By Stacy Brocker, State Leader, Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, Howard County
Note: A version of this article was previously published on the Decoding Dyslexia Maryland blog.
I am a parent of a child who struggles with dyslexia, which actually means we are a family who struggles with dyslexia—because the factors surrounding her dyslexia affect all of us. Being in the military and medical professions, we have lived in many states during her schooling. For over a decade, I have regularly met with teachers and administrators learning the ins and outs of public school policy in states where we were stationed.
When we landed in Maryland we were surprised and dismayed to find no legislation in place to protect and educate students with dyslexia. In fact, dyslexia was not even spoken about during IEP meetings. Three years ago, my daughter and I discovered Decoding Dyslexia’s Maryland chapter and joined other advocates working to change how school districts and the state addressed dyslexia. This is our account of the 2018 legislative process to pass a reading screening and interventions bill for our youngest students and to recount a struggle that is familiar to many across the country.
George Orwell said, “Myths which are believed in tend to become true.” The philosophy many seem to subconsciously embrace is, “Myths which are believed in are true.” This may be why there was some resistance to HB 910, the “Education – Students With Reading Difficulties Screening and Interventions” bill, during the recent Maryland General Assembly session. There are myriad myths surrounding struggling readers and dyslexia, and dyslexia advocates work tirelessly to dispel these myths and to put reading research into the hands of policy makers and teachers.
Decoding Dyslexia is a network of parent-led grassroots movements across the country concerned with the limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia within the public education system. Established in New Jersey in 2011, the organization quickly spread to all 50 states plus 3 provinces in Canada. Parent, teacher, student, and community partners donate their time and resources to fight for every child’s right to read and are bolstered by the advocacy of students, teachers, psychologists, private school leaders, and research scientists who care about reading and who are frustrated by education systems that use programs and practices that are not based on the science of reading (20 U.S. Code § 6368 – Definitions).
Largely as a result of Decoding Dyslexia’s efforts over the past 7 years, currently almost every state has one or more dyslexia laws while 19 states have comprehensive dyslexia laws. Laws include mandates for early reading and dyslexia screening as well as intervention, structured literacy teacher training for both preservice and inservice teachers, a definition of dyslexia, and accommodations for dyslexia. Only a handful of states do not have any requirements for addressing dyslexia: Idaho, Maryland, Montana, Massachusetts, and the Dakotas (https://improvingliteracy.org/state-of-dyslexia).
Decoding Dyslexia members pour over research about reading and dyslexia and often educate their local Boards of Education, superintendents, administrators, and teachers meeting by meeting…by meeting. The number of students in need of support is growing. Research statistics show that dyslexia affects up to 17% of all students and many more struggle to learn to read in our public schools. Decoding Dyslexia is increasingly leading the charge to support parents in their efforts to learn about dyslexia, to gather research and data to support effective instruction, and to advocate for system-wide policy change for early screening and interventions that help all students.
First a little history: On May 12, 2015, the Maryland General Assembly and Governor Larry Hogan enacted HB 278 to authorize a Task Force to Study the Implementation of a Dyslexia Education Program. The task force was established in response to parent, teacher, and student testimony that reading difficulties and dyslexia were not adequately addressed by public schools in Maryland. This massive undertaking resulted in a 135-page, in-depth report that includes a remarkable amount of scientific data, expert testimony, and current practices from school districts and other states.
The report was released just before the 2017 legislative session and recommendations included a Reading and Dyslexia Pilot Program, changes to undergraduate teacher preparation in reading and certification, implementation of early reading screening, changes to inservice professional development in reading, and changes to the multi-tiered system of instruction that fails to teach reading and writing to more than 60% of Maryland’s students. Unfortunately, at the close of the 2017 legislative session, the recommendations in the task force report remained unaddressed.
In 2018, Decoding Dyslexia Maryland focused its legislative efforts on accomplishing something the current public school system has not been able to do: help all students learn to read by identifying their reading risk factors before they fall behind. Armed with the knowledge that other Decoding Dyslexia chapters won battles to change their laws, and with the Maryland dyslexia task force report in hand, Decoding Dyslexia Maryland got to work.
Joining with other statewide advocates for children, Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, the Maryland State Education Association, and the Maryland School Psychologists’ Association supported HB 910 as a first step in the process to prevent reading failure. Advocates partnered with Delegate Eric Luedtke and Senator Joan Carter Conway to introduce the “Students With Reading Difficulties – Screenings and Interventions” bill (HB 910/SB548). After more than four tense subcommittee meetings where advocates and lobbyists worked on compromises, the House Ways and Means Committee unanimously approved HB 910 with amendments that addressed technical issues and concerns of local districts. The House of Delegates passed the bill 135-1 and sent it to the Senate.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee amended HB 910, again at the request of school districts, striking language that would have required schools to follow federal requirements to use reliable and valid screening tools and report the results. The amendments also removed language that required screening instruments to quickly assess specific, developmentally appropriate foundational reading skills. These skills are identified in reading research as highly predictive of future reading development, including reading difficulties such as dyslexia. The Senate version of HB 910 passed the full Senate 43-0 and differed significantly from the House version.
The journey came to a head on April 9, 2018 on the last day session or sine die. It was a hair-raising 15-hour day of back and forth. Joined by other members of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and representatives for the Maryland State Education Association, Delegate Luedtke and DD-MD persisted through various blocks and hold ups. Finally, House and Senate Conferees signed off on compromise language and the House of Delegates immediately voted YES at 11:38 p.m. Celebrations were quelled, however, when it became clear that the Senate had not taken the opportunity to approve the conference report to which conferees had agreed—it was a crucial step not taken despite the support of the Senate.
There is a distinct kind of disappointment when a proposal that could help all children, including those with dyslexia, is so close to being available and then is silently killed with no explanation. Fortunately, there is also a distinct and fiery kind of resilience and fortitude that is born from such experiences.
People who prefer to think like Barbra Streisand, “Myths are a waste of time…and prevent progression,” will be the people who finally dispel the myth that young children cannot be screened for reading difficulties and be provided early intervention. Preventing reading failure by employing best practices for reading screening is backed by voluminous research. The good news is that DDMD’s 2019 bill will be bolstered by the partnership between the National Center on Improving Literacy and St. Mary’s County Public Schools to create a “Beacon Site Screening Pilot” project as an exemplar of best practices for early reading screening. Decoding Dyslexia Maryland advocates look forward to a different result in 2019, and an energetic celebration as Maryland moves forward to support every student’s right to read.
Stacy Brocker is Decoding Dyslexia Maryland’s Howard County Chapter co-leader and is mom to five children. Stacy and her family settled in Maryland after spending years moving from state to state with the military. Her high-school-aged daughter Abi has dyslexia. If you would like more information on Decoding Dyslexia please visit www.decodingdyslexia.net.
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