Ohio has recently lost one of its greatest champions of the rights of children with disabilities. Brenda Louisin passed away July 8 at the age of 51. Brenda was a fierce advocate for children with a variety of disabling conditions, but her greatest impact came from the work she did with students who had reading disorders. With hours of study in this area, Brenda became her own expert in the science of reading and in the use of evidence-based interventions in reading. Effecting systemic change in education is a herculean task even for those in government with significant resources. But Brenda was able to do that without those resources. Together with a group of parents, and Kerry Agins, her colleague and friend, they altered the landscape for students in the Upper Arlington school district, in other parts of Columbus, and elsewhere by demanding scientifically based reading programs for students with dyslexia. As a result of this work, Upper Arlington became a model for other districts in how to identify and teach reading to students with dyslexia and other reading problems.
While the State of Ohio now has a law requiring school districts to screen students for dyslexia, it remains to be seen whether this legislation will translate to better outcomes for students. Brenda was not satisfied with reading outcomes for children in Ohio. None of us should be satisfied. Reading in Ohio has remained stagnant for at least 25 years. The Nation’s Report Card compares state proficiency testing to its own standards of proficiency. And what it says about Ohio’s reading scores is chilling. 60% of Ohio eighth graders are not reading proficiently at grade level. That number has not changed despite our State Board of Education lowering the cut score for proficiency to make it appear as though more students are proficient than actually are.
Brenda Louisin made a difference through a combination of hard work, and a passion for helping others. Today we have parents criticizing their respective school board members because of mask mandates or because they believe their children are being taught a lopsided view of history. Somehow none of these people ever seem to question why their school boards spend millions of dollars on reading programs that don’t work and on attorney’s fees to fight with parents who just want their children to have an opportunity to read. The ability to read fluently and with comprehension is the foundation for the education of every child.
So if parents really want to be involved with their school district, what they ought to do is Be Like Brenda. Ask your school board members if the district is still utilizing a reading program with the now debunked “three-cueing system,” or whether it is teaching “invented” spelling? Parents should educate themselves about how children learn to read, and then ask whether their school district is succeeding in its most basic function which is teaching children how to read. When students read with real proficiency, they can make their own decisions about the lessons of history.