The past four weeks, I’ve written exclusively about Assets School and what is occurring on campus. This week, I take my first of what will be occasional departures from this format in order to share with you a recent news story that I hope you find interesting. Last week, PBS NewsHour ran a story, “One Student’s Dyslexia Changed How a Community Viewed Learning,” which illustrates the ongoing reading crisis we face in our country. While this is a national story, the situation profoundly hits home with us at Assets.
The Power of Mothers
Like many stories regarding dyslexia, this one manages to be simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. Like so many of our Assets families’ stories, this PBS video journeys us through a gamut of emotions – joy, pride, pain, guilt, and anger. We feel inspired by Mason’s courage and resilience to learn. The quality of teaching inspires me, and the hope restored, that the Odyssey School seemed to provide his family during what must have been a despairing and confusing moment in their lives. I’m also completely in awe of what the power of a parent’s love for her child can accomplish. Liz Woody not only had the conviction to provide the best instructional practices for her son, but was determined to provide the same for others. We’ve seen that narrative time and time again within the field of special education and educational reform. I’m convinced that there is no greater force of nature than a mother who is remedying the wrongs for her child.
Unfortunately, the story’s moments of triumph and happiness emerge out of past school failure and an educational system that has not made an appreciable difference in how we teach struggling readers.
An Educational Crisis
Estimates vary but approximately 1 in 10 people exhibit symptoms of dyslexia, which include slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing or mixing-up similar words. Of all students diagnosed with a “specific learning disability,” 85% have a condition pertaining to reading and language processing, making it by far the most common learning disability. As we know, the condition does not discriminate – it exists across gender, ethnicity, and all levels of intelligence and socio-economic status.
This educational crisis is not just about students with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences though. There are many other struggling readers who do not qualify for a diagnosis, but still need literacy support. On the latest National Report Card, 33% of our nation’s public school fourth graders scored below basic, which is the lowest category. Certainly not all those students are dyslexic. Looking at the report card another way, only 34% of fourth graders have reading skills that are assessed as “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Hawaii should be given credit for raising their scores in recent years, but we should not lose sight that our state still ranks below the national average and toward the bottom of all states.
At the prevalence listed above, dyslexia and other related literacy challenges should demand greater attention and action. One could argue that these literacy challenges impact more children than any other cognitive or physical childhood condition. We know that students with unaddressed literacy challenges, for a variety of reasons, often related to the effects of persistent school failure, disproportionately face poor academic, health, and economic outcomes. What is most frustrating about this crisis is that effective instructional methods have been widely known and accepted for decades within the scientific community; yet, the implementation of necessary screening, training, and instructional practice too often continues to elude families.
What Helped Mason?
When considering what to do about our reading crisis, we should heed the words of American journalist, H.L. Mencken, who once wrote, “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Complex challenges never have simple answers. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking this national predicament could be “fixed” by a single policy or change. One thing I think we can all agree on though is that teacher training is one of the most significant levers we have for positive impact. When the PBS reporter asked Mason what helped him, he reported enjoying hands-on, kinesthetic learning. This is the basis of instruction at Assets School, along with a direct, multisensory, structured, sequential and cumulative approach to language.
Unfortunately, there are too few teachers nationwide who are trained in Multisensory Structured Language (MSL) methodologies. The instructional practices that teachers at schools like Assets and Odyssey use to help struggling readers have still not become standard components of most pre-service or graduate level training in universities, or in-service training within schools. This is one reason why Assets created the Assets Teacher Training and Outreach Program, which offers both workshops and ongoing professional development support to our educational community. As Liz Woody’s experience in Vero Beach, Florida emphasizes, our mission extends our work beyond the walls of our campus.
Pockets of Hope
If we look hard enough, there is reason for optimism. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) has created a document, Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teaching Reading, which is intended to support the preparation, certification, and professional development of individuals interested in teaching reading. IDA has begun using these standards to accredit university programs that prepare teachers of reading or teachers who work with students who have reading difficulties. As of this past year, IDA has accredited 17 programs.
Locally, the Hawaii Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (HIDA) has administered its Odyssey Program for many years, providing MSL training to hundreds of teachers. In more recent news, I am thankful for Lynn Hammond’s leadership with the Hawai’i Teacher Standards Board (HTSB), which in April 2014 created a new license field named, Literacy Specialist. This new Literacy Specialist license has more rigorous requirements than previous fields, including meeting the IDA standards. Having more classroom educators with this type of content knowledge and experience is a wonderful step in the right direction. Excitingly, Hawaii recognized its first Literacy Specialist in May!
Finally, we at Assets are continuously learning more ourselves. This past Saturday morning, twelve Assets teachers voluntarily reported to campus so they could participate in a Read Naturally training that was being led by our own, Ms. Carol Uyeda. We use the Read Naturally program to help our students improve their reading fluency and comprehension. When people ask me what the Assets difference is, I often share an anecdote like this one from Saturday. I’m sure each teacher had attractive options for how to spend their Saturday after a long week of working with our Assets students. Instead, they choose to come back to school as an adult learner. They do this because of their great dedication to our students and their own professional growth. We are lucky to have such individuals and when I think of their passion, I’m reminded that positive change for our state and nation is possible.
For all our children,