Sunday, November 1, 2020

Implementing State Standards for Students with Dyslexia

In the last posts, we have described Minnesota's failure to provide sufficient funding to meet state standards for categories of students that statistically require more resources initially to meet all state standards:  English language learners, lower incomes students, students with disabilities, and students of color.   The purpose of this post is to provide a description of the Minnesota legal standards requiring school districts to meet the needs of students with dyslexia. 

About 15% of all students have some degree of dyslexia that requires them to decode written language in a different way.   The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity says:

Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in learning to read. Dyslexia takes away an individual’s ability to read quickly and automatically, and to retrieve spoken words easily, but it does not dampen one’s creativity and ingenuity.
In the past year or so, Minnesota Public Radio and  American Public Media have been paying attention to the failure of the American education system to address the learning styles of these students, and unfortunately Minnesota has for many years neglected the needs of these students.    Minnesota Decoding Dyslexia maintains a library of recent podcasts on the topic that document the needs and our failure to meet those needs. As Minnesota struggles to improve the number of students who can read proficiently,  the Governor, the Commissioner, school board members across the state and unfortunately too many school districts have lagged in recognizing dyslexia, and despite some progress in some districts, Minnesota hasn't been able to implement the necessary system-wide reforms to identify students with dyslexia, and to provide them with early and effective instruction. Through the efforts of advocates, Minnesota has provided additional tools to parents and advocates to push for reform.  I they are going to work, it will require an understanding of the tools available to advocates and parents.

There are many barriers.  Despite clear legislative standards to the contrary, Minnesota has a history of local control that provides a cultural excuse for resistance to necessary change.   For a variety of reasons, in some quarters, the field of special education has been a passive or even active opponent to dyslexia education, even though dyslexia is the largest specific learning disability.  Many districts in Minnesota have resisted implementing the phonics and other decoding instruction that these students need and many teachers simply don't like teaching them, or don't know how.   Parents of students who are strong readers may advocate for what they perceive is a more creative reading program based on "whole language" or its compromise cousin "balanced literacy."  The impetus for change has not been led by educators, unfortunately:  Over the past five years, advocacy by parents has been largely responsible for legislative changes designed to assure that school districts identify students with dyslexia and provide them with appropriate instruction.

Minnesota law now contains several basic standards which together provide a framework that requires schools to provide adequate reading instruction to students with dyslexia.  The first is the overarching basic literacy framework that seek to have every child reading at grade level and demands scientifically based reading instruction.  The second is a mandatory identification of students with dyslexia followed by a mandated service requirement that calls for instruction sufficient to accelerate students who are behind grade level and a family engagement requirement. The third is a reporting requirement that seeks to assure that the Department of Education can monitor compliance. 

The Basic Literacy Framework:  Since 2001, the Minnesota literacy laws have utilized a framework that seeks to assure that all students can read at or above grade level by third grade.  (See Laws Minnesota 2001, Chapter 13 section 12.)    Section120B.12 subdivision 1, embodies the legislature’s commitment to literacy through research-based instruction:

"The legislature seeks to have every child reading at or above grade level no later than the end of grade 3, including English learners, and that teachers provide comprehensive, scientifically based reading instruction consistent with section 122A.06, subdivision 4." (emphasis added).
Section 122A.06 subdivision 4(a) provides further detail on what scientifically based reading instruction . That section, labelled “comprehensive, scientifically based reading instruction” says that comprehensive, scientifically based reading instruction:
"…. includes a program or collection of instructional practices that is based on valid, replicable evidence showing that when these programs or practices are used, students can be expected to achieve, at a minimum, satisfactory reading progress. The program or collection of practices must include, at a minimum, effective, balanced instruction in all five areas of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension."
However, if evidence-based approaches were applied, as called for by the statute, Minnesota school districts would have been meeting the needs of students with dyslexia long ago.   Indeed, the remainder of section 122A.06 reinforces the very concepts necessary to meet the needs of students with dyslexia by requiring the evidence based instructional approaches.   If Minnesota's department of education, its schools of education, and its school districts had been true to reading science, Minnesota would not have needed dyslexia specific mandates, because the science has long since recognized that students with dyslexia need a different approach to reading that Minnesota schools have adopted in contravention of that science.  The failure of Minnesota to adjust to modern reading science in universities, in curriculum, in professional development and in the classroom betrays a deep defect in the way our system responds to evidence of what is not working. 

To recap:  basic legislative policy called for providing struggling readers with comprehensive, scientifically based reading instruction, using instructional practices that are “based on valid, replicable evidence showing that when these programs or practices are used, students can be expected to achieve, at a minimum, satisfactory reading progress.”  This was actually law and policy before passage of the dyslexia legislation.  What shielded districts from utilizing research-based practices to address the needs of students with dyslexia was dyslexia denial and active resistance to scientifically based reading instruction.  A national effort to attack this problem ultimately crept into Minnesota, but has met considerable resistance.   As the Heckinger report explains:
"But a theme among all dyslexia-related state legislation is that it typically comes with no additional money. It’s up to school districts to figure out how to pay for the training and other measures required by these laws." 
There was, and to some extent still is, a culture in education that refuses to respond to legislative directives to make necessary change.  This resistance is a manifestation of a failure of the legislature adequately to fund the cost of making those changes, but also the lack of a culture in the Department of Education to demand that local districts actually obey the law.

Dyslexia specific Legislation.  In the face of resistance to reform, advocates for these students began to tell the legislature that merely demanding adherence to science was not enough  There was powerful resistance to implementing that science, and ultimately the legislature has been convinced to adopt legislation that more specifically demands attention to dyslexia.  Minnesota law now contains two mandates that demand screening for dyslexia.  Section 120B.12 subdiv 2, titled Mandatory Identification now states:

(a) Each school district must identify before the end of kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 all students who are not reading at grade level. Students identified as not reading at grade level by the end of kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 must be screened, in a locally determined manner, for characteristics of dyslexia . Minn. Stat. Ann. § 120B.12.

(b) Students in grade 3 or higher who demonstrate a reading difficulty to a classroom teacher must be screened, in a locally determined manner, for characteristics of dyslexia, unless a different reason for the reading difficulty has been identified..
Notice that the screening does not require a medical diagnosis as some districts have argued.  The purposes of screening is to determine whether the student has the characteristics of dyslexia. 

In hopes of affording the Department of Education the tools to monitor compliance, section 120B.12 subdiv 2(d)  requires each district to provide an annual report to the commissioner that provides

a summary of the district's efforts to screen and identify students who demonstrate characteristics of dyslexia using screening tools such as those recommended by the department's dyslexia specialist. With respect to students screened or identified under paragraph (a), the report must include: (1) a summary of the district's efforts to screen for dyslexia; (2) the number of students screened for that reporting year; and (3) the number of students demonstrating characteristics of dyslexia for that year.

A skeptic might point out that Minnesota's Department of Education lacks the resources, the will, or the the power to scrutinize these reports to assure that local districts are meeting their responsibilities. In order to make these requirements meaningful and broadly implemented, parents and their advocates will need to begin to enforce the "must serve" mandates found in recent dyslexia legislation and to review the reporting for their district, to use it as an advocacy tool.

Must Serve Mandate:   The identification mandate ties directly to a must serve mandate and this is extremely important. The district must implement an identification system, and it must report the results of that system annually.   If a student is identified, the student must be served appropriately.  Section 120B.12 subdiv 2(e) states

(e) A student identified under this subdivision must be provided with alternate instruction under section 125A.56, subdivision 1.

Research tells us that about 15% of our students have dyslexia. It stands to reason that a significantly greater percentage of students in the two mandatory identification groups (a), (b) and (d) will have dyslexia.  If a district is complying with the law, it will have a universe of identified students, and a significant percentage of those students will have dyslexia.  Their reports should begin to show large numbers of identified students.  If not, the Department should take corrective action, and parents should ask for evidence of that action. 

This legislative “shall identify” mandate connects the policy requiring research-based instruction in subdivision 3 of section 120B.12, and requires that the identified students receive “reading intervention to accelerate student growth and reach the goal of reading at or above grade level by the end of the current grade and school year.”  This law doesn’t provide wiggle room.  It demands that the board of education must assure that the two categories of identified students listed above must receive reading interventions that accelerate growth and are designed to reach the goal of reading at or above grade level by the end of the school year. The statute reads:
Reading intervention to accelerate growth.   For each student identified under subdivision 2, [that is students who are below grade level or students who demonstrate a reading difficulty] the district shall provide reading intervention to accelerate student growth and reach the goal of reading at or above grade level by the end of the current grade and school year.
For students with dyslexia, a district cannot meet its obligation to provide research-based interventions if it is failing to utilize interventions that attack the specific learning disability of students with dyslexia.  The kind and quality of interventions are specified by section 122A.06.  A district has the obligation to provide:
"Comprehensive, scientifically based reading instruction" [which] includes a program or collection of instructional practices that is based on valid, replicable evidence showing that when these programs or practices are used, students can be expected to achieve, at a minimum, satisfactory reading progress.  Minn. Stat. Ann. § 122A.06 subdiv 4. 
The statute further mandates ongoing continuous support for these students, support which must acknowledge the existence of their dyslexia, or it is not meeting their needs.  Section 120B.12 subdivision 3 requires continuous support:
If a student does not read at or above grade level by the end of grade 3, the district must continue to provide reading intervention until the student reads at grade level. District intervention methods shall encourage family engagement and, where possible, collaboration with appropriate school and community programs.

Family Engagement. Parents cannot advocate for their children if they do not know that their students have dyslexia.  Unfortunately, across Minnesota, schools have not been providing the information that parents need to exercise their rights. It is more common for parents to hear that their struggling reader is doing fine or that we need to wait until 5th grade or later, until we can be sure.   This practice is now against the law. Section 120B.12 subdiv 2a (parent notification and involvement.).  The statute now contains a mandate, to involve families and engage them in their child’s reading progress.  Parents can't advocate for their children, unless this notification requirement specifically provides dyslexia information where appropriate. 



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