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Taking on a Learning Disability: At the Crossroads of Special Education and Adolescent Literacy Learning

reviewed by Cynthia L. Wilson - June 21, 2013

coverTitle: Taking on a Learning Disability: At the Crossroads of Special Education and Adolescent Literacy Learning
Author(s): Erin McCloskey (ed.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617357863, Pages: 178, Year: 2012
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The book, Taking on a Learning Disability: At the Crossroads of Special Education and Adolescent Literacy Learning presents a poignant story about an adolescent boy named “Samson” who struggles to learn how to read.  While in elementary school, Samson is placed in a self-contained special education classroom (including only students with disabilities), presumably because it was believed that the “individualized instruction” he needed due to his learning disability could best be provided by a special education teacher who would know how to teach him to read.  Though he received self-contained special education services throughout his elementary school years (from second to fifth grade), he advances to middle school still not being able to read.  McCloskey, the author of this book, designed a research study from which this book emanates in an attempt to answer the question, “Are there just some kids who will never learn to read?”

The book tells Samson’s story, but is not a narrative about the life of Samson; rather it reports the results of the research completed by McCloskey.  As McCloskey states, “While this book focuses on one case study, it tells a larger story.”  Through interviews, field notes, transcriptions and observations, McCloskey substantiates a story that is likely “all too familiar for many students in special education,” but not often so well documented and validated.  It is noteworthy that this story is about a student who comes from a “white, working-class, two-parent family” as stories abound in the education literature about the academic failure of students from culturally and linguistically (CLD) diverse backgrounds.  Often, the culprit in the stories of students from these backgrounds is alluded to be their CLD background.  That is, the student (or their family, their single-parent, their low socioeconomic background, their English as a second language difficulty, etc., etc.) is blamed for their academic failure.  This is not that story.  

While serving as a tutor for Samson, McCloskey used an ethnographic, qualitative research design to conduct the study.  The data collection time period spanned three years and included numerous contexts in which data was collected.  Both semi-structured and informal interviews were conducted with Samson, his mother, father, brother, and elementary and middle school speech/language therapists (his special education teachers declined McCloskey’s interview requests).  The data collection process includes the author as both participant and observer as McCloskey not only tutored Samson, but also attended school functions such as “annual review meetings, parent/teacher conferences, and Open School Night.”  Extensive field notes of observations during these events were retained by McCloskey who also kept a journal, as did Samson.  Consistent with the qualitative research design, the data was coded, categorized, and analyzed throughout the research process.  

McCloskey presents the following three lenses through which learning disability can be viewed:

The positivistic or medical model ascribes disability as something that exists within the person; the social constructivist model, contends that disability is made possible because we have spaces to notice it and the words to construct it; and a disability studies in education (DSE) perspective on disability, which builds on a social constructivist lens but adds to it the importance of including the voices of those who have been described as disabled. (pp. 1-3)

The literature in special education is fraught with information from the perspective of the positivistic model and to a lesser degree from the social constructivist model.  What is missing from the literature is the information from the DSE perspective.  It is this inclusion of the “voice of those who have been described as disabled,” that makes this book so powerful.  Throughout the book, McCloskey weaves not only Samson’s voice, but also the voice of Samson’s family.  McCloskey demonstrates through the voices of Samson and his family how the system of special education has significant responsibility for Samson’s failure to learn to read and write.  For example, Samson has no recollection of teachers teaching him to read; in this case those teachers were special education teachers.  When asked to describe what school was like when he was little, Samson responds by saying, “We played games.”  He even reveals that in one class, they frequently watched baseball games on television.  While one might want to conclude that Samson may not have been able to articulate the specific curricula or interventions that were used by his teachers, one cannot deny that Samson was not taught how to read.  This is in spite of the fact that he began to receive resource special education services in first grade, continued with what one would surmise were even more intensive special education services in a self-contained special education program in the second grade through fifth grade, and continued with his academic instruction in special education into middle school.  Throughout this time, Samson received very good grades, which ranged from 80%-98%.  These are not the grades one would expect from a student who struggled with reading and writing.  In spite of his “success at school” as demonstrated by his grades, during tutoring sessions with McCloskey, the majority of the time, “Samson was unable to read his school work and homework assignments or the notes he had copied.”

McCloskey applies the concept of positioning to show how “the institutional practice of special education is translated” through annual review meetings.  For example, explanations from school officials (teachers, school-based administrators, the director of special education) regarding Samson’s literacy struggles include continuous positioning of Samson as “incapable, and this leaves no room for other possibilities.”  “The school officials never look to programming, curriculum, or instruction in considering their possible impact” on Samson’s academic struggles.  

McCloskey’s research results reveal a harsh reality that special education must address, that is, in many ways, special education works against the very students it is supposed to assist. Samson’s story details how the special education system contributes to “disabling” students.  In fact, McCloskey concludes that being labeled as learning disabled and being segregated from his general education peers interfered with Samson’s learning.  Throughout the book, McCloskey compares and contrasts special education laws and procedures with the realities of how these laws and procedures are actually implemented in Samson’s life and undoubtedly in the life of other special education students like Samson.  McCloskey concludes the institutionalization of special education has resulted in a “cultural model” which according to Bogdan and Knoll (as cited by McCloskey) includes the following assumptions by teachers:  (a) disability is innate and exists within the individual; (b) distinction among disabilities can objectively be defined and services provided in a useful and purposeful manner; (c) students with disabilities are helped by the special education system which is rationally conceived and is a coordinated system of services; and (d) the field progresses by improving diagnosis, intervention, and technology.  These four assumptions, the cultural model of special education, must be challenged “if we are to find ways to improve individual student learning.”  In answer to the original question, regarding whether there are some children who will never learn to read, McCloskey’s research suggests that children can make progress in their literacy skills even after years of struggling to learn how to read; Samson made such progress.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 21, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17161, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 6:10:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Cynthia Wilson
    Florida Atlantic University
    E-mail Author
    CYNTHIA L. WILSON is currently a professor of Exceptional Student Education at Florida Atlantic University (FAU). She received her doctorate in special education from Florida State University. Her research and instructional focus emphasizes the preparation of educators to implement research-based, effective practices to improve educational opportunities for students with disabilities and students at-risk for academic failure. She is the co-author of the book: Leadership from the Ground Up: Effective Schooling in Traditionally Low Performing Schools. Her publication record includes book chapters, refereed journal articles, on-line study guides, interactive companion websites, and an on-line chronicle of the history of special education that accompanies eight of the most widely used special education textbooks. Her current research project includes a study of the academic success of African American middle and high school students with disabilities. Dr. Wilson spent five years as a classroom teacher of students with learning disabilities and students with emotional/behavioral disorders. She has taught in both resource and self-contained special education classrooms.
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