Between 10 and 20 percent of the general population is thought to be dyslexic, but only about 1.1 percent of students in Arkansas public schools (including charter schools) currently receive services through their school’s dyslexia program, the legislature’s joint Education Committee was told today.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) presented the committee with the results of a survey of Arkansas’s districts and charter schools intended to gauge the implementation of a 2013 law requiring schools to screen all children for “markers of dyslexia” by second grade and provide appropriate reading interventions. Districts and charters together reported about 5,400 students received dyslexia interventions in the 2015-16 school year, out of a statewide student population of around 476,000. Elliott pointed out that if just 10 percent of Arkansas students have dyslexia — which is towards the low end of the predicted range — around 48,000 kids should be receiving services.
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Nonetheless, Arkansas appears to be making progress: In the previous school year, 2014-15, only about 2,300 students received such services, and over half of the districts and charters in the state did not respond to a question asking how many students received services in 2014-15. More schools now are beginning to ensure their reading interventionists — a staff position that already existed in schools before the law went into effect — are properly trained in the phonics-based instructional approaches that works with both dyslexic students and also non-dyslexic students who struggle with reading.
“I hear from many people even right now that things are not happening, or they’re not happening like they should,” Elliott said. “This is not optional, and there are still people out there acting like it is optional. On the other hand, there are some districts out there that are knocking it out of the park and doing a fantastic job.”
Elliott said she couldn’t publicly distribute data showing each district’s numbers because the questions were part of a larger legislative research survey that guaranteed schools’ anonymity, but that she’d gladly provide the information to any legislator interested in his or her home district. “There are some places where [the numbers of students receiving services] is very, very high and other places where it’s very low,” she said.
(By the way: While the legislature can’t provide the public with that district-level information, there’s no reason why parents and other education advocates can’t request it directly from school districts and charters themselves, since it’s evidently been compiled.)
Dyslexia is a common learning disability that appears to result from a specific breakdown in the brain’s language processing centers. Dyslexic individuals have difficulty “decoding” the written word into phonemes — the sounds that comprise speech — and therefore require interventions geared towards intensive, methodical phonics-based instruction. The new law doesn’t mandate a particular intervention program, but the state Education Department requires schools to an approach to remediation based on what’s called an Orton-Gillingham methodology. Almost half of the state’s districts use the Barton system, with the rest being split between ten or more other Orton-Gillingham-based programs.
Such granular details matter, dyslexia advocates say, because schools have too often let dyslexic students (and many other non-dyslexic struggling readers) fall through the cracks by implementing ineffective programs. And because reading instruction in the early grades is the gateway skill to all future learning, the consequences of failing to teach large numbers of students basic literacy are staggering. “We know there are huge numbers of people who are in prison who are dyslexic,” Elliott told the committee. “Connect that dot and think about what that means for kids.”
Elliott said she also has concerns that some schools may not be implementing early reading interventions “with fidelity” — perhaps complying with the letter of the mandate, that is, but not investing the time, energy and funding necessary to ensure a truly effective program. Using the right intervention in the right way is crucial, she said. “If you have a headache, I hope I don’t give you something for your toe.”
In 2013, Elliott sponsored the bill in question along with then-Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home), who now heads the state Education Department. The law was amended by Elliott in 2015 to allow for a broader range of school staff to act as interventionists.