After four previous attempts by the legislature to improve Connecticut’s approach to identifying and educating children with dyslexia, the state’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee is proposing a new bill to ensure that teachers are sufficiently trained to handle students with dyslexia.
Despite peer-review research suggesting that between 5 and 10 percent of the population has dyslexia, just 2,294 students across Connecticut were identified with dyslexia in the 2018-19 school year. That number amounts to well under one percent of the student population.
In Connecticut, of students identified with a specific learning disability, less than one percent have also been identified with dyslexia. That rate diverges significantly, from approaches in other states.
According to the Dyslexia Center of Utah, for example, 80 percent of students with specific learning disabilities have dyslexia, a cluster of symptoms that result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading.
Nationally, dyslexia is the most commonly diagnosed learning disability.
“If these students are not identified and diagnosed, it makes it more difficult to give them the targeted interventions they need,” said Allison Quirion, the founder of Decoding Dyslexia and co-chair of the Connecticut Dyslexia Task Force.
According to Quirion, with the proper teaching techniques children with dyslexia can learn to read and write and often no longer need special education services. But children with dyslexia who are unidentified by educators may remain illiterate well into high school.
Four attempts to solve the problem
Between 2014 and 2017, state legislators passed four pieces of legislation directly addressing the educational needs of children with dyslexia. The bills tackled teacher certification requirements, on-the-job training for current teachers and screening of children for dyslexia.
Even after this legislation passed, Quirion told CT Examiner that many families still faced the same difficulties — children left undiagnosed and unable to access the appropriate educational supports necessary for them to read.
“We were seeing that the implementation wasn’t happening,” Quirion said. “We asked what is going on? What is happening? What could be done to move that implementation forward?”
In the end, the Connecticut Dyslexia Task Force – established by a 2019 statute — identified a problem: accountability — particularly with legislated changes to teacher certification.
“No agency is currently looking at whether the institutes of higher education are implementing the laws,” Quirion said.
At present, the Connecticut Department of Education depends on the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to accredit all of its education programs. But while the council does ensure that Connecticut colleges and universities offering degrees in education adhere to national standards, unlike other states, the Department of Education does not ask CAEP to review these programs for compliance with state statutes.
“The state department’s position is that it’s the institute of higher education’s responsibility to comply,” Quirion said. “It is, but the oversight does fall with the department.”
In the end, no agency or organization is enforcing state education standards.
If signed into law, House Bill 6517 will require the Department of Education to enforce the state’s education standards for dyslexia passed by the legislature between 2014 and 2017.
The bill would require the department to verify that the state’s teacher preparation programs meet state standards for training for dyslexia, and that teachers trained outside of Connecticut meet the state’s minimum requirements for training for dyslexia. The bill would also establish a dyslexia in-service training program advisory council to help train current teachers and provide districts with the appropriate screening tools for each grade level.
But despite the fact that the bill follows recommendations made by Connecticut Dyslexia Task Force, the Connecticut Department of Education is opposing the legislation in hearings before the legislature.
“However well-intentioned, the department cannot support all elements of this section with current staff capacity and budget constraints,” Acting Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker told legislators in written testimony.
In testimony, the department cited a lack of internal resources and expertise as reasons for its opposition.
“The Department does not have the capacity to audit each individual Educator Preparation Program (EPP) provider, nor the depth of internal expertise, to audit individual course syllabi to the level of specificity required by the bill.”
Russell-Tucker said that her opposition to the bill should not be seen as opposition to improvements in special education.
“The Department’s opposition to much of this bill should not be taken as an indication of anything contrary to our steadfast commitment to improving educational outcomes for students with print-based disabilities including dyslexia.”
But according to Quirion — who served on the task force alongside a representative from the Department of Education — that opposition is devastating because it shifts the financial burden from colleges and universities to local school districts and then – potentially – to prisons and mental health services.
“I feel bad for districts that they have to bear the burden of this cost, that’s why this bill focuses on higher education,” Quirion said. “It’s about supporting teachers to support students. Right now, they are not coming out of higher education able to do so. We would expect nothing less from the medical profession, we should expect nothing less from our educators.”
The impact on teachers
In testimony submitted in support of the bill, several parents, teachers and students pointed to the lack of teacher training as the main cause of the state’s low identification rate for dyslexia.
“If teachers know what having dyslexia is, they could identify students with dyslexia. In my experience, teachers don’t know what dyslexia is. They don’t understand how it affects your learning. Educating teachers will help identify younger kids who are dyslexic, helping them early will make their lives a lot less stressful and easier and put the students on a path to success,” said Luca Bacile, an 8th-grade student with dyslexia in Enfield, in his testimony.
A number of special education teachers told legislators that they had to go out of their way to educate themselves after receiving advanced degrees in education and remedial reading.
“In 2011, I had students at the middle school level who were completely illiterate. That set me on a path to learn more,” said Amy Geary, the director of literacy support at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London. “I was on a quest to find out how to reach my students.”
Coming out of her schooling in the early 2000s, Geary said she felt completely unprepared to teach students with dyslexia how to read.
“We talked about someone having a reading disability, but we never talked about dyslexia,” she said.
On her own, Geary eventually found a certification program in structured literacy, a teaching method that integrates listening, speaking, reading and writing, and the Wilson Reading System, which gave her the tools she needed to do the job she’d been hired for.
Geary’s education coursework took place before dyslexia would be included as a primary disability on a child’s individualized education plan and before special education teachers were required to be trained in specialized methods like structured literacy.
But, according to the findings of the Connecticut Dyslexia Task Force, teacher preparation today for dyslexia is no better than when Geary first went to school.
In fact, Geary is currently planning to train new hires in structured literacy because, she said, if they’re coming out of a program in Connecticut, they likely don’t have the background knowledge to really teach reading.
“According to our laws, structured literacy is supposed to be a part of the special education certification as well as remedial reading programs, but it’s not,” Geary said. “Nobody is checking on it.”
Asked how new teachers are trained to meet the needs of students with dyslexia, Michael Coyne, the department head of Educational Psychology at UConn’s Neag School of Education, explained that students in the general education program must complete three webinars to meet the state requirement, a resource provided by the Connecticut Department of Education.
“It’s a good resource that students have access to, but it might not make the students experts and certainly is not sufficient,” said Michael Coyne, the department head of educational psychology at UConn’s Neag School of Education.
Students trained in special education, however, are required to complete two full courses on reading methods that focus on structured literacy and interventions for dyslexia and other reading disabilities.
“Our special education candidates are very well prepared,” Coyne said. “It’s incredibly important and one of the critical skills that teachers need to have.”
But for students with dyslexia in a general education program, there may not be the opportunities to meet with special education teachers or reading specialists with the skills to teach them appropriately.
That divide between special education and general education teachers may be changing, said Coyne.
“I do think there has been a shift over the last five to ten years to incorporate more of the understanding of dyslexia,” Coyne said. “It might be a little slow, but it feels like there is momentum.”
The impact on families
Left unidentified and without proper educational support, many children with a reading difficulty perform well below grade level or even remain illiterate as teenagers.
According to Jenn Zabetakis, a mother of two sons with dyslexia, the problem begins when teachers are not trained in proper screening and teaching tools for children like hers.
Zabetakis said that her oldest son went unidentified with dyslexia until the fourth grade, at least in part because he was performing well in other aspects of his education, and the school district would not evaluate him for special education needs.
“When I sat in those meetings it all became clear to me, I’m working with some people here who simply don’t know about dyslexia,” she said. “You can’t do something unless you know what to do and these folks didn’t know what to do.”
But Zabetakis said that since her son’s experience, she has seen the school district make improvements in screening children for dyslexia.
“I’ve seen real change in the district,” she said. “They started screening much earlier and bringing in training for teachers.”
But it’s just one district.
“If all districts had teacher candidates coming out of college who already had this training, they could focus their resources on other areas,” Zabetakis said.