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California students with dyslexia gain ground with new law

By Jane Meredith Adams | October 25, 2015 | 43 Comments
CREDIT: CHRISTINE MATHENY 
Max Matheny, a student with dyslexia, in front of the office of Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015.

Max Matheny, 13, wore his Sacramento duds – black suit paired with a lime shirt, topped with a newsboy cap – up to the Capitol five times this year, carrying a wrinkled copy of his speech in a book bag. “I’m really smart, with an IQ higher than average,” he told the state Senate Education Committee last summer. This was hard-won self-knowledge, the farthest thing from 8th-grade braggadocio.
“Up until this past January, I read at a 2nd-grade level,” he told the senators.
Max has dyslexia, a reading disability thought to originate in the neurological structure of the brain. The words “smart” and “special education” aren’t spoken together often by educators, but Max, perched on a swivel chair before a microphone, did just that with the legislators. He told them he was smart, he had not received the correct instruction for dyslexia in seven years of special education and he wanted the legislators to do something about it.
“I’m really smart,” said Max Matheny, 13, a student with dyslexia.
They did. This month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 1369, authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley. The new law requires schools to assess struggling readers specifically for dyslexia, the most prevalent learning disability in the U.S. and a disorder that affects as many as 80 percent of California students with learning disabilities in special education, according to Kathy Futterman, a supervisor in educational psychology and teacher education at California State University East Bay.
In addition, the law requires the California Department of Education, by the start of the 2017-18 school year, to post information on its website to help teachers find a proven, evidence-based approach for teaching reading to students with dyslexia. Such approaches, which include Orton-Gillingham and Wilson Language Training, involve direct instruction in breaking the “code” of letters and sounds. The law does not include two requirements initially sought by the grassroots organization that sponsored the legislation, Decoding Dyslexia California: that districts be required to use the tools posted on the California Department of Education website and that students in K-3 be screened for dyslexia.
Proponents of the law describe a dire situation in school for students with dyslexia, a condition that is so commonly conflated with low intelligence by teachers and parents that advocates have a ready list of impressive individuals who are dyslexic, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Supreme Court litigator David Boies and Nobel Prize winner Carol Greider.
Among the most baffling experiences for students with dyslexia, according to Decoding Dyslexia California, is that many school staff tell parents there is no such thing as dyslexia or that dyslexia is not a disability. Some districts refuse to say the word at all.
“I was told, ‘We do not use the word dyslexia,’” said Holly Snyder, a member of Decoding Dyslexia California and a Sacramento-area parent whose 9-year-old son Ty has dyslexia.
“I think most school psychologists prefer the term ‘specific learning disability,’” said Barbara D’Incau, a past president of the California Association of School Psychologists. “Although we have been reluctant to use the word dyslexia, it’s clearly in common usage and you’re going to see teachers and school psychologists use it much more.”
The avoidance of the word has become such an issue that the federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation released a “Dear Colleague” guidance letter on Oct. 23 encouraging state offices of education and local school districts to ensure that their policies don’t prohibit the use of “dyslexia.”