As February approaches, I am reminded of the movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray plays a weatherman who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. Groundhog Day has become shorthand in popular culture as a reference to an unpleasant or difficult situation that continually repeats. Essentially it has come to mean same stuff, different day. Over the past month, I have had a number of cases where this phrase came to mind. This has been especially true in disputes with school districts regarding reading interventions for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
While there are many issues for students with disabilities that are complex and schools may struggle to find the right interventions within the context of the law and resources, I am always stunned that schools seem unable, after all these years, to teach students to read. Schools will sometimes go to great lengths in their effort to refuse students the necessary programs that are research based and have been recognized for many years as effective.
While it is true generally that schools are charged with choosing the methodology, the law provides that these choices must be made with the student at the center of the discussion. Recently, I have been told in several IEP meetings from the director or case manager, when questioning the appropriateness of a particular reading intervention for a student, "this is what we have," meaning that the school district has purchased a curriculum and isn't about to invest in anything more at this point. I am generally not a cynical person, even after many years of doing the work of representing parents and children in special education disputes, however, I do believe that schools are frequently doing a poor job of intervening and helping struggling readers.
The response from school districts changes depending on the age of the student. With no sound reason, middle schools and high schools will frequently announce at an IEP meeting that reading interventions such as Orton-Gillingham and Wilson are for "younger" students and that it isn't likely to help a student at this age. The schools insist that the IEP be focused on developing compensatory strategies rather than remediation.
If reading interventions are offered to this age range, it is generally a hodge-podge of materials developed by teachers who believe they know what works. These programs are designed for a classroom of students who often don't have the same issues related to reading but are grouped together by achievement or grade level. Many of these interventions are computer based and data on their efficacy is very limited.
Parents need to ask the following questions in an IEP when reading is being discussed:
What is the intervention the district is intending to utilize to remediate the reading deficit?
Why is this appropriate for my child?
What is the research base for this program as it relates to my child's needs?
What is the training of the staff? [reading teachers aren't required to be certified by a particular program]
What is the expected progress likely to be based on my child's profile?
How often will data be taken on progress?
How will we know the intervention is working?
How many minutes per week will my child receive instruction?
How will it be delivered? (in a group, one to one?)
National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE)
National Reading Panel