Ideology, Institutions, and Equity: Comments on Christine Sleeter's Why Is There Learning Disabilities?

Thomas M Skrtic, Zach McCall


Our commentary on Christine Sleeter’s landmark work, Why Is There Learning Disabilities? A Critical Analysis of the Birth of the Field in Its Social Context, is presented in four sections. Each of the first three sections addresses one of the foci of her conflict analysis—ideology, institutions, and differentiated education—by summarizing her argument with respect to that aspect of her analysis, historicizing her line of argument in Foucault's sense of recontextualization or rereading a text in terms of categories and problems unavailable to its author, and assessing the social, historical and theoretical value of her analysis in general and with respect to the categories and problems of our recontextualization.  In the first section we draw upon democratic theory to differentiate three strains of American liberalism—market, developmental, and managerial—which we use to extend Sleeter's argument regarding the ideology behind the creation of the learning disabilities category. In the second section we use institutional theory to reread her argument regarding schools as social institutions and what they had to gain from the creation of the learning disabilities category.  For the third aspect of her analysis, we use the institutional history of public education to trace the roots of the discursive practice of differentiated education and to characterize the system that existed in the 1950s that the Brown decision, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 tried to change.  In our concluding section we bring Sleeter's analysis forward in time to consider the new push for higher standards that she speculates about at the end of her paper. What she was referring to turned out to be the start of the neoliberal standards-based reform movement, which we review and relate to Sleeter's analysis and our recontextualization, as well as to her most recent work that addresses the intersection of accountability, equity, and democracy.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Thomas M Skrtic, Zach McCall

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