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IEP Academic Goals: A Remnant of an Older Age?

7 Jan

At my job, tensions and stress are running high as we try to do everything perfectly for a state organization that has all but declared war on us. Having failed at the ballot box, they are trying to accomplish administratively what they could not get done politically. At least this is how it feels. The level of compliancy required of our special education department surpasses anything done in any other school in the state. And we have 66 days to get all 1000 IEPs perfect.

In my previous writings regarding goals and objectives, my experiences were with those students who were k-8 or those with more severe disabilities. Since changing to a more inclusive environment that makes up the vast majority of those receiving services in high school, my eyes have been opened. There are some glaring problems and inconsistencies in the process that extend far beyond my particular school or the students I serve.

With students who have severe disabilities, or in a self-contained setting the caseloads were relatively modest and I was their main teacher for most of the day. This made collecting data, making observations and writing effective goals relatively easy. Whats more, these students were following an alternate and adapted curriculum, so even if we were basing what we did on grade-level standards, we had a great deal of latitude in what was taught.

In a more typical high school setting, none of these things are true. The caseload sizes are larger, the students switch classrooms several times daily and may even switch their class schedules in mid year. On top of this, the caseload manager may or may not even have this student in one of their classes. All of these things make monitoring progress problematic.

However the standards-based curriculum has rendered traditional academic IEP goals and objectives almost useless and meaningless on the high school level. As a caseload manager I have absolutely no say in the curriculum of a student as it is dictated by the state. The graduation requirements are dictated by the state. The topics on the end of course tests (EOCTs) are dictated by the state. The amount that the test counts toward the final grade is dictated by the state. The type of diploma is dictated by the state. The scope, sequence, and the speed at which material must be covered is dictated by the test, which is dictated by the state.

You see the trend?

So the question is this: what can an IEP committee possibly write in the way of academic goals that are meaningful? We can write anything we wish, although we are admonished to make sure they are based on the state standards. The problem is that the goals that we write are worthless if they do not lead to a student passing a required course that gets them through the required exam that grants them the required credits in order to get the one college prep diploma offered by our state. The true measure of any IEP component is whether or not it gives the student access to the regular education curriculum in the least restrictive environment. At the present time, there are no academic goals that succeed in doing that. The dictated curriculum can not be modified nor can the passing score on the required exam be modified.

The frustration I’m feeling comes from the fact that we are being pushed and driven into writing progress reports over our academic goals. Suzie is a 9th grader who is struggling mightily in her algebra class. She struggles with algebraic concepts like positive and negative integers and multi-step problems. She is lost with anything involving fractions. And she feels absolutely hopeless when confronted by a word problem. Suzie is not alone as most of the students in her co-taught class struggle the same way. You may know some students like Suzie. YOU may be like Suzie! Oh, and this is Suzie’s second time taking algebra after failing it the first time.

In the old days, we had a lot of options in what we could do for Suzie. There were other math classes that were geared to business, career and consumer needs. Suzie would like to be a chef or a work in a restaurant after graduation. But the hopes for graduation start to fade as she is stuck and unable to pass algebra the second time around.

What academic goal could I write for her to help her get her diploma? I COULD write one relating to learning how to use a calculator, as that is a standard test condition. But what objective and goal do I write that will help her pass the class? And once I write that goal, how can I or another teacher support and monitor it?

The academic goals and objectives of every high school student in our state are already written in the standards. There is nothing an IEP committee can do to alter those. The best we could do is to perhaps pick a couple of general goals to monitor. But monitoring is already taking place in the form of benchmark assessments, tests and quizzes and instruction is altered on the basis of those formative assessments in order to pass the summative assessment of the EOCT.

I wrote my goals with fine precision, making sure they were SMART and were in line with both the standards and the needs of the students. Suzie struggles with multi-step problems, which is a pretty consistent thread throughout any of the math classes. So my goal is “Suzie will independently solve an array of multi-step equations, using her calculator, scoring at least 75% on 3 consecutive trials.”

It is a wonderfully concise goal and designed for easy monitoring. I could give Suzie an array of problems at least 3 times and see if she can pass my little quiz. OR, more likely, I am going to look in the grade book to see if she has passed 3 consecutive quizzes. If she can do it 3 consecutive times, I’m pretty confident of mastery. If she can’t I am going to figure out why and see if there are any accommodations I can offer to help her. But what of she can’t do more than 2 in a row? Ever?

Do I lower the bar on the goal? Do I change the goal to something she might be able to master? This is how this game ends up being played, as there is some pressure to show mastery of goals. But even if Suzie has mastered 100% of her IEP objectives, if she does not pass her algebra EOCT, she is in for a third round or how ever many rounds until she either passes it or drops out. So where should I, as a teacher, devote my limited time? Should I monitor her and the other 25 students on my caseload more often and give them more quizzes or should I spend more time trying to teach them and help them pass the quizzes and tests they are already assigned? Do I help them by making MORE work for both them and me in order to get data for the IEP or do I devote myself to getting them through the class so they can get a diploma?

Unfortunately, there are no diplomas for mastered IEP objectives. There are no credits toward graduation that can be earned through mastering IEP goals. EOCTs are not tailored to the current functioning of a student who has a disability. Individual Education Programs can address student supports, but they can not touch the requirements of getting a diploma as those apply to everyone, regardless of need, disability, aspirations or aptitude. Academic goals at the high school level are not worth the time it takes to write one let alone the time spent trying to track them individually. The academic goals at the high school are very explicit and clearly spelled out in the state standards. Everything written in the IEP should be geared to accessing and mastering those standards if that is what our schools have turned in to. We don’t need extra academic goals to track unless the state is going to award some credit for students mastering them.

I don’t mind extra work and effort if it is for something that is worthwhile and produces some results. But the standardization of the curriculum, diploma and tests works against our kids who are by definition nonstandard. We are trying to fit square pegs into round holes here. Our kids are not stupid. They are often creative and brilliant in very nonstandard ways. We do nothing to honor creativity by wringing it out of them by our insistence upon the standardization of our educational system. We are going to have to find creative ways to facilitate and reward their brilliance and creativity while addressing their strengths as well as weaknesses.

I suppose that is why I am bothered and overwhelmed by the task at hand. It requires me to pigeon hole my kids into categories and then justify why they are not fitting into a system that was not built for them. While our school does its best to offer individualized and engaging ways to meet the needs of our students, we are hamstrung by a system that punishes nonstandard ways of doing things. The state wants to rig the game so they can point at us and say “SEE?!? You can not possibly meet the needs of these students in your setting!” Never mind that it isn’t working in the other settings any better. We’re a nontraditional setting, teaching nontraditional students in a nontraditional way. The measures and systems designed to measure us were designed for and by those married to the old system. We exist because there are those looking for ways to escape and flee the old way of doing things. They are refugees from places where they previously did not fit and did not thrive. And now those old forces are marshaling their influence and position in order to make sure no one thrives here, either.

Sir Ken Robinson is carrying the message. Am I the only one for whom this resonates?

Goals and Objectives Part 2:The Tyranny of 80 Percent

11 Aug

 

I need to write this to get it out of my system, despite the fact that I have a mountain of tasks that need to be accomplished before Monday. A major portion of my task list revolves around IEP goals and objectives.

 

One of the amazing things I discovered when I wrote my blog post back in 2006* about IEP goals and objectives (which later became published as part of a collection of articles in book form) was the level of concern parents have about this topic. As teachers, we have to write them and are supposed to be tracking them, because it is the law and best practice. However it always seemed parents were more anxious to talk about placement rather than spend much time on goals and objectives. However that article continues to be the most read post I have ever published, getting almost 28,000 hits out of 350,000 all-time views, plus it is read at the TPGTA website as well as many liking and reading it in the book. The message is clear: parents are intensely interested in this topic. Therefore, we owe it to them as well as to ourselves as teachers to get it right.

 

To their credit, the folks I am currently working with have revised their goals and objectives to be much better and pretty much follow the guidelines that I set up in that article. They are actually the best goals I have ever seen written as a an entire school. They get it…sort of.

 

As I started looking at my caseload and preparing to track the goals, the shortcomings of the 80% criteria mastery became more and more glaring and disturbed me more and more. While the goals were better written and more measurable, it was going to be an absolutely oppressive task to decipher, measure and track all of these goals for literally hundreds of students. We need to do better.

 

Somewhere along the line, 80% became this mysteriously magical number. To be sure, it is better than 60, 70 or even 75%. But in real life, our tolerance for 80% is low to negligible.

 

What if your employer offered to pay you 80% of your agreed salary 80% of the time? Would you accept that?

What if your car only started 80% of the time? Would that be acceptable?

What if 1 out of every 5 planes crashed while taking off?

Do you feed your children 80% of the time?

Do you think the government is going to accept you paying your taxes 80% of the time?

Which appliances do you want to perform on demand 80% of the time?

In which store would you shop at where you have an 80% chance that the merchandise you bought will be what is inside the box?

 

The 80% criteria is the criterion of mediocrity. There ARE times when it may be appropriate but they are few and far between for most busy special education teachers. Even moreso for parents who might be responsible for tracking some of these things.

 

Here is a goal I saw today (Name changed, but I think it might have actually been an example for how to write a goal):

 

“ Given instruction Wilma will increase her words per minute (WPM) to 100 by the end of the school year” The criteria was 80%

 

That was the objective, and it is pretty straight forward. It fits the SMART definition: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited. But there are still niggling problems.

 

Is she already reading 80 WPM? Is she going to read 100 words and miss 20% of them? Increasing reading rate is certainly a worthwhile goal. And if reading 100 WPM is worthwhile, why are we satisfied with 80% ? Why not 100%?

 

And this is where I have gotten LOT of resistance from colleagues, present and past. “100 PERCENT! OMG! **I** don’t do anything 100% of the time or with 100 percent accuracy! I would hate for anyone to expect me to be perfect 100% of the time!”

 

It is true that we are flawed human beings and prone to error. But when we take a plane, we expect to arrive at the correct terminal 100% of the time and have our luggage arrive at the same place 100% of the time. If it does not happen the way it is supposed to, we get mighty cranky and demand that things be fixed and made right.

 

While our students are as flawed as any of us, the assumption is that they are somehow more badly broken. Only a broken toaster would perform at 80%. Only a broken car would start 80% of the time. Only if we think a thing is broken and we have no intention of fixing it do we accept 80% as a criteria for performance. We need to change our thinking.

 

If the child is reading 80 WPM, and our goal is to get them reading at 100 WPM, then that needs to be the goal. And the criteria needs to be 100%. They either read 100 words correctly in a minute or they don’t. However, when we write the goals, we need to set proper conditions:

 

“Given one trial per day, Wilma will read 100 WPM for 3 consecutive days.” Criteria = 100%

 

Is Wilma expected to be perfect all the time? No. But given the deliberate and planned nature of a trial, I am pretty confident of her mastery if she can be perfect 3 times in a row. THAT, my friends, is a much better picture of true mastery. Yes, there will be the occasional plane crash, but most of the time, thankfully, things go exactly as planned. Sure, there are delays but the main goal is arriving at the destination. And even with how common delays are, we are not necessarily happy when they occur. So should it be with our goals and objectives.

 

While my thinking on goals is evolving, let’s try another goal:

“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work over 4 of 5 opportunities”

 

This goal is way better than most goals on the subject of handing in homework. Again, it is SMART. At least it does not have the onerous 80%, right?

 

Welll…it is actually not-so-cleverly couched within that criteria. It is a major improvement over “Handing in his homework on time with 80% accuracy” but it still has some brokenness and failure built into it. Why did we say 4 of 5? Why not just 5? Will Fred be capable of handing in 5 assignments over 5 opportunities this year or not? If he is, then why do we settle for 4? If he is not, then why are we making ourselves track 5 data points that he will never hit? Again, we need to strive for consistency in performance that indicates mastery. If we want him to turn in 4 assignments in a row over 4 days, then that should be the goal. And the expectation is that he will be able to hit 4 days in a row without a miss. “4 of 5” is actually like saying “3 in a row” because there is no possible way to hit 4 of 5 with being able to hit at least 3 consecutive times. It’s mathematically impossible. If you miss once, you are out after the second miss. This is why I often will truncate my objectives and do 3 consecutive trials with 100%.

 

So: Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work, on time, 3 consecutive times” Criteria = 100%

 

Now this is a behavoral issue. Fred is a smart guy, and he will master this objective in the very first week as it is written, You grade his first 3 worksheets and they are turned in on time but they are all blank! Or he rushes through them and scores a 50. THIS is where the 80% can come into play:

“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work on time 3 times in a row scoring 80% or better. Criteria = 100%” If Fred has academic problems we might say 70%, but we are making sure he actually passes the work he turns in. He does not have to be perfect in the academics, but he DOES have to demonstrate mastery on the behavioral part. If he misses just once, we reset the clock, give some additional support, and try again. We can track academics in a separate goal.

 

“Trials” v “Opportunities”

Our students have many, many opportunities to read, write and complete tasks, but we are not going to track and measure each one. We are going to set specific conditions when we measure progress. This deliberate and planned setting of an antecedent gives rise to a trial, which demands a response or behavior. This is the most fundamental component of instruction. We give a cue, they respond and we give feedback in the form of comments, a grade or even a reward. We certainly want our kids to generalize across settings, and this should happen once the task is mastered. We plan to test and teach Wilma to read 100 WPM, and we want this to carry over to when she reads social studies or science. But she has to master the target under the best of conditions before we go into other areas. A trial optimizes those conditions. An “opportunity” simply looks more haphazard. Most teachers use “opportunities” when they mean “trials”. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. With the huge number of goals a teacher has to manage with a caseload of 26 students, we can not afford to be haphazard. And since someone else might end up tracking the objective or goal you are writing, it is simply more humane to make the goals as easily trackable as possible. We need to stop abusing our colleagues with poorly written goals that require a math degree and several hours to track.

 

Let me give one more reason to make our goals easier. They need to be understood by parents and the students. Unless you are prepared to make a graph, you need to shy away from partial and broken goals. Almost 90% of my students struggle with math, and parents and and special educators do not vary substantially from that. Otherwise we would all be math teachers! Everyone understands 100% mastery and know it when they see it. This is especially true for behavioral goals but is just as true for many academic goals. Stick with making the goals more simple and achievable. Almost any goal can be manipulated into a 100% mastery criteria. Any parent will be able to understand and know when it is achieved and so will most students. Many of my students are gamers and they have a better understanding of striving for mastery than many adults. They understand the concept of questing and mastering a series of objectives is a sort of quest. We set our kids on it and when they complete one quest, we give them a new, more challenging one. But if they don’t understand the quest or know when it is completed, they quickly lose interest in the game.

 

So when is 80% or its fractional equivalent (4 of 5 or 8 of 10) appropriate? When we are doing something where we are willing to make a graph and when we can track larger arrays during our trials. Math achievement is a good example, where there is an array of 10 or more problems. The larger the array of measured trials, the more a percentage is appropriate. In the case of math, each problem represents a trial. Some behavioral goals where you are using time sampling or event recording and have over 10 data points lend themselves to using a percentage or fraction of a large total. The larger the sample, the more appropriate it is to use a percentage. But in that case, you still need to think about your marriage to 80% mastery. Percentages lend themselves nicely to automated collection systems, like computer-graded tests. If a computer is not doing the collecting and scoring, you are making your life miserable by living within a percentage,

 

One more thing about goals: Less is more. I have some students with over 20 objectives. If I have a caseload of 25 students (it’s actually 26), that means I am trying to track over 500 separate pieces of data! I can be either complete or accurate, but it is inhumane to expect both. It is simply impractical to devote the attention that each goal requires if I have to manually enter, manage and track individual trials and then decide if we are at 80%. It’s far easier to look for “3 in a row” or however many and mark that quest as complete as we go. Especially if I can keep it down to 100 or less.

 

When potty training our children, our goal is 100% . Accidents can and do happen, but that is the exception not the rule. We start out wanting Freddy to be dry an entire day, then 2 days in a row. Not for 2 days at 80%. Two days. Period. Then 3 days and so on until his diaper is dry for an entire week. Every parent nows that at that point, he is “getting it.” Then we move up to pull-ups and eventually his “big boy underwear”. We support him at every stage, striving for more and better consistency. Are we demanding that little Freddy be perfect 100% of the time? No! But we are striving for consistency. I won’t buy from any eBay retailer with less than 97% positive ratings. Why do we settle for so much less for our kids?

 

For most goals, 80% is simply not consistent enough. When we disengage from mediocrity, it makes life easier and better for all of us. I’m not programming for mediocrity or failure, I want to program for success! And true success in most meaningful things requires a higher level of consistency than 80%.

 

*Note: Back in 2006, I was blogging pseudonymously under the name “Dick Dalton,” hence how I was addressed in many of the comments at that time.

Preventable IEP Anxiety

7 May

I don’t have any IEP’s to write this year, which might be the best and only good thing about being underemployed.  Well…actually I do have one IEP to write; my son’s.

And this year it has been enough of a headache to make up for not having 10 others to write and schedule.  This one has been rescheduled at least 3 times.  Right before the original IEP date, I submitted a letter of parent concern that sort of threw his case manager into a mild panic.  I admit, that this sort of violated about half of my own rules for avoiding the long and ugly IEP meetings.  So I was not too concerned about delaying the meeting a week to enable people to get their legs back under them, and to address my concerns in a thoughtful manner.  But then another delay ensued and finally she wanted to delay until after the CRCT results.  The CRCT, for those who don’t know, is Georgia’s Criterion Referenced Competency Test, which is the state-wide high stakes test.  I decided to go along with this, but each and every time and during each and every communication I asked for exactly the same thing: a draft of the IEP.

And now I am absolutely convinced that failing to receive such a draft in a timely manner is the single greatest cause of preventable stress during IEP season.  This is why it is such a critical part of my aforementioned rules.  Procrastination and surprises do not serve anyone well.  It does not serve teachers well, because they are deciding and writing in a hurry.  It does not serve parents well, because their anxiety mostly comes from not knowing and the fear of the district ambushing them.  It does not serve the system well, because when parents feel ambushed, they tend to become contentious and litigious.  And yet, I witness this time after time after time, year after year after year, the same exact thing.  The worst was when I was the high school representative at a middle school IEP meeting and we were already an hour behind.  We were all in the meeting room, waiting for the case manager. When I asked the SLP where she was, I got an eye roll “She’s upstairs, writing the IEP draft.”

If you are a teacher with an IEP tomorrow morning and have not completed the draft yet, you should consider another career.  You are probably already on some sort of blood pressure medication.  Being a special education teacher is stressful. But this is one source of stress in your life that you can minimize by simply moving your own deadlines up a week.  I used to be like you.  I would wait and then scramble to get my drafts done, and then worried and ended up with all sorts of mistakes as I hurried and rushed.  I finally had enough and began writing my drafts further ahead of the actual meeting dates and got them to parents over a week in advance.  And guess what happened to that stress?  It disappeared.  And here is why:

Being a parent of a child in special education also consists of a stress, only this is one that rarely ever sleeps.  Although I knew this first-hand, it took me time to translate that into a practice that actually minimized worry for the parents as well as myself.  Having a draft in their hands a week in advance allowed the parents to think and consider what we were doing.  And it instilled a sense of trust. You have no idea how precious that is, until you realize that you have attained it universally and fully.  And it shortened my meetings by almost hour.  Parents could talk about what THEY wanted, because we had agreed on most things ahead of time.  Most of the heat fell on the itinerant providers who failed to submit their reports and recommendations in advance.  They were also procrastinators.

Having a draft written also diminished the effects of having to reschedule meetings.  I HATED rescheduling, but on the few occasions where it was absolutely necessary, it did not impact me significantly because I already had the draft written and distributed to the parent.  I used any extra time to talk to the parent some more, making sure everything was okay and it was just the way they wanted it.

It took some SERIOUS arm twisting to get an advanced draft this year, even though it should have been completed 2 months ago.  And what I got was something that was barely written at all, with no mastery or goals and objectives.  This means that this is going to be a very long and drawn-out meeting because we have to hammer out goals and objectives.  Fortunately I had already done some work on a few that I wanted, but I’m seeing some other concerns that have come up that will have to be addressed.

I’m going to challenge all special education teachers to set a goal to get their IEP drafts completed 5 days in advance of the meeting and get them in the hands of the parents at least 3 days ahead of time.  Of course it is a little late for most of you this year, but if you take the 5 day challenge I guarantee you will lower your own stress as well as the stress level of the parents.

It’s getting to be that time again…

27 Jan

Time to think about annual IEP reviews.  I know many teachers are still working on their GAA’s, but you need to be finishing those up and turning your sights on your next big thing which is IEP annual review season.

I don’t always agree with everything she posts, but Carol Sadler is definitely someone that is worth following on Facebook.  And she recently posted this:

Advocates Advice – We are quickly moving into “IEP Season”. Time to get your year end IEP meetings scheduled and on the books. Better to get scheduled in advance to make sure you have time to invite your help. Be sure to notify the school you will tape record the meeting and ask for a Draft copy of the IEP “that has been updated” with their proposed PLOP’s, accommodations and goals/objectives. Take the time to compare the Draft line by line to last year’s IEP to see what they changed and what they are proposing and make sure it is appropriate.

If you are a teacher and reading this, your hair might be turning a bit white or falling out.  Or you might be tempted to start pulling it out.  Let me tell you that what she is suggesting should be a matter of best practice for competent teachers.  Getting the meetings on the calendar early serves everyone well, and knowing who all is going to be attending will help secure a place that is big enough for everyone.

Tape recording the meeting (or using an mp3 recorder) is not a big deal.  If you are a teacher, bring your own to the meeting as well.  Both the parent and the district should be recording at the same time.  There is no presumption of privacy at these meetings, even though they are confidential.  You can’t podcast the meeting.  But by now teachers need to be getting used to being in the spotlight being recorded at any time, any where.  Transparency is our friend.  Stop being hostile to it, and open up your records, your mind, your intentions and your heart to the parents of the children you teach.  You might discover a wealth of rewards await you as the relationship transforms from confrontation to cooperation.

The idea of having a draft prepared a week ahead seems to always trip up teacher case managers. They can not seem to wrap their minds around the idea of moving their entire time table up one week.  You have to write this thing one way or another.  Stop the procrastinating and the excuse-making and just do it, and get it done.  You send it out a week or so ahead of time, with “DRAFT” written by hand in big letters, and attach a note “Please look over the enclosed proposed IEP DRAFT.  Please write down any concerns and/or suggested changes that you might have on the draft and send it back to me so I can include them and make sure they are acceptable to you before the meeting.”

Imagine an IEP that is less than an hour long, and everyone leaves the room smiling, and pleased and relaxed, feeling good about what just occurred.  If you have several annual reviews that are NOT like this then you should probably consider sending out your drafts well in advance so parents can look at them.  But aside from pleasing a parent, there are also other good reasons to move your time table up a week.  Remember you HAVE to write the thing regardless.  Why not do it well in advance when you can actually THINK about what you are writing instead of having that deadline looming over you?  You will discover that you make better choices and decisions when you are not rushed and pressured.  And if there are problems looming ahead, you have some time to begin addressing them before the meeting with the parents and the rest of the team.

I always did this as a matter of regular practice.  I always tried to get the draft done and out at least 4 days ahead of the meeting regardless of who the parent was.  If I get a parent making a request like Carol, guess what?  I move my time table up TWO weeks!  I want to swap IEP drafts, ideas and suggestions several times in advance of this meeting if at all possible.   If the parent is bringing an advocate, then I would rather the advocate look over my IEP, mark and bleed all over it with red ink and send it back however many times before the meeting, rather than rip me to shreds for hours in front of the rest of the team.  The advocate will have plenty of fodder for bloodletting at the meeting from other members of the IEP team but not me if I can do anything about it.

This is because the other members of my team balked at writing their portions in advance.  The occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech language pathologists have HUGE caseloads and I understand that.  BUT the workload is exactly the same whether you do it now or later.  I put all members of my team on notice as to the day the draft is going out.  It is up to them if they are ready or not, and 95% of the time, they failed to meet that deadline.

IEPs are exactly the same as alternate assessments that way.  If you procrastinate, you will end up under a huge backlog, and it will seem like a dark pit that you forever are trying to dig yourself out of as each deadline comes and overwhelms you.  You have got to get ahead and try to stay ahead.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Waiting until the night before is a terrible choice that invites mistakes and trouble.

I actually attended one middle school meeting where everyone was there except the caseload manager.  When I asked the SLP where she was, I saw an eye roll and she whispered “She’s upstairs trying to write the IEP!”  This was a meeting that was already an hour late.  It was a good thing that parent was not paying Carol’s hourly rate!

Check out The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism!

9 Jul

I was hoping that the next post I was writing would be all about the new job I found and the excitement involved in looking forward to a fresh new start in a fresh new place.

I hasn’t happened….yet.  I have had several good interviews and I walked out of each of them feeling like I had hit it out of the ballpark.  These were positions that screamed my name as far as the skills required and my background, experience and desires.  I was wondering “How am I going to choose between them…they all seem great!”  But then days turn into weeks and no follow-up call comes.  One did send an email stating they had hired someone else, and that is totally fine.  It is possible there are some other highly qualified, experienced people who are also looking might be better suited to some spots.  But Some of these seemed SO tailor-made for me.  I’m scratching my head, but continuing to pursue what pening there are and trying not to get discouraged.

You can only imagine Jane’s anxiety.  And my two boys also know that this summer is different because we are not taking any real long trips or vacations and holding on to the money a little tighter.  They know it is all about Daddy’s job.  At least we still have medical insurance for a couple more months.

But I DO have some good news to share!  Liz Ditz has been a sort of guardian angel of my blog since its earliest days, linking, commenting and promoting articles she thought were good, and driving a lot of readers my way.  She is just a dynamo of reading and writing and promoting the cause of disability advocacy.  Every blogger should be so lucky to have a Liz in their readership!

A few weeks ago, she emailed and asked about an article I had written from my IEP series and wondered if I would be interested in participating in a project of contributing it toward a book she and some other folks are working on.  And so after doing some editing and updating, we finished it and you can read the revised version of my article on IEP goals at the Thinking Persons Guide To Autism which will eventually become a print book!  How cool is that?

I invite you to seriously check the blog out, because it has many awesome articles written be some very accomplished bloggers.  I totally wish I had a resource like this in the earliest days of son’s diagnosis.  It is a common sense and scientific look at autism issues without the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that I see in so much autism literature and articles by parents and professionals in the field while being sensitive to the emotional overhang associated with autism.  There are some great articles there that are worth a look as a professional as well as a parent.  This blog is decidedly parent-centric written by and for parents but is a great resource for teachers and othe professionals too.

What is a Good Teacher Worth?

25 Mar

I have been up to my elbows and eyeballs in annual reviews. I’m doing a bunch of my own this week, as well as acting as LEA for several others. Some teachers have reviews that go smoothly and amazing well. Some need a bit of help. And some are absolute disasters. It is this last category that results in headaches for everyone and unfortunately it happens all too often. There are many reasons why an annual review can go poorly, but I find the single biggest factor is in preparation. The more preparation, the better the meeting goes. The less preparation, the worse it goes.

The most hideous meetings I ever attended was at a middle school. I was the high school representative and drove half way across the county to get there. Once I got there, I had to wait nearly an hour because other meetings were running late. Fortunately the parent was not there, as the teacher was anxious to postpone which I thumbed down. I made her call the parent and get permission to hold it, which the parent was happy to do. Then the IEP was not filled out. We had to bang it all out there. Oy. Or another middle school meeting where I arrived, and the parent and itinerants and everyone was there except the caseload teacher. Where was she? In her classroom trying to type the goals and other parts, thus making us all wait. Or, yet another middle school meeting where I was late because the one I was attending across the hall ran late. When I walked into the crowded room, the parents were visibly fuming and the tension was so thick everyone was about ready to suffocate. This was because the teacher had made some careless comment and now the parents were loaded for bear.

In each of these situations, even though none of these were my students and this was not even my school or my meeting, I managed to help salvage the situation from potential disaster. Even the middle school LEAs and graduation coaches seemed at a loss as to how to handle these situations. In the first case, we were able to bang out the IEP in about an hour once I overcame the team’s reluctance. It was the last meeting of the day and everyone wanted to go home. But my general rule is the death is about the only reason to postpone…or an attorney, which is practically the same as death. It takes an enormous amount of coordination to get all the players in the same room at the same time. Don’t blow it. In the second instance, I got the teacher to just print out what she had plus the previous year’s IEP….after problems with the printer. This is why waiting until the last minute courts disaster, and Murphy WILL move in and take up residence. In the final case, I discovered there were things in the IEP that were negotiable enough for the parents that they could walk out less mad. They still did not like that teacher, but at least felt better about high school transition.

An IEP is often treated like a court case just waiting to happen. And it is not a bad idea to view it as such when writing one. But you can not become so paralyzed with fear that you end up avoiding it. It must be done, so you might as well grab it and run with vigor to get it done. It is daunting but not impossible to write a decent IEP that will serve the student well without causing either the school or the parents to feel like they have been robbed. I have suggestions right here in my blog that might be useful for both parents and teachers.

This is one field where experience really does count as long as it is good experience. Someone who can write a proper, legal IEP can save the school thousands in litigation costs. A teacher who knows how to talk to parents without ticking them off can save an administrator countless headaches. A competent teacher who can actually teach the students can help the school meet its goals and the all important AYP. I have seen all too often what happens when a teacher is incompetent. People get frustrated, corners are cut and then parents are ready to go to an attorney.

An experienced, competent teacher is also more likely to stick around, as long as minimum efforts are made to retain him/her. I’ll talk about retention in a future post, but experience does help endure future obstacles and deteriorating conditions at least up to a point. I was able to handle a caseload larger than any other SID/PID teacher in the county with less help than any other teacher by virtue of my experience and tenacious commitment to NOT allow anything to happen that would endanger the students. Over time I developed experience enough to keep little things from turning into big things and when a big problem came along I learned how to handle a fair number of those. And finally, I learned to recognize when something was too big for me to handle and that I needed to ask for assistance fro m people paid to handle the bigger problems. Those are all skills that you can learn only through experience. In special education, there are a ton of judgment calls that we are called on to make because there is not a set textbook way of handling our students. That is what makes it “special!”

Parent Involvement

27 Aug

There’s a huge push in Georgia and around the country relating to parent involvement, and right this minute there is one going on in the metro Atlanta area sponsored by WSB-TV and Bethere.org. And there is a lot of research that indicates that parent involvement is one of the key elements of a good education as well as well adjusted kids in general, that you can find at the BeThere website.

In my county, there are a couple of theme schools (elementary and middle) as well as a high school academy that have parental involvement as the central focus. Parents sign an agreement that they will volunteer for a number of hours as well as adhere to a list of rules and guidelines. In exchange, the school promises to deliver a better education and better outcomes based largely on the increased parent involvement.

I agree that parental involvement is a crucial element in education. In fact, I believe parent involvement is more important than the teacher, the principal or the school district in determining academic outcomes. If you could get rid of the entire educational apparatus and replace it with involved parents for every child, there wouldn’t be an educational crisis in this country.

I have a couple of family members who have been home schooling their children, and these kids are absolutely awesome and brilliant. Of course the parents are awesome and brilliant, too, but these kids are as socially adjusted, confident and creative as anyone you would ever meet anywhere else. A well-educated and motivated parent can do things that a school system simply can not do. And with the leaps in technology, the gap between what public schools can offer versus what someone educated at home can get is approaching zero. Throw in some community theater, music, sports and clubs and you’ve got everything pretty much covered. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parent involvement as it involves dedication and commitment far beyond what any of the local theme schools demand, which is why it isn’t for everyone.

We’ve kicked the home school idea around our house. Jane has been to some home school expos and has a number of friends who are homeschooling their kids. And my youngest would do really well with it, but he’ll do well no matter where he goes to school. But my oldest is a big question mark. Right now he’s getting OT and sppech/language services through the school system via his IEP. There’s a good resource on home schooling and special needs found at the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association. I may hit on that more later.

But I do want to speak concerning those of us who are not home schooling and are being asked to be involved. It’s difficult for responsible parents to NOT be involved, so this movement does strike me as a bit bothersome and condescending. We all do know parents who aren’t very involved, but it’s hard to imagine any ad campaign having much of an effect on people who are unable or unwilling to be involved. We do need to face a very real, if unpleasant to educators, fact: the public school system has as a primary function a custodial role; a safe, secure place to keep kids so that parents can go to work or just get a break. We are paid to babysit as much as educate.

There, I said it.

Public schools exist, in large part, because parents don’t want kids running amok all day. A few months off in the summer are about all most parents can stand. They love seeing the bus pull up in the fall! And while many kids won’t admit it, they like having a place to go. they get fed and looked after and if all goes well they might get an education. But in any case, they are in a relatively safe, clean, environmentally-controlled place. Parents can go about their business during the day without having to worry about their kids. And if they do worry, they have a myriad of people to blame and complain to including the school board, the superintendent, the principal and right down to the teacher. There are ample opportunities for parents to raise a fuss and be heard. Plenty of involvement there!

Which brings up another aspect of this parental involvement business. Fact is, schools want parents involved as long as it’s the system calling the shots. As long as parents volunteer to raise money, schools like parents. When parents start wanting a voice in how the money is spent, then there may some problems. In special education, the school system is negatively reinforced for having parents who are not involved. If a parent isn’t present, an IEP can be done in a much shorter amount of time. If a parent is involved and brings an advocate or attorney, then we’re looking at hours. Some parents are in the office a lot, advocating for their child or complaining about something or other. Some are calling their board representative all the time. They are already involved quite a bit! But this is not the sort of involvement the districts involved in the “Be There” campaign are looking for, I suspect.

They are looking for parents to be involved with helping their child comply and succeed with the requirements put forth by the state. They want parents who will help their child (as well as maybe others) with homework, teaching math and literacy and fundraising. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I am saying that any campaign seeking involvement from parents might want to consider all the ways parents are involved, including those who get involved by suing the school system! I think parent involvement is good when there is good communication and trust between a school and the parents. In such a system, though, a campaign like “Be There” wouldn’t be necessary.

I have a mix in my class. Just by the nature of severe and multiple disabilities, it demands heavy parental involvement. There’s just no getting around it when a student demands total care and supervision 24/7. I totally get that, which is why I try not to make a lot of demands on the parents. They are all doing the best they can. Most have been pretty supportive over the years, and I think I have a decent relationship with all of them. After several years, a body tends to develop a sort of trust relationship as my classroom becomes a second home of a sort. A very CROWDED home, at the moment, but we do the best we can with what we have.

What do you think? Are there some parents who are too involved? Are schools really that interested in a reciprocal partnership with parents?

7 Steps to a Bulletproof Annual Review IEP Schedule

30 Apr

IEP season is in full swing and indeed we’re but a few weeks from it being all over. This year, I have not had any LEA duties since our department head has taken over those duties full time. I’m exceedingly thankful but I don’t regret the experience and knowledge previous years and scores of meetings have lent me.

However I did have a middle school that needed a high school representative and have been busy trying to get their meetings scheduled. Whenever I speak to an itinerant teacher or therapist about this particular school and IEP meetings, they roll their eyes. They (the middle school) seem to have some problems in this area, so I’m blogging it to help them and anyone else who cares to look into it.

The Problem

Scheduling an IEP is a lot like herding cats. Everyone is everywhere and it seems like no two people are headed in the same direction. The primary responsibility for scheduling an IEP should fall on the case manager, who should be in regular contact with parents through progress reports and other avenues anyway. I remember my first try at being a special ed. teacher, I was told that I had to talk to my parents. I didn’t want to, and soon learned that if I didn’t contact them, they would be contacting me, and not necessarily under the most ideal of circumstances!

The students I teach are very involved and get many services from many people. An IEP involves bringing all of these people together on the same day at the same time, when there are many, many other meetings and people competing for their time. But it is sometimes the only time a parent gets to see and talk to everyone. How can we get all of these people together who are all running amok at this time of year?

A month or so in advance

1. Set Options and limit them. This part is done by our department head. Basically she designates a given week when we (each caseload manager) are supposed to hold our meetings. Having an online calendar accessible to everyone has been a great help, because several caseloads can occupy each week. So now it can be a bit of a free for all, but now at least there is a time frame to work from and each teacher has a guideline within to work. Of course manifestations and eligibilities can wreak havoc, but we’re talking about annual reviews, here. They happen annually so we know when they should take place. Annually.

2. Talk to the Parents. There’s some disagreement as to who you should talk to first, but I start with the parents. I let them know what week we’re doing annual reviews and get a feel for their own feelings. I want to know how they feel about attending, when the best time of day for them and what their concerns are. Basically we begin the process I’ve written about before.

3. Talk to other service providers. Get a feel for their limitations and preferences and any issues they might have. I’m just trying to get a general feeling here and I let them know the general time frame I have to work with.

4. Set up the time. Notice that I haven’t set a specific time up until now. Sometimes the planets align and service providers and parents all have a common time when they can meet. Hallelujah! But most of the time, this is not going to happen. So my first point of contact is the parent. I get them to committ to a time from the best possible options and try to nail them down. Hard. By that, I mean to say that I make it easy for a parent to say, “No, I’m not going to be able to make it.” without guilt while I also press them to commit and make their yes mean yes. I do this by reassuring them that we can talk before the meeting or after the meeting anytime about any issues. Once they sign that they are or are not attending, I set it in the calendar. This should be done about a month out, if possible. I don’t know many teachers who are doing this, but it is best practice for annual reviews. At this point, I try to get as many service providers as possible on board, but if some can’t make it, that is the nature of this beast.

Within 1 week of the meeting

5. Keep in touch! That especially means parents, but also everyone you have invited to the meeting Service providers need time to input their portion of the IEP and compile notes, grades and reports. Reminding everyone is good practice but reminding parents also helps cover yourself later as part of the due process.

6. Draft the IEP. You need to have this draft done several days in advance of the IEP whether other service providers have their portion completed or not. This will help you move things along as part of due process.

7. Send home some forms and the draft. I try to do this 3 or more days in advance. There are a lot of forms that can be done in advance, like the bus/transportation forms, consent for evaluation, and any surveys that might be due. This will speed things up and they are part of due process. Have extra forms at the meeting, in case the parent forgets, but anything done ahead will help in keeping the communication line alive and active.

When someone wants to change the date and time of the meeting.

Someone better have a good reason that is burnished in gold. Fact is, at our school with hundreds of annual reviews taking place, we do not have room to niggle about with the foolishness of small inconveniences. If that person is a parent, I’m not going to move at the last minute unless I’m dying. Even then, you can roll me up in a wheelchair because when we are a week out, we are going forward at the appointed time. If the parent wants to reschedule, I’m going to try to make it an individual conference, after the fact. The reason why I can do this and get away with it is because I have a draft of the IEP I can send home a few days in advance and the parent can rewrite any portion that they see fit ahead of time. We can do so many things in advance that the actual IEP is merely a ratification of several turns and rounds of negotiations and discussions. Note that this only works if parent contact is an ongoing thing. The most important thing is to include parents from the beginning and give them adequate time and opportunity for input. Leaving parents out has dire consequences.

What’s happening at the middle school, is that these meetings are being scheduled without following the above steps. Consequently, they are constantly being rescheduled and canceled at the last minute. Parents end up jerking the process because they are not being empowered enough at the earliest stage of the review process. The other thing that is happening is that case managers are not getting the things done on time, so they simply reschedule. For a busy itinerant, who may have hundreds of meetings, this is simply untenable. It ends up being a nightmare for everyone involved and a backlog of make-up meetings accumulates and the end of the year turns into a snake pit of frantic hell. Do not let this happen! Teachers who have gone through this more than once have no excuse. It is a violation of our own professional code of conduct as well as our contract by not having the thing written on the appointed day. By starting the process early and collaborating with everyone involved, you can make the process relatively easier on everyone.

As a parent, I like to know the general time line, even if we are a month out. Right now, we have less than a month of school left, and we have not heard a word from my son’s case manager about his annual review. I’ve tried and tried over the years to get his various teachers and case managers to draft stuff in advance, but it never happens. I totally understand procrastination but I’ve managed to simply move my own deadlines up so “last minute” for me is 2 days before the meeting. Having a draft a few days ahead would really help streamline the process plus lessen whatever anxiety Jane* and I might have about it. Having a scheduled date well in advance helps us keep the calendar clear and helps to keep us from feeling jerked around. It makes it less likely that we’ll be the jerks. A smooth process requires advanced planning. Sure, things happen and come up, but it is easier making provision for such things with advanced notice and preparation.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

23 Dec

A couple of days before we got out on break, I got something very special from my special education director at the board office.

Now I can share my joy with all of you!

This is also a jumping off point for a new series about IEPs. I figure since I have to do this anyway, I might as well blog it. It might help other teachers as well as parents. My IEP series is linked in my blogroll and has been the biggest source of traffic to this blog since I posted it. Maybe the same trick will work for my Teachertube and Youtube channels?

Thanks for y’all coming by and joining in my foolishness!

(Note: I’m not at all bashing my special ed director here.  I’m just having a bit of fun with the inevitable Life That Chose Me.  You just have to laugh, sometimes)

A Word or Two About Parent Advocacy

20 May

I have new videos posted on TeacherTube! On one, I began a rant on the onerous IEP process that parents never see, which is all the work that goes into preparing these things. It turned out to be more of a rant on goals and objectives, though. I’m also playing around with Movie Maker effects to make it slightly more interesting.

From the autism walk, you can see CJ singing the National Anthem! I don’t know him that well, but I’ve always looked at CJ as being pretty severe as I’ve never heard him say anything! But seeing is believing, and there he is singing just as well as ever, and pretty much stayed on-key the whole time with no music to help him. Is it true the national anthem is one of the hardest songs to sing? CJ made it look pretty easy! Plus there is a presentation by Kimberly Rockers where she talked about genetic links to autism. Yeah, that’s my oldest running around and standing in front!

But I want to do more than just post updates, as I have some actual thoughts to blog about. And this time it is about parent advocacy. I ended up on the other side of it recently, and it was more traumatic and harrowing than I would ever have anticipated. Part of the reason was that it was very much unanticipated.

If you want to raise the blood pressure of the teacher, waiting until the IEP to spring all sorts of concerns and complaints is one way to do it. But you’re going to pay a price for that tactic, which is some resentment from someone who could be advocating with you. Is it worth it? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.

When going through the IEP Process, I advocate the teacher and parent working together hand-in-hand and step-by-step, collaborating on providing the best services for the student. “Best” in a public school is a relative thing. The first, greatest and best teacher for your child is YOU. Not the teacher, the SLP the OT or PT. It is YOU, the parent. No one else has the time that you do with your child. No one else cares as much. No one else has the motivation that you have. No one else has the knowledge you do. No one else has the intimate relationship and attachment that you do. And more often than not, many of these other people you rely on to provide services have their own children to care for and feed. During school time, you want these other people to be effective in helping your child to meet their potential. Meeting potential in the school system nowadays means accessing the regular education curriculum. Math, English, social studies and science are what we’re supposed to be teaching. Communication, mobility and other skills must fit into that general education context. Folding laundry and washing dishes are not part of the general education curriculum. Those days are disappearing. Write your congressperson if you feel differently. I have.

One area of contention I had to endure was Extended School Year or ESY. In my view, given what I said above about the parent being teacher #1, ESY makes less sense when you consider that the person that is going to be delivering services is not necessarily the child’s teacher/therapist. It is also probably not going to be in the same location and it is not going to be following the same schedule as the regular school year. Different setting + different teacher + different schedule + different bus + autism = …..progress?!??!

Think again. A child would do much better to have services done in the home or staying with family for the summer. As it is, it is a recipe for behavior problems all the way around and NOT a recipe for progress. Some people are wild about providing social skills instruction during the summer. I can say from reading the research that the efficacy of even the best social skills programs is suspect, at best. But I see more and more parents advocating for it. So let’s plug in a novel peer group into the equation I just outlined above. You have a sudden, severe series of transitions that will be repeated at the end of the summer when they go back to school. Are you really doing your kids any good? I don’t know. You decide.

When I see this sort of “advocacy” it begins to look more and more like the parent simply wants the school to raise their child for them. It is also the failure to see the reality that school services might be able to make progress but school services are not a cure!

As parents, we didn’t ask to have children with disabilities. We’re sending the best children that we have. I just want to make sure that my children have the same access that other students have to an education. However, I do not rely on the schools to teach my children everything. His mother has really done most of the real grunt work when it comes to his education. And she has done a stellar job of it. I’m realistic enough to understand the limitations of public schools in that they do not have the resources to do everything demanded of them. I believe that parents need to step up and take the responsibility for educating their children. The school system is there, but it is not the main education agent nor should it be. We, as parents, need to step up. And if you are a parent of a child with disabilities, you’re going to have to be twice as diligent. Does that mean being more diligent in getting your child services? No. It means learning how to do the things service providers do, and do them yourself. The best therapy my son ever got was after we were able to watch what the therapist did. We have video of his OT, SLP and PT therapists working with him, and we were able to replicate what PT, OT and speech were doing at the private therapy clinic. The light bulb came on in my mind when I saw my son participate a Georgia State study with Mary Ann Romski, and I saw exactly what the SLPs were doing. In fact, much of her research revolves around training parents how to implement interventions.

I’m a big believer that if parents are given the knowledge and tools, they can be the ones who are making the real and significant contributions to a child’s development. Fighting with the school system simply saps your own resources and energy that you could devote to more meaningful activities.

The experience of being rolled over was an exercise in humility. I’m not as good as I thought I was. I am not a special ed. wizard. I’m one person, trying to do the best I can within my own limitations and I have a lot of those. I’m not able to cure anyone, and I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I could. I’ve come to realize that the best I can do is to extend the hard work parents have already put into raising their kids, not the other way around. Nowadays, people often talk of parents needing to support their schools and teachers, which I think is backwards. The parents are the primary educational agents in the lives of their children, and the school plays a supportive and augmentative role. I’ve been around enough to see what happens when family support at home breaks down. Performance at school also slips and behaviors worsen and little learning takes place. So teachers and parents need to be supportive of each other.

So when you are advocating, just what exactly is your expected outcome? If it’s a cure, you’re going to be frustrated pretty much all the time. If it’s for everything you want, you’re going to be frustrated all the time because even when you think you’ve gotten it all, there’s going to be a missing piece. Perhaps you get the para support but the para is untrained and lazy. Or perhaps you get an untrained teacher. Training these folks takes time. Are they going to spend school time getting the training? That’s less time with your child. Is it over the summer? Oh wait…you want them to do ESY! You’re going to have to break in and break countless teachers, paras, therapists and administrators as you fight and battle your way through your child’s school years. Because I have seen more than one teacher move on to another setting rather than continue battling a contentious parent, especially with the prospect of having to be locked in battle for years in the self-contained setting. Let’s face it, I am not up to the task of fighting with the parent of a 16 year-old until that child is 22. Quite frankly, some of you are bent on being angry and frustrated and seem to be conditioned to making everyone else scared, angry and frustrated.

As a parent I have had skirmishes with teachers on a few occasions, usually when the teacher wants to put the child in an overly restrictive environment when they have no data to substantiate such a placement. Basically, if the school starts making noises about putting my child in a self-contained setting, they need to show me something more than just an opinion. Sometimes a parent wants to try a less restrictive setting, and I admit I get nervous about that with my students whose functioning is measured in months. There’s the whole fear that they’ll be victimized by some of the street-wise kids. But you want to try, go ahead and try. Perhaps it will work. I’ve seen good things happen when severe kids are around those less severe. But transitions can be rough.

I’m interested in hearing/reading stories from parents whose advocacy has helped turn a situation around. Perhaps you managed to turn a bad teacher into a good one? Or maybe you’ve battled for years and finally got everything you wanted and it turned out the way you wanted. I have heard of parents who battled until they eventually got a teacher they wanted. I’ve been on both sides of that one, as a parent getting good teachers and as THE teacher some parents wanted.

But I am not all that, as either a parent or teacher. No super teacher/parent here. I can write about it better than I can actually do it! In fact, this is not as much me choosing this life as it is the life that has chosen me!

D.

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