A Disabilities Program That ‘Got Out of Hand’


“By 1992, half of Dalton’s students entering fourth grade had already received remedial help. Several Dalton teachers describe their classrooms as being overrun by specialists. One teacher, who had half her class diagnosed with learning problems, says she simply gave up arguing with the specialists and used the Fisher Landau program for her entire class.

Other teachers battled back, refusing to let the specialists in their rooms. When teachers gathered, they joked about how long it would be before the entire primary school was diagnosed with learning disabilities. Jeannie Wang, a former Dalton kindergarten teacher, said: "If you dig hard enough in any kid, you’ll find a problem. If you want to have something to write down, you’ll find something to write down."

Then, in fall 1992, it abruptly ended. The kindergarten teachers revolted and refused to use the screening test, saying too many children were being given harmful and unreliable labels. Naomi Hill, the new primary school principal with a different educational philosophy, dismantled much of the Fisher Landau program.

Instantly, learning disabilities at Dalton plummeted. This year, half a dozen kindergartners are getting extra help from specialists; about 15 percent in first through third grades receive help.

That such a major shift could occur twice in one place in a decade is a stunning commentary on how subjective the identification of learning disabilities can be and how little is known about them. Did It Help?

Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars Mrs. Landau paid the universities, no one today can say with objective certainty whether the remedial program actually helped Dalton students. "We can’t answer that question," said Steven Peverly, one of three Columbia researchers who worked four years on the project. "In the field of education there’s this problem with research. People don’t think about setting up controls. It’s not like science."”

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