Current American post-secondary education policy involves the uniform education practices that are marginalizing students with learning-differences (LD) (Lind, 2008). Although LD students are considered in specific ways in American post-secondary curricula, many LD students do not make sufficient progress to be prepared for post-secondary education. Undergirding this study are cognitive and educational theories, because research has shown that both have an impact on an individual’s ability to parse language and navigate the rigors of the traditional classroom. By identifying LD characteristics, this research study seeks to examine self-identified LD students’ perceptions of barriers that impact their ability to process information, achieve learning outcomes, and manage their degree to completion.
Sometimes a problem within a culture is difficult to describe. However, describing such a problem has the potential to break down barriers that were once thought necessary. Those descriptions have the potential to create additional “tears” in an already broken community (Foucault, 1984). One “breaking point” is the inability of some to stay on course to become college-ready. It is reported that learning differences LDs affect one out of every five people in the United States, and that as many as one million children between the ages of six and 21 (U.S. Department of Education, 2010) have LDs. Unfortunately, expressing each set of differences creates boxes and labels that typically only fit a few individuals (Council on Postsecondary Education, 2012; Crokett, Parrila, & Hein, 2006; Lyon, 1996).
Consider describing an LD through an analogy called the Alphabet Soup Party. At the Alphabet Soup Party, the host of the party is providing the soup, but everyone needs to bring a bowl and a spoon. Most people come equipped with a bowl and a spoon, eat with those, and partake as they wish. For the LD student, one or more of the following will likely occur:
a) They do not bring a bowl.
b) They forget the spoon.
c) They come with a fork or knife or ladle.
d) They have a bowl and a spoon but pour the soup on their head.
e) They have a bowl with a hole in it.
f) They come with just their hands.
g) They bring a plate.
From personal experience, having an LD can be easily misinterpreted by an educator. One result of this misinterpretation may result in making an example of a student or, in one memorable (personal) case, of shaming a student into compliance, or noting to an entire class that, “She is trying to be a comedian by making such a mistake on a spelling test!” Being shamed in such a way can be traumatic for a person on the receiving end, making it all the more difficult for a student. Having an adequate response to such shaming is not something that can be provided in these kinds of circumstances for various reasons. One such reason is that emotional and mental pressure can force a person to forget everything they have attempted to learn that week, and possibly the things they learned that year (even many of the years before). In some ways, this dissertation was birthed in that shame.
A clinical perspective can provide insight into specific LD issues; however, the purpose of this dissertation is to provide the personal and educational perspective of the student with learning-differences (LD). To assist with that understanding, the fictional character Kelly has been created to provide a personal account of experiences a person might have who is coping with an LD.
Kelly’s story. It had been one long and tedious week. Kelly was not sure how much strength she had left after her trip to Margo’s Market to pick up some Henry Bakers Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. Now back in her private room, Kelly held the pint of ice cream in her hand, her teacher’s words echoing over and over again in her head “Try reading it out loud or just give yourself more time. You will get it eventually.” Every teacher she had had since grade school seemed to think that she was not taking enough time, and that she was not using every single brain cell she had.
Tears cascaded down her face as Kelly tapped the cool container to her head. She thought of all the time she had spent in the writing center. All that energy, and still the red marks in the margins of every writing assignment seemed to blur from one comment to the next, “This does not fit here. What did you mean when you wrote this sentence? It is disorganized. You need to go to the tutor for assistance.”
Rising to peer out the window, Kelly wheezed a heavy sign of exhaustion and placed the ice cream on the windowsill beside her. She knew that it was not just her English class that was distressing her. She thought about the late hours she had spent copying her science and social studies textbooks from cover to cover, the re-copying of her notes and her friend’s notes before that last nearly-failed test, and the late hours she had spent with the study group.
She had to just be feeling sorry for herself, she thought. Was she not? But that ice cream was the final straw. Smirking at it, Kelly thought aloud, “You were supposed to make me feel better. If that stupid store had not been changed around; if that stupid company had not changed its packaging, I might be eating something great right now.” Frustrated, Kelly pitched Mindy Magnus’ Non-Dairy Chocolate Tofu ice cream into the trash.
A History of LD Education in the United States
Samuel Kirk, a professor at the University of Illinois, created and defined the term “learning disability” as a disorder(s) in a person’s ability to progress developmentally with language, speech, reading and other communication pathways. Kirk is credited for developing the foundation for the way the LD phenomenon would be described in the United States (Danforth, Slocum, & Dunkle, 2010). However, learning disabilities go as far back as 1867, when German schoolteacher Heinrich Stötzner created a school for children who learned slowly (Opp, 1994). In his work with learning disabilities, Opp (1994) lists a series of German and French scientists known for their research on various types of neurological dysfunction. Neurologists work resulted in a presumption that a person with a learning disability had some difficulty within the brain (including damage or physical illness) or as a result of some type of brain and body disconnection (Opp).
It was this cognitive foundational research that led American scholars to classify individuals fitting certain behavioral patterns as “disabled” (Opp, 1994). The terminology “disabled” helped lead to legislation that provided protection and support to those suffering with an LD under The American’s with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), reauthorized in 1997 and 2004 (Cortilla, 2011). The reauthorized ADA broadened the definition of the term “disability” set in section 504, and it developed new regulations in Title II, The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) (Cortilla, 2011).
In the past 40 years, LD students’ post-secondary access has increased for many students, but the ratio of degree completion has not improved (Brock, 2010; Equal Access Education v. Alan Merten, 2004). Brock (2010) states that one area where national higher education systems need to look is remedial education. Students typically placed in remedial education programs are students who are non-traditional, those in underrepresented populations and, students attending less selective universities and students in community colleges (Brock, 2010). Underrepresented and non-traditional populations include categories of persons based on their gender, race and ethnicity, age and disability (Brock, 2010; Cortilla, 2011). It is reported that 42 percent of students in underrepresented groups at community colleges, and 12 to 24 percent of students at four-year universities, are in at least one remedial course (Brock, 2010; Cortilla, 2011). Unfortunately, few of these programs have been assessed in a way that creates a connection between reform and academic attainment (Brock, 2010). This is especially true for students with LD (Cortilla, 2011).
Levine (2002) noted that the memory required to complete schoolwork was more strenuous than virtually any other career a person will have during their lifetime. He also stated that the extensive use of the memory during the schooling years is imposing a considerable burden on today’s youth (p. 91). Additionally, Nelson, Palonsky, and McCarthy (2007) discuss the hidden elements in the curriculum, calling them the “silent values that rule the entire curriculum structure” (p. 234). That is, curricula for the traditional learner include certain elements that are not translatable to the LD learner (Pace & Schwartz, 2008). Those implicit, or hidden elements are: mastery, connectedness, sustainability, engagement, and culture (Jensen, 2005; Levine, 2002; Pace & Schwartz, 2008). The terms are defined as follows:
Mastery: ability of the learner to grasp and establish command of the curriculum.
Connectedness: a linking of the to the learner either through sequence, coherance, idea, or through complementary learning style.
Sustainability: the ability of the learner to keep the information after it has been learned.
Engagement: ability of the learner to bring themselves emotionally and mentally into the process of learning.
Culture: the ability of the learner to apply reflective thinking based on cultural or learned experience.
While reviewing issues surrounding the development of a curriculum for LD students in post-secondary institutions (PSI), it is clear that a key issue facing the development of new ideas was centered in politics. Whose interests were being met (Nelson, Palonsky, & McCarthy, 2007)? For example, what interests needed to be met (Oliva, 2006)? What interests will have to be maintained for the continued success of any curriculum (Tanner & Tanner, 2007)?
Nelson, et al. (2007) explained that, at times, administrators in school systems try to serve too many interests at once. In doing so, they serve no one at all, which is especially problematic for the student with LD (President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). How do PSIs sort through the interests of so many groups and at the same time meeet the need of LD students to become strong academic learners? The effective planning and implementation required to design educational programs and curricula that target students suffering with LD, without interrupting the learning of non-LD students, starts with understanding where the problem is and where it is not.
Learning-Differences. Nationally, a Learning-Difference (LD) is currently identified in the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) under the term Specific Learning Disability (SLD) (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1991). This term, based on Title 20 of the United State Federal Law (U.S.C. § 1401 (30)), is defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations” (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1991, p. 3).
Individuals with LD are also defined as having some problem that interferes with their ability to process information (Thomas, Louis, & Sehnert, 1994). Levine (2002) outlines ten steps that individuals will face when they need to solve a problem. One of Levine’s steps was the realization that there was a problem (p. 198). Pace & Schwartz (2008) note that it took the US educational agencies roughly one hundred years to establish LD programs at the post-secondary educational level, and that the emphasis of those programs was on “fixing learners” as opposed to fixing a curriculum. There is sufficient evidence that students with LD are facing barriers that keep them from becoming college-ready and self-directed (Cortilla, 2011; President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). Unfortunately, the perception of how LD students feel about the way their LDs impact their ability to perform at the college level has not been systematically evaluated.
Although PSIs are reevaluating how they view a student’s overall work (Daiker, Jeffrey, Stygall, & Black, 1996), measuring such knowledge is limited in post-secondary institutions (PSI) for a variety of reasons (Cortilla, 2011; Levine, 2002; President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). An individual suffering from an LD must show that the impairment meets two specific definitions: 1) they must have “a major activity hindered” by the disability, and 2) they must be “substantially limited” in their ability to complete that activity (Rothstien, 1998).
What does it really mean to have a “major activity hindered” or “substantially limited”? In the context of Kelly’s story, manifestations of her LD are apparent. She is forgetful; she struggles with environmental changes, such as new decorations or new arrangements in a favorite grocery store. She is not keeping up in class, and she is spending a great amount of energy, in her study time, trying to keep up with her peers. However, does Kelly have the ability to adequately show that her condition is significantly hindering and limiting in her relationship to her peers? Providing evidence is problematic for her.
Richmond, R. C.L. (2013). Perceptions of Learning-Difference (LD) Students on How their Specific LD Characteristics Impact the Post-secondary Education Experience. Argosy University.