The Los Angeles Unified school board jumped ahead of a new state law last week and instructed the school district to immediately create a plan to train teachers on the leading learning disability in California: a reading impairment known as dyslexia.
The demand by the board of the second-largest school district in the U.S. was hailed by parent advocates as a signal that districts across the state, and potentially the nation, might finally provide interventions that help students with dyslexia learn to read. Effective interventions are available, but most school districts nationwide do not provide them widely, citing the cost of training, according to advocates for students with disabilities.
“We know what works,” said Pamela Cohen, a teacher in the district and a member of Decoding Dyslexia California, a parent advocacy group that has led state and national efforts to improve services. “It’s time to put the pedal to the metal.” She described her child’s anguish at not being able to learn to read and her own frustration at not being able to get help from teachers or school specialists.
Instead, her son received private tutoring for dyslexia starting in 2nd grade — $90 an hour, twice a week, for four years — because Los Angeles Unified did not provide assistance, she said. Few families can afford to hire an outside specialist. “This is a civil rights issue to me,” Cohen said. “We know that thousands of families in LAUSD cannot and should not have to pay out of their pockets so their children can learn to read.”
Dyslexia is estimated to affect roughly 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to the International Dyslexia Association — which would mean about 1 million children in California schools. Once known as “word blindness,” dyslexia is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to “sound out” words by matching letters with sounds. Brain imagery has shown that people with dyslexia process word identification differently. The disability is unrelated to intelligence.
The board gave Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King 90 days to return with an action plan to provide staff and teacher training on the warning signs of dyslexia, interventions proven by research to be effective and appropriate assessments for identifying dyslexia. School board member Scott Schmerelson, who co-sponsored the resolution with board member Ref Rodriguez, said that increasing early identification and effective intervention will be “life-changing” for students with dyslexia and their families.
Pressure on school districts in California to do more to help students with dyslexia increased with the passage of a 2015 law, Assembly Bill 1369, authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley. The law called for the California Department of Education to release new guidance for dyslexia services before the start of the 2017-18 school year — and the department has urged districts not to wait for the guidance to get started. In a traveling presentation to special education administrators around the state, the department said it is letting them know that both general education and special education departments need to make changes in how reading is taught.
“It needs to be about effective literacy instruction for all students, modified instruction for some and specifically targeted instruction for students with intensive reading needs, such as dyslexia,” the department said in a summary of its presentations to county offices of education.
And school districts are watching a class action lawsuit filed in May that charges the Berkeley Unified School District with not providing adequate diagnoses or interventions for students with dyslexia. Deborah Jacobson of Jacobson Education Law, who filed the lawsuit with the Disability Rights Defense & Education Fund and the Goodwin law firm, said, “This is potentially an entire population of children who will struggle needlessly and possibly enter society functionally illiterate, no matter how intelligent, driven and capable they are.”
“I think what happens in L.A. Unified could be a model for other parts of the state and what happens in California could be a model for other states,” said Richard Wagner, associate director of the National Institute of Health’s Florida Center for Reading Research and a member of the California Department of Education’s Dyslexia Work Group, which was created to help form the new program guidelines.
L.A. Unified’s plan is being developed by Beth Kauffman, associate superintendent for the division of special education, and Alison Towery, director of instructional operations. Asked how broadly the training will be spread, Kauffman said, “We certainly are going to train our resource teachers. We are probably going to have do some training of our general education teachers so they at least have awareness of what some of the signs are.”
Warning signs include “reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters on the page – will say ‘puppy’ instead of the written word ‘dog’ on an illustrated page with a dog shown,” according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.
Kauffman pointed to the district’s Intensive Diagnostic Education Centers as a resource. Those centers house teachers trained in research-backed dyslexia interventions, most of them stemming from what’s known as the Orton-Gillingham approach, that explicitly teach students to identify and manipulate the sound of a letter or a group of letters, among other techniques.
“We’d like to take the skills they have and see how we can expand those out to our general education classrooms and our special education program,” Kauffman said. Members of Decoding Dyslexia California praised the centers, but said there were far too few of them and that interventions should be happening with students in kindergarten and 1st grade, not in middle school and high school. Center staff teach in 23 classrooms located in 10 elementary schools, 12 middle schools and 1 high school — out of more than 900 schools and 187 public charter schools in the district.
“It really is about the money,” Sherry Rubalcava, who retired after 37 years of work in Los Angeles Unified as a teacher and administrator, said about the lack of training in dyslexia interventions that work.
She tutors a 6th-grade student who is reading at a 2nd-grade level despite spending three years receiving special education services in the district, she said. “They are already offering an intervention, but that intervention is worthless,” she said.
“What they don’t realize is that you spend money to save money,” she said of the district. “They’re spending all this money on worthless interventions. If you gave children the right intervention, you wouldn’t have to do it as long.”
She ticked off other benefits for the district for helping students with dyslexia, including an increase in school reading test scores, a jump in the number of English learners who are able to move out of English learner status, and improvement in behavior and attendance. “When kids can’t read, who wants to be in school?” she asked.
Mara Wiesen, president of the Los Angeles branch of the International Dyslexia Association, said of the teacher training, “I would argue it is ultimately cost effective to do so.”