Given the past history of BUSD’s failure to serve its students with dyslexia, I was troubled by the recent news that Dr. Brent Stephens is the sole finalist for the job of BUSD superintendent.

BUSD is embroiled in a class-action lawsuit regarding its failure to address the needs of its students with dyslexia. According to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), dyslexia is the most common learning disability. One in five students show signs of dyslexia, which negatively impacts a student’s ability to read, write and spell. Without early identification and timely evidence-based intervention, first graders who struggle to learn to read rarely catch up.

Stephens led San Francisco Unified School District’s dyslexia pilot project. Berkeley Public Schools stated in its press release about Stephens that “since the advent of the 2016 California Dyslexia Guidelines, [Stephens] has played a pivotal role in expanding access to research-based approaches to reading instruction.” Stephens also told Berkeleyside that he was responsible for new intervention services for San Francisco students with dyslexia, and had improved screening to better identify kids in need of services.

But there are many parents and organizations with concerns about how San Francisco schools have addressed dyslexia and do not want to see Berkeley replicate those approaches.

Decoding Dyslexia CA, a grassroots organization of parents and educators, and recognized dyslexia experts, Dr. Fumiko Hoeft and Dr. Nancy Cushen White, have, in particular, raised concerns. SFUSD’s dyslexia implementation does not meet the definition of Structured Literacy instruction as defined by the International Dyslexia Association and outlined in the California Dyslexia Guidelines. Structured Literacy is the umbrella term used by IDA to unify and encompass evidence-based programs and approaches that are aligned to well-established practices for teaching reading.

In fairness to Stephens, I do not know his qualifications as a candidate for the BUSD position. My sole purpose here is to address the decisions he made in directing SFUSD’s dyslexia implementation.

I am part of the leadership team of Decoding Dyslexia CA. DDCA is a grassroots movement comprised of parents, educators and other professionals dedicated to raising awareness and improving access to resources for students with dyslexia in California public schools.  DDCA was the bill sponsor of AB 1369 which resulted in California’s most recent dyslexia legislation. In addition, select members of DDCA were part of a comprehensive workgroup assembled by the CA Department of Education to write the content for the California Dyslexia Guidelines that were issued in August 2017. DDCA has also shared its concerns with BUSD leadership and its Board of Directors in a letter dated April 23, 2019.

Learning to read is a complex process, involving learning how speech sounds match to letters to form syllables and words. Different from learning to speak, which is a natural process, learning to read requires explicit teaching of the sound-symbol relationships and how written language works. It is true that some people may not need direct teaching of the sound-symbol relationships, but for many children, especially students with dyslexia, explicit and systematic code-based instruction is critical. This approach is known as Structured Literacy and it is discussed in detail in the California Dyslexia Guidelines.

By contrast, both SFUSD and BUSD’s apparent primary strategy to ensure students are proficient readers is an approach known as “balanced literacy.” The problem with balanced literacy is that it treats learning to read as a largely natural process. The main tool in balanced literacy is to give children “leveled” books to read and kids are expected to learn by doing, with a little bit of guidance from the teacher. Instruction commonly focuses on literacy-related behaviors, but not on sounding out (decoding) words while reading. For example, in balanced literacy, kids might be instructed to look at the pictures to help identify words. For the struggling reader, being told to use pictures to figure out words is not helpful.They are being encouraged to use a strategy that they are likely already doing, because they don’t know how and aren’t being taught how to read the words. “Balanced literacy” does incorporate some instruction in phonemic awareness (the ability to notice and work with the sounds in spoken language) and phonics, but the instruction is minimal and not systematic.

SFUSD has invested primarily in programs and teacher training that are based on a balanced literacy and that, based on current reading research, will not improve reading outcomes for students with dyslexia. Several sources for the science behind Structured Literacy instruction that are used to support this opinion piece can be found here.

SFUSD has attempted to implement some interventions that do have scientific-research behind them, however, many of these interventions are not available until a student has completely failed in reading and by then the gap is often too large for a student to ever catch up.

Ironically, several of the reading programs that SFUSD is implementing are the same programs that BUSD has used for years and what has landed it in a class-action lawsuit in the first place.

We owe it to our students to bridge the gap between what decades of reading research informs us is “best practice” and the reading instruction we are providing in our classrooms. Change starts at the top. If top District officials keep repeating what we know, based on reading research, does not work for our students with dyslexia, how will we ever improve reading outcomes? We know better, now we must do better.

Lori DePole is a volunteer strategic partner liaison for Decoding Dyslexia California and an East Bay resident.
Lori DePole is a volunteer strategic partner liaison for Decoding Dyslexia California and an East Bay resident.