The National Center for Learning Disabilities has stunning information regarding struggling students in the United States. The organization states “While some educational outcomes for students with learning disabilities have shown improvements in recent years, overall they remain unacceptably low.”
Here is a summary of the facts.
|Close to half of secondary students with LD perform more than three grade levels below their enrolled grade in essential academic skills (45% in reading, 44% in math).|
|67% of students with LD graduate from high school with a regular diploma vs. 74% of students in the general population.|
|20% of students with LD drop out of high school vs. 8% of students in the general population.|
|10% of students with LD are enrolled in a four-year college within two years of leaving school, compared with 28% of the general population.|
|Among working-age adults with LD versus those without LD: 55% vs. 76% are employed; 6% vs. 3% of adults are unemployed; and 39% vs. 21% are not in the labor force partly because of lack of education.|
The problem with statistics is they are cold and impersonal. Statistics don’t talk about the child who starts school with high hopes but soon begins a slow descent into failure, or the parent who may misconstrue deficits for lack of effort and realize there is a problem too late, but can’t stop that fall. Statistics don’t mention teachers and administrators who groom some children for failure, not through intent, but rather because of a flawed system. Statistics show us a good number of these students make it, but the small percentage that don’t also matter. Statistics don’t reveal the human side of learning disabilities, but I can. My son is one of these students.
Jack has dysgraphia. I knew something wasn’t quite right when he was in kindergarten and although I voiced my concerns, I was told there was no problem. I finally took him for outside testing when he was in second grade and came back to the school with the results. It was then that they reacted and began instituting the help he needed.
Elementary school was mostly uneventful for him, but when he reached middle school, things fell apart. Between the school deciding he no longer needed support, and Jack’s burgeoning sense of self which did not include being identified as having a learning disability, those years were especially difficult.
By the time Jack reached high school, the school recognized their error but it was too late. He fought help every step of the way. First paired with a teacher who was qualified but not up to the challenge of a defiant high school student, and then with a man who has no business in education, Jack’s frustration level grew and became abject defeatism. Exhausted by endless failure and unrealistic expectations, he simply gave up. Now in the beginning of his senior year, we are all holding our breath as he makes his way toward graduation. Although the possibility of him dropping out looms like a storm cloud that will not dissipate, he is still plugging away.
I recently sat with Jack and explained I was writing this article and asked if he would talk about his experiences throughout school, beginning in elementary school through his senior year. When I told him my intent in sharing his story was to help other people going through this, he agreed.
We talked about elementary school, and he said he did not remember anything in particular. “There were no issues. It was just school.” When I asked him about receiving services at the middle school, he said “It felt like a normal class. I didn’t know any better. They went over things I already knew and I got mad. I told them, but they still made me do it.” He said he didn’t mind when he got dropped because he didn’t like it. It didn’t help him.
He felt things got bad when he was re-enrolled in support services sophomore year. The teacher was capable, but not skilled in working with teenagers. “He made me feel stupid. He talked down to me like I was mentally challenged.”
I asked him if it helped him in his other classes. He laughed and said, “No. If you were in that program, teachers talked down to you. They all kept saying they were just trying to help.”
When I asked about the teacher who replaced the first support teacher, Jack said, “He didn’t help at all. He asked me how I managed to make it that far in high school. He made kids feel bad about themselves.”
He also explained that he was included in a group with varying degrees of issues. “I was paired with kids that were slow. I felt like I didn’t belong there.” He said the teachers modified his work, and it helped a little, but by then he was too frustrated to care.
“I gave up on myself and I didn’t want to be there. I figured I didn’t have to do the work if I picked a fight with the teacher. It didn’t work and I would just get in trouble and then I wouldn’t try anymore.”
He said there was one person in the school, his guidance counselor, who was helpful. “She is very helpful and supportive in whatever you do. She knows how to talk to a teenager. Most of the other teachers try to help, but don’t know how to talk to a high school student.” He mentioned that he likes his shop class because it is more one on one and the teacher “doesn’t talk to you like you’re ten years old.”
I asked Jack what advice he would give a parent whose child was struggling in school. He said, “Don’t be too hard on them. That makes them resent you and makes them want to quit. Motivate your kid. Don’t discipline for not doing well in school if they can’t do it. Even though it is your first reaction, don’t.”
When I asked him what advice he’d give to the student, he thought for a minute. “Don’t give up so easily. Do what you think is right, but don’t jump the gun and give up right away. Think about it. Think about it for a long time. Try to calm down and don’t worry about what you’re doing after high school. You’ll figure it out eventually. High school is only four years and it goes by fast.”
He also said, “Talk to the teacher after class. Stay after school. I wish I did it more often.”
We need to find a way to reach students like Jack and meet their needs. The biggest issue seems to be twofold: a lack of training on the educator’s part, and a high frustration level on the part of the student. While the drop-out rates at Jack’s school are extremely low, it is simply unacceptable that any student would voluntarily leave high school because they feel too discouraged to stay. Each one matters, and if education truly invested in this, the statistics would be different.