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Can Dyslexics Succeed at School or Only in Life?

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There's something funny about learning that a successful CEO or politician received bad grades in school. We're amused to hear that Steve Jobs earned C's on his way to a 2.6 GPA in high school-- before creating the most profitable company on Earth. But what if stories like these say more about the quality of our schools than we think? Indeed, statistics show that schools in the United States may not be fostering the skills needed to succeed in life after high school. A shocking number of high school graduates require remediation when they get to college. In New York City - which, unlike most other districts, is tracking the data and attempting to do something about it - more than half of high school graduates aren't prepared for coursework in in community college. Naturally, cities and states (and the authors of the Common Core Standards) have begun adjusting their approach, shifting focus to higher level skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and even creativity. It's time we took a similar approach to the education of students with learning differences and learning disabilities.

For too long, educating students with disabilities has been treated as a challenge separate from educating students in "mainstream" classrooms; for many casual observers, "special education" brings to mind a population with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. Even the term "special" suggests an entirely different approach is required, not meant for students who can sit still and memorize facts on a smartboard. Indeed, many students with severe disabilities - such as autism or developmental disorders - require special attention, and often separate facilities. But most of the 3 million students with disabilities (out of roughly 54 million students in schools today) are fully capable of being taught in a mainstream classroom, provided our schools are willing to make some changes. Students with learning differences have tremendous talent, creativity, and academic potential--not to mention potential to enhance the learning experience of those around them. That most school systems have failed to recognize this is a regrettable missed opportunity, both for students who learn differently and for their general education peers.

Take dyslexia, for instance. A long list of dyslexics have had remarkable success in their careers, from President Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill and General George S. Patton, to Tommy Hilfiger, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson. A study conducted by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass Business School in London, found that a disproportionately high percentage of American entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic--more than a third of entrepreneurs, compared with ten percent of the overall population who identify as dyslexic.

Why are so many entrepreneurs dyslexic? Perhaps dyslexics are accustomed to being stuck in a system that doesn't nurture or recognize their own skills, so it becomes necessary to think outside the box. Or, perhaps because they have faced adversity from a very young age, dyslexics develop what the expert Paul Tough has termed "grit." As he has written, students who learn to overcome failure and demonstrate resilience and persistence (often in combination with a nurturing family environment) are most successful in school and beyond. In a similar way, my daughter - who is dyslexic - has developed a determination and, yes, grit that I know will come to benefit her after high school. And yet, throughout her life, she continues to be told: "school doesn't work for you, but life certainly will." Now, in her early teens, she's asking, "why can't school work for me, too?"

There's no reason it shouldn't. Dyslexics possess a set of skills that equip them well for what Daniel Pink calls the new "conceptual age." Abilities once thought frivolous, like creativity, empathy, and inventiveness will, Pink writes, "increasingly determine who flourishes and who flounders." These also happen to be skills observed in students with dyslexia. If dyslexic students appear to be adept at thinking outside the box, adapting to new situations, and solving problems - which are key to success in the workplace - our schools ought to reward these skills as opposed to, say, rote memorization and the ability to complete a test in under two hours. Instead, dyslexics are typically consigned to years of adversity in the classroom, stuck in a system where success is often out of reach.

Even the corporate world has figured out that problem-solving skills are a better predictor of success than an employee's performance on standardized tests. Google's partnership with Cornell NYC Tech, a new graduate school to be located on Roosevelt Island, is just one example of businesses making a commitment to help students succeed in a 21st century economy. The same goes for IBM's investment in P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School), a recently created high school in Brooklyn, where students can earn an associate's degree within six years and a job with IBM. A similar approach can and must be brought to educating students with learning differences.

While schools systems may be avoiding it, many educators across the country are tackling the challenge head on. At the Kildonan School, an all-dyslexia school in upstate New York, one-to-one tutoring sessions tailor instruction to each child's individual needs--allowing students to advance at their own pace, rather than fall behind while the rest of the class moves on. At the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, Dr. Sally Shaywitz leads research on the best ways to help dyslexics draw on their strengths - the creativity, empathy, and critical thinking - to "hit their targets in life." However, accommodations for dyslexia and other learning disabilities are far from the norm.

As is often the case, our children know better. Dr. Diana King, a leading expert on dyslexia for the last 50 years, often asks young students to raise their hands if they would like her to sprinkle magic fairy dust and make their dyslexia disappear. Never more than one hand rises. Our children are eager and ready to meet their potential, not after high school or college or "in life', but at the beginning of kindergarten. It's time for schools to help them get there. Perhaps, then, the next Steve Jobs will find school more useful.