Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Bastardization of IDEA

The Bastardization of IDEA

Long ago and far away, 1975 to be exact, President Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), the precursor of IDEA.   At the signing, the President said it felt it was unlikely to achieve its goals and probably impossible to do so.
Turns out he may have been prescient in his remarks.   About 44 years later we still aren’t there.   What is even more troubling is that rather than look for better ways to help children, we have become skilled at playing a shell game to make it look like kids are being served when they are not.
There are truly egregious issues, such as Texas that had a rule that only a certain number of children could have disabilities in the state.  They were finally caught after many years and are now crying they don’t have the money- or the teachers- to catch up and help children.
But there are many more less blatant efforts to prevent students from receiving services.  Most of these lie in the use of artificial rules that are established.   For example, many school districts do not offer speech and language services to children in high school.   The excuse is that by high school the children have either resolved the speech and language issues or they are too old to be helped.   I find that very curious since these same kids needed the service in June at the end of middle school but somehow, after what could only be called an amazing summer, they no longer need these services.
One of the biggest push backs from EHA and IDEA is the addition of occupational therapy as a school service.  School systems resisted that right from the git-go.  Today the resistance has taken another form.  In order to receive OT as a school service, the assistance needs to be needed so that the child can access a free and appropriate pubic education.  Again, school districts are saying that once in high school these services are no longer needed.   One of the major goals of special education is for the students to be able to live independently and to be prepared for a career or college.   Everyone agrees with that objective.   Yet when an OT says that a high school student needs OT to be taught to shave himself, or for a girl to manage feminine hygiene issues, suddenly those skills are not related to living independently or being prepared for a job or college?   The reasoning for those conclusions escapes me except for one reason totally unrelated to the child’s right to OT.  The school districts want to save money.
And the truth is that from day 1, EHA/IDEA has never received the federal funding that was authorized in the original bill.  Laws “authorize” Congress to appropriate money to get something done.  That is the hitch.  That which is authorized most often does not get appropriated- as in put the money in the real budget. So while the authorization looks good, the real money never reaches the real beneficiaries.   In this case, children with disabilities are the ones deprived.
In fact, from day one, school districts have put most of their effort into the optics of looking good while obeying the law with the least amount of money. And that is how what looked like a beautiful child has become a bastard.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Let’s Blame the Teachers

We all know it is the teacher’s fault when kids don’t learn.  That is why there is the strong push to link teacher pay to achievement test scores of kids.   If teachers did a better job of teaching, students would do a better job of learning.  But what if there are other factors besides how well the teacher teachers.
The single highest corollary for achievement by children is the quality of the partnership between home and school.  Teachers sometimes think that partnership only goes one way, parents need to be nice to teachers and do as teachers ask.

But let’s look at it from another perspective.  Teaching is the teachers’ job.  They get paid a decent salary with good benefits and great vacation time off to do that job.  Yet consistently teachers complain to parents that the child is not learning.  A teacher will contact home and inform the parent that the child is not paying attention at school.  Just exactly does the teacher want the parent to do?   It is the teacher’s job to make school sufficiently interesting that the child will pay attention.  The teacher needs to look at the level of the work being offered the child and methodology being used.  That is not the parent’s job.

Teachers often complain to parents about things they see as being wrong with the child.   Parents live with their children.   They are more than aware of what challenges their children have.   They do not need a teacher to appraise them of the difficulty.

Teachers have a very bad habit of contacting parents with only bad news. So when a teacher’s name pops up in email or on a phone screen, the parent’s stomach will clutch and the parent will not want to respond.   Teachers need to send good news home, even more often than they send bad news.  Teachers say they don’t have the time to send home good news but yet, they always make the time to send home bad news or requests about how parents can make the teacher’s job easier.   That is not a parent’s job.  Parents have their own work to do and teachers who are also parents should be well aware of that.

It is easy to blame the teachers.  After all they make the big bucks.  But if we want kids to succeed, we need to stop blaming each other. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Let's Blame the Parents

Let’s Blame the Parents

The evidence is very clear.   The major variable that predicts a child’s success in school is parent involvement and support.   Parent involvement beats socio economic status, parent education level and single vs. 2-parent homes.   So now if those pesky parents would just do what they need to do, most assuredly test scores will go up.   So why don’t they?

The main reason is probably because many parents don’t know what we as educators really need them to do.  Remember that old advice we gave to young children, “to have a friend you need to be a friend”.  Problem was most kids without friends didn’t know HOW to be a friend, which probably explained why they didn’t have any.

Back to parents.   First of all, parents need to present a united front with the school.   It needs to be clear to children that both teachers and parents want children to succeed in school.  It is also easy for kids to figure out that they can pit parents and teachers against each other.  Parents need to resist that.   If parents have an issue with what a teacher is doing, that issue needs to be strictly between educators and parents. From the child’s point-of-view, the school team and the home team are one.  Sort of like not allowing kids to attempt splitting between parents.

Secondly, school needs to be seen as a value.  That means school is NOT a place where kids go when families need babysitting or when there isn’t a nice vacation set up.  School needs to be seen as the first priority for the child. School is the child’s job. Children should not miss school for any reason that would not be a good reason for a parent to miss work.  Most states have clear reasons that are acceptable for an excused absence.  School is serious business and parents need to act as if it is.

Good educators make a difference in a child's life.  But they aren't going to make the child into something he or she is not.  And it is not fair for parents to expect that a child with limited ability in any area is going to become exceptional in that area, if only the child had the the right teacher.

School requirements need to be part of a family’s schedule.  That means homework is done at a particular time and a particular place.   School forms need to be completed and returned to school.  School is important and our behaviors need to show that.

In today’s economy, it is unrealistic to expect parents to have lots of time to volunteer at school during the school day.   But parents can attend evening meetings and provide input via email and notes to the school.

As educators we need to educate parents on what they can do to help their child succeed, not just blame the parents for not doing enough.  Having said that, teachers aren’t off the hook either.   Next week let’s blame the teachers.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Have you been Naughty or Nice?

Have you been Naughty or Nice?

It’s that time of year when we all espouse peace on earth but live in a way that will never let that happen.
Rogers and Hammerstein taught us in the musical South Pacific that “we have to be taught from year to year, it has to be drummed in our dear little ear, to hate all the people our relatives fear, we have to be carefully taught”.
We are all being carefully taught these days to hate and fear all of the people who are different from the face we see in the mirror.
We talk about building a wall along our southern border but not our northern border.  Is that just because the border movement from the U.S. is towards Canada while the border movement from the southern border is towards the United States?   Or is it because Canadians look a lot like us so we are not afraid of them?
People on the left and right politically show dark faces when they picture either folks who need food stamps or criminals depending on one’s point-of-view.  But both images are inherently racist.  More white people use food stamps than black and more white folks are criminals than black.  African Americans make up about 1/3 of the people incarcerated in our country.  When you learn about a criminal act, do you picture a dark face or a light skinned one?
Do you give to charities that support people with disabilities?   That makes you nice; but do you hire them to work in your business?   Don’t think there are jobs people with disabilities can do because your work is too complicated for them?   That makes you naughty.  Look again, you would be surprised at the talents that people with disabilities have, and some of them can make your business more profitable.
Do you look twice at a mixed race couple or mixed race family?  What about a gay couple?  If these differing examples of love make you a bit uncomfortable, maybe Santa would think that was naughty.   Or more importantly, if we truly want peace on earth each of us needs to act in a way that would make that happen. Celebrating love in all its forms seems like a good way to get started.  Excluding folks who are different from whatever confronts us in the bathroom mirror each morning, is not helping a very difficult problem.
Leading from a position of fear is not leadership.  Each of us needs to be willing to be a leader in our everyday interactions with others.  Assume people who look different have similar needs and wants to our own.   Assume people with differing skill sets can still contribute to the bottom line of any business.   Buck the thundering voices of negativity all around us, not just at this time of year but every day.   Spend your “naughty” on that extra piece of dark chocolate, and save your “nice” for a smile to a struggling mother and perhaps a pay-it-forward good deed or a willingness to take a risk with a job offer to someone with differing abilities.   Santa would approve of both.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Someone is FINALLY Getting the Basic Point

A federal lawsuit class action has been filed against Rhode Island public schools for failing to prepare students for participation in a democracy.  Where ever you are, you can hear me cheering!
The suit points to a woeful lack of knowledge by American students about how our government works.   Less than a third of 8thgraders understand the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.   In a recent survey, fewer than half of all Americans could name the three branches of government. And only one in five Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 reads a newspaper.

The suit names the Governor, the State Department of Education, and leaders of the General Assembly.   The suit claims that the U.S. Constitution guarantees all students should have access to an education that prepares them to participate in their civic duties such as free speech, voting and serving on a jury.   One problem is that the right to an education, appropriate or otherwise, is not mentioned in the Constitution.

The Rhode Island Department of Education said it requires three years of history/social studies to earn a high school diploma and that the standards specifically talk about civics.  Yet students have testified that in 12 years in a public high school, they have never been taught how government works.  Maryland does not require civics.

Long ago and far away, the main reason for providing everyone an education at public expense was because taxpayers believed that an educated electorate was critical to a functioning democracy.   Where did we go wrong?

Similar cases have gone through the courts before.  There have been similar cases in 47 states.   In approximately 60% of those cases the courts have ruled that students have a Constitutional right to an adequate education. Rhode island was not among them.  Teachers across the country are not tested on their knowledge or civics or American history.

How did we get from preparing students to be active citizens to insisting on two years of algebra and no civics education at all.   There is a reason so many people don’t vote or are easily flummoxed by shouting politicians, the people know not how the system works. Wouldn’t it be great if schools really got back to basics?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Star Struck

Star Struck

After several years in the making, the Maryland State Department of Education has not only released its star ranking systems but has also awarded the stars.    Schools get stars for test scores, attendance, climate survey and year over year improvement on tests scores.
Now that the report is out there really aren’t all that many surprises.  Baltimore City did not do too well. Only a few five-star schools. Howard County did very well.  So did Carroll County.   You could lay a socio-economic template down over the map of the state and the correlation between socio-economic level and number of stars is obvious.   We are regularly taught that correlation does not equal causation but in this case many of the factors that lead to low socio-economic status are also the same issues that will impact the star categories.
Some people have complained about the number of five-star schools, why so many?   If you look closely at the spread you will notice something interesting. There are the same number of one-star schools as there are 5-star schools.  Ditto the numbers of two and four-star schools. That is because MSDE took the data and spread it out over a configuration known as the Bell Curve. Maybe you have seen it.  It is shaped like a bell jar.  The Bell Curve scales the various scores so that the schools with the highest number of stars  get 100% on the curve.   Schools with the lowest scores are placed at the other end of the curve.   With this method the 2.5% of schools with the highest scores would get five stars and the 2.5% of the schools with the lowest scores would get 1 star.  The next 13.5% on either end of the Bell Curve would get 2 and 4 stars respectively; while the middle 68% in the bubble or high point of the bell would get 3 stars.   So when the superintendent of Baltimore County said that she believed a 3 star rating was average she was correct.
But here is the point.  When you set scores on any distribution along a Bell Curve, 2.5% will ALWAYS get the highest ranking regardless of what the actual scores are.  This is the reason some people have complained about too many 5-star schools and too many 1-star schools.  
So what exactly does all this star rating stuff do for us?  Well it will raise property values in the 5-star school areas, and lower them in the 1-star areas.   But those were probably already pretty low.   It does recognize year over year improvement in test scores for some schools.  The schools with high absentee rates probably already knew that.   The stars system does inform the community about its neighborhood schools.   It does put pressure on school administrators to work to get more stars. It also cost a great deal of money to develop and to implement, and provides very little new information. How much better would it have been to not be so star-struck and to use that money to fix the problems we already knew existed.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Walking the Welcome Walk

Walking the Welcome Walk

A few years ago, a parent came to me with a concern.   Her parish priest had asked her and her husband to take turns coming to services so the other parent could stay home with their son, Richard.   Richard has learning disabilities and ADHD.  The priest believed he was disruptive to their services.   The priest’s request came not long after Richard’s grandmother had requested that Richard not come to Thanksgiving dinner because she found him to be disruptive as well.  

This family is not alone in discovering that their son is not welcome because of his disabilities.   Throughout our country parents of children with disabilities have been asked to attend services without their children or if they must bring the children the parents are asked to sit with the children in a separate space, often called a “family room”.  

The result of these policies is that across the United States, children with developmental or intellectual disabilities are much more likely to never attend religious services than are children with no disabilities.   

In a recent study, the odds of children on the autism spectrum never attending religious services are almost double what they are for plain children. There are similar odds for children with depression, a developmental delay or a learning disability.  This situation is not true for children with chronic health conditions that are more physical in nature such as diabetes, vision or hearing problems.  

There are multiple issues here.  First of all, houses of worship often signal that the welcome mat is not out for those with challenges.  The places of worship lack ramps for those who use wheelchairs.  No adaptations are made to the rituals or liturgy to meet individual needs.  Sometimes lights, sounds or visuals that are part of the service are disruptive to children with some disabilities.

Members of the congregation could be taught an attitude of acceptance. Instead parents of children with disabilities report being told by other congregants that their children are disruptive or “probably aren’t getting anything out of the service anyway so why should they ruin it for others.”  Clergy people could use these attitudes to teach acceptance of all at God’s house.

In addition to the isolation of the children, parents of children with disabilities often feel socially isolated because of child care needs and the difficulty of finding suitable babysitters.   Often attending a religious service is an important outlet for families to be able to be with others in their faith community.  

A theological and ethical commitment needs to be made by faith communities to these children and their families.  These children need to be welcomed and valued.  Communities need to go beyond talking about compassion and start taking tangible steps to show they have a heart that welcomes these children with special needs.  It is not enough to talk the talk.  It is time to walk the walk of welcome.