Dear Secretary Duncan,
I recently watched some footage from a senate committee debate related to a possible dyslexia amendment to The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. Frankly, I was nothing short of stunned by your lack of understanding of the policies and approaches to dyslexia in our public schools.
Apparently, I incorrectly assumed that, as the Secretary of Education, you would have a basic working knowledge of a learning disability that impacts up to 20 percent of our population. This is clearly not a fringe condition, and yet you demonstrated minimal interest or knowledge related to what is being done to address it in our schools. Perhaps I can enlighten you: practically nothing is happening to address dyslexia in our nation's public schools. There is little to no training or awareness of the condition among teachers. There is inadequate funding for instruction and interventions, and our school districts have implemented inconsistent policies and approaches. The reading programs in place at the majority of our schools are not even evidence-based.
That is what is in place for up to 20 percent of the student population who have a condition that can be effectively treated through evidence-based reading instruction and relatively simple accommodations. Sadly, most teachers are not currently trained to treat or even recognize dyslexia. Some states and districts won't even use the term because they are ill-equipped to effectively respond. Usually, the only policies in place are ones that wait until a child fails before offering any interventions or support. This kind of response normally happens after most students have been expected to have learned to read and are now reading to learn, generally in the 3rd or 4th grades. This reactive approach is not only costly for schools, but the cost to the child is immeasurable. Because of this ineffective, haphazard, laissez-faire approach, most dyslexic students go undiagnosed and untreated unless they are lucky enough to have the right school, teacher or parent. Economically disadvanted dyslexic students face a particularly steep challenge, often labeled lazy, disruptive or stupid.
Given the nature of your public comments, I cannot assume that you understand that dyslexia it is not an intellectual disability. Dyslexia is a mechanical disability that impacts the ease with which students access and express their knowledge and ideas. It does not impact the ability to formulate ideas or comprehend concepts or information. There are successful dyslexics at the top of every field: people like David Boies, Steve Jobs, Carol Reider, Charles Schwab, Diane Swonk, John Irving, and Stephen Speilberg. Indeed, some research suggests that dyslexics have a predilection for creatity and leadership. How can we possibly leave education of our next generation of dyslexic thinkers and leaders to the vagaries of economic status? Currently, the most effective path to learning mandates the ability to go outside of our public education system to access costly evidence-based reading instruction and assitive technology. This approach may seem fiscally conservative in the short run, but the long-term cost to the taxpayer in relation to all the social services necessary to support failed students clearly undermines any potential "savings". Proven interventions for dyslexics are not rocket science. We have the solutions. All we need is the collective will and good leadership to implement them.
The exciting news is, dyslexia awareness has never been greater. A once silent and disorganized group of committed parents has started to advocate for educational change in unprecedented ways. In fact, in less than three years, Decoding Dyslexia, a grassroots parent advocacy group, has formed in each of the fifty states and they are making notable policy progress on the state level. But obviously, dyslexia policy still begs coordinated, clear federal leadership.
As the leader of federal educational policy, I encourage you to broaden your understanding of the deep ocean of research related to dyslexia. Many of the issues that you care deeply about -- low literacy rates and high dropout rates, for instance -- are directly impacted by the unnecessary and early academic failures related to this "elephant" in the classroom. As long as we do not face dyslexia in our public schools, it will be yet another societal wedge that separates the "haves "and "have nots." Considering public education is the best place to level the playing field, this seems like low-hanging fruit. More than that, it offers an exciting opportunity to make a huge impact by leveraging knowledge and research that already exists. Once you have a deeper awareness of how possible it is to improve the literacy for one in five students, I am certain you will see your public comment that we are doing "Much better than 10 or 15 years ago" as profound failure of imagination.