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Helping Schools Do Whats Best for Special Ed Kids

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Peter Wright struggled in his first years of school until his learning disabilities were identified and intensive remediation helped him learn to read and write. Now an attorney, Wright is helping parents and educators understand special education law. Included: Resources for special education students.

"The biggest mistake is the failure to teach children how to read," says attorney Peter Wright of Wrightslaw.

As a child, Peter Wright was labeled disruptive and disturbed in school and by second grade had mastered no basic skills. After his parents paid for private testing, they learned he had dyslexia, dysgraphia (a writing disability), and what now is called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After several years of intense, individual remediation outside of school, Wright had caught up with his classmates academically.

His experiences in school prompted him to become a lawyer representing special education students and their parents, and he and his wife, Pam, founded Wrightslaw, a special education information and advocacy organization for parents and educators. The Wrights also are the authors of numerous books on special education and special education law.

Peter Wright said he feels strongly that intensive, individualized instruction is the best way to help children with learning disabilities succeed, and while he was fortunate to have that, not all children with disabilities get the type of instruction they need. He talked with Education World about his concerns and how schools can better meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Education World: What are some mistakes school districts make in dealing with the needs of children with disabilities and their parents' concerns?

Peter Wright: The biggest mistake is the failure to teach children how to read. In dealing with the needs of children, school districts have moved away from recognition that the most important academic skill that must be mastered is reading.

Too many school districts are comfortable providing modifications and accommodations such as the use of "talking books" and reading to the child (instead of teaching the child to read). The teaching staff does not have the time or the skills to teach children who learn differently how to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic.

EW:What can schools do to improve the way special education children are taught?

Wright: Special education teachers must be trained in teaching children how to read. [Certain methods for teaching children with disabilities such as] Orton-Gillingham have been around since the 1940s and has an excellent track record.

EW: How are budget cutbacks in districts and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requirements affecting special education services in the U.S.?

Wright: NCLB can help minimize the impact of local cutbacks because so much additional money is available under NCLB in the form of grants. School officials complain about NCLB requirements but they don't pursue the funds that are available.

These issues about reading and accountability were set in motion years ago. They began after "A Nation at Risk" was published in 1983. In President Clinton's 1997 State of the Union address, he talked about making schools, school districts, and state departments of education accountable. He talked about "qualified teachers" and his desire to increase the number of charter schools."

Why are educational leaders so surprised that Congress wants them to be accountable for how they spend federal funds and how well they are doing the job of educating all children? If you take money, is it unreasonable to expect a reporting of the results? I don't think so!

EW: How have the challenges for learning disabled children in the education system changed since you began school in the 1950s?

Wright: When I attended school, children who had visible physical disabilities -- children who were blind, deaf, or in wheelchairs -- did not attend school. Most children who had physical handicaps were simply excluded from school.

I did attend school with other children like me; children who had "hidden handicaps" (students with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, etc.) We were shuffled into lower level programs and did not receive special services.

Today, more than 50 years later, children are being identified with learning disabilities. However, after they are identified, most of these children do not receive the remediation they need. Most public school special education teachers have not been trained to teach reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic skills to children who learn differently. Most public schools do not provide children with quality one-on-one remediation by highly skilled teachers -- and this is the only way to help these children.

EW: Can you describe your experience in school before your disability was identified? How does it manifest itself?

Wright: By second grade, I could not read, write, spell, or do arithmetic. When I was frustrated, I was sometimes aggressive with other students so I was viewed as a behavior problem.

I was (and am) left-handed. The public school teachers tried to cure this problem by tying my left hand behind my back and forcing me to write with my right hand.

The teachers told my parents that they thought I might be mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed.

In 1953, when I was in third grade, my parents had comprehensive psychoeducational and neuropsychological evaluations completed on me by experts in the private sector. I was diagnosed with strephosymbolia and an acute hyperkinetic disorder. Using today's terms, I had dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

After this, I received intensive Orton-Gillingham remediation. Every day for two years, I was tutored for an hour a day by Diana Hanbury King. Diana King is now a legend in the field of Orton-Gillingham remediation. She taught me how to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic. She altered the course of my life and my future. Later, Diana King founded The Kildonan School in Amenia, New York, which is a school for students with dyslexia.

During the summer, I attended a program where I continued to receive intensive Orton-Gillingham remediation, so my parents created year-round schooling.

By fifth grade, I no longer had significant difficulties with reading, writing, spelling and math. In fact, I came to excel in those basic skills.

Because I received intensive remediation from a highly skilled teacher, I became an exception to the rule. Unlike many youngsters who have learning disabilities or differences, I was identified early. I received intensive remediation in a method that has a track record of success for more than 50 years.

EW:What are some common complaints from parents about special education programs?

Wright: The two most common issues are related to a school's refusal to either provide services, or an inability and or unwillingness to provide quality services. Sometimes parents consult with me because the school refused to find a child eligible for special education services. If services are provided, the parents consult with me because the school is providing services that are not appropriate and the child is falling further and further behind and is not receiving educational benefit.

Typically, a child with a learning disability is placed into a "resource learning disabilities class." In too many cases that I see, after several years, the child has made little or no progress in the acquisition of basic skills since entering the special education program.

Another problem that drives parents to seek help is schools' insisting on using the same educational method that they have used for years, regardless of whether the child is learning and benefiting from that approach. This is a common problem for children with autism and children with cochlear implants [which allow deaf children to hear.] I've had cases where schools insist on teaching sign language to children who have cochlear implants -- and refuse to teach these children to listen and speak. Bizarre and absurd!

EW: What advice would you give people about navigating the maze of special education services?

Wright: Parents must obtain a comprehensive evaluation of their child from an evaluator or evaluators in the private sector. I often consult with parents who relied on the subjective, well-meaning opinions of educators about the wonderful progress the child is making. After the child is evaluated in the private sector and the parents understand the application of standard scores, percentile ranks, and the bell curve, the parents see that the child's percentile rank scores have dropped.

Parents also must learn to control their emotions when dealing with school officials. They must learn the basics of negotiation, how to write letters and create paper trails, and how to measure their child's educational progress with norm referenced testing.

This e-interview with Peter Wright is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

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