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learning disabilities. Because the federal definition was not explicit about how states and local school systems were to identify students as learning disabled, the regulations were intended to provide an operational definition for use in identification. The USOE first proposed a formula that defined a severe discrepancy as “when achievement in one or more of the areas falls at or below 50% of the child’s expected achievement level, when age and previous educational experiences are taken into account” (USOE, 1976, p. 52405).

Public response to the notion of a formula was overwhelmingly negative. Thus, no formula was included in the definition or regulations. However, the USOE stayed with the idea of an ability-achievement discrepancy in the regulations:

  • (a)

    A team may determine that a child has a specific learning disability if:

    • (1)

      The child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels in one or

more of the areas listed in paragraph (a) (2) of this section, when provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child’s age and ability levels; and (2) The team finds that the child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas:

  • (i)

    Oral expression;

  • (ii)

    Listening comprehension;

  • (iii)

    Written expression;

  • (iv)

    Basic reading skill;

  • (v)

    Reading comprehension;

  • (vi)

    Mathematics calculation; or

  • (vii)

    Mathematics reasoning

(USOE, 1977, p. 65083)

Empirically Validated Educational Procedures

The heavy criticism of psycholinguistic process and perceptual process training programs toward the end of the previous period had left the field of learning disabilities with a relative void of research-based educational practices. Beginning in the 1970s several learning disabilities researchers began to turn their attention to developing educational methods for students with learning disabilities. A major impetus for this effort was the USOE’s funding of five research institutes from 1977 to 1982. These institutes were housed at Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Kansas, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Virginia. In addition to the work of the institutes, another major body of influential intervention work was that which focused on Direct Instruction.

Columbia University. The Columbia institute, directed by Dale Bryant, focused on information processing difficulties of students with learning disabilities (Connor, 1983). The institute conducted research in five areas: memory and study skills (led by Margaret Jo Shepherd), arithmetic (Jeanette Fleischner), basic reading and spelling (Bryant), interaction of characteristics of the text and the reader (Joanna Williams), and reading comprehension (Walter MacGinitie).

University of Illinois at Chicago. The main foci of the Illinois institute, directed by Tanis Bryan, were on the social competence and attributions about success and failure of children with learning disabilities (Bryan, Pearl, Donahue, Bryan, & Pflaum, 1983). Social competence was an area that had largely been ignored by researchers up to this point. By focusing on social competence, the Illinois team validated the ACLD’s concern for social skills evident in their definition of learning disabilities. Bryan and her colleagues established that students with learning disabilities have deficits in the pragmatic use of language, which interferes with their ability to make and keep friends. For example, they found that such students have problems in adapting their communication style to fit the listener, are less persuasive in conversations, and are less apt to request clarification when faced with ambiguous information.

With respect to attributions, the Illinois researchers found that students with learning disabilities tend to

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