Tuesday, October 16, 2018

It's a miracle!

It’s a Miracle!  You will NEVER believe this!
This just in!  Training public school teachers to work with kids on the autism spectrum actually helps the kids achieve in mainstream classes.
A new study looked at elementary school teachers who had children on the autism spectrum in their classes.   Researchers involved 60 schools in ten school districts in California, Florida and Georgia.  
For half of the teachers, a website was made available to them with learning modules to assist them in relating to students with autism and modifying instruction for those students.  Teachers at the other schools participated in three days of specialized on-site training.
Following the two types of training, videos were taken in the classrooms to see if there were any differences in the interactions of the two groups of teachers.  Analysis of the videos showed that the teachers who participated in the live actively engaged training were significantly better in adaptive communication, social skills and executive functioning.  There were no controls to make sure that the teachers who were supposed to watch the videos actually did. 
Researchers say these results are meaningful because general educators in most states are not required to learn about autism despite the large potential of children on the spectrum being in their classes.
What are these school systems thinking?   Children with disabilities, any disability, need specialized instruction to reach their full potential.  It is fine to insist on children with disabilities being educated with plain students as much as is appropriate, but what about the training for those teachers who are working with these kids?
Is the thrill of being with a plain student so wonderful that children with disabilities are subjected to teachers who lack the specialized skills to meet their needs?   I know that people who feel strongly about full inclusion are very invested in children with disabilities being in a classroom with non-disabled students.  If their child had a heart condition would they feel as strongly about sending their child to a general practice or would they insist on a health care provider that had special training in cardiology.  Seems to me it is the same issue. If my child has special learning needs, I want my kid taught by a specialist in learning challenges.  But these are people who believe in miracles, give teachers some specialty training and they do a better job with the special kids who need it.  Will miracles never cease.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Do schools really prepare kids for careers?

Do Schools Really Prepare Kids for Careers?

Standardized testing is all about measuring the student’s preparation for careers and college.  It is interesting that we can do that without taking to heart what employers say they are looking for in an employee.
Employers repeatedly say they have trouble finding new employees with good oral-communication skills. Yet relatively few public schools teach these skills and even fewer teach them in a real-world worksite.
In almost every survey, employers say they need people who are good communicators.  They say this skill is more important than good reading or writing skills.  Good oral skills are the things employers want most but cannot find.  No, algebra was never mentioned.
You cannot find a single employer who does not value these skills so why are they not taught.   Probably the reason schools are not teaching these skills is that they are not tested on the standardized tests.   Common Core curriculum standards do mention the skills; it is just that they are not taught because they are not tested.
Employers say they cannot find staff who can construct a clear, concise message that is tailored to different audiences.  New hires cannot discuss issues as a team, prepare to respond respectfully to differences of opinion.  They do not appear confident nor make eye contact.  
The training provided by schools included book reports, Power Point presentations, and class room discussions.  Nothing about what employers are wanting in employees.
Employers have started to do their own training for these skills.
Soon Maryland will replace the PARCC tests with the MCAP.   The MCAP hasn’t been created yet but we are told it will test essentially test what the PARCC measures but will take less time and will be more easily scored.
Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to what employers want?  Why do we talk about students being career ready but not developing the skills that make the student career ready?
There is nothing in the request for the new MCAP developers that indicates they need to reach out to employers to see what schools need to be teaching and measuring for real post-secondary success.  Until they do there will continue to be the mismatches between schools and jobs.  These mismatches keep begging the answer when kids question the importance of school.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Where oh where will the teachers be?

Where oh where will the teachers be?

It is no secret there is a shortage of special education teachers.  Most school systems are still missing several at this time in the school year.   But what would you do if you needed 9000! special education teachers!  There may not be 9,000 special ed teachers without jobs in the entire country.
But that is just the spot the great state of Texas finds itself in.  Of course, it is their own fault.  For the last ten-to-twelve years, Texas has capped the number of children who may be identified as having special education needs.  The cap was 8.5% of the school age population.   Nationally, about 13% of school age children have disabilities needing special education. If your child was among those beyond the 8.5%, your child got no service in spite of the federal law requiring that all children with special needs between ages 3 and 21  be given an individualized free appropriate special education.   Texas must have forgotten it is no longer the lone star state, it is one of 50 and as such needs to obey federal law.
Two years ago, the Houston Chronicle did an investigation after numerous parent complaints.  That investigation triggered an audit by the U.S. Office of Education.  The department found that Texas had violated federal law. Texas has been directed to eliminate the cap.
The Texas department of education estimates that by 2021 they will be adding about 150,000 students to the rolls of special education.  That will necessitate the hiring of about 9,000 new special ed teachers if the current ratio of 1 teacher for every 16 students with special needs is sustained.  The State has started to add incentives such as forgiving student loans in order to get more special ed teachers but that hasn’t begun to move the needle.  Plus there is now a plethora of lawsuits working their way through the courts by students who have been deprived of a free, appropriate special education as required by federal law.   Texas is estimating the uptick in services could cost as much as three BILLION new dollars.  Additionally, special ed teachers leave teaching in Texas at a much higher rate than other teachers.  So Texas doesn’t just need to find new teachers, it also needs to replace the teachers who are leaving.  It is a lot like trying to empty a sinking canoe with a bucket.
The State acknowledges that money is only part of the issue.   People must be found to do the job and to do it well. The State agency is recommending schools modify their staffing models to fit the available staff.  Not sure what that means but sounds a lot like adding more water to the chicken soup but no additional chicken.
The situation is sort of like what happens when you tell one lie.  And then you need two more lies to cover for the first one and then…. Well you get the picture.
Texas is reaping the effects of lying to families and citizens for all these years, by telling them the state is serving the needs of children with disabilities in Texas-- NOT

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Least Restrictive for Whom?

Least Restrictive for Whom?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that students with disabilities be educated with non-disabled children to the maximum extent appropriate.  That last phrase “to the maximum extent appropriate” is generally ignored or the assumption is made that the more a child with a disability is with plain kids, the more appropriate the placement is.  That is very often NOT the case.   And seldom is the question asked, most appropriate for whom?

It used to be that whenever families wanted a “more restrictive” placement for their child, i.e. have the child educated in a placement with more students who were like the child with the disability, that request was dismissed out of hand as being too restrictive.  Parents were told that children with disabilities had to be educated in the least restrictive environment or LRE.  

In fact, our school recently received a request from a public school system to identify 1-2 students who could be returned to an LRE.   No mention at all was made of what would be better for the child.  The request is all about numbers and how many students will be placed with children who do not have disabilities.

Things may be changing.   Courts are stepping in with some common sense.  A First Circuit court (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island) has said that placement decisions must consider the child’s needs and not be made by “mechanically choosing the least restrictive environment. While an IEP need not maximize a child’s potential, each child must receive personalized instruction and sufficient support services to benefit educationally”.  And the recent Endrew Supreme Court decision has made it clear that the benefit must be substantive and not minimal.  

A Fourth Circuit court (South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia) has found that although mainstreaming is preferred, it is inappropriate when a child’s disability “would make it difficult for the child to bridge the disparity in cognitive levels between him and the other students".

One of the big arguments for having children with disabilities with plain kids is that the children with the disabilities would benefit from being with plain kids.  Whose idea is that?   Look around, I don’t know about you but my friends are birds with similar feathers.  I notice that people flock to be with others who have similar socio-economic status, similar political beliefs and similar faith leanings even if the actual faith is different. Left and right wing folk don’t usually hang out in the same nest.

And so it is true for kids with disabilities.  They tend to be friends with people who are like they are just like the rest of us birds.   We are all more comfortable, rightly or wrongly, with our own flock.  That is where we can be most like ourselves.  So when people tell me less restrictive it is for children with disabilities to be with kids who don’t have disabilities- I can’t help but ask the question- Least Restrictive for Whom?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Let's see if we can get it right this time?

Let’s See If We Can Get it Right This Time…

If my memory is serving me correctly, the Maryland State Department of Education has tried five times in the last 30 years to come up with a statewide standardized testing program - all in the name of improving instruction.
The latest and greatest failure is the Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers, better known as the PARCC tests. 
Everyone agrees that the tests are too long.  They are too disruptive to the instructional process and the results come back too late for the teaching staff to do anything that approximates using the test information to inform instruction.
But worst of all, after three years of teaching to this test, the kids are still not passing it.  Just 34 percent of the State’s elementary and middle-school students passed the most recent PARCC tests in math; nearly 42 percent did not pass in English.  These results are politically unsustainable.   I mean even kids in the economically advanced counties aren’t passing the things.  The tests are based on the content from the Common Core curriculum.  Most education experts have said all along that the standards in Common Core did not align with child development, but what do they know. The tests take upwards of 9 1/2 hours to give.  The idea originally was that all states would give the same test based on the same standards and school systems could be compared across states.  That idea really never got off the ground.  About half the states went with a different test right from the beginning- the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium.  That always sounded like a butter substitute to me but what do I know.
So for this current school year, Maryland together with New Jersey, New Mexico and the District of Columbia will be the last hold-outs for the PARCC assessments.  
Education is one of the biggest deals to governors. You will notice that Governor Hogan is claiming credit for the most money for education ever!  That is great but he really didn't have anything to do with it, there is a state law the dictates the increase every year. 
 So when people complain about a state-wide test and scores on those tests by students are terrible even in the “good” school systems what’s a governor to do.  Simple leave that test for another one.
And that is exactly what Maryland is hoping to do for the 2019-2020 school year.  The State Department of Education has put out a request for proposals (RFP) for a company to come forth and develop the new test, it will be called the MCAP, Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program.  Kind of catchy don’t you think?
The teachers’ unions are all over it.  It doesn’t exist yet but it is going to be shorter and the results will be back sooner.   But don’t you worry it will be just as rigorous.  Citizens be assured this is going to be no PARCC Light with a Maryland seal on the cover.  No cost figures have been released as to how much this ever better standardized test will cost the taxpayers after spending millions and millions on the PARC test.  Trust me it will be a bundle.
We have had Project Basic, MSPAP, MSA, HSA, PARCC- now comes MCAP.  Maybe the State will finally get it right this time- or maybe they will decide to use all that money to put better instructional programs in place for the students.   Nah, we are not quitters.  We will keep trying to get a state test that will be politically viable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

No one was ever fooled...

No one was ever fooled…

Remember when you were in elementary school and your teacher grouped the kids into the Little Red House group, the Bluebird group and the Robin group.  All the groups were equal—right?!  Was there anyone in the class who did not know which groups was the slowest group and which group was the smart kids?  Didn’t think so.
Recently a study of over 12,000 students in 2,100 schools found that although kids in the lowest group did improve and by 3rdgrade almost half of the students in the lowest group had moved up to the median group. However, the researcher found that NONE of the children who started kindergarten in the lowest group moved up to the top group by 3rdgrade.  There are multiple reasons for this situation. One of which is that teachers do not believe that the students in the lowest group have the ability to be in the highest group for whatever reason. But first some other research.
In a series of three new studies from Switzerland, researchers asked teachers to evaluate student profiles. All of the test scores showed the children to be on the borderline of rigorous academic achievement.  The children’s records arbitrarily assigned them to high, median or low income families.  Again, it is important to note that these were arbitrary assignments, not really the children's socioeconomic status and the test scores were very similar for all children.  Over multiple studies, teachers assigned the lower income children to the lowest reading groups even though their test scores were essentially the same as the arbitrarily assigned higher income kids.
What these studies suggest is that we have been grouping children wrongly all along.  Here's a new idea, instead of grouping children based on teacher perceived ability, why not group the children according to the skill set they need to develop.  So, you can have children of differing abilities who all need to work on decoding by the use of phonics.  Another group could be working on decoding using a whole word or context clue approach.  And still another group of kids who are done with decoding, could be working on comprehension.  Every eight weeks, students are assessed again and groups are shuffled according to the new information.
In fact, a new approach, Assessment to Instruction (A2I) assesses children in four areas of reading instruction: decoding, fluency, comprehension and usage.  Students are grouped for instruction based on particular focus skills rather than overall reading ability.   The system does a several things.  First, it targets the areas of literacy that children need rather than working on all areas with all kids.  Secondly, it mixes up ability levels within the targeted skill areas so children do not see themselves as the low achievers in the room.  Lastly, it produces better outcomes.   In a recent longitudinal study in California, students who participated in the A2I approach over three years performed significantly higher than the control group that used the standard ability approach to grouping.
Every kid always knows which group is the dumb bunnies; and sadly so do the dumb bunnies.  By grouping kids according to skill set and changing the grouping every couple of months, even the smartest kids may not know which group is the dumb bunnies. Not a bad way to confuse children. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Inclusion is a delusion

Inclusion is a delusion- now we even have research

Many of us have said for a very long time that inclusion is a delusion that will not work for either children with disabilities or for plain kids.  It is a system that painted over a plan to save money with cheap PC statements about how much the children with disabilities would learn from the plain kids and how empathetic the experience would make plain kids.  Clearly these folks have never studied human behavior. 
 Some disability advocates have argued for ALL children with disabilities, regardless of the severity, to be educated in general education classrooms.  Today more than 60% of children with disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in a general ed classroom.  Not quite what the all-in advocates want but certainly enough to do damage to the kids with learning challenges.
Now comes some research that shows there is little academic benefit to the students and there is little evidence that the general ed teacher has the preparation to meet the unique learning and behavioral needs of students with challenges.  Oh, and there is also the interest and the will to learn on the part of the general educator. 
Unfortunately, common wisdom seems to be that the more a child with a disability is educated with plain students the greater the likelihood is that the program is appropriate.  In this model appropriateness  of program is based on setting not on instruction OR on academic growth of the student. One study looked at children with math disabilities who were taught with specially designed instructional methods.  Their progress was compared with similarly disabled students who were taught in an inclusion class with instructional methods that included multiple means for students to express learning.  This method is known as Universal Design for Learning. The two groups had very different results.  The math achievement gap between students with disabilities who received instruction in general education was double that of those children who received specially designed instruction in a separate group.  By year 3 the gap is even greater!   
Favoring the placement of children with disabilities in general ed classrooms seems to ignore that the vast majority of these kids have already failed in general ed, that is one of the prime reasons they were identified as having special learning needs.
Teachers, too, are chiming in on their thoughts with their feet.  Teachers without special education certification in North Carolina were 2.4% more likely to leave the school or teaching when 1/5thof their students had IEPs.   Teachers with “inclusive” classrooms report spending less time on instruction and more time on behavior management.  It is not clear whether the increased time on behavior management by the teachers was due to lack of skill on the part of the teacher or noncompliant behavior on the part of the child.  Nationally, the number of teachers with special education certification has declined to the point that the ratio of special education teachers to children with disabilities is LESS than the ratio of plain children to general education teachers.
There are 3 stakeholder groups in this discussion: students with disabilities, plain students and teachers, both general ed and special education certified.   All three of these groups would benefit from causal research into the benefits of inclusion on the achievement of all children.  
Until we free ourselves from the preconceived notion that location of program is an indicator of academic progress, that research is unlikely.
We will continue to wave the magic wand, declare inclusion a victory, and move on to other fairy tales.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

High Quality Teachers-dream or reality

High Quality Teachers- Dream or Reality

The Kirwin Commission named after Brit Kirwin former President of the University System of Maryland has been charged with making recommendations for the improvement of education in Maryland.  One big part of the recommendation is the report of the sub-group on High Quality Teachers and Leaders Workgroup.
There are many recommendations from the group, all of which will dramatically increase the cost of teachers in Maryland.  The bigger question is whether the recommendations, if funded ( a HUGE if), would also increase the quality of the teaching in Maryland.
The first section of the report addresses pay equity of teachers with other professions and with teachers in Massachusetts and New Jersey. The Workgroup is recommending an-across-the board increase of 10% in the next three years in order to achieve this objective.  No mention is made of whether or not merit will be taken into account for this increase nor of the fact that the cost of living in New Jersey and Massachusetts is much higher than that of Maryland.  
The report acknowledges the roles of the various unions in setting teachers' salaries.  It recommends that the State conduct periodic benchmarking studies of teachers' salaries. Each county and local union will receive from the State at the start of each collective bargaining process the weighted salaries of comparable professionals such as registered nurses and accountants.  Again there is no mention of the fact that merit figures highly into the salaries of other professionals unlike teachers who all receive the same salary with the same education and same time in the profession in the same jurisdiction.
The next big section of the report concerns a career ladder for teachers. The career ladder they are suggesting is similar to the those found in Singapore and Shanghai.  
The State would provide the design parameters for each step of the ladder, although local systems may make their own corrections within the parameters spelled out by the State.  It is projected that there will be many more teachers at the bottom rungs of the ladder than at the top.  Positions at the top will also be limited so that people will only be able to move into those spots based on availability.  This approach is different from a salary plan implemented by Baltimore City in which salaries are regularly topping 100K based on a system similar to earning merit badges.  In the proposed system,  movement up the ladder will be a function of performance and experience.  There will be a teacher leadership track and an administrative leadership track.  Individuals may move horizontally between the two tracks.  Along with these new tracks will be a proposal to raise the standards for acquiring a teaching license.   The new standard does not measure classroom performance but rather a test of teaching ability.  These new tests require the submission of portfolios designed to show how well an applicant teaches absent the children in a real classroom.  An individual can prepare a great portfolio but will it fly with 28.5 children in a real 8th grade classroom. 
All of these steps admittedly will dramatically raise the cost of teachers. And if teachers can’t meet the new standards, the plan will also reduce the number of teachers at a time when student enrolled in Colleges of Education is falling significantly.  
This is an ambitious plan that will cost a great deal of money without really assuring that the quality of teachers will improve.  Unless we can also improve the quality of the teaching we will just be getting better paid weak teachers

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

How do I IEP?

How do I IEP?

The school year is about to start anew.   For many families that means there will be an IEP meeting that will need to be negotiated.   These meetings can be fun, fulfilling and/or demanding and torturous.
Federal and state law require that the IEP (Individual Education Program) be truly individual to each child and be the document that describes how FAPE (Free appropriate public education) is provided to each child.  FAPE is guaranteed to each child with a disability from birth through the school year in which the child turns 21.  A school system cannot plead lack of resources or staff for failure to meet the requirements of the IEP, so it is very important that the document spells out what is needed.
Since school systems cannot claim shortages as reasons for not providing the services, they will sometimes go another route and insist the child does not need the service.
Flash to parents, first of all the IEP is a serious deal for your child, please dress the part.  You want to be taken seriously by the staff.  There is a good chance that staff will outnumber you, so you need to look like someone who is not to be messed with.  Parents may bring an advocate or an attorney to the meeting.  They may also bring separate independent evaluations about their child.   The law requires that the team consider these evaluations.  Consider does not mean accept or follow the advice given. It means simply that, consider. So, the team can read the evaluation, put it aside, and they have considered it.
This past year the Supreme Court gave parents a bright new tool. The Janus decision is very clear, an IEP that provides only the minimal amount of progress for a child from year to year is not providing FAPE.   In the past, before this decision, IEP teams could count any progress at all as meeting the requirement.  Now families can demand more and they can insist on differing expectations to meet their children’s needs.
It is not unusual for staff to report school performance that is below that which families see at home or for teachers to indicate that instructional performance in the classroom is higher than that shown on a formal evaluation. Kids do better at home because there is usually less pressure and parents help in many ways their support to provide.  Likewise, in everyday instruction, there are many supports that allow a student to do better than on a timed formal test.
No matter how young or how old the child is, a parent’s eye should be on where you want this child to be when the entitlement of FAPE is over.  
The IEP is parents’ best control over their child’s education. Use it carefully and wisely.

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.