You may know that two decades ago, a seminal report — the National Reading Panel report — was produced. It led to improved reading instruction and intervention for struggling readers and it remains, to this day, the cornerstone of reading and learning disability research.
What you may not know, however, is that the report was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH has a division within its National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) dedicated to learning disabilities research. NICHD funds 54 national research centers across the country on a variety of topics related to child health and development. Only three of those are related to learning disabilities — the most prevalent disability in public schools and one that impacts more than 2 million students.
What LD research does NIH fund?
NIH provides the only source of federal funding to allow researchers who explore child development and learning disabilities to conduct randomized control trials and explore the relationships between different variables at work. The three Learning Disabilities Research Centers (LDRCs) funded today have received approximately $8 million per year in five-year grant cycles. Specifically, the LDRCs are tasked with developing new knowledge about the causes and developmental course of learning disabilities impacting reading and writing. NIH also funds Learning Disability Innovation Hubs, which are smaller projects that address understudied topics affecting learning disabilities, including the juvenile offender population, math comorbidity, reading development, and more.
Are there other federal funding sources for LD research?
The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) also funds research relating to learning disabilities. This research primarily focuses on building knowledge of disabilities in order to improve outcomes for students; improving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); and evaluating the effectiveness of IDEA. While equally important, this research is fundamentally different from that of NIH.
Why does LD research matter?
Funding for the NIH research centers has declined over the years. In the past, NIH funded four LDRCs but now only funds three. We must fight for funding to continue. With increasing pressure to study the many complex challenges facing our nation’s students, families, and schools, we must ensure that the LD voice is heard and investments for LD research increase.
In the United States, 1 in 5 children have learning or attention issues (including learning disabilities), which are brain-based issues that may cause trouble in reading, writing, math, organization, concentration, listening comprehension, or a combination of these. These children are in every classroom across the country and spend most of their time in general education settings. Many also receive specialized instruction and support through IDEA. Research confirms that when provided the right services and supports, children with learning and attention issues can and do thrive in school and in life.
However, our nation’s schools continue to struggle to serve these students well. There has been a continued decline in achievement for students with disabilities and a need for continued research and improved interventions. As brain science advances and innovation in education continues, additional and ongoing research is needed to ensure that we are providing a high-quality, equitable education.
How to support LD research
Continued, robust funding is needed for both the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) within the NIH and for the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). These unique funding streams have given rise to influential and promising research that has the potential to significantly and positively impact how students with learning disabilities are educated in this country and the opportunities available to them as a result.
This year, as Congress works to reach an agreement on spending for FY 2021, we must advocate for funding for the IES to reach $670 million and funding for NCSER to reach $70 million. Funding for NCSER was significantly reduced in recent years and must be restored to its FY 2010 funding level of $70 million. NCSER supports high-quality and rigorous research on special education and related services and the full range of issues facing children with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, school personnel, and more. Its findings help inform interventions, teaching strategies, and other critical factors in educating children with disabilities. Additional funding could support necessary research, such as improving assessments for students with disabilities.
Please send a letter to your member of Congress now, urging them to support LD research by signing on to Congresswoman Julia Brownley’s (D-CA-26) Dear Colleague letter for FY 2021. Your voice can make a difference!
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