Opportunity Lost or Gained?

05/29/2015 04:49 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

Recently, a fascinating front-page article about a pioneering new approach to studying and ultimately curing mutations that cause cancer caught my eye. As I read further, I found that the piece was detailing work I had heard about, but in a more intimate context. I had been visiting my best friend and former college roommate, Dr. David Hyman, and his family for dinner at his home, and he had shared what was now making national news on the front page of The New York Times.

A brilliant cancer specialist at the prestigious Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital, David has dedicated his life to work that few people can imagine doing, much less succeeding at, and he has accomplished both, all in the service of others. What makes his career all the more interesting to me is that if you had met him in elementary school, he was the kid you would have judged most likely to fail. He struggled with reading. His grades were poor. Like the one in five kids in our schools today that has a learning or attention issue [see foreword page 3], David's learning issue is called dyslexia. The deck was stacked against him. Kids with dyslexia and other types of learning disabilities drop out of high school at more than double the rate of students in the general population [see page 16]. And individuals with learning disabilities appear in the U.S. prison population at four times the rate they are found in the general public, as documented in the documentary, "How Do You Spell Murder."

Now, David hit the family lottery. His parents got him mentors, tutors, early support and identifications, and by the time he and I met at Brown University, he appeared as if he had always been well on his way to soaring academically and changing the world.

However, if you asked his mother, Ida, she would tell a very different story. As a kid, David was hugely misunderstood. Teachers did not know what to do with him. It was not until years past grade school that his acute intelligence was recognized. In America, brains like David's are not thought of as capable of uncovering cures to life-threating illness; rather, such brains are thought of as broken and in need of fixing. These brains are labeled as learning disabled.

Despite the poor branding (who wants to be learning disabled), brains like David's and those without dyslexia are truly dissimilar. That distinction might hold the key to why David is succeeding, and why we as a society cannot afford not to invest in people like him.

In 1998, Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz showed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that dyslexic brains and non-dyslexic brains operate differently. And yes, while reading proves to be a struggle for many folks with dyslexia, this operational variance might accommodate for other brilliant insights.

The Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide unpack this wonderful concept in their book The Dyslexic Advantage and point to why one-third of American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and huge swaths of our creative community are dyslexic (most recently joining the ranks of celebs who have revealed their dyslexia was Jennifer Aniston, in January). So here is my question, are we willing to let the next cure to cancer, the next inspiring business leader, or the next beloved entertainer slip through our fingers (to say nothing of the economic cost) because of poorly designed programs to help kids with learning disabilities in our schools?

Time and time again the research points to both the talent of dyslexic brains and the troubles of kids with dyslexia in making it through school to succeed. We know how to support different learners with social emotional learning, flipped classrooms (in which prerecorded lectures as videos or podcasts are viewed at home and class time is spent on exercises, projects, homework, workshops, and projects), empathetic mentors, learning and literacy programs, positive psychology, and teaching habits to hone problem-solving capabilities and emotion management. Beyond their efficacy for different learners--quality social and emotional learning methods have been proven to increase academic achievement--we know these programs provide an economic benefit.

In February, Education Week published an article on a new report from Columbia University, "The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning." The study's authors, Henry M. Levin and Clive Belfield, looked at the return on investments from six leading social and emotional interventions. The findings should make us all reconsider our educational priorities in today's classrooms. "Each of the socially and emotionally focused programs--4R's, Positive Action, Life Skills Training, Second Step, Responsive Classroom, and Social and Emotional Training (Sweden)--showed significant benefits that exceeded costs. In fact, the average among the six interventions showed that for every dollar invested, there is a return of more than 11 dollars."

We know the efforts to support different learners are actually tactics that work well for all learners. And, according to Education Week, studies show that employers are seeking "the very skills that programs of social and emotional learning foster: teamwork, problem-solving, character, and grit."

We can settle for allowing learning disabilities to be the canary in the coal mine for our schools or take the empowering, powerful, and encouraging step of making it the tide that raises all boats.

There are societal costs for not reaching all of our kids. We risk losing the innovation of more than one third of our country's future entrepreneurs and small business owners, who are dyslexic. And we already pay a deep price. ADHD alone is estimated to cost American families $42.5 billion each year.

So the choice is up to us and it is a call for our collective humanity. I don't believe we can afford to leave even one kid behind, because every kid deserves a shot in life and good schooling is how we give that shot. In the mind of some brilliant different thinker may be the solution to our water crisis, refinements to improve solar power, a cure to a cancer. We need more David Hymans.

They will help us heal and power our industries. Let's help them learn.