Transitioning: Disabilities and the Minimum Wage

7 Jun

My yearly post comes courtesy of some interesting discussions with my varied Facebook friends about economic policies and specifically about the minimum wage.  Having two teenage sons has definitely helped shed some light on the state of things as far as jobs and the economy as well as my own background, going back to the days on the farm.  I can try to talk about the economics of the minimum wage to my friends, but there might be more power in simply sharing a more personal (and maybe simple) example.

Two years ago, I wrote a bit about efforts to get my oldest involved in beekeeping.  It’s still a good read, and reveals the plight of many parents and individuals with disabilities.  Namely as we approach next year with him as a senior, we are still grappling about how we can arrange things where he might be able to take care of himself or at least be much more independent.  And the fact that there is very little out there for individuals with disabilities.  This is an update on that post plus a little lesson in practical economics.

My oldest still has no problem mowing the lawn and still looks forward to doing and making a little money.  He and his younger brother both mow now, switching off between my lawn and my neighbor’s lawn.  I pay $15 for my lawn, provided they pay for the gas or $10 if I have to pay for it.  My neighbor pays them $20 for a slightly smaller lawn.  Right away, you can see where they might be more likely to want to mow HER lawn than mine.  More money for less work.  But it’s with my lawn mower and mostly my gas.  I told them if they saved and bought their own mower, I’d gladly pay $20 but they haven’t been too keen on that.  They haven’t quite grasped the concept of capital investments, yet.

When my youngest (more neurotypical) son mows, he can do either lawn in less than 90 minutes, so he is making about minimum wage or maybe a little better.  However, when my oldest mows the lawn he will typically take 4-5 hours!  And he uses a lot more gas.  If I was running a lawn mowing business, you could see what the problem would be if I had to pay minimum wage.  One of my employees would be making me a little money while the other one would be costing me!  It has little to do with the quality of work as much as simple productivity.

And don’t get me started on government required licensing.

My oldest is not as interested in keeping bees as I am.  He’s just not into the bees.  He hasn’t been stung as far as I know, so it’s not that.  However, he is happy to participate in other aspects of the business that don’t necessarily involve wearing a bee suit.  When it comes to extracting honey, he enthusiastically turns the crank on the extractor and watches the frames spin around.  And recently he was happy to nail together and paint some hive boxes that I had ordered.   The price difference between an unassembled box and one that is assembled and painted is about $5 per box, so I offered to split the difference with him @ $2 per box, which he was happy to do.  In fact he was happier with this than mowing the lawn.  And he did a fairly decent job, not using too many  extra nails.  I wasn’t too concerned about the quality of the paint job as the bees wouldn’t care as long as he didn’t get any on the inside.

My patio is over run with bee equipment! One of the hives can be seen in the background

This was a job I probably could have done myself in an hour or so, but it’s a bit tedious so I was happy to let him have at it.  It took him probably 6 hours over 2 days.   But he was able to do this job independently and I wasn’t in a huge hurry as the bees are still filling out their top boxes.  But if he would have been working for someone else who had to pay him minimum wage, the cost would have exceeded the cost of simply ordering them already painted and assembled.  And we’re talking a $7.25 minimum wage.  There’s serious national discussion about raising the minimum to $15 per hour which would drop him from almost any serious contention for competitive  job opportunities even if he acquired enough skill to double his productivity!

There actually is a small provision that allows people with disabilities to be employed below the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) of 1938   The preceding link is actually an interesting read as it also covers exemptions relating to youth emplyment and agricultural employment as well as casual babysitting.

The employment numbers for persons with disabilities are bleak, at best, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2015, 17.5 percent of persons with a disability were employed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.0 percent.

Here’s and interactive chart that breaks it down a bit.

Goodwill

No serious discussion of employment for individuals with disabilities and this special provision from the minimum wage would be complete without discussing its poster-child, Goodwill Industries.  In 2013, this organization came under fire because it was reported that they were paying individuals as low as $.22 per hour while Goodwill International CEO Jim Gibbons made $729,000 in salary and deferred compensation.   To many people who were making below minimum wage, that news came as a slap in the face and change.org circulated a petition in order to pressure Goodwill to pay its workers minimum wage.

Goodwill issued their response to this petition where they outline why this provision is important as well as giving recommendations for insuring better compliance with those provisions.  You can also read a shorter but perhaps more poignant response here.    Which delves deeper into the wheelhouse where I presently work– with individuals with multiple severe disabilities.  As I began this post saying, the opportunities for these families are few and far between.   One of the complaints from some of those who opined the loudest in favor of doing away with the minimum wage exemption was that they felt trapped within the Goodwill system because there was no other place to go.  But if Goodwill was eliminated– then what?

The solution would seem to be more competition and oddly enough the publicity surrounding how much the CEO’s and executives were making might actually help if the publicity was less toxic and more helpful.  If another company moved into the area, they might be able to offer more services or higher wages and a six figure salary might be enough incentive to bring a savvy entrepreneur into the market.   But not if they are going to be vilified for making good money for doing good work.

Goodwill is a voluntary organization in all respects.  This means individuals and families can choose whether or not this is the right choice for them, and if they find another and more lucrative option, they are certainly encouraged to take advantage of those opportunities.  But with over 80% of people with disabilities who have ZERO employment, we need to be looking at ways to expand those opportunities instead of regulating those very few opportunities out of existence.

Finally here’s a short primer on how the minimum wage does or does not hurt workers:

 

 

The Dangerous World of Autism

23 Jul

When I first ran across this story earlier in the week, it sent a chill through me.  Even almost a week later, it still elicits a strong sense of frustration.  I’m prone to living a rather solitary life any way, not wanting to get out and visit, travel or socialize overly much.  And stories like this tend to reinforce a general view that there’s no place like home.   This is my nightmare on so many levels.   I imagine almost every parent of an autistic child or adult is horrified at just this sort of scenario.  As a person who takes autistic teens out into the community, this is especially troubling.

Charles Kinsey did everything right.  He did everything in his power to protect the person he was charged with caretaking as well as protecting himself, thinking that if he kept his cool, kept his hands up he would not be shot.  But he thought wrong.   And as more facts became known, the excuse the police department gave was that Kinsey was accidentally shot and the real target was the 26 year-old autistic young man, Arnoldo Rios-Soto.  This is not at all reassuring.  The family is justifiably traumitized.  Rios-Soto refuses to take off his shirt, still stained with the blood of his injured caretaker.

This is the sort of story that traumatizes *everyone* in the autism community.  We generally don’t have a bias against law enforcement and would prefer to think of them as natural allies in helping to protect people who can’t protect themselves.  But this is an instance where the the pleadings of the caretaker seemed to be completely and utterly ignored.  He identified himself and told where he worked and what he was doing.  He complied with everything the officers asked.  But of course the autistic individual did not, but continued to play with his toy truck, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around him.  Until his caretaker was shot and BOTH of them were handcuffed.  This policy of handcuffing everyone is troublesome and I’ve had personal run-ins with this before with law enforcement personnel and students with disabilities.  Knowing that almost any encounter with the police will result in getting handcuffed might adds to the frustration.

It has been a rough couple of summers for people in law enforcement and I’ve generally been sympathetic to their cause.  They have a tough job and it isn’t made any easier when deranged and violent people are trying to hunt them down and kill them just because they wear a badge. Here in the Atlanta area, things have been especially tense with protesters on the streets, making it inadvisable to go down town because of the risk of becoming entangled in knots of anger and outrage.

But when did some prudence and common sense go so far out the window?   Couldn’t someone look through a rifle scope and see that it the toy truck wasn’t a gun?  Once Kinsey identified himself and started talking, couldn’t someone interrogate him from a safe distance in order to get more information and verify his story?  Call for back-up?  Fortunately Kinsey will recover, but the only reason no one is dead is because the officer missed.

Generally the officers in my town seem to be supportive,working with and within the community as whole in various charity and community projects.  But it is still hard to shake the images and emotions that a story like this evokes.  Am I going to have to devote an extra space on our AAC devices for “Hands up, don’t shoot”??  And as a parent, I might have to have a particular and peculiar conversation with my oldest not unlike what many other parents in the country have to do.

 

 

 

 

 

Autism, Post-School Transitioning and Beekeeping

14 May

As my oldest gets ready to complete his first year of high school, transitioning is a topic that weighs heavily on my mind.  It’s made more acute by the fact that in my business of being a special education teacher, I’m busy writing something called a “Summary of Performance” for all of my graduating seniors.  This is a document that is meant to capture all of what the student did in his/her high school years and then outline what resources might be available for those students when they transition into post-school life.

Here’s a newsflash for other parents of students with autism: there are precious few resources out there and almost all of those that exist are grossly underfunded, many with waiting lists that are measured in years.  Once a student leaves the world of k-12 education they are no longer serviced or protected by the law known as IDEA.  An IEP means nothing once they get out school.  There is the ADA and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  But these are no guarantees of services, only guarantees of non-discrimination.

So my Summary of Performance will list myself, my lead, the transition coordinator and if I know where they might go to school or college, the contact information for the student support services.  And that’s about it.  Those with more involved or severe disabilities might have access to vocational rehabilitation services, but in Georgia those services are limited.  And underfunded.

I’ve written about the Summary of Performance before, in my IEP series.  That whole series is in need of an update, since I’m working with an entirely different population now, and some things have changed in the last 7 years since I wrote that out.  But Spaz, the object of that post, is a case in point for those with more severe disabilities.  When I saw him and his parent 3 years after he graduated, he was still on a waiting list for supported employment.  And this was actually a parent who had done some pre-planning.  Taz graduated a year later and I saw his mother in the store less than a year ago and he is still on the same waiting list– six years after graduation!!

This is why parents don’t like thinking about post-school transition planning because it is that depressing.  My oldest was only 9 when Spaz graduated, but it was still in the back of my mind.  Far in the back.   But time marches on.

Since that time, he is still mostly interested in trains.  Everything he does intentionally has some focus on acquiring some more model trains.  This is autism at its most classic.

So I’ve been working at finding the boy some sort of marketable skills.  The fact is, he can be a dependable and hard hard worker, albeit rather slow.  He really doesn’t complain at all about mowing my large-ish lawn with the push mower, no matter how hot it is because he knows he’s going to get paid.  And the whole time he’s mowing, he’s thinking about the new train set he’s going to buy when he saves enough money.  And since he’s looking at getting a Lionel train set, that’s a lot of lawn mowing because they aren’t cheap!

And this is the part where my other blog intersects with this one, as I recently got a bee hive.  Actually I bought the hive for him at Christmas and we just got the bees.  Just like the lawn mowing, his interest is making money to buy trains.  But he IS interested, and so there’s an opening there for expanding his interest into something somewhat marketable.

It doesn’t hurt that this is also an interest of mine.

In a more rural environment, a lot of autistic behaviors might have been written off as being odd.  Farm life generally moves at a slower pace, in tune with the more natural rhythm of nature.  The transitions involved in agricultural are more gradual as opposed to a more urbanized life that seems to involve a faster pace filled with more stress as things seem to be more time-sensitive.  Factory life historically meant doing the same thing over and over and over again and the transitions were extremely predictable.  Basically the workplace in earlier times was not nearly as hostile to someone on the autism spectrum as it is today, with a more service-oriented and socially driven economy.  It’s easier dealing with plants, animals and things than it is dealing with people.

Fortunately, the bees don’t require much space at the present time, unlike a herd of cattle.  I used to joke about having to get some cows when my boys got older so they would have some chores to do.  I didn’t realize it while growing up, and in fact resented it, but those farm chores I had growing up did help instill a work ethic that still serves well today.  And that background might be an entry into something meaningful and productive for the next generation.

The Newest Bee Keeper

The Newest Bee Keeper

Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation: The Atlanta Cheating Scandal and You

23 Apr

I promised in my last entry that I would blog a bit about the Atlanta Teacher scandal.  How little did I know how closely this thing would hit home for me, personally.  But you’ll have to hang on for a minute.

As I wrote my last entry, I began looking deeper and deeper into that situation, watching and reading hours of testimony given by witnesses.  There were initially over 170 educators from 40 different schools named in the investigation.  As time went on, educators came forward, confessed and cooperated and in return they were given a sort of leniency.  But it was all predicated on an admission of guilt.  They had to confess that they had some role in falsifying or corrupting the testing process.   One by one they came forward and made deals.  Until there were only 12 defendants left who went the distance and went to trial and all the way to sentencing.

Actually, that isn’t quite true.  There was at least one who could not be prosecuted because she died before she could have her day in court.

As I poured over the history of this unfortunate incident my heart went out to each and every person involved.  Everyone.  Of course the children who were fooled into thinking they were somehow gifted or doing better than they really were and subsequently failed to receive earlier intervention that might have come if the tests were serving the purpose they are purported to serve.  But in truth, these tests have never served that purpose.  George W. Bush made No Child Left Behind the crown jewel of his legacy.   Barack Obama took NCLB and “improved” it by taking the most onerous parts of it and incentivized it during a recession that gripped the nation through “Race to the Top.”  Beverly Hall won her accolades as Superintendent of The Year in 2009– on his watch.

The teachers involved lived in a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.  Their jobs were on the line.  They needed the benefits for taking care of their own children and to put food on their own tables.  Even if they didn’t cheat, they knew it was happening.  Erasing student scores was wrong.  We all know this.  But I often ask myself, “what would I have done?”  Then I ask myself “What am I going to do?”  Because you see, things have changed but maybe not that much.   Notice that these teachers were sentenced on April 1st– a mere 3 weeks before the state of Georgia goes into its testing season.  Fear, intimidation, retaliation.  Those sentences and this whole story casts a long, long shadow over every single teacher in this state and even across our entire nation.  NONE of us are immune from the fear, intimidation and the fear of retaliation caused by the spectre of the long arm of the law reaching and grasping us with its cold and loveless fingers.

I felt for the judge.  He really pleaded and did almost everything he could do to keep from having to hand down sentences to these educators.  He delayed his sentencing by a day, in order to give them all a chance to make a deal with the district attorney.  It reminded me of the story of Pontius Pilate who did not want to administer a certain other sentence, trying the flogging first and then appealing to the crowds.  I’m convinced he took no pleasure in this.  Everything about this trial was painful to watch.  I know the educators did wrong and deserved some form of punishment.  But are they that much of a threat to society that they need to be taken off the streets and incarcerated with rapists and murderers?  They’ve lost their credentials that they spent a good portion of their lives acquiring and will never be able to practice their profession again.  They are jobless and in some cases indigent, unable to afford to pay for their own appeals.  They are broke and broken.

As I watched the videos of the sentencing and the efforts of the attorneys to appeal for some mercy, I was genuinely moved by the entire thing.  I felt a sense of hopelessness for every single person in that courtroom.  I would have taken the deal.  Any deal.  Whatever it took to wash my hands of this dirty, filthy mess.

And that is what this entire testing culture is.  It’s not about the children.  It’s not even about accountability and it certainly is not about teaching and learning.  It’s pure filth.  And as educators, we all have to swim in this hot, steaming vat of it.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is any pension, insurance benefit or salary that can possibly wash the stink of it off of any of us.  We’re in it for the kids.  But it’s not about them anymore.  It’s all about the data.

In my last entry, I described our testing season.  We are now a mere 3 days into a 10 day ordeal.  I am working with a team of 6 other extremely dedicated educators who like our kids and enjoy teaching them.  And 3 days in, each and every single one of us have had to write at least one incident report, reporting some sort of “testing irregularity” that will put us on the radar of the Department Of Education and subsequent investigations that might just put an end to that.  Most of these things are out of our control.  The new computerized testing administration is full of glitches and problems which are still being hashed out and has caused most of these “irregularities.”  In some cases, entire tests will be invalidated because of these problems.  Some students didn’t get their accommodations and we scrambled to make the best of things.  Only time will tell if we did enough to satisfy all of the oversight.

Parents all around the state  and country are starting to push back for a variety of reasons.  But one thing they realize is that our education system is hopelessly broken and every effort by our government to “fix” it has made it even more broken.  One of the reasons schools push so hard for students to take these tests is because there is money tied not only to the pass rates, but simply for having at least 95% of the students take the test on test day.    Fear, intimidation and retaliation.  While those Atlanta teachers who cheated didn’t do the rest of the dedicated teachers in the country any favors, the system has not gotten any kinder.  It continues to cultivate the exact same culture that incubated the scandal in the first place.  And it has made teaching a much more difficult and less rewarding profession than at any other time in our history.  And its starting to show.  I would have a really hard time recommending this profession to any student given the present climate.  Back when I got my undergrad degree in agriculture education, only about 2 of us out of 10 who graduated the program that December had any intention of returning to the classroom, with the rest opting to go into agribusiness.  I’ve always liked teaching, and still do.  But so much of the job involves so many other things besides teaching students, and almost all of it revolves around “accountability.”  Covering your bum.  It’s increasingly difficult to survive and thrive in that sort of climate for students and the teachers who teach them.   We’re sowing seeds that will reap a bitter harvest for this country unless we can regain some control over a testing culture that has gotten out of control.

Just remember that whenever you hear the word “Accountability” when applied to education, it is shorthand for fear, intimidation and retaliation.

5/4/2015 Edit: Thank you John Oliver!

Testing Season in Georgia’s Largest Charter School

12 Apr

I can see that this might be one of those multi-part posts where I talk about different aspects of one of my favorite topics: standardized testing.

I’ve been grinding against this sort of testing  for a very, very, very long time.  Granted, most of it was about the alternate assessment because that is where I was living at the time.  Now I live in a vastly different universe.  Still exceptional in a world of exceptionalities!

But I thought it might be informational and beneficial to talk a bit about the logistics involved with state testing for a virtual school that serves students in every single county in the state.  This is something that no other school (as far as I know) in the state could even attempt.  And yet we have been pulling this off for over 7 years.  Mostly without a hitch and certainly without scandal.  (Yeah, I know…I need to blog that)

In the special education department, we start planning for the spring testing before the first day of school.  In fact, we’re preparing for it the day after the last day of spring testing.  It starts with the IEP, and we run annual reviews and amendments to those reviews all year long.  We begin writing in the student’s accommodations, including which tests they will take and which accommodations they will be given.  And then there will be more meetings to amend and fix those as the year progresses, the tests change and the students schedules become altered.

Testing accommodations are among the most important service options that are presently offered on an IEP.  Especially since the academic goals have been rendered essentially meaningless, and the direct services are basically fairly standard and less individual than they ever have been.  Accommodations have a direct impact on what happens to a student on test day, and their subsequent grades, promotion and retention.

It’s obvious that my previous treatment of accommodations, as controversial as it was in those days, needs to be reviewed and updated.  It’s really fun to see the interaction I had in those days among different teachers!  gosh I miss that!

This year, we filled out a gigantic spreadsheet in December listing all of the students and their accommodations for testing.  This was the first of many, many spreadsheets and updates.  Every co-teacher in our department has a full caseload of 26, so this is not a small task.  Almost every task we have takes on gigantic proportions when working on this scale.

As we get closer to testing, one of the first things that comes out to teachers is where they are assigned to test.  Remember, we serve students in every county in the state, and each and every test is given in a face-to-face setting under standard conditions.  And we try to offer testing locations within 50 miles of each and every one of those students.  And every student that is given the End of Grade  (EOG) grades 3-8 test is going to be tested during the same 5 day window of time.  And every End of Course Test (EOCT) is given during the next 5 day period of time.  In total, we will test over 10,000 students across about 50 different locations in the state in a 2 week period.

That’s why this is such a big deal and is unique among all of Georgia’s public school systems.

My first year, I was assigned to a location about 15 miles from my house and it was one of the largest testing locations in the state.  That means that during the first week of testing we had about 300 students that we tested.  Grades 3-5 in the morning and grades 6-8 in the afternoon.  It was done in a community center that used to be a church, so it had a huge main room and then several smaller classroom areas that was perfect for a main administration and then several rooms for various accommodations.  However what was NOT perfect was that the parking lot was too small and had, at most, spaces for about 50 cars with 10-12 of those being taken up by us teachers who were administering the test.  This meant that traffic was lined up on the street during drop-off and parents getting angry before they even got to our door!  So they have since changed locations.  And so have I.

Many of the areas that we test are much smaller, but still have students that need to be tested where few if any teachers live.  That means that many of us will end up traveling and staying in some far-flung location in the middle of nowhere.  Georgia has lots of these areas.  Far flung ones.

For most of the year, students and teachers are in their homes in front of their computers, on the couch, in the bed and wearing pajamas but during testing time, it is “all hands on deck.”  It is a dramatic change for all of us, where we have to get up early, shower, get dressed and adhere to a very rigid and set schedule.  Basically pretty much what the rest of y’all do all year-long!  This radical departure from what happens from the rest of the year produces a lot anxiety and complications that most regular schools don’t have to deal with.  The testing environment is foreign to *everyone!*

Last year I was shipped off to one of the smaller far flung regions and I actually liked it so well, I asked to go back again this year.  It was just more relaxed because larger testing sites means more students and more difficulties that increase exponentially.  It’s just like teaching a larger sized class versus a smaller one.  It’s easier testing 35 students than it is 300, no matter how much help you ship in.  So for about 2 solid weeks, I’m going to be in Troup County Georgia living out of a hotel.  The school is paying for it plus mileage so while it means being away from home it will also sort of be a working vacation minus tourist attractions.  Yes, I’ll be working all day on my feet instead of sitting down, but at the end of the day there won’t be any last minute meetings or IEP meetings or the extra things I usually have.  Much closer to a regular working day.

After teachers get their assignments, then the administration goes about the task of assigning students to their sites.  It’s not an easy thing because students will often move and forget to tell the school where they moved to.  So we send surveys for students or parents to complete making sure the address we have on file is correct.   While this is being worked on, there are trainings, trainings and more trainings that us teachers attend regarding testing procedures.  We have testing security and integrity drummed into us, as if the news of the Atlanta teacher scandal didn’t make enough of a case.  I notice they always come out with news about this right before testing season, just to make sure the point is driven home: “Comply or ELSE!”

As special educators we go over our caseloads over and over again to make sure we have the correct accommodations for the correct test clearly spelled and marked on their IEP.  One mis-marked checkbox and we get a call to amend the IEP.  It is a stressful time for our department as we are also in the middle of doing annual reviews.  Actually, we are always in the middle of doing annual reviews!  We are also in the middle of registering for next year’s classes and getting ready to run through the Summary of Performance for each graduating senior.  Egad…what a painful thing to look forward to and I have at least 5 of them to do!

So the two weeks of testing is actually fairly relaxing compared to what’s coming afterwards.

So now we teachers are divided into site teams, with one person designated as a site coordinator for each week of testing.  Unlike other school systems where the elementary teachers give the elementary test and high school teachers doing their own, in my school system it is *everyone*– high school, middles school and elementary joining together to give ALL of the tests.  It’s a huge deal.   The person lucky enough to be selected as a site coordinator is the one who puts together the site plane, dividing up students and teachers and who and where within the site various testing accommodations will be administered.  This year, we have an added bonus of delivering the test online to certain students who have certain accommodations so there will be the typical test booklets and answer sheets but also some computers to manage.

This next week is the week before testing and it is when things really start to gear up.  Each site team has a day where we will go to a central metro Atlanta location for a half day of more training followed by an afternoon of assembling the materials that we will need for the first week of testing.  This is a pretty substantial undertaking as we have to make sure we get it as close to right as possible as many of these sites are hundreds of miles away and there is no “going to the office” on the spur of the moment to pick up something you might have forgotten, like a test booklet, a manual or answer sheet.  We put together our site kits that include all of the testing materials and labels, sticking the labels on the booklets and answer sheets, making sure that they match exactly.  And we count and count and count some more and write down how many of each thing we have for we have to make sure that we bring back exactly the same amount of stuff that we check out.  Once we are absolutely sure that we have everything we need and that everything matches exactly, we can seal our boxes up with the specially numbered seals.   Inside that box are also about 5 more seals as we will have to count and recount everything in that box each and every day and reseal the box each day of the test.  We also get spare pencils, scratch paper, calculators and this year, computers.

Once the box is sealed up, the testing coordinator takes it and locks it somewhere safe and then the next Monday morning we open the seals, recount and divide the stuff among the various test examiners.

Every parent of every child has been informed of where their site location is.  They have received a flyer with the time they have to report and they also have to fill out an emergency and release form.  They will also receive a call from one of the examiners from their testing site.  When they arrive to the test site they will show a photo ID and sign their student in.  This is quite a production since for many students they will be going to a new space where they have never been before, around students and teachers they have never seen before.  While some high school students might have seen my name or heard my voice or seen my picture, NONE of the elementary students will have the slightest idea of who I am!  So this can be a time of anxiety for a lot of these families.

But it can be a very rewarding experience as well, as teachers, students and parents can connect with each other face-to-face.  We do have events where we all can get together in our respective regions but this is the one time where students and families will actually be gathering up according to their neighborhoods.  This is one reason I richly prefer the smaller testing site as it’s more possible to establish a friendlier and more relaxed connection to a smaller group of families.  The larger sites are not nearly as personal and tend to be much more stressful for everyone, but there are still connections that will be made and often endure until that student graduates.

We’ll test one group in the morning and another group in the afternoon, each administration being about a 3 hour grind.  None of us are used to being on our feet all day, so us teachers are pretty footsore by the end of the first day as we work the room, actively monitoring the students as they take their tests.  Then we’ll count and recount all materials before resealing the boxes until the next test the next day.  Once that is done, we go home or to a hotel to collapse until the next day to do it all over again.  This will go on all week.  Generally Monday is the hardest as families arrive from all over and hopefully can find the site and arrive on time.

On either Friday evening or early Saturday morning, the site coordinators will converge at the main office to turn in their EOG tests and pick up their EOC tests which will hopefully be sealed and ready in their separate boxes, making the swap relatively painless.  “Relatively” is the operative term as the EOG materials will have to be checked in.  That means unsealing and more counting and then sorting and dividing the booklets, answer sheets and other materials.  At every single stage of this, there is careful attention paid to the accommodations to make sure that they have been given correctly for the correct tests.

And then the next week, we do it all over again for the high school tests.  This is generally easier because not every student has to take every test.  So the groups tend to be much smaller with proportionally fewer accommodations to administer.  So instead of the full 35 students, there might only be 20 for both of the ELA tests.  But there is probably more counting involved as the tests are arranged by subject and not by grade like the EOG.  And you can never count just one– you have to count ALL of them–every test whether you’ve given it that day or not to make sure they are all there.  Lots of counting and recounting.

Because we are dispersed all throughout the state, it would be impossible for a cheating scandal on such a large scale as happened in Atlanta to take place.  And even if it did happen, it would be too easy to track and narrow down exactly where it happened and who it happened with.  Eventually, all of the students will take it online and I suspect that will simplify this process greatly.  No bubbling of answer documents, no test booklets to count and really very little to turn in as it all gets turned in when the student hits the “submit” button.

Oddly enough, it’s because we are a virtual school that we have yet to fully adopt the online version.  since the students could not use their own computers and it has to be in a controlled and supervised environment we haven’t quite yet gotten the logistics of pulling together and deploying enough computers for all of our 10,000 students on the same day at the same time.  But we will be working toward that.  This year, it’s mostly students with specific accommodations that will have the machines as well as students in certain sites that will be designated online sites.  The online administration will open up some new assessment methods and opportunities as well as make testing itself more secure and less prone to the sort of human errors and interventions that have cropped up in previous years.  And if we can get the deployment of thousands of machines down across the state, it might make our testing lives a lot easier.

The Mathematical Death March

26 Feb

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I hope my co-teacher doesn’t see this.  But in case she does, I’ll say here what I’ve already told her and the other pre-calc teacher with whom I share (virtual) classroom space: They do a superb job at teaching students and accommodating my lack of mathematical prowess.  They are amazing teachers, and the most wonderful co-teachers anyone could ask for.  They are top notch people who love students and love what they teach.  Which is to say, they love math.

I do not love math.  But I do give the math teachers that I have co-taught with high marks for moving me into a space where I don’t hate it.  Much.  This is high praise, considering where I started several years ago.  I have almost always hated math.  And most of my caseload students hate math as well as most of my fellow special education teachers.  Fleeing a math-intense curriculum is one reason many of us became special educators.  We loved teaching, and loved kids and some of us even loved science.  But we hated math.

I’m currently lobbying to create and sponsor a “I Hate Math” club for our school.  The idea is to have a club that is like a support group akin to those support groups for people having to go through chemotherapy.  We don’t like it, but we have to do it.  We have to endure, and we have to survive.  And we can do it much better if we do it together rather than fall apart.  We can become math survivors.

I’m pretty well qualified for such an endeavor because not only do I have a lot of anxiety, fear, loathing and anger toward the subject, I’m also somewhat compelled to be around it more than I would like.  Which is to say, almost all the time.  This describes a lot of the students I encounter in our schools and in my own family.  Outside of math teachers, engineers and a few other oddballs, I’m very hard pressed to to find people who really and truly like mathematics.  There are a few of us who like logical thinking and may enjoy an occasional mathematical puzzle (Sudoku anyone?) but when we start talking about calculating slope, synthetic division, imaginary numbers, cosines and radians we start entering that dark distasteful zone that begins putting people off.  It can even have many of the same symptoms as anxiety due to chemotherapy.  I’ve talked to students who became physically ill every day before entering their math classes.  Math phobia is a real thing to many, many students.

I like how a math educator, Dan Meyer, introduced his Ted Talk :

“I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.”

Almost every school teacher could identify to this on some level, but math teachers are especially vulnerable to being abused by students who hate their subject.  I might have abused a math teacher or two in my own way back in the day. And right now, wherever they are, they are having a wry smile at my expense.  I would never have predicted that I would be near a math classroom at any time after graduation and now I get to endure much of what my old math teachers did.

But for all my discomfort with the subject during my own middle and high school years, it is no where near what today’s students are being subjected to.

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The above is an image of the math curriculum for a school in another state, but closely matches what is in place in the state of Georgia and several other states.  By the time a student is in 11th or 12th grade, they are expected to be taking either pre-calculus or calculus.  For those of you with children in school, let that settle for a minute.  There is no alternate plan here.  This IS the state curriculum.

Recently, the state of Georgia did announce a change in its sequence that does offer a less daunting option and you can see the pdf here.  I will applaud a move in the right direction, especially for our students with disabilities.  However, Algebra II is still required in order to get a high school diploma in the state of Georgia. And where is consumer math?

While researching for this post, I looked for articles and discourse on this topic and found a dearth of articles addressing the question of whether or not we should be requiring every high school student to master Algebra II (let alone pre-calculus) in order to get a high school diploma.  The best one that I could find was a report issued by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) that issued a report looking at the requirements for admission into community colleges back in 2013.  They had this to say about the high school math curriculum currently being pushed by most states:

“Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so… Based on our data, one cannot make the case that high school graduates must be proficient in Algebra II to be ready for college and careers. The high school mathematics curriculum is now centered on the teaching of a sequence of courses leading to calculus that includes Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. However, fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the courses in this sequence in their college or in the workplace… they should not be required courses in our high schools. To require these courses in high school is to deny to many students the opportunity to graduate high school because they have not mastered a sequence of mathematics courses they will never need. In the face of these findings, the policy of requiring a passing score on an Algebra II exam for high school graduation simply cannot be justified.”

The odd thing about this report is that it is written in support of the Common core Curriculum which puts me in a very odd place.  I’m not a fan of the Common Core, largely for reasons that you can watch in this documentary on the subject.

I have experience with this on 3 different levels: as a person who is mathematically challenged, as a parent and as a teacher of students with disabilities.

As a person who was difficult to motivate during his middle school years, especially in the area of mathematics, I am very thankful I grew up when I did.  Namely that I was not required to master Algebra II in order to graduate high school or even college.  If that were the case, I would not have a college degree, let alone a Master’s degree, and it might be doubtful I would have gotten through high school.  I would have done what I see more and more of the students that I teach do: I would have quit.  I have no doubt in my mind that I would have taken this option.  I started out well enough, getting an ‘A’ in my first quarter of Algebra I.  Next Quarter I got a B, and then I got a ‘C’ and then I got a ‘D’.  In Geometry I started with a ‘B’ my first quarter, then a ‘C’ and then…well I finished the second semester with an ‘F’.  A lot of this was due to motivation, but in those days there was an option to make up that math credit by taking business math, which I did.  It was a class that was infinitely more fun and practical where I learned about amortization and interest rates and where I was the one to figure out how to program the school’s new Apple I computer to do my homework.  I loved computers back then and taught the thing how to calculate my interest homework.  Visicalc hadn’t been invented yet, or at least no one I knew had heard of it.

Now I have a son of my own who, unfortunately, has inherited his father’s rich loathing of math.  But he has a more determined mother than I did, and he’s probably going to finish with an ‘A’.  However that ‘A’ in Algebra I is probably taking 10 years off of my wife’s life in the form of all the frustration and the constant strife and battling.  He still has 3 more years to go and at this rate, I might need to put an extra life insurance policy on my wife.  At the very least, I’m going to be bound to staying in a job with good health insurance.

Like so many of my students, my son has modest goals for his future.  If he were 10 years younger, he would not even be on track for a regular education diploma much less doing and succeeding in algebra I.  In this way, inclusion has been a good thing for many students and does challenge and offer them a good education.  However the focus on college readiness is going to doom a lot of the students who have less determined or educated parents.  He could learn and be very good at a trade and really that’s all he wants to do.  He wants a good job that allows him to afford his appetite for all things having to do with model railroading.  However, there are very few vocational programs in high schools anymore.  The arts have also been marginalized because of the pressure generated by the testing culture.

The bottom line for many of our students is that the bar for a high school diploma has been raised to such an extent, especially with the math curriculum, that too many of them are not going to make it.  They will get discouraged and quit all because of a barrier that has been put in place needlessly.  According to the NCEE study, less than 5% of all students will require much more than  Algebra I in order to function well in their jobs and careers.

I’m currently engaged in a bit of a battle, trying to save as many of my students as possible, and enable them to reach that finish line.  They want to be mechanics, welders, seamstresses, healthcare workers, hair dressers, farmers and truck drivers.  These are all skilled positions and careers where they will need some additional post-secondary training.  But in order to get that they are faced with a stark and scary road that leads through Algebra II and possibly pre-calculus.  They struggle massively just to make it through coordinate algebra, which is even harder than the algebra that I had in 9th grade.  The pass rates on the End Of Course tests in math in the state of Georgia are absolutely dismal, with 60-70% of all students taking the exam failing it.  For students with disabilities, the failure rate is closer to 90%.  There is a provision for students with disabilities in Georgia to follow an alternate curriculum that can rescue them from the Algebra II trap.  However, there seems to be some question among some districts as to how to apply this, and some are very slow in applying it.  In the meantime, the river of students continues to flow through the system and many of them are opting out by dropping out.  Applying this rule fairly early on when it is obvious to the parents, the student, the teacher and the IEP team that this student will quit or fail school before succeeding in Algebra II can give them an early lifeline in helping to persevere through the rest of the courses.  Knowing that there is an end point that doesn’t have to end in a needless mathematical death march can help keep the doors open for many of our students.

A Few Words About Bullying

6 Oct

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It has been over a year since my last post, and I thought I would take a shot at a return to writing by tackling the subject of bullying since October is National Bullying Prevention Month.  At least a quarter of all the students in the school where I work are there because of bullying, including one in my own household.  I remember seeing him as he was writing on the whiteboard when one of his teachers asked the students why they had chosen this school and he wrote “NO BULLIES!”  I was a bit surprised.  While it was a persistent problem at his previous school, I had thought that they had taken care of the situation.  But apparently it was still foremost in his mind.  My oldest is not a perfect student, and there were times when his own behavior could be construed as bullying.  Although he would never actually resort to real violence, he would resort to a threatening tone often enough.

Bullying has been around since the first time kids ever got together and decided to ostracize one of their peers.  Kids seem to naturally gravitate toward that Lord-Of-The-Flies behavior and sometimes adults do too.  And anyone who has ever posted a YouTube video or even written a blog has experienced the cyber version of this, thanks to the anonymity afforded by the medium.  However, the internet’s community-building has also  created safer places for kids who might be different so they can bridge the gaps created by physical geography to connect and share unique interests with each other.  There’s never been a better time in history to be a nerd.  The internet was created by nerds for other nerds, and the rest of the population eventually jumped on the bandwagon and made it hip and cool and an environment almost as treacherous as the real playground.

I was bullied pretty relentlessly while I was in school.  I was not “tough”, I wasn’t a jock and I wasn’t cool, although heaven knows I really tried my best at all of those things.  Being socially awkward and not a member of the cool crowd carried (and probably still carries) a pretty heavy price tag in small-town America.  It gets even heavier when you move from one to another, and you have no established family ties in the area and everyone else seems to be related to each other.  And if you didn’t have the money for the coolest clothes, cars and consumer goods, you were were pretty much out of luck.  The town I spent most of my time growing up in, is actually now one of the most diverse communities in the state of Iowa; a state not known for its diversity.  And I imagine the natives that didn’t eventually flee from the area HATE it!  I believe God has a unique sense of humor and this is proof of it.  A place that was pretty intolerant in the 70’s and 80’s now has it’s economy pinned to its diversity.

However, regardless of how I was treated I still have to ask myself a more important question “Was I ever a bully?”

I certainly was not the guy shaking down others for their lunch money or terrorizing smaller kids on the school bus.  But I’m pretty sure I might have done some things that were unkind to people who were lower on the social ladder than I was, as low as that was.  The desire and pressure to fit in, be cool and be popular would eventually get the better of me.  Or rather, it allowed control by the worst of me.  If I thought that it would have advanced my own social position, yeah, I would have thrown a rock or two at Piggy.  I probably said the wrong things to people that hurt them at some point.  So the line between the bully and the victim is not so clearly drawn, and I think we all have some darker part of us capable of inflicting misery on others.  There’s always some degree of intolerance, no matter how tolerant we think we might be.  Sometimes we lash out at intolerance with more intolerance!

It’s rather ironic that October is devoted toward Bullying Prevention.  As we approach November elections we’re going to witness intense bullying in the form of electoral discourse across all forms of media as each party clubs the other with negative advertising designed to cause lots of repeated discomfort for the other side.  I’m just referencing the treatment given to the topic by the American Psychological Association:

Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.

The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to “cause” the bullying.

Individuals with autism are especially vulnerable to bullying.  The prevalence of bullying is so high against and among individuals on the autistic spectrum that I would almost make an argument that it is as much of a Aspergers marker as repetitive behaviors.  The articles I linked to give a good treatment of the problem within this community and hypothesize as to the reasons for it.   It’s part of the body of evidence that allows me to stake a modest part of ASD  real estate for myself.

I think the most crucial skill we can teach our kids, especially those who are prone to being bullied, is to recognize when they are being baited and to bypass the temptation to become engaged in a battle that can’t be won.  Most arguments regarding religion and politics fall within that category but almost any area of interest or passion can be used to draw a person into a situation where they feel the need to defend themselves from attack.  Most cyber bullies will use those things to troll and trap a victim into a relentless cycle of abuse and it’s important to know when it’s time to just walk out and not respond at all like Zelda did.

The internet and social media have turned into a double-edged sword for people who have difficulties relating socially.  The buffer of the keyboard often gives people the space for free expression and voice where they might otherwise not have one, but it also provides the sort of cover that can be harnessed by miscreants who like to ambush people and set them off for kicks.  I’m grateful to be part of a school that offers a relatively safe place for students to learn without the threats of physical assault, incessant teasing and the anxieties of not fitting in becoming a distraction to learning.  There are still distractions and cyber bullying can still happen, but in our virtual setting and environment we are able to keep tight controls within our virtual classrooms.  For the most part, the students are friendly and very supportive of each other as they often find that they share a common history of maltreatment from their traditional settings.  This explains why there was such a flurry of agreement and supportive comments in the chatbox fpr a message on the white board.  NO BULLIES!