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The End of NCLB..?

25 Sep

On Friday afternoon, my wife called out to me “Hey!  You have to see this!”

And there on the news was a story about the waivers offered by our beloved national education secretary that would allow states to escape many of the more ornerous NCLB provisions.  Which is to say, almost all of them.  And the headline read “No Child Left Behind Ends.”

Could it be true?  Could it REALLY be true?  To me, this would be the educational equivalent of the the falling of the Berlin Wall.  Perhaps…just perhaps..we might see some real reform in education.  Meaningful reform.  Something besides the test scores.

Georgia is a state that has already delivered its waiver application.  Oddly enough, it was delivered by one of the authors of the original NCLB law, Johnny Isakson.  Remember him?  Basically, congress has not done its job in doing anything to fix this law simply because it is unfix-able.  It never was and it never will be.

Isakson was one of the original authors of No Child Left Behind. But last week the Georgia Republican sponsored a bill with other GOP lawmakers to scrap the adequate yearly progress requirement. No Child Left Behind requires that all students be “proficient” in math and science by 2014. Those benchmarks are widely considered to be unrealistic.

Isakson said that after a decade of implementation the law “has served its purpose in raising expectations and standards.””We knew when we wrote No Child Left Behind that if it worked, we would reach this point where schools would not be able to continue to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) because the bar is set higher and higher each year for schools,” he said.

According to Isakson, they knew when they wrote the law, that schools would eventually all fail. The law was PROGRAMMED to fail!  These are the people we send to Washington and this is what drinking that water and breathing that air does to people.  And it illustrates perfectly why the congress has no business dictating federal education standards.  The law was destined for bankruptcy even while it was being written and the lawmakers who wrote it KNEW it!

But this is not the end of NCLB.  It is not the end of testing.  It is not the end of the alternate assessment that has plagued those teachers of students with multiple and severe disabilities.  There is still Race To The Top, which Georgia just received a year ago.  And those who are most saddled by a law that never had them in mind when it was written, will be the last to realize the benefits of this waiver.  That is because the waiver was also not written with these students in mind.  But hopefully what eventually trickles down will be no worse than what is already in place.

I am somewhat hopeful that the career and work-ready provisions might at least help those students who could be employable with enough and the right kind of training, when they would otherwise stand no chance of getting into a college. And yes, there are a large number of students where this is true; they will not be able to get into a college and they have no desire to do so.  But at least by fostering a culture of productivity and relevant skill-based training, it might prevent them from dropping out and actually give them an edge in life.  At the present time, the work skills of a college drop-out and a high school drop-out are almost exactly the same due to vocational funding and programs being cut and minimized in order to switch the focus to collage-ready.  And this focus has been particularly hard-felt for students with disabilities.

NCLB has been little more than an expensive and nightmarish public awareness campaign.  According to Isakson, they wanted to put a spotlight on poor performing schools and poor performing groups of students by raising expectations and raising standards.  But the law was outdated the day it was signed, as the world economy has been globalized.    We need innovation, creativity, enthusiasm for learning, entrepreneurship and exploration.  And these were exactly the things that NCLB has succeeded in killing with the standardized test-taking culture that saw the diminishing or elimination of the arts in education.  While the rest of the world has been learning how to solve problems and create, our kids have been learning how to fill in bubbles.

The Future of Education?

1 Sep

Once again, I am back in my old room as a substitute and meeting a new teacher for my old students and a few new ones. It’s just like riding a bike…it just becomes a natural extension of you as you know what to do instinctively. And so it is with this population of students. I kind of amazed myself with how quickly I was able to bond with the new students. A bit more about my status later.

But first I want to talk about a podcast that aired recently on the Future of Education website. You can listen to it too!

I bought Bob Compton’s 2 Million Minutes documentary, and he made a lot of astute observations about the education systems in India, China and the U.S. In his latest documentary, he teams up with Dr. Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) whose book I have read and even gave a few copies away to administrators. The Finland Phenomenon explores the education system in Finland, often regarded as the top system in the world. Compton and Wagner wanted to find out more about the Finnish educational system and why it is as good as it is.

I have not yet seen this film but do plan on seeing it and reviewing it. But I wanted to talk a bit about some things Compton said in this podcast. He talked a bit about barriers to true and genuine innovation and I was struck by his description of how large organizations try to kill or squash innovation. Basically, if there is someone who starts to excel, it makes the rest of the organization look bad or at the very least exposes mediocrity. And since no one wants to feel bad, the out-lier is attacked and either put in their place or ostracized almost out of existence. This is just the organization striving for self-preservation. People don’t like change and innovation has a habit of forcing change upon people. This is also discussed in the book about educational disruption in education that I read a couple years ago about the time I was also reading Tony Wagner’s book.

So…could that be the answer to the question I am too embarrassed to ask or talk much about? During my tenure teaching individuals with severe disabilities I was innovating and shaping things way beyond what anyone else was doing at the time.

  • I had an active Moodle site that was a repository of knowledge to help other teachers who teach students with severe disabilities.
  • I had an active blog, informing other teachers, future teachers, policiy makers and parents the effects of certain government policies on the classroom
  • I recorded and posted scores of videos on Teachertube, sharing best practices in how to use different types of technology in the classroom
  • I experimented with many different types of technology including mp4 players, open source programs and various switches and AAC devices
  • I encouraged the faculty to use the collaboration software that the county had purchased in order to collaborate and share their ideas and thoughts rather than burdening the email system.
  • We experimented with research-based interventions such as electronic social stories and video modeling to teach new behaviors.
  • I tried to get school leaders to use technology to reach or teach the staff asynchronously in order to afford greater flexibility with staff development and to leverage the technology to build capacity for more staff development options and offerings.
  • Participated and attended staff development activities such as Future of Education webinars, and subscribed to various educational podcasts, even experimenting with my own podcasting site.

These efforts were not always greeted with open arms. Sometimes there was active opposition to some of the ideas but most of the time efforts to reform practice was met with a polite smile and then people continued to do what they were used to doing. I was clearly out in front of most of my colleagues when it came to technology and ideas for building capacity especially in regards to staff development using multimedia and social collaboration.

And these activities are STILL regarded with a great deal of resistance and suspicion from many people who make decisions about education. Being an innovator is often very politically risky and I have to admit to being often very naive when it comes to politics. My thought is that the needs of the students should be greater than the need for any particular political vendetta. We might disagree about certain policies, but in the end we are charged with the trust of caring and educating all students.

I’m a bit lost as to what to do about whatever it is that keeps me from getting back into the classroom full-time and need to look at all other options. Surely some of these skills must translate into something else that is useful to someone.

OH…by the way, look at some of the other blogs who made the list!  What an honor and a treat to be listed alongside so many other excellent special education bloggers.

The Iowa Debate

13 Aug

I watched the debate among Republican candidates in Iowa, and it was interesting.   I can see why the economy dominated as far as the topic of the questions.  But we also heard all sorts of questions about their religion, sexual orientation, abortion or beliefs about these various moral and personal issues.  I think the question asked to Michele Bachmann about her submitting to her husband as president had to be about the lowest question of the evening.

There was exactly one question asked about education (at 1:42:00 in the linked video above), specifically about NCLB and the questioner really missed the boat on it by only asking it of two of the candidates and if you blink you will miss the less than 60 seconds spent on this topic.  But Jon Huntsman scored a home run in my books by saying he would work toward a elimination of it, but still did not focus on that question and went back to the raising the debt ceiling .  Hermann Cain was a bit less clear about what he would do about NCLB, but he also registered his displeasure with it.  The questioner should have taken a hand vote of who liked NCLB and would repeal it.  Sixty seconds is all they could give this important topic.  Shame on FOX, shame on the candidates.

 

Interview Questions : Issues of Prejudice for Children with Disabilities

29 Sep

Every so often a student comes and needs to do an interview and for the most part I like doing them.  My only condition is that I am able to post the questions and answers on my blog, and I’ve yet to have anyone object to that.  So I recently got one about prejudices against students with disabilities.  I have written about these before, but maybe not quite this explicitly, so this gives me a chance to think about prejudice, discrimination and students with disabilities.

Thank you so much again for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions, and it would actually mean a lot to me if they were posted on your blog.

1. What are the challenges and difficulties that you experience and encounter when parenting children with mental disabilities?

Hmm…this is actually a harder question for me, because I don’t think of my oldest as having a mental disability as much as a behavioral disability with mental issues, namely as it relates to autism.  But that actually highlights the most pervasive problem which is the stigma attached to mental disabilities in general.  It doesn’t matter what term is used, sooner or later it will be used in a pejorative way.  “moron,” “idiot” and “imbecile” used to be clinical terms!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_retardation

The challenges vary depending on the severity and pervasiveness of the disability.  It would be difficult to list all difficulties, whether it be accessibility issues to having to endure the abuses of a society that devalues people with disabilities to the day-to-day challenges of trying to do “normal” things that most people take for granted, like tying shoes or riding a bike.

2. What are the struggles, if any, that a child with a disability experiences on a daily basis?

The struggles that children with disabilities encounter on a daily basis varies of course, depending on what the disability is.  Some universal issues might deal with self-advocacy, where the person may need extra assistance or an accommodation.  If they assert themselves by asking for it, they are often labeled as a trouble maker or censored for asking for special treatment.  So many people often suffer with their disabilities in relative silence.  This is assuming the person even has the skills to advocate.  Communication is one of the most fundamental skills a person can have, and yet most disabilities have some sort of impact on communication either directly or indirectly.  Disabilities also have social consequences when it comes to making friends, being accepted and just being able to socialize in a way that others take for granted.

3. Have you ever prevented any prejudices from occurring against children with special needs?

Oh I wish I could!  The best I can do is to educate others about students with disabilities and point out that they are people, too.  They have things they like and dislike and may express their feelings in different ways.  And deep down, I think most people *want* to be seen as compassionate and caring people.  I think if one sees that as a basic truth “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” then giving people a chance to express that can help against mistreatment and abuse.  Prejudice is basically a symptom of intellectual laziness, so the task is to get people to think a bit deeper about whom they are judging against.  Not being prejudice requires a great deal of self reflection especially when it is deeply rooted in our own experiences and culture.  The biggest challenge for me and other advocates, is being prejudice against those whose primary disability is ignorance!  I would rather educate than have to confront.

4. If children do experience some sort of injustice against them, how do they usually react? Are they greatly affected by it?

A lot of children who suffer injustices tend to suffer in silence.  Sometimes being too outspoken can create a backlash and bring about even more injustice!  Those who choose to confront have to be willing to go all the way to the mat, and persevere in spite of that backlash.  So many behavioral problems we see in children with disabilities are a response to perceived injustices.  The level of effect varies of course depending on how well a child understands what is happening.  Children with milder disabilities who have a greater mental capacity do often suffer from depression and anxiety caused by the social consequences of their disability.  For for students that I teach, it is more subtle.  All my kids can tell who does and who does not like them, and they somehow gravitate toward those people and avoid the people who are afraid or indifferent.

5. Do children with special needs ever receive or get peculiar responses from other children?

Responses range from indifference to being compassionate to feeling sorry for the child with disabilities.  Much of it depends on how severe the disability is.  As a society, I think we’ve gotten better about how people with physical disabilities are treated.  Behavioral disabilities are a whole different matter, and reactions to students who scream, yell, holler,  bite themselves and hit themselves is mostly along some continuum of fear. BUT having said that, children are often better about dealing with it than the adults.  When I talk to students, they often simply want to have their questions answered about the disability and then they are mostly fine.  The adults take more convincing and I think it is because adults have their own schedules and agendas compared to students.  Those schedules and agendas are more easily disrupted by students with disabilities, hence more hostility and prejudice.

6. How can a person, like myself, make sure not to commit any prejudices accidentally against people with disabilities?

Don’t shrink.  By that, I mean don’t be so afraid of committing an act of prejudice that you avoid contact with people with disabilities altogether.  And remember that “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” applies to you too!  I make mistakes all the time and sometimes readers are good about pointing them out.  I take it, process and try to do better next time.  And those of us who are dealing with disabilities everyday probably have to be even more mindful of our thinking as it is sometimes more difficult to think of people as people rather than commodities or products.  There is a lot of cultural pressure to standardize our education system, and standardization and homogenization encourage prejudice by demanding everyone be the same.  Our kids are different by definition, so every attempt to make everyone the same automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

7. Finally, what. In your opinion, is the best way to spread disability awareness? What have you tried, besides writing in your blog?

The best way to spread disability awareness is the same way as spreading awareness of any other cause.  And that is to limit segregation and isolation.  One of the biggest challenges that we have had to face is the idea of inclusion and what it means.  Generally, including people with disabilities in the larger community is the best and most effective way to promote awareness and acceptance.  When we were out in the community for instruction, we were serving the students but we were also serving the good of the greater community by helping people be aware of these exceptional individuals.  It is very difficult to be seen as compassionate and caring when you don’t have anyone to be seen as compassionate and caring toward!  My blog provides me with a vehicle to talk about some of these issues, but I’m mostly preaching to the choir.  Most of you already are part of the disability community in some sense.   While I’m imparting a little knowledge I’m not doing as much for disability awareness as when I answer the questions people might have when they see my students.  People do watch me and those of us in the business, and I do have to be more mindful of that.  Other people will often take their cues as to how to respond to those with disabilities from those of us who do it everyday.  If we can remember to be caring and humane in our everyday dealings, that helps everyone else who is less familiar as well as makes life better for the students themselves.

Those are the questions, and if you feel like you want to add anything, of course feel free to do so. Once again thank you for giving me this opportunity!

Thanks for giving me the opportunity!  Doing interviews like this helps me think about what I’m doing in different ways as it provokes some thought and reflections on my own practice.  It also helps encourage me in that people actually care about what I’m saying here!

Achievements: Getting the Lame to Walk

19 Mar

I know I have sometimes gotten down and negative here, as I often use this as my own personal forum to vent various frustrations.  But this is also a good place to tell about stuff I’ve accomplished to any would-be future employers out there who are looking for a special education teacher.  Remember, I AM HQ!

I had a student who came to me in a wheelchair.  This is not unusual, since most of my students nowadays seem to be in wheelchairs.  However this little guy was different because he could, in fact, walk.  He had an irregular gait due to his particular syndrome, but he could walk and get around pretty well.  And that was kind of the problem.  He was getting around TOO well.  And he would get into everything and destroy whatever he got his hands on.  He was all hands and all active.  And he knew how to drive his chair probably better than he could walk.  So containing him and keeping him out of trouble involved finding some elaborate way of blocking the wheelchair up so he couldn’t move it.  This was easier said than done as he was also fairly clever and persistent.  The wheelchair was basically used by everyone as a restraint device.  Keep in mind, he was seen as unmanageable all the way through middle school.

And within 2 years, I got the boy to a place where he could be put just about anywhere and he would basically stay put.  He would still occasionally want to wander off, but he was easily redirected.  He went from being my most unmanageable challenge to being one of my best behaved students.  And he no longer needs or uses the wheelchair.  Not at school, not on the bus and not at home.

I’m not going to get into all the behavioral techniques used to getting him to that place.  I will just say that perseverance and determination were major factors toward getting him where he is today.  I’m not to proud to say that when he first came to me, I didn’t want him in my room.  I thought we were already overcrowded and understaffed.  Haha!  Little did I know what was to come!  But I had no choice but to bite the bullet and dig in and teach this student how to conduct himself in a classroom without wrecking the place.  He will still wreck things if he gets his hands on them, but I have little toys and things he can use to keep his hands busy.  He’s still very active, but he can be active in his own space.  While there are still a whole lot of things he can not do, he can now be maintained without his wheelchair.  This is a relief for his family who previously had to cart the thing around everywhere they took him.  It is less bother for the bus, as they no longer have to mess with the lift.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that this accomplishment in no way affected the school’s test scores, graduation rate or AYP.   At no time did teaching him how to control himself address a state academic standard.   And there is no part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test that measures whether or not a student requires a wheelchair. None of this will appear on the Georgia Alternate Assessment.  I took time out from academic instruction in order to address this students needs, which pretty much violates whatever tenets are set by NCLB.  There is no way to align the goal of not needing a wheelchair to any state standard.  And it also was not explicitly stated as a goal in his IEP.  Our beloved governor has not offered any merit pay to teachers who can get a child to not need a wheelchair anymore.  There are no incentives offered by the state of Georgia to recruit or retain people that can do this.  There is nothing on any evaluation instrument for teachers that says this is even a worthwhile activity.

Despite several who told me this endeavor was a waste of time, I did it anyway.  And while I have no test scores, enhanced pay, accolades, awards, or anything from other people that says this is at all important, I do have an empty wheelchair in the corner that has not been used in a very, very long time, except to hold a coat or a bag.  And I have the audacity to feel pretty good about that!

Lots of my fellow teachers do stuff like this all the time and we don’t talk about, because it doesn’t address a state standard.  It isn’t recognized or rewarded because it doesn’t result in a college scholarship.  And this student can’t give me a recommendation to an employer because he can not read, write or talk.  But he can walk, which is how he gets around now because he does not need a chair to restrain him.  He has learned to control himself to some degree.

The story of this student is not over, as he continues to progress.  He has a long way to go, and I hope he continues to progress.  But it will have to be with someone else.  Perhaps there are other students in other schools that need to learn self control.  It would save some poor high school teacher’s hair if more kids could learn that skill in middle school.  And that is sort of where I’m aiming at the moment.  I would like to get into a smaller community and with a younger set in order to see if I can apply some of this experience earlier on.

Pay for Performance

16 Jan

And other disasters inaugurated by our beloved governor. The Atlanta Journal’s blog asked a question: did Governor Perdue leave education better off than he found it? In order to be fair we have to remember what it was like when he came into office. Governor Roy Barnes was often called “King Roy” because decisions were made without any input from educators. He came up with what he termed the “A+ Initiative” which did limit class sizes but was also a call for accountability. It was an early precursor to No Child Left Behind, and Barnes would go on to lead the Aspen Institute which called for a continuation and strengthening of NCLB. And anyone reading me for any length of time knows how I feel about NCLB. When Barnes left, Georgia was a state that was a bottom feeder in state rankings by almost any measure in education. So it is safe to say that the state of education in Georgia was pretty bad at the time Perdue took office. Personally, I did lose my job at the state hospital because of cuts made during the Barnes tenure, so no love was lost when he lost.

So now we have our current beloved governor. How has education fared under him? First off, Georgia is still a bottom feeder using any objective measure of educational level or achievement. He pushed for and got the legislature to stop funding pay supplements for teacher who were National Board certified. His response was to replace it with a master teacher program which tied the credential to student achievement i.e. test scores. He also succeeded in getting a measure passed that would help recruit science and math teachers by allowing them to start at a higher salary step. And now he has his pay for performance scheme. These final three initiatives; Master teacher certification, recruitment of shortage teachers and pay for performance all have one thing in common. They each and all explicitly exclude me and those who teach students with severe disabilities.

This is great for job security as there are so few incentives for coming into a field with such a massive shortage that opportunities should abound. Not so good if you are a parent of a child with a disability. The students and their parents are the biggest losers from the Perdue legacy. Teachers do fare worse than they may have otherwise. Choosing between our current governor and the one he replaced would be most difficult, but right now democrats have a golden opportunity.

Pay for performance is a total loser as far as what I currently teach. It is why the master teacher certificate is not accessible in my field. Daniel Willingham has an excellent video that explains why merit pay is such a difficult and tricky issue.

Teachers simply do not have enough control over all the contingencies that are involved in student outcomes. In my case, students progress so slowly as to defy any quick, cheap or reliable measure. Also they are all different. The idea is to reward the best teachers, but there is no standard of comparison between students in my classroom and any other students. Right now I have 9 students which is more than twice the size of any other comparable program in the district. How could there be a fair comparison? Secondly, my students are with me for the duration of the day for the duration of their school career. There is no standard of comparison there, either.

One provision the governor included was for classroom observation to be a part of the determining factor as far as whether a teacher would get performance-based pay. I have no problems being observed by an administrator, and showing them what I do any time. One problem is that not many administrators have any idea of what I do or even what I should be doing. They walk in once or twice a year for about 5-10 minutes and then leave. That’s if I’m lucky. For the past several years, observing me consisted of watching me feed one of the students during lunch! Again, I have no problems doing this and demonstrating it as it is an important part of what I do and crucial to the student. But it isn’t part of the Georgia Standards and is not going to apply toward ANY of the school’s stated improvement goals.  What I do is important, but it is not given value by any accountability scheme envisioned by any politician.

One more note about the pay for performance scheme outlined by the governor is that he references a survey taken by some 20,000 educators, 80% of which supposedly said they wanted to be evaluated and paid on the basis of student performance and observation.  I never saw any such survey, unless it was this one.  in Georgia.

Performance-based pay is a mine field. But if they people advocating this succeeded in designing something that was fair to me and the students I teach, I guarantee it would be fair for all. The reverse is decidedly not true as demonstrated by the Master Teacher debacle that leaves me behind.

Advancing Miracles

23 Nov

One of the reasons for my frustration, is that I am forever looking to advance my students along.  The current economic and political realities seem bent on thwarting those efforts, and I suspect every teacher feels this way.  We want to keep moving forward, but get bogged down by forces beyond our control.

But we still do it and we succeed in spite of public policies, like NCLB.  And so it is, I’m blogging the student teacher I said I wouldn’t blog about.  Well, this is noteworthy and deserves to be published and promoted!

I have several students who have profound intellectual disabilities, meaning they rely almost totally on caregivers to meet their needs.  It’s one of the reasons why the adult:student ratio is so critical.  If there isn’t an adult around to meet a need, it is not going to be met.  Period.  However, any move in the direction of independence is a monumental one, considering that these students are all in high school.  If they have not learned something by now, it isn’t likely they will, especially since the adult/student ratio is cut in half as soon as they exit middle school.

But having a capable and motivated adult can really help move things along.  In this case, the student teacher has been working with one of my students who has PID as well as being mostly physically disabled. She has to be fed, like most of my students.  She can move her hands and arms, but just doesn’t very much.  Until now.  We started off teaching communication skills, geting her to push a Big Mac switch in order to say “more” meaning she wanted more food.  She quickly caught on to this, as eating is highly reinforcing to her.

However, this student did not stop there.  At some point the food wasn’t coming fast enough so she grabbed the teacher’s hand and brought it up to her mouth.  This was HUGE!  We hadn’t seen this before, but then we never had time to look.  Feeding time is something we generally do as quick as we can to get it over with, like any other task we have to do.  However, we made a break through, past the communication exercise.  I showed the student teacher how to hold the spoon and help facilitate more engagement and learning in the feeding and within a couple fo days, the girl was beginning to feed herself.  It is still a very sloppy process, but we are off and running!

It’s been awhile since we had a breakthrough like that in our room.  It looks downright miraculous.  It’s mostly good teaching involving consistency and persistence.  And it is also a good shot in the arm for all of us, morale-wise.  It will be interesting to see if we can sustain it over the course of the year, even after this student teacher leaves.

Here’s the thing: This is a gigantic leap forward for this one student.  Feeding herself with the spoon.  It is monumental, significant and practical.  But it is not even a blip on the NCLB radar screen.  It carries NO weight to anyone outside of this girl’s life.  It does not improve a test score, does not improve the graduation rate or any other measure devised to measure “accountability.”  It is not something I could use to become one of Georgia’s Master Teachers.  The resounding message from the outside is that what we do doesn’t matter, when in reality, what we do totally matters!

But I have no idea how on earth to convey that to the people who make decisions about our staffing.  Those folks never darken my door and they miss these miraculous victories.  Having key people in the key spots matters, but I don’t get to choose who is in my room with my kids.  Sometimes I am very fortunate.  Sometimes, less so.

Anyway, I simply had to blog it and make whatever political hay I can out of it.  Unfortunately, these things do not happen every day and few times do they happen in such short amounts of time.  It’s also good for a new teacher to get this boost very early in her career as  those are the memories that sustain us over the longer and leaner times.

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