Dyslexia testimony

My Testimony on Dyslexia to the Education Committee and the Committee of the Whole, October 21, 2020

Thank you to Councilman Todd for introducing this bill and to Councilman Grosso and Chairman Mendelson for having this hearing. 

My name is Ruth Wattenberg. I am the Ward 3 member of the State Board of Education. I am also an education policy analyst, former editor of American Educator magazine, former DCPS parent, and the parent of a dyslexic child–now 24. All of these are relevant to my testimony today. 

            My son attended Janney Elementary School from kindergarten through 6th grade. He entered as an excited 5-year old. He didn’t pick up on decoding as a kindergartener—and still didn’t as a first-grader or second-grader. We were generally reassured that sometimes reading kicks in late. At some point, he was assessed by DCPS and didn’t qualify for special ed or other extra services. (One reason for the denial was that he wasn’t two years behind grade level.)  An outside psychologist diagnosed him as dyslexic late in second grade. 

He still didn’t decode in 3rd grade or 4th grade.  At some point, he finally got an IEP, but at no point did he get the intensive decoding instruction I now understand that he needed. 

Through all of this, he had great teachers, every one of them. I have no doubt that they did everything they thought they were supposed to or knew to do. 

Here my education policy background becomes relevant: I had recently worked with Louisa Moats, one of the nation’s most well regarded reading researchers, on a publication called “Teaching Reading is Rocket Science.”  I described the situation to her. She sent me to a reading tutor that she respected, who gave my son a simple, short battery of test—nothing like the multi-day battery of assessments that private and DCPS psychologists had given. At the end, maybe an hour or two later, she told us he was dyslexic and sent us to the Lindamood Bell reading clinic.  She said it would be expensive AND that he would learn to read. Both were true.

Starting at the beginning of 5th grade, he went to the clinic 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 4 or 5 months—and went to school at about 1PM.  By January, he was a pretty strong decoder and returned to his regular school full-time—able to read. 

But: He was years behind, having not been able to read and understand any of the materials—in social studies, science, English—that had been assigned since 1st grade.  He had an IEP through high school.

A few points on this experience: 

  • If he had been properly screened and identified in K or 1, the city would not have had to pay his special ed costs for some 10 years. 
  • If he had been helped then, my understanding is that the appropriate, effective intervention at that point would have been roughly one hour a day.  
  • If he had been helped then, his 5/6 year-old malleable brain would likely have reoriented–and he probably would have, in effect, grown out of the dyslexia. Even having been caught in 5th grade, that will never happen.  He is a good reader, but forever slow—and he will be catching up on his background knowledge for years to come. 

When it comes to our city’s schools, I often say that when ward 3 schools have a cold, it’s likely that other wards have the flu or pneumonia.  This is an example of that.  Our son got a second chance to learn to decode, the most fundamental, basic element of reading; he was able to get intensive, evidence-based instruction at a specialized clinic.  That chance shouldn’t depend on what ward you’re in, what school you’re in, or whether your family has the time and resources to address a child’s problem.  Our schools should be providing this intervention to all kids who need it. But, as we all know, that’s not what happens. 

This all happened 15-20 years ago. I hope there have been improvements. But based on my conversations with people in my ward and around the city, the improvements certainly aren’t consistent and they are often thoroughly inadequate.  As we have heard in today’s testimony, many parents and students have faced recently exactly what we did in the past.  

Fifteen to twenty years ago, the research on early reading/decoding was somewhat new.  It’s somewhat understandable that it hadn’t made its way into every school.  But, it is inexcusable that, at this point, best practices aren’t consistently and fully in place.  

Best practices call for a 3-tier approach to teaching reading/decoding (See https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ846760.pdf for one summary of 3-tier reading instruction.)

  • In Tier I, all students are taught using a science-based, evidence-based core reading program; on average, 70-80% of students will succeed when taught in this way.  No student is hurt by it.  There are curricula and practices that embody this research, and others that don’t.  As I visit schools, I see both. I shouldn’t. As part of Tier I, research-based screenings are given to all students, starting in kindergarten.  
  • Tier 2:  On average, most students will succeed when taught with Tier 1 instruction. But, researchers have found 20- 30% of students won’t. These students will need small group tutoring support, for roughly 20-40 minutes per day, using evidence-based interventions.
  • Tier 3: On average, 5-10% of students will need more than Tier II intervention to succeed.  They will need intensive, evidence-based, one-on-one tutoring. 

            What should the Council should do?  I urge you to develop policy that will achieve the following:

  1. In every LEA, every student needs to be screened for dyslexia in k and 1st.
  2. In every LEA, every k-2 teacher, minimally, needs to be well-trained in the best, research-based reading methods, provided an evidence-based reading curriculum/instructional materials, and teach in a way that is consistent with the research and the curriculum/materials. In short, all Tier I reading instruction should by consistent with the research and use materials that are consistent with the research.
    1. Perhaps a new reading certification should be created.
  3. In every school, there must be an adequate number of teachers and/or reading specialists and/or special educators who are trained, equipped, and scheduled to provide Tier-II and Tier III instruction to every student who needs it, expeditiously, ideally within days, certainly within weeks, of being identified as needing it. 
  4. In turn, this likely requires that in every LEA, every elementary school principal be sufficiently familiar with these evidence-based reading practices to properly staff, manage, and broadly oversee a strong science-based reading program, assuring that an effective 3-tiered approach to reading is in place and every student who needs intensive instruction gets it and is decoding well as soon as possible—probably not later than the end of 2nd grade, if not before. 
  5. Older students who weren’t identified in early grades need to be identified and provided intensive intervention.
  6. The program needs to be regularly evaluated. Implementation is always tricky and never works as planned.

It’s worth asking: How many of our teachers already teach in this way?  How many are sufficiently prepared to do so if provided the right materials? In what portion of our schools are science-based materials the primary reading curriculum? At how many schools is every kid systematically screened? How many schools currently have interventionists who are well trained in this? The magnitude of the effort depends on the answers to these questions. 

Likely, this effort will require a major, focused effort across virtually every LEA to provide the appropriate training to our teachers, to assure that they are equipped with appropriate materials, and staffed to provide needed interventions early and intensively.

The issue of a Task Force: I am not for delaying this. I strongly urge you to legislate and fund this effort in this Council session.  But, the details of how to best accomplish this may be best determined by bringing together key individual–from DCPS, charters, and OSSE; experts; and stakeholder–for a limited number of focused meetings over a few months, ending with recommendations to the Council that could be turned into legislation for action and funding this spring/summer.

Thank you for your efforts.