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date: 22 November 2019

The Promises (?) of Deaf Education:: From Research to Practice and Back Again

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the promise of research in areas relevant to deaf children and adults—and a variety of promises that too often have been broken. Its twin goals are (1) an attempt to gauge current relations among research, theory, and educational practice and (2) to make explicit some of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we only think we know about raising and educating deaf children. Four primary domains of investigation are considered: early identification and intervention, language, educational models, and basic research into cognitive processes. Much has been learned in each of these domains, but there has been surprisingly little measurable impact on practice or academic outcomes. In some areas, the research is not as definitive as is generally believed, and in others, results are not as generalizable as they might appear. This situation, in part, derives from methodological limitations in some of the relevant research, but some intuitively appealing claims in the field appear to be totally lacking in empirical support. The chapter suggests that this field is at a threshold, thanks to recent advances in technology, basic research, and educational innovation. Unless we can do a better job of bridging the gap between research and practice, however, opportunities and possibilities will be lost.

Keywords: early identification, intervention, language development, educational placement, evidence-based practice, learning

As far as we can tell, no one has ever written an article or chapter entitled anything like “The Promises of Deaf Education.” We have found similar titles on works that have at least passing reference to deaf studies, language, and education, including “The Promise of Accessible Textbooks,” “The Promise of Grants from Private Foundations,” “The Promise of Culture,” and even “The Promise of Warmth and Life to Come.” But why nothing about the promise of deaf education? Is it because people are reluctant, perhaps appropriately so, to make promises they fear they cannot keep? Is it because so many implicit promises in this field have been broken? With all that we have learned from basic research concerning language, learning, and cognition among deaf adults and children, there has been surprisingly little impact on practice in essentially any domain. Yet, clear implications emerge from that work, or at least testable hypotheses, which have the potential to change people’s lives. Similarly, with perhaps the exception of deaf students’ mathematics difficulties (see Kelly, 2008; Nunes, Bryant, Burman, Bell, Evans, Hallett, & Montgomery, 2008; Chapter 11, this volume), it is rare when specific issues that arise in practice are taken up by investigators in order to explore their roots through basic research.

The preceding observations notwithstanding, this book is not an education volume. It is a series of chapters describing the state-of-the-art in several disciplines related to deaf individuals, Deaf Studies, language, and yes, education. Yet, a subtext runs throughout most of the chapters, and throughout much of the work in this diverse field, in which research is more than just a means to theoretical ends. For most investigators, anyway, there is hope that their basic as well as applied research ultimately will (p. 2) contribute to improving the lives of individuals who have long faced barriers and challenges that directly or indirectly are related to academic achievement (see Chapter 2, this volume). Whether these are implicit barriers to education resulting from relatively poor literacy skills (see Chapter 8, this volume) or explicit discrimination against individuals who cannot hear or do not speak, it is only by understanding the sources of those challenges that we can overcome them (Detterman & Thompson, 1997).

Surely, significant advances have been made in areas relating to deaf individuals and their education, although it is hard to think of many before the ­revolution created by Stokoe’s (1960/2005) putting American Sign Language (ASL) into the realm of language rather than gesture or manual English. McCay Vernon, one of the pioneering heroes of this field for his work on intelligence and in clinical ­psychology with regard to deaf individuals, once remarked that deaf people and deaf education owed much to the psycholinguists who brought Stokoe’s work from linguistics into psychology and education. Add the contributions of Kathryn Meadow-Orlans, who was the first to tie together sign language, child development, and education, and two pictures emerge. One is the centrality of language to the growth and progress in all facets of this multidisciplinary field. The second is the fact that most of these significant advances have been made by people considered “outsiders,” because they are neither deaf themselves nor have deaf parents. From one perspective, the presence of these outsiders is unavoidable, given the barriers confronted by “insiders” (Ladd, 2003). From another perspective, these people made breakthroughs precisely because they used research as an objective tool to better understand phenomena, in the hopes that it would contribute to better lives for other people. This is not charity, but leadership. And perhaps more importantly, they did not make promises they could not keep.

Despite first appearances, this chapter is intended neither as a criticism of research in the field nor as a eulogy for any particular area of investigation. Rather, it has two interrelated goals: First is a desire to honestly gauge the current relations among research, theory (including informal theory), and educational practice—or at least to begin that process. Without some periodic assessment of whether claims are being validated by well-conducted research and assess­ment, it is impossible to know whether we are making any progress in either basic science or in the aca- demic attainment of deaf children—that is, whether we are looking for answers in the right places and recognizing them when we find them. The continual failure to objectively evaluate the promises inherent in such claims, while accepting or rejecting them based on philosophy or preference, is one of the continuing embarrassments of our field.

The second but not unrelated goal of this chapter is to begin to make explicit some of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think we know (rightly or wrongly) about raising and educating deaf children. For decades at least, parents and educators have looked to research to inform them about best practice in these domains, yet the field is filled with conflicting claims and beliefs, some of which are without empirical merit. We are not so naïve as to believe that we always can avoid such situations, nor do we think that any panacea exists that will eliminate barriers facing deaf individuals in educational and other settings. We do, however, believe that barriers exist and that better understanding of the cognitive, social, and linguistic correlates of being deaf can help to eliminate those barriers, as well as being interesting in their own right. Perhaps shedding a bit of light on several of these issues will help to indicate areas in which more research is needed and others in which such investment may not be warranted.

For the present purposes, it will suffice to consider four domains of investigation. The domains we have selected relate to many of the chapters in this volume and, not coincidentally, to ongoing debate within the field. These four—early identification and intervention, language, educational models, and cognitive processes—are not intended to be either comprehensive or mutually exclusive, but they are sufficient to make the case we wish to articulate in the limited space available.

The Promise of Early Identification and Intervention

No single aspect of raising and educating deaf children has as much positive evidence and international support as the importance of implementing universal newborn hearing screening (UNHS) and early intervention (see Calderon & Greenberg, 1997; Chapter 23, this volume). Early intervention can greatly ameliorate some of the barriers to learning faced by deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children—at least during the early years of life. Moreover, because UNHS can be conducted while newborns are still in the birthing hospital, it can be done efficiently, effectively, and at low cost. So, who could complain?

As late as 1990, the average age for identification of congenital hearing loss in the United States was (p. 3) around 24 months (Culpepper, 2003). At that time, identification efforts were primarily based on registries or hospital-administered questionnaires designed to identify infants who were at high risk for hearing loss based on family history or events during pregnancy or birth. Families were asked to bring their children back for hearing tests after having left the birthing center or hospital. However, many infants who were deemed at birth to be at high risk for hearing loss were lost to the system when parents failed to return for scheduled appointments for ­follow-up testing (Mahoney & Eichwald, 1987). This approach is estimated to have identified at most half of the infants who actually had a congenital hearing loss (Mauk, White, Mortensen, & Behrens, 1991). In the United Kingdom and Australia during that time, hearing screening was usually conducted at a well-baby check several months after birth, when a health visitor watched for the infant’s reaction to sounds from an unseen source (Ching, Dillon, Day, & Crowe, 2008). This “distraction test” did not prove to be sufficiently reliable in identifying infants with significant hearing loss, despite its long, popular history.

More recently, technology for assessing hearing has advanced sufficiently to allow definitive identification of hearing loss during the neonatal period, and where neonatal hearing screening is conducted, the average age of identification has dropped to the early months of life—from 2 years to 2 months in some countries. Gaps remain in identification because parents still sometimes do not return for follow-up testing and because some infants have progressive hearing losses that were not evident at birth. The promise of universal identification remains, even while the promise of its impact remains uncertain.

Some practitioners initially questioned whether identification of hearing loss at such an early age might interfere with development of positive parent–infant emotional bonding (e.g., Gregory, 1999, 2001) or whether potential advantages in development would justify the effort required (Bess & Paradise, 1994). Both Pipp-Siegel et al. (2002) and Meadow-Orlans and colleagues (2004), however, reported finding no evidence that early identification created any difficulty in early parent–child attachment, and we know of no one who has. Grandori and Lutman (1999) concluded that the risks of anxiety due to early screening were acceptable, given evidence of benefits to developmental outcomes, and parents tend to agree (see Chapter 16, this volume; Young & Tattersall, 2005). Yet, even with the feared negatives out of the way, it remains unclear whether early identification has a significant positive impact in this area.

One goal of early intervention is to ensure that parents have positive expectations for their children’s progress, but Young et al. (2005) and Stredler-Brown (Chapter 20, this volume) have noted that professionals’ advice to parents also needs to be realistic. Progress is being made in developing more effective support for the development of young DHH children, but the heterogeneity of this population makes it difficult to predict individual needs and strengths. Nevertheless, research generally has found significant developmental advantages for children following earlier compared to later diagnosis and intervention services. Yoshinaga-Itano and her colleagues (e.g., Mayne, Yoshinaga-Itano, Sedey, & Carey, 2000; Yoshinaga-Itano, Coulter, & Thompson, 2001; Yoshinaga-Itano, Snyder, & Day, 1998), for example, have reported several studies comparing a growing sample of ­children whose hearing losses were identified early with other children who were identified later. After accounting for variables such as degree of hearing loss, socioeconomic status, communication mode, and cognitive development, they found that younger ages of identification resulted in higher levels of functioning. Identification and the start of intervention by 6 months of age, in particular, were ­associated with beneficial effects on social-emotional development and language development.

On the basis of the Yoshinaga-Itano and related studies, it is now frequently reported that early identification and intervention prior to 6 months of age lead to “normal” levels of language development by the time deaf children enter school. Yet, the average language level for children in the Yoshinaga-Itano sample was still in the “low-average” range for hearing children (around the 25th percentile; Yoshinaga-Itano, 2006), despite the fact that they were involved in one of the most advanced early intervention programs in the world (the Colorado Home Intervention Program or CHIP). Clearly, other issues are involved and need to be identified. Moeller (2000), for example, assessed language development of a large sample of children with ­significant hearing losses and found that those who began receiving intervention by 11 months of age acquired language significantly better than those who started later. At 5 years of age, those children were functioning in the low-average range compared to norms for hearing children; again, still better than deaf children who did not receive early intervention. Moeller also found that a measure of parental involvement with the child and with the (p. 4) child’s educational programming significantly ­predicted language development levels (see also DesJardin, 2006), and Calderon and Naidu (1999) found that age of first intervention services ­predicted deaf children’s receptive and expressive language, as well as the frequency of mother–child interaction.

Most investigators, if queried now anyway, recognize that early identification and intervention are important, but neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee deaf children developmental and educational outcomes commensurate with hearing peers. To date, however, most investigations in this area, out of necessity, have examined only relatively short-term effects of early identification and intervention. As children in the early cohorts progress through school, other studies will examine longer-term outcomes and outcomes in other domains. We can offer one caveat in that regard, based on an unpublished study conducted in collaboration with a school for the deaf in the eastern United States. That investigation initially looked at relationships among whether a child had received early intervention services or not, which of several intervention programs they had participated in, and academic outcomes. Surprisingly, initial analyses indicated that children who had received fewer intervention services performed better on early standardized testing. More detailed analysis, however, revealed that the results were better interpreted as indicating that children who were more in need of intervention support due to individual and family factors did not score as well as children in less complicated situations. Reminder to field: Our interpretations of experimental results must be done carefully, considering the entire context and its participants.

At present, what little research there is comparing development of children enrolled in different intervention programs tends not to focus on evaluating specific aspects of child or parental interventions, even though it is generally agreed that successful early intervention needs to substantially include parents and not involve only individual therapy ­sessions with the child (Bodner-Johnson & Sass-Lehrer, 2003; Sass-Lehrer & Bodner-Johnson, 2003). Rather, in keeping with the traditional obsession of the field, most researchers have focused on identifying the effects of the specific approach to communication and language that is used—that is, whether strictly oral (auditory-spoken language), or visual (sign language), or a combination of the two approaches is followed (see Chapter 20, this volume). For the current purposes, we will make only two observations in that regard.

First, regardless of language orientation, experiences that increase parents’ confidence and feelings of competence in communicating with their deaf child have positive effects on their interactions and the child’s language development (DesJardin, 2006; Meadow-Orlans et al., 2004). However, longer-term consequences of these factors apparently have not been explored, even though such findings began to emerge over 25 years ago (see Marschark, 1993, Chapters 3 and 4). Second, a review by Calderon and Greenberg (1997) indicated that, when early intervention programming included exposure to sign language, children tended to show better language, social, and academic outcomes through the early school years. In part, that result likely is a consequence of sign language offering earlier effective communication between adults and deaf children, and there does not appear to have been any research in the ensuing years showing anything different. Nevertheless, as will be described in the next section, “the promise of language” is one that appears not to have been kept, as neither deaf children of deaf parents nor deaf children with hearing parents who grow up with either a sign language orientation or a spoken language orientation typically demonstrate academic achievement comparable to hearing peers (for a review, see Marschark, 1993; Chapter 4, this volume). And, again, until comprehensive, ­longer-term studies on the outcomes of early intervention are conducted, it is uncertain whether the early advantages documented by Calderon and Greenberg are maintained.

Returning to the promise of early identification and intervention, we currently know that some is better than none, but it is difficult to know whether some approaches and methods are better than others without further information. Due to ethical and practical issues, research into this issue is unlikely to involve randomly assigning children to various ­programs or different programs using the same ­outcome measures. As a result, it appears that, for the present, we have to be satisfied with the conclusion that deaf children and their families generally benefit from early intervention, even if we have not identified specifically which aspects are important for which individuals. We also cannot conclude that early identification and intervention are sufficient to provide most deaf children with full equality in later educational opportunities. Language at the 25th percentile of “normal” is a vast improvement compared to findings from earlier studies (Yoshinaga-Itano, 2006), but if research involving children with cochlear implants is any indication (see following (p. 5) section), early benefits observed during the early school years may not be maintained in the later school years (see Chapter 9, this volume).

At the very least, parents and practitioners need to be reminded that early identification and intervention are only the beginning of the process of educating deaf children, not the end (see Chapter 25, this volume). Just as the positive effects of early identification appear to accrue only when they are accompanied by early intervention (Hogan, Stokes, White, Tyszkiewicz, & Woolgar, 2008), early intervention undoubtedly will need to be supplemented by ongoing interventions in various domains. Leigh and colleagues (Chapter 23, this volume) point out, “The notion that children will develop their language and communication, cognitive, and social skills more effectively if intervention is commenced very early is grounded in the premise that there is an optimal period for the development of certain cognitive and linguistic abilities…” (see also Chapter 19, this volume). We suggest that it might be more accurate to say, in the plural, that there are optimal periods for the development of certain cognitive, linguistic, and academic abilities; not all of them occur during the first years of life.

The Promise of Language

Whether the focus is on development, education, or culture, the issue of language modality—sign or speech—always rears its head in both theoretical and practical discussions within this field. This chapter is not the place to try review the literature on language modality, nor do we believe that it would be fruitful (but see Chapters 2 and 21, this volume). Our point is quite simple: Despite all claims to the contrary, neither sign language nor spoken language has lived up to the promises of its proponents when it comes to raising and educating deaf children. There are, of course, many deaf children who thrive in one language setting or another, even if neither sign nor speech alone has proven to provide a sufficient basis to assure most deaf children of academic success. “Success” here refers to performing academically at the level of hearing children, and some observers claim that this criterion is not appropriate (Ladd, 2003; Lane 1992). Nevertheless, it is through academic achievements in the public education system that children in most countries acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed by various metrics relevant to them within their own societies. One could argue that schools intended primarily for hearing children are rife with barriers for those who are deaf, but it has not yet been demonstrated that schools or special programs for deaf children, in general or any one in particular, obtain significantly better results. But that is a matter for the following section.

It is not necessary to look far to find evidence that the requirement of spoken language for all deaf children is inappropriate. Alexander Graham Bell (1898/2005) articulated that conclusion when he argued for oral education for “the semi-deaf” and the “the semi-mute,” presumably those with lesser hearing losses. With regard to oral education for deaf children, he wrote “I am not so sure” (2005, p. 121) and acknowledged the use and utility of sign language. Indeed, in terms of academic outcomes, there simply is no evidence that deaf children who utilize spoken language consistently achieve more than those who utilize sign language. In the case of children with cochlear implants, Marschark and colleagues (Chapter 9, this volume) point out that their academic achievement, on average, does exceed that of deaf children without cochlear implants. The use of spoken language (which still typically falls below that of hearing children) as opposed to sign, however, has not yet been indicated as a critical factor in this relative success. Archbold and colleagues (2000), for example, found that 3 years after cochlear implantation, children’s spoken language skills were independent of whether they used sign or speech prior to receiving their implant. Similarly, both Moeller (2000) and Yoshinaga-Itano (2003) reported that benefits to language development from early intervention were independent of the modality emphasized by the program in which children were enrolled.

With regard to older children, there does not appear to be any evidence to indicate that, when other factors are held constant, spoken language has any advantage in facilitating either academic achievement or social-emotional development. Intuitively, one might expect such outcomes, but it is difficult to come up with any convincing explanation of why this would be the case. In the absence of any demonstrated advantage for one kind of school setting or another (see next section), one could not argue that a child who acquires sufficient spoken language to function in a regular school setting with hearing peers necessarily has an academic advantage, and several studies have indicated that those children are at some social-emotional disadvantage (e.g., Kluwin & Stinson, 1993; Chapter 13, this volume). Further, at least one recent study has explicitly demonstrated that spoken language production and receptive skills fail to predict DHH students’ college readiness or (p. 6) learning in university classrooms when other factors are controlled (Convertino, Marschark, Sapere, Sarchet, & Zupan, 2009).

For all of our talk about language, it is interesting that few studies have examined the relationships between language and learning among deaf students beyond the extent to which spoken and sign language influence print literacy. Despite the evidence amassed by Calderon and Greenberg (1997) indicating that exposure to sign language during early intervention provides significant benefit to young deaf children, the case for sign skills providing solutions to deaf children’s academic challenges remains tenuous. Several studies conducted during the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that deaf children of deaf parents surpassed deaf children of hearing parents in academic achievement (Meadow, 1968; Stuckless & Birch, 1966; Vernon & Koh, 1970), including literacy, and early access to fluent language has always been an appealing locus of those results. Those results apparently have not been replicated, however, and more recent studies involving deaf children of deaf parents have been more limited. While these studies have shown significant correlations between early ASL skills and reading comprehension, this same research generally has failed to consider contributions from other factors such as residual hearing, spoken language skills, or intelligence (e.g., Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000; Padden & Ramsey, 2000).

If solid evidence for long-term benefits of early sign language is still lacking, the situation is no different than that for spoken language. Perhaps most obvious are the promises offered by the proponents of auditory-verbal therapy (AVT; e.g., Estabrooks, 1994, 1998). Only recently have measures of its effects been available, and Eriks-Brophy (2004) and Rhoades (2006)—both AVT advocates—concluded that, although descriptive evidence exists to support the approach, no existing studies have employed designs rigorous enough to produce currently acceptable evidence-based judgments of effectiveness. More generally, much of the evidence for the advantages of spoken language, for children with and without cochlear implants, appears to have had an inherent confound. Although most investigators on both sides of the language issue (which really has more than two sides) cringe at the suggestion, an ongoing bias toward spoken language in society and in some quarters of this field (see Chapter 14, this volume) means that children who are “oral failures” frequently have to acquire sign language later than is natural (Chapter 19, this volume). With unnecessary language delays already in place, those children experience a variety of related cognitive, social, and academic challenges—all of which contribute to some mythical “average” performance level among children who sign (e.g., in schools for the deaf) being lower than for children who speak. Although the extent of this impact is unclear, its locus lies in the unsuitability of spoken language for some children, and possibly other differences between the populations of primarily signing versus primarily speaking deaf children, not in some consequence of using sign language.

Traditional “oral” methods that combine speechreading with aided residual hearing to process spoken language, on average, do not support age-appropriate language development for deaf ­children, although the number of children who can learn spoken language through this method is clearly increased by the use of cochlear implants and advanced hearing aids. Marschark and Spencer (2006) suggested that, with the advent of cochlear implants and other technologies, we stand at a threshold with regard to spoken language development among deaf children. That may be true, but it appears that some of the early (expected) promises of cochlear implants have not yet been fulfilled.

Research into the benefits of cochlear implants beyond hearing, speech, and language is just now emerging, indicating that academic achievement among children with cochlear implants generally exceeds that of deaf children without cochlear implants, although generally not reaching the level of hearing children (e.g., Thoutenhoofd, 2006; see Marschark, Rhoten, & Fabich, 2007, for a review). Even when early, age-appropriate reading achievement has been demonstrated (e.g., Geers, 2002, 2003), longitudinal data suggest that those gains may not be maintained (Geers, Tobey, Moog, & Brenner, 2008; see Chapter 9, this volume). In the present context, however, it may be more important to note that, thus far, no one has demonstrated that it is the greater use of spoken language that is responsible for achievement gains. Indeed, it appears that the only study that has demonstrated equivalent secondary school performance of hearing students and deaf students with cochlear implants is that of L. Spencer and colleagues (2004) involving a group of implant users who had access to sign language and sign language interpreters throughout their academic careers. The fact that many of those children received their implants relatively late (range 2.4 to 12.7 years, mean = 6.4 years) makes the result all the more impressive, suggesting that this is a potentially important area of investigation, even if it (p. 7) goes against the prevailing attitude of cochlear implants promising spoken language and (therefore) academic success.

Cued speech is another spoken language methodology that has offered promises that have not all been kept. Both phonological and morphological knowledge appear to be enhanced by consistent and early use of cued speech in a child’s environment, disambiguating mouth movements through a set of handshapes and places of articulation, and providing visually accessible experience with the grammatical elements of the spoken language. Although cued speech has strong supporters, its use remains relatively uncommon in English-speaking countries, perhaps with good cause. Despite over 40 years of trying, cued speech has never been shown to provide significant support for literacy skills in English, even while its benefits for reading French and Spanish have been documented (e.g., Leybaert & Alegria, 2003). This difference, rarely noted, may be the result of the lesser transparency of sound-to-spelling correspondence in English compared to French and Spanish (Alegria & Lechat, 2005). The traveling conference display for the (US) National Cued Speech Association, for example, touts the benefit of cued speech for deaf children’s learning to read, and it is only the fine print at the bottom of the display which notes that the quotation offering that conclusion was translated from the original French, with no explanation given for why that is relevant (see the implied claim at the top of the organization’s website,, retrieved 15 March 2009).

On the basis of the available evidence base concerning communication and language options for young deaf children, we are left with four general conclusions: (1) The acquisition of communication and language skills at age-appropriate or close to age-appropriate times is a necessary requisite for continued development, and preventing delays is more important than the specific method or modality used. (2) Parent involvement and support of a communication approach is a critical factor in the child’s success, as is the quality of educational support provided to family and child. (3) Advances in technology, including early identification and intervention, use of improved hearing aids based on more specific testing, and use of cochlear implants by children with the most severe hearing loss have increased the amount and quality of auditory information available to children with hearing losses and, as a consequence, their potential for use of spoken language. Specific predictors of language development and ­literacy achievements for individual children with implants continue to be unreliable, however, and much more research is needed that focuses on the effects of methods related to specific child and family factors. (4) At present, there is no evidence that either sign language or spoken language provides greater opportunities for academic success among deaf children. To evaluate either of these claims, we next consider the promises of alternative educational models for deaf children, keeping in mind that placement models are frequently confounded by associations with language modality.

The Promise of Education

It was noted earlier that research involving the random assignment of deaf students to alternative educational placements in order to obtain objective, unconfounded data is unlikely. Yet any comprehensive, objective evaluation of the benefits of alternative educational placements for deaf students would have to consider whether the students in those placements are comparable to begin with; would have to take into account the qualifications of the teachers and parent involvement, as well as the ­educational philosophy; and would have to include similar if not identical assessments of outcomes. In the absence of those conditions being met, we are left to muddle through existing data and put stock in the few review articles that have considered this issue (see Spencer & Marschark, in press).

Some researchers have concluded that academic achievement is higher on average for students attending general education classrooms in local schools compared to those in special classrooms or special, separate schools (Holt, 1994; Kluwin, 1993; Kluwin & Stinson, 1993). Kluwin and Moores (1985), for example, found that deaf students in regular education classrooms made more progress in mathematics than those in special classes (see Chapter 11, this volume). What appeared to be an effect of placement, however, has since been recognized as reflecting other variables, primarily those student characteristics that led to the placement choice (Powers, 1999). More academically successful students, for example, are more likely to be placed in general education classrooms, and deaf or hearing students who begin with higher skill levels tend to also make faster progress over a given amount of time. Over a series of studies of DHH students, after accounting for initial student and family characteristics, type of school placement has been found to account for only about 1%–5% of the variance in academic outcome (Allen & Osbourne, 1984; Kluwin & Moores, 1985, 1989; (p. 8) Powers, 1999). At the college level, Convertino and colleagues (2009) found that enrollment in mainstream university classes (i.e., with hearing students) versus in all-deaf classes was not significantly associated with measures of classroom learning when other factors were controlled.

A stronger and more significant predictor of academic achievement has been the presence or absence of additional disabilities (Chapter 12, this volume), but, overall, an average of 75% of the variance in academic outcome has remained unexplained. Finally, even when DHH students in mainstream settings do show academic achievement somewhat higher than that of their peers in special classrooms or ­special schools overall (see Chapter 6, this volume), their performance still lags behind that of hearing peers (Antia, Jones, Reed, Kreimeyer, Luckner, & Johnson, 2008; Blair, Peterson, & Viehweg, 1985; Most, 2006). The promise of mainstream education thus persists, but has not yet been delivered.

The situation is not very different with regard to the promise of special education for deaf students. Interestingly, research that has focused on the potential benefits of separate educational placements for deaf students has almost exclusively equated “separate” with “sign language-based.” “Oral” programs for deaf children tout their emphases on speech and hearing, but research concerning academic outcomes seems to be lacking. They are not alone in this lack of outcome data. Focusing on more general needs of deaf students, Simms and Thumann (2007) reported on the components of a Gallaudet University program that trains teachers to work within sign/bilingual programs—the Center for ASL/English Bilingual Education and Research (CAEBER). That program stresses the fluent use of natural sign language and understanding its role in a sign/bilingual approach, appreciation of the culture and history of deaf persons, high expectations for the achievements that can be attained by deaf students, and the ability for collaboration between deaf and hearing education professionals. Simms and Thumann posited that deaf learners typically have strengths in visual processing and that a deaf-centered approach to teaching may stress some different aspects of development and skill development than programs that are based on models of hearing students’ learning styles. Although intuitively appealing, such programming appears to remain without empirical support.

CAEBER is known for its work with more than a dozen schools for the deaf in the United States, particularly in New Mexico. According to its website, the program “envisions high academic achievement for deaf and hard-of-hearing students by facilitating proficiency in both American Sign Language and English…” Apparently the only outcome information available from the program, however, is its 2002 5-year report to the US Department of Education, which funds the project (; retrieved 20 November 2008). According to the data presented in that report, reading comprehension scores1 on the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th edition for 8- to 18-year-olds enrolled in the program were no higher than those reported by Traxler (2000) for all DHH children in the SAT-9 normative sample. This finding is particularly noteworthy given that 33% of the students in the CAEBER sample had deaf parents, and thus represents a group that is frequently claimed to have higher literacy skills than deaf children with hearing parents. This is not to say that signed/bilingual educational programming has been shown not to be effective, of course, only that positive evidence is lacking despite the promise of the theoretical perspective.

The Promise of Basic Research

It may seem odd to include “basic research” together with the three other areas already considered, yet research into the cognitive processes of individuals who are deaf has been popular for over 70 years. Early on, when many deaf individuals were seen as lacking language (e.g., Furth, 1966), many of those investigations were aimed at understanding the role of language in cognition and learning (see Marschark & Spencer, 2006). From some perspectives (e.g., Lane, 1992), earlier researchers also explicitly or implicitly placed deaf individuals into a category of “deficient.” A number of those studies, as well as many today, however, have sought to understand either how the lack of hearing influences cognition or, perhaps more cogently, how those who depend primarily on vision for language differ from those who depend primarily on audition. As various chapters in this volume attest, there is no longer any debate that such differences exist (Chapters 27, 29 and 30), although the actual sources of such differences remain in question. More importantly, the conclusion that those differences need not imply deficiencies is still gaining ground. Yet, for all of the experimental, mostly psychological, research that has been conducted involving deaf adults and children, relatively little of it has been utilized in improving the education of deaf children. The tragedy of this omission is all the more distressing when one considers how research into early parent–child (p. 9) interactions with regard to attention-getting, communication, and social-emotional functioning has, in contrast, had such positive influences on early intervention programming (e.g., Meadow-Orlans et al., 2004).

As an example, perhaps the most popular area of cognitive research involving deaf individuals is memory. For over 100 years, researchers have looked at short- and long-term memory for verbal and nonverbal materials for a variety of theoretical reasons (see Marschark, 1993, Chapters 8 and 9 for reviews), likely making it the most thoroughly investigated area in the field aside from language and literacy (e.g., Luckner, Sebald, Cooney, Young, & Muir, 2005/2006). Many of the early memory studies focused on sequential memory, an area in which deaf adults and children routinely perform below the levels of same-aged hearing peers. Studies involving hearing individuals have suggested that, rather than short-term or working memory capacity being limited to an amodal “magic number of 7±2,” memory capacity actually reflects sensory modality effects and is tied to an articulatory loop that contains approximately the amount of information that can be articulated in 2 seconds (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). This conclusion is supported by observations of Hall and Bavelier (Chapter 30, this volume) that the frequently observed relation between articulation rate and sequential memory, a finding consistent with the articulatory loop, does not hold for native deaf signers. This finding suggests that previous studies demonstrating such a relationship in groups of deaf participants with more varied language orientations reflect either use of speech-based coding on the part of some of the individuals and/or use of such coding some of the time.

Of importance to the current discussion, however, it is still to be determined from studies of both shorter- and longer-term memory how the memory mechanisms that have been revealed affect learning by deaf students and how we can put that knowledge about effects to use in removing instructional barriers. Despite frequent reports by teachers of deaf students of apparent memory challenges on the part of their students, research in this area has not led to educational tools for dealing with the issue. Building such a bridge from research to practice might involve ways to modify instruction so as to accommodate deaf students’ preferred, individual memory strategies or perhaps even train them to use different strategies in different situations. Whether it would be useful or even possible to teach sequential memory strategies such as verbal rehearsal remains unclear, but studies by Bebko (1984; Bebko & McKinnon, 1990) provided support for this possibility in groups of deaf children of either deaf or hearing parents.

Another difference observed in cognitive strategies utilized by deaf and hearing students lies in the automatic deployment of associative or relational processing strategies. A review by Ottem (1980) found that when various memory and problem-solving tasks involved only a single dimension, deaf and hearing individuals (children and adults) performed similarly most of the time. When more than one dimension was involved, in contrast, hearing individuals consistently outperformed their deaf age-mates, suggesting that the latter did not spontaneously integrate or balance multiple characteristics. Despite more recent demonstrations that tendencies to treat stimuli in isolation rather than as members of various, perhaps overlapping categories, negatively affect deaf children’s mathematics performance (Ansell & Pagliaro, 2006; Blatto-Vallee, Kelly, Gaustad, Porter, & Fonzi, 2007), reading (Strassman, 1997), and memory (Liben, 1979; Marschark, Convertino, McEvoy, & Masteller, 2004), few investigators have either demonstrated alternative strategies that can support improved performance or, apparently, sought ways to promote relational processing in appropriate task situations.

Visuospatial processing is another area in which apparent promises of basic research have failed to materialize despite researchers and educators reporting curriculum approaches based on the emphasis of visuospatial presentation of information (see Chapters 4 and 8, this volume; Nunes & Moreno, 1997, 2002). Investigators over the past 20 years have sought to demonstrate that deaf individuals have visuospatial skills superior to those of hearing individuals, a consequence of growing up in a visuospatial world, frequently with a visuospatial language (see Dye, Hauser, & Bavelier, 2008). One example is the indication from behavioral and event-related potential (ERP) studies that deaf individuals, or in some cases native signers regardless of hearing status, held an inherent advantage in perceiving stimuli presented to the visual periphery (e.g., Corina, Kritchevsky, & Bellugi, 1992; Neville & Lawson, 1987; Parasnis & Samar, 1985).

Yet, no one apparently has utilized such information to improve classroom learning by deaf children, nor even investigated how greater peripheral vision might affect development—both important topics given the visually distracting environment typical in classrooms. This omission is particularly inter­esting because, at the same time, investigators of (p. 10) mother–child interactions were demonstrating that most deaf mothers recognize the need to gain their deaf child’s visual attention before initiating communication. Although individual patterns have been noted in which some deaf mothers sign in what they perceive to be their young children’s peripheral visual field (see, for example, Swisher, 2000), deaf mothers usually do not sign to their young children until direct eye contact is obtained—either by waiting or by using methods to direct the children’s attention to the signed communication. Accordingly, more recent research has indicated that even if deaf individuals are more sensitive to movement or flashing stimuli in the periphery, neither deaf students at-large nor those who have been signing all their lives have any significant advantage in obtaining information from peripheral vision (at least none that affects learning in the classroom) relative to either each other or to hearing students (Pelz, Marschark, & Convertino, 2008).

Other studies have indicated that deaf individuals do have visuospatial skills that can exceed those of hearing peers. Emmorey and Kosslyn (1996), for example, found that both deaf and hearing individuals who were fluent users of ASL were faster in generating mental images than were nonsigning peers. Emmorey and colleagues (1993) showed that deaf and hearing signers were faster at responding in a mental rotation task, relative to non-signers, even if they did not show an advantage in rotation speed. Talbot and Haude (1993) showed that level, rather than age of acquisition of sign language expertise, was the important factor in the mental rotation task, and Chamberlain and Mayberry (1994) demonstrated that deaf individuals who utilize spoken language rather than sign language do not demonstrate an advantage. Again, the educational implications of this apparent advantage for fluent signers have not been exploited.

Similar findings have been obtained with regard to face recognition. Bettger and colleagues (1997) found that 6- to 9-year-old deaf children with deaf parents (early signers) scored higher on a face discrimination task than did either deaf children with hearing parents (late signers) or hearing age-mates. Enhanced performance appeared to be limited to faces that differ on dimensions of linguistic relevance among users of ASL, a finding consistent with the fact that as adults, deaf individuals with hearing parents join deaf children of deaf parents and hearing children of deaf parents in showing face discrimination performance superior to that of hearing individuals with hearing parents (i.e., the only group without skills in sign language). Although it is unclear what utility face discrimination skill might have in facilitating the academic achievement of deaf children, it seems likely that such abilities influence social-emotional development and, potentially, social functioning at-large (Remmel & Peters, 2009). Yet the link between these domains apparently has not been explored.

More significantly, given the demonstrated challenges in mathematics faced by deaf schoolchildren (see Chapter 11, this volume), it is surprising that no one has sought to, or perhaps been able to (Pelz et al., 2008), develop methods to utilize the visuospatial strengths of deaf students to their educational advantage (but see Nunes & Moreno, 1998, 2000). Dye et al. (2008) suggested the importance of reducing visual distractions for deaf children in the classroom and the benefits of small class sizes and semicircular seating arrangements, but one would think that all of the intellectual power and government funding that went into basic research might lead to some carryover into enhancing academic achievement. Promises, promises…

Where Do We Go From Here?

As noted earlier, the purpose of this chapter is not to criticize research as an enterprise or to index any particular group as impeding or failing to foster the education and development of deaf individuals. As the chapters of this volume will indicate, the amount of research being conducted with regard to deaf individuals, their language, and their education has been increasing steadily, as has its quality. Marschark and Bebko (1997, pp. 119–120) suggested that studies involving deaf adults and children “have been driven by the need to understand the complex learning processes necessary for educational, social, and personal success of deaf individuals. Recent studies of teaching and learning processes among deaf students have pulled these areas closer together, but the gap stubbornly remains.” The point of this chapter is that more than 10 years later, we still are not “minding the gap” as well as we should. But perhaps, rather than proscribing, we should be asking why this situation persists and what we can do to change it.

It is common in gatherings of both academic investigators and professionals working with deaf children and their families to lament that many people (at least those in the “other” group) continue to look for simple answers to complex questions. Most of those involved in academic research will readily admit (at least in private) that to many observers, (p. 11) their work appears narrow, if not removed from practice. In part, this perception arises from the frequent methodological necessity of reducing complex questions to simpler ones, approaching them step by step—or perhaps by sneaking around the back way. This approach can give the appearance of naïveté or of living in a simplistic ivory tower, when the reality of the research situation is that most questions pertaining to the language, learning, sociocultural, and emotional functioning of deaf individuals are too complex to lend themselves to simple, straightforward questions and answers. Similarly, a focus on groups rather than individuals can appear to the parent or professional as unlikely to capture the essence of what one individual needs or what is happening in a particular situation. Averages derived from a group that is acknowledged to be so variable are essentially fictitious, and believing them to have too much reality can result in research findings being of little practical use to teachers or other professionals who live with that variability. At the same time, however, because of the heterogeneity inherent in the deaf population, investigations involving one or two individuals, or even small groups, run the risk of obtaining results that do not generalize beyond a limited range of individual differences.

Researchers worth their graduate degrees, of course, will be able to counter such accusations and limitations. They will be able to describe the ­theoretical importance of their efforts, usually with appropriate descriptions of the potential implications for education, society, or the greater good. They can acknowledge individual differences and cogently describe the potential range of applicability for their findings. Even those investigators who limit their work to relatively homogeneous subpopulations (e.g., native signers, deaf university students, children in oral settings who received their cochlear implants prior to 1 year of age) should be able to justify their methodologies and put their findings in larger ­contexts. Nevertheless, they may not see evaluating ecological validity or practicality of those findings as their concern.

Those who are involved with deaf individuals every day outside of the university research environment—teachers, speech-language therapists and pathologists, sign language interpreters and others— are in situations different from but perhaps parallel to those of researchers. It is frequently suggested that teachers teach the way they were taught rather than the way they were taught to teach (see Chapter 4, this volume), and one can see the same tendency among practicing professionals in this field. Methodologies learned in the classroom frequently determine the nature of one’s interaction with clients and students, and strict adherence to them often results in missed opportunities for finding out what is really going on, determining exactly what it is that this child has or that one needs. The appropriateness of one protocol, paradigm, or approach, however, may have been determined more by intuition than by experimental validation (e.g., methods of sign language interpreting that have been developed largely in the absence of demonstration that deaf people actually understand interpreters’ productions). Encountering clinicians who seek to understand the whole child rather than a portion of their anatomy or their repertoire is every bit as inspiring as chatting with investigators who seek to share their work with practitioners and find ways to implement it in “the real world,” even (and in rare cases especially) when such application could demonstrate that their conclusions or generalizations are incorrect. In some sense, these latter two categories of professionals are exactly what the field needs; the challenge is how to support and encourage them. Job descriptions and funding agencies typically channel us into one stream or another, and even when we are pushed to cross over, habit and security in what we know frequently lead to our staying with what is familiar, not venturing too far from home.

The good news is that the chapters of this volume, like papers presented at some smaller conferences and the occasional enlightened monograph, have the potential to change the way this field does business. Virtually all of the authors in this volume are involved in research to some extent, and the majority also have a role in educating deaf students (that is, in some sense, fostering their cognitive development or supporting their linguistic, social, or emotional growth). At a time when the field seems to be poised at the threshold of change thanks to technology (Chapter 7), research on the foundations of learning (Chapters 9 and 27), and demands for improved outcomes and accountability (Chapters 3 and 20), parents, teachers, and other consumers of research are ready and waiting.

There is no doubt that there are people out there who could take the results of cognitive studies and help to design better early intervention programming, better reading instruction methods, or better college-level support services. There are clinicians, teachers, and other professionals who, if they had the time and resources, could contribute to and benefit from time in research laboratories sharing (p. 12) both expertise and curiosity. Finally, one would like to think that there are funding opportunities that can make such things happen. In times of plenty, there is enough funding to go around, so that individuals are busy with their primary responsibilities and do not get out much. In times of scarcity, the same people feel that they need to stay close to home and focus on necessities, so they still do not get out much. Ultimately, however, using what we know and questioning what we do not know will make what we do more effective and efficient. Ultimately, if we are to make a difference, we have to step out of our comfort zones and cross the threshold of possibility. Ultimately, we have to recognize the promises, make some, and keep them.


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(1) The CAEBER report refers to “English” subscores, but the SAT-9 does not have an English subtest, and the Reading Comprehension subscore is apparently what was reported.