In 1972, two Johns Hopkins University students started a Saturday school for poor children from their Baltimore neighborhood. With the help of college friends, they created centers for reading, chemistry, story writing and math. The Saturday school became so successful that the city of Baltimore gave them a grant to fund a summer program. From that small seed a partnership blossomed that has made a tremendous impact on children with learning problems throughout the nation.
Today, Lynn and Douglas Fuchs are international leaders in the study of learning disabilities. They also share the Nicholas Hobbs Chair in Special Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, whose faculty they joined in 1985.
“They’ve had a national impact on learning disabilities,” says Craig Kennedy, chair of Peabody’s Department of Special Education. “They’ve won career awards from most national educational organizations and have trained a generation of leaders during their nearly 25 years at Peabody. The legacy they will eventually leave for students in their field is exceptional.”
After the success of their Saturday school, Doug and Lynn continued to pursue their interest in children who are at risk because of poverty or disability. They each earned master’s degrees in elementary education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1978 and 1981, respectively.
“I became interested in learning disabilities while teaching first grade in Pennsylvania,” says Lynn. “There were always one or two students each year who had substantial difficulty learning to read and do math, although they performed nicely in other areas. Today we say these children have a learning disability.”
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements or direct attention.”
Before 1970 children with learning disabilities often were termed “slow learners” or “mentally retarded,” even though they may have had at least average intelligence. Since the “learning disability” category became official in 1975, between 2 million and 3 million children with learning disabilities in grades K–12 have been served by special education programs in any given year. Another 15 percent to 20 percent struggle to learn in general education classrooms.
“That’s nearly 15 million kids,” Doug says. Those statistics add up to a public health challenge, according to the NIH, which funds research on learning disabilities by the Fuchses and other investigators.
“Severe difficulties in reading and math lead to lifelong problems,” Lynn says. Students often drop out of school before finishing their education, becoming vulnerable for unemployment, poverty, poor health and incarceration. The cost to the United States—both financial and societal—is significant.
But while a considerable number of students continue to be identified as having learning disabilities today, special education opportunities for them are contracting, says Doug. For the past 35 years, many students with severe learning disabilities have been “mainstreamed”; that is, they are placed in the general classroom alongside children without learning difficulties and are assigned to teachers who may or may not be prepared to teach them. At the same time, many special educators have traded their role as expert instructors for that of “helpers” in mainstream classrooms.
“The result is that the lowest 5 percent to 10 percent of schoolchildren are not getting their instructional needs met either in general or special education,” Doug says. “A lot of kids are losing out.”
Another problem concerns identification. “We want to identify children with learning disabilities early,” Lynn says, “but we don’t want to falsely identify them. We want to find the kids who have serious risk for long-term and substantial difficulties.”
Craig Kennedy calls the Fuchses “visionary researchers” and notes that together they have attracted more federal funding than any other researchers in their field. Their work is funded by research grants from the NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).
As investigators in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, the Fuchses—together with their colleague Donald Compton, associate professor of special education—have led research on a number of successful teaching strategies. Those strategies include Curriculum-Based Measurement, which Kennedy calls the “gold standard” for assessment of students with diverse learning needs in the elementary school; Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS), a class-wide program that pairs up students who then tutor each other in research-based reading and math activities; and “Hot Math,” an intervention that seeks to accelerate mathematical problem-solving among primary-grade students with and without learning disabilities.
During the past 24 years, they have worked with teachers in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools to test the efficacy of those strategies through numerous randomized control trials.
The Fuchses also have played a leading role in the development of RTI (Response to Intervention), the hot-button issue in special education today, says Kennedy. “RTI is spreading like wildfire across the country, and Doug and Lynn have been instrumental in that effort.”
A tiered program of intervention, RTI starts by screening all children in the general classroom to identify students at serious risk for academic difficulties. Typically, about 20 percent of the students in the general population are identified as at-risk. Those children then receive intensive tutoring within small groups using validated programs.
“All but about 5 percent of the students respond to the special help they receive in the small-group tutoring. They can then return to the general education program where their response continues to be monitored closely,” Lynn says. “The remaining 5 percent of students, however, do not respond. They have serious learning disabilities and need the individualized instruction they can receive in special education.”
The Fuchses are adept at transferring effective teaching strategies from research to their Peabody classrooms, says Kennedy. “Their students rave about them.”
Karen Harris, co-holder of the Currey Ingram Chair in Special Education, concurs: “They have been transformative for our department,” she says.
During a recent doctoral class, Lynn becomes animated as she practices the Socratic method of questioning her mostly female students. The petite, soft-spoken professor obviously enjoys interaction with students, and they seem to revere her.
“Vanderbilt is a very high-powered research university,” she tells the students. “The special education department is rated first or second in the nation. I’m lucky to be at Vanderbilt, but it’s not for everyone.
“You should find the setting where you’ll be happy and satisfied,” she advises.
Doug’s undergraduate and master’s-level students describe him as “awesome.” During a recent classroom debate, the tall, slightly graying, bespeckled professor focuses intently on his students’ arguments, offering analysis and feedback. At the same time he strikes a light note by bantering with them.
“Your rebuttal was very strong, very high quality,” he tells one student. “Of course, I disagree with practically everything you said.”
“You’re not biased, are you?” the student retorts.
In sharing an endowed chair, the Fuchses are almost unique among Vanderbilt faculty members. Only one other couple, Harris and her husband, Steve Graham, have a similar arrangement.
“We share a title and some additional resources,” Lynn says. “We also collaborate and generate ideas together. But we each have our own program of research that operates independently. On a day-to-day basis, we work pretty much separately.”
Doug specializes in reading and Lynn in math. “He’s interested in how you classify learning disabilities,” she says, “and I’m interested in classroom assessment.” Both, however, co-direct the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Reading Clinic, along with Professor Don Compton.
Doug points to “a very strong upside and a mild downside” to working with one’s spouse. “We spend a lot of time chewing on interesting ideas,” he says. “We help each other think through various issues. The downside is that we rarely get away from our work. We have to fight to put work behind us. It was easier when our son, Matthew, was still living at home.”
“Behaviorism in American psychology has generated very productive practices
in special education. But some children are not helped by those strategies. We need something more.”
~ Douglas Fuchs
When they’re not teaching and conducting research, the Fuchses are in demand to work with governments and universities in such places as Hong Kong, Israel, Portugal and South America, to name a few.
Together they have received numerous accolades, including the University of Minnesota’s “100 Distinguished Alumni” distinction and Vanderbilt’s Earl Sutherland Prize for Achievement in Research. In April 2008 they were awarded the Council for Exceptional Children’s Jeannette E. Fleischner Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Learning Disabilities. Lynn was a member of the presidential delegation to the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China, in 2007 and received the Distinguished Researcher Award from the American Educational Research Association in 2005. Doug received the James M. Kauffman Award in Special Education from the University of Virginia in 2008.
When they talk shop at home in the evenings, one issue that frequently surfaces is the challenge of improving the quality of teaching nationwide.
“For the past 100 years, behaviorism in American psychology has generated very productive practices in special education,” Doug says. “Many children have benefited. But some children are not helped by those strategies. We need something more.”
He is researching the use of cognitive science to help develop personalized instruction based on a student’s characteristics, such as memory, language, intelligence and attention. This research may someday also benefit students without learning disabilities.
“Practices that have come out of special education are also helping children who do not have learning disabilities,” Lynn says.
Her husband agrees: “If we can find ways to personalize education for kids with severe learning problems, we will generate knowledge that can be applied to a great number of children and deliver more effective instruction for many students.”