Paul Simon said it well in his song "The Boxer" (1968): "A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest." While there are almost endless examples of this type of myopia in every field, education tends to be particularly prone to the shortsightedness of substituting anecdote for evidence. Fueled by a remarkable amount of positive media coverage, the Dyslexie font has the potential to make inroads into education in spite of a glaring lack of research support.
The Dyslexie font was created by the Dutch graphic designer Christian Boer with the intended purpose of making reading easier for people with dyslexia. Boer, a self-identified dyslexic, began work on the font in 2008 while he was studying at the Utrecht Art Academy in the Netherlands, and the design of the font eventually became his graduate school project. While the Dyslexie font has been around since 2008, it did not take off as a media darling until November of 2014, when it was featured at the Istanbul Design Biennial. A blizzard of publicity followed. The New York magazine feature, "The Approval Matrix," rated the Dyslexie font as somewhat "highbrow" and "brilliant" (November 17-23, 2014). The on-line magazine Slate reported, "Designed to make reading clearer and more enjoyable for people with dyslexia, Dyslexie uses heavy base lines, alternating stick and tail lengths, larger openings, and semi-cursive slants to ensure that each character has a unique and more easily recognizable form" (November 10, 2014). The Guardian of Great Britain (demonstrating a lack of understanding of the true nature of dyslexia) got on the bandwagon saying, "Watching letters float and twist across a page, flipping and jumbling with gymnastic abandon, can be a daily frustration for readers with dyslexia. But the restless characters might soon be tamed thanks to a new font", and that Boer, "...has put all 26 letters of the alphabet through a finely-tuned process of adjustment to weigh them down and make it harder for similar letters to be confused" (November 12, 2014). The Dyslexie font was also the subject of reporting on NPR radio and CBS television, and quickly began to trend on social media outlets like Facebook.
Supported by this positive media coverage, Boer's website proclaims that, "Traditional fonts are designed solely from an aesthetic point of view, which means they often have characteristics that make characters difficult to recognize for people with dyslexia. Oftentimes, the letters of a word are confused, turned around or jumbled up because they look too similar." His website also posts, "Representative research among many dyslexics has shown that the font actually helps them to read text faster and with fewer errors."
The only problem with these glowing reports and enticing promises is that there is scant evidence to support them.
Actually, the evidence is far less than scant. On his website, Boer has a section called "Research." One of the principal sources of the evidence listed there, that supposedly supports the Dyslexie font, is the paper that Renske de Leeuw (2010) wrote as part of her graduate school program. There are several significant problems with this research. For example, the sample was compromised in a number of ways. It consisted of a small number (43) of adult (ages 19 - 25) Dutch-speaking dyslexics and non-dyslexics who attended the same university as Leeuw.
All of these factors severely limit the ability to generalize from the results of the study. Most astonishing are the conclusions that Leeuw reaches based on the results of her study that examined four hypotheses. Three of the hypotheses dealt with reading speed and accuracy differences, which was produced by the Dyslexie font in dyslexic and non-dyslexic participants. She concluded that the results of this study did not confirm two of her hypotheses: "The results indicated that neither the dyslectics [sic] nor the normal readers did increase their reading speeds significantly while reading the words on the EMT and Klepel with the Dyslexie'" font." EMT and Klepel are the instruments that were used in this study to measure reading speed and accuracy. The results directly contradict the claim on Boer's website that with the Dyslexie font, "Reading is faster, easier and, above all, more enjoyable."
The second hypothesis in the study predicted that reading with the Dyslexie font would allow dyslexics to read more accurately. The results provide conflicting (scant) support for this hypothesis. Leeuw found that while dyslexics made fewer substitution errors with the Dyslexie font, they made more guessing errors.
Another study cited on the Boer website was conducted by Pijpker and reached the same conclusions as Leeuw: there was no improvement in reading speed with the Dyslexie font and there were mixed results for reading accuracy.
The graphic designer Chuck Bigelow has examined more than fifty scientific studies and books about the relationship between dyslexia and typography. He concluded, "In the scientific literature, I found no evidence that special dyslexia fonts confer statistically significant improvements in reading speed compared to standard, run-of-the-mill fonts." He also found conflicting evidence regarding reading accuracy: "Some studies found that for certain subsets of reading errors, special fonts do reduce error rates for dyslexic readers, yet for other subsets of errors, special dyslexic fonts were no better, or in some cases worse; hence, the findings on reading errors are mixed."
Despite the enthusiasm of the media, like many other educational innovations, claims about the Dyslexie font's ability to make reading faster and easier for dyslexics simply do not survive careful scrutiny. While Boer's self-proclaimed intentions are admirable, it should be noted that he owns and sells the Dyslexie font. All students--and most certainly dyslexic students--need to be protected from well-intentioned innovations and fads masquerading as science. As the ultimate consumers of educational innovations, we must all be wary of the substitution of anecdote for evidence, testimonials for data, and personal opinion for real science.#
Dr. John Russell is head of The Windward Schools in White Plains, NY and NYC.
In an effort to improve reading scores, schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña has reintroduced balanced literacy to the city's schools. While the teachers and schools that are adopting this approach may be well intended, they are nonetheless misguided. There is a large body of research that thoroughly evaluates the effectiveness of various instructional strategies and confirms that this type of "student centered" approach to teaching reading is not a particularly effective strategy, especially for at-risk students.
With the goal of maximizing the impact of instruction, the National Research Council, the National Reading Panel, and a host of other researchers have identified scientifically verified effective instructional practices. Among the many instructional strategies used in American classrooms, one methodology stands out among all others: direct instruction. The term "direct instruction" refers to a rigorously developed, structured method of teaching that requires teachers to develop specific learning objectives and provides constant interaction between students and the teacher.
Support for direct instruction comes from a plethora of research studies including Project Follow Through, which was the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted. This study, which began in 1968 and continued through 1977, was designed to identify the best way of teaching at-risk children from kindergarten through third grade. Thousands of children in over a hundred different communities were included in the study. The program that produced the best results in general was direct instruction. The other program types, which included precursors to current instructional methodologies, such as student-centered learning and balanced literacy, produced inferior results. Students receiving direct instruction did better than those in all other programs when tested in reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. Contrary to assertions of proponents of balanced literacy and other student-centered approaches, direct instruction dramatically improved cognitive skills (higher order thinking skills) relative to the control groups and also showed the highest improvement in self-esteem scores compared to control groups.
Many other researchers have reached the same conclusion: direct instruction is far more effective than balanced literacy not only for at-risk students, but for all students. Despite a preponderance of evidence supporting the use of direct instruction, especially with at-risk students, far too few teachers make use of this strategy. Research-proven strategies such as direct instruction should be part of every teacher's repertoire.
Over the last several years, successful dyslexics have received an unprecedented amount of attention in the popular press, so it is fitting that this year's speaker at The Windward School's annual Robert J. Schwartz Memorial Lecture is the distinguished neuroscientist and educator, Dr. Gordon Sherman. His talk will describe the value of cerebrodiversity (our species' collective neural heterogeneity), of which dyslexia is a byproduct, and challenge conventional assumptions about socially and culturally defined disabilities. In an article that Dr. Sherman published in the journal of The International Dyslexia Association, Perspectives on Language and Literacy (Winter 2010), he refers to the work of the renowned scientist Dr. Norman Geschwind (1982), who posited that dyslexia's advantages may outweigh its disadvantages, stating, "One of the most important lessons to be learned from the genetic study of many diseases in recent years has been that the paradoxically high frequency of certain conditions is explained by the fact that the important advantages conferred on those who carry the predisposition to these conditions may outweigh the obvious dramatic disadvantages." Thirty years later an ever increasing number of case studies and a small number of research studies are fueling renewed interest in Geschwind's seminal hypothesis about dyslexic advantages.
Fast-forward from Geschwind's 1982 report to the present. In the January 26, 2014 edition of The New York Times, in an article entitled What Drives Success, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld examine the traits that enable certain cultural/ethnic groups to succeed when others struggle. In their article, Chua and Rubenfeld report, "It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex -- a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite -- insecurity, a feeling that you or what you've done is not good enough. The third is impulse control." I was struck by the numerous parallels between these traits and the characteristics of the highly accomplished dyslexics featured in Malcolm Gladwell's most recent book, David and Goliath. In his book, Gladwell presents a case study of David Boies, the prominent, highly successful attorney. As a dyslexic, Boies faced challenges as a student, most notably his difficulty with reading. Gladwell points out that it was these very struggles that led Boise to develop compensating strategies similar to the three described by Chua and Rubenfeld that have, in turn, made him the successful attorney that he is today. There are many other individuals who ascribe their successes in various fields to their dyslexia.
Gladwell notes, "You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child." Then he provocatively asks, "Or would you?" Dyslexia, according to Gladwell, is a "desirable difficulty" in that there are dyslexics who appear to benefit from their disability. As an example, he cites the results of a study conducted by Julie Logan (2009) who found that more than a third of the entrepreneurs she surveyed - 35 percent - identified themselves as dyslexic. The study also indicated that dyslexics were more likely than non-dyslexics to delegate authority and to excel in oral communication and problem solving. Gladwell suggests that dyslexia has blessed these individuals with these abilities that make them particularly well suited for entrepreneurship, implying causality from this apparent correlation.
In 2012, Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide published The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, in which they contend, like Geschwind before them, that dyslexia, or the "dyslexic processing style," isn't just a barrier to learning how to read and spell; it's also a reflection of an entirely different pattern of brain organization and information processing-one that predisposes a person to important abilities along with the well-known challenges. In The Wall Street Journal article "Dyslexia Workarounds: Creativity Without a Lot of Reading" (April 1, 2013), Melinda Beck reports on successful dyslexics like Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, Cleveland Clinic CEO and thoracic surgeon Dr. Toby Cosgrove, and actor and children's book author Henry Winkler, in presenting the positive side of dyslexia. "I frankly think that dyslexia is a gift," Dr. Cosgrove tells Beck. "If you are supported in school and your ego remains intact, then you emerge with a strong work ethic and a different view of the world." Unfortunately, that turns out to be one mighty big "if". While the case studies and anecdotes attributing an advantage to dyslexia are inspirational, they can also be dangerously misleading.
The sad truth of the matter is appropriate support for dyslexics is lacking in most schools across the country, and bright, capable, learning disabled students face plummeting self-confidence simply because there is a lack of understanding about their true capabilities. Far too often, they experience chronic academic frustration and outright failure. As a result, students frequently come to The Windward School with feelings of insecurity that reinforce their academic struggles, but once they are remediated, they exhibit that deep seated belief in themselves that is critical to success. What our students continuously tell us confirms this. One student recently wrote, "At my former school, if I didn't answer a question correctly, the other students would laugh at me and I would feel very stupid and embarrassed. Being different felt awful. Although my experiences at my former school were dreadful, since being at Windward I have achieved so much academic success that I believe in myself."
Our students' experiences are echoed by many others. In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times (May 22, 2013), Blake Charlton, MD, describes his struggles as a dyslexic student and his subsequent successes - first as a student at Yale and then as a graduate of the medical school at Stanford. He questions the belief that dyslexia is an advantage and maintains that he was successful not because of his dyslexia, but in spite of it. He argues that until schools provide dyslexics with knowledgeable teachers and a supportive environment then "..."disability" most accurately describes what young dyslexics confront." On their website at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, Drs. Bennett and Sally Shaywitz concur with Charlton, stating, "Dr. Charlton shines the light on and disputes the oft mis-stated belief that somehow dyslexics all have a special talent." They go on to state what is obvious to so many dyslexic students and parents of dyslexics: "Dr. Charlton notes the desire among some to paint dyslexia as an advantage. Yet, for most children with dyslexia, particularly during their school years, their slow reading and poor spelling present significant disadvantages."
Nevertheless, Dr. Charlton's conclusion to his op-ed piece presents a hopeful outlook, one with which I heartily concur: "I believe that scientific evidence and social observation will continue to show that defining dyslexia based solely on its weaknesses is inaccurate and unjust, and places too grim a burden on young people receiving the diagnosis. A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well." At Windward, we know firsthand the intelligence and talents of our students, all of whom have language-based learning disabilities. We also know the monumental challenges that so many of them have endured because their learning disabilities were not properly addressed. In order to achieve Dr. Geschwind's vision of having the advantages of dyslexia outweigh its disadvantages, schools will have to adopt the research-based practices that serve disabled students so well. The Windward School is committed to helping create supportive school environments for all learning disabled students.
Recently, I attended a meeting at the offices of one of New York's premier law firms. I was ushered to the top floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan. The floor was filled with conference rooms, all of them with extraordinary views of Midtown. When I commented on how impressive the space was, my host informed that this was the former location of the law library of the firm. He explained that with the advances in technology a physical library was deemed no longer necessary. In current planning for the construction of new schools, there is invariably a discussion about the necessity of dedicating valuable space for a school library. Kindle, Nook, and other digital reading devices are touted as the inevitable replacements of old fashion books. Many schools are providing students, including very young elementary students, with iPads and laptops. Ubiquitous reports in the media chronicling the exponential growth of digital reading make it seem that any forward thinking educator would have to embrace the new reading technologies. In fact, encouragement is not just coming from media and technology companies, but from the federal government as well. Speaking at a recent conference (2013), Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the United States Department of Education, pointedly asked school officials, "How can we leverage tools and technology to completely reimagine, rethink and redesign learning?" While I am not sure that "reimagine" is actually a word, there is nonetheless an Orwellian tone to it and to "redesigning learning." While none of this is particularly surprising, coming as it does from a technologist, it does scream out for caution and closer examination by parents, educators and cognitive scientists.
Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust (2013) reveals that "39% of children and young people read daily using electronic devises including tablets and eReaders, but only 28% read printed materials daily. The number of children reading eBooks has doubled in the last two years (from 6% to 12%)." Despite the enthusiastic reception that reading technology has received, there are ample reasons to pause and look more closely at this phenomenon, especially the use of digital reading in schools and particularly with young students.
In addition to verifying the increased use of digital reading, the research of the National Literacy Trust also examined the effect of technology on students' reading abilities and their enjoyment of reading. Their findings are worth noting: "... those who read daily only on-screen are nearly twice less likely to be above average readers than those who read daily in print or in print and on-screen (15.5% vs. 26%). Those who read only on-screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading very much (12% vs. 51%)." In the April, 2013 edition of Scientific American, Ferris Jabr reports that, "Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens." These results provide further support for concerns that Maryanne Wolf and her colleagues raised in their article, "The Importance of Deep Reading" (2009). While recognizing the remarkable capability of digital media to provide "... efficient, massive information processing; flexible multitasking; quick, interactive modes of communication...", they also question how well suited digital reading is for deep reading which they define as "... the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection and insight." These are the high order thinking skills that correlate closely with academic success.
In addition to these concerns, huge investments in technology have failed to produce the kind of academic improvements that were envisioned by many pundits. Over the last several decades, American schools have spent ever increasing sums on technology, yet reading and math scores on standardized tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) have remained dismal. While many factors could contribute to this stubbornly poor performance; there are too many concrete examples of the failure of technology to produce anticipated gains in student achievement to continue blindly investing in it. In a September 2011 article, The New York Timesreported that a 2005 investment of $33 million in technology by the Kyrene School District in Arizona failed to produce hoped for results. Between 2005 and 2011 reading and math scores stagnated in Kyrene while statewide scores rose. In the same article, Stanford education professor, Larry Cuban, states that the research does not support these kinds of outsized investments in technology. While other studies have found positive effects of technology for specific uses such as social interaction/communication and entertainment/exploration, research on the effect of technology on student academic outcomes has yet to demonstrate that it has a significant influence on academic performance.
It is worth noting that many Silicon Valley executives send their own children to decidedly low tech schools. A 2011 New York Times article, "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute," reported the popularity among Silicon Valley technocrats of schools that do not ascribe to the use of technology for elementary students. Alarmingly, schools like these have more and more become outliers despite the lack of research to support the massive infusion of technology into our schools. While digital media and educational technology hold great promise, teachers and parents need to question the hype of technophiles and rely more on solid research from educators and cognitive scientists. This approach maybe too slow for some, but the expenditure of scarce resources (instructional time and money) and the education of our students, especially our youngest ones, demand a careful and reasoned approach to the widespread use of technology in our schools.
As the Head of The Windward School, which serves students with language-based learning disabilities, I am distressed, but not at all surprised, by the results of a recent survey that was conducted The National Committee on Learning Disabilities (NCLD).
The Survey of Public Perceptions of Learning Disabilities was conducted in August 2012 by Lindberg International, which collected data from a random sampling of approximately 2000 adults across the United States via an online survey. These are a few examples of the results:
- Many respondents (43 percent) wrongly think that learning disabilities are correlated with IQ.
- Nearly a quarter of respondents (22 percent) think learning disabilities can be caused by too much time spent watching television; 31 percent believe a cause is poor diet; 24 percent believe a cause is childhood vaccinations (none are factors).
- Over half of the respondents (55 percent) wrongly believe that corrective eyewear can treat certain learning disabilities.
- Over a third of respondents (34 percent) believe that students with a learning disability harm the overall classroom experience.
- Over a third of parents (36 percent) said that their child?s school inadequately measured for learning disabilities.
- Over two-thirds of parents (64 percent) said that their child?s school doesn?t provide information on learning disabilities.
This sampling is thought to be representative of the American population. While these results are clearly cause for concern, the experiences of learning disabled students and their parents with education professionals are far more troubling.
Over just the past few years, I have encountered hundreds of cases where families were given unacceptable responses to children's learning issues from school professionals who were supposed to be assisting them. A few examples will illustrate the scope of the problem. One Windward parent had her child evaluated by her local school district. The psychologist who conducted the testing reported to the parent that her son could not be learning disabled because "his IQ scores are too high." Another parent of a bright kindergarten student confided to her daughter's teacher at a respected independent school that she was concerned because her child seemed to be struggling with the alphabet. After being told by the teacher not to worry and to give the child "the gift" of another year, the family had the girl evaluated privately and was told that she was dyslexic. The family was relieved to have identified the problem and happily shared the results with her school in expectation that the school would be able to address the girl's learning disability. Instead, the school told the family that it would be impossible for their daughter to continue there.
Far too frequently learning disabled students directly suffer significant negative consequences due to misconceptions that poorly informed teachers have about learning disabilities. One Windward student wrote: ?At my former school, if I didn?t answer a question correctly, the other students would laugh at me and I would feel very stupid and embarrassed. Being different felt awful.? Another student wrote: ?Imagine going to school everyday and praying that you won?t be called up to read. ... imagine knowing that you try your best in school every day but still have report cards that say you are failing, not trying and need to start making an effort in school.? No child should ever have these horrible memories of school!
Unfortunately these are not isolated cases and the damage is not limited to emotional scars. Between 10 to 20 percent of all students are learning disabled and dyslexia is the most common of the language-based learning disabilities. Countless studies confirm that there is a wide gap between the instructional programs that these students currently receive in public and private schools and the research-based program that they need to be successful. Abysmal results on standardized tests of reading provide stark evidence of the lack of effective instruction for all disabled students including those with language-based disabilities such as dyslexia. On the 2011 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 68 percent of disabled 4th graders and 65 percent of disabled students in grade 8 scored below the basic level. According to NAEP, "fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate relevant information, make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion." NAEP reports that "eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author's purpose; and make simple inferences from texts." More simply put, basic level reading skills are the minimum skills necessary to be successful in secondary school. Results on the New York Sate English Language Arts (ELA) exams are equally dismal. On the 2011 version of the ELA 84 percent of all disabled students in grades 3-8 were found to be below proficient in their reading skills.
The scope of the problem is enormous. In schools across the country, bright, capable, learning disabled students face plummeting self-confidence simply because there is a lack of understanding about their true capabilities. They are threatened with academic frustration and outright failure simply because they are not receiving appropriate research-based instruction. At Windward we have clear, unequivocal evidence that students with language-based learning disabilities can succeed. Windward is committed to making research-based instruction the norm for all students rather than the rare exception that it is today and to dispelling the harmful misconceptions about learning disabilities that are so common among the general public and educators. Clearly, Windward alone cannot accomplish these ambitious goals. We believe that it is time to elevate the discussion of dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities to a national level so that the vast potential of learning disabled students can be realized in every school.
Recently, the New York City Education Department announced that in 2012 only 55 percent of eligible teachers were awarded tenure. In comparison, 97 percent of eligible teachers received tenure in 2007. Mayor Bloomberg and the Education Department deserve kudos for making tenure something more than a right of passage and raising the standards by which it is granted. While the low percentage of teachers receiving tenure raises serious questions about the qualifications of the teachers that are hired and the level of support they receive in their first years of teaching, the root cause of this high failure rate can be directly traced to the pre-service education that prospective teachers receive.
The most striking example of the failure of colleges and universities to educate teachers adequately is in the preparation that elementary school teachers receive in reading instruction. In order to teach reading effectively, teachers must be knowledgeable of oral and written language concepts as well as the most effective research-based instructional practices (Budin, Mather, & Cheesman, 2010). Unfortunately, there remains a significant disconnect between the preparation teachers need in order to meet these standards and the preparation they actually receive in their pre-service and graduate education courses. Teacher preparation programs simply do not sufficiently prepare new teachers for the classroom. In the Journal of Learning Disabilities (2009), Louisa Moats cites research by Walsh, Glaser, & Dunne-Wilcox (2006) in which it was found that "courses provided in teacher licensing programs are often insufficient in content and design to enable the students to learn the subject matter and apply it to the teaching of reading." An earlier study (Moats & Lyon, 1996) also demonstrated that teachers have "insufficiently developed concepts about language and pervasive conceptual weaknesses in the very skills that are needed for direct, systematic, language-focused reading instruction, such as the abilities to count phonemes and to identify phonic relationships." Moats and Lyon's hypothesis has been confirmed by Cheesman et al. (2009) who found that only 18 percent of first-year teachers could distinguish between phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Since reading difficulties are the most common cause of academic failure and student underachievement, it is imperative that these instructional deficits of teachers be addressed.
Ideally colleges and universities would stop indoctrinating new teachers with outdated and incorrect beliefs about how to teach reading, many of which have been directly contradicted by research. Mark Seidenberg (2012) described the problem more directly: "Few prospective teachers are exposed to modern research that is relevant to their jobs. They are unprepared to critically assess scientific claims, leaving them vulnerable to fads and fallacies." Since pre-service programs are failing to prepare new teachers and denying tenure to large numbers of teachers is costly and inefficient, professional development focused on research-based instructional practices is critical in supporting teachers new to the profession.
The Windward School has long recognized the importance of professional development in research-based instructional practices as an effective mechanism to develop the expertise necessary to effectively teach language, reading, and writing. A significant portion of the program is focused on closing the gap between a teacher's knowledge and the effective implementation of sound reading and writing instruction. A vivid example of the School's commitment to professional development is the construction of a new, state-of-art facility for the Windward Teacher Training Institute (WTTI) at the West Red Oak campus. The Windward Teacher Training Institute offers a comprehensive professional development program to the entire Windward faculty and to teachers from the broader educational community.
Despite overwhelming evidence documenting the effectiveness of research-based instruction, most colleges and universities still do not provide pre-service programs focused on instructional practices that have been scientifically validated. To address this deficiency in pre-service preparation, The Windward School and other schools provide professional development programs in research-based instructional practices so that dedicated, conscientious teachers are able to succeed.
Since the Individuals with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were originally enacted, the rights that these laws grant students have frequently been denied by schools. The case that Tom Freston brought against New York City is a prime example of the constant struggle that parents of disabled students face. In 1997, Mr. Freston's son, then 8 years old, was having difficulty with reading. After educational consultants, hired by Mr. Freston, determined that the educational options offered by the New York City public schools were inappropriate, Mr. Freston placed his son in a private school that specialized in learning disabilities. He then sought tuition reimbursement from the City under the provisions of ADA that entitled his son to a "free and appropriate education". The City refused to pay claiming that a child must first fail in a public school before a parent can place the child in a private school and receive tuition reimbursement.
Mr. Freston filed a lawsuit in which he stated that he wanted to make sure that families with disabled children receive appropriate services from public schools. If the public schools cannot provide these appropriate services, then parents are entitled to tuition reimbursement. In October 2007, ten years after the initial suit, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that New York City had to reimburse the Frestons for their tuition payments. Mr. Freston donated the reimbursed funds to establish a tutorial program for struggling public school students.
Tom Freston's lawsuit established that the nation's principal special education law guarantees every student a free appropriate public education and requires school systems to pay for private placements when their own programs or classrooms are not suitable. While this was a landmark victory for all students with disabilities, it is just one chapter in a continuing battle to ensure the rights of disabled students.
Here is the very troubling reality that far too many students face: 8 million American students in grades 4 to 12 are not fluent readers (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) and 3,000 students drop out of high school every day because of poor reading and writing skills (Partnership for Reading, 2003). The National Assessment of Educational Progress consistently finds that about 36 percent of all fourth graders read at a level described as "below basic." According to the International Dyslexia Association's new Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (IDA, 2010), between 30 and 50 percent of students are at risk for inadequate reading and writing development. The report posits that most of these at-risk students are not being identified as eligible for special education services. As a result, they are not receiving the type of instruction that they require; instead they are dependent on the instruction given in mainstream classrooms.
As these appalling results clearly indicate, there are far too many teachers and administrators who are woefully ignorant of the research-based strategies that have been proven to help all students read proficiently and to reach their true academic potential.
At the federal level, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report showing that many students with learning and other disabilities, including dyslexia, are being denied accommodations, such as extended testing time when they take high-stakes examinations, such as the SAT, GRE, or LSAT. The end results are that otherwise qualified disabled students are being rejected from colleges and universities based on test scores that do not reflect their true abilities.
At the state level, pressure is being placed on state lawmakers to reduce the costs that public school districts face. For example, advocates for districts across the state are urging cuts to transportation budgets. This would be an unfair burden for thousands of families of disabled students across New York State.
There are, however, a few bright spots in the struggle to preserve the rights of disabled students including the work of Rep. Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) who have proposed a bipartisan dyslexia congressional caucus to raise awareness of the challenges dyslexic students face on a daily basis. Representatives Cassidy and Stark, both parents of dyslexic children, plan to pursue policies that will permit dyslexic students to reach their full potential.
To deny disabled students the access to the programs and accommodations that they are rightfully entitled to under the law further exacerbates the considerable challenges that these students face every day in schools. America cannot afford to waste human capital or squander the talents of any of its students.
The fire that took the lives of Lily, Sarah and Grace Badger was an unimaginable tragedy for everyone blessed to have known and love them. First and foremost, of course, is the Badger family. Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare and as we awoke Christmas morning to learn of this unthinkable event, millions grieved with them. For another family, the loss of these three beautiful young girls also left a hole that will never be filled. Their classmates, teachers and the entire Windward School family, we too lost three of our own.
How do you explain death to children who have just started to live? How do explain that a friend, who played with them just last week, is gone forever? How do you provide answers to questions without creating more questions?
It is something virtually every school leader will eventually have to face - how to help children and their families, teachers and staff members, deal with sudden, unexplainable loss. While thankfully, this has only been necessary a few times in my over 40 years in public and private education, each time I am reminded that a school is more than classrooms and curriculum, it is in so many ways a family. And, it is how we come together as a family, particularly at a time like this, which can make all the difference.
It is essential to bring the entire school together immediately and approach the issue with openness, honesty and compassion. While the initial tendency might be to protect and shield a child, it is important to deal with the issue head-on, recognizing that each child is different. Some will want to talk about what they are feeling even if it is to ask questions. Others will withdraw. Teachers and parents need to allow each child to decipher things in their own way on their own schedule, while providing continuous love and support.
It is also important to reach out to experts. In our case, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the founding psychiatrist at The Child Mind Institute, provided information on how parents can talk with children about the loss of a friend on the Institute's website. Patty Donovan-Duff, the Director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester, created access to their counselors and our own school psychologists and counselors were on call for any child or family that needed guidance.
As we returned from the holiday break, it was clear that the world had changed. I saw it in the eyes of our teachers and felt it in the hallways. While everyone did a wonderful job to get everyone back into the classrooms, it will be a long, slow healing process -- as it should be. Everyone at Windward will always carry Lily, Sarah and Grace in their hearts. They are a part of what makes us who we are - a school, a community, a family.
On August 8th the New York State Education Department released the results of the Math and English Language Arts (ELA) testing taken last May by students in grades 3 through 8. Given the overwhelming influence that English Language Arts has on students' future success in school, it is absolutely essential that students perform at least at the "proficient" level on the English Language Arts (ELA) exams.
Across the state, 52.8 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded the proficiency standard. For students with disabilities the results were far more distressing with only 14.5 percent of these students meeting or exceeding the proficiency standard. In New York City, only 43.9 percent of all students and 14.2 percent of students with disabilities in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded the standard.
Responding to these results, Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch stated, "These results underscore the urgent need for New York to continue to aggressively move forward with the implementation of the Regents' reform agenda." Echoing the Chancellor's concerns, New York State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. said, "Student outcomes have been stubbornly flat over time. The Regents' reform agenda is designed to change that, by driving long-term gains in student performance."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg focused his comments on the gains that the New York City public schools made. This year 43.9 percent of students in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the English proficiency standard compared to 42.4 percent last year. "All of our students, teachers and principals should be very proud of their progress and the fact that we continue to raise achievement levels and outpace the rest of the state," said Mayor
Bloomberg. "But as much progress as we have made, we know we have much more work to do. We are fully committed to ensuring that all of our students are prepared for a successful future."
Mayor Bloomberg appropriately offered encouragement to pupils, teachers and principals for the gains that have been achieved. The results for New York City students are, however, nothing short of alarming: over 56 percent of city students do not have the skills to be considered merely proficient and over 85 percent of the students with disabilities do not possess the language arts skills necessary for future school success. These students do not have the luxury of waiting for the Mayor's promise of being "...fully committed to ensuring that all of our students are prepared for a successful future" to become a reality. Nor can the students of New York State wait for the Regents' reform agenda to produce the promised "...long-term gains in student performance." Based on the predictive power of the English Language Arts exams, if you are currently a student in New York State, your chances for future success in school are a little better than 50/50 and if you are student with a disability your prospects for school success are virtually non-existent.
It does not have to be this way. First, educational leaders need to admit the truth about these results - they are unacceptable. Second, as Chancellor Tisch admonished, there must be a sense of urgency in increasing the number of students who are proficient in English Language Arts. Third, schools can provide students with direct instruction in research-based reading and writing programs that have proven records of success. Finally, dedicated teachers and principals must have the professional development and resources necessary to deliver these programs.
In his "FROM the FOUNDERS" editorial in the March 2011 issue of Greenwich Magazine, Jack Moffly, the founder and editor emeritus, of the magazine states: "There should be no mystery why our public school system is struggling to improve its test scores even as it spends $4,500 more per student than the state average. This can be attributed in part, but not entirely, to the burden of special ed." Unfortunately, Mr. Moffly is not alone in his mistaken notion that special education is a "burden" to be endured. Professionals, who should know better, also have very disturbing misconceptions about students who require special education services. At a recent CSE meeting for a student at the Windward School, a school for students with language-based learning disabilities, the chairperson of the meeting blurted out her belief that learning disabled students do not respond to intervention. In essays written by students who attend Windward School, we find equally alarming reports of misunderstandings by teachers who worked on a daily basis with these students in their former schools. One student commented, "Imagine going to school every day and praying that you won't be called up to read. Now imagine knowing that you try your best in school every day but still have report cards that say you are failing, not trying and need to start making an effort in school."
In response to Mr. Moffly's editorial comments, I sent the following letter to him.
While it is addressed to Mr. Moffly, its real audience is all those who under-value the potential of students who receive special education services and consider special education a "burden."
Dear Mr. Moffly,
I am the Head of the Windward School which serves students with language-based learning disabilities. I am disturbed by your statement: "There should be no mystery why our public school system is struggling to improve its test scores even as it spends $4,500 more per student than the state average. This can be attributed in part, but not entirely, to the burden of special ed." Contrary to your assertion, being identified as a student in need of special education services does not preclude attaining high levels of achievement.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell contends that the extraordinarily successful individuals he studied did not reach their level of achievement by pure merit. He posits that "the outliers in a particular field reached their lofty status through a combination of ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage." Gladwell' thesis has serious implications for educational institutions like Windward, where admission to the school can be the difference between educational success and failure.
Part of Windward's unique mission is to return students to the mainstream as soon as they are ready. Research conducted at the University of Oregon indicates that students scoring in the lowest 20 percent on a standardized reading test should be considered at significant risk for poor reading and language outcomes (Good et al, 2002). Between 2005 and 2010, 729 Windward students have returned to public and independent schools. When these students first entered Windward, their performance on standardized reading tests put 30 percent of them at significant risk of not achieving the literacy benchmarks. Simply stated, the research indicated that 220 of these 729 students were at risk of not being successful in school.
In spite of this dire prediction, the teaching methods employed at Windward allowed these children to make huge strides in reading as demonstrated by the Schools cohort analysis of the performance of students who leave the school. When the 2005-2010 cohorts left Windward, 95 percent of the students scored in the "average to above average" range in vocabulary and 97 percent scored in the same range for reading comprehension.
In addition, Windward continues to monitor our students' progress once they have returned to mainstream schools. When a student has been at a new school for at least two years, administrators and guidance counselors are asked to complete a survey evaluating their performance. Approximately half of the students attend independent schools after leaving Windward and half go on to public schools. Results indicate that over 90 percent of Windward graduates are performing academically at or above the average of their grade-level peers.
Unfortunately, while Windward students are making the most of what Gladwell might call an "arbitrary advantage," other equally deserving students do not get this opportunity. Gladwell's work and the experiences of countless families reinforce the need to provide more students with instructional programs that allow them to reach their full potential. Through its outreach efforts and the Teacher Training Institute, Windward is committed to making the "utterly arbitrary advantage" of research-based instruction the norm for all students rather than the rare exception that it is today. In the absence of effective instructional practices that address their learning needs, it is the special education students who are burdened -- not the school or school district.
Dr. John J. Russell, Head of School
The reality is that special education students who receive research-based instruction are capable of achieving academic success. With real accomplishment, they are able to restore their confidence and self-esteem, which all too often have been damaged by the careless comments of those who consider special education a "burden." A seventh-grade student summed it up this way, "Have you ever had serious trouble in school? Teachers yelling at students can really hurt self-esteem. I know because it happened to me; however thanks to Windward, I have improved not only my academic performance, but how I feel about myself as well!"