Monday, November 23, 2015

Algebra II anyone?

The United States Department of Education just released its latest “significant guidance document.”  Translation- you had better darn well do what we are telling you to do on this.  This latest and greatest destruction of the “I” in Individual Education Program  (IEP) is now almost black letter rule.  From now on the IEP must be aligned with the grade level in which the child is enrolled.  Oh and the grade level equates to the number of years the child has been in school, not to achievement.  According to this latest guidance “research has demonstrated that children with disabilities who struggle in reading and mathematics can successfully learn grade-level content and make significant academic progress when appropriate instruction, services and supports are provided.”  To do otherwise is to allow for low expectations.  REALLY!   If these children could achieve at grade level with great instruction why weren’t they getting that great instruction all along.  In fact, why aren’t all students at grade level?   Oh right, I remember now they were supposed to be according to No Child Left Behind by 2014.  But we have abandoned that foolish goal for all kids but we still think it will work for kids with disabilities.   If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. 
The epistle reminds us that the Department of Education has decreed that the general education curriculum is the same curriculum that should be used for nondisabled children and children with disabilities alike.  This must be a little like sharing the Kool Aid since the general ed curriculum isn’t all that relevant for plain kids and it is even less so for children with disabilities.  But we have never let that stop us before.  There is a bone thrown to the needs of children with disabilities, “this alignment, however, must guide not replace the individual decision-making required in the IEP process.”  Exactly how does the IEP team serve two masters, the learning needs of the child and the demands of grade-level curriculum?  One of the considerations of the team is whether or not the child with disabilities is on track to achieve grade-level proficiency within a year.   If a child with a disability could achieve grade level proficiency within a year the child must be receiving extraordinary instruction or maybe doesn’t have much of a disability.

Then there is the issue of grade levels.  We act as though grade levels were handed down on Mt. Sinai either immediately after or before the Ten Commandments.  In fact the requirements of the various grade levels have changed dramatically over time, both in complexity and in difficulty.  The whole point of the Common Core was to create similar grade level standards throughout the country, never mind from year to year. 

After making its unrealistic demands early on, the guidance document begins to equivocate by advising the IEP goals should be “ambitious but achievable”. No kidding!   It goes on to say, “in other words the annual goals need not necessarily result in the child’s reaching grade-level within the year covered by the IEP”. 

Obviously these kinds of guidance statements bother me a great deal.  Instead of wasting time trying to teach squirrels to fly and birds to climb trees, why can’t we just invest in the talents the kids have and make them better at what they already are.  Oh and here’s a wild idea.  How about preparing them to earn a living and/or go to post-secondary education?  Whoops forgot, they need algebra II.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Police in our schools…do they keep us safe or instigate physical aggression?

Many large high schools and some schools for lower and middle school students employ either active duty police officers or special school security officers.   Obviously these personnel cost the schools money.  One would presume that the money would not be spent unless the administrators determined that the extra security was needed to prevent violence and aggression.  Does the presence of a security force in a school, whether private or public, make kids feel more secure and behave more appropriately?

Clearly exceptions to the rule always get the attention of the media rather than the normal and customary every day occurrence.   So, last August when a video was released by the American Civil Liberties Union showing a school resources officer handcuffing a whimpering 8-year-old special education student people were outraged.  What could an 8-year-old do that would warrant such treatment?  More recently videos of a high school student in South Carolina being whipped from her desk/chair and thrown on the floor because she did not comply with an order from a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school became viral.  The deputy was removed from his job although the sheriff said the deputy had a great record and was experienced.  Turns out the “crime” committed by the girl was being disrespectful and using her cell phone in class.

Schools began incorporating a policing presence after high-profile instances of mass shootings in schools such as Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary.  But there is an old saying.   If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.   One can only wonder if you are a police officer or a school resource officer trained to perform disciplinary actions against people breaking the rules, do you tend to see lots of rule breaking?  If you are a classroom teacher and you are confronted with a smart-mouthed teenager, how easy is it for you to call in the reinforcements?  In fairness if you are a trained law enforcement person, school duty can get pretty boring.  It is also not unusual for these altercations to lead to police arrest and the beginning of a juvenile police record.

Many years ago principals were allowed to paddle kids as part of disciplinary procedures.  Mostly that practice has been outlawed.  It is my view that we do not teach kids that violence is a bad thing by committing violence against them, whether by a paddling principal or by law enforcement personnel. 

School is a place where children should be learning.  The act of learning is itself a risk-taking behavior.  If a person tries to learn there is always the risk of failing.  Learning can only happen in an environment where a child feels safe.  If school becomes a place where children see law enforcement as out to get them, what will that do to their attitude in the larger community.   And if a school is not safe to live in, how will it be a place where it is safe to learn?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Our Schools Are In the Very Best of Hands

Our schools are in the very best of hands.  How do I know?  MSDE has told me so.  In late October the Maryland State Department of Education notified the public that in the most recent evaluation of public school teachers 97.4% were rated either highly effective or effective in a 3-tiered rating system.  Is that wonderful or what?!  Truly I feel I have been transported to Lake Woebegone.   You know that place where are the women are brilliant, the men are handsome and all the children are gifted.  Except in this instance, all the teachers, well except for a very small minority, are just ever so effective.  REALLY!

This is the second annual statewide effort to evaluate teacher and principal effectiveness based on student growth.  Each school system in Maryland developed its own evaluation system within parameters specified by the State.  Evaluations were based on two factors: 1) professional practice- education, leadership and observation, 2) student growth.  At this time student growth is measured by teacher report of the achievement of instructional goals.   Now there is an objective measure.

Here are some other interesting numbers:  Students in low poverty schools are 2 times more likely to have a highly effective teacher than are students in high poverty schools.  Students in low minority schools are four times more likely to have a highly effective teacher than are students in high poverty schools.  Oh and “there is significant variation between school systems in their teacher and principal effectiveness ratings.”  (Quoted from the MSDE press release.)

Here is what I do not understand.  According to this report only 2.6% of teachers are not effective.  Just how are we managing to spread all of these ineffective teachers out into the schools with high minority or high poverty enrollments?  Hardly leaves any ineffective teachers for the high socio-economic schools and/or the schools with small minority enrollments. 

And then there are the recent PARCC scores that were terrible.  Everyone is scrambling to explain why with all these effective and highly effective teachers working in our schools, kids managed to do so poorly.  In all fairness there hasn’t been enough time to teach to these tests to bring the scores up.  Maybe we are not in Lake Woebegone.  Maybe we have fallen down the rabbit hole.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Groundhog Day All Over Again

Headlines read that the results of recent PARCC testing shows kids are not ready for college and careers.   The results were just awful.   The reasons given were that we had just really upped the standards and made the work more challenging and the test results just show that.  REALLY!
I could have written this exact same paragraph by changing PARCC to H.S.A. testing or go back a really long way and write about Project Basic testing from 35 years ago.
In every instance the first batch of test results was terrible.  In every instance we began to do a better job of teaching to the test.  A practice that everyone totally denied yet acknowledged on the sly that it was “probably” happening.   Of course it was happening, particularly when we began to align curriculum to the test and test results to teacher evaluations.  And in every instance we developed a work around so that there were other options in lieu of passing the test.  And the tests also got easier.  Finally in every instance the results became politically acceptable.   You will notice I did not say the children leaned more.
Some commentators in support of continuing to compare the results of English learners, socio-economically disadvantaged kids, and children with disabilities say it would be morally wrong to do otherwise.   What is morally wrong, for these children and lots of other kids, is to continually spend their time with curriculum that does not meet their needs.
In spite of YEARS of a variety of high stakes testing, colleges and universities still report an unprecedented number of freshmen who are not ready to begin college level coursework.   Employers complain that high school graduates don’t know basic customer service skills, nor how to respond to supervision.  Just what ARE we teaching kids that is of value in either higher ed or the work world.
When we get down to it, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been consistent.  A nationally representative group of 600,000 students takes these tests every two years.  The good news is that even though an increased number of children with disabilities have taken the test over the last few years, the gap between plain kids and children with disabilities has not changed.  The bad news is that gap is pretty wide.  In the most recent testing 33% of children with disabilities scored at or above the basic level.  In that same testing 74% of plain students scored at or above the basic level.  In the math area 54% of children with disabilities scored at or above, and 85% of plain kids did.  These are 4th grade scores.
The point is that the NAEP has been a consistent test through the years.  Teachers do not teach to it; curriculum is not tailored to match it.

The rest of the testing programs serve the needs of politicians.  Gives them something to complain about their predecessors and something to crow about when the scores go up in a couple of years as they invariably do.  Just like Groundhog Day all over again.