Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rules & Reason

Rules and Reason

Rules are a good thing.   They give structure to life and keep us all in our proper lanes.   Rules let us know what to expect and give guidance on how to behave.  Rules are fine and make life more predictable, except when they make no sense at all and we insist on keeping them and holding people accountable for them.
Our school is a school for children with learning challenges.   We serve 16 of the 24 school jurisdictions in the State of Maryland.   We also serve the District of Columbia schools which include DC public schools and numerous charter schools that are within the political confines of the District of Columbia.
Our school does a graduate survey ever year.   We check to see how many graduates are working, in post-secondary education or both.  We have been doing this for over 20 years.   We go back to our very first graduating class.  Every single year, well over 90% of our graduates are working, in post-secondary education or both.   These results are quoted not only to show off but to show that we know what we are doing in preparing our students for life after our school.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) - even though there is no state,  has decided to limit referrals because we refuse to offer a course in the history of the District of Columbia and two-years of a foreign language.  We have never done this because it is the view of the school that the time of a student with disabilities would be better spent on improving English language skills, learning to write a coherent letter or email, deciphering credit applications, understanding the latest and greatest news and other important life skills that we each need to survive.  Our graduate survey supports the notion that our kids are successful post-high school.   We have a solid minority of our grads who have completed 4-year college degrees. Even the rep who came to visit us acknowledged that her two years of high school foreign language had been of no use to her whatsoever.
In past years, the District of Columbia representative has allowed its students to earn a Maryland private school diploma that is accredited by the Maryland State Board of Education and does not require DC history or the foreign language.  
Now there is a new “sheriff “ in town.   He is not willing to take the path less travelled regardless of the benefit to DC students.   He insists, in spite of documentary evidence to the contrary, that DC reps never allowed this work-around in the past.   
Rules are rules, he says; to which I respond, reason is reason and there is no cure for stupid.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Unfair & Uneven

Unfair and Uneven

Local school districts are at the beginning stages of preparing their FY 20 budgets.   So are the non-public Maryland State Board of Education accredited special education centers. The two processes are both unfair and uneven when it comes to the non-public special education sector.  There are similarities and differences between these two processes.
The Maryland accredited non-public special education schools are neither private nor public.  They are private in that they can hire and terminate staff without regard to union rules and regulations.  They are public in that each of those staff members must meet the same certification qualifications as public school personnel, even though they are paid dramatically less.  These schools are also required to follow specific MSDE regulations.
But the public schools have privilege that the non-public schools do not have.   The local school districts can put as much money into the education of their students as the county councils and county executives will allow.  It is not unusual for public school systems to increase an annual budget by 3-5%.   Whereas, the non-public schools are given an annual budget inflator cap each year. For FY 20 that cap is 1.9%, well below increases in public school budgets.   As a result, even though non-public staff need to meet identical certification standards, they are paid as much as 15-20 thousand dollars less after about five years of service.  Add that discrepancy to the fact that children are only sent to non-public schools when the public schools acknowledge they cannot provide an appropriate education to meet the learning challenges of the children they refer.
So staff in non-public schools meet the needs of the most challenging learners at a dramatically reduced salary.  What’s fair about that?
The inflator rate offered to non-public schools is supposed to equal the Cost-of-Living Index for Urban Areas (COL-U).   However the increase in funding offered to local public school districts by the state for the upcoming school year is well above this number.  Definitely an uneven playing field.
There are lots of other inequities.   Public schools may high substitute teachers with only a high school education.  Non-public schools are required to only use people with a college degree.   MSDE monitors non-public schools very closely. Monitoring teams are sent in every 3-5 years and for several days they examine every aspect of the school’s operation.   The sheer size of public school systems prevents that kind of drilled down monitoring.  In many instances public schools monitor themselves.
No one really cares except the people who work in a non-public school and the students in non-public schools and their families; they are getting a first-rate education even if the staff are paying for it with reduced salaries. The playing field is unequal and uneven but we keep playing because we do really care about the kids.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Maryland Among the Biggest Losers

Maryland Among the Biggest Losers

Quality Counts is a system that grades all 50 states on the Chance-for-Success Index.   It is supposed to give a snapshot of a person’s prospects for successful outcomes over a lifetime from early childhood to adulthood and the working world.
States are scored on 13 separate indicators.  Four of them deal with conditions in early childhood experiences that are big predictors of success in formal schooling.  Six of the indicators focus on formal education from pre-school to college.  The final three try to look at a snapshot of adulthood.  States are graded on an A-F scale.  For a number of years Maryland ranked number 1 or number 2 in the nation, often switching places back and forth with Massachusetts.  Massachusetts is still number 1 but Maryland has dropped to 8thplace.   Its score has had the second largest drop in the country, second only to Vermont.   Interestingly, the District of Columbia has made the greatest gains.
While the Kirwan Commission has spent two years developing a plan to improve Maryland’s education, important components of the state’s educational program have slipped.  Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the nation based on per-capita income.  It has the second highest percentage of adults (following Iowa) in the percentage of adults working full time in the workforce.  Maryland adults are well-educated.   The big issue seems to be the performance of its children on the National Assessment of Educational Performance test.   Unlike the more successful states, well under half of Maryland’s 4thand 8thgraders are proficient in these basic achievement tests.  Four the last 4 years, Maryland’s governor has bragged that he has invested more money in education than any other governor.  That is a truthful statement.  What is not mentioned is that the amount of money invested is the bare minimum required by Maryland law through its maintenance of effort requirement for both local school districts and the state.  The National Educational Assessment of Educational Performance is a consistent measure that does not vary as educators chase the next guaranteed to improve education.  Many educators believe that the popular Common Core curriculum is ineffective because it is inconsistent with the neurological development of children.  It would seem to make sense that before we throw billions of dollars toward the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, we carefully examine the factors that are sending one of the richest states in the country and one that had the best educational rating into free fall.  Why is Maryland the second biggest loser in the chase for the best educational system.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

How Bad is it?

How Bad Is It?

The death of a single child at the hands of an intruder is one very much too many.  Something must be done, but what?  And can what needs to be done, be done in proportion to the extent of the problem.
In 2018, Education Week reports that 35 people were killed in school shootings, 28 of that number were students.  Of the 35 people killed, all but 8 were killed in two mass shootings: the February 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and a May 18 massacre at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe Texas. Thirteen of the incidents happened in a school building and during school hours.  Ten of the schools involved HAD police officers/SRO’s assigned to the building.  At Marjory Stoneman, the SRO’s and sheriff deputies on site hung back from the conflict and did not intervene.  Students on the third floor of the building heard a fire alarm and staff guided them to evacuate down the stairs into the range of the shooter.  There was lots of mishandling to go around.
Florida courts has recently ruled that schools are not legally liable for the deaths and injuries done by invaders to students and staff.
As a nation, we are beating our rattle on the highchair and demanding more school security.  We want more SRO’s, even though the SRO’s that have been present have not been able to thwart the shooter.  We want to arm teachers, even though some teachers don’t want to be armed and we have no evidence that teachers will be better defenders than the trained SRO’s.
There is no profile of a shooter, although they are overwhelmingly boys and are much more likely to occur in a high school.  For the 2018 calendar year, 50.7 million children attended public schools k-12 in the US.  That means a child in our country had .000055% chance of being killed in a public school.  One child is entirely too many.  But are we responsibly allocating resources by spending millions of dollars in every state and creating a school security industry for a problem that is horrendous when it does happen but is really (thankfully) not particularly widespread.  Some schools are beginning to resemble prisons.   Shelby schools are spending $400,000 dollars on security and at the same time paying teachers barely $43,000 a year.
We do not have money for school counselors and social workers to help all children.  We do not have money for remedial math and reading teachers to help most children. We do not have money for more teachers to reduce class size that will give all children access to greater learning opportunities.   But we do have tons of money for training teachers to use firearms even if the teachers don’t want to be trained.  We do have money for camera systems that often do not work.  We do have money for alarmed doors and special detectors at school doors.   Just how bad is this problem when we have money to prevent something terrible but we can’t find money to promote the learning environment to serve all kids and foster something great.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Looking for ways to serve children or save money

Looking for ways to serve children or save money

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA sets the goal- and the requirement- that schools provide a free and appropriate education for ALL children with disabilities.  This appropriate education includes related services such as speech and language, occupational therapy, physical therapy and clinical services if needed by the child to access his/her education.   This is  an expensive operation.
So we should not be surprised that as soon as this entitlement became the law of the land, those tasked with its implementation set about putting barriers and cost saving measures into place .  The first was to avoid identifying the children. And once identified, systems tried to keep the amount of service to an absolute minimum.   The law requires that a school district have an operation known as Child Find.   Once the kids are identified school systems have to provide services.  Some states, such as Texas, actually put a cap on the number of children that could be identified.   If we don’t identify the children we cannot be expected to serve them.   Hence, IEP committees started denying that children had a disability that interfered with that child receiving an education.   Families are often denied the identification of their child’s disability.   Sometimes they even have hired outside evaluators to make sure the child received the needed services.  Families fight over with the IEP Committees over how many related services a child needs. Families have hired advocates to defend their child’s needs at the meetings when theoretically everyone at the meeting is there for the child’s benefit.
The second major effort by school systems was how to save money. This effort took two major forms.  First, a child was to remain in what is called the “least restrictive environment”.   In translation, that means to the maximum extent appropriate a child with disability is to be educated with plain kids.   Most systems just simply chose to ignore that pesky word “appropriate” and pushed to have all children with disabilities fully included with plain kids.  Being fully included became a mantra.  The so-called advantage of being with plain kids became a smoke screen for how much money was saved by not providing special education services by a specially trained teacher.   Today the vast majority of children with disabilities are co-taught in classes with a general ed teacher and a special education teacher.  The problem is those classes often have well over 25 children in them so it is hard for either teacher to do what needs to be done.  General education teachers are not trained to teach kids with disabilities.  Many of them, at best, have had one three credit class in either introduction to special education or full inclusion.   However well-intentioned these general ed teachers might be, they do not have the necessary skills.   Content gets covered, but it does not necessarily get learned by learners with challenges.  Pacing guides to satisfy the standardized testing make the situation even worse.
President Ford doubted we could ever meet the expectations of educating all children with disabilities, but I don’t think he envisioned that our energies would be on saving money not serving kids.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Bastardization of IDEA

The Bastardization of IDEA

Long ago and far away, 1975 to be exact, President Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), the precursor of IDEA.   At the signing, the President said it felt it was unlikely to achieve its goals and probably impossible to do so.
Turns out he may have been prescient in his remarks.   About 44 years later we still aren’t there.   What is even more troubling is that rather than look for better ways to help children, we have become skilled at playing a shell game to make it look like kids are being served when they are not.
There are truly egregious issues, such as Texas that had a rule that only a certain number of children could have disabilities in the state.  They were finally caught after many years and are now crying they don’t have the money- or the teachers- to catch up and help children.
But there are many more less blatant efforts to prevent students from receiving services.  Most of these lie in the use of artificial rules that are established.   For example, many school districts do not offer speech and language services to children in high school.   The excuse is that by high school the children have either resolved the speech and language issues or they are too old to be helped.   I find that very curious since these same kids needed the service in June at the end of middle school but somehow, after what could only be called an amazing summer, they no longer need these services.
One of the biggest push backs from EHA and IDEA is the addition of occupational therapy as a school service.  School systems resisted that right from the git-go.  Today the resistance has taken another form.  In order to receive OT as a school service, the assistance needs to be needed so that the child can access a free and appropriate pubic education.  Again, school districts are saying that once in high school these services are no longer needed.   One of the major goals of special education is for the students to be able to live independently and to be prepared for a career or college.   Everyone agrees with that objective.   Yet when an OT says that a high school student needs OT to be taught to shave himself, or for a girl to manage feminine hygiene issues, suddenly those skills are not related to living independently or being prepared for a job or college?   The reasoning for those conclusions escapes me except for one reason totally unrelated to the child’s right to OT.  The school districts want to save money.
And the truth is that from day 1, EHA/IDEA has never received the federal funding that was authorized in the original bill.  Laws “authorize” Congress to appropriate money to get something done.  That is the hitch.  That which is authorized most often does not get appropriated- as in put the money in the real budget. So while the authorization looks good, the real money never reaches the real beneficiaries.   In this case, children with disabilities are the ones deprived.
In fact, from day one, school districts have put most of their effort into the optics of looking good while obeying the law with the least amount of money. And that is how what looked like a beautiful child has become a bastard.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Let’s Blame the Teachers

We all know it is the teacher’s fault when kids don’t learn.  That is why there is the strong push to link teacher pay to achievement test scores of kids.   If teachers did a better job of teaching, students would do a better job of learning.  But what if there are other factors besides how well the teacher teachers.
The single highest corollary for achievement by children is the quality of the partnership between home and school.  Teachers sometimes think that partnership only goes one way, parents need to be nice to teachers and do as teachers ask.

But let’s look at it from another perspective.  Teaching is the teachers’ job.  They get paid a decent salary with good benefits and great vacation time off to do that job.  Yet consistently teachers complain to parents that the child is not learning.  A teacher will contact home and inform the parent that the child is not paying attention at school.  Just exactly does the teacher want the parent to do?   It is the teacher’s job to make school sufficiently interesting that the child will pay attention.  The teacher needs to look at the level of the work being offered the child and methodology being used.  That is not the parent’s job.

Teachers often complain to parents about things they see as being wrong with the child.   Parents live with their children.   They are more than aware of what challenges their children have.   They do not need a teacher to appraise them of the difficulty.

Teachers have a very bad habit of contacting parents with only bad news. So when a teacher’s name pops up in email or on a phone screen, the parent’s stomach will clutch and the parent will not want to respond.   Teachers need to send good news home, even more often than they send bad news.  Teachers say they don’t have the time to send home good news but yet, they always make the time to send home bad news or requests about how parents can make the teacher’s job easier.   That is not a parent’s job.  Parents have their own work to do and teachers who are also parents should be well aware of that.

It is easy to blame the teachers.  After all they make the big bucks.  But if we want kids to succeed, we need to stop blaming each other.