Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rigor is better- or Not

We are all about making our schools more rigorous.  We keep increasing the number of math courses students need to take, lowering the grade in which algebra starts, and adding the number of credits required for a high school diploma.  We insist on a foreign language and want every student to be prepared with the necessary courses to go on to college.
I find these efforts counter-productive to what schooling is supposed to be about.  The original decision to spend tax-payer money to provide a free education for all children came right along with universal suffrage (OK, not universal for women and certain racial groups).  But the idea was that if everyone were going to vote they needed to be able to read, write and understand the issues of the election.   We have moved a long way from that point.
Increasingly there is a strong shift to earlier emphasis on academic instruction.   We are totally comfortable ignoring normal developmental milestones to push academic achievement into lower and lower grades.
Uniformly, algebra is introduced in the 8thgrade.  San Francisco found very high repeat rates for 8thgraders taking algebra.   But when they moved algebra to 9thgrade, those rates dropped dramatically.
New York City has some of the most premier selective high schools in the nation.  Entrance is not based on middle school grades; it is not based on teacher referrals; and it is not based on the scores of the state tests.  All children rise and fall based on one single test developed by the premier schools.  As a consequence, while the City is over 50% African-American and Latino, only four children from these groups are among the entering class for fall 2018.  The Mayor is upset about this and has suggested entrance to these schools should consider multiple factors.  Others insist he is trying to lower the rigor of these wonderful schools.
How about we think of rigor in schools as including the ability to problem solve, get along with people of differing cultures or opinions, develop social/emotionally strong students who can stand up to the social and political pressures of the world into which they will venture. Students who are sufficiently comfortable in their world that they do not act out aggressively toward their school.   College should NOT be an extension of secondary education.   We should not be preparing everyone for an academic career.  We know there are multiple kinds of intelligences, why don’t we act that way in developing our high school curricula.   In days of yore, high schools awarded multiple diplomas: academic, general, business and vocational.   Some things old should be good again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Different Way to Arm our Schools

A different way to arm our schools

We have this whole situation of school invasions bass ackwards.  Nearly every school invader has been a current or former student.  They know the layout of the school.  They know where people hang out.  They know there are 2000 or more students in that building.
So, our foolish way to deal with the issue is to have MORE guns in the schools.  We will hire MORE SRO’s or school resource officers, our euphemistic name for in-school armed security.  We will get more metal detectors.  How many security people can we put in one building.   Will high schools with thousands of kids and hundreds of staff have five officers, maybe six, how many would be enough? How will they be in the right spot at the right time?  We can “harden” our schools as has been suggested.  Think about it, prisons are pretty hardened places and even they have riots!  Do we want our schools to resemble prisons? That is where we are heading with all of these security guards, metal detectors and lock down drills.  It has been suggested that retired police officers and retired military make the best SRO's.  Do these people know how to work with kids?
Money is finite.  We have so much and that is it.  Doesn’t matter if the finite amount is five billion or 5 dollars.  It is finite.  The money being spent to harden our schools is not going to do the job.  If anything it will create more reasons for kids to grab a gun and invade the building.  The students who are shooting up our schools already feel disconnected.  Adding more guns will only make them feel more so.
In fact, what we need to do is soften our schools.   Use that money for SRO’s to hire more teachers.  Let’s put an SRT- school resource TEACHER in every classroom.  Let’s encourage teachers to KNOW their students and to interact with them on a personal level.  Let’s tell teachers that in addition to getting students to pass a test they need to find out how the kid is.  How is your mother?  Is she feeling better from the flu?   Did your dad get that job he was going after?  Did you make the team?  How is your school year going?   Kids who feel cared about and connected do not shoot up a school.  We need to arm our teachers and staff with caring not with weapons.
And while I am at it, bigger is not better when it comes to schools. There is a reason private schools are not invaded and it has nothing to do with the funding source.  Private schools are by their nature smaller.  You don’t need to walk  miles to get to the next classroom.  Teachers and staff know you by name.  They ask how are you? And they really want to know and really want an answer.  It isn’t perfunctory.  
We can never hire enough school security to cover every place in a comprehensive public school.  We can never harden our schools to look like prisons or airport security.   Why would we want to?
We can allow our teachers the time and the energy to care about their students.  We can free counselors up to counsel. Now there’s an interesting idea.  If they were not chasing tests and test scores they might have time for what brought them to the profession.
How about we arm our schools with people who have the time to care.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We have a math problem

WE Have a math problem

We have a math problem in this country and it isn’t just about the younger students.  Every year tens of thousands of young people fail to graduate because they cannot earn enough credits in math to complete degree requirements.    Maryland requires all teachers to be able to pass a basic skills test in reading, writing and math.   It is the math portion of the test that consistently trips people up.  Even when they finally pass the test, it would be hard to call it a high skill area for them.  Yet they will go on to teach children math, an area in which they are barely proficient.  
Two-thirds of students entering a community college and 40% of those attending a 4-year school are enrolled in zero credit remedial math classes.  Presently we teach math before college as a funnel leading to advanced algebra, precalculus and calculus.   What is particularly interesting is that, with the exception of some STEM careers, our economy needs more math skills in using data for physics, finance, politics and education.  Math skills are critical to decipher misleading news reports.   What we need are more people with good quantitative reasoning skills so that they can function as both citizens and career builders. What we need are statistics and data literacy.  But we still resolutely teach algebra 2, precalculus and calculus.   Never mind their usefulness.  
These remedial math courses which are expensive, even though they do not yield credit, act as a gatekeeper to higher level math classes.   If the content were modified, they could become a gateway to math literacy which would not only help the college student but could increase math literacy.
A new math curriculum developed by the Carnegie Foundation is called Quantway 1 and Quantway 2.  The curriculum compresses remedial and college level content into one year.  BUT the approach is totally different.   It uses real-world scenarios to engage students, asking them to apply math formulas to calculating the dosage of a baby’s medication, or analyzing the racial disparities in prison populations.  The students are required to work in groups to eliminate the feeling of isolation for students who see themselves as poor in math.  Think of it as a whole course in word problems instead of the typical approach of one separate unit.   The second year of the curriculum is called Statway. The emphasis there is on using statistics.   Student pass rates are 3-4 times higher than in standard remedial courses. In the 2016-17 school year 69 institutions of higher learning have adopted the program.  Hardly a drop in the ocean of higher ed programs but it is a start.
We are like mice running on a wheel.  Elementary students are taught by teachers who can barely do the math themselves.  Secondary education students are taught math that is a funnel to a higher level of math that is not meaningful to them and they have little to no use for in their lives.  These students move on to post-secondary ed to discover they are not prepared and must be remediated.   They lose out and our economy loses out because they are not getting the math understanding and literacy that they need.  Stop the world, we need to get off.  We have a math problem and it keeps getting worse.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Enough of the Sweet Talk

Enough of the Sweet Talk

I don’t know about you but I am getting tired of the re-naming of things to make them more palatable to our sensibilities but do nothing to change the ground game. 
I have been in special ed long enough to remember the days when kids were not “challenged” by low IQ’s, and were not intellectually ‘delayed’ as if they were caught in a traffic jam and soon they would catch up.  Kids didn’t “lack social skills”; they were children who needed to learn to behave in public.   OK, I get that people who lack social skills need to gain those skills so that they will  behave appropriately in public but we need to stop all this beating around the bush.
The percentage of people with disabilities participating in the workforce as of April 2018 is 20.9%.   The percentage of people without disabilities participating  in the workforce is 68.3%.   That’s a huge difference; particularly when you consider that severe disabilities make up only about 2% of people with disabilities.
So why is this?   The first step to solving a problem is to identify it and name it.  Then you can work out a path to the solution.   We keep telling ourselves that people who are learning challenged can catch up if they are taught by research based methods and by specially trained teachers.   This approach has worked beautifully for the cosmetic industry.  People who are not very attractive can use special cosmetics and/or hair color and before you can say $58 for the small jar, they are now beautiful.   Definitely- children with learning disadvantages will do better if they are taught by skilled teachers, no question about that.   But will they get seven scholarship offers to prestigious colleges, probably not.  And all those magical mystical cosmetics might ameliorate the problem but make the cover of Vogue, probably not.
Let’s get down to business and forget the sugar coating.   Excellent teaching will ease some of the problems, but we need to acknowledge that there are differing horizons for people with disabilities and those horizons may be different but they are not necessarily bad.  No amount of practice was ever going to make me a basketball player.   I am too short and too poorly coordinated.    I could have spent years practicing basketball skills in the vain hope that one day I would be almost good at the sport.   Or I could spend that finite amount of time building on the skills that I did have and be something else.  Fortunately that is what I did. 
From elementary school on we need to recognize the skills that kids need to succeed in the work world and the social world.   I get that this is blasphemy but the skills being measured by the PARCC tests are not important to most students with disabilities.   Early on, we need to teach kids to be polite- corny I know but good manners go a long way. We need to teach good hygiene; no one like a smelly co-worker.   We need to teach children to respond to supervision.  For very young children that looks a lot like accepting re-direction for behavior. Recently a college student told me how when his psych professor held him to a standard he did not like, he gave an attitude expression to a near-by friend.  When I told him that was a bad job skill, he gave me a bewildered look. He did not make the connection between attitude toward a professor and attitude someday toward a job supervisor.   Job skills are people skills and will take us far.
Right now we are still putting energy into age level grade standards.  We are sugar coating the reality that most children with disabilities regardless of how much research goes into their teaching methods and how good the teaching is, are not going to hit grade level academic standards.   Could we get off the sugar diet and start teaching kids the skills they need- academic as well as job skills.   It is no wonder that when these students hit the job-market they suffer from a sugar hang-over.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Know Nothings are Alive and Preaching

The Know Nothings Are Alive and Preaching

Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee are at it again.   The know-nothing Washington Post education columnist has proclaimed that 80% of the kids receiving special education do not need that label. They are not disabled.  He does not share how he knows this, he just does.   He has for years been advocating the demise of special education for all but the most severely disabled children.  His latest column celebrates the opinions of a man who had two terms on the school board of Baltimore City and even deputy mayor of Baltimore.   If he knows so much how come he left the city’s schools in the same mess that he found them.  And in his long list of self-congratulatory positions, being a public school teacher or any kind of teacher is not among them.  Both the columnist and the town-crier have proclaimed that the kids in special education have been captured by myths- whatever that means- and do not really have learning challenges at all.  According to this view only children with Down syndrome, severe autism or visual and hearing impairments are truly disabled.  All the rest of the students have just been “dumped” into special education.  
Being in special education could hardly be a worse situation for the struggling learners according to these two wise men.  The advocate knows an instructional system that would raise all boats, including the poor souls struggling in special education but the school districts won’t use it because they are “uncomfortable” with it.   If he knows so much why didn’t he implement this magical system when he was deputy mayor or on the City school board?  Unfortunately, this wonderful system can’t be implemented because the districts lack the “imaginative” people like these two.
Funny how these two who have yet to get their hands dirty doing the hard work of actually working with kids, know everything to do but haven’t done it. Perhaps they need to attend the high school graduation of a child who could not read at all after six years in mainstream fully-included classes and is now graduating with a high school diploma and, yes, can read at a level that allows for community college attendance. Or maybe they would like to see the face of a child who has been shunned for being weird among the other “not disabled” age-mates in general ed classes, when that child stars in a performing arts presentation.  How many parents have they spoken with whose kids were not accepted, or tormented or bullied by both staff and plain students- then tell me how bad it is to be in special ed classes with specially trained staff who have skills to address these learning issues.  Oh and are people who really WANT to be with these students who learn differently.
It is all fine to make proclamations about who needs specialized instruction and who is disabled and who is not.  To co-opt a line from The Christmas Carol, in the eyes of the informed, these know-nothings may be the most disabled of all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who Cares for the Caregivers?

Who cares for the caregivers?

Something is driving teachers out of the profession.   Both newbies and seasoned teachers are leaving at a faster pace than ever before.   Our schools need experienced teachers.   Our most vulnerable kids need them the most.  Teaching is a profession of the heart that requires a tremendous amount of skill. If teaching is in your heart, it is not something you leave easily.  Yet teachers are leaving-why?
For the most part it is not about salary.  Although there are some VERY notable exceptions in those states where teachers have recently engaged in state-wide strikes trying to get a living wage. But for the most part around our country, teaching is paying a solid middle-class salary with decent benefits.
So why are teachers leaving in droves.  Teachers are leaving who teach in the core areas, the elective areas, all racial groups, ethnically diverse and LGBTQ and not!   They are all leaving at about the same pace.
There are several different reasons that boil down to the same thing. Teachers do not feel supported in what they do.
Teachers who were on the picket lines repeatedly said, yes, it is about the money but it is also about the politicians and the members of the boards of education not caring that we are not making a living wage.
Teachers are a bit like statues of liberty.  They welcome the poor, the weak, the disabled and the children from dysfunctional families – for each of these children, teachers lift their lamps beside the golden classroom.  They are happy to do this.  Helping kids is what brought them to teaching.  But they need support!
We can’t blame teachers when students do not do well on standardized tests. There are lots and lots of reasons for poor test performance that have nothing to do with poor teaching.  We can’t pretend that feeling helpless when the children you teach tell you about what went on at their home the previous night or parents who are fighting over custody and use the child as a pawn does not take its toll on the teacher.   
Teachers worry about their students.  They worry about the neighborhoods the children live in.  They worry the children can’t pass all these tests. They worry they need to choose between meeting student needs and keeping up with the pacing guides.   Good teachers and good teaching is critical to the well-being of our children and of our nation.   Teachers are more than willing to do the heavy lifting.  But we need to show we care about their well-being as well.   We need to care for the caregivers.  We aren’t and they are not taking it anymore.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sun Investigates Incorrectly

Sun Newspaper Investigates Incorrectly

A big article in the Sunday Sunpaper led with the headline, “Special Ed costs add to budget”.  There was a good bit of misinformation in the article.  Plus, the article is strongly slanted towards the notion that providing an appropriate education for kids with special needs is somehow not worth the additional cost. 
 Let’s start at the beginning.  The proposed budget allocates about $278 million for meeting the needs of 12,000 students, roughly 15% of the system's budget.  Special education costs were cited as one of the reasons for the $130 million deficit last year. No mention was made of the lucrative contract negotiated by the former superintendent that escalated teachers' salaries about the $100,000 mark.  The district’s chief of staff said that the amount does not necessarily reflect inefficiencies even though it is much greater than similar cities and other local systems.  
The City’s executive director of special education indicated that one way to drive down the costs of special education services is to not over-identify students who require special education.   As a special educator, I am offended that the executive director did not cite early identification and intervention as the best way to drive down long-term costs and still serve children’s needs.
The article further states that federal (and state) law requires that students be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.  That is NOT what the law requires.   Rather it requires that children with special needs be educated in the least restrictive environment appropriate to meet their educational needs.  
The article notes that when no public program can meet a student’s needs the city is required to purchase a non-public program.  For next year, the system has budgeted $33.5 million for that purpose.  The system brags that is the lowest level in five years.
Maybe they should not be bragging.   The Harbour School located in Baltimore County is projecting a tuition rate for the 18-19 school year of $39,490.  That sounds like a lot of money and it is.  BUT, first of all that includes all OT, clinical and speech service that a child needs.   Baltimore City currently spends $15,483 for its children with no special needs.  The new budget is spending an average of $23,166 per child with special needs.  So why is the non-public placement the better deal?  Even without looking at the quality of service provided, Maryland will reimburse Baltimore City approximately 50% of its non-public cost.  That reimbursement would bring the cost of The Harbour School to Baltimore City down to $19,725 not too much more than the cost of educating a plain student.  And most people agree that The Harbour School delivers a top-notch program.  
Take away all of the financial matters.  What is most offensive about this article is the implication that somehow educating children with special needs is not worth the additional cost.   It costs more to educate a high school student than it does to educate an elementary student, but no one is suggesting we are "over identifying"  the number of students we allow to go to high school.
Making sure children with disabilities receive an appropriate education program to meet their needs is cost-effective in the long run.  It is also the right thing to do and IT’S THE LAW.