In Wisconsin Even Dyslexia Is Political

Mark Seidenberg

Wisconsin legislators are considering an important issue: how to help dyslexic children who struggle to read. You might think that helping poor readers is something everyone could get behind, but no.

Dyslexia was identified in the 1920s and has been studied all over the world. It affects about 15% of all children, runs in families, varies in severity, and often co-occurs with conditions such as ADHD and math disability. For many dyslexics, early, appropriate intervention is highly effective. For others, dyslexia is a life-long struggle that limits education, employment, and quality of life.

Wisconsin is one of only 7 states that don’t already have dyslexia legislation. In 2018 a legislative study committee headed by Rep. Bob Kulp met to consider the options. They heard testimony from dyslexia advocacy groups, parents of dyslexics, clinicians who work with dyslexics, teachers, and a reading scientist—me.

The committee proposed two bills. One would create a dyslexia specialist position in the DPI. That was sent back to the education committee for “further study.” The other bill authorizes the creation of a dyslexia guidebook. It passed in the Assembly and awaits a Senate vote. A guidebook might be helpful for some, and it would provide validation for dyslexics and their families who have to battle for recognition and help. But, the guidebook will be for information purposes only; it won’t have enforceable policies or practices.

Why such a feeble response to such an important concern? According to Rep. Kulp, it’s because there was so much debate about dyslexia and the causes of poor reading. Both bills were opposed by the Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA), a teacher organization. There are over 60,000 teachers in K-12 schools and over 100,000 employees including staff and administrators. Opposing them is politically risky, especially for Democrats for whom they are part of the traditional base.

Teachers are experts about many things, but not dyslexia. They don’t get a chance to learn about it, because in Wisconsin and most of the US, courses on the cognitive and neurobiological bases of dyslexia are missing from teacher training programs. Instead, they are told they can ignore dyslexia because it’s not a real condition. Prof. Richard Allington, an influential reading education guru, says that dyslexia and ADHD were invented by educators as excuses for poor teaching.

If there were such a thing as educational malpractice, Prof. Allington would qualify for his canard about the origins of dyslexia. He then blames teachers for failing to succeed with children who have a condition they were encouraged to ignore. It’s also unfair to teachers, dyslexics, and other children in the classroom to expect teachers to provide time-consuming individualized help amid their many other responsibilities.

The WSRA’s opposition to dyslexia legislation reflects this lack of knowledge. They complained that dyslexia doesn’t have a clear definition, but over thirty states have based legislation on the one provided by the International Dyslexia Association. Echoing Allington, they stated that dyslexia “may not exist”–but if it does, it is a medical problem not an educational one. Dyslexia has a neurobiological basis but that doesn’t make it a “medical” problem: there’s no vaccine to protect against it or medication to treat it.

WSRA is also against “privileging” dyslexia over reading difficulties that have other causes, such as poverty. This creates a bogus competition between children who struggle in school for different reasons. If a child isn’t reading because they are homeless and not attending school regularly, that condition demands a solution. It has no bearing on addressing the needs of another child who is dyslexic. Worse, the lack of a coherent plan for addressing dyslexia discriminates against lower income families. Dyslexia occurs at all income levels. Parents who can afford it can send their children to tutors, reading specialists and commercial learning centers for help; poorer families cannot. DPI has outsourced the management of dyslexia, illustrating how educational policies can magnify the impact of income inequality.

Rep. Kulp and his committee heard two opposing viewpoints about dyslexia, couldn’t decide which was correct, and came up with a compromise that does little for struggling readers. The legislatures of forty-three other states have managed to do more.

Could we do better next time? It would help if people—especially Democrats—would recognize that what is “progressive” is creating conditions that allow teachers and students to succeed. That means supporting more rigorous teacher education programs, filling gaps in teachers’ knowledge, and providing timely, effective intervention for dyslexics. It would also help if people—especially Republicans—realized that capable individuals will not enter the field if teachers are demonized as “part-time” workers whose health benefits and pensions are unearned and whose working conditions are often chaotic.

Dyslexia isn’t a life sentence; how it affects a child depends on other factors, especially education. We can do better.

Related: Wisconsin Reading Coalition:

“Too often, according to Mark Seidenberg’s important, alarming new book, “Language at the Speed of Sight,” Johnny can’t read because schools of education didn’t give Johnny’s teachers the proper tools to show him how”

A Capitol Conversation.

Foundations of Reading.

“The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”.

Madison’s long term, disastrous reading results.