I thank Lindsay Jones from the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a recent conversation that had me deciding to put some of my small perspective out on the current landscape related to the political battle around learning differently.
Just some basics:
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first signed into Law in 1965 to try to ensure educational opportunities for all. In 2002, this act was reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind. The ever changing educational landscape has called for a redesign yet again. Secretary Arne Duncan has set forth for Congress to reimagine this act, bringing back it’s original name, ESEA.
For further information on ESEA and NCLB up until this time in relation to those who Learn Differently:
The Senate HELP Committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) was in session this April to debate the bi-partisan bill introduced by Senators Alexander (R-TN) and Murray (D-WA). Several members of the committee brought forth amendments to be considered for this bill in these discussions. (See EdWeek Blog for further information).
Of importance for me was the amendment suggested by Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) that aimed to ensure more supports for students with dyslexia. It would let schools use federal funds they are already receiving for teacher training and professional development related to learning disabilities, and more specifically dyslexia. This is not only a national mission for Senator Cassidy, but a personal one as his daughter has been identified as dyslexic. Their family has first hand experienced the challenges that can be faced in finding a suitable educational program. In their personal journey, Senator Cassidy and his wife found what many of us in the field already know, there is specific research out there that highlights proven strategies and educational practices that can impact learning for those with dyslexia. Yet, the polices and laws in place, do not easily allow for the specific access them, due to the broad wording and lack of training.
Sadly the amendment was not approved and the discussion that I witnessed thanks to social media, really gave me great concern. The points made by those who opposed it showed the lack of clear understanding of the true nature of how specific learning disabilities (SLD), including dyslexia, do not get the same attention as other disabilities. (Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder do not fall under this umbrella as these language based SLDs.) As Senator Cassidy shared in the session “Dyslexics are 80 percent of students with learning disabilities, 17.5 percent of the population, and up to half of students reading below grade level…” But arguments were put forth that including this amendment would discriminate against other disabilities.
While I agree that this stems from a personal place for Senator Cassidy, let me give another perspective. I am a special education teacher with 18 years experience working with a variety of students with a variety of needs. Yes, they all need our dedication to their education. However, I see Senator Cassidy’s point. I currently work in an independent school for students with SLD, many with dyslexia. Many students come to us because they are not getting the needed services. Having taught in public schools, I know how hard it is for those teachers to provide the needed supports. With so many other expectations, the time and the training just don’t happen. There is also the battle of understanding. A recent conversation with an area professional told me they know a reading specialist that has to shut her door to door phonetic instruction because it is frowned upon in that public school. This means we are failing the SLD population in many ways. For those with these “hidden disabilities” (past blog post) the struggle is real and is just has challenging. More over, specifically for dyslexia, there is proven research, including fMRI’s, as to the instruction that will impact reading abilities. (See Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity for more information)
So to those who opposed this amendment for fear of discriminating against other disabilities, what about what we are not doing for those who are not getting the help they need. My school is not inexpensive, it is a hardship for many families to fund what they know their students need, but we are trying each day to provide aid and scholarships.
We have a student who came to us last year in 7th grade, yet he was identified in 3rd grade as dyslexic. His family could not afford to send him to our school, his school district did not know how to help him, so, as he states it, sat in a resource room from 3rd-6th grade. During each of those years, his mother fought like tooth and nail to get him help and ultimately to get him to my school, seeking funding and aid where she could. But what if in 3rd grade, this boy’s teachers’ knew how to support him? What if he could have had the appropriate instruction to address his dyslexia then? He wouldn’t sat for four years without gains(and ultimately falling further and further behind). He would not be currently battling the idea that he is actually capable and for lack of a better word.…SMART! (Although he can’t argue with the words he can read now despite his lack of confidence!)
Unfortunately it takes a person with a place to shout from the rooftops, like Senator Cassidy, to bring light to the fact that 1 in 5 people are dyslexic, and questioning how the education system is addressing that. I also give credit to the incredible Decoding Dyslexia movement who is doing the same amazing work in to bring change on the state level, along with the many other organizations trying to bring rise to the Dyslexia Movement to impact change.
I don’t argue all disabilities matter, they all deserve our attention. Yet can we truly say we can’t do for some because it might be perceived as “unfair” to others? I know that the conversation isn’t over…and I hope the rising voices will continue to educate locally, nationally and globally on the needs of those with specific learning disabilities, especially dyslexia. There are specific educational strategies these students can benefit from, and they aren’t rocket science.