University of Florida College of Education professors Kathrin Maki and Matthew Burns were co-principal investigators in a $1.67 million dollar grant awarded to the University of Houston for specific learning disability (SLD) research with elementary school students.

The grant, Longitudinal Investigation of Predictors and Outcomes of Specific Learning Disabilities Identification, was awarded to Maki and Burns in collaboration with their colleagues from the University of Houston by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.  

According to Burns, SLD is “defined in special education federal law as significant underachievement that is unexpected given a child’s ability and experience in school. It is an unexplained lack of proficiency in one or more specific areas.” SLD presents in many different ways. Some students battle with reading and writing disabilities while others struggle to understand numbers and mathematical calculations. These are just a few of the indicators that can lead to a SLD diagnosis.  

Their research seeks to “understand factors that influence whether students are identified with specific learning disabilities in schools and factors that influence the academic outcomes of students identified with specific learning disabilities,” stated Maki. As a result, they hope to identify more useful approaches for SLD identification as well as improve instructional practices in special education after SLD identification.  

Specific learning disabilities affect millions of children annually as 15% of public school students—7.3 million—received special education services in the United States in 2021-22 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Out of these 7.3 million, 33% have been diagnosed with SLD. This is around 2.4 million students — the same amount of people that live in the Orlando metropolitan area. Despite the large impact that proper SLD identification can have, identification methods and learning outcomes remain understudied and under researched until now. 

Maki expressed the significance of her work stating that although she and Burns have been studying SLD identification and academic progress for many years, “this project is one of the first federally-funded projects studying identification practices and outcomes in particular.” The outcomes of their work are expected to have noteworthy impacts on “schools, educational policy and student outcomes.”  

Burns became passionate about helping students with SLD early on in his career. He stated that “children with learning disabilities are students who face some of the biggest challenges in schools.” He was frustrated because he didn’t feel these students were receiving the support that matched what they needed. He also said that “so many kids with learning disabilities persevere with such positive attitudes, that you can’t help but be drawn to them and to cheer them on.”  

Not only will this research help educators cheer their students on, but it will also aid them in providing an education that matches the needs of each individual student. Having the proper support and education can open a world of new opportunities for students with SLD. Through this opportunity provided by the Institute for Education Sciences, Maki and Burns aim to make significant changes in the field of specific learning disabilities.

Kathrin Maki

Matthew Burns