Myths About Charter Schools

11 Sep

The Georgia Charter School Amendment is gearing up to be one of the hottest items on the fall ballot for the state of Georgia, outside of the presidential race.  I have wanted to write on this for some time, as I am now intimately connected to the charter school movement.  I am currently working for the largest charter school in Georgia, so it might be fair to say that I might be a little biased.  At the same time, both my children still attend their local non-charter public schools.  And I do have experience teaching in public schools for over 20 years.

I am writing mostly in response to the article by Matt Jones, 8 Myths About the Proposed Charter Amendment which was published in the AthenPatch site.  I was originally going to write about myths, but Mr. Jones beat me to it!  So, I guess I’ll have to play the role of Mythbuster for a minute.  I do admit that my experience is confined to the Georgia Cyber Academy, but I did not see where he had taught at any charter schools.

When I first heard about this amendment, I was worried about the implications of a state agency leaping over a locally controlled one, and thereby robbing the local community of tax dollars without representation or oversight.  But a few things have taken place since then which have changed my views.  One of which was working for the GCA.  Another of which was the horrific meltdown of our local school board and administration into a hopeless morass of infighting, nepotism, sniping, circling the wagons and otherwise failing to exercise leadership.

It is useful to read a bit of background about what happened in Cherokee County.  This is what was being mirrored around the state in many counties.  In fact several counties joined in the Cherokee County lawsuit.

So let me look at this issue through the lense of Mr. Jones, and clarify a few things.  His article is worth the read, simply because it provides a handy repository of half-truths and its own share of myths.  Many of the myths around charter schools could be avoided if people would simply do a little diligence and read the DOE’s website on the topic.

Myth: The State Does Not Have the Power to Approve Charter Schools That Were Denied by Local School Boards

Fact:The Georgia Department of Education currently has the authority to review and approve state charter applications.

According to State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge, “with the state charter schools review process already in place, why does Georgia need another state agency that can do the same thing?”

It is true that the State DOE does have the power to approve state charter schools: those that are considered special schools.  From the DOE FAQ:

Who are charter school authorizers in Georgia?

In Georgia, local boards of education and the State Board of Education are charter school authorizers. In order to be granted a charter, schools must be approved by both their local board of education and the State Board of Education with the exception of state-chartered special schools which are authorized by the State Board of Education only.

We’ll talk a bit about funding in a bit, but basically the approval and funding of charter schools are intimately tied together.  Gov. Deal approved HB 797, but that law hinges heavily on whether or not the state has the power to approve charter schools over local board objections.  And that power can only come from a constitutional amendment, at least according to Georgia’s Supreme Court which argued that the state did not have the constitutional authority to over ride local school boards on this issue.  So while it IS true, it is only sort of true.  If this amendment fails, the same schools who presented the first case are poised to launch into a second round against charters already established.  And Dr. Barge and the DOE have already expressed opposition in word and deed to the state charter schools.

Moving on:

Myth: Charter Schools Are More Innovative and Flexible

Fact: Charters are allowed to “kick out” students for behavior or academic reasons.

And Mr. Jones hasn’t heard of “suspension” “expulsion” or “alternative school?”  Our regular public schools find innovative ways of getting rid of students with behavior problems all the time.  Not a lot innovative there, true enough.  An odd, and little known fact is that in my home county we have exactly one locally approved charter school.  That school has never made AYP and yet it is allowed to exist.  Why?  Because it is a nice handy place to send students with behavior and academic problems.  This street runs both ways.

Fact: Charters are able to hire uncertified teachers/staff and ignore class size caps.

Class size caps?  Mr. Jones again ignores facts and the sad state of education in Georgia.  There are NO class size caps in the state of Georgia!  Our beloved legislature lifted all that over a year ago.  So whining about Charters doing it seems very ill-sighted indeed.  As far as uncertified teachers, this is another blatant falsehood and I have no idea where it came from.  We have this thing call No Child Left Behind, with the flagship provision of being HIGHLY QUALIFIED!  Charter schools are still public schools and can not opt out of Federal laws and regulations, as per our friendly and helpful GA DOE site:

Charter schools and systems are subject to all provisions outlined in O.C.G.A. 20-2-2065(b). In particular, charter schools may not waive state laws or State Board of Education rules pertaining to health and safety, funding formulas, or accountability provisions. In addition, charter schools may not waive any aspect of federal law. This includes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and all applicable civil rights legislation.

Due diligence, Mr. Jones.

Myth: State Charter Schools Will Not Take Funds Away from Traditional Public Schools

Fact:If the proposed charter amendment passes, charter schools authorized by the Commission will be 100% funded by the state.

Actually there is some truth in your fact because charter schools, will in fact, take money away from the traditional public schools.  I’m not going to deny it at all.  This is because some of the money is bound to follow the student, as parents vote with their feet.  When students leave the traditional school, much of that money departs with them, which is a good incentive for traditional schools to try to hold on to their students and keep as few other options open as possible.  But the cut is much deeper than the money, albeit it is a very painful cut to systems already strapped.  The worst part is that the parents who take the initiative to start a charter or move their children into a charter are the ones most school really like.  The involved parents who care about their children’s education and the ones willing to make certain sacrifices in order to make that happen such as providing transportation and packing a lunch.

Fact: The state has a constitutional obligation to fully fund and provide for an adequate public education for every student in Georgia.4

Currently, the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility. Most Georgians understand that budget cuts were necessary due to the economic downturn, but the passage of the charter amendment would bind the state to additional funding obligations.  

This assumes that Georgia was meeting its responsibility before the economic downturn, and that responsibility is limited to providing funds.  By almost any metric. calling Georgia’s education system as “adequate” is generous at best.  Charters exist and have the support that they do because parents crave an option.  Americans like choices, especially if the only one that exists isn’t that good.

Myth: Charter Schools Are Public Schools

Fact: There are many elements of charter schools that make them appear more private than public.

Again, Mr. Jones might wish to do some research into “Theme Schools” and “Magnet Schools.”  In my county, we have a “Parent involvment” theme school which my youngest attends.  They have criteria for admission that would prevent my oldest son who has high functioning autism from being admitted.  They also make parents sign a contract, pledging to do so  many hours of service.  They don’t provide transportation but DO provide the yummy lunches proscribed by our beloved USDA.  This school has the approval and support of the local board of education, but it has more elements that make it look private than and charter school would be allowed to do.  Why is it allowed here?  The same reason it allowed the charter school mentioned above, only on the other end of the spectrum.  At least this way, they keep the kids and their funding.  Local boards do this in response to parent demands and that is a GOOD thing!

Fact:The charter movement has close ties with the pro-school choice movement. 

Heaven forbid parents might actually CHOOSE.  I hear people complain about the lack of parental responsibility with their kids and yet many of these are the same people who want to block the school house doors and keep kids trapped.  Choosing a school or how to educate their children is the most responsible and involved thing a parent can do, and yet systems do all they can to block that avenue of responsibility.  The Anti-School choice movement has close ties with socialism and Communism, but I’m not going to make that an issue in this debate.

Myth: Charters Serve All Students

Fact: Many charter schools use lotteries to avoid qualifying for AYP testing, making it difficult to compare their success to public schools. 

The lotteries are simply a tool used to insure the distribution of students matches the district demographics within the smaller size of the charter school.  This is like saying “Many Georgians use cars in order to avoid buying new shoes.”  Small sample sizes do make comparisons difficult, but its erroneous to accuse them of deliberately keeping their sizes small just for AYP, especially when you’re going to accuse these same players of ties to big business designed to maximize their numbers.

Fact:Overall, data suggests that students who are the most challenging to teach and require the most resources are not being served by charters in the state.

I’m one of a large number of special educators currently serving students with disabilities in the largest charter school in the state.  And I happen to be certified and highly qualified.  Whatever data you have can suggest what it wishes, but the facts are much different.

Myth: Charters Seek to Put the Interests of Families and Students First

Fact: Proponents of the proposed charter amendment wave the banner of families and children, while advocating the interests of business interests over students’ interests.

You mean like those teachers on strike in Chicago?  Schools of any size are businesses with stakeholders that include families and students and all the other business entities that serve them.  The people making the textbooks in your school are businesses and they have lobbyists and marketers targeting people in your district.  They are also political.  However, unlike the traditional schools, charters DO have to be able to attract students/parents and retain them over time.  Parent satisfaction is critical to their existence!  Or at least higher satisfaction than the neighborhood school.

Fact: For these groups and individuals, support of the proposed charter amendment equates to making a business investment, instead of investing in all of our schools and all of our children.

The reason there is money to be made is the high dissatisfaction among families with their neighborhood schools.  But it’s hard to know a person’s real motives.  What I do know is that traditional schools have struggled with the disruption caused by technology and the social changes of the last decade.  They are trying to give their children every advantage they can.

Myth: Charter Schools Increase Student Achievement

Fact:Multiple Studies and Reports Call Into Question the Effectiveness of Charter School

This fact is actually not too much of a myth, at least for our school. We do track and strive to achieve success but our results are not always at the state level.  But test scores only provide part of the equation.  I’ll have to give a narrative composite sketch of our students next time.  You’ll be surprised at how it looks.

Fact:Charter school proponents regularly cherry pick data and make broad comparisons.

Sorta like Mr. Jones’ critique of the pro-school choice movement??  Actually, making a few broad comparisons is better than just making stuff up.

 

Myth: Charters Will Expand Choice and Create Competition 

Fact: Passage of the charter amendment does not guarantee that charters would be added to areas that have chronically underperforming schools. 

But the failure of the amendment will almost certainly prevent them from moving in.  It is probable that many that already exist will die off from lack of funding or be sued out of existence from the opponents.

Fact:True competition can only exist if the same system of rules and regulations are in place for all participating parties.

Again, this street runs both ways.  Fact is, my charter school is undergoing a lot more scrutiny on compliance issues compared to the traditional schools because the state DOE does NOT like us and would rather we did not exist.  Dr. Barge has already stated his position which is that no charter school should exist while other schools don’t have enough money.  And since NO regular school district EVER has enough money then we should not exist.

Charter schools employ many of your former colleagues who were otherwise unemployed or laid off.  Charter schools also educate students that traditional schools have been either unwilling or unable to serve.  And they do so at a much smaller cost to the tax payer much of the time.

Having choices is a very American thing.  Having choices in education is a humane and just thing, especially if we can offer free and public choices.  People will vote with their feet.  Since most charters have waiting lists and most traditional public schools have declining enrollments, it might be wise to look around and recognize that times are changing.  The present structure has existed for at least the last 40 years and Georgia has never been in the top 10 in education but consistently been in the bottom 10.  Mr. Jones makes an appeal to fix the system in place, but that system has consistently refused to allow itself to be fixed and it is way past adolescence.  We need real change as it is too important to put off any longer.

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.

Educational Disruption

25 Jun

Almost a year ago, I wrote a little post about the Future of Education.  Ever since reading Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class and even prior to that, I have been watching and waiting for public education in this country to come around and catch up to what I had been thinking about and doing.  The salient components were creating, collaborating and distributing ideas, lessons, materials and then having students do the same.

Back in 2010, these ideas were not welcome in public schools and to a large degree, sharing things publicly is largely discouraged, which includes teacher blogs.  Teachers are highly discouraged from being active in public media, forums and discussions on an individual level.  And heaven forbid there is anything posted that might be construed as dissent or dissatisfaction.   Schools fear transparency for a pretty good reason.  If parents really knew what was happening in classrooms, they might react with shock and horror.  We need more transparency in our schools, not less.  And attempts made by systems to censor through fear and intimidation need to quashed.

Despite or perhaps because of the negativity in education nowadays, th disruption predicted by Christensen is coming closer and closer to reality.  As budgets become more strained and as dissatisfaction increases, new opportunities are beginning to appear and technology is becoming a very key component to that.  When I start thinking about what I see in schools and look at what can be offered in a virtual environment, the traditional factory modeled schools become a tougher and tougher sell.

First of all, I think about the benefits to the students.  First off, physical bullying is nonexistent in this setting.  Bathroom graffiti; nonexistent. Pink slime in the lunches: nonexistent.  Need a pass to use the bathroom?  How about being interrupted by a fire drill?  Then there are the issues around riding the bus.  Some might argue that students will miss out on valuable social skills from the interaction with classmates.  I have seen and experienced these ‘social skills’ which include learning how to curse at adults and each other.  Or how to sag your pants and show your butt.  Or how important having the latest designer clothes and gadgets is to social status.    I could do without a lot of the social lessons that are being passed around in todays schools.

There are benefits to teachers as well.  not having to take a lunch count, not having to supervise halls and lunchrooms and playgrounds frees up time to actually work and interact with students.  If a student gets unruly or disrespectful in an online session, it is all there and recorded and they can removed with a push of a button, denying the offending student an audience.  A teacher in this environment does not have to worry about being assaulted or having their car vandalized in the parking lot.  While some online sessions can have many more students, many more can be accommodated through watching recordings of the live sessions.  Why should a teacher have to present the same thing 6 times a day when one recording can work as well?

The single biggest downside to the virtual learning environment is that it involves a significant investment by the parent.  Not necessarily in money as most homes already have the technology and connections necessary, but in time.  The parents have to take over the custodial role for their children, instead of the school.  And this is significant especially if both parents are working in full-time jobs.

The disruption is already taking place all over the country and it remains to be seen if or how positive the impact will be on the education of our students.  But times for traditional schools are getting tougher all the time with school budgets tightening around the country causing increased class sizes and decreased number of days in schools.  With the shortening of the school year, parents are already having to find other ways for their children to be looked after while they work.  And herding more students into smaller spaces brings the task of control to such prominence as to totally overshadow the supposed main goal, which is education.  It forces the culture to have more in common with prisons than with places of learning.

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.

Accelerated Reader: Undermining literacy while plundering library budgets

12 Apr

A recent report about the lowering of reading scores is making news in educational circles. 

Sandra Stotsky, holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, says American high school students do not read challenging books, whether they are assigned by their teachers or chosen for leisure reading.

The report is put out by the same company that sells the Accelerated Reader, more commonly known as AR in a school near you.  Basically, AR is built for data.  Books are rated and organized according to reading level and length and then quizzes are given to students after they read the books and awarded points based on how well they perform on the quizzes.  The quizzes are all computerized thus facilitating the data driven instruction favored by the leaders in educational reform today.

Here is a great article by Gary Stager on the shortcomings of AR and how it drains schools of scarce resources while creating and exacerbating a problem that it is claiming to address.  What I want to add to the conversation is first-hand experience with how AR, and its implementation has had a detrimental effect on reading in our household.

In my youngest son’s 4th grade classroom, he is assigned a sort of individualized reading goal of a certain number of points per month.  Making this goal is a substantial part of his grade.  The goal is fairly well-written, in that it is precise and can be efficiently measured, since AR is a like a dream for people who are data driven. Plus it can be individualized based on ability.  You would think a behaviorist like me would love it.

 

My 4th grader has the dubious honor of being able to read on about the 6-7th grade level.  So the grade level he is restricted to is at the 5-7th grade range.  If he reads anything at too low a level, he doesn’t get enough points.  If he reads to far above, he can’t comprehend enough to pass the AR test.  So AR should be aiming at his sweet spot of about the 6th grade level.  The problem is, is that my quest student has a goal that makes him read a book about every week.  In 4th grade.  On top of the rest of the homework he is being assigned.  So right away, we are digging into his non-homework time at home, as the school day is extended 2-4 hours every afternoon and night. 

But there is another problem with this AR system besides the bone-numbing reduction of reading into data points.  It is also expensive and it creates additional and needless drain on resources while at the same time  it decreases accessibility and options.  The true limitations of AR didn’t really hit us until we decided to buy a Kindle Touch with our own scarce financial resources.

The idea was that eyes strain from staring at a computer screen for long periods for just reading might be alleviated by the more natural experience offered by the Kindle.  And that we could have more access to more books, free books, using the Kindle.  And indeed there are free classic books to be had.  Most of them freely available through the Gutenberg Project.  And they are classic literature, time tested and things that many of us might have read when we were kids and our kids might discover and are completely appropriate for school. 

The first book I downloaded on our brand new kindle was a book called Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with the Circus.  It has some pretty heavy themes but there is no bad language and there is a less on to be learned.  The book is slightly on the low side for my 10 year-old at about a 4-5th grade level.  But I thought he might enjoy it.  But he will probably never read it because if you search the AR book finder, it is not there.  And neither are several free and classic works of children’s literature.  Basically, we are totally limited to those books that have tests because he has only a limited amount of time and he has high expectations for himself and will push himself to reach certain goals including getting straight A’s.  So AR books, and his grade, have a much higher priority than reading for enjoyment. It is NOT enjoyable to read for him, it is a CHORE.

His less conscientious classmates choose books from the AR list, but compare that list to the Netflix/movie list in order to “finish” a Harry Potter book in about 2 hours.  They basically game the system as much as possible.

Let’s talk a a bit about the less motivated brother who just turned 13.  He likes to read, but his interests are so restricted that they hardly even appear on any AR list at any reading level.  Titanic, trains, and….that is about it at the moment although we are gradually working on expanding the list.  For awhile he was interested in entrepreneurship and read books about the founding of Coca cola and McDonald’s which I think I enjoyed reading more than he did.  But those were each only worth one point despite being on a 7th grade reading level just because they were relatively short.  Getting him through a novel is a LOT of work.  We had to work overtime to get him through the book Where the Red Fern Grows which included having him watch the movie more than once.  And he has developed a fixation toward getting coon dogs now.  This is a fine story, but it was SO hard getting him to read the book.  But we also didn’t want to add the expense of an audio book on top of the book and the movie we bought. 

One thing about the free classic works of literature, is that they are available in audio as well as free electronic book form though Librivox.  So now a person can listen with their Kindle Touch while they read along.  Every book can be made into a read-along-book.  And it is free.  And these are challenging books.  these would be a much better choice for both of my kids because they are presented in multiple formats and widely accessible.  Being in the public domain also opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating these stories and putting on plays, doing illustrations and basically having fun without the worry of copyright and cost restrictions.  This would be leveraging technology properly, although it does not lend itself especially well to the data driven approach favored by the education czars of both Bush and Obama administrations.  And I see nothing that convinces me a new president will make any positive changes. 

AR is an expensive program that limits and saddles a school with only certain books that happen to have quizzes in them.  The entire idea of reading as an enjoyable endeavor is abandoned in favor of turning both my kids into data points.  It is not cost effective to limit its use to only those students who might benefit from the point system, so everyone has to use it.

I happened to witness another casualty of the AR system.  It encourages cheating, which turns the poor librarian into a sort of guard who has to make sure that kids are not looking over another’s shoulder and getting answers.  I saw this while substituting in a 4th grade classroom.  The lone librarian (she had no aid as those positions had been long cut) was exasperated with trying to monitor my class, the AR test takers plus check out books and organize the huge stacks behind her.  I’m sure when she entered the field she many idea of how she might promote literacy and a love of reading to children everywhere.  I have yet to meet one that had anything good to say about AR.

 

 

Thirteen Years Ago…

20 Feb

Saturday, my oldest turned 13 years old.

The pregnancy was almost absolutely normal, and I remember going through the childbirth classes with several other couples, sharing a lot of anticipation.  Finally, the day came.  I came home and my wife let me know that it was time to take that trip to Tallahassee.  I remember giving her a stopwatch and told her to hit the splits button whenever she felt a contraction.  All the way down, I could hear a “beep” every time she hit the button.  The watch was rather high tech, and would keep track of the closest and furthest contractions as well as the average time between them.  It’s the nerd in me that wanted to know such things!

We were doing pretty well, but it was a pretty long night.  When he was born, I remember cutting the umbilical cord and I also remember a swarm of nurses coming into the room.  I had no idea what was going on.  As it turned out he had a pneumothorax which caused one of his lungs to collapse.  He was rushed to the NICU, and I went with him, leaving his mother who was also in some distress of her own, unbeknown to me.

I remember him wiggling around as they attached the wires and tubes and needles.  He spent 4 days in the NICU, before it healed on its own without any medication, surgery or other interventions beyond oxygen. I was in a total daze.  I had no idea of what was happening at the time.  Or that this was just the beginning of a long journey.

In my wife’s words:

“[He] was born on his due date. As he struggled to take his first breath, his left lung collapsed. Within the following day, his lung had healed without requiring a chest tube. He spent a total of 4 days in the NICU. When he was 2 weeks old, we was back in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia. He was diagnosed with moderate reflux. When he was 4 months old, he started having seizures. At 15 months, he lost the ability to speak the words he had acquired. At 20 months, he was diagnosed with autism. I often asked, “God, why me??”

My wife was always a step ahead of me as far as recognizing when there were problems.  But it was my own background in special education that enabled me to recognize that we were seeing something akin to autism.  The when I asked him, the neurologist admitted that it could be some form of developmental delays and gave him the PDD-NOS diagnosis.  Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified.   Back then, they seemed very reluctant to give an autism diagnosis, especially to someone as young as my son was.

Our story follows a similar trajectory of many other families as we experienced the ups and downs of life with autism.  We had the assistance of many good and competent therapists and teachers.  And there might have been a few less-than-good ones along the way.

He has generally been a happy child, but the teen-aged years are starting out very rough for him.  He has been changing into a young man for the past couple of years with his voice changing and then the attendant mood swings that goes along with this transition.  And typical middle school behaviors of his peers have not helped matters as other kids make fun of him, and he is unable to ignore or handle the name-calling and criticism like he could when he was younger.  There was a time when he often could care less what people thought of what he did or said, but today it is far different.  He is very sensitive about what his peers think or say and of course it is the negative things that get amplified.

In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Daxflame, a teenager who became somewhat notorious on youtube for his meltdowns on camera.  But if you watch (and they ARE hard to watch for those of us close to autism and Aspergers) you can see him struggling to control himself, to be understood and to make friends.

As hard as the videos are to watch, the comments are even more hideous. He exhibited a lot of courage putting himself out there like that.

So as difficult as the first 13 years have been, we’re entering some entirely new territory. In some ways this is much like all parents of teenagers, but with an added complication that makes the conformity demanded by teenagers all but impossible for my son. How does one “fit in” when almost everything they say or do makes them stick out?

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!

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