By Gordon Sherman, Ph.D.
Earlier this month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law two bills designed to identify children with dyslexia and improve teacher training. International Dyslexia Association Past-President and current board member, Gordon F. Sherman, Ph.D., was a key member of the Governor’s Reading Disabilities Task Force.
A task force was charged with studying and evaluating practices for diagnosing, treating, and educating children with reading disabilities and examining how current statutes and regulations affect these students in order to develop recommendations to present to the Governor and Legislature. Beth Ravelli and her daughter, Samantha, who was diagnosed with dyslexia, were instrumental in getting the task force formed.
One of the new laws requires the International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia to be specifically written into special education code as one of the disabilities that need to be recognized by the New Jersey school system.
“From the start, dyslexia was one of the issues that the task force wanted to tackle. But when it became clear that dyslexia is the most common type of reading disability, it made sense to concentrate on that,” said Sherman, Executive Director of the internationally known Newgrange School in Hamilton, New Jersey and the new Laurel School in Princeton, New Jersey. The Newgrange School focuses on children with a wide range of learning challenges. The Laurel School’s focus is strictly on dyslexia.
“One of the key points of the task force was to determine a definition of dyslexia, so I presented the definition that the IDA came up with several years ago. Why reinvent the wheel when there is a definition out there that has been widely accepted by researchers and educators? This reinforces the fact that the IDA has the most comprehensive and clear definition of dyslexia,” said Sherman.
A second law requires New Jersey school districts to provide a minimum of two hours of training in dyslexia and other reading disorders to general education teachers in pre-K through grade 3 and special education and reading teachers in all grades.
“It’s a little disappointing to see that only two hours of teacher training was included in the law,” said Sherman. “That’s a start, but the task force recommended 20 hours of training. It’s unclear why that number was reduced.”
A pending law would require screening of all first graders for dyslexia and other reading disorders. According to Sherman, the bill has been approved by the State Senate and is awaiting signature from the Governor.
Additionally, the task force recommended an instructional certification for teachers who teach reading to students with reading disabilities. This bill was signed by the president of the Senate and copies have been sent to the State Board of Education.
“State laws can definitely help open doors for introducing a national dyslexia law,” said Sherman, who cautions that even though the state may have new laws in place, that is only the first step.
“Sometimes things get bogged down. There might be a law, but sometimes it is not paid attention to and it does not have the effect that was expected,” he said. “But New Jersey has such a great set of schools and it is an excellent state for education — from the universities to the public schools to the independent schools. Governor Christie has always been a strong supporter of education, and we have a good chance that these laws will be implemented.”
In addition to IDA, other groups represented on the Governor’s Reading Disabilities Task Force include the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Speech Language-Hearing Association, and the New Jersey Education Association. Since then, Decoding Dyslexia N.J. also has played a key role.
“We need parents, educators and scientists working together,” said Sherman. “That is how we can continue to make progress.”
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