Testimony regarding addressing the needs of students with dyslexia and related language-based learning disabilities and Res. No. 1027

Good afternoon. My name is Carmen Alvarez, and I am the United Federation of Teachers vice president for special education. On behalf of the union’s 200,000 members, including over 50,000 special education teachers, paraprofessionals and therapists who serve our children with special needs, I would like to thank the Committee on Education and the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services and Chairs Danny Dromm and Andy Cohn, respectively, for holding this hearing. Your oversight over and scrutiny of the services and resources applied to students with learning disabilities are critical.

Further, we appreciate the opportunity to share our views on both addressing the needs of students with dyslexia and related language-based learning disabilities and on Council Res. No. 1027 regarding the certification or training of teachers, administrators and instructors in the area of dyslexia and related disorders.

A child’s ability to learn is significantly compromised when disabilities that impede his or her learning are not properly identified and addressed in the child’s Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) and when teachers and administrations are not appropriately certified and trained to meet the child’s special needs. The UFT, together with parents and advocates, firmly believes that the core of many students’ learning problems fall within the realm of literacy and language-based disabilities. We are pleased that the Department of Education made a greater priority of addressing literacy-centered issues and pleased, in particular, that there’s a plan to strengthen literacy for early learners. We wholeheartedly support this focus. In testimony before this body on a number of occasions and across a range of issues, our union has emphasized that cognitive, social and emotional development in the early years are critical to success in school and life.

We know our system can serve these children better and help dismantle the barriers to their success.

We seek the City Council’s support to implement the following:

a)     Align the city’s categorization of dyslexia and language-based disabilities on its IEPs with that of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services;

b)     Deliver the explicit, sequential, intensive and sustained interventions that students with dyslexia need;

c)      Provide training in evidence-based, foundational literacy skills instruction and dyslexia interventions to special education teachers; and

d)     Pass Council Resolution No. 1027 addressing the need for professional training and certification in dyslexia.

We stand ready to work in partnership with the DOE and the New York City Council as both entities place a greater emphasis on improving outcomes for children struggling with dyslexia and related language-based learning disabilities.

Defining dyslexia, and the disconnect between city and federal criteria

What is dyslexia? Individuals with dyslexia have difficulties with decoding and spelling.  They do not recognize words accurately or fluently.  These difficulties, which are unexpected in relation to the individual’s cognitive abilities and unresponsive to effective classroom instruction, result from a deficit in the phonological component of language. While estimates as to the number of people affected by developmental dyslexia vary, some experts say it affects from 17 to 21 percent of the school-age population. In New York City, that could be as many as tens of thousands of students.[i]

Dyslexic readers have lower rates of high school graduation, higher levels of unemployment and lower earnings because of lowered college attainment.[ii] Significant numbers of homeless youths, adolescent suicide victims and juvenile offenders are dyslexics. Here in New York City, the consistently poor performance of students with disabilities on the English language arts (ELA) assessments compared with their non-disabled peers [iii] provides dramatic evidence that the problem is both serious and persistent.

What challenges our members and consequently the students and families we serve is that dyslexia currently does not appear to be recognized as a disability by the New York City public schools. We say this because assessment professionals are told not to test for dyslexia or write dyslexia in the present levels of performance on students’ IEPs. This is peculiar in that dyslexia is specifically listed as one of the conditions in the category of specific learning disabilities in federal law and regulations. Apparently, New York City is not alone in its reluctance to recognize dyslexia in the assessment and IEP development process. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services recently took the unusual step of issuing a "Dear Colleague" letter calling on states and school districts to use the term, when appropriate, "to describe and address the child's unique, identified needs through evaluation, eligibility, and IEP documents." [iv]

The basics of literacy instructional needs

We can’t begin to tackle dyslexia until a well-supported, evidence-based core reading program is in place. The good news is that the DOE has a solid plan and implementation is set to begin in four districts in September.  The mayor's Reading for All Initiative will place highly trained reading coaches in every school with a K–2 program over a period of three years. Since today’s hearing focuses on students with dyslexia, it’s my intention to offer recommendations on how the DOE can address the needs of students with dyslexia by, first, extending the use of this K–2 reading plan and, second, supporting our organization’s call for relief from the destructive effects of “mandate relief” in New York City approved by the state Legislature over 21 years ago.

Injecting urgency in our efforts to serve dyslexic students

The time to act is now. With New York City poised to implement sound, evidence-based literacy instruction and support in early grades, it’s time to take the next step and provide interventions and support for students with dyslexia who are unable to learn to read even when provided “appropriate instruction.” “Appropriate instruction” means “scientific research-based reading programs that include explicit instruction in 1) phonemic awareness, 2) phonics, 3) vocabulary development, 4) reading fluency and 5) reading comprehension strategies," commonly referred to as the "five pillars" of literacy. [v] “Appropriate instruction” is the core of the DOE's Reading for All initiative. It is imperative for the DOE to move now because early intervention is crucial.

The achievement gap between dyslexic readers and typical readers appears as early as first grade and, without intervention, persists into adolescence. For many students, this gap can be narrowed or closed. But for this to happen, children with dyslexia must be identified and interventions must be implemented as early as possible. [vi] This means, not second or third grade, but beginning in kindergarten or first grade. Now is the perfect time to put in place structures to home in on students with dyslexia at the time we are best able to help them.

More than Reading for All, students need trained specialists

How can the implementation of the Reading for All initiative inform what the DOE needs to do to support students with dyslexia and other reading challenges?

First, Reading for All tells us that to get the job done, we have to change the conversation in schools. It can't be about doing what we're already doing or enhancing whatever supports and services are already in the building.  We know that institutions of higher education are not preparing special education teachers in evidence-based methods to help students with dyslexia become fluent and confident readers. The DOE will need to provide extensive professional development and support to the teachers in evidence-based instructional strategies. This means no 3-hour or 3-day workshops; no turn-key training; no webinars. Like the Reading for All coaches, special educators who provide interventions and services for students with dyslexia should receive direct training over the summer and regularly scheduled training every month during the school year. The training curriculum should be designed and delivered by central staff under the guidance of experts in the field of dyslexia.

Second, like the Reading for All coaches, there must be dedicated staff in each school. We believe this staff of dyslexia specialists should be special educators, although we would not insist that they work exclusively with students who have been evaluated and determined to be eligible for special education. These staff members must be funded centrally and not through the regular school funding mechanism. We have an idea as to how to address the staffing issue and we are currently in discussion with the DOE to see how we can make it happen. We’d like your support to make sure the funds are available for the training that will be needed for these staff to become dyslexia experts.

Third, as in the Reading for All initiative, there must be a plan to evaluate the effectiveness of the training and services on an ongoing basis. The evaluation must be geared to support and improve the program and the personnel who work in it and not used as a teacher evaluation tool. 

To be effective, interventions must be intensive and sustained

Appropriately trained and supported educators are essential, but overcoming dyslexia requires intensive and sustained interventions. Reduced group size is key to increasing intensity, and the continuation of services over the summer is essential to sustained progress.

In an ideal world, services would be provided individually.  In New York City, the most intensive instructional service available for students with learning disabilities is Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS).  As a result of mandate relief passed by the state Legislature in 1995, the group size for SETSS services and provider caseloads in New York City were increased by 50 percent. In New York City, SETSS services are provided in groups of eight and SETSS teachers have a caseload of 30 students at the elementary level and 38 students in middle and high schools.  In the rest of New York State, the maximum group size is five students and caseloads are capped at 20 and 25 students respectively. 

We will not be successful in addressing the needs of our students with disabilities who have dyslexia unless the group size and caseloads of SETSS providers are brought in line with those in the rest of the state.  We ask you to join with us in urging the state Legislature to reverse 21 years of second-class citizenship for students who need this service.

Students with dyslexia have no time to waste, even when they are identified and begin receiving services in kindergarten or first grade. That is why we believe that summer programs for these students should be structured to continue the interventions students receive during the school year.

Res. No. 1027: Regarding teacher and administrator certification or training in dyslexia and related disorders

We want to thank Council Member Fernando Cabrerafor sponsoring Res. 1027 calling for the training and certification of teachers, administrators and instructors to create specific expertise in serving children diagnosed with dyslexia and related language-based disorders. Pressing the state Legislature to pass Assembly bill 4330 and Senate bill 5439 won’t solve the immediate problem, but it will begin to lay a foundation for the future.  We strongly support the call for training of teachers and administrators in evidence-based, effective programs for instructing students with dyslexia. We also concur that the training should include successful completion of sufficient coursework hours and supervised clinical experience. We agree, too, that children suspected of having dyslexia should be evaluated in accordance with current standards and the committees on special education must have expertise in dyslexia to make appropriate recommendations. Finally and most importantly, we believe that children with dyslexia are entitled to services to help them overcome the challenges presented by this condition.

In summary

We need an infrastructure to support literacy instruction and interventions and behavior support in our schools. Building an infrastructure involves a lot of pieces — leadership, resources, professional development and accountability mechanisms, to name a few. But the most important piece is dedicated, well-trained educators in every school to guide and assist school staff as they learn and implement new methods of reading instruction and new positive and proactive ways of supporting appropriate behavior. I think many of our Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) teachers, IEP teachers, and paraprofessionals would be ready for this challenge if they received the time and professional development. The UFT stands ready to work with the Department of Education and the New York City Council to make this happen.

[i] International Dyslexia Organization FAQ

[ii] Ferrer, Shaywitz, Holahan, Marchione, Michaels and Shaywitz, “Early intervention in dyslexia can narrow achievement gap,” Science Daily, Nov. 2015

[ii] ELA and math test results

[iv] U.S. DOE Guidance on Dyslexia


[vi] Ferrer,Shaywitz, Holahan, Marchione, Michaels and Shaywitz, “Achievement Gap in Reading Is Present as Early as First Grade and Persists through Adolescence,” Journal of Pediatrics, 2015; 167:1121-5

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