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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?

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 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.

 

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.

Making Waves

30 Jul

No, not yet. But I have made waves before and know that the day will come (and might be overdue) when I have to do it again.

In 2000, I can into this county as some one with some experience in special education, but none with the severe and profound disabilities. I had worked with mostly LD and EBD settings, albeit very restrictive in a psychoed and state hospital. But what I lacked in experience, I more than made up for with the fire in my belly from just recently having my oldest son diagnosed with PDD-NOS at the age of 18 months.  I had some extra motivation that needed an outlet, and fighting injustice was just the thing.

The situation I walked into was pretty appalling. We were getting students with more and more severe disabilities, but there was no changing area. We had one student who we had to catheterize and change and we did it on a computer table in our little office area. The school nurse was prohibited from helping us with catheterizations. There were no accessible drinking fountains. The conditions we were working in showed me that there was a very clear pattern of discrimination, exclusion and prejudice. So I amazed and shocked my new administration by detailing several of these injustices in writing, listing all of them as recipients and then filing it with the county special education director as a list of section 504 violations. Looking back it was an extremely audacious thing for me, a new hire, to do.

The special education director did come out to the high school to meet with us in order to rectify several of the issues. While she was amused at my boldness, she was supportive and worked with us to address my grievances. Not all of them were addressed right away. Some of them were never resolved. But we made gradual headway and progress. The administration seemed to be genuinely interested in meeting the needs of our students.

NCLB has not been good to students with severe disabilities. In fact, it has totally thrown all of us under the bus. Sure, there is lip service toward ensuring that all children have a quality education delivered by highly qualified teachers. But with the constant drumbeat of accountability and test scores, these students and their teachers are totally marginalized and alienated. It is all about college preparation. What does someone with an IQ of less than 20 have to do with a college prep curriculum and diploma? And what does that say to those who really work hard to get one if they just give one to these kids by virtue if their GAA and staying until 22? Administrators all over the country, faced with tough economic choices are following their keenest business instinct; getting “the most bang for the buck.” That means test scores. That means NOT my program. That means disproportionate overcrowding.

Consider this:

The state sets various limits on class sizes for various grades, as well as disability categories. The limit for a PID class is 5, with at least one para. For a regular high school class it has been around 30. This means 1 student with severe disabilities is about equal in support to 6 regular education students. So what if I have 8 in my class? An administrator might see this as still being a small class. Numerically, it is. But support-wise, it is equal to increasing a regular class to 48! Even under the toughest of economic times, I do not know of a single regular teacher who is expected to be with 48 kids for one class period, much less being with all of them all day long all year long. Even with extra para support, there is a limit to how many one teacher can handle, no matter the level of experience or competence.

Numbers alone never give an accurate picture of anything. IQ is not a measure of character, worth or how much dignity a person deserves. And yet, this is the climate that is driving more and more decisions that routinely leave those who most need support and care into situations that are rife with neglect and abuse. It’s time we push back before we get run over.

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