuing challenge exists in terms of their appropriate usage.


Given the nature of my sample, these individuals were professionals with a deep commitment to the importance of research and its potential to answer the challenges within the field of learning disabilities. Hence 11 persons addressed this topic and, in perhaps no other area, were there more impassioned responses in terms of the achievements made as well as the promises that have yet to be significantly realized. Summative statements on the achievements of research that were made by three persons included the following:
 [We have] impressive lines of research on self-monitoring,
 self-instruction, and curriculum-based assessment. [Because of the work of
 many such as] Harris and Graham, Sharon Vaughn, the Fuchs, Dan Hallahan
 [and colleagues], and the syntheses of research by Lee Swanson [and
 others], we are way ahead of where we were 25 years ago; [we have made]
 remarkable progress.

Particular attention was given by several to the work of the LD Institutes with four of the 12 respondents having been actively involved in these endeavors:
 The Learning Disabilities Institutes were responsible for a lot of
 progress. They moved the field ahead in terms of interventions by providing
 an empirical basis, and helped make changes from the late 1960s to the
 early 1970s including the perceptual training emphases. Given that the
 perceptual training approaches didn't work, Institutes filled the void with
 information on characteristics and interventions that were validated. They
 also enhanced the continuation of research after the Institutes on
 interventions such as strategy training, self-monitoring, language and
 social interventions, curriculum-based measurement, and memory strategies.

Another positive appraisal of the Institutes is reflected here:
 [The fact that] research was supported and persons were trained were both
 benefits. A huge number of studies were completed on characteristics and
 interventions, and a good body of knowledge was developed such as on social
 aspects and attributions, ways to help children make it in school, and ways
 to support children in classes. Though there were problems in samples, many
 studies reported similar findings.

But, the challenges that remain are also compelling. One concern is the issue of research samples:
 As a result of research problems, no samples can be replicated and [thus]
 all research is questionable due to the samples. We do not know who these
 kids are.

A second is the concern for insufficient research support:
 By and large, [we are] not engaged in a lot of cross-validation studies.
 [The research includes] one-shot efforts with some replication by the same
 researchers, and less often by others. The power of research [would be
 greater] if others did more validation. [We are] suffering from federal
 discretionary funding with learning disabilities not named, and all the
 focus [has been] shifted to emotional disturbance, deaf-blind, Native
 American, early childhood special education, and transition, but no focus
 on learning disabilities. [LD] is `living off the crumbs' after the other
 areas as noted, [which has] hurt the learning disabilities infrastructure
 that developed from the Institute research. The Institutes helped both in
 terms of research as well as developing future researchers through doctoral

The need for targeted funding was noted as a proper response to these concerns:
 The problem has been prior piecemeal federal funding of research, which was
 short-term, fragmented, and underfunded [research] rather than
 longitudinal. So we have not been able to see the effects of interventions
 over time. We [also] have not seen from the federal government enough of a
 problem focus on a specific problem. As a consequence, much of the research
 is in the eye of the beholder and, while much of it has been important, it
 has not resulted in the convergence on specific problems that need
 attention. Thus we need to direct research to these areas [by] prioritizing
 critical areas [and] ensuring the highest levels of peer review at both the
 federal and journal level.

The philosophical issues of our field also are reflected in research foci and surfaced in comments from several respondents:
 Antiscientific postmodern sentiments are not productive or helpful. [We've]
 fallen into a pattern that dominates the humanities where `non-western
 views' are preferred and promoted. It is not logical, not scientific and
 irrational to judge ideas based on the race or gender of the idea-creator.
 Discounting ideas (because of the identity of the originator) is racist in
 its own right.

Several other respondents focused on methodology such as this comment:
 We need to ensure that we match the correct methodology to the question
 being asked and then use the methodology with the proper care. Some
 research questions are being addressed with qualitative means when they
 require experimental design.

A stronger statement about research methodology was as follows:
 With the qualitative research movement, people are getting away from
 training in how to do research that enables us to verify what really works.
 This movement may erode the solid research base in establishing the field,
 [particularly because] many qualitative folks are also individuals who
 believe that learning disabilities do not really exist.

One individual called for more research on multifaceted interventions:
 The way researchers tackle problems reflects individual perspectives on the
 problem. [There are] not enough attempts to test multifaceted interventions
 for multiple aspects. A need [exists], for example, for the equivalent of
 wrap-around type of services.

Finally, there is this comment, which summarizes the central challenge if we agree that research as the basis for practice is the lifeblood of our field:
 How can we get practitioners to use methodology if teachers see it as
 irrelevant? What would it be like if doctors did not use tools that worked
 because they're not fun, not creative, or not easy to implement?

Inclusion Practices

It would be surprising if attention was not given in these interviews to inclusion. Seven persons commented on inclusion and reflected some ambivalence in terms of achievements and challenges. Emphases included the instructional benefits of special education strategies with inclusive education:
 In part due to federal initiatives, we have developed instructional
 programs that fit also in regular classes such as classwide peer tutoring,
 cognitive strategies, and direct instruction. A large handful of
 instructional models have been researched and developed and are working
 with large numbers of children.

The importance of accommodating diverse learners was also stressed:
 A [key] issue is [general education] teachers' willingness to accommodate.
 We need improvement here, and we need greater awareness. [We] need to
 convince teachers that diversity is a plus. [This is an] area where special
 education teachers need to place their emphasis. It is a plus to [use] a
 diversity model, and to bring in children with diverse needs. We can make a
 difference in programs but we need to change attitudes.

The challenges regarding curriculum were of particular concern to two persons:
 Recently things have become even more blurred; special education teachers
 don't know whether they are to teach special education or the regular
 education curriculum. We cannot do inclusion [well] because special
 education teachers don't know what the curriculum is in regular education
 and therefore cannot make adaptations with teachers.

Finally, two persons noted the problems that are created when we do not see inclusion as supported education (Snell & Drake, 1994) but rather stress placement as the primary goal. This next comment refers to students with disabilities in general:
 A major concern today is what is happening in practice; do children get
 what is needed? Placement is the wrong goal [compared with] the
 instructional needs of children. Children are lost in the shuffle, and
 teachers don't always have the skills or children don't have the skills to
 be successful in these rooms. The theory of inclusion is excellent and the
 movement toward the theory is spectacular. [However], there is the gradual
 realization that the movement toward full inclusion from segregated classes
 to regular classes is great in principle, but does it work?

Similarly, one individual summarized his/her concerns thus:
 We are desperate to show that we can do something and so we move children,
 focus on placement which becomes a goal in itself because it can be done,
 but it misses the issue of what we really need to do: just teach the

We know that, with or without research, inclusion as a trend is unlikely to be disturbed greatly from its recent pattern. The most recent federal data (i.e., U.S. Department of Education, 2000) indicate that in 1997-98, 95.6% of students with learning disabilities received at least 60% of their instruction in general education classes. Collaboration obviously will be a key to success in the future.

Teacher Preparation

A final theme addressed by six persons was teacher preparation and career opportunities. While one individual identified this area as one of the three greatest achievements in the field, three others disagreed. Their discouraging observations may point toward some productive avenues for the future. The first is the concern for quality:
 The pressure to increase numbers [of teachers] resulted in watered-down
 programs and a loss of quality control. Crash courses for teachers resulted
 in consumer dissatisfaction. The producers lost control of quality and
 inferior quality reflects back on the legitimacy of the field, which cannot
 be salvaged. [We forgot that] the challenge of teaching those who are
 difficult to teach is a daunting task.

Another individual commented on the quality of teacher preparation programs:
 [There is] no consolidated effort to yield appropriate professional
 development, and no quality controls [in place] to promote what works. The
 field is naive regarding what is needed for teachers, and [for] what works
 in preservice and inservice for teachers.

A third concern expressed is for the special challenges of careers in the field:
 Special education is no longer attractive and thus we see fewer numbers [of
 teachers], who stay there less time, who have too many kids on their
 caseload so they cannot use the skills they learned in their preparation
 programs, and who do not have enough opportunities to get invigorated.

The issue of teacher preparation is particularly troubling. What message are we sending? Who is setting the agenda? Are we a profession? Do we govern our own standards--or have we allowed ourselves to be caught up by a sense of urgency and emergency that negatively impacts our field? As Sasso (2001) recently noted: "it is unclear how knowing less about children with disabilities will lead to greater effectiveness as a teacher. Special educators must know everything there is to know about learning, how it can go wrong, what to do about it when it does" (p. 190). The accelerating trend toward alternative licensure approaches will certainly exacerbate these concerns.


The history of the field of learning disabilities reflects numerous achievements derived from the outstanding work of thousands of persons. I hope that these quoted observations provide a complement both to others' perceptions of the work that has been done and to areas in need of additional focus. As members of the field--teachers, teacher trainers, researchers, administrators, and so forth--we can be justly proud of the progress that has been made over the past 30+ years. At the same time, we also realize the work needed to fulfill the promises of the future.

The participants in these interviews are representatives of a generation of persons who have shaped the field of special education and learning disabilities. Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with their individual or collaborative views, I trust most would acknowledge the contributions of the "greatest generation." As some members of this generation retire, the need is there for new leaders to step forward in terms of research, teacher education, program development, and organizational initiatives to ensure continued progress.

A colleague shared with me recently a phrase from the motto of the Children's Defense Fund: "Lord, my boat is so small and the water is so wide." Whether you see this concept in a spiritual or secular sense, we have much to accomplish.


(1) I would like to thank the following individuals for their willingness to participate in the interview process and for their insightful observations: Tanis Bryan, Doug Carnine, Don Deshler, Doug Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, Dan Hallahan, Don Hammill, Jim Kauffman, Tom Lovitt, Reid Lyon, Gerry Wallace, and Naomi Zigmond. The quotations used have been edited for syntactical purposes but I have endeavored to ensure that the essential content remains unaltered.

(2) I acknowledge Ken West, Glenn Buck, and Jim Patton for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of the paper when prepared for presentation and to Betty Shelton, Amy Smith-Thomas, and Kelly Wilcox Cook for their help in analyzing the data and assisting with the preparation of this paper.

(3) This paper was originally presented as the Fourteenth Annual Distinguished Lecture, Council for Learning Disabilities Conference, October 20, 2001.


Brokaw, T. (1998). The greatest generation. New York: Random House.

Fordham Foundation. (2001). Rethinking special education for a new century. Retrieved from

Kauffman, J. M. (1994). Places of change: Special education's power and identity in an era of educational reform. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 610-618.

Martin, E. (2001). Education of children with learning disabilities: Bad news and good news. DLD Times, 18(2), 1-2.

Polloway, E. A. (2000). Influential persons in the field of special education. Remedial and Special Education, 21, 322-324.

Sasso, G. (2001). The retreat from inquiry and knowledge in special education. Journal of Special Education, 34, 178-193.

Snell, M. E., & Drake, Jr., G. P. (1994). Replacing cascades with supported education. Journal of Special Education, 27, 393-409.

Stokes, F., & Baer, D. M. (1977). An implicit technology of generalization. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 10, 349-367.

Swanson, H. L. (2000). Issues facing the field of learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 23, 37-49.

Torgesen, J. (2000). Individual differences in response to early interventions in reading: The lingering problem of treatment resisters. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15, 55-64.

U.S. Department of Education. (2000). Twenty-second annual report on IDEA. Washington, DC: Author.

Requests for reprints should be addressed to: Edward A. Polloway, School of Education, Lynchburg College, Lynchburg, VA 24501.

EDWARD A. POLLOWAY, Ed.D., is vice president for College and Community Advancement and professor of special education, Lynchburg College.
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Title Annotation:23rd International Conference on Learning Disabilities
Author:Polloway, Edward A.
Publication:Learning Disability Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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