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Feds Invest $10 Million Into Research for Severe Learning Disabilities

Developing strategies to help elementary students with the most severe learning disabilities is the focus of a new research project to be based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The National Center for Special Education Research awarded a 5-year, $10 million grant to the university to create an "Accelerated Academic Achievement Research Center." Between 2,000 and 3,000 students in Nashville schools will participate in the research.

Doug Fuchs, a professor of special education and the grant's principal investigator, said in an interview that the academic performance of students with disabilities continues to be poor, even with a move toward inclusion and instructional strategies such as response to intervention.

"For a very long time, students and youth with disabilities have been performing abysmally in schools," he said. "This just seems to be tremendously underappreciated."

His assertion is bolstered by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progess. In 2011, two-thirds of U.S. 4th graders with disabilities read below the "basic" level and almost half scored below "basic" in math. (For the student population overall, math scores went up slightly and reading scores remained flat for 4th graders in 2011.)

Part of the problem, Fuchs said, is the lack of evidence-based educational research for the 10 to 20 percent of students who are already getting intensive instruction but still struggling. There's not enough information available on what teachers should do next for those students.

The center used the Common Core State Standards to determine what competencies to focus on for students in grades 3, 4 and 5. During the five-year grant, researchers will conduct pilot studies and randomized control trials, including students with identified learning disabilities and students who may not have a disability label, but who nevertheless have persistent difficulties with reading and math.

For example, in literacy, the interventions will focus on reading fluency and comprehension. In math, the interventions from the center will focus on decimals, fractions, and beginning algebra. (My colleague, Sarah Sparks, recently wrote about new strides in teaching fractions, including comments from Lynn Fuchs, the co-principal investigator for this new grant and also a special education professor at Vanderbilt.)

The interventions are also intended to go beyond academics into helping students better learn how to transfer information they've already learned to new tasks, Doug Fuchs said.


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