Nine years ago, I met with my then first-grade daughter's public school teacher regarding her slight but perceptible and growing academic struggles. A no-nonsense veteran, the teacher told me then, "I think she may have a language issue."
My kid was lucky. Her teacher noticed that something was amiss, and I could cover the many thousands of dollars in various assessments that it took to confirm that teacher’s observations. My daughter was exhibiting signs of a language-based learning disorder: Dyslexia.
It doesn’t always go this way for kids with learning issues. Public school teachers, especially those in underfunded schools, may not have the bandwidth to watch for or notice subtle signs of something amiss. While the trend is to integrate general and special education, most certified teachers, for all their skills and devotion, have little training managing the comprehensive educational challenges confronting roughly 20% of our school children. Schools may avoid labeling certain learning conditions accurately because they lack the resources, expertise, and, frankly, focus to help a student overcome the issue.
In many cases no one in a child’s public school is acknowledging, 'They're dyslexic, and they need intervention immediately.'
As a result, these problems often go unaddressed for far longer than they should and cause far more damage than would occur with early intervention. Once a diagnosis is made, families who can afford it may engage tutors they find through word of mouth who aren’t necessarily qualified. Kids whose families can’t go afford those tutors are at the mercy of the school’s bloated timeline, especially if their parents aren’t well versed in the additional support public schools are required to provide. Minority parents, undocumented parents, and those with less formal education may not feel they are in a position to demand it. Either way, in many cases no one in a child’s public school is acknowledging, "They're dyslexic, and they need intervention immediately."
Things have only gotten worse for these kids in the pandemic. As many reports have detailed, COVID-19 has all but decimated the carefully constructed learning plans used to support children who learn differently. They and their parents need a solution, and they need it now. As in other areas of society, entrepreneurs and the private sector may provide critical pathways and technology to fill the void. That’s why we founded Braintrust, a company that connects parents with certified teachers. The goal is to find the best teacher/student match no matter where a family is located or how few resources are available to them locally.
The first step to making supplemental learning available to kids who require it is transcending tutor pools limited to specific schools, districts, or informal word-of-mouth clusters. Instead we need to enable parents to identify tutors far more broadly who have the right credentials and expertise. While for-profit tutoring attracts some wonderful professionals, the system is far too haphazard, and sometimes frauds prey on anxious parents willing to put enormous resources toward improving classroom performance. Parents may retain agencies with no demonstrated success. The agencies often pay the educators they employ poorly, so many of the best educators don’t participate.
If we are being honest about our circumstances, there is not just room but an urgent need in our system for connecting kids who need to learn with teachers qualified to help them.
The second is to create a platform that allows various professionals involved in a student’s education, including past and/or present teachers, neuropsychologists, administrators, and of course parents, to communicate about who is doing what and how it all fits together. If we are servicing the whole child, all parties must employ the same playbook. We then also need to standardize accountability. Saying the student is performing “well” is vague. Define that. We live in a data-driven society, so enlist tutors comfortable reporting data. Parents need to demand session reports that show them how close their child is to meeting standardized objectives. Only then can a dedicated tutor best identify the weaknesses and close those knowledge gaps with evidence-based techniques.
Especially in the ongoing cataclysm of the pandemic, our current public educational offerings for this population of students aren’t working. That doesn’t mean we should give up on improving them, but while we work to do that, individual students will fall through the cracks. They deserve access to additional support now. If we are being honest about our circumstances, there is not just room but an urgent need in our system for connecting kids who need to learn with teachers qualified to help them using a platform that tracks their progress. It can be done, and it might bring more accountability to the whole system.
Jen Mendelsohn is co-founder of Braintrust, an online marketplace connecting parents with certified teachers.