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We need new model for schooling

A growing number of America's children are being identified as having learning disabilities that affect their ability to use written or spoken language.

In 1987, a federal task force concluded that approximately 5 to 10 percent of the population had this sort of condition. Today about one out of every eight schoolchildren (a little more than 12 percent) is enrolled in programs for the learning disabled, and the rate of participation is increasing.

Between 1980 and 1998, the number of students enrolled in special education in New York City more than doubled. In Greenwich, Conn., 19.8 percent of students are learning disabled. And the Dalton School in New York City found that 36 percent of its kindergartners had learning problems.

Critics use these statistics to charge that the "learning disabled" label has become a fad, a classification that is being overapplied. They complain about the expense. Special education costs between two and three times the amount of traditional programs. They cite a rising tide of litigation as parents battle with schools to get their children proper support.

They criticize the unfairness of such programs, since affluent families are more likely than less wealthy ones to take advantage of accommodations for the learning disabled, like time extensions on standardized tests. And critics charge that mainstreaming of learning disabled students _ the trend toward including them in traditional classes creates disruption.

The critics are wrong. What we are witnessing is not a fad, which will pass or whose excesses will be corrected. We are witnessing the start of a revolution that will transform American education forever. It is part of a revolution we are undergoing in every other aspect of American life.

The United States is shifting from an industrial society to an information society. Among other things, this means there is less emphasis on mass production and more customization of products and services.

We can see these changes in retailing, for example. In the clothing business, stores are offering their customers personal shoppers to assist them in creating wardrobes, traditional off-the-rack shops are promising customized clothing built to the body of the shopper, and online software allows a shopper to create a computer scan of his or her body and then use that image to customize 25,000 fashion design details into purchasable clothing. Web sites even permit shoppers to examine, in fine detail, the button design, stitching and fabric weave of brand-name clothing.

The increase in the number of children diagnosed with learning disabilities is very much part of this same phenomenon. Our school system was created for an industrial society and resembles an assembly line. Students are educated by age, in batches of 25 to 30. They study for common periods of time, and after completing a specified number of courses, they are awarded diplomas. It is a notion of education dictated by seat time. Teaching is the activity that occurs during the time when students are in their chairs.

The expectation is that the typical child at any age can master the material taught in the traditional 180-day school year. Those who are capable of mastering the material more quickly or more deeply are classified as gifted. Those who are unable to learn it as speedily or in the same fashion as their classmates are said to have learning disabilities. In this sense, special education, except for the gifted, is regarded as a deficiency on the part of a child.

In an information society, this model of education works far less well than it once did. Indeed, in the years to come, the educational system may become, by necessity, increasingly individualized. First, our children are diverse in their abilities, so we need a more varied curriculum. Second, through advances in brain research, we are discovering how individuals actually learn, and this will allow us to develop the educational program each child needs. Third, new technologies that provide different pedagogies and learning materials are burgeoning.

We are heading to an era in which schooling will change profoundly. The teacher will not be the talking head at the front of the classroom but the expert on students' learning styles, the educational equivalent of a medical doctor. Children will no longer be grouped by age. Each student will advance at his or her own pace in each subject area through individualized tutorials, student-centered group learning and a cornucopia of new technology and software.

Research has long documented a variety of learning styles, but as we continue to discover more about the brain, a growing proportion of students are likely to be diagnosed as learning disabled. Eventually, the nomenclature will change, and we will recognize so-called disabilities for what they really are _ differences in how people learn. Rather than call them learning disabilities, we will call them learning differences.

At the moment, the old education system is dying, and a new system is being born. For those of us living through the change, it is easier to see what we are losing than what is emerging, a system of customized education for each of our children.

We must make the transition as short and as painless as possible. The largest mistake we can make is to cling unquestioningly to the existing model of schooling. We need a new vision of education, one that recognizes the unique way every student learns.

Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

The New York Times