NYC Mayor Eric Adams is proving to be an unreliable source on just about anything he mentions. Adams seems more interested in crying false “crisis” for political gain than doing the hard work of political leadership.
With context and data, Adams’s claim is more than “a very strange thing”; it is simply false, political fearmongering:
Next, reading and dyslexia:
Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday the details of a plan to turn around a literacy crisis in New York City and, in particular, to serve thousands of children in public schools who may have dyslexia, an issue deeply personal to the mayor, who has said his own undiagnosed dyslexia hurt his academic career.Mayor Adams Unveils Program to Address Dyslexia in N.Y.C. Schools
Unfortunately, neither Adams nor the NYT will receive the sort of public correcting for the nonsense in this article, but Lola Fadulu’s coverage of Adams’s dyslexia program is just as much political fearmongering as Adams’s misrepresentation of crime.
In fact, media, parents, and political leaders have been following a similar and misleading playbook for several years now—one that Fadulu and Adams demonstrate so perfectly it could read as parody:
Currently, there is a well-organized and active contingent of concerned parents and educators (and others) who argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties, affecting approximately 20% of the population, and that there is a widely accepted treatment for such difficulties: an instructional approach relying almost exclusively on intensive phonics instruction. Proponents argue that it is based on “settled science,” which they refer to as “the science of reading” (SOR). The approach is based on a narrow view of science and a restricted range of research focused on word learning and, more recently, neurobiology, but pays little attention to aspects of literacy like comprehension and writing or dimensions of classroom learning and teacher preparation.An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction With Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon
That misleading playbook includes the following:
- “School officials plan to screen nearly all students for dyslexia.” Universal screening for dyslexia is a crisis response to a false crisis. Johnston and Scanlon explain: “Good first instruction and early intervention for children with a slow start in the word reading aspect of literacy reduces the likelihood they will encounter serious difficulty. Thus, early screening with assessments that can inform instruction is important. Screening for dyslexia, particularly with instructionally irrelevant assessments, offers no additional advantage [emphasis added].”
- “School leaders are requiring school principals to pivot to a phonics-based literacy curriculum, which literacy experts say is the most effective way to teach reading to most children.” Systematic phonics for all students, and specifically for students identified with dyslexia, is an old and false solution for students struggling with reading, per Johnston and Scanlon: “Evidence does not justify the use of a heavy and near-exclusive focus on phonics instruction, either in regular classrooms or for children experiencing difficulty learning to read (including those classified as dyslexic [emphasis in original].”
- “New York is facing a literacy crisis: Fewer than half of all third to eighth graders and just 36 percent of Black and Latino students were proficient on the state reading exams administered in 2019, the most recent year for which there is data.” The NYT helped fuel the newest round of “reading crisis” in the U.S. with an over-reaction to 2019 NAEP reading scores, but the cold hard truth is that marginalized students have never been equitably served in NYC schools or anywhere in the U.S. as any point in history. (See how the reading crisis around NAEP is misrepresented HERE.)
- “It is difficult to say how many children have dyslexia in the city because the department hasn’t been able to systematically identify them, said Carolyne Quintana, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. But she noted that national figures estimate that one in five children have dyslexia.” Dyslexia advocacy and political responses to dyslexia are misrepresenting dyslexia by overstating how common dyslexia is (some credible experts suggest dyslexia isn’t even a credible label for reading, in fact), and are ignoring that no common definition for dyslexia exists. “Definitions of dyslexia vary widely, and none offer a clear foundation—biological, cognitive, behavioral, or academic—for determining whether an individual experiencing difficulty with developing word reading skill should be classified as dyslexic,” Johnston and Scanlon conclude.
- “Naomi Peña said she has four children with dyslexia, and is one of several parents who helped launch the Literacy Academy Collective, an advocacy group.” Parental advocacy groups addressing dyslexia have had direct impact on reading and dyslexia policy across the U.S.; however, that impact has overwhelmingly prompted misguided legislation and policy. Writing about similar political responses to dyslexia in Tennessee, Allington raises a key concern: “What I find most disturbing about the recent Tennessee dyslexia law is the absence of any input from the Literacy Association of Tennessee (LAT) as well as the absence of members of the Dyslexia Advisory Council drawn from the membership of LAT.”
- “The additional support includes more intensive instruction steeped in the Orton-Gillingham approach, which teaches reading with more hands-on methods that break down words into smaller, more digestible parts.” While the larger push for systematic phonics instruction for all students is misguided, advocates for dyslexia often focus on Orton-Gillingham specifically. Yet, as the International Literacy Association (ILA) shows: “As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty (Mathes et al., 2005). For instance, research does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003).”
- “Under the new plan, school officials will require principals, who can choose their curriculums, shift toward a reading program that is based in reading science. Many currently use one developed by Lucy Calkins, an academic at Teachers College, Columbia University, that has repeatedly come under fire.” The dyslexia movement is part of a larger “science of reading” movement that overemphasizes the role of systematic phonics but also attacks popular reading programs across the U.S. See How to Navigate Social Media Debates about the “Science of Reading” [UPDATED] for a thorough examination of the flaws with misusing the term “science.” See also A Response to EdReports’ Assessment of Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Writing and Phonics.
Media and political leaders as well as parent advocates are trapped in a false belief about reading and dyslexia—paralleling the public misunderstanding about crime rates.
Do students struggling to read, especially marginalized students, deserve to be better served in our schools? Absolutely, whether they are diagnosed with dyslexia or not.
But NYC’s plan is political fearmongering, not good policy or practice.
Political leaders would be well served to heed Johnston and Scanlon’s guidelines, including these:
Although there are likely heritable dimensions to reading and language difficulties, there is no way to translate them into implications for instructional practice….
Legislation (and district policies) aligned with the SOR perspectives on dyslexia will necessarily require tradeoffs in the allocation of resources for teacher development and among children having literacy learning difficulties. These tradeoffs have the potential to privilege students experiencing some types of literacy learning difficulties while limiting instructional resources for and attention available to students whose literacy difficulties are not due (exclusively) to word reading difficulties.An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction With Policy Implications, Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon
Thomas, P.L. (2020). How to end the Reading War and serve the literacy needs of all students: A primer for parents, policy makers, and people who care. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.