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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
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The concern for educators, however, is not so much that deaf students learn to speak English, but that they learn how to read and write. As Musselman (2000) points out, “arguments favoring one communication mode over another frequently hinge on its purported ability to facilitate literacy. Notions of reading, therefore, are central to current conceptualizations of deafness and deaf education” (p. 9). One driving assumption in the bilingual education model is that, although American Sign Language and English are distinct in many ways, American Sign Language is a robust language that can provide top-down reading comprehension skills for reading English. Although the syntax and lexical entries of American Sign Language are not directly transferable to English text, making inferences and connecting world knowledge very well may be. Bilingual education thus tries to leverage the strengths of the cultural knowledge accessible through visual language to improve comprehension of concepts presented in print.

Highlighting parallels between students who are deaf or hard of hearing and those who are English Language Learners is again useful in the context of bilingual education. The first application is on a structural level: both English Language Learners and students who are deaf or hard of hearing have programs dedicated to instructional strategies that meet their linguistic and academic needs. Programs and approaches that focus on cultural relevance and bilingual-bicultural education have the potential to bring elements of Deaf culture into the dialogue about education, both inside and outside of schools for the deaf. The second parallel is within the stated goal of accountability policy. One of the main priorities of NCLB is to close the achievement gap for students with disabilities and for ethnic minorities. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing and English Language Learners have historically poor educational outcomes, at least on measures of student achievement used in United States accountability reforms (Cawthon, 2004, 2007). Furthermore, NCLB also articulates the need to develop quality, language-rich programs for students who are English Language Learners and to, where possible, develop the first languages of students to be used as a basis for later English language development. Applied to students who are deaf or hard of hearing with a language/literacy delay, NCLB could be seen as a way to advocate for access to comprehensive language environments, including those with American Sign Language (Siegel, 2002). Therefore, from a large-scale and from a local (classroom-based) perspective, parallels between these two fields are important in this discussion about the impact of accountability reform on students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Although students who are deaf or hard of hearing make up only a very small proportion of the overall student body, their unique linguistic, educational, and cultural characteristics make them an important case to study when investigating the impact of large-scale reforms on heterogeneous, low-incidence populations. The demographics of students who are deaf or hard of hearing highlight challenges related to primary and secondary categorizations of disability as well as the difficulty in understanding how reforms affect students with multiple disabilities. One recommendation mentioned in this chapter was to advocate for a summary of accountability measures specifically for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. This summary may have to occur at the state or national level and may be limited to common factors across states such as high school completion (the pending Common Core Content Standards Initiative may eventually provide a more broad basis for comparison across states). When looking at the effects of accountability reforms for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and who have multiple disabilities, it is important to know whether hearing loss is noted as a primary or secondary disability. An important effort would be to try and designate information in terms of (a) only students who are deaf or hard of hearing, (b) only students who are deaf or hard of hearing as a primary disability, and (c) only students who are deaf or hard of hearing as a secondary disability. This framing of data will give a more accurate picture of how students who are deaf or hard of hearing fare on measures of academic success with consideration for the heterogeneity of the student population.

Part of the complexity of looking at the effectiveness of instructional strategies for students with hearing loss is the diversity in approaches to literacy development. From the perspective of accountability reform, education for students who are deaf or hard of hearing may need to be strengthened in particular areas to raise academic outcomes. Although the purpose of large-scale reforms is not necessarily to prescribe specific instructional strategies, reforms can use accountability measures to motivate schools to use certain programs. For example, NCLB includes language supporting “evidenced-based” teaching for students learning to read. One recommendation that arises from this discussion is for the field to create an “evidence-based” database of instructional strategies for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. This database could be similar to that of the What Works Clearinghouse, formed at the national level by the U.S. Department of Education, but would be established and reviewed by professionals with the deaf education and research community. This database would need to include details such as (a) primary or secondary disability categories, (b) age range or literacy skill targeted with the instructional strategy, and (c) a description of the generalizability of findings to other students who are deaf or hard of hearing. An emerging research base related to literacy programs for students who are deaf or hard of hearing may support the details of accountability reform.

There are, however, additional strands of literacy development research that are relevant to the discussion of how to improve educational outcomes for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Targeted learning strategies such as content literacy or test-taking skills are also important components of raising student proficiency on measures of achievement used in accountability frameworks. Culturally relevant or bilingual literacy approaches could be encouraged in a more flexible model of accountability that measures outcomes in these areas. One recommendation for advocates of students who are deaf or hard of hearing is to align, where possible, with advocates for students who are English Language Learners (August & Hakuta, 1997). For example, immigrant English Language Learners are exempt from English testing for the first three years that they are in the United States; a similar approach for students who are deaf or hard of hearing may allow for the needed time to develop English language skills before participating in English-based assessments. Accountability reform purports to raise achievement for all students; whether it can fulfill this promise depends on the ability of reforms to be responsive to the needs of a diverse student population.


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