A group of parents is reported to want a special public school set aside for their children with dyslexia, a common reading problem requiring specialized instructional intervention. As many as one in five children are estimated to have the condition and, as highlighted in another recent City Limits opinion column, the NYC Department of Education has long struggled to adequately serve this population.
We share these parents’ concern. But a single – or dozens – of specialized schools for students with a common disability will do little to solve the problem and will likely lead in time to an under-resourced shadow system established with good intentions but overwhelmed by unintended consequences of erroneous referrals and difficulty returning to the mainstream.
History shows that beneath the veneer of apparent structural and educational improvement lies a frayed foundation of shameful conduct toward children labelled “special.” As late as the 1970’s, “600 Schools” were dumping grounds for emotionally disturbed students until phased out under court order. The Department of Education daily violates the 40-year-old Jose P. consent decree that special education advocates hoped would affirm rights guaranteed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Moreover, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is currently coping with withering federal and state findings of widespread failure to meet accessibility and instructional standards for students with special needs. The City news website reported last May that “complaints filed against the city Department of Education by parents of special education students have skyrocketed since 2014 — sparking a “crisis” that leaves some kids without essential service for months on end, a state-commissioned report found.”
A school for students with dyslexia bodes more segregative failure. Things look rosy now, with big bucks promised by the widow of Steve Jobs and the Robin Hood Foundation under the DOE’s Imagine Schools initiative, to plan and implement the program in its early years. But down the road, the school or schools will have to get by on tax-levy budgets despite their desire for low class sizes, specialized teaching, and technology. And for how many kids when thousands, maybe tens of thousands, need these services?
The answer is not to isolate kids in a separate school to deliver a reading program. Evidence-based instruction does not need to have its own separate school. The literacy crisis is a mainstream crisis and will not solved by isolating and segregating kids by label into separately labelled schools. The reading crisis and its solution does not belong to special education.
Needed is a re-doubling, or whatever multiple is needed, to assure that phonics instruction with specialized remediation is available in all public Early Childhood and Childhood programs in the city. The Wall Street Journal reports that less than a third of New York’s fourth graders are deemed proficient in reading, yet the DOE doesn’t know how many of our almost 800 elementary schools employ “robust” phonics teaching. Research is clear that phonics-based teaching is crucial for all children but especially for those who struggle to make sense of letters on a page or screen.
Marginalizing children with dyslexia and creating a safety valve for the DOE to claim it has solved the problem will not dent the reading deficits that plague our schools. This “solution” will only stall real reform. As the catchphrase goes, “Reading is fundamental.” But as such it needs a fundamentally restructured approach to teaching all our children, not segregation-by-label that history shows will serve neither its intended beneficiaries nor others in need of help.
David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center. Mark M. Alter, a special education expert, is Professor of Educational Psychology in the Department of Teaching and Learning at New York University.