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So You Want To Be A Student At An Online School?

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

I am working on an article about being an online teacher but realized that I also needed to write something about being an online student since these go hand-in-hand. Since far more people will eventually be taking classes online than teaching them, I decided to lead off with this one.  All online teachers end up being online learners, so this is naturally a good place to start understanding what happens in an online school.

Our school is the largest in the state with over 12,000 k-12 students serving all 159 counties in the state. And we serve students in all grades with most disabilities including some with severe and multiple disabilities.

Families search us out for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in prior articles about charter schools. I have personally served students who have been shot, stabbed, beat up, ridiculed, harassed, bullied and otherwise traumatized within the more typical brick and mortar setting. Some students were themselves bullies or were kicked out of their regular schools for being disruptive. Some students are professional actors, athletes or have other interests that simply do not work well with a traditional schedule. Some students have extensive medical needs that can not be met in a traditional setting or it poses an undo hardship. Some parents chose this option because, for whatever reason, they found themselves being called into the school to come and get their child, conference with administrators, or deal with other problems in the school often totally unrelated to a child’s education. Some of these are young teen parents themselves who want to take care of and raise their children without having to drop out of school.

Whatever the reason, families are coming to us from all corners of the state from all backgrounds. Over 50% of our students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in their regular home districts. While these students don’t get the free or reduced lunches in our setting, they are eligible to receive free laptops, printers and equipment from our school including the means to access the internet if they don’t already have it. Our school is a free, public charter school which does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, gender orientation, income or academic ability. In general, we have similar admission criteria as any other public school except we also do not discriminate based on ones zip code as long as they live in the state of Georgia. If you live in my state, you or your child can attend my school.

However, SHOULD you or your child attend my school? And if so, what do you need to know?

The first thing any perspective student and their parent should realize is that online education is not easier, less rigorous or less work than a regular school. It is more flexible. In exchange for eliminating some of the problems of scheduling and social pitfalls, it poses some extra challenges that are not present in more traditional educational settings. The work still has to be done, the standards still have to be met and the standardized tests still have to be taken and passed. These are state mandates for all public schools that do not go away just because the bus is not coming to the door.

Parents and students attending us for the first time are often a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected, having had some misconception that this would somehow be easier and less work. This is probably the biggest misconception of online education and it is the downfall of most students and parents entering our setting for the first time.

The second thing parents need to know is that they are going to be more involved and doing more work themselves. In our school, they are called “learning coaches”. While a learning coach can be any adult, it is most often a parent or guardian. Students of all ages need a certain level of support in our environment, and the parent needs to be willing, or know someone who is willing to fulfill this role. In the younger grades, this means that the parent takes on the role of being the primary teacher. While this lessens with age and grade level, it is still a critical component even in high school. It is a rare student that can manage themselves alone even in high school, especially if is their first year with us.

The benefit of flexibility is also a pitfall that many students and parents fall into, becoming a crater that they find themselves struggling to escape from. Most students who go back to the regular setting are ones who fell into this early on and struggled to get out of simply because they could not adequately manage their time. Procrastination is the biggest enemy of all in this setting and the online environment makes it exasperatingly easy to find other, more interesting things to do.

This is a new system and environment for most students. There is a new language, new technology, new system and an entirely new way of doing things. The learning curse is VERY steep. Even though we might spend an entire month trying to orient new students and parents, there is a still a lot to learn and the volume of new information can be overwhelming. There is an entirely new language to learn in the ways of the OLS, LMS, class connect, blackboard collaborate, Kmail, and navigating the system.

So if you are considering this environment, both parents and students need to have their eyes open.

- Are you willing to devote MORE hours and time upfront to learn the new language and system?

- Are you willing to keep up with the constant and steady flow of new material and information?

- Are you willing and able to structure your time into a daily/weekly routine that will allow room for changes and disruptions?

- Is the student/learning coach relationship robust enough to endure stress, hardship and trials by fire?

- Are you able to persist through many challenges that extend beyond just the academic material, but also the challenges of technology?

Discouraged yet?

Online learning IS the wave of the future, and just the virtue of reading this blog shows that you are plugged in some how and investing a considerable amount of time in learning and researching. So I hope I can reward your efforts with some advice, if you are still considering this route.

1. Don’t get behind. In fact, get ahead if you can. Things come up and Murphy’s law will be there to frustrate you. One of the biggest benefits of this setting is that you CAN shoot out front and build your own buffer. Do it and you won’t regret it.

2. If things come up and you DO get behind, communicate with the teacher. We always have catch-up plans and can help prioritize to get you back on track. One thing about my fellow teachers and I is that we never give up. As long as you are willing to do the work, we’ll hang with you.

3. If you are new, give the system a chance until Thanksgiving break. Persist and hang with us through the tough learning curve. I found most new families DO feel overwhelmed at first, just like I did as a new teacher. But it DOES get better.

If there are additional concerns or questions, I’ll do my best to address them in the comments. But in just a few days, my summer will be over and I’ll be back working again! And I already have a stack of work waiting for me. But it is a subject near and dear to my heart, which I will address in the next article about being an online teacher.

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?

Fifth Grade

23 Aug

Well my first day of school was last day last Friday.  It was also my last day so far, but hopefully not THE last day!

When I signed up to substitute I had a lot of papers to fill out and on one of them I checked schools and grade levels where I was willing to substitute.  I promptly checked all the middle and high schools.  I did NOT check any elementary school.  I have been around some VERY young students (outside of my own) since college but for some reason never really embraced the younger set.  Middle school always seemed to be a bit of a sweet spot for me, although most of my career has been in the high school.  Teaching is teaching, no matter the subject and no matter the grade level or ability level. And it even varies within any subgroup across schools and across the hall to the next room.

So imagine my surprise on Friday getting a call asking if I would come and teach 5th grade for a day.  Heck yeah!

I said this with zero hesitation, which is probably good.  If I would have actually thought about it, I might have stayed home.  I had not darkened a 5th grade classroom since *I* was a fifth grader!

BUT you never know.  And so I went in to a sort of emergency situation and lo and behold I actually kinda liked it.  I was essentially with the same group of students all day (which is not really new to me) but these were all very engaged, engaging and mostly confident students.  Ten year-olds really are at an amazing stage of life where they are most definitely kids but also have an emerging level of independence.  The girls all seem to have lots of confidence and have no fear of demonstrating their academic or physical prowess.  While the boys still want to be cool, they are not afraid of taking risks and can actually laugh at themselves sometimes.  The whole class loved participating and being engaged in their learning.  They liked to show what they can do.  Peer pressure has not quite choked so much of their individuality and confidence away.  They are the top dogs of their elementary school but it is still early enough in the year that it has not really sunk in yet.

The hardest part of the day was probably playing kick ball in the 90 degree Georgia heat during recess.  They still needed some help organizing themselves into a structured game and needed a referee, but generally these were all good kids.  One would not even think of it as a Title 1 school by what was going on in the classroom, which is exactly what you want.  Good things ARE happening if you can look past the political and the system view of things.

I think I might just see about picking up some more of the jobs in the lower grades.  It IS a lot different and it IS very busy but the day rockets by pretty fast.

Of course fifth grade is made famous by a certain TV game show that my kids sometimes like to watch.  Who can forget that first million dollar winner?

 

Substituting

1 Nov

I’m still in the market, but have been actually fortunate to have been able to be working steadily. I already have some GAA tasks underway, with a basic plan that will allow them to be carried through to completion IF the teacher who returned this week can follow through. Basically there are VERY few teachers left in the building who know how to do a complete GAA. And at the high school level, the GAA stinky dog acquired more fleas because now there are two more standards to address!

 

But in the meantime I am transitioning to regular substitute work until I take another longterm position in a couple of weeks. And after only a couple of days, it has been a really interesting experience being among a more “general” population. Regular high school freshmen are really interesting people. Very energetic and squirrelly and all over the place. I found myself spending the day teaching a freshman math class on Tuesday.

 

Most special educators have issues with math, I have found. And I am no except as I struggled with math all the way through high school. In college, I took the easiest math course offered and it WAS such a low level course, I don’t think they even offer anything like it anymore. So when I took chemistry courses, I ended up having to go back and teach myself a lot of the math I should have already learned.

 

All this is to say that I found myself teaching some geometry to these 9th graders. I found that aside from the high energy of the classes and some bits of unruliness, I was able to do it surprisingly well. I even heard a few murmurs from the kids “This guy is teaching more than our regular teacher!” It’s hard to know whether to feel glad or sad about that. I don’t know the regular teacher at all, but did have to deviate from the lesson order a bit. Plus the video he had was just TOO packed with information and I could see eyes glaze over after 10 minutes. So after the first period, I broke things down a bit more and did a LOT more teaching than the typical babysitting most subs are used to. But not knowing the students on a more personal level was a definite obstacle in trying interact with them. One can not emphasize rapport between students and teachers enough when it comes to teaching and learning and it is something a substitute has a hard time with, especially just starting out.

 

The next day, I was co-teaching an environmental science class teaching juniors and seniors. What an amazing difference in maturity! And I was able to teach most of the day with an experienced teacher who obviously had a great relationship with his students as well the the other sp. ed. teacher I was substituting for. These students were so much more self-directed!

 

The next two days, I spent teaching U.S. History. Two sections were AP classes and the last class was a large regular class. I loved working with all of these students and they all needed a lot of work. Again, there was this sentiment expressed about wanting me or someone like me to be their regular teacher. And this was even expressed more mildly even from the few adults who happened to come in and see what I was doing.  So I feel pretty good about my skills as a teacher.  How to get potential employers to see it and buy into it is another thing entirely.

 

All-in-all it has been a bit of an eye-opening experience getting out amongst a “regular” population. After teaching a decade in an environment that is so utterly alien to the rest of the school, I was wondering if I could even handle life on the outside. And I am finding that while it consumes more energy, I’m able to make a good transition to a less restrictive environment with a minimum of difficulty. And I find myself enjoying the students a little bit more in that I can interact with them on a much higher level compared to what I’ve been able to do the past 10 years.

 

Fitting Education to Students’ Needs

18 Aug

This article by Jay Matthews from the Washington Post does a good job of summarizing just exactly why the special education field is so litigious and combative. Even when a parent does all of the right things, follows all of the procedures and attempts to work with the school system to best meet the needs of their children, the school system still finds a way to screw parents and neglect the student. So now everyone has to get a lawyer, which helps drive up the cost of education even higher.
Even though I’m employed by the school system, I do see part of my job as advocating and helping to protect parents from a system that would otherwise trample them to smithereens. Now with a tough economy and declining revenues, school systems are having to set their priorities more rigidly, and we are reminded as to why the IDEA, ADA and the Rehabilitation Act are all needed. It’s needed to protect the rights of those who otherwise would be left behind. In our Soviet-Style education system,

Our educational system is essentially a Soviet-style government-run monopoly that could only be loved by the likes of Lenin and Stalin.

the educational needs of individual students are subverted in order to accommodate the priorities of the larger state community. The national government curriculum that is being developed is not being designed with the needs of my students in mind. If your son or daughter does not fall within the “average” range, it’s not being developed with them in mind either. Basically, the more nationalized, homogenized and standardized the educational system gets, the less tolerant it is toward individual needs and differences.
So while the lawyers go back and forth, Miguel either remains in his public school, and falls further and further behind. Or his family goes destitute in an effort to privately finance the education that he so desperately needs, while the school system continues to tax its citizens for an education that is not meeting the needs of its most needy citizens.
There are things I don’t understand about Miguel’s case. First of all, his mother was able to get an independent evaluation (several of them, actually) and the school system seemed to reject all of them. In light of a recent supreme court ruling, it seems as though the school system is clearly in the wrong because they are refusing to identify Miguel as Learning Disabled, despite clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This case seems to mirror that case identically (Forrest Grove School District v T.A. 2009) or at least up to the stage where Miguel begins attending a private school. I thought the school system had their own team of lawyers? How can they be so ignorant?

Basically, the school system attempts to keep the gate shut by refusing to identify individuals has having learning disabilities at all. This is happening all over the country more and more as Response To Intervention (RTI) begins to be more widely and irresponsibly used to deny and delay services. Second, even after an individual is identified, the school system often drags its feet on actually serving the student. And finally, often when services are provided, it is often executed very poorly by individuals who may or may not be highly qualified. Or in some cases, the conditions under which services are delivered make such services ineffective such as in an area that is overcrowded.

The only thing I can recommend to parents is to push back against the tide that threatens to roll over your children. Institutions can be extremely insensitive until you are willing and able to inflict some substantial pain upon them, usually in the form of monetary damages. While I work for such an institution, my primary concern is for the student and his/her needs, not the needs of collective machinery at the board office or even the administrative office in the building where I work. I believe my fellow teachers who work with the students every day feel the same way. I do feel mostly supported by my peers and the parents of my students. But by administrators and legislators? Not so much. My students fall outside of the margins of the masses and the many and as a result so do I. My needs are foreign and intrusive because my students are regarded as foreign and intrusive. So this year, I am pushing back more. I dislike having to be combative, ornery, whiny and demanding. However, NOT doing so results in nothing happening except an already poor situation deteriorating even further. Somewhere, I have to draw the line and attempt to hold it.
On a more positive note, I have had the opportunity to speak to several classes of regular education teachers and students regarding many of the noises they hear from my students and classroom. It has been extremely positively received. I find myself more and more impressed by the “regular” kids after speaking to them and addressing their concerns and questions. Prior to visiting, there were a lot of complaints from teachers to administrators about the loudness of my group. Hopefully as the year goes on, we can minimize that loudness as the students (both mine and the rest of the school) adjust to a new schedule and new people.

The End of NCLB!

25 Jun

YES!  You read that right!  No Child Left Behind is officially coming to an end!

The long nightmare is over!

Well, okay.  Not exactly, but it is a start, I suppose.  However, I do not forsee any substantial changes coming along anytime soon.  In fact, the Obama administration has pretty much come out and said that they are just going to be looking to change the name, dispite some of the promises he made while campaigning.  So as far as the feds go, it is still business as usual.  And it is still going to be the same in the state of Georgia, too.  Even when the state legislature tried to make room for some choice within a district, the rules imposed by the DOE pretty much make it impossible to happen, for good or ill.  Basically, the Georgia DOE has proven itself to be more and more of an enemy to public education that anything coming out of Washington!  I’m repeatedly amazed at how they manage to bungle up legislation passed by our elected officials, or block legislation designed to fix their blunders.

And pretty much all of it is hostile towards individuals with disabilities as well as the rest of the student population.  When our students increasingly demand a costumized education, the state and the feds are doing everything they can to homogenize it. When the world cries out for creativity and innovation, the educational system forces conformity and uniformity.

The rebranding of NCLB is simply repainting the same rundown shack and giving it a new name.  According to the WaPo article above, it is almost literally window dressing as the red schoolhouse is replaced by pictures hung in the windows of the building of children doing various activities.

At any rate, it is still lovely seeing the crowning jewel of the GW Bush legacy added to the ash heap of history.  Even so, the stench of its consquences still remains as a sort of toxic haze choking off any meaningful education inovation and reform.

Before moving on to other topics, I do want to elaborate just a bit on my contempt for NCLB.

In 2002, I was actually an advocate for this legislation or at least a large part of it.  I wanted highly qualified teachers and accountability.  I wanted all students to learn and I was all for using research-based instructional methods and materials.  I never believed that more money was the answer, so as a tax payer, I thought it was a good idea to make funding contingent on getting some results.  But I never really dreamed that my SID/PID students would be caught up in this.  And then I started seeing how NCLB was being implimented and it became harder and harder to defend this law.  Basically, it turned our national curriculum into “Test Prep.”  Basic bench marks and minimum requirements suddenly became some sort of gold standard, and mediocrity became the ultimate goal.  I’ve never seen antything wipe out and destroy student creativity and and teacher innovation more effectively than this law.

So while many of the things that I wanted while supporting NCLB were noble, it was a serious error putting such an important task into the hands of the federal government.  I was very wrong, and over time that wrong-ness has been reinforced every single time our own state DOE interprets this terrible law and makes it an even more hideous monstrosity.  The ideals espoused by the people peddling this law and the actual execution of it are very, very far apart.  As a former supporter of this law (and the president who wants to take credit for it) there is a very, very deep sense of betrayal.  When it became obvious that this thing was stripping autonomy away from local school systems and causing a collapse of creative and independent thought in favor of the Test Culture, it should have been scrapped or at least something new developed to take its place.  But we have nothing to show for it, an imminent meltdown in 2013 when every school fails to make the 100% AYP mark, and an entire generation that has been left behind while the rest of the world is learning how to think creatively, independently, competetively, globally and collaboratively.  And there is no plan on what to do next.

Many of you probably saw the light long before I did, and I want to apologize to you for my slowness.  I know there were people who saw much further down the road than I did, and I should have listened more carefully.  I do feel a bit of guilt for starting out on the wrong side of this issue.  But I’m speaking now.  Here’s a few ideas:

1. First, I believe that every single person involved in the architecture of NCLB should be dismuissed, and placed far away from any influence in educational policy.  Put them in a SID/PID classroom.

2. Second, a new strategy should be develped from scratch.  That means we need to start on it right away.  But the conversation should be as inclusive as possible.  The capacity for involvement are much greater today than they were in 2000.  Let’s use those tools.

3. No plan should be set in stone.  We need to be mindful of changing conditions.  NCLB was written and implimented for the 1990′s educational syatem.  The world is changing and the capacity of teachning and learning are also changing.  And they will change again.  Flexibility needs to be built in.

4. Start removing the teeth from NCLB now, so that the damage becomes less and less so that by 2013, the impact will be minimal.

5. Make student motivation part of the converation when discussing student performance.

Those are just a few of my ideas.  Feel free to make up your own, put them in a comment or better yet, send them to your favorite (or least favorite) legislator or governmental entity.

EOCT Fever

25 May

End Of Course Tests were at our school a couple weeks ago at our school and spilled out over a couple of weeks. While these are not quite as high stakes as the CRCT for middle and elementary students or the graduation test, they are still big. They are supposed to make up 15% of the students grade. They can, under some circumstances, be used to graduate a student even when a section of the graduation test is not passed.

Here are the courses with EOCTs:

  • U.S. History
  • Physical Science
  • American Literature
  • 9th grade literature
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Biology
  • Economics

It strikes me as a bit funny that there are so many courses with no EOCT. Plus, each of these courses will also have a final exam next week. So what is up with the EOCT? The EOCT is merely a practice for the graduation test. These are the courses covered by the GHSGT, and so students get a special practice test in order to assess their readiness for the graduation test — and the school’s readiness for making AYP.  Apparently, not much counts after you take the GHSGT.  Why not an EOCT in chemistry, World History or the foriegn languages?  If teaching and learning are the focus, why not teaching and learning in these other areas?  Especially since the Highly Qualified requirement still apllies to teachers teaching these other courses.

Apparently, we do have a national curriculum: Testing and Test Prep.

I’ve been doing some extra reading, and it is alarming and depressing where public education is going in the 21st century. The system that defeated the Communists and brought down the wall during the cold war is now being replaced by the system we worked so hard to defeat.

Of course, the testing schedule disrupts the schedule of everyone in the building. While I am self-contained, it still impacts me as there is no planning period, the lunch schedule is off and having to accommodate everyone else derails my kids. But no one thinks about my kids when designing the schedule.

CRCT Fever

17 Apr

It’s that time of the year when Georgia elementary schools are going all out for the annual criterion referenced competency test (CRCT). Both of my boys will be subjected to it this next week, and both schools are totally ramping up for this.

  • - Every core subject has been giving practice CRCT tests for the past month

  • - Letters are sent home (more than one) urging parents to make sure the kids are well-rested and well-fed on test day.

  • - Rewards are offered after each test is finished

  • - Rewards are offered at the end of the week after ALL tests are finished.

  • The high school bands are going to the elementary schools on the Friday before test week in order to perform for a CRCT pep rally.

  • Review sessions and tutoring are given after school

  • Evening seminars are given to help parents and students deal with test anxiety.

  • Numerous workbooks and study guides are sold for each grade and subject area.

So what’s at stake?

  • - AYP – whether a school is seen as successful or failing

  • - Real estate values

  • - Teacher contracts

  • - Administrator jobs

  • - Whether or not a student moves to the next grade

  • In the future, there may be some bonus money at stake for teachers and administrators.

In Georgia, this CRCT business actually started before NCLB hit the scene, thanks to the beloved former Governor Roy Barnes’ A+ reform program. Yes, Barnes actually was in front of the high stakes testing movement and continues to advocate for NCLB through his co-chairing the Aspen Institute . Yes, this is the guy who has, and continues to lead the charge into high stakes testing. Based on those actions, he became so unpopular that he was overthrown in his re-election bid and swept republicans into power in Georgia for the first time since reconstruction. And now he is thinking about running again. Egad. It is true that our current beloved Republican governor has proven to be even more unfriendly and twice as inept when it comes to public education but I find it hard to believe that people could be so stupid as to bring the former weasel back. Sure, the old weasel looks less evil than the current one, but why not try to find someone who is NOT looking to pillage education?

Back to the test…

There are still a lot of doubts about the CRCT.

If you look at the first list, you’ll find that actually teaching new skills is not on there. If it’s not on the test, it isn’t going to get much time and hasn’t for at least a month. During test week, EVERYTHING becomes subordinated to those tests. No field trips. No activities. No homework (YAY!). Even the school calendar is subordinate to the tests as spring break must be early enough so that there is enough time to take the test and get the results back before the end of the year. This is what the school has been working for all year. If you think they have been working toward delivering a good education, you are mistaken unless you equate scoring well on a test as a good education. And our students are getting better at taking tests. They may not be able to count change or get along with others, but they can sure take a test.

If you look at my second list, you’ll see that student learning is NOT at stake. The test is supposed to be a measure of learning, but is not learning itself, per se. Not much learning or instruction will be taking place during testing week. But at least the high school band will get in some extra performance time during the CRCT pep rally, which is nice.

My youngest, who just recently had his last IEP ever, will do fine on his tests. He’s the sort who will just do well no matter what else happens because he’s just the sort of kid who loves learning. My oldest, OTOH, will have some issues. First there is the radical change in schedule that happens during testing week. For individuals with autism, schedules provide a safe routine whereas surprises and inconsistency breed anxiety. They’ll do some preparation to minimize this, but at least the first day there is always some extra nervousness. He gets tested in a small group and is allowed as much time as he wants. The small group might help, but he won’t need extended time. He either gets it or he doesn’t and he’s not going to labor over one problem for any length of time. What might happen is that he’ll get distracted. One of the most difficult and costly tasks is transferring an answer from the test booklet to the answer sheet bubbles. It’s too easy to get off track. I can’t remember if marking in the test booklet is an option for him, but it should be. The other problem is the fact that an open test booklet contains several problems/questions at the same time. Getting lost and skipping questions is also a danger. This is why I would be curious as to how he would do with the computerized version. I know some offer it for make-up sessions but for some kids this might actually be a preferred accommodation. It’s more difficult to skip a question or get off track transferring answers. And generally computers present one question at a time. One added bonus is that results would be instantaneous.

For parents and teachers across the country, high stakes testing is just the way the political wind is currently blowing, but I know I’m not the only one who is hoping for a change. While some testing and assessment is necessary, I think the stakes involved encourage all sorts of ways to try to game the system or even outright cheat. Entire local economies are held hostage to these tests, which I think is quite a lot to put on the backs of our school children on a single day or a single week. It just seems like priorities have gotten off track and the kids are paying for it, much like they will foot the bill for the current fiscal crisis.

What’s the wackiest thing you’ve seen surrounding these tests?

HB 215 – Restoring Some Sanity

22 Feb

I do make a lot of noise about those monkeys in Washington, and their simian counterparts in Atlanta. Over the past few years, they have managed to screw up education in such a way that it will take decades to recover. But change is on the way. Hopefully.

Ironically, the troop of baboons under our gold dome actually might get something right. There are 3 separate bills working their way through the Georgia legislature that are designed to help lower the drop-out rate while helping students succeed. Some promising developments, and some not so much.

HB 149 is basically a form of dual enrollment that allows juniors and seniors to work their way through college while finishing up the last two years of high school. I do like this idea, as it will allow those students who are ready to move ahead to do so. High school can be fun for a lot of students but a drag to others. Getting out early plus getting college courses for free could be a big incentive for certain students.

HB 400 involves having a grant program that would enable high schools to set up magnet or theme schools around high-demand vocational careers such as healthcare, agribusiness or science. I have not seen a lot of specifics of this bill, and so while it looks nice it seems pretty vague. Schools would have to opt in and apply for the grants and then establish the infrastructure to help train students in a vocational career. Technical schools and colleges would also partner in this proposal, so it has some aspects of dual enrollment built in. But both HB 149 and HB 400 will still be hamstrung by the requirements of the curriculum standards set by the GA DOE. HB 215 would help correct this.

HB 215 is the bill with the most promise and yet will face the stiffest opposition. It represents a battle between the DOE and the legislature over what a H.S. diploma in Georgia will represent.

My DOE readers, feel free to weigh in.

Basically, Georgia used to have a multi-tiered diploma system. There was a basic, general diploma, there was a vocational diploma and then there was a college prep diploma. As one moved higher in the track, the requirements became more rigorous. If one got a general diploma, it didn’t automatically bar them from higher education but probably meant a two-year college before moving higher. The general and vocational diplomas had fewer requirements so that more vocational electives could be taken. However, the DOE recently abolished this system in favor of one diploma for every student– the college prep diploma. The idea was that every student who graduates will be able to go to college. The DOE has stated they don’t want lesser diploma levels for anyone, but equally rigorous standards for all. They also don’t want all the work they invested into the new “One diploma for all” approach to be undone.

As I see it, the DOE was all wet when they came up with “one size fits all.” It was a serious mistake and the legislature is right for trying to fix it. The DOE could reverse themselves and fix it today, but they won’t do it. Therefore, we need to pass legislation in order to compel some common sense into the process. Students with special needs automatically become the brown biscuits in the punch bowl, once again. Because they are either locked out by the requirements, or drop out or simply are failed and left behind. And the students that I teach are a particular case in point. According to the newest DOE standards, a student with an IQ of less than 25 will get a college prep diploma (based on passing the GAA). A student with a 75 IQ who can’t pass the graduation test will get nothing. The gifted student with a 140 IQ will get a college prep diploma which is the exact same diploma as my student with profound intellectual disabilities. Am I the only one who sees the problem here? How does this do anything but cheapen a college prep diploma? Insisting everyone pass the same standard necessarily lowers the standards for the higher achievers and raises it out of reach for the lower achievers.

My students participate in something known as Special Olympics. The rules are modified as is the playing conditions and equipment so that my students can participate. If they had to use the same equipment and rules as the regular Olympic athletes, just what chance would they have of succeeding? Would they have a chance of even meeting a basic qualification of being in the Olympics? No. But if the DOE were running the sporting universe, every child would have to have an Olympic qualifying time or forget about sports altogether. Which is what too many Georgia students do. They know they aren’t going to survive Algebra 2 and have no use for it, so they drop out. It’s the only way they can keep from losing. The DOE counters this by saying that they can not support any legislation that waters down the curriculum. But given the provision being made for students with severe disabilities, that is exactly what it amounts to. The college prep diploma is totally watered down is now meaningless. Which means a Georgia diploma is meaningless.

HB 215 is a bill that corrects the serious error that the GA DOE made when they abandoned students with disabilities and those with non-college career goals and aspirations. Not everyone wants to go to a university. We still need firefighters, police officers, paramedics, soldiers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, daycare providers and truck drivers. The DOE seems to be blinded to the fact that the employable skills of a Georgia HS graduate and the skills of a HS dropout are almost exactly the same! The college prep curriculum leaves precious little room for taking any vocational courses because there are so many core requirements. Even for students with severe disabilities, the community-based program has all but been totally decimated by the emphasis on the core curriculum requirements. Much of this was pushed downwards from the feds with NCLB, but much of it is aggravated by our own state policies. I notice this bill also re-implements the special education diploma track which at least makes the regular diploma look less ridiculous and makes it slightly more meaningful to those who earn one.

So thanks to our legislature for bringing a bit of sanity back into educational policy. Sometimes Georgia politics seem as straight as a dog’s hind leg, but this is one educational bill that actually deserves some support. I hope that it can be passed and is able to comply with the onerous NCLB requirements.

How We’ll Become Even more Endangered

16 Jan

Here is a copy of a press release from Govenor Sonny Perdue’s office:

Governor Perdue Announces Proposals to Transform Education and Improve Economic Environment

Tuesday January 13th, 2009

ATLANTA– Governor Sonny Perdue discussed education, economic environment and transportation this morning at the Eggs & Issues Breakfast hosted by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce at the Georgia World Congress Center.


“During these times we continue to focus on government’s core mission,” said Governor Perdue. “Now more than ever we must make sure that we get out of government what we put into it.”


At the breakfast, the Governor announced three proposals to match the state’s educational spending with its desired outcome. The first proposal recognizes the important role of leadership at the school level. Under the proposal, high school principals who demonstrate improvement in graduation rate, SAT scores, and End of Course Tests compared to their school’s most recent 3-year average will be eligible for a $10,000 performance bonus. Principals could also qualify by leading a school that is in the top 5 percent of high schools in the state in these three areas.


The second proposal recognizes the role that quality teachers play in producing positive educational outcomes. The proposal for teachers is based on the Master Teacher program and would allow exceptional teachers who are willing to serve as instructional leaders and mentors in their schools to be eligible to receive pay increases of ten to fifteen percent.


In response to a shortage of math and science teachers and increased demand in these content areas, the Governor proposed taking a business-like approach to recruiting these teachers. The Governor’s proposal, based on recommendations by the Alliance of Education Agency Head’s Math and Science Task Force, would start new fully-certified math and science teachers at the same salary as a fifth year teacher. Teachers in these fields with less than five years experience would also be brought up to the fifth year pay level. In an effort to encourage and reward elementary teachers who increase their competency in math and science, the Governor’s proposal will also provide a $1,000 annual bonus to elementary teachers who hold a math or science endorsement. The three proposals all call for the incentives to be available beginning in 2010-11 school year, which would be the Fiscal Year 2011 state budget.


“It has long been one of the chief fallacies of government to focus on inputs, usually on how much you’re spending, instead of outputs – on performance and achievement,” said Governor Perdue.


The Governor also proposed school board legislation to ensure that every student has the benefit of responsible leadership at the school system level. The legislation standardizes board ethics policies and board training, clarifies law delineating the roles and responsibilities of superintendents and board members, creates minimum qualifications for board candidates, and gives the state the ability to find responsible citizens to serve on school boards when existing members fail to serve the interests of their students.

“Never again, do I intend for the state to be handcuffed by our current law and powerless to help students who are being failed by the adults in their community,” the Governor said.

Make a note of the part in bold above. There is a big elephant in the room. Can you spot it?

Our beloved governor is referring to the critical teacher shortages in certain subject areas (math and science), promising bonuses for those who choose to move into or get certified in those areas. But he left one out. He always leaves this one area out in his pet incentive programs. In his Master Teacher Program (designed to be an alternative to National Board Certification)…he left it out.

Just where does special education fit into all of this? Special education has been identified federally as one of those critical shortage areas and it is equally true in the state of Georgia as it is for the nation. The failure to mention or address this area is either blatant ignorance, flagrant incompetence out outright discrimination on the part of him and his educational advisors. In fact, he has introduced a measure that promises to make the shortage of special education teachers worse!

I just recently received an email from another special education teacher who was asking about the GACE because she was looking to migrate away from special education and into science. And this was composed and sent before our governor announced his plans to transform the education and fix the economy through incentives for math and science teachers. And I passed my GACE science last last year, so am in a good spot to migrate if I choose. By failing to address the special education teacher shortage, Gov. Perdue is promising to turn the disturbing migration of special education teachers out of the field into even more of a crisis. As it is, people are being nabbed off the street in order to fill empty positions. Now there is even more of an incentive for special education teachers to move out of their specialty area and create more openings that will go unfilled and result in more of the most disadvantaged students being underserved.

A visit to Georgia’s teacher recruitment website (www.teachgeorgia.org) shows where the shortage areas are. Yes, there are quite a few math and science openings. But special education dominates the vacancy list. Throw in speech language pathology, ESOL and a few of the other categories and special education as a field totally rules the teacher vacancy positions in the state of Georgia. Special education has ruled the vacancy list for the last 20 years. It will probably rule for the next 20 years, thanks to this governor and his incentive dis-incentive.

I suppose someone might try to make the case that special education does not add economic value like math and science. To them, I would point out that special education students, as a group, represent the subgroup most likely to drag a school into “Needs Improvement” status. The unemployment rate of this subgroup is well over 50%. And current educational policy seems absolutely bent on marginalizing them (and their teachers) even more. So in a sense, having a large cadre of highly paid engineers is going to be necessary in order to bear the economic and social costs of carrying people who the current educational system chooses to leave behind.

C’mon, Governor! Are you addressing teacher shortages or not?

This just further illustrates and underscores the pervasive culture of discrimination that seems to always be perpetrated against individuals with disabilities and those who serve them.

Just to add one more bit of news along these lines, the waiting lists for those waiting for various medical or transition services has been totally frozen since the economic downturn. One of my former students who aged out last year is still on the waiting list. Which means he is pretty much just sitting around at home. The money should have been in place the second he graduated since he had been on the list since middle school. But once again, individuals with disabilities are shunted aside in favor of other priorities. They are at the bottom of the list, even in the best of economic times, and in today’s climate they are totally abandoned.

What kind of economic recovery is it when it is borne by those who are least able to carry the rest of us? While we bail out auto executives we keep kids on a waiting list for needed services. Not a very noble picture is it?

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