Wednesday, November 26, 2014

504 vs. IEP which way to go

Families of children are often asked this question- do you want an IEP or a 504 plan?  Families are confused as to which is the better way for their child to get the help he or she needs.   Each approach offers some benefits and some drawbacks.
The IEP or Individual Educational Program is authorized under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  In order to be eligible for an IEP the child needs to be diagnosed with one of the disabilities defined in the law itself.   Then the child needs to need special education in order to benefit from the general education program and progress from grade to grade.  So there are two requirements before a family even gets to decide if they will accept the IEP.   First the disability and then the need for special education.
The IEP is supposed to be individual to the child, often it is not so parents need to pay close attention to make sure they are not getting a boiler plate document.   Or worse, getting something that is aligned with what the school has to offer as opposed to what the child needs.   Under the law a school or school system must provide what the child needs.  So for example, if a child needs speech therapy three days a week but the therapist is only in the school one day a week, the IEP cannot be modified to match what is already available.   Instead the system must find a way to get the child the service.   That method can be bringing extra therapy into the child's school or moving the child to a school where the service is provided.   One of the most important parts of an IEP is the description of the related services a child needs, the amount of that service and a description of the setting in which those services will be provided.  The IEP should also name the qualifications of the provider.  A child might need counseling but the school system does not have a psychologist or social worker available so it might provide that counseling with a pupil personnel worker.  Parents need to be well aware of the training of any alternative providers.
The IEP is a formal contract for service between the family and the school system.   If the school system does not provide the services it has committed to, the parents have the right to request a mediation or due process hearing to assure those services.  The IEP is NOT a contract for achievement.   If the instructional goals are not attained as described, families may request changes to the services to try to improve outcomes but it cannot request a mediation or due process for more achievement.
Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act applies to all organizations that receive federal funding.   A 504 plan for children with disabilities describes accommodations to the instructional program that will hopefully improve learning outcomes for the child.   In order to receive these accommodations a child does not have to be specifically diagnosed with a disability.  The lack of the need for a specific diagnosis is one of the big benefits that many people see in the 504 plan.  Many times the school system will recommend this approach as a way to avoid having a disability label in a child's "permanent record".   The fact is that once a child graduates, the school system only keeps basic demographic information, dates of attendance, a transcript of the high school record and any awards that were received.   So the diagnoses would only remain on a child's record through high school.  Under the 504 plan, parents have no right to due process; nor is the 504 plan a contract for service.  Therefore, should a school or system fail to provide the services or accommodations in the plan the family's only recourse is to complain, but it cannot compel the system to provide the services.
On the other hand, the IEP is a contract and provides families with the right to due process should the system fail to fulfill its part of the bargain and gives parents the right to request differing services to improve outcomes.
Is it all that bad for a child to carry a diagnostic label?   That is for each family to decide, but the truth is with or without the label, the child has educational problems.  Doesn't it make sense to pick the approach that gives the most bang for the name.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why does it matter?

Have you ever noticed how many people look like you?  Or live in areas like the one you live in?  Or dress as you do?  Or eat the kinds of foods you do?   Why does that matter?  It matters because if you cannot find yourself in books, in social media, in advertisements  or on TV, you are invisible.
This school year, for the first time ever, white children make up less than half of the country's public school enrollment.   You would never know that fact by looking in the media centers or on the websites of the nation's school systems.  Why does it matter?
Several years ago I visited a potential school for my godson.  The school's focus was creating leaders for the future.  In the media center and the hallways we were surrounded by large photos of people who were past leaders and who had made our country great.  I recognized almost all of them and respected their accomplishments.  But as I looked at them, I noticed that every one was a white male of Western European origin.  I, as a white female, did not see myself represented.   Were none of my kind among the leaders who made my country great? My knowledge of history told me this situation was not true.   Did this school only prepare white males for leadership?
My godson is African American.  I saw no dark-skinned people among those folk who made my country great.  How could that be?  More importantly what would be the message my godson would have looking at those photos?  Would he conclude that African Americans had made no contributions to the greatness of our society. Clearly not true.  More significantly would he decide that his role going into the future could never be that of a leader because his people did not lead?
Why does it matter that the bookshelves of our school media centers only feature stories about white kids?  Why does it matter that of the 3,200 books examined by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, only 253 were by or about African Americans, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans.  It matters because if all of our people are not represented in our media than none of our people is represented.  From many people, our country has made one people.  We are really the only country to have even approached doing that successfully.
We are in a vicious cycle.  Publishers say books by or about ethnic characters do not sell, so they do not publish them.  If these books are not published, people cannot buy them.
This is not an ethnic minority problem.  This is an American problem.   If we are to thrive in an increasingly non-white country and world, we need the skills and talents of all of our people.  Seeing ourselves in the media reminds us of what we can be.  It helps define who we are.  Seeing people who do not look like us in the media and in leadership and/or hero roles increases our understanding of other people. We are reminded that we all have a role to play in the future of our society. Leaders come from all ethnic groups if we let them.  Just as a healthy diet for our bodies embraces all food groups so a healthy diet for our society must include all ethnic groups to feed our future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why the shortage?

Public school leadership staff who are looking down the road are beginning to warn us that there is going to be a serious shortage of principals.   That information, taken together with the fact that research repeatedly shows the importance of a strong principal in a school, gives one pause for the future of our schools.
One of the reasons for the shortage is the simple aging-out of principals.   As the demographic of principals swings toward retirement age, we begin to lose more and more. Growing older is not something we can fix.    But there are other more troubling signs.
Principals are dissatisfied with their jobs.   It is not the money.   Indeed public school principals, particularly principals of public high schools, do quite well.   The dissatisfaction comes from leaders who are not allowed to lead.   Few things are more frustrating than being held accountable for something you have no power to fix.
It is notable that the problems do not exist to the same extent in private schools.   Before we look at the issues, it is important to note that private school principals generally have the right of first refusal.   That is unless their census is down and the budget needs to be balanced.   In those instances standards are lowered to the extent money is needed.  Getting money and selection out of the way, let's look at other factors.
Public school principals report 29.5% of their students are involved in physical conflict.   This figure is only 7.3% in the private schools.   Those numbers are partly due to initial selection.   But they are also due to the authority of the private school principal to remove a physically aggressive child from the environment whereas the public school principal is forced to contend with behavior policies that are becoming increasingly lenient.
Another huge difference between public and private school principals is influence on curriculum.   Only 43.2% of public school principals report having a major influence on curriculum.   On the other hand, 70.4% of private school principals report a major influence on curriculum.   Curriculum is the meat of what we do in schools.   That, along with instructional technique, are pretty much what schools are about.   If we cannot trust principals to make decisions that will keep their schools safe and then don't allow them to have leadership in what is taught and how it is done, how can we call them leaders.   More importantly, how can we hold them accountable for what is happening in the school.   No wonder they are getting out of the sandbox as soon as they can.   Who would want to play under these conditions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Here we go again

Many years ago I learned that sometimes paperback book publishers take the covers off paperback books that have not sold well and put on new covers.   The book inside has not changed, just the cover.  This process came to mind the other day when I read that the organization of local boards of education had voted to delay the high stakes status of the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) for two years.  It seems the boards think that the current 9th and 10th graders will not be adequately prepared for the new tests based on the Common Core curriculum.  The whole thing is further complicated by the requirement of Race to the Top funding that teachers be partially evaluated on their students' scores on these tests.
And there are further complications.   The new tests are primarily taken on computers.   That opens the door to lots of software bugs and the shortage of hardware in schools to take the tests.
The PARCC consortium is only made up of 9 states. Another consortium, Smarter Balance, is doing the western states and a couple in New England- 17 states in all.  Twenty-four states are among the undecided or are taking an altogether different path.   To say confusion reigns is an understatement.   And remember one of the original goals of Common Core was a common curriculum among the states.
The State Board of Education very quickly backtracked on its commitment to use the tests this year as a high stakes test.   Clearly it was a case of adding insult to injury.   The local teachers' union was against implementation for its own self-serving reasons.   The local ACLU came out as defending the civil rights of the kids to be tested on what they were taught. Imagine that silly notion!
Now with the change in plan by the State Board of Education, where does that leave us in Maryland? Maryland has required students to take a high stakes test in English, math (algebra) and science (biology) as part of the requirements for No Child Left Behind.  While teachers and local boards of education have for the most part supported Common Core, the testing is giving lots of heartburn.
All this brings us back to those new covers on the paperback books.   Everything old is new again.  How the PARCC tests will emerge from the piloting programs over the next two years and how the politics of what equals a passing score fall out will be very interesting.   Maryland loves to tout itself as number 1 in education across the country.   Each state gets to set its own passing score for the PARCC tests depending on the pilot results.  In order to keep its claim to #1, Maryland will need to set a passing score that is low enough to show great results.   I'll bet right now someone is getting ready to rip off those old covers and add the new ones with a better passing rate as the passing score falls.