Op-Ed article "What I Learned This Summer"
What I Learned This Summer
Virginia G. Fox
Kentucky Education Cabinet
I have been a member of many organizations and groups over the years and recently I joined another one. This is not a group that I sought out but I guess you could say I was recruited. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I had successful surgery and now I am free of cancer and I have an excellent prognosis. While cancer is a very private battle, I wanted to bring it out in the open and use my experience to help other people.
As I went through this surreal experience of meeting with doctors, reaching a diagnosis, developing a plan of action and then surgery and recovery, I thought about how these doctors and specialists change lives every day just like teachers. All of my doctors had to do their job at each stage and use their expertise for me to have a successful outcome. That’s true in education as well.
I want to tell you about a teacher who made a difference. James moved from Mississippi to Michigan when he was about 5 years old. The move was so traumatic for him that he developed a severe stuttering problem and he stopped speaking when he started school. He remained that way until a high school teacher realized he had a gift for writing poetry. The teacher thought having James read his poetry to the class would help him. The rhyme and rhythm of reading his own poetic words out loud to the class produced a miracle. He eventually stopped stuttering. Today, James Earl Jones is best known for his beautiful deep voice. He is a famous stage and film star - the voice of Darth Vader and instantly recognizable when you hear him declare “This is CNN”.
Teachers can provide the Rosetta Stone for those students who are struggling to decode their own hieroglyphics whether it is reading or speech or math or any subject. But teachers have to have the most current training and instruction to help their students just like I needed a properly trained and educated oncologist to treat my cancer.
At least 10 million children or one child in five will experience significant difficulties learning to read. With both reading difficulties and cancer an early diagnosis and intervention is critical to a positive outcome. Suffering with an undiagnosed reading difficulty can lead to years of pain and can be its own social or economic death sentence.
In our society we put a high priority on getting ill people well. We put billions of dollars and hours of research into finding cures and treating diseases and I’m glad we do. But we don’t seem to feel the same compulsion to fix learning difficulties. That concerns me greatly! There has to be a sense of urgency in identifying, diagnosing and correcting learning difficulties because the longer the child struggles with it the harder it is to fix.
The National Institutes of Health have found that 90 percent of children with reading difficulties will achieve grade level in reading if they receive help by the first grade. But 75 percent of children whose help is delayed to age nine or later will continue to struggle throughout their school careers. If help is given in fourth grade, rather than in late kindergarten, it takes four times as long to improve the same skills by the same amount. The problem is that intervention usually does not happen until the third grade when it is much harder to correct the problem. First Lady Glenna Fletcher’s Read to Achieve program is targeting these struggling readers with early intervention to ensure they have every opportunity to become successful readers before the third grade.
I know you can intervene at any age with a problem. I’m 67 and my doctors didn’t say, “Well, she’s too old to help.” When I found out I had cancer, I said “What can we do about it now to get rid of it?” I didn’t wait a few years and hope that it would get better. Everything else was put on hold and we aggressively attacked the problem. It’s just as important to catch a learning disability early and fix it.
You may think it’s a bit of a stretch to compare cancer to a reading difficulty. But when a student’s learning problems are not caught early, the result can be that he drops out of school as a teen and maybe drops out of society. That may be 75 years of a person’s life that is spent believing he can’t learn. That’s a tragedy that is every bit as terrible as cancer. That’s why teachers are so important. They can make the difference between a child falling through the cracks forever or diagnosing the problem and solving it.
That’s what I learned this summer.