DEAF-L: "Extra Credit for Doing Poorly"

Key Words: Deaf education information, deafness related issues, deaf education

Subj: "Extra credit for doing poorly"
Date: 97-08-26 07:44:24 EDT
From: myared@EROLS.COM (Michael Yared)
Sender: DEAF-L@SIU.EDU (Deaf List)
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August 25, 1997 http://www.nytimes.com

"Extra Credit for Doing Poorly

By ROBERT J. STERNBERG

Picture: NEW HAVEN -- Imagine an educational system that subverted the goal of education -- one that discouraged students from discovering their strengths and instead encouraged them to get ahead based on their weaknesses. When it comes to learning disabilities, that is what the American educational system has become.

 

The way Federal law has been interpreted, students with certain diagnosed learning disabilities are legally entitled to take high-stakes standardized tests without time limits and in enhanced environments that allow them, for example, food and drink or assistants to record their answers. They are entitled to extensive free tutoring in school, help with note-taking and explanations of test questions.

And in some universities, students are excused from difficult courses, like math or foreign languages, because they have been found to have a disability in these subjects. It's no wonder, then, that some parents have sought to have learning disabilities diagnosed in their children to make them eligible for such benefits.

Boston University recently tried to curtail some of the benefits given to students with learning disabilities. For example, it refused to exempt them from foreign-language requirements. But last week a Federal judge ordered the university to re-evaluate that policy, awarded a total of $30,000 to six students who sued the university and ordered the institution to stop requiring such students to take extra tests to certify their disabilities.

The Boston University case has raised important questions about the special treatment of such students. More than 2.5 million children are classified as having learning disabilities, and they benefit from Federally financed special education programs. The cost of serving special education students, about half of whom have learning disabilities, is about $3.25 billion each year.

The basket of benefits some of these students are offered rewards them not for achievements based on their abilities, but for embracing their deficiencies -- or, in some cases, the appearance of deficiencies that may actually have been misdiagnosed. What we now have is a system of well-intentioned but sometimes misguided entitlements.

Originally, the diagnosis of a disability was supposed to identify children who needed special help. According to the United States Department of Education, about 20 percent of American students have learning disabilities, although only about 5 percent have been diagnosed.

But we have no way of knowing how many children have learning disabilities that are not being diagnosed. And we have no way of knowing how many children who have received such a diagnosis really have learning disabilities.

One reason for this is that psychologists and educators themselves do not all agree on the criteria for making a diagnosis. The greatest agreement is on reading disability, but there is a lack of full consensus on how to identify students with such disabilities.

 

According to the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of The American Psychiatric Association, learning disabilities can involve deficient math, writing, reading or other skills. Someone with a reading disability, for example, would have comprehension skills that fall far below expectations based on age, measured intelligence and education. But these definitions are elastic and can lead to misdiagnoses.

Yet even students with genuine disabilities should not be able to use them as an excuse for not learning. Students who have trouble learning need extra training to surmount their difficulties, but they must also face the challenge of obtaining the basic skills they need to get along in the world. We should be helping such students to find their often considerable strengths and to make the most of them. To the extent that accommodations accomplish this goal, I support them.

Though some students who receive generous accommodations for learning disabilities may gain in the short run, with improved grades and test scores, the long-term implications can be disturbing. Such students may simply not be able to handle the careers they have been able to enter with the extra assistance they have received. Indeed, the saddest aspect of the fixation with entitlements is that, while helping these students succeed in school, we are setting them up for possible failure later on.

Our society has created a cult of self-esteem in which we make it hard for children to fail. But there are great advantages to failing. That is how we learn how to correct our weaknesses. And that, in turn, is one of the first steps to success.

Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of psychology and education at Yale, is The co-author, with Elena L. Grigorenko, of the forthcoming ``The Trojan Horse: America's Learning Disability `Gift' to Its Young.''

 

Uploaded by: BJ Lawrence/Kent State University/Deafed Major