My formerly illiterate fourth-grade son is now an eighth-grader at The Windward School for Children with Dyslexia, where he learned to read. Next year, he will attend Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, where he can finish his high school requirements in two years and earn an associate’s degree by the time a typical high schooler earns a diploma.
According to federal special education law, children with disabilities who require special education services are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.” But when your child has dyslexia, public education is not free. In our effort to keep our son in public school, my family spent more than $80,000.
Some of the money went to tutors and summer camp especially for kids with dyslexia, to fill in the learning gaps left by school, and therapists to address the anxiety and depression caused by not keeping up with his peers. Other funds went to a neuro-psychologist’s evaluation, and eventually to a lawyer to fight for the services my son needed and wasn’t getting.
That fight didn’t just cost money; it cost time. Most working parents don’t have the time in the day it takes to win this kind of battle. I had the luxury of taking a year off to learn more about dyslexia and why public schools struggle to teach children who have the condition.
Because most public school teachers don’t know how to teach reading based on cognitive science, New York City agreed to pay for our son to attend the private Windward School. Over the four years he attended school there, tuition averaged almost $52,000 a year, a tab picked up by New York City and state taxpayers. When the state reimburses all our tuition, taxpayers will have shelled out $207,000. Even accounting for the usual expenses of public school education, taxpayers ended up spending more than $150,000 on my son’s education that would have been unnecessary if his teachers had had training to identify and address dyslexia.
Doctors, Social Workers and Teacher Colleges Are All Part of the Solution
What can we do to change this situation? We can screen early for risk of dyslexia. Pediatricians could do this along with the hearing and vision tests. Social workers could help families find resources early, and help parents understand what they must demand at school.
Teacher colleges must play a much bigger role in ensuring all children learn to read. They can prepare teachers to understand the five pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. They can make sure teachers know that teaching skills, like reading, is not the same as teaching content. Teaching skills requires direct instruction. School districts shouldn’t have to retrain teachers.
The neuroscience is clear: dyslexic students and other struggling readers succeed when schools address all five pillars of literacy. Phonics can’t stand alone, but “phonics lite,” as delivered in balanced literacy, isn’t enough. No science backs up either whole language, or the misnamed “balanced literacy” that succeeded it. Even early and avid readers, like me, benefit from learning phonics and morphology. We can apply it to spelling and growing vocabulary. It’s time to end the “reading wars” and ensure all teachers have the tools they need to help beginning readers crack the code of written English.