Hughes, some children's advocates would say, is lucky. Not just because now he is getting the help — at taxpayer expense — that he didn't get in school. But also because his frustration at not getting the kind of attention he felt he needed to help him learn did not lead to disciplinary problems that could have landed him in the courts, with little or no chance at an education.
A Complex Problem
While researchers believe they understand the price society pays for not educating the learning-disabled, the causes of the problem are too complex for pointing fingers in any one direction, Mears and other researchers say.
Special-education students are supposed to spend most of their time in a mainstream classroom, with short one-on-one sessions with a specially trained teacher to deal with the student's particular problem, educators who ABCNEWS spoke to said.
IDEA, enacted nearly three decades ago, requires that once students are diagnosed with a learning disability, their school has to develop an individual education plan that can be re-evaluated every year.
Such programs are extremely expensive, though, and as school districts are forced by funding cuts to reduce staff, regular classroom teachers can find themselves forced to deal more and more with students they are not trained to handle, said Dick Riley, spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers.
That can take time away from other kids.
In some cases, inadequate funding means that schools do not have sufficient facilities or personnel to implement the programs required by federal law, Mears said.
‘Wait and Fail’
Sometimes the programs work perfectly, but another difficulty for teachers and schools is simply recognizing when a child has a problem, which is why Smith said his district has implemented a program to identify children who need special education programs at an early age, trying to avoid the "wait and fail model," when schools wait until children are already performing at a drastically lower level than where their ability would indicate they should be.
"The reality is that by high school they may already be at a crisis point where they're going to be really hard to change," he said. "We think it's better to start when they're young, when we can make a positive change before they get to that crisis point. Research shows that even by the end of first grade [their performance] already has an impact on their opinion of themselves."
However, many teachers are not properly trained to recognize the warning signs of learning disabilities, so a child may already have fallen far behind others in the same age group, Mears said.
There is also federal pressure.
The mandatory testing used to measure a school's progress under No Child Left Behind can create pressure on administrators to get rid of children who are disciplinary problems, no matter why the child is acting up, and zero-tolerance policies give teachers and administrators no room for leniency if there are extenuating circumstances, said Peter Leone, a University of Maryland professor in the Department of Special Education and the director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice.
"If you run a school and you are told you're going to be judged on how kids do on these standardized tests, you're going to want your school to do as well as possible," Leone said. "There's no incentive in too many cases to keep these [learning-disabled] kids in schools."
Let Teachers Teach