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