Each year, a significant number of students are falling through the cracks in Tennessee. These are very bright students, often with superior IQs, who have a neurological, language-based learning disability called dyslexia.
Due to their intelligence, they often do not qualify for any sort of special-education services, even though they struggle with reading comprehension, word recognition, fluency and writing. Dyslexics often struggle in certain areas and are gifted in others, but don’t qualify for gifted services because they are poor test takers.
Tennessee needs a targeted dyslexia intervention strategy. I have talked with special-education teachers and directors across the state. Many will tell you the same thing: They see the potential to raise Tennessee test scores, increase graduation rates and increase college retention rates significantly if we find a way to focus a portion of our resources on these students.
Tennessee needs legislation that defines dyslexia and provides professional development for scientific, research-based interventions for our educators. Current tools for assessment in Tennessee do not test for dyslexia, and RTI (Response to Intervention) does not provide effective interventions. Most assessment tools used in Tennessee are designed for identification of lower-functioning students and their needs, rather than the needs of students with above-average intelligence.
Dyslexics are not typical special-education students. In fact, in some states like Texas, dyslexics are served outside the special-education system altogether.
Teachers aren’t doing anything wrong; they just don’t know what to do. Teachers need specific teaching strategies and professional development in dyslexia. Many of our school psychologists and special educators in the public schools, while willing, have not been trained and are not prepared to serve the dyslexic population. They express a desire for resources or training but are told there is no funding. Millions of dollars are pouring into identification and services for lower-functioning students, while bright students struggling with dyslexia (or similar disorders) are left hanging.
There are some fantastic specialized schools in Tennessee. As former dean of a private school for students with learning differences, I have met with many desperate parents who were willing to do anything to help their children. Some even sold their homes and lived in campers so that their kids could attend this specialized school and receive research-based instructional strategies that effectively address the needs of students with dyslexia. Unfortunately, those parents who cannot afford that type of tuition must navigate their way through a system that does not effectively recognize their child’s disability and is not currently equipped to serve dyslexics.
I meet with incoming college freshmen every year that made it through the K-12 system with dyslexia. While most have above-average to superior IQs, they lack confidence in their abilities. They often tell me they see college as a fresh start from a frustrating and sometimes humiliating K-12 experience. While it is depressing to hear that, it is even more disappointing to hear that some similar frustrations exist for them in college, as well.
Tennessee is supposed to be first in the nation in the “Race to the Top,” but somehow Ohio, Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky, Kansas, Hawaii, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Louisiana, New Mexico and Virginia are already ahead when it comes to dyslexia. There is still time to sprint to the front of the line! A good start would be to create a state task force to study this issue. If legislators will grab the baton and run with it, educators, parents and students will be right there to cheer them on.
Chester Goad, is president of the Tennessee Association on Higher Education and Disability and former vice president of the Tennessee Dyslexia Association. He serves as director of disability services for Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.