September 29, 2000
I have been a member of the Colorado State Board of Education for the last six years. One of my platforms when I ran for office was to empower parents in their right to direct the upbringing and education of their children.
Over the years I was contacted by a number of parents who had been pressured to put their children on various psychotropic drugs for a variety of so-called learning disorders, the most common of which was Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In some cases they were told their child would not be allowed to attend school if he did not begin taking psychotropic drugs.
One parent who was given the option of placing her son on a stimulant drug or removing him from school elected to home school her son. She told me that it just didn't make sense that a straight A student would be labeled "learning disabled." A Douglas County parent I spoke with said she was told her son had ADHD. What she was being told about the behavior her son supposedly exhibited and what she observed were not consistent. She investigated the matter and the school's special education director eventually admitted that she had coaxed the teacher to answer the questions of the checklist used to determine if the child had ADHD in a certain manner so her son "would get the help he needed." This infuriated her so badly she removed her son from the school.
A Jefferson County parent who contacted me said he at first complied with the school's direction to have his son take a stimulant drug. The drug caused his son to become violent, he began taking steak knives out of the kitchen and stabbing his stuffed animals. When the parent took him off the drug, the principal of the school began pressuring him to resume the stimulant -- so much pressure that the matter is now in court and the father could forfeit parental rights if he disagrees with the decision of the court on whether or not to place his child on Ritalin. Many more examples exist.
When I investigated the issue I realized that the so-called psychiatric learning disorders are an effort to "medicalize" failures in instruction and discipline at the expense of the child's well being and the rights of the parent. Some of the learning disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) illustrate this point.
For example, the fourth edition lists number "315.1, Mathematics Disorder." The diagnostic criteria for this is "Mathematical ability, as measured by individually administered standardized tests, is substantially below that expected given the person's chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education." Likewise, the diagnostic criteria for "315.2, Disorder of Written Expression" labels the child with this disorder if he scores low on written tests.
The label of ADHD is assigned if the child exhibits such symptoms as not listening when spoken to, is forgetful, fails to finish homework, fidgets, talks excessively, etc. -- the typical behavior of a normal child. Parents of children said to have these disorders are generally told that it is a neurological disorder or a chemical imbalance in the brain. Yet, at a Consensus Development Panel conducted by the National Institutes of Health on ADHD in November 1998, it was reported that "We do not have an independent, valid test for ADHD, and there are no data to indicate that ADHD is due to a brain malfunction. Further research to establish the validity of the disorder continues to be a problem. This is not unique to ADHD, but applies as well to most psychiatric disorders..."
Educators are not allowed by law to practice medicine. Yet, the adjudication a child has one of these "disorders" and should be placed on "medication" and into special education is often done by a team which includes the parent, a teacher, a social worker, a special education teacher and the principal. The above factors led me to introduce a resolution before the Colorado State Board of Education entitled "Promoting the use of academic solutions to resolve problems with behavior, attention and learning." It reminded educators that their role was to teach and urged them to refrain from advising parents on medical matters. This was passed by a vote of 6 to 1 by the Board in November 1999.
Unfortunately, financial incentives exist for schools to label children with learning disorders. Understanding these incentives requires a brief review of the laws that affect special education.
The legislation which is now the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The intent of this legislation was to ensure that children with actual physical handicaps -- sight impairment, hearing loss, etc. -- were given the public education they are entitled to.
This law was reauthorized in 1990 and the name changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There were few procedural changes but the term "handicapped" was changed to "disabilities." The following year a memo was issued by the US Dept. of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services which stated a child could qualify for special education if he was determined to have ADHD.
At this time, the IDEA legislation provided schools with an additional $400 per year for each child in special education. There followed a dramatic spike in the amount of methylphenidate consumed in the US. According to the DEA, the production and use of methylphenidate increased almost 6 fold between 1990 and 1995.
In IDEA as passed in 1999, the impairment category of "emotional disturbance." is defined in part to say the child has "An inability to learn that can not be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors." There is no mention of the fact that this may be due to a failure to instruct properly.
In December 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported that tens of thousands of California's special education students were placed there not because they have a serious mental or emotional handicap, but because they were never taught to read properly. Reid Lyon, head of the federal government's research efforts into reading and writing told the Times, "It's where children who weren't taught well go in many cases."
The intent of the original law, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, was to ensure those with physical disabilities received a free and appropriate public education. These children are now being shortchanged because such a large percentage of special education funds are being diverted to vague psychiatric diagnoses. In 1998, 51.1 percent of special education children were in the category of "specific learning disabilities." These are the psychiatric diagnoses such as Mathematics Disorder, Disorder of Written expression and ADHD. Other disability categories also include psychiatric diagnoses.
IDEA legislation also contains a "child find" provision which requires states to actively seek out any children who may qualify for special education in order to receive federal special education funds. The child find program starts at birth in Colorado. This, of course, serves to push up the numbers of children labeled with ADHD.
The so-called learning disorders have, sadly, become a way for financially strapped schools to make ends meet. In many states, schools have become authorized Medicaid providers and funds can be collected in behalf of a child labeled with one of the learning or behavior disorders. This can be such a lucrative cash cow that in a letter dated October 8, 1996, the Illinois State Board of Education strongly encouraged the superintendent of one of its districts to participate in Medicaid incentives. The letter stated that Illinois had received $72,500,000 in federal Medicaid money in 1996 and that Medicaid dollars have been used for a variety of non-medical purposes and that "the potential for the dollars is limitless."
To assist schools in identifying children to label with "learning disorders," a number of checklists are made available to schools through the ERIC (Educational Resource and Information Center) database, which is a federal clearing house for educational materials. Yet, despite the expense created by such actions, these children are not receiving the education they are entitled to. Though the standards set for special education children are often lower, their graduation rate in the 1995 -1996 year was only 28.9 percent!
To the degree educators are expected to diagnose children, they are being distracted from their main duty which is to provide our children a quality education. Our schools are the only institution entrusted to attend to the academic needs of our children and their mission must not be diluted. I urge this committee to do everything in its power to get schools out of the business of labeling children and back to the job of teaching.