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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 Truth About Charter Schools: The Students

14 Sep

I knew not everyone would agree with my take in my last article on Charter schools and the charter school amendment.  I will admit that the issue is a bit complex, muddied by some emotional rhetoric on both sides.  And I freely admit that I can be as shameless of a purveyor of rhetoric as anyone.  Writing without hyperbole is just kinda boring.

Lost in all of the debate, accusations and political gamesmanship is the main focus and subject: students.  They are the ones who will ultimately gain or suffer by what we do or don’t do in November.

The anti-choice folks state very passionately that the students in traditional schools will ultimately suffer due to the funding that will be taken away from their schools, causing more overcrowding and more deplorable conditions.  And I can sympathize as I have witnessed first-hand what has happened to the education system in my beloved district.  Paras were the first to be let go, and then the furloughs and then loss of benefits and finally the overcrowding of almost every class in every school.  Teacher morale was at an all-time low when I left that setting.  Conditions have not improved by any degree or measure in the 2 years since then.  So in some sense, it appears that by taking money away, I advocate making things even worse!

I do not advocate taking money away as much as I advocate taking children away.  And many parents are doing just that, at great cost and sacrifice.  The giant brick and mortar factory schools are crumbling.

So who are the students in my school?  I am now teaching in the largest charter school in the state, and one of the largest in the nation.  We don’t have buses, we don’t have lunchrooms and we don’t have sports teams.  What we do have are students.  Over 12,000 of them in Georgia, with a long waiting list of more who want to get in.

Over 50% of our kids qualified for free and reduced lunches when they went to a brick and mortar school.  Over 1000 receive special education services at every level.They come from towns that I have never heard of, all over the state, from every ethnic background.  Some are urban and some are rural.  But one thing they all have in common is hope.  A hope for a better future, a new start and some way of attaining their goals.  Intimately linked to these students are their parents who aspire for better and greater things for their children.  Most have chosen to stay home to be their children’s learning coach and to invest personally in their child’s education.  They make the sacrifice of career in order to offer something better for their children, giving up much economically, which is especially poignant in today’s economy.  A few of them were already homeschooling while for many this is their first foray into taking charge of their children’s education, becoming true partners with the educational system, interfacing with the teachers, the curriculum and the classes.  Every single day, there are parents who attend classes with their children, sitting right beside them, helping and guiding them.

K12 has a Facebook page which often asks parents this question: Why did you choose K12?

There are scores of replies that can generally be categorized as follows:

“My child was bullied”, “My child was too distracted,” “My child was repeatedly bullied and there was nothing the school could do”, “The classes were too overcrowded for my child to learn” “My child was bullied and did not want to go to school anymore” “My child was not making progress” “My child was bullied and harassed daily and the school would not do anything” “My child needed a more stable learning environment and I did not have enough knowledge to home school” “My child was attacked and stabbed” “I was fed up with what was going on in my home school” “There were too many fights at my child’s neighborhood schools” “My child needed to learn at her own pace” “My child was afraid to go to school because of the bullying and fights””My child became afraid to go to go to school after she was attacked” “My child has a medical condition and she was missing too many assignments” “The only social skills my child was exposed to was fighting, bullying, cursing and swearing””We could not afford a private school and our neighborhood school in south Fulton was too violent and my child was not learning anything” “My child had a disability and his needs were not being met” “My child has aspergers and was teased relentlessly” “My child needs 1:1 support to be successful” “My child became so depressed and withdrawn, they did want to leave the house after starting middle school.  I later found out she was being teased and bullied daily”

You get the picture?  Your school may not have any of these problems and you may have the best and most dedicated teachers in the world.  But these children are refugees from the world of traditional schooling.  Their entire school experience, for many of them, was dictated by their zip code.  If you live in a nice, suburban wealthy neighborhood, you might not have many problems in your school of overcrowding, gangs, bullying, distractions or other things that make daily life for many students a living hell.  All of the families might be well-adjusted and involved in the local PTA.  Every classroom might be staffed by a highly qualified, enthusiastic teacher who incorporates technology and engagement into every lesson.

But for too many of the children I and my fellow teachers serve, this was not their experience.  Their experiences were so bad, that many single parents sacrificed many opportunities in order to provide the safe, nurturing and distraction-free environment that only a parent can provide in their own home so that their children can attend school without the fear and anxiety that comes with being a victim of harassment, bullying and abuse.  They were looking for a new start where they could again become confident learners without being persecuted for being “different.”

I hope to eventually blog my own transformational experience since joining this incredible team.  But suffice it to say that I adore my students as well as their parents who have sacrificed so much to offer their children what they perceive to be their best chance at success.  I owe it to them to do the best that I can for them, and I am a tenacious advocate for their cause.  They inspire me to be a better teacher.

I know that those who oppose the charter school amendment, in their own way, are advocating for children too.  They fear that the traditional schools demise will be hastened by the advent and rise of charter schools like these.  But the genie is out of the bottle.  While you might be able to slow the process, the changes are coming.  I’m not sure what you expect to happen within the next 10 years with traditional schools, but I can tell you what we saw in the last 10 years does not bode well.  Schools, schooling and learning are going to be transformed.  They MUST be transformed.  Putting these kids back into traditional schools after what they suffered through and after having tasted the sweetness of success, would be devastating.  Why would you do this?  Why would you send a child who has found success and confidence in this new environment back into the old environment where fear and failure ruled their lives?

Many detractors point out that charter schools do not do any better than the traditional schools when it comes to test scores, the current rubric of measured success in American education today.  And this is true in my school, where the gains are often modest at best.  But read the comment excerpts above.  The case could be made that many of these students suffer from PTSD, and many of them came to us 1, 2 and even 3 years behind.  These are not kids who were achieving well in their old schools, and often sought escape, refuge and asylum after a long string of failure.  I know of no parent who makes the decision to withdraw their child from their neighborhood school lightly as the decision carries with it some serious economic, social and lifestyle consequences.  Change is never easy, and this sort of change for young people is pretty drastic.  But given the comments above, I have to ask you: What would YOU do?  Should your zip code be the sole arbiter of your child’s educational success?  Should the quality of your child’s education and life be dictated solely by the economy of your neighborhood?

Jane and I are in the midst of the very same discussion as so many parents today.  We look at the declining state of our neighborhood schools and we are fearful of what will happen in the future.  My oldest son’s middle school does try very hard and they have done their best to address the instances of bullying that have occurred.  They really have put a lot of effort into trying to provide a safe environment that enables him to succeed as best they can.  But the high school up the street is a nightmare engaged in a seeming race to the bottom.  We are looking at our options, and they are few.  But there ARE options, thank goodness.

And this is one thing that I think detractors of charter schools overlook.  Simply having viable options in place that are close by can actually help your neighborhood school.  When those options are not in place, the more dramatic sacrifice is to pull up the stakes and move.  When your option is dictated solely by your zip code and there are no other options many, many families choose to change zip codes.  At least a neighborhood charter school keeps involved families in play to be won back if the schools can turn things around.  But once families leave their neighborhoods, you begin to see businesses close their doors and board up their windows.

Is K12 or any other charter school perfect?  Absolutely not, and I do intend to blog an open letter to the good folks in Herndon, VA at some point.  But in the meantime, it provides a place for at least 12,000 of Georgia’s children who, for whatever reason, did not fit in at their traditional brick and mortar schools.  Our beloved State School Superintendent has voiced his willingness to send those 12,000 students and their families back to the schools they fled from, and bar the door to keep them there.  Georgia’s families will be once again tied to their schools based on their zip codes and their income.

In a world where knowledge and information are ubiquitous, it is time to put an end to the educational apartheid that exists in the state of Georgia and around the country.  The quality of a child’s education should not be dictated by their township anymore than it was in South Africa in 1980.  It was wrong then and there, and it is wrong here and now.  Today I can shop in a neighboring town’s store (or online) for better goods, go to a neighboring town for better health care or attend a church anywhere that I care to drive.  But my child can not attend a school outside of the district or zoning lines.

We owe it to our children to offer opportunity and choice.  We need to decide the type of world we are going to live in.  The amendment, like it or not, IS a referendum on choice and opportunity for Georgia’s families.  Are we going to follow the same path that we have been on for the last 10-12 years?  Or are we going to risk something different?

The traditional public schools have a problem that has become a ubiquitous epidemic.  It is persistent and rampant.  It is also a problem that completely disappears once students enter our school.

John Barge, the teacher’s unions, the school boards and so many others who hate our charter school are not addressing or talking about it.  Their failure to effectively deal with it has created a demand that would simply not otherwise exist.   Now these same people are are trying to take my kids; the ones I teach; the ones who have escaped to a safe and secure place where they can actually learn and return them to the same conditions they fled from.  Where is the outrage?  Where is the shame?

 

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!

A Culture of Abuse?

8 Nov

“The Fulton County School System will not tolerate the mistreatment of any children and has strict policies in place to prevent such actions. We have hundreds of caring, devoted individuals who work every day with our students with disabilities.”

This is a statement made by a spokeswoman for Fulton Couny schools in a case where the system is being charged with neglect and abuse.  To be sure I have no doubt that a part of this statement is mostly true.  There are some caring and devoted individuals working with students with disabilities.  But the first part?

Let’s just say that Fulton County is not alone in having a culture where those who have the most severe disabilities are systematically marginalized, neglected and outright abused.  It is not an isolated case.  It is a systemic problem where several heroic and caring individuals manage to overcome a bias against these students and those they care for that is inherent in our present system.  To be sure, I think this is an extreme case that was allowed to go on well past what it should have.  Reports show that there were loads and loads of reports, interviews and statements by faculty and staff that this was going on.  You see stacks of CDs with videos with these interviews on them.  I don’t think anyone seeing this video can be anything other than outraged.  It truly makes my blood boil which is why I am so moved to blog about it.  And I am so close to the business as a parent and as former teacher of this population, it does touch a raw nerve.

So how could something like this happen?  There are SO many reasons…let me see if I can count them…

1. The students are nonverbal and powerless.  These students represent the most vulnerable segment in the entire school population.  They are vulnerable to anything and everything because they can not tell what happened when they get home from school.  Many of them can barely move.  They have severe and multiple needs including limited language and limited mobility.  They can not escape and can not fight back.  Actually, some of them can and try to escape and fight back in their own way, but they are largely at the mercy of who ever is caring for them.

2. These students (and the staff that care for them) are the most isolated group in the school.  If you want to create an environment for abuse and neglect, the recipe is fairly simple: Take a bunch of people, put them in a room together all day and then put some stress on them.  I’ll talk a bit about the stresses in a moment, but the isolation is one of the things that makes this so bad in so many ways.  Despite the provisions in the law for “least restrictive environment” the students with the most severe disabilities continue to spend their entire day in a single room.  Many do not even eat in the cafeteria.  With budget and staff cuts, community-based instruction is largely a thing of the past.  If the staff in Fulton County saw abuse in the halls, you can only imagine how hideous conditions were in that room.  There are reasons for the isolation and I should do a blog post just on that alone. But isolation provides a place where bad things can brew and incubate, especially given #1 above.  Students and their teachers need to get the heck out of that room once in awhile!

3. The staff are some of the most poorly trained and unqualified.  I have had a chance to work with and around some wonderful and brilliant people in the field.  Some of them were truly amazing, especially a lot of the paraeducators.  With a bit of training they really shined, and were tremendously good with these students.  And then the administration promptly transferred them somewhere else.  To be honest, many of them may have asked to be transferred.  But many did not.  As a rule, truly competent paras usually were moved into other settings outside of those who have multiple and severe disabilities. As a rule, teachers have little or no say as to which paras get assigned to their classrooms.  They are expected to be thankful for whoever they get.

4. Overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.  If you simply look at the numbers, you would wonder how something like that could be.  How could a class of 10 students in a classrom with 5 adults be overcrowded and understaffed?  Part of it goes back to #3.  If I had the most qualified and capable staff, I could do a lot more with a lot less, and that is the way I would prefer it.  More adults CAN add to more overcrowding and more stress. But each of these students demand total and absolute care.  It isn’t necessarily the ones who have the most impairments that have the greatest needs, either.  It is the combination of the physically immobile and fragile, combined with those who might be totally physically capable that causes many of the problems.  If I have 10 students and 5 are in wheelchairs, it takes 5 people to to push 5 chairs such as during a fire alarm or assembly or fieldtrip.  However if I have 5 kids who like to run, it puts the teacher in a dilemma about leaving the one child to chase after another.  So this leads to problem #1.  It’s simply easier for an understaffed group to hunker down in the one classrom and play ‘zone defense’.  By the way, the state of Georgia once had a class size limit of 5 for individuals with profound intellectual disabilities.  Since waiving class size requirements, class sizes and caseloads have routinely doubled for this population.  I know of a teacher who at one point has 15 students.  And no matter how many paras you cram into a room to help, each student needs direct 1:1 time with the teacher, something more than just changing a diaper.

5. The noise level adds to the stress and isolation.   These students may be nonverbal but they are not silent.  Not by a long shot!  I have had several students that could rattle every window in the hallway with their various noises and screeches.  And they would do it often, they would do it all day and they would do it LOUDLY!  Many of the most frustrating instances of abuse occur over the noise and the stress it causes.  And the more students in the room, the more the noise level increases and the more stressed it feels.  It’s not that these students are necessarily in pain.  Sometimes they are expressin happiness.  But sometimes they are verbalizing their own frustration and stress.  And sometimes I’ve found myself with some of the loudest staff on the faculty!  Talk about days where I wanted to just wear earplugs!  But that is a big reason why many of these classrooms are as far away from other classrooms as possible so as to not disturb those who are trying to take and pass a standardized test.

6. Where is the administration?  Probably not in the self-contained classroom where none of the students help increase AYP, the graduation rate, test scores, athletic prowess or college enrollments and scholarships.  The sad fact is, is that not many administrators know what happens in these classrooms.  Not many know what should be happening in these classrooms.  This is a different world where things are not as easily measured as bubbling in answers.  The principal in Fulton county should have known that students were not supposed to be pushed, hit, kicked and kept isolated in little dark rooms.  But she probably also had no idea what should have been going on instead.  Many of my observations were conducted in the lunchroom while we fed the students.  At least once, I had no idea I was being observed!  And my final year, the principal never observed me.  He watched this video and based his observation on that.  I had videos of me actually teaching that he could have watched, but he made me take those down.  I’ve tried to show people what I do, but the administrators frankly do not care that much...until something happens:

“Many schools do not have a sufficient number of students with disabilities to ‘count’ as a subgroup for Adequate Yearly Progress,” the auditors wrote. “School-based leaders could not answer questions regarding the performance of students receiving special education. Their answers included these: ‘I will have to look it up,’ ‘It’s not as good as they want it to be,’ ‘I can’t remember the exact number but it was not good,’ and ‘We don’t have to worry about the group because there are not enough to count.’”

And this often leads to them hiring someone who is unqualified because they are unsure of what ‘qualified’ looks like beyond the certificate….

7. The #1 question I get asked by teachers who are just hired and new to this field is “What do I do with these kids all day?”   Anyone else see a problem with this?  I think it is good that a new teacher reaches out and asks for help.  And I am more than happy to help them!  Teachers in this positon are usually pretty good at listening and taking direction and they pick things up pretty quickly and are able to run with it.  I have no idea the credentials of this Fulton County teacher, but I do know of at least one very highly qualified and experienced teacher who has been passed over  for jobs like this only to put someone less experienced and qualified into it.  Why?

8. Speaking out against abuse, neglect, inequality and discrimination will get you fired, it may make you unemployable and/or make working conditions more unbearable.  In an age of accountability and feedback, this is one area where the tolerance is very low.   Teachers who talk too much, who blow the whistle and try to point out injustice and outrage find themselves in big trouble in a lot of ways.  In the Atlanta Public schools we saw this before in the cheating scandal where the district tried to fire teachers and humiliated and intimidated those that tried to report instances of cheating.  I have tried my best not to be overly critical in my blogging of specific instances in my home district, but my advocacy efforts using this blog might be one reason why I am writing this at home right now instead of delivering outstanding services to students with disabilities at a school near you.

9. Parents have no idea.  And that is probably the most frightening thing of all, as a parent myself.  At least my children are verbal and can talk.  That doesn’t always mean thay will but at least they can.  So how can a parent know?  Sometimes their kids DO let their parents now through behaviors.  But mostly the parents of these students are in the dark, and the system likes to conspire to keep it that way.  See #6 and #8 above, and you see why a teacher who knows will not necessarily tell you.  Everyone in the building may know that your child’s teacher is horribly incompetent and abusive but you, the parent, will be the last to know.  Unless you sew a microphone in your son’s shirt collar.

10.” Something bad has to happen before anything will change.”  This is what a former principal once told me while I was sitting in his office.  We were discussing a letter that I had written and I was getting ready to send home to parents, telling them about what was going on in my classroom.  He was not happy with my letter because it was written in such a fashion that it made it sound like the district and the school cared less about my students than other students in the school or less than cared.  See #8 and #9 above.   That letter never did get sent out to the parents.  My job was to make sure nothing did happen, while the system was making choices that seemed to guarantee and foster an environment where something bad had to happen.

THAT is why I resigned at the end of that year.  I could not speak out and tell my parents.  I didn’t feel like I was being listened to.  I was feeling more and more powerless as things deteriorated.  Keeping bad things from happening was getting to be more difficult and more stressful.  I am not a pessimist by nature, and always seek to turn situations around by finding new and creative solutions to whatever problems may exist. But I was faced with a situation where those above me were pretty much going to continue to let things deteriorate until something bad happened and then who would be to blame?

The system is set up so that bad things have to happen before people are motivated to do anything.  And even then, sometimes they are reluctant to make the necessary moves.  Which of you would volunteer your child to be the victim of abuse, injury or neglect in order to turn things around?  I know the parents of Alex Williams would not have wished this on their own child for anything.  I don’t think Stefan Ferrari’s parents would have volunteered their child for mistreatment.  In both cases the school district is aggressively trying to cover up and defend itself and seems rather unrepentant throughout the entire process.

The environment in education today is ripe for this sort of thing to happen in a school near you.  Is it happening in your school?  In your classroom?  With your child?

What happened in Fulton County is happening all over.  Much of what is happening can be summed up by the term “Willful Ignorance.”  Everyone acts like it is all okay, especially those within the institution itself.  Anyone who speaks out is shut up and silenced and intimidated.  Heaven forbid we let one of these people who see the problems back into our organization!

Next time, I would like to talk about what a teacher, a principal and/ or a parent could do to minimize the risk of this sort of thing.  Are there things that could be done to prevent this sort of abuse and neglect?  Yes!  But for now, I’ll leave you with an informative video about the tyranny of positive thinking:

 

 

 

My Moodle Site

9 Oct

Someone asked me about it and so I thought I would share.  I have no idea how long it will remain up, since I’m not under contract there any more.  But it IS a resource that can still be used by those in the distract or anyone else.  But I have to warn you that this is not a very flashy or polished site.  It was designed to be a work-in-progress and it STILL is!

I’ve been involved in the internet and bulletin boards and usenet for over 2 decades.  I was SO happy when it looked like our district has something where teachers could build and collaborate together.  That tool was Sharepoint.  Each school had its own site and each department eventually had its own site within the school’s site.  I was excited about the ability to have discussions and share things with colleagues within the school, as well as possibly with teachers from other schools in the discussion forums.  But as it turns out, the discussion forums were the least-used areas of all.  No one posted anything except me.  To my knowledge, Sharepoint is still not a place where teachers share thoughts and idea, as they seem to still prefer and rely upon email.

So I began using it to store documents and anytime someone needed a form I gave them the url for sharepoint.  It was the perfect place to store forms or anything else that needed to be shared with everyone, but again, email is still the primary vehicle that is used for this.  Today, the school is beginning to use it as a repository for lesson plans, thanks to a technologically savvy assistant principal who makes the teachers put their plans there.

After about 5 years of being “the Sharepoint guy”, the one who was always trying to get teachers to use this tool provided by the district, I finally managed to make it the tool of choice for our special education department.  The killer app was not the discussion forums or even the file sharing.  It was the calendar.  Anyone could go in and edit that calendar, so that is how we began collaborating on an IEP schedule.  Each teacher could input their name, time and place and then another teacher who needed a meeting for that day could look at the calendar and schedule around what was already there.  As cancellations happened, it became easy to change and adapt the schedule.  Withing the department, it became a very important tool and I feel pretty good about helping them take advantage of it.

There are many better and more advanced Moodle sites than mine.  Anyone with any degree of creativity could make one more appealing, but mine was designed to do several tasks in one place, which is what makes this such a powerful tool.  In our district it is called eLearn, but you can clearly see the Moodle icon when you open up a tab to visit my site.  I also have other courses, but this is my main page and one that I still occasionally work and fiddle with.

I originally was going to make this a real course that new SID/PID teachers could take to orient themselves with the field.  Most of the course elements remain from when I took a staff development class on making the site.  I quickly realized that this was a much more robust platform than Sharepoint was for sharing and collaborating.  However the learning curve here was much steeper, so I still tried to get others into Sharepoint while I worked on my owm eLearn.

In the center is all the course materals.  Sorry if sone of the Teachertube links are broken but they are all still on my channel.  And the server does house a few videos not shown anywhere else.

On the right side, there is a calendar that is linked to my Google calendar.   The main use of this was to share with my paras, and anyone else who needed to know, my schedule for the coming week as well as the scedule for any outings that we had coming up. Again, the calendar is what drove most people to my site as it also had the school holidays and other events built into it.

Below that is just a few links that I would use most frequently as well as my mug shot.  HTML blocks are extremely versatile for customizing content even if you don’t know html natively…which would be me.  I also have a box for behavior terms which shows a random word out of a list of maybe 10.  But some teachers have “Video of the day” or “Word of the day” included on theirs.  On the left side I have an html block with resources that I, or other teachers, frequently use.  I just updated this last week as the paras wanted a way to get to resources for their brand new active board.  Since my site is open to anyone, they could go their regardless of whoever logged into the computer it was connected to.  Thus is was a way to preserve bookmarks.

Moodle is an amazing tool for teachers, students and parents.  My wife and I have often consulted the sites of our children’s teachers in order to see if there was homework, or if they forgot the worksheet atschool we could print it from the site.  But alas, most teachers still do not have their own site or do not update and use it.  At some point, it would be nice if they could all collaborate and pool their mental energy to create a grade and subject specific site.  But alas, despite a lot of lip service to the concept of “learning communities”, true collaboration becomes an afterthought if it appears on the radar screen at all.

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