Identifying which students have learning disabilities and which are just a bit behind can be difficult — especially when children are very young. Oftentimes there are explanations for a lagging student that have nothing to do with their inherent abilities and everything to do with an issue unrelated to education.
Research in the United Kingdom shows that one of these factors — the age of the student — appears to sway diagnoses of having Special Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). Children born in the summer months, which results in their being the youngest of their cohorts, are diagnosed with learning impairments twice as often as students born between September and December.
"[The data] suggests that teachers are not taking sufficient account of chronological age when making judgments of speech, language and communication development over the reception and key stage one period in particular."
The report concludes that a range of factors including age should be considered before pursuing a path of special needs education. A student wrongly-diagnosed as having special needs faces interventions that can represent a critical fork in the road in their educational path, and school leaders agree that students labeled as special needs incorrectly are done a disservice.
The report is part of the Better Communication Research Programme, an academic policy and research collaborative created after the Bercow Review of young people with speech, language and communication needs in 2008. The group boasts professionals from Warwick, University of London, Newcastle University and others.
The issue of appropriate diagnoses of learning disabilities and a need for special education services is especially critical given that the number of cases is rapidly rising — and so is the cost to schools as special education outpaces the cost of a traditional education.
But wrangling rising costs with special education has proven difficult everywhere in the world, as New York State can attest.
In the United States, special education dollars are part of complex funding formulas and sometimes a mix of public and private sector intervention. A recent investigation by the New York State comptroller's office shows that the state's $2 billion program to provide special education services to preschoolers is rife with malfeasance and fraud. Private contractors work with the system to provide services that public employees cannot, and that has created an opportunity for abuse ranging from theft to nepotism.
A New York Times editorial states that:
"Not surprisingly, costs [in New York] have risen dramatically over the last decade — to $2 billion from about $792 million, even though the number of students served has grown only to 75,000 from about 60,000 in the same period."
That is to say that the growth in the cost of the program has outpaced actual student population growth by a factor of ten.