The Discrepancy Model
The federal government provides significant funding for special education and consequently influences most of the rules governing it. One of the most crucial rules covers when your child will be determined to have a serious reading problem. By “serious” I mean serious enough to require the school to devote additional resources to your child’s reading problem (as well as his math problem if he has one.) Here you run into what is called the Discrepancy Model of special education.
First, understand that if your child qualifies for special education services then the school must develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for your child and they must consult you when they develop the IEP. The IEP specifies the steps the school will take to achieve the goals stated in the IEP. But what determines whether or not your child is entitled to an IEP? That’s where the Discrepancy Model comes into play.
How it Works
The Discrepancy Model is used to determine whether your child qualifies for special education services, that is, whether an IEP is required. And what is the Discrepancy Model? Essentially, it’s a measure of how far your child has fallen behind his peers, with the added twist that if your child is not so bright, then logically he should be falling behind his peers. So, first they take your child’s IQ, or some measure of his innate intelligence and determine where his reading skills should be, given his IQ.
Then, depending upon the particular school district’s policy, (yes, more policies to figure out) your child must fall behind by a year, or a year and a half, or even two years, to qualify for special education help, that is, to qualify for an IEP. Each school sets different criteria depending upon how their resources match up with the children who might qualify. Another way to state this is that the discrepancy (remember, this is the Discrepancy Model) between your child’s IQ-adjusted age and where he is performing academically must be a lag of one to two years. In other words, before you can get special education services from your school, your child must be a year or two behind where he should be before you even get started.
Other Resources Available
Now it's true that most schools also devote significant resources to help struggling readers who do not yet qualify for an IEP. Those efforts are funded outside the federal special education law, often under a law referred to simply as Title I (Title one.) Your child, for instance, might already be working with a reading specialist whose position is funded by Title I, and/or a math specialist as well.
In addition, many schools implement volunteer programs where adults or older students work with children who are struggling with reading and math. These are well-meaning efforts and undoubtedly help many children, but they are rarely sufficient for the dyslexic child.
If you are a parent watching your child struggling day after day, the requirement that you must wait years for special education services is obviously frustrating. You’re saying, “Everyone involved can see my child is struggling, so where’s the extra help he needs?” They’re responding, “Let’s just wait and observe for a while; a lot of kids just take some time to get started and maybe yours is one of them.” Well, you know what? He probably isn’t one of them if you are already aware that dyslexia runs in your family.
Effectiveness is Questionable
What can you do? Under the Discrepancy Model, you don’t have much choice other than waiting until enough time has passed. There are two problems with waiting for the school to issue an IEP, however. First, under the Discrepancy Model, your dyslexic child must first fail before he can be offered services that might help him succeed. And second, schools really don't offer much in the way of help in overcoming dyslexia anyway. The evidence indicates that very few children ever exit from special education once they enter with an IEP.
Pay particular attention to that last point. Children rarely get out of special education once they’re in the program. In fact, they usually fall even farther behind their peers. Special education teachers and aides are generally wonderful, caring people, and that's important because a major part of their jobs is to protect the self esteem of their young students while they are progressing through school.
Until schools realize that the majority of students who struggle with reading need to see a developmental optometrist, and probably get vision therapy, those students will continue to struggle. Furthermore, since the work in the upper grades requires increasing amounts of reading, those same students will often begin lagging in the sciences and social studies as well.
Time to Take Charge
So, if you understand the problem, you should now realize that you have to take charge of matters by getting your child the help he obviously needs before he gets into special education under the Discrepancy Model, because too much valuable time will be wasted by waiting.
For starters, you should ensure that you are getting full use of the Title I resources available and that your child’s teachers are fully aware of your concern that your child might be dyslexic. If you know your child is having difficulty with reading, don't let him get shunted aside by the system.
Having done that, it's then time to go outside the school system and see that your child's vision and nutritional needs are being met. See The Diet Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle and The Vision Piece of the Dyslexia Puzzle if you haven't already read them, as those sections of this site contain the information in here that is most likely to help you help your child.
The next page, Response to Intervention, or RTI, will bring you up to speed on an important recent change in the federal special education law; a change that could be quite helpful as you pursue resources to address your child’s dyslexia.