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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Accountability-Based Reforms: The Impact on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

Stephanie W. Cawthon

Chapter One
The Deaf Education Context

The purpose of this chapter is to describe the context of deaf education in an effort to better understand how accountability reforms may affect students who are deaf or hard of hearing. One debated assumption about public primary and secondary education is that, as a whole, it is in great need of repair. Does this same assumption apply to the educational structures that serve students who are deaf or hard of hearing (Johnson, 2003b; Simms & Thumann, 2007; Steffan, 2004)? This chapter first discusses demographics of today’s population of students who are deaf or hard of hearing—a diverse group with great variability in language use, educational experiences, and academic success. The chapter then briefly discusses educational placement and its relationship with how we evaluate potential effectiveness of accountability reforms. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing attend a variety of settings, for example, some attend schools for the deaf with specifically tailored instruction and cohorts of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and some attend schools with very little Deaf-centered[1] pedagogy or student resources. Academic success depends largely on a student’s ability to read; literacy development is a main area of concentration in the research literature on the effectiveness of instruction for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. This chapter therefore discusses several strands of research related to literacy development in deaf education. The chapter concludes with recommendations for how an understanding of the demographics of students who are deaf or hard of hearing the field might lead to advocacy efforts for this student population within accountability-based education reform.

Student Demographics

This first section discusses what we know about the prevalence of students who are deaf or hard of hearing in the United States as well as key characteristics of this diverse population. Three relevant themes to this discussion are that (a) students who are deaf or hard of hearing make up a low-incidence population; (b) many students who are deaf or hard of hearing have other disabilities; and (c) the growing use of cochlear implants may change the future linguistic and communication patterns among students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

For the purpose of this discussion of accountability reforms in public education, it is important to know how many students in the elementary and secondary grades (i.e., Kindergarten to Grade 12) have a hearing loss (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2005, 2006). The U.S. Department of Education estimates that a total of just over 72,000 deaf or hard of hearing students receive services under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) nationwide (U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, 2004). This total does not count those deaf or hard of hearing students who are not eligible for IDEA. This number also does not include children for whom another disability is considered the primary disability. For example, if a child has both a learning disability and a hearing loss, but the learning disability is considered the primary disability, then that student would not be included in these totals for deaf or hard of hearing students. Finally, these figures do not include many students who experience temporary hearing loss due to otitis media or other affecting conditions (Easterbrooks, 1999). The number of children in the United States who actually have a hearing loss will therefore be higher than the number who officially receive services in schools under IDEA. However, even if there are more than 72,000 students, the key point is that this group is still a very low-incidence population in the public schools (Blackorby & Knokey, 2006; Bowen & Ferrell, 2003; Mitchell, 2005). Through IDEA, U.S. public schools serve approximately 6 million students with disabilities; the estimated 72,000 students who are deaf or hard of hearing represent roughly 1% of the students with disabilities population.

Many students whose primary disability is categorized as deaf or hard of hearing also have other disabilities (Gallaudet Research Institute, 2008). Approximately 40% of students counted in the 2007–08 Gallaudet Annual Survey were listed as having an additional disability. In a national profile of students in the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study (also known as SEELS), about half of parents of students with hearing loss indicated that their child had an additional disability (Blackorby & Knokey, 2006). Additional disabilities include learning disabilities, speech impairment, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, and attention deficit disorder. As with the general population, the incidence of autism and autistic spectrum disorder is rising quickly among deaf and hard of hearing students (Vernon & Rhodes, 2009). A student who is deaf or hard of hearing with multiple disabilities will often face great challenges in attaining grade-level academic proficiency. Yet discussions of the implications of education reform on students with disabilities as a whole, including students who are deaf or hard of hearing, often do not take into account the significant challenges faced by students with multiple disabilities (Cawthon, 2007; see Guardino, 2008, for a summary and implications and Bruce, DiNatale, & Ford, 2008, for a discussion of needed professional development).

1. Designations of “Deaf” or “deaf” vary across individuals, groups, and contexts. In this volume, Deaf refers to contexts where the emphasis is on a cultural community or identify construct. Deaf communities and identities tend to include a signed language as primary means of communication (e.g., American Sign Language). If the original author refers to Deaf in his or her discussion, I also adopt that descriptor. On the whole, the book uses “little-ddeaf because this form is the terminology used in education and policy circles. Furthermore, the collective term deaf or hard of hearing is used throughout the book to refer to individuals with a variety of characteristics, including different levels of hearing loss, use of amplification systems, and a range of communication systems.
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