Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Will Your School Stand UP?

Will your school stand up?

Does your child go to a good school?   How do you know?   If you follow the common wisdom, you can tell by the test scores.  School systems are required to post the test scores of each individual school within the system.  Real estate values go up or down based on the posted scores.   Families agree to privately transport to the schools with good scores and/or make up reasons why their children need to go to the schools with better scores.
But are we chasing the wrong pots of gold?   Is there really lifetime success at the end of these rainbows?  The answer is probably not.
Sure, learning to read, write and do arithmetic are very important skills that will lead to vocational success but they won’t work alone.
In fact, a strong school stands on four legs not just one.  Like a table that is unbalanced unless there are 4 legs of equal length and strength, so a good school needs to provide skills in four areas equally.
It is easy to argue that a good school does a good job of teaching academic skills.  A really good school teaches those skills in multiple ways, matching the teaching style to the learning style of the children.  The teachers teach kids how to problem solve and apply old learning to new situations.  There is minimal emphasis on memorization and repeating answers to problems that someone else has solved.
No table stands on one leg.  And no good school does either.  There are three other legs that good schools provide for their students.
At some point in time, the expectation is that children will leave school, be it after high school, college or grad school and look for productive employment.   This means that ALL students need vocational and soft job skills to be able to thrive in the world of employment.  One of the most important of those skills is the ability to work in a diverse workplace. The United States is becoming more and more diverse.  Already white students are less than half of the students in public schools.  The workplace will soon follow.  Kids need to know that a big part of keeping a job is showing up and showing up on time.  It is being respectful to supervision and being able to problem solve and work collaboratively.  We are not teaching those skills and we need to.
You may have noticed lately that folks are lacking in social skills as well.  Saying please and thank you seems to be a lost art.  Yet those simple words can oil many a sticky situation.  Just yesterday I saw a car cut off an ambulance with its siren on.  That is an instance of poor social skills taken to a life-threatening extreme.  We know more about communicating in code via text, than we know about talking to each other.
Doesn’t matter where we go or what we do, we take ourselves with us- 24/7.  Most of all we need to learn to accept and like ourselves just as we are, without the “if only”.  As in I would be a better person, “if only”.  Each of us is the only version of ourselves.  We each need to learn to love the person we are, to put on our own oxygen mask on first. Teachers can be a huge help in teaching our children while they are small, before the world beats the joy out of them, that each of the children is a really special person and deserves to be celebrated.
That’s it.  Four legs to the table, academic, vocational, social and emotional.  As with any sturdy table the legs need to be of equal length and equally strong to create a sturdy balanced table.  So it is with schools.  Don’t be fooled by the shell game that teaches us that only test scores count.  Because when all school is said and done- we each need all four legs for our table

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Hate: A back-to-school supply

Hate, a back to school supply

Three swastikas were found on the mirror of the girls’ bathroom.   A homophobic comment was left in a note in a student’s desk.   Inside the back pack of a Latino student was a note that said: “Go back to Mexico”. The n-word has been whispered to students as they pass in the hall.  Muslim students are called by racist terms.
These instances are not new.  They have been in schools for decades.  What is new is the the uptick in the number of these incidents in schools since the election of Donald Trump.   There are some who will say that the coarse language used by Trump in referring to some minority groups has given license, if not tacit approval, to these events.  They will say that Trump’s influence has emboldened some children, teenagers and even school employees to openly espouse hateful views.
But can we really blame it all on Trump?  While his behavior makes him an easy target for blame, it is also true that schools have long been a venue for bias and harassment.  It is easy to say, it has always been thus. That does not let school leaders off the hook.   What a school can do and what a school should do to improve the climate so that all kids feel safe need to be one and the same.
These incidents are most likely to occur in suburban schools where white students are far in the majority.   As America becomes ever more diverse, these schools and all schools, are going to need to learn how to live together with everyone.  Minority students regularly report that majority students and staff just don’t GET the pain that is felt by the targeted students.
That situation needs to change.   Schools need to tackle diversity head on.   Diversity clubs and councils need to teach majority students that contrary to the old rhyme, words can harm us and do regularly.   White administrators want to do “one and done”.  They want to hold a meeting, invite a speaker, have a talk and then declare victory and go home.
It is not that simple by any stretch.  First of all, school leaders need to call out hate wherever it is found and bring it out of its hiding place.   They need to work to get first-hand accounts from the victims to the victimizers and let the victimizers know the harm they have caused.  Victimizers need to be made to do the research to see what horrible damage their hate has caused and does cause.  Social media gives hatred its best forum ever, more visual and faster.   So when a group of kids in a Maryland high school had a scrabble day and spelled the N-word on t-shirts with letters, the photo went viral.  Parents were informed of the ”incident” but there was minimal discipline.
School administrators need to see that these are not “incidents”.  These events are indicators of our failure to educate students to live in a diverse democracy.  It is way past time for us to start getting this right.
School is about to start soon.   We ALL need to actively make sure Hate is not the school supply we send back with our kids when classes start.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

High School Graduation Rates are up again-who cares?

High School Graduation Rates Up Again

Look, look see the superintendent celebrating and parading through the high school with banners and pompoms.   See the New Orleans style dance the superintendent did as he extolled long awaited gains in the high school’s graduation rate.  How really wonderful is that!!

The Prince George’s County DuVal high school’s graduation rate had gone from an above average of 81 percent to a celestial 95.4 percent.   Is that not wonderful and worthy of so much celebration?!  “We have made remarkable progress.” said the superintendent.

How high they fly; how far they fall.   Soon the Governor ordered the State Department of Education to hire investigators and soon after that the thrill of achievement was filled with the fog of doubt.  There had been cheating.  Staff were told to do what you need to do to get kids to graduate. Whatever you do, staff were told, just find a way to make them pass.   So students who barely attended school found themselves with passing grades. Other kids were “helped” to learn what was needed to pass the tests.  In the end, 3 counselors were removed from their jobs, an assistant principal resigned and the principal retired.  The superintendent, Maxwell,  decided to resign as well; he did his snake dance right out the door.  Even members of the school board came to physical blows over the amount of buy-out the Maxwell should receive. Really, I am not making this up.   The situation might also have brought down the county executive who lost his bid for higher office after he continuously supported the superintendent he had hired in spite of the developing scandal.  

Nationally graduation rates have been climbing since 2011.  Federal law expects states to set sky-high graduation rates and targets.   But are the schools and students really doing any better?   Is the rush to higher graduation rates ensuring that the weaker willed will succumb to changing exam grades to ensure passage, ignoring excessive absences and providing tutoring that looks a lot like cheating.

The problem turned out to be much larger than just one high school. Overall there were 5500 grade changes and 30% of the county’s graduating class lacked proof to show they qualified for graduation.  The virus seemed to have impacted the entire county system.

With all of this happening, why has the question never been asked- What’s the big rush to get kids out of high school in four years?  What makes four years the magic number in which every kid needs to complete high school?  Wouldn’t it make much more sense to set goals that related to skill sets and that kids would graduate when they reached those goals?   We would have more graduates ready for employment and fewer college freshmen taking zero credit make-up courses.

But graduation rates are up again.   We are all happy.  Will someone PLEASE ask why does that matter.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Cover Up or Career Protection

Coverup or Career Protection

The Supreme Court recently ruled that public sector employees no longer need to be forced to pay agency fees to the union.   This ruling heavily impacts teachers’ unions because they are the largest public-sector employee unions representing millions of teachers nation-wide.   Many states, Maryland included, have required teachers to pay an “agency fee” in lieu of membership dues to cover the cost of the union representing all teachers in the contract negotiations.

There are two issues here- free speech, the one the Court used for its ruling and the second issue long advanced by union opponents, that unions protect weak teachers and severely limit the ability of school administrators to weed the gardens of education of the weak teachers.  

Conservative groups have jumped on the Court’s ruling.  They are emailing union members nationwide informing them that they have a choice to opt out of the union.   The response of these groups to the ruling has been sophisticated and tactical.  Unions have been quick to point out that these efforts are funded by Koch family foundations and Betsy DeVos foundation money.  The organizations are using freedom of info acts to get access to teachers’ email addresses.   Anne Arundel County in Maryland is one of the school districts that has blocked the opt out feature of school emails at the union's request.  Governor Cuomo of NY has signed an executive order preventing the release of the info for NY teachers.  Regardless of the funding source, that does not change the facts on the ground.   Teachers will no longer be required to pay the agency fees and that is going to cost the unions income and membership.  

Does that matter?   Depends on where you sit.   Some people see anything that limits the unions as a good thing.  School administrators are extremely limited in disciplining teachers and removing weak ones by the union agreement.   They cannot require that teachers work a single minute more than what is in the union contract.  A big part of the union representation is that a union will go to bat to protect any teacher regardless of the accusations of wrong-doing with the exception of criminal acts.  Unions, and some teachers, say that is exactly why they need a union because otherwise they would be subject to the whims of administrators and their salaries and benefits would suffer greatly.

On the other hand, lawsuits are currently pending in Maryland and other states by teachers who are demanding the return of the agency fees they have already paid in what they are now saying was an illegal collection in the first place.

So what is the role of a union?   Does it protect the weakest links or does it protect academic freedom? The recent Janus vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 is going to make us all consider that question.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

An Ill Wind

An ill wind

It is often said that even an ill wind blows some good.  Such is the case with the current employment situation in the United States.  Presently, the U.S. has an aging population and therefore, workers are leaving the workforce. Ordinarily this condition is not a bad thing because that leaves room for the younger members of the population to move into those spots.   Problem is there aren’t enough younger members to join the workforce.  The situation is going to get worse since the number of people immigrating to this country is down considerably and so is the birthrate of those people living here.
As a consequence, businesses cannot expand as much as they would like and some are having difficulty maintaining the status quo.  Capitalism is a creative economic system.  To meet this challenge we are seeing two big changes coming into play. First of all big companies are going all out for AI (artificial intelligence) converting as many operations as possible to robots.  But what about the little guys without millions to spend.
That’s where the good news comes in.   Many potential employees who have been marginalized because of ethnic background and/or perceived disability are getting another look.  That is particularly true with regard to those with disabilities.   Employers have been very slow to hire folks with disabilities.  They often need special training, are not as easily switched to different functions and may not have good attendance.  Bottom line, they need extra work by the employer and if people who require less attention are standing in line for the job why bother.
The truth is that once trained, people with disabilities make terrific employees and employers are finding that out in droves.   More cognitively challenged workers are finding jobs with small convenience stores doing stocking and assisting customers, as checkers in super markets, and in small restaurants that value customer service over speed.  Employers are learning by their own experiences that these employees love their work and are happy to do it.  And just as importantly, they will stay on the job for a long time.
There are also lots of jobs for people on the autism spectrum.  The rigidity is reframed as great attention to detail  Microsoft is discovering the value of workers on the spectrum in programming and organization.  
The unemployment rate for the general population is currently at 4%.   The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 67%.   That ill will that is blowing across the land might just blow some very good news for people with disabilities.  The times may be a-changing.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Making Money or Doing Good

Making Money or Doing Good

More and more colleges are creating programs for students with disabilities.  Some of these students have cognitive disabilities to the extent that they are intellectually limited.  Still there is a college program out there for these kids.

As of this coming fall, there are 270 colleges with programs specifically targeted for people with intellectual disabilities.  Under typical circumstances these students would not even consider applying to college.  Now they can. So isn’t that a good thing?

Students do not receive a degree for the experience.  Mostly there are only a few dozen or fewer students in the program.  Only some schools allow students to live on campus.  They audit regular college courses and are assisted by peer mentors and university advisors.  They also participate in internships.  Figuring out how to include students with IQ’s at 70 or below is challenging.  Advocates insist that students are experiencing college life and maturing in the process.  These students are also eligible for postsecondary financial loans to pay for the programs, so they can join their typical peers in completing programs steeped in debt.   Most of these programs are only two years long; although Temple has just expanded to a 4-year program.  Parents are demanding more of these programs.  The students are not graded for their academic work and receive modified assignments.  Temple University claims that 60% of graduates are employed, working at day-care centers, restaurants, gyms and at horse farm.  Doesn’t this seem really great?  

Or maybe it is reality delayed.  Students leave these programs having paid regular tuition and with no degree.   I wonder how much socialization goes on between these students and typical age-mates.  Or is it similar to inclusion programs in the lower grades where socialization with students with disabilities is limited to good deed kindness but not invitations to parties.  And are these students prepared for the hard life choices that college students need to make at college parties- to drink or not to drink, have sex or not to have sex?  Are they prepared to protect themselves from predators who might take advantage the disability and their deep desire to belong.   And while I am being cynical, are these programs the response to the law of diminishing return on 18-year old students who each year are becoming a smaller portion of the population and thereby causing freshmen classes everywhere to take a hit.

What is the benefit to the students with disabilities?   Wouldn’t that money be better spent on true training programs that are geared to the young adults abilities rather than putting them in yet another environment where they don’t measure up?  So why are colleges starting these programs-  they want to do good or they want to fill the gap left behind by the reduced number of typical 18-year old students.   You decide.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Gerrymander for the Cure

Gerrymander for the Cure

Presently one child in fifty-nine is diagnosed with autism. This an increase from only two years ago when one child in sixty-eight was identified as being on the spectrum.
Not to worry, the incidence of autism is going to go down dramatically. Don’t get confused.   The number of children exhibiting signs of autism may not change and, in fact, could go up, but the incidence will go down.
Thoroughly confused now?   Let me explain.  In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the latest version of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, affectionally known as DSM-5.   In this new version, Asperger’s Syndrom was no more. Childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and not otherwise specified also got the ax. All of these categories were bundled under a very broad autism spectrum disorder.  The new criteria were in some ways more restrictive than the former ones were.  HOWEVER, if you were considered one of the previous categories under the old DSM, you can keep your diagnosis even if you would not qualify under the current DSM 5.
These are the criteria that are used by mental health professionals, e.g. psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to determine a person's disability and, therefore, eligibility for many services.
But it is the Centers for Disease Control that issues the official definition that is used for tracking prevalence.  Change the definition and you change the number of kids who make the cut.
The Center for Disease Control has evaluated the new definition and it believes that if the Center should switch to the new definition the number of children with autism would drop by 18%!   How great is that!   Think of all those children who will be cured by the stroke of a pen.  Won’t  their parents be relieved.  Going forward, the CDC will be using the new definition for its next evaluation of prevalence.   They will release their results in about two years.
One CDC staff member opined the expectation that clinicians will adjust their evaluations of children to fit the new definitions so the new prevalence numbers might not be adjusted that much.
The Director for the Center for Autism and The Developing Brain at Cornell University said she expects the prevalence of autism to continue to rise even with the new definition.  
This whole situation reminds me of when I was the Director of Special Education at a local school system.  Our Board of Education was concerned that too many children were being diagnosed as having learning disabilities.  In those days, a child was considered to have a learning disability if there were particular discrepancy between achievement scores and ability test scores.  The Board increased the required discrepancy causing many children who had previously had a learning disability to be declared cured.   It fell to me to notify parents.   Parental reaction ranged by total relief that their child was now all better to comments such as, “how dumb do you think I am, my kid still can’t read.”
It is good to know that old habits die hard and we can still define our way out of an exploding increase in a disability.  
It will be a great fundraising slogan-“ let’s gerrymander our way to the cure.”

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.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Really? Really!

Really?  Really!

There was not a great deal of snow this winter but there were a great number of snow days.  So many days that several school systems had to ask permission of the State Board of Education to either forgive the 180-day school year requirement or extend the school year beyond the original closing date and busting the Governor’s directive to end school by June 15.
For the most part, the State Board did not forgive the 180-school day requirement and allowed systems to end school after June 15.   There was one notable exception.   The high school students in Baltimore County, Maryland attend school eight hours less a school year than any other school district in Maryland.  The State School Board ruled that the county’s high schoolers won’t have to make up the eight hours of instructional time they lost this year because of bad weather, on the condition that the county rework its high school schedule to lengthen the time students are in school each school day.  Without the waiver, the school system will need to extend the high school year by one full day.
However, the county cannot do this without negotiating with the teachers' union.  
The union has decided to play hard ball on the issue.
The union is saying that they will not work an extra 8 hours unless they are paid for that time.  And to further complicate the situation, the union insists that all teachers be paid the same with the same credentials and years of experience.  So not only would the county have to pay the high school teachers for those eight hours of time it would also have to pay elementary and middle school teachers as well.
Here is another take on the situation.  All these years the high school teachers have been working eight hours a year less than the elementary and middle school teachers but have been paid the same amount of money.   Since the union is asking that all teachers be paid more for the extra eight hours the high school teachers will work, how about those high school teachers paying the county back for all those years they were paid for hours they DIDN’T work.  If the union does not agree to a settlement all high school teachers will need to work another day at the end of the school year.
To top it off, all teachers in the system work a seven-hour day, unlike the rest of us who work eight hours.  Even with the extended day to make up the extra eight hours, teachers would still be in the school building no longer than the required seven hours. The average teacher’s salary in Baltimore County is $60,497, which is 29% above the national average for teachers and about $18,000 more than the average salary of teachers who are striking in states around the country.  They work seven hours a day for about 195 days for that money.   
After all these benefits- the union expects the county taxpayers to cough up more money for ALL teachers.   Really!  Really? Say it ain’t so 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Lying or Stealing-Which is worse?

Lying or Stealing – which is worse?

OK, neither on is something you look for in a leader.  But it seems we have it anyway.  Recently the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country was found guilty of lying on an ethics report about $146,000 he received as part of an outside consultant job.  As part of the deal with the outside company, he guaranteed that the school district would purchase large quantities of technology.  The man acknowledged his guilt and was sentenced to six months in the county detention center and two years of probation.  He is relatively young and his career is probably ruined.
Then there are other ways students are cheated and their futures stolen. It happens mostly in school systems where students are struggling to achieve academically and parents and taxpayers are demanding more for their investments.  They want to see higher graduation rates and higher grades.   So school systems are delivering both.  They are doing this by operating a shadow school system.  How does this work?   As the end of the school year approaches, kids discover that the courses in which they thought they were failing, now they are not. Magically grades have increased as students are asked to do minor projects which advance their grades. These events happen most often in high schools where the pressure for on-time graduation in four years is huge. So kids who have missed up to a third of the school year are still able to pass the course, gain the credit and graduate from high school “on time”.
Shadow school systems don’t just promote and graduate students who have barely attended school or not been proficient in the content.   These school systems offer courses that are a mere “shadow” of the real thing.  So transcripts show that a student has completed algebra 1 when in fact the content of that course was basic arithmetic because that is all the child is capable of doing.    One school system is now requiring that all graduates have a course in physics and chemistry.  Physics demands higher order math skills to address the content and to master the concepts. Yet the kids in that school district do not even earn basic scores in math on the standardized tests!   How are they going to master the concepts required of physics or chemistry?!   Not to worry, the transcript will show the credit.   It will not be until these kids get to college that they will find themselves completely unprepared to move on.  These school systems are stealing kids’ futures.  They are telling the kids and their parents that their children have earned credits in coursework they are lightyears away from mastering.   The administrators of these school systems get to brag about the higher standards they have implemented.   They get to tout the huge increases in graduation rates.  All the while stealing the students’ futures.   These administrators will not be brought to trial for their theft and they will not serve jail time.
Lying on an ethics form and steering purchases towards a particular company or stealing a child’s future by lying on a transcript- which is worse? Lying or stealing a future- you decide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When Enough is Enough

When is enough enough?

Go back a few years and teacher strikes happened fairly regularly, usually in one district at a time.   Then they pretty much stopped.  There was the Great Recession and everyone was happy to have a job, even a relatively low paying one.  But the recession ended.   Economies brought on by the recession began to ease as well.   Teachers’ salaries increased.  In Maryland, the average teacher’s salary is about $65,000, not bad at all for working 190 days a year.   Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the country and school systems are sharing that wealth with teachers.
However, while all may be well in Mary Land, all is not well in other parts of the country.   Money for education in Oklahoma has been so reduced that many school districts are only open for 4 days a week.   Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia have also not shared the better economy with their teaching staff.   Then there is the pending Supreme Court decision testing whether teachers’ unions can have a closed shop that required everyone to pay dues or a maintenance fee to the union.   With a 9thmember of the Court being a conservative, it is not looking too good for the unions.
So, what to do?
The revolution has begun.  It started in West Virginia.   The difference between this walkout and previous strikes is that the entire state was involved.  After several weeks of closed schools throughout the state, the legislature caved and teachers were giving a 5% raise across the board.
Then Oklahoma took up the call.   Oklahoma teachers didn’t just want more money for themselves, they wanted more teachers for smaller classes and newer and better teaching materials. The legislature gave the teachers a raise.  They said that wouldn’t be enough, the teachers wanted the other improvements for the students.  The legislature said “hell no”.   The union said fine, we are staying home.   Soon the Governor decided to grant the teachers what they wanted.  He soothed the legislature by assuring it that the improved economy would take care of the increased cost without a tax increase. We will see but the union got what it wanted.
Now Kentucky and Arizona have joined the fray.
What is going on here?   
It really is quite simple.  This is just another example of big talk- we care about our kids and the education they get, followed by little to no action to back up the talk.   OPUD- over promised, under delivered.  Everyone is thinking that the expected Supreme Court decision is going to bust the unions.   But these teachers are saying enough is enough.   Guess they aren’t quite busted yet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Barking up the wrong tree

Barking up the wrong tree

The school shootings in Florida and the one recently much closer to home in Southern Maryland were terrible events and have brought the fear of school invasion to a new level.   The Maryland State Legislature just completed its 2018 session and is requiring every school district to have school resource officers (or an affiliation with the sheriff’s office ) in every school.  Don’t be confused, a school resource officer (SRO) is a person with a gun in a school.   The idea is that this one person with one gun will protect and defend our children from an armed invader.   We know two things about this situation.  The first thing we know, sadly, is that the SRO may choose not to risk his/her own life by confronting the invader.  We saw that in the Florida invasion.   The second, and perhaps more important thing we know, is that school invaders are kids with a grudge against the school or are upset about a personal relationship.
School invasions go back to the 1800’s.  Better news media and social media make us all know about them more quickly now.  Columbine was the first school shooting incident that gained traction in the national news in recent time.  After the Columbine shooting, I asked our students if they were afraid.  To a student they said no, because our teachers care about us.   The root cause of that shooting was the same as all of the subsequent shootings, the perpetrator felt alienated from the school or felt to be unknown by the school.
So we have a pretty good idea of what turns otherwise fairly typical kids into people intent on destroying other people.  It is not clear to me how throwing more money into armed guards is going to fix the problem.
There are about 132,000 schools in the United States.  That means a student in a public school has about a .01% chance of being in a school with an invader.   Thirty-three thousand of those schools are private.   As of the end of 2017, private schools have been spared the horror of any large scale shooting.  I think there is a clear reason for this difference.  It is simple to me.   Private school students are known to their teachers.  The schools are much smaller.  Kids are not numbers; they are faces with names and interests.  Teachers ask about family members and family events. That just doesn't happen in secondary public schools and not in many elementary schools.
School districts in Maryland will be spending millions of dollars to hire, train and equip armed SRO’s.  One or maybe two of these people will be guarding high schools with 2,700 or more students.   How much better it would be if these millions could be spent on more clinicians who had the time and interest to care about and talk to kids.  People who wanted to give these kids an identity within the school.   People who were not wasting their skills pushing test scores around.   We need to spend those dollars on saving kids not shooting at possible invaders. And let us hope, that if we get all these new SRO’s and a shooter does come into the school, those 1-2 people won’t be off somewhere barking up the wrong tree.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The "Can't do it" trap

The “Can’t Do it “ Trap

There are lots of things students can’t do.   They can’t fly; they can’t leap tall buildings at a single bound; and they don’t have x-ray vision.  They probably won’t be professional athletes or win an academy award for acting. Those are all low probability events.
And there are lots more things that they can’t do NOW but might be able to do with fine, fine teaching unless we allow ourselves to fall into the “can’t do” trap.  Everyone has seen that trap.   It is lying in wait for everyone who teaches children with disabilities, poor kids or students with unstable home situations.   Those traps are waiting for each and every teacher who needs an excuse for why her teaching has failed.  It is very easy to just glide right into that trap.   As the saying goes, “when you are deep in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging”.  So here are some ways to avoid all those excuse making traps.
Give ‘em some love.   There are people who will tell you that you should not get emotionally involved with your students.   My advice is, if you aren’t emotionally involved with your kids, get out of the profession.   Many students of poverty, dysfunctional homes and/or with disabilities that make them feel they are a disappointment to others, need love.  So tell your students you love them and care about them. Trying to learn is a risk taking behavior.   Children are much more likely to take that risk with someone they believe cares about them and wants the best for them.  They also need to feel that it is safe to fail.   They need to know that they will not be humiliated and that the teacher’s love and caring will provide a very soft landing if at first they do not succeed.  So tell your students you care about them early and often.
Students need teachers.   They don’t need pity for their circumstances nor do they need teachers to use those circumstances as an excuse for low expectations.   We already know what the child’s yesterday looked like.   We can teach to the child in the present and through that teaching we can define what his/her tomorrow will be.  Think of every lesson as a stepping stone toward tomorrow and a positive future.  A child may not be able to read today, but with the proper instruction step-by-step she will be able to read tomorrow.  Teachers need to keep their eyes on tomorrow and build the stairway toward that tomorrow by starting with expectations today, not excuses for why-not.
Teachers need to be human with their kids and recognize that the students are human as well, young but human.  If we want the children to respect us we need to build relationships with them.  Talk to them (not preach).   Find out what their burdens are today.  Is someone sick at home?   Is someone home period?  Did a boy or a girlfriend reject them?   Are they in competition for affection with another peer or some adult in the home?  Share your own similar experiences. Let the kids know you respect their challenges and that you too are facing challenges.  Those connections will make it much easier for the teacher to discipline or be trusted by the student when the student is presented with challenging work.   Life is all about honest relationships.
Good leaders have a lot to do with avoiding the can't do traps.  Every teacher is a leader.  Leaders need to lead; you cannot blame the system or blame the student challenges.  If we don’t believe in our hearts that we can change these kids’ lives, we should have stopped digging a long time ago because we are deep in the hole.  “They can’t do it” trap is a deep hole.   We need to stop digging and start delivering the future for our students.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Should We Let Them?

Should We Let Them?

Last week students throughout the country demonstrated their concern and memory for the 17 students and educators who were killed at their high school in Florida.   The reactions to the question: “Should we let them?” were across the spectrum from “no, and there will be consequences if you do”, past benign neglect all the way to the other end where administrators facilitated the event and faculty participated with students.
My first reaction was why the question was even asked.    Many years ago the Supreme Court made clear that students do not leave their first amendment rights at the school house door unless the demonstration of those rights would disrupt the education of others.
Of course, the supporters of “there will be consequences” immediately jumped on the disruption factor.   Yet in school systems that either allowed but did not facilitate and in school systems that facilitated and participated there were no disruptions.   The students and their supports walked out of class for 17 minutes, mostly stood in silence with heads bowed, then reentered their schools.   In some communities, students had assemblies and discussions on the event and their very strong feelings that they did not want this tragedy to touch their school and what could be done to prevent that.
We have universal education at public expense in our country.   We even limit the liberty of children between 5 and 16 (mostly although the end limit varies) to do anything but attend school.   It is expensive so there must have been a good reason for this requirement.
Although it is often forgotten, the reason was that as suffrage expanded we needed an educated electorate to make these elections work.  The need to train workers for the economy is a relatively recent reason to fund public education.
If we go back to our roots in public education, we still need an educated electorate.   Our students need more education in civics than they need chemistry or trigonometry.  The students who left their classrooms last week were not only speaking out for their cause but they were demonstrating an understanding of how a democracy works.  I found it particularly confusing that the advocates for punitive consequences for the students leaving school for 17 minutes and, thereby, disrupting their education was to promise that they would be suspended for a day causing their education to be further disrupted.   Where is the consistent value here?

We have no business asking the question should we let them.   Our job as educators is to not only “let” them but to encourage them to think more about their values as citizens in a democracy and how those values will be played out by their civic activism and their voting record.   The children of the 1950’s were repeatedly reprimanded for being the apathetic generation.   Now our children are no longer apathetic.   They want to take up the discussion and make change.   And we have the nerve to ask the question- Should we let them?