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.