Poor children's dyslexia often untreated, report says

Schools urged to focus on earlier diagnosis

March 02, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Poor children in Baltimore and across the nation are less likely to be identified as dyslexic at an early age and get the help they need to overcome their reading difficulties than children in middle-class families, according to an Abell Foundation report released recently.

The report, written by former city school board member and education consultant Kalman R. Hettleman, calls for changes in federal laws that dictate how dyslexia is diagnosed. Hettleman's report also contends that the definition of dyslexia works against children from poor families.

"Low-income, relatively low-IQ children can achieve better than the education establishment thinks," Hettleman said.

School systems should begin trying to identify children at risk for difficulties in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, the report said. By age 9, too many children have fallen a year or more behind their peers and have begun to think of themselves as failures.

About 20 percent of children in Baltimore and other large urban districts are the "invisible dyslexics" - children who are unlikely to have academic success in their school careers because they are treated too late or not treated at all, the report said. With more effective diagnosis and treatment, the percentage would drop to 6 percent.

"The right to early diagnosis and treatment of reading difficulties must be recognized and pursued with the urgency and moral clarity of civil rights causes of the past," the report said.

City and state education officials generally agreed with the findings of the report and say they are trying to address the problems.

"The issues [Hettleman] raises are national issues and are very real," said Gayle Amos, head of special education in the city. Amos said the school system is hoping to implement programs to identify children earlier next school year.

Under the federal definition, a child is diagnosed as dyslexic if there is a significant gap between the child's IQ and achievement as measured on tests.

But Hettleman and other educators say that standard excludes many children who are measured to have a slightly below-average IQ. Often, children from poor homes score lower on IQ tests because they do not have as much exposure to language and literature at an early age, educators say. As a result, the test might fail to measure a child's true potential.

A presidential commission on special education is recommending a change in the definition, and educators said they support the change.

The Abell Foundation report also strongly recommends that Baltimore and other urban school districts give young children at risk extra help before those children wind up in special education classes.

Currently, children are not identified as needing that type of help until they start failing academically.

For instance, last year, only three children between ages 3 and 5 in Baltimore were classified as having a specific learning disability. And very few had been identified in first and second grades.

However, by third grade, the report said, the number of children identified soars.

"Even if the discrepancy gap is eliminated, and it should be ... still the diagnosis and treatment needs to be done on a noncategorical basis. You shouldn't have to qualify for special education in order to get help early on," Hettleman said.

G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institutes of Health, said researchers have documented positive neuro-physiological changes in the brains of young children who are given extra help early, regardless of their family background.

"What we are seeing is these epidemic levels of reading failure in disadvantaged schools, and it doesn't have to be that way," Lyon said.

Suburban school districts also fall short in efforts to diagnose problems early, the report said, but upper-income parents often have the resources to persuade public schools to give their children extra instruction, or those parents send their children to the growing number of private schools designed for children who are "bright and dyslexic."

The report said these children have trouble in general with phonological awareness - the ability to identify and manipulate the parts of language.

Carol Ann Baglin, an assistant state superintendent for the Division of Special Education and Early Intervention Services, said teachers and professionals who are expected to diagnose children at ages 5 and 6 who are showing signs of learning disabilities must receive further training.

Roger Saunders, a clinical psychologist and dyslexia pioneer in Baltimore for more than 40 years, said some of the blame for the failure to adequately diagnose children falls on universities who train teachers. Colleges are not doing a good enough job preparing education majors to identify learning disabilities, Saunders said.

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