In a Perfect World

By Leeanne Seaver  Executive Director, Hands & Voices

Beyond Here Be Dragons  (Just Where Is Best Practice in Deaf Education?)

How many of my son’s IEP staffings did I sit through before I figured out all the acronyms?  I’m all about efficiency, so this isn’t a rant against abbreviating cumbersome and complicated language.  But I will take a stand against my least favorite of them all:  TLW, which is IEP-speak for “the learner will…”  Here it is in a typical IEP goal statement, “The learner will use accurate noun/verb agreement in eight of ten written sentences.”  I’ve read reams of IEP goals that begin that way, and although personalization is becoming more common, objectifying the student is not worth the economies of scale presented by the industrial IEP template.

For parents, there is no “learner,” there is just their child, (five years old, shy, sees fairies).  For professionals, the challenge is to translate “the learner will…” into an individual strategy applied to a unique child based on recommended teaching practices in deaf ed that have been proven to produce the desired outcome.  As if!  So just what would that recommended practice be?  Shouldn’t that be part of the IEP team discussion?  If we’re willing to document what the learner will do, shouldn’t we also document what the teacher (or speech therapist or itinerant or paraprofessional) will do, too?  Not just how many “contact hours” or “indirect services” are allocated, but what practice, specifically, will be employed to teach the necessary skills to the learner? 

What if the learner won’t?

A lot of assumptions have been made about what teachers can and can’t do.  If their students are achieving appropriately, why question the faith? I promise to write another column celebrating all things bright and beautiful in deaf education.  But for the purposes of this one, it’s hard to ignore “…such findings (that) have led to the general conclusion, similar to that for reading, that the average deaf 18-year-old writes on a level comparable to that of a hearing 8-year-old.” (Marschark, Raising & Educating a Deaf Child, 2nd Edition, 2007) 

If the learner isn’t learning, teachers are obviously not solely accountable.  Still, hold them under a microscope and you start to see what’s not clear to the naked eye.  More accurately, question what you’re not seeing there—the basic sustenance of research and evidence-based practices essential to all professional life in the world of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal mandate that sets “research, data-driven, and evidence-based” as the current standard of all instructional practice in the United States.

The Mystery of the Missing Research 

For reasons more complicated than I fully comprehend, there appears to be a critical lack of research in deaf education that’s recognized as bonafide by NCLB’s clear standards.  It’s as though the map wasn’t finished before we started moving into unchartered territories where kids started showing up…

  • partially integrated or fully mainstreamed
  • school for the deaf with reverse mainstreaming
  • bilingual/bicultural
  • cochlear implanted
  • multi-modal in the same classroom
  • regionalized, center-based, homeschooled, private school with some support
  • auditorally accessible & acoustically accommodated
  • ASL fluent (but with no qualified interpreters)
  • ASL with an implant (or two)
  • Cued Speech transliterated
  • IDEA Specially Considered
  • early identified & developmentally appropriate
  • late identified and language delayed
  • early identified but language delayed
  • Deaf Plus
  • insert ever more complex scenarios here

Who knows what it will take to support each of these students?  And if we think we know, will it really matter unless NCLB thinks it matters?  Whatever we may think we know, it certainly isn’t showing up in the literature.

When the National Center on Low Incidence Disabilities reviewed 40 years of study in the field on literacy and deafness using the NCLB standard, John Luckner, PhD and his colleagues identified only 22 studies that qualified as “scientifically based research.” (Luckner, Sebald, Cooney, Young and Muir, 2005).  If you’re a teacher of the deaf reading this, do you know what they are?  Not likely.  “No two studies examined the same dimension of literacy (e.g., reading comprehension, vocabulary, word recognition, writing)” and none were replicated. Doesn’t leave us much to go on, does it?

Under the “Join Together” federal grant, a team led by Susan Easterbrooks of Georgia State University, and Brenda Stephenson of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, examined “Twenty Literacy, Science and Mathematics Practices Used to Educate Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.”  The list was derived from practices “routinely cited either in the literature or as field-supported practices.”  Even so, the list “is not intended to imply that any of the selections are best practices; rather they are examined practices.” (Volume 151, No. 4, 2006 American Annals of the Deaf)  Still, many lean towards “best” and you can and should learn more about them at

“Problem Admiration”

It may be discouraging to delve into the research void, but its existence must be acknowledged.  We’ve all got to admit we’ve got a problem. Further, I think this has been exacerbated by the inclination to focus on the problem itself rather than on actionable solutions. If we’re not careful, we’ll remain arrested in the “problem admiration” stage. This is one of the many forms of victim-speak wherein the issue is objectified so no one is accountable, and problem-solvers (you know the stereotype: emotionally unchecked and professionally, well, messy) are quickly dismissed in order to maintain the status quo.  No one does this intentionally, but I’ve been sat through more than one conference or keynote address where the problem has been the central focus.  Yet the solution remains “that of which we cannot speak.” (M. Night Shyamalan)

Stand and Deliver

With respect, who could blame anyone for hesitating to offer solutions?  We’ve already noted the lack of research to back you brave souls up.  But you know who you are!  You’re one of my son’s teachers who wrote volumes of her own curricula to teach English Grammar & Syntax to high school deaf students—because none existed elsewhere.  She told me why passive verbs were hard for deaf students...with her it was never about “the learner will” do this or that.  It was always about what she was going to do, and why.  She’s a brilliant Master Teacher, and you can access what she and others like her know through the Join-Together grant’s resources at (you guessed it)  

If we’ve got just 20 practices that Master Teachers of the Deaf vouch for, then let’s spread the word about them. And let’s do everything we can to support—even demand research that’s NCLB qualified (see, so we can use it at the IEP table.  If you’re a parent who hesitated to ask a teacher “how are you going to do that?” you’ll find your confidence bolstered with greater understanding of recommended practices—and your empowerment to ask such a question and expect a lucid answer assured by the NCLB.  Kudos to Harold Johnson, PhD, principal investigator of the Join-Together Grant (at Michigan State University) for inviting Hands & Voices parents to join the effort to formally disseminate word of recommended practices in deaf education.  Parents want to be part of the solution, and this is a tangible, actionable way to do that.  (But please don’t tell Harold that he could become mighty unpopular with the type of professional who finds empowered parents a pain in the hindquarters.)  In a perfect world, strong parents are not adversaries, but valued members of the team capable of doing their share of the heavy lifting with educational professionals.  ~

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