Today's Policy Contexts for Special Education and Students with Specific Learning Disabilities

By Turnbull, H. Rutherford,, III | Learning Disability Quarterly, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Today's Policy Contexts for Special Education and Students with Specific Learning Disabilities

Turnbull, H. Rutherford,, III, Learning Disability Quarterly

A year ago, when Professor Dan Boudah asked me to address the annual meeting of the Council for Learning Disabilities, I accepted eagerly, believing I might share my perspectives about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its meaning for students with specific learning disabilities.

I had planned to focus on the provisions that relate to (a) the nondiscriminatory evaluation of students suspected of having a specific learning disability and (b) the responsibilities of teachers, students, and parents. I had planned to link evaluation and responsibility to civil rights, education reform, and welfare reform.

However, a year ago, we as a nation were facing different prospects than we are now. A year ago, it seemed we might focus on IDEA, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) rather narrowly and that it was less urgent to contextualize special education, to put it into the context of the world around it. Today, it is essential to do so. So that's what I will seek to do--give you some knowledge, from my perspective as a lawyer/policy analyst, about special education and the factors that mightily influence it.


To contextualize special education--its challenges and opportunities--allow me to use a metaphor, one I borrow (in these days of globalization and the "flat" world) from an unlikely source, Russia.

Undoubtedly, most of us are familiar with the "Russian doll"--the Matyroshka. It has a small doll inside a larger one; the larger one inside an even larger one; the yet-larger one inside the largest. As we open the doll, starting with the largest doll, we find yet another, and then another, until we finally arrive at the smallest doll. The English author John LeCarre (1975) used the doll to symbolize the inner workings of the British intelligence service, in his book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The farther LeCarre carried his readers into the innards of the spy service, the more he uncovered the littlest, but most dangerous, doll.

I suggest that we start opening the doll from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Let's start with the smallest doll--specific learning disabilities and special education--and then think about special education and the context and the factors influencing it today.


The littlest doll represents the issues related directly to students with learning disabilities. Two aspects of this tiny doll fascinate me. One relates to the discrepancy model, costs, classification, and the criticism of the "dependency model." The other relates to the process for law reform and the practice called response to intervention. Both are significant because they have the potential to shape rather significantly the population called "students with specific learning disabilities" and the services they receive.

Discrepancy Model, Escalating Costs, Alleged Overclassification, and Dependency Theory

First, there is the discrepancy model for determining whether a student has a specific learning disability. That model allows educators a great deal of discretion in whether to classify a student as having SLD and thereby offer the benefits of individualized education. Encountering many students whose ability and performance were not congruent, educators began to classify them as having SLD. The number of students with learning disabilities consequently increased annually (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

The growth in the population concerned policymakers and others. For one thing, it escalated education costs; special education is more expensive than general education. For another, it placed some students into special education who would not need those services if they had been effectively educated in the general curriculum.

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Today's Policy Contexts for Special Education and Students with Specific Learning Disabilities


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