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.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Deep In The Heart of Texas

Deep In The Heart of Texas

We already know Texas is a different land.   It imposed a limit on the number of children with disabilities it would serve.  Got itself smacked by the US Office of Education, in and of itself, a miracle given Betsy DeVos is in charge.
But this case might be a new low even for Texas.
An elementary aged child with autism repeatedly came home with bruises, abrasions and contusions over a two-year period in her school.  On more than one occasion, the parents took their child to the hospital or her physician for treatment of the injuries.  The parents reported the injuries to school officials.  First, the school personnel said that the injuries were self-inflicted.  Later these same officials said the injuries were caused by other students.  Finally, a staff member ultimately admitted to hurting the child.
The parents went to court and sued the school district and the employee who acknowledged the behavior.  The parents sued for assault, infliction of emotional distress, disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act,(ADA)  and constitutional rights violations.
The parents lost on all counts.  Why you ask?   Partly because the case was filed in Texas.
The Court granted qualified immunity to the school district and to the employee because it felt the hospital records and doctors’ visits were vague and there was no evidence that the employee has caused the particular injuries for which the child was treated.
Then there was the issue of emotional distress.  In Texas there is a law that if someone sues a government agency, the employees of that agency cannot also be sued.  So since the family sued the school district the employee was off the hook for his responsibility.
Next the school district claimed that the assault charge was an intentional tort under Texas law and that the state would need to waive sovereign immunity in order for the case to proceed, which the state refused to do.  So, the court dismissed that charge.
Lastly, the district said that the ADA claim should have been made under IDEA and that the parents had not exhausted the administrative remedies under IDEA.  The Court agreed with this reasoning as well.
Therefore, none of the claims survived and the case was dismissed.
How do these things happen?   In Maryland a licensed educator who was physically aggressive towards a student would lose his/her license.   Maybe the issue is that Texas no matter how deeply you go doesn’t have a heart.  I would think that teacher might want to think again about supporting open carry and gun laws in Texas.   If that were my kid being hurt like that and nothing was being done about it…   Just sayin’

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Black Teachers Matter

Black Teachers Matter

African-American children who are taught by just one black teacher during their school years are 13% more likely to go to college.   Students have at least two African-American teachers are 32% more likely to go to college.   These are facts garnered from a recent study by a Johns Hopkins University professor.  This information isn’t new.  It builds on what has been found previously that black students with black teachers are also much more likely to graduate high school.    The theory seems to be that black teachers can tap into their lived experiences when relating to black students.
Next up there were lots of concerns that in Baltimore City (with the most African-American teachers at 40%) and in the surrounding counties the percentage of black teachers was well below the percentage of black students.  The author of the study insists that public education needs to get moving to increase the numbers of black teachers that minority students experience.  It all seems so simple.
But let’s hold up here for a minute.  In Baltimore City roughly 80% of the students is black while only 40% of the teachers is African-American.  So it stands to reason, that even though the number of black teachers doesn’t equal the percentage of black students, those African-American students most likely had at least 2-3 African-American teachers in their twelve years of schooling.  According to the predictions of this research, these kids are 32% more likely to go to college-except that they don’t!  Not sure how that would be explained.
Then there is the issue of numbers.  Maryland colleges of teacher education are graduating about 550 qualified to teach black graduates.  That is 550 all-total, not just one school.  So where are these African-American teachers going to come from.
There is also another issue and that is the BIG assumption that all African-Americans share the same “lived experiences”.   From my perspective that is racism at its finest.   Sure, both students and teachers are black and as such have certainly shared racist experiences.   But I am willing to bet that those middle and upper middle class young African-American adults who are graduating from Maryland colleges have hardly had the same “lived experiences” as the kids growing up in Baltimore’s shooting galleries- where guns and drugs are everyday happenings.  And yes, I know that some kids do make it out of the low socio-economic neighborhoods and go to college.  But I also know that when they do, they may be looking for more high status and higher paying positions than teaching.
In my view, it would make more sense to provide in-service education experiences for all teachers, black, brown, yellow and white, about implicit racism, those sneaky little conclusions that sleep in our minds with no visible means of hard evidence.   Pre-service programs might want to do a bit of that as well.
Yes black teachers do matter, but so do all teachers and we need to start training our educators so that all STUDENTS matter regardless of the color of skin teachers and students are wearing these days.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

What's Money Got to Do With It?

What’s Money Got to Do With It?

What’s money got to do with it?   Turns out not too much.  The average teacher’s salary in Maryland is in the mid-60’s.   They work about 190 days out of the 365.  That means they are off almost as many days (175) as they work. The benefits are good and the likelihood of getting fired is very low. 

 In spite of these happy numbers, 44% of new teachers leave within the first five years. And that is 44% of all teachers, not just teachers who work with students with challenges.
The number of teachers in public schools is exploding.  It is growing much faster than the number of students.  The pressure for reduced class sizes, more special ed services, STEM teachers and English-as-a-second language have all pushed the numbers higher.  The question of how long the cost can be sustained by the taxpayers has not even been asked let alone resolved.

Teachers are getting younger and much less experienced.  In the 2007-08, the average age of a teacher was 55. In just ten years that number has dropped to a number where most teachers are in their late 30's.  In 1987-88 school year, the most common public school teacher had 15 years of experience.   Today that number is three years or less. 
Teachers have become more racially diverse, but they are still primarily white women.

So, what are the issues if it is not money?   First of all, it is the testing and the blame teachers get when the test scores go south.  The presumption is if your students get bad scores on the test it is because they have not been taught well.  We do not give the students or their families any responsibility for attending school, doing the necessary studying nor do we acknowledge that children have differing academic abilities that no amount of teaching is going to totally change.

In order to do the testing, school systems have instituted the pacing guides.  These guides ensure that the students have been “exposed” to the content that is being tested.  They also require the teachers to be on the precise section of the curriculum on each precise day.  There is no time to re-teach or teach differently.  The joy of connecting with kids and matching the pace of the program to the pace of the child’s learning no longer exists.

Then there is administrative support and the demand to decrease the number of out-of-school suspensions.  Teaching is not supposed to be a contact sport.  It is true that we have been suspending kids for the dumbest of reasons. So if you are truant (illegally absent from school) as a consequence we suspend you and make you legally absent from school.  Seriously dumb!   However, if you commit an act of aggression against a classmate and/or a staff person, that student needs to be suspended.  Recently a student smacked a teacher in a local school system.   The student was not suspended, he was counseled and the union said the teacher forgave the student and accepted his apology.  I would not be surprised if that teacher did not become one of those 44% of teachers who do not return next year.  Administrators are also worried about their numbers. The test scores of the students in the building and the number of suspensions each semester.   They are not protecting teachers.

In the end, what’s money got to do with it?   Not too much if you don’t enjoy the job and need to play duck and cover from your students.





Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Far Right and Far Left agree

Far Left and Far Right agree

What do Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch agree on?  Turns out that as with Anton Scalia and RBG the right and the left can come together and even do!

This current issue is the almost complete absence of civic studies in our public schools.   Why is that?   One of the reasons that is often advanced for the provision of a free education at public expense is that a democracy depends on an educated electorate.  However, it turns out that as we have been spending  more and more time preparing for standardized testing in areas students will seldom use, we have squeezed out what they desperately need and that is an education in how our democracy works.  And what their responsibility is as a citizen in that democracy.

It is pretty sad that while we are testing our kids on algebra II, Justice Gorsuch said that only about 25% of Americans can name all three branches of government and 33% can’t name ANY branch of government.   And, showing the power of the media, 10% of those surveyed THOUGHT JUDGE JUDY WAS A SUPREME COURT JUSTICE!!!   I wonder how they did on their algebra test.  Justice Gorsuch has made a plea for civility, making appeals to decency and good faith in both his legal practice and when speaking in public forums.  He has demonstrated these behaviors since being appointed to the Bench.

Justice Sotomayor believes that it is well-documented that the shift toward science and technology has left out civics.   Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has made the teaching of civics a mission of hers since she left the Court in 2008.  She founded a non-profit iCivics that provides elementary and secondary schools with digital resources and lesson plans to cultivate citizenship responsibility. This past fall Justice O’Connor announced she was leaving public life due to a diagnosis of dementia.   Justice Sotomayor will be taking her place on the Foundation leadership.

Why are our school systems ignoring this pressing need to educate our children?   The extreme partisanship of today’s politics has made all of us vulnerable to lies and half-truths.   If we knew more about how our government was supposed to run perhaps we could recognize when politicians are working to make us dysfunctional.  If Justices Gorsuch and Sotomayer can get it, why can’t the rest of us.  Hopefully everyone exercised the most important lesson of civics- vote!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

# School Too

We have heard a lot lately about sexual aggression at the recent hearings for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.   Good thing we work in schools where that kind of thing doesn’t happen right? No, actually quite wrong.
It is easy to believe that the k-12 education profession, that is predominately female, is immune from sexual harassment.   In fact, there is a phenomenon called vertical sex segregation.  Have you ever noticed that even though the education profession in schools is  heavily female in its professional staff, the principals in the higher-paid, higher-powered positions are often men.   There are power imbalances between the lower status teachers and the higher status men.  This situation often shows up with new, younger staff.  Younger staff are very much aware of the power imbalance and want to do well and please their bosses.
Based on data collected by Education Week, one in four teachers has been sexually assaulted on the job!   Sixty percent of those who witnessed the assault did not report it. When asked who they told about the misconduct, the union reps were least likely to hear of the situation.  Usually teachers told friend and/or family members.
The three major reasons teachers did not report the assault were: they didn’t think they would be taken seriously, they didn’t think anything would be done, and, finally, they feared retaliation.  Many women feared they would lose their jobs.
I remember in my days as an administrator in a local public school system that our supervisor for speech therapy never assigned young therapists to a particular principal.  When I asked her why, she said that he came on very strong to young, attractive staff and they had no way to combat his aggressive behavior.  I asked why this principal was allowed to continue this behavior, why wasn’t he called out.  Her response was simple.  He is a principal; he will deny it; everyone will believe him.  Oh, and he was a married, upstanding man in the community.  So young therapists went to other schools.   Older more mature therapists went to his school.  We had several psychologists who were also known for their sexually aggressive behaviors.  The cure- just stay away from them.  
In the survey of teachers, Education Week found that teachers were desperate to tell their stories to make the workplace safer for colleagues.  But men held all the power.   Men would deny.  It would be her word against his.  He had the more powerful position.  She would be exposed, be retaliated against and nothing would change. The pain would not be worth the gain. Any of this sound familiar?
We talk a lot about making schools safer for our students.  We do not think about how the power imbalance in the education profession mirrors the rest of the world.  Sexual assault is happening #schooltoo and it is happening to the teachers of our kids.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Getting Rich on the Fears of Kids

Getting Rich on the Fears of Kids

If you are old enough you remember air raid sirens in schools. That was when we all huddled in inside classrooms away from windows waiting for the bombs to fall.   These drills were an outgrowth of WWII and the air raid attacks in Europe.  Thankfully the bombs never fell on the U.S. and the war had been over for five years or more but we still hid in bathrooms and inside hallways just in case.
Then came the Cold War and the fear of the nuclear bombs.  We all went through duck and cover drills.  Children were taught to put their hands over their heads and hide under their desks.   These were sturdy wood and metal desks so surely they would offer protection from the nuclear bombs that, again thankfully, never fell.
Now we are engaged in a new shooting war.   There is big money on the line as entrepreneurs seek to train teachers, children and other school personnel to prepare for active shooters entering our school buildings.   Through the first five months of this calendar year there have been 18 active shootings in schools.  There are 98,817 public schools in the U.S.  Those are only the public schools.  That means there is a 1 in 5489 chance that an invader will enter a public school.  Slightly more than the 1 in 6072 chance of getting killed in an auto accident.
One of the differences of the active shooter drills is that there is a new computer simulation created by federal agencies to make the drills seem very real.  Add this experience to our children’s infatuation with video games and you have a recipe for disaster.
When we had air raid drills and when kids ducked and covered, there were no visuals or sound effects to add to the alarm.  The authorities felt they were helping us.   We kids just thought it was one more thing, like fire drills, that we did to prepare for what would not happen.
These active shooter drills have the potential for real harm to kids and teachers.  Already school systems have allowed teachers to opt out of the training if previous trauma or violence experiences would cause them to relive these terrible experiences.
What about the kids!  Do they get to opt out if they confuse computer simulated drills with video games? Do they get to opt out if the computer simulation brings back memories of home or neighborhood violence?  Do they get to opt out if they are already experiencing mental health issues for other reasons?
Capitalism is a wonderful thing.  Our economy is based on entrepreneurs who have struck it big with the next great idea.   Do we really want that next big idea to be on the backs of scaring our kids and giving them nightmares?  Maybe another approach would be to spend that money on getting to know our students so we might prevent these tragedies in the first place.  

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.