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Why Schools Avoid Remediating Reading & Learning Issues

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

The School Focus Is Grades (Output), Not Learning Skills (Input)

Schools are judged on student output – grades, graduation rates, colleges attended.  That is quite different to love of learning, love of reading or even learning independence.

For many children, this is a distinction without a difference. For them, the path to good grades goes through developing good learning skills and a positive connection to reading and learning.

However, if your child is not a natural learner, this is a distinction does matter.

An output focus means the school needs your child to take on curriculum and test taking even if she is not ready.  And it means the reading instruction and learning development work stops, in favor of curriculum, even if your child still needs reading help.

Why Most Schools Do Not Remediate Learning Delays

The reality though is schools take children “as is” and do their very best to get them graduated. And so, if a child is not a natural learner, schools provide added instruction and accommodations – to help that child meet the schools’ goals – grades, etc.  The one thing they do not do is attempt to remediate the underling impediments to learning.  It’s not their skill set.

While the general reluctance of schools to work on underlying issues might come as a surprise, we will take it one step further. Many schools will go to great lengths to avoid formally recognizing that there’s a problem at all.  Because that means acknowledging that there’s an underlying learning glitch that needs attention and could lead to an IEP!  Learn about IEPs here.

The reluctance of schools to intervene in learning issues is based in common sense and accumulated experience. There are four influences:

  1. All kinds of legal requirements can kick in once a child has a diagnosis
  2. Interventions are expensive and time-consuming
  3. Schools are not staffed with clinicians
  4. Raising parent expectations is risky business

More on this later. But suffice to say, if you are the parent of a child with a learning disability and you would like to free your child from these learning constraints once and for all, there are learning interventions that can help. But you will have to pursue these solutions on your own.

Here’s a review of this vexing issue that traverses law, conventions and moral obligations.

The Schools’ Responsibility

Schools are required to deliver prescribed curriculum and ensure all students have equal access to that content and learning. Most schools, including those who have adopted Common Core State Standards Initiatives are aligned to the “expectations of colleges, workforce training programs and employers.”

Schools operate under legal and administrative constraints. Because of this, they are only one part of your child’s solution for learning and they aren’t perfect, say Gina Kemp, Melinda Smith and Jeanne Segal of HelpGuide.org International.

“Parents sometimes make the mistake of investing all of their time and energy into the school as the primary solution for their child’s learning disability. Too many [laws and] regulations and limited funding mean that the services and accommodations your child receives may not be exactly what you envision for them, and this will probably cause you frustration, anger and stress.”

Gina Kemp, HelpGuide.org

Dealing with Parents of Children With Learning Issues

What’s the onus on schools in dealing with parents of children with learning issues? Connor and Cavendish in Learning Disability Quarterly say the responsibilities of school professionals are to:

  • “… better understand parental positionalities and needs
  • Be culturally cognizant and competent in interactions”.

The aim, they say, is to be aware of the differences in power that have stymied “authentic parent-professional relationships” throughout history. Parents have time-based challenges such as balancing work commitments and having other children to care for. There can be language barriers, too few school staff to help organize and translate meetings about their child. And then there’s a lack of understanding of complex procedures, and frustration around the exact parent role. in an IEP.

School bureaucracy is the biggest bugbear for parents. In this structure, “medical and psychological knowledge are deemed the most legitimate … [so] equity of participation becomes difficult”, says a research report in the International Journal of Inclusive Education.  In fact, in many cases, the Supreme Court has explicitly affirmed parents’ rights to “direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”

So, what are the relevant laws and regulations regarding learning interventions?

The Legal Requirements

Every state in the US guarantees students a free public education. A key federal law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA aims to ensure children with disabilities throughout the nation can access a “free appropriate public education” as well as special education and related services.

IDEA lists 13 categories of disability under which a student can gain special education and related services. The act was amended in December 2015, through Public Law 114-95, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The ESSA aims to give “all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” It came into effect for the 2017-18 school year.

This article be Education Degree explains the language of IDEA  and includes a Teacher’s Guide to IDEA: Supporting Students with Disabilities, which covers the 13 IDEA-recognized disabilities and tips and tools for how to help, support, and work with diagnosed students.  

Students with learning disabilities are facing new and unprecedented challenges. Will you help me provide this valuable information and advice by including the link above alongside the other resources and information on your site?

Meanwhile, in Canada, inclusion is a core principle in the education system. That means “all students deserve to learn to their abilities in as conventional environment as possible.” Read more here.

An IEP Is Helpful, But Has Limits

Parents lobby hard to get an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for their child.  And yes, there is a lot of value that comes with an IEP in terms of receiving extra school resources and accomodations.  Your child’s IEP will set out annual goals and the services and supports to help your child achieve them.

States use a variety of strategies to monitor school districts and their IEP management. These may include reviewing data on how well students with disabilities are faring compared to other students. States may also examine parent complaints and due process hearings. And they may conduct in-person visits to local schools.

The IDEA law sets down what parents need to do if they feel their child’s school is not following the Individual Education Plan. Options include informal negotiation, mediation, retaining a lawyer or lodging a civil lawsuit. As well, parents can complain to their relevant state education agency or to the Office of Civil Rights. The website, understood.org, explains these options further.

Learning Interventions Are Fraught With Risk For Schools

School budgets are under pressure, and special education budgets in particular are under scrutiny. Providing accommodations, added language and reading instruction and testing is expensive enough.  Developing a program to target deep-seated learning issues is simply beyond the pale for many schools for these reasons:

  • Timeframes are uncertain and potentially expensive
  • They are not staffed to fully handle interventions
  • Once a school takes it on, the school owns it
  • It raises parent expectations, which has its own consequences

And so, while ESSA and all the law around IEP’s have great intentions, there are unintended consequences. If a child is tagged in the school system with a learning disability all kinds of liabilities and costs kick in.

And so schools have learned to be careful about what they recognize. Meaning parents should take Gina Kemp’s advice above.  If you feel your child is stuck and needs help, you will need to look beyond the school.

Your Child’s Learning Trajectory Is Up To You

If you decide to seek outside help, start by understanding your child’s issues.  Most of the time, that’s not as complex as it seems.  And the school might actually be a good starting point.  While they might be reluctant to formally recognize a learning difficulty, your child’s teacher will probably have insights on the kinds of issues that need attention – language processing, attentiveness, etc.

From there, you can get a lot of information about your child by having free consults with intervention providers like Gemm Learning who offer free consults by learning professionals, often with a free (in Gemm Learning’s case) or moderately priced assessment. Provider consultants talk to parents about learning issues all day long and will have a lot of great insights for you about your child and your options.

If your child has a language processing or reading delay (including dyslexia), a consult with Gemm Learning would be a good starting point.

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