How did you find out about the conference in Dubai?
I was fortunate because the CEO of the Al Jalila Foundation, Dr. Abdulkareem Sultan al Olama, sought me out.
The Al Jalila foundation sponsored the first ever Middle East North Africa Special Education Network conference and I was ask to be one of the experts. I was also invited to spend a full day in a private school, learning about how services and supports were provided to students with learning and attention issues in this setting.
When you spoke with educators, speech language therapists, psychologists, and others, what was the most striking similarity to the conversations you have with American educators?
The most strikingly similar thing was a thirst for information about what to do to accelerate student learning. Another thing I found was a frustration at how long it often takes for children to undergo evaluation and have plans of instruction and support mapped out.
What was the most striking difference?
One major difference is that there are two very different systems of schooling: public and private. And there is often little or no connection between these systems in terms of oversight and communication.
Each of the private schools (of which there are literally dozens in each of the seven Emirates) has its own curriculum. Some of the curricula are based on the United Kingdom, others on Swiss or Canadian school systems, with different requirements (e.g., foreign language learning) and different instructional methodologies.
While there is a commitment to inclusion for children with special needs, the ways that these children participate in the school day and instruction vary dramatically. There is no common standard for oversight or collecting data.
The provision of supportive services—like speech/language, OT, tutoring, targeted reading instruction for kids with dyslexia—is often only available if parents can find providers and pay for their services.
While there are some public school districts in the U.S. that permit students to leave for “religious instruction,” religious study is incorporated into the school day for every child in every school, public and private. Because this instruction is conducted in Arabic (and involves memorization of Koran and study of the tenets of Islam) it poses special challenges for students with learning and attention issues who struggle with one language and often have weaknesses in the area of working memory and information retrieval.
Do you think American educators can learn from the way that Dubai approaches learning and attention issues, or vice versa?
We can learn from them how an unwavering commitment to every child being able to read can yield powerful results. In 1975, the rate of adult literacy in the UAE was 54 percent among men and 31 percent among women. Today, literacy rates for both genders are close to 95 percent.
I think what they can learn from us is how to build a seamless K-12 system of instruction and support that allows for personalized instruction and keeps expectations and outcomes high for all students, especially those with learning and attention issues.
I spoke with Sharon Willis, who serves as the advisor for the Policy and Programs Department, Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Government of Dubai. She shared a vision for a “Dubai 2021 Plan” that melds services into a single united system: health and rehabilitation, education, employment, clinical services, social protection and more, with a new framework for funding, governance, regulations and oversight, training and education and research and innovation. Sounds great, but the challenge is enormous.
What do you think the founding of this conference means for the visibility of learning and attention issues?
This conference was conceived and organized by a handful of educators, clinicians and administrators who realized the need to professional development in the region, and who knew that there was a lot they could learn, even over the course of a 2-day event, from each other and from external experts. A handful of attendees already knew of (and loved!) Understood.org
, and now each of the 350 attendees has an appreciation of the depth and breadth of information on the site. I am convinced that this conference will grow in size and that visibility for learning and attention issues will remain front and center on their agenda.