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The Mathematical Death March

26 Feb


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.


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.

An Idea Worth Sharing: The Divided Brain

6 Nov

I thought this video was really interesting, not only in what the talk is about but also the way it was presented:

I’ve always been fascinated by how our brains function, and how it enables us to adapt.

The drawings add a lot of context but also a lot of humor that make this worth watching more than once because there is so much that will be missed with one viewing…at least for me who favors the narrow focus of things while often missing the broader contexts or things.

In a sense the lack of connections between the two hemispheres has left us slightly learning disabled, I think, hence my categorizing this under that heading as well as perhaps having consequences in the the world of interventions and therapy.

Interview Questions : Issues of Prejudice for Children with Disabilities

29 Sep

Every so often a student comes and needs to do an interview and for the most part I like doing them.  My only condition is that I am able to post the questions and answers on my blog, and I’ve yet to have anyone object to that.  So I recently got one about prejudices against students with disabilities.  I have written about these before, but maybe not quite this explicitly, so this gives me a chance to think about prejudice, discrimination and students with disabilities.

Thank you so much again for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions, and it would actually mean a lot to me if they were posted on your blog.

1. What are the challenges and difficulties that you experience and encounter when parenting children with mental disabilities?

Hmm…this is actually a harder question for me, because I don’t think of my oldest as having a mental disability as much as a behavioral disability with mental issues, namely as it relates to autism.  But that actually highlights the most pervasive problem which is the stigma attached to mental disabilities in general.  It doesn’t matter what term is used, sooner or later it will be used in a pejorative way.  “moron,” “idiot” and “imbecile” used to be clinical terms!

The challenges vary depending on the severity and pervasiveness of the disability.  It would be difficult to list all difficulties, whether it be accessibility issues to having to endure the abuses of a society that devalues people with disabilities to the day-to-day challenges of trying to do “normal” things that most people take for granted, like tying shoes or riding a bike.

2. What are the struggles, if any, that a child with a disability experiences on a daily basis?

The struggles that children with disabilities encounter on a daily basis varies of course, depending on what the disability is.  Some universal issues might deal with self-advocacy, where the person may need extra assistance or an accommodation.  If they assert themselves by asking for it, they are often labeled as a trouble maker or censored for asking for special treatment.  So many people often suffer with their disabilities in relative silence.  This is assuming the person even has the skills to advocate.  Communication is one of the most fundamental skills a person can have, and yet most disabilities have some sort of impact on communication either directly or indirectly.  Disabilities also have social consequences when it comes to making friends, being accepted and just being able to socialize in a way that others take for granted.

3. Have you ever prevented any prejudices from occurring against children with special needs?

Oh I wish I could!  The best I can do is to educate others about students with disabilities and point out that they are people, too.  They have things they like and dislike and may express their feelings in different ways.  And deep down, I think most people *want* to be seen as compassionate and caring people.  I think if one sees that as a basic truth “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” then giving people a chance to express that can help against mistreatment and abuse.  Prejudice is basically a symptom of intellectual laziness, so the task is to get people to think a bit deeper about whom they are judging against.  Not being prejudice requires a great deal of self reflection especially when it is deeply rooted in our own experiences and culture.  The biggest challenge for me and other advocates, is being prejudice against those whose primary disability is ignorance!  I would rather educate than have to confront.

4. If children do experience some sort of injustice against them, how do they usually react? Are they greatly affected by it?

A lot of children who suffer injustices tend to suffer in silence.  Sometimes being too outspoken can create a backlash and bring about even more injustice!  Those who choose to confront have to be willing to go all the way to the mat, and persevere in spite of that backlash.  So many behavioral problems we see in children with disabilities are a response to perceived injustices.  The level of effect varies of course depending on how well a child understands what is happening.  Children with milder disabilities who have a greater mental capacity do often suffer from depression and anxiety caused by the social consequences of their disability.  For for students that I teach, it is more subtle.  All my kids can tell who does and who does not like them, and they somehow gravitate toward those people and avoid the people who are afraid or indifferent.

5. Do children with special needs ever receive or get peculiar responses from other children?

Responses range from indifference to being compassionate to feeling sorry for the child with disabilities.  Much of it depends on how severe the disability is.  As a society, I think we’ve gotten better about how people with physical disabilities are treated.  Behavioral disabilities are a whole different matter, and reactions to students who scream, yell, holler,  bite themselves and hit themselves is mostly along some continuum of fear. BUT having said that, children are often better about dealing with it than the adults.  When I talk to students, they often simply want to have their questions answered about the disability and then they are mostly fine.  The adults take more convincing and I think it is because adults have their own schedules and agendas compared to students.  Those schedules and agendas are more easily disrupted by students with disabilities, hence more hostility and prejudice.

6. How can a person, like myself, make sure not to commit any prejudices accidentally against people with disabilities?

Don’t shrink.  By that, I mean don’t be so afraid of committing an act of prejudice that you avoid contact with people with disabilities altogether.  And remember that “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” applies to you too!  I make mistakes all the time and sometimes readers are good about pointing them out.  I take it, process and try to do better next time.  And those of us who are dealing with disabilities everyday probably have to be even more mindful of our thinking as it is sometimes more difficult to think of people as people rather than commodities or products.  There is a lot of cultural pressure to standardize our education system, and standardization and homogenization encourage prejudice by demanding everyone be the same.  Our kids are different by definition, so every attempt to make everyone the same automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

7. Finally, what. In your opinion, is the best way to spread disability awareness? What have you tried, besides writing in your blog?

The best way to spread disability awareness is the same way as spreading awareness of any other cause.  And that is to limit segregation and isolation.  One of the biggest challenges that we have had to face is the idea of inclusion and what it means.  Generally, including people with disabilities in the larger community is the best and most effective way to promote awareness and acceptance.  When we were out in the community for instruction, we were serving the students but we were also serving the good of the greater community by helping people be aware of these exceptional individuals.  It is very difficult to be seen as compassionate and caring when you don’t have anyone to be seen as compassionate and caring toward!  My blog provides me with a vehicle to talk about some of these issues, but I’m mostly preaching to the choir.  Most of you already are part of the disability community in some sense.   While I’m imparting a little knowledge I’m not doing as much for disability awareness as when I answer the questions people might have when they see my students.  People do watch me and those of us in the business, and I do have to be more mindful of that.  Other people will often take their cues as to how to respond to those with disabilities from those of us who do it everyday.  If we can remember to be caring and humane in our everyday dealings, that helps everyone else who is less familiar as well as makes life better for the students themselves.

Those are the questions, and if you feel like you want to add anything, of course feel free to do so. Once again thank you for giving me this opportunity!

Thanks for giving me the opportunity!  Doing interviews like this helps me think about what I’m doing in different ways as it provokes some thought and reflections on my own practice.  It also helps encourage me in that people actually care about what I’m saying here!

Assessing Students with Disabilities: Some Answers to Interview Questions

16 Jan

I have on several occasions gotten questions from graduate students who are taking classes for which they have to interview a special education teacher. The questions are rarely simple or at least I have problem answering them simply. So the price for answering graduate level essay questions on a Friday afternoon is that I blog them! So guess what Ms. M – consider yourself officially blogged! Hehehe!

These are questions about cognative impairments and assessment.  The school she is getting her degree from uses the term “Mental Retardation” or MR in the questions, but you’ll note that I generally avoid the “R” word in my answers in deference to those who are sensitive to that term.  We do use it as professionals among ourselves, but not as a pejorative as much as well-recognized descriptor and is shorter and easier to write than “Cognative impairment” or “Intellectual disability.”  Not everyone knows what “ID” means.
Keep in mind I’m doing this cold and flying without the net, a textbook or Wikipedia because that is how a face-to-face interview would be conducted. So if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me but no whinging on about it.  I’m not going anywhere to look this up, I’m just answering it as I see fit.  Your fitness will vary.  All other standard disclaimers apply….

#1 What in your professional opinion are the meanings of intelligence and adaptive behavior

Intelligence, to me, is indicated by a person’s ability to solve novel problems and navigate novel situations. While you cannot teach intelligence, you can help it grow by requiring its regular use. Intelligence is the ability to figure things out by pulling together reasoning, experience and observation.

Adaptive behavior is the application of more specific skills in navigating through daily life requirements. There are people with lower intelligence who can survive very well on the street, while your college professor would probably perish if he or she were require to live a week on the street. Adaptive behaviors can be learned and taught and that is a large part of what we do when teaching students with MR.  We can navigate many adaptive behaviors by following a script or series of steps.

#2 What problems are associated with assessing students with MR?

At my level, the problems are legion. This is why “pay for performance” and “accountability” break down so profoundly when we discuss teaching the population of students that I serve. First of all, my students do not produce anything. They are nonverbal and cannot read or write. So right off, that eliminates 99% of all the assessment tools currently used for high school students. Also keep in mind that my students have multiple impairments so they may be visually or hearing impaired. My students are decidedly nonstandard, so there are few if any standardized measures that would work. But even those with less severe impairments will work more slowly, require more support and generally do poorly under standard conditions.

Under any objective standardized scale of performance, my students regularly floor out. There are no high school assessments that give a score at an 11 month-old instructional level. Most simply don’t bother with a percentile less than 20%.

Finally, the fact is due to cognitive and sensory impairments, my students require thousands of trials to learn a single simple task. In one academic year, they MIGHT gain 1 month of learning in some area. I do not know of any initiative by any politician where this would be an acceptable gain. So the politics that drive current assessment practice further discriminate against the most severe students.

#3.What are the characteristics of the students with MR that result in eligibility for special education?

To simplify this, it is a combination of intelligence and adaptive behavior that causes them fall behind in their school achievement. This cannot be caused by a sensory impairment, a specific learning disability or a behavioral disorder and the onset must be prior to being school aged. For those with milder cognitive impairment, this would look like a broad form of a learning disability that is not specific to any one area. Those with specific learning disabilities and many with autism will have performance valleys and spikes, where they may be proficient in one area while being very weak in another. Cognitive impairment cuts across all learning, which is intelligence and adaptive behavior together, are important.

So how would one assess a student with a cognitive disability fairly and accurately? The answer to that is that it will take more than one tool to do it and over some span of time. It will not be easy or cheap. First off, you can use standardized intelligence tests providing they don’t floor out. You can also use adaptive behavior assessments and questionnaires. The questionnaires should be given to parents as well as teachers. Next, do some real-time observations of the student in the actual environment. And then look at actual work products and compare them with same-aged peers. All of these last measures should be done in several settings and across time in order assess the rate of progress. Assessment should always inform instruction, but in practice most of what passes as “accountability” and “performance” nowadays does not.

This is just my quick and dirty take on assessment of students with cognitive impairments so hopefully it helps with the degree as well as gets my readers thinking about assessment beyond the graduation test or CRCT.

Fitting Education to Students’ Needs

18 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Comments on the Supreme’s Ruling

25 Jun

Earlier this week, the SCOTUS made a ruling concerning special education and private tuition reimbursement.  you can get a quick summary from the Washington Post here.  You can also get a summary from the SCOTUS blog and read up on it in a couple of posts from Jim Gerle’s Law blog.  He’s also got a link to the pdf file of the decision slip.

I first want to correct the first line of the washington Post article:

Parents of children with disabilities may seek reimbursement for private school tuition even if they have never sent their children to public schools, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a decision with wide-ranging implications for Washington area school systems.

That is not necessarily the case.  Basically, this case involved a student who was entering high school and his parents were concerned about the student’s lack of academic success.  So they made a referral for services.  The school counselor did some testing and found that the student was not eligible for services.  As such, no IEP was written.  The parents were still concerned during the student’s 10th grade year but the student was still not deemed eligible for services according to school testing.  So the parents eventually obtained a diagnosis for learning disabilities and ADHD.  They withdrew him from his high school and placed him in a private school that specialized in providing services for students with LD and ADHD.  It was during this time that they began filing for due process against the school for failing to provide FAPE, and sought reimbursement for the private school tuition.

The student finished his junior year at the private school and graduated from there the following year in 2004.  Yeah, this case has been dragging on for six years! And for most of that time, the student was pressing the case forward since the parental rights trnasferred to him at 18.

The school argued that the law provides for the reimbursement for students who have already been served in special education for at least one year.  But this student was never served in special education.  The WaPo article leads the reader to believe that the student never attended the public school, but in fact he did for most of his school career.  But he never received special education services and never had an IEP.  One major argument given by the prevailing side in this case was the fact that a school district could easily avoid all special education costs by simply not identifying students, which clearly flies in the face of the intent of the IDEA.

The school district argued that having to reimburse tuition for students who never had received services and whose parents unilaterally put their child in a private school would place an undo burden on the system financially.  Private schools serving special ed. students are not cheap.  This one attended by this student was a residential school, so we could easily be talking over $100,000 for this one student.  So, yeah, the district is going to fight!

Will this result in bankrupting school budgets?  I doubt it.  Remember that by the time this thing settled, the student was probably graduated from college! The time and persistence in getting through all the legal proceedings routinely takes several years.  By the time this case got only to district court level, the student was already done with school.  But the school does have a case that parents might be more aggressive about pursuing their rights.  Given the time it takes to get resolution on a case like this, a parent needs to start early in order to be assured of getting their child needed services.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to be an attack dog on a school system because the culture of discrimination and prejudice runs so deep and is so pervasive.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the Atlanta Journal Constitution blog on the subject and read the comments.  Students with disabilities are routinely scapegoated in the comments, whether or not that is actually the topic on this blog.  They actually got off kind of light, here.

Another reason why the impact of this is going to be somewhat minimal is the simple matter of there not being very many private schools who are willing to take and cater to students with special needs.  Georgia already has a law that offers a $10,000 voucher/scholarship for any student that wants one and very few ever take advantage of it.  And you can simply forget about any of my students ever being included in anything like that.  The impact on my students and their parents because of this ruling is ZILCH because there is not a private school anywhere that is going to take them, even if parents wanted to take advantage of any scholarship.  And no private school would house a student through their 22nd birthday.

You’ll hear a lot of noise from both sides of this issue, but I think it’s mostly a zero-sum game.  Parents aren’t going to be able to get tuition reimbursements whenever they want.  Even if they did get a favorable decision, it would likely be several years and several thousands of dollars after their child started a private school.  A parent would need the means to afford the tuition well in advance of challenging a school district.  The district still has the upper hand, but with stakes a bit higher they have more of a reason to work with parents instead of blowing them off.

The RTI and POI procedures, if they are followed and implimented correctly will also head-off a lot of these sort of challenges.  These procedures were not widely implimented in 2003, if at all, so there is already a procedural safeguard with documentation that is built-in to the process.  Today, there would be more than just one test and a one-time procedure for getting additional help.  IF it is implimented.  That’s a big “if.”

I encourage anyone interested in special education law to read the case, as it isn’t often a special education case makes it in front of the Supremes.  I’m betting against this being a big decision that changes the game, but I could be wrong.

A Teacher Supply Problem

18 Jul

I like to try to recruit smart people into the Special education business as much as anyone else. We need more people, and we need smart people. At the same time, I’m a strong advocate of doing whatever I can to support teachers who are already in the business. This business with NCLB and alternate assessments has made that task a lot more difficult and has taken quite a lot of the heart out of any efforts I might make. It’s very difficult talking about bringing in new talent into a business that I’m not sure that I want to stay in.


That last sentence was a tough one to write.


Special education is a VERY tough business, no doubt. The attrition rate 3 years ago when I last saw the figures was a 50% turn-around within 5 years. Less than 3 years in some areas such as teaching those with emotional behavior disorders and those serving children with severe disabilities. And NCLB has probably increased those figures considerably. At this point, school districts are happy with any warm body, let alone someone who is reasonably competent and experienced.


For your reading pleasure, I direct you to an article from the news about New Hampshire trying to alleviate its shortage of special education teachers. Early on it is noted that no one had registered for the special education program at the University of New Hampshire for the last two years! No one. Not even one. There’s a bit of a problem here, isn’t there? NH’s solution is to offer reduced or free tuition for those enrolling in the UNH special education program funded by a federal grant. They are hoping to attract 20 new students this year and 20 more next year. So far they’ve accepted 6 applicants with 6 more saying that they plan on enrolling this fall. I wonder if they will make their goal.


Even if they do, there are some problems. First and foremost, this is like sticking a finger in the proverbial dike. With the attrition rate running as high as it is, 20 new teachers will not even come close to addressing New Hampshire’s needs.


Secondly, even with 50% off or free tuition, they are having trouble meeting their goal. Finally, with the “warm body” mentality running amok, there’s little controls or measures to make sure that the applicants they DO get are going to be competent enough to do the job. There may be unseen checks that were not written about in the article, but that is a substantial issue nation wide.


So what do I think should be done to ease the supply problem?


1. Untangle the mess that is the teacher supply-line. There are a myriad of ways a person can become a certified teacher, but state departments all too often put up silly road blocks such as the lack of reciprocity between states or requiring teachers take a course on their state history before giving them a certificate. Many of these hoops have nothing to do with teacher competence. Also, they are not always clear. People call the state DOE and get conflicting answers as to what they have to do to get certified.


2. Concentrate efforts at retention. I witnessed my own administration seemingly bent on running off teachers who were doing a decent job. Instead of offering more training and mentoring, they simply try to run off teachers who make mistakes. Okay, I’m against incompetence as much as anyone, but reasonable attempts should be made to train the people already warming those spots before cutting them loose.


3. Differential pay. Oh boy. This is a touchy issue, but right now there is a very steady migration of teachers out of special education and into other subject areas. Once a special education teacher gets highly qualified in a core subject, they say “Screw this!” and simply move over into a regular classroom. In contrast, the migration from regular education to special education is practically zero. Differential pay would help balance this migration problem as well as help with recruitment. Oh, and this pay differential should include para educators as well. It’s getting harder and harder to staff those positions as the requirements go up but the pay does not.


4. Produce a special pipeline that will help para educators get certified. This is where the grant money NH got could have been better spent. Paras often have years of experience already in the classroom with these students. They already know many of the ropes. They are already there and if they are willing, they’ll have a better idea of what they are in for than those walking in off the street. In fact, paras should be allowed to turn their para positions into paid internships for student teaching. With the current state of para pay, they are not likely able to afford the cost of higher education. Give these folks a helping hand and grow your own supply of competent experienced teachers.


5. Include in the supply pipeline an avenue for advancement to administrative positions. Administrative support is one of the single biggest issues in the retention of special educators. And more and more we find ourselves working under supervisors who are pretty clueless as what special education entails. This has such a direct bearing on competence and could help prevent many due process hearings. Time and again I have been in IEP meeting where the administrator who was acting as LEA knew little or nothing about IEP’s and special education law and then they said something absolutely stupid that pissed a parent off.


I think that’s a decent start. Any other ideas?





Dealing with Cruel Words

23 Mar

I was surfing around and came across this older post from California Teacher Guy (who is at this moment drinking a pilsner in some haufbrauhaus to help him get over his jet lag) that got me to thinking.

[WARNING: I’m not going to water this down so it might be ‘R’ rated for the potty talk.]

In that post, a fellow teacher refers to an EBD student as a “Piece of Shit.” Later on, he posts some advice given to him by others as to what he should do, including being a good example, watching a video tape and taking hidden camera footage.

I have only occasionally come across this attitude since working kids with severe intellectual disabilities. However, I know that it is out there. I also know the causes of it. I once had a similar attitude, myself.

Twenty years ago, I was teaching a regular education elective class at the high school level. Vocational agriculture to be exact. 20 years ago, colleges began changing their admission standards and tightening them up. They began requiring 2 years of a foreign language along with more core subjects which meant precious little space for electives. And this meant that I got very few college-bound kids in my agriculture classes. Who did I get? Us agriculture teachers had many names for them. Rum Dums. Sweat hogs. Dummies. Speds. We resented their presence mightily. I remember getting after a guidance counselor for steering students away who might actually want a career in agribusiness from taking my classes. I ended up sort of fleeing the situation by getting certified in general science, biology and chemistry. But I ended up at a school that boasted being able to teach kids with learning disabilities. And I kind of liked it. I was on the road to reform. I still had issues with student behaviors but I was learning to deal more proactively.

There are a couple of reasons why teachers dislike special education students as much as they do. The biggest one is ignorance. As an ag teacher, I had no idea what to do with these people and hadn’t received any instruction in dealing with kids with special needs. And yet, over half my class was made up of kids with some sort of disability and many of the others simply weren’t identified. The other reason is lack of support. When I had all of these students with special needs, I had no help or guidance as to what to do. I was on my own and since I was a brand new teacher, I was going to struggle no matter what. I met with a couple of special education teachers but some seemed more interested in piling more work on ME in having me fill out assorted checklists for evaluations. The end result was that I had very few fond feelings towards a group of students who needed a lot more support than I was capable of offering at that time. I don’t remember saying a student was a piece of shit, but I think I probably thought it more than once. My fellow agriculture teachers had every bit as much hostility as I did as this was not the sort of situation we had studied about in our college classes.

One could probably say that it was poetic justice and God kicked my ass for having such evil thoughts by placing me in the most special of the special education settings and by virtue of having a child of my own with exceptionalities. I had no choice but to become more educated. Being more educated about the people around us is the cure for a whole host of ignorant prejudices, and as educators that’s sort of what we’re called to do. We are fighting the war on ignorance.

People say all sorts of things without thinking. Anyone who would say something like that around me would be in for some sort of education with a fair amount of personal counseling to boot. That teacher was voicing her frustration, and it is wrong of her to take it out on the kids, but confronting her and being hostile isn’t going to improve her outlook at all. Getting her reprimanded will help neither her nor the students unless maybe she’s fired. But then you’re back where you started with the next ignoramus who decides to try to teach these challenging learners. So those who know have to educate those who don’t. It’s just part of my job, and I try to take a supportive role especially for the beleaguered vocational teachers who get the bulk of the exceptional students. So part of the answer is protect our students but also do so without being too harsh on teachers who say silly stupid things. Not that I haven’t jumped on a few, but the sad part of that is that those teachers I’ve gone after were special educators! Gah!


A Few Thoughts on Learning Disabilities

21 Mar

I do have some history with working with individuals with learning disabilities and even originally was going to get my master’s in teaching LD before ending up with my degree teaching EBD. 


The journey actually begins way back in high school with one of my best friends, Sean, who was classified LD.  I knew he might have been a little slow, but didn’t treat him as anything less than what he was; a good friend.  He and I both grew up milking cows and it would be fair to say he knew more about dairy cows than I did.  After high school he was engaged to be married, and when that fell through he moved to Georgia.  A few years later, I followed him down. Sean started out trying construction jobs but found he could do fast food work, with the help of an understanding store manager.  While he wasn’t too good on the register, he worked the back making sandwiches.  He eventually started his own business with pet and house sitting, making a good living at it.  He was best man at my wedding and now is married and in the pet sitting business with his new bride.  What Sean lacked in raw intellect he made up for with dependability, honesty and determination. 


I worked with him in fast food for a year or so, before landing a job at a private school that specialized in teaching kids with LD, ADD and dyslexia. It was a boarding school that also had day students.  It was a good place to get started as a young teacher, living and working at the same place.  None of the faculty were certified, most were pretty young and single.  It was a very expensive school that offered tutorial, co-tutorial and small group classes, along with very structured schedules.  Boarders had 2 hours of evening study halls before getting some free time.  It was rigorous, structured and individualized. 


The students were from pretty wealthy families, some from other countries.  Those who teach LD students know that they often have a repertoire of behaviors that are incompatible with academic success.  These kids were, in the words of one administrator, from the “golden ghettos.”  Their parents often spent little time with their kids, preferring to indulge them with material things rather than invest in meaningful discipline and interaction.  So in addition to being self-indulgent, the students also often had some emotional problems.


This was the early 1990’s, and the drug of choice was Ritalin.  Most of the boys were on it, and even a few of the girls.  The teaching we did was structured, but there was still enough room to be creative.  I taught physical science, chemistry and biology.  I quickly discovered that I was doing my best work with the slowest kids.  I really enjoyed working with them, and teaching these kids required a lot of patience, precision and self-discipline on my part.  But the hands-on creativity I employed paid dividends and my students consistently did well on their departmental exams. 


Despite the fact that each student paid $5000 for each hour of instruction each semester, teachers were not paid very well.  Of course, I did get a place to live and free meals, but I was still making less than many paraprofessionals.  I began to outgrow the place and yearned for more freedom.  In addition to teaching all day, I also did duties 2x per week at night and then one weekend per month.  During a typical week, I might put in 60 hours and up to 80 hours if I had weekend duty.  It was a good thing I was relatively young because it was a challenging pace to maintain for 3 years.  By the end of my 2nd year, I started thinking about getting my Master’s degree in special education. 


This is my way of introducing you to how I experience the world of LD.  As I said, LD students can be among the most fun and entertaining students to work with.  They are generally bright, but need help with organization, accountability and perseverence.  Many like to give up before they even start a challenging task.  My work involved simplifying the process and breaking tasks down into discrete steps that were easier to manage, and then gradually expand the tasks and expectation.  I managed to guide some fairly low kids through stoichiometry, balancing chemical equations, learning element names and symbols, learning the parts of the digestive tract, calculating work, force and energy.  And we had fun. 


So I naturally chose this population when starting on my master’s degree.  It was a professor who talked me into changing tracks to get into EBD.


Students are classified as having learning disabilities on the discrepancy model, meaning there is a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement of 2 standard deviations.  So with a mean of 100 and a SD of 15, a student scoring 100 on an I.Q. test and scoring 70 on a reading achievement test would have a reading disability.  Officially speaking, the discrepancy can not be accounted for on the basis of a sensory disability, such as being blind or deaf which is why hearing and vision screenings are part of the eligibility process.  This is all the official party line.  However, there are politics involved with the LD classification that exist no where else.


There are 3 mild disability classifications and eligibilities that make up 90% of all students enrolled in special education.  One is Emotional Behaviors (EBD).  The criteria for EBD also involves falling below the mean by 2 standard deviations along with other behavioral criteria.  However, no parent who is half-way savvy wants their child classified as EBD.  And if the parent fights hard enough, they can get it changed to something more socially acceptable.  Changed to what?


One possibility is Mildy Intellectually Disabled (MID) otherwise known as mildly retarded.  This, again, involves scoring 2 standard deviations below the mean on various assessments, including adaptive behavior.  But, again, not many savvy parents are keen to having their child labeled as being retarded, no matter how we try to disguise it as MID.


Which leaves LD as the single most popular of the milder eligibilities.  Being learning disabled is a lot less threatening than being emotionally disturbed, and not nearly as socially unacceptable as being retarded.  Plus, it works better with person-first language.  Most people are fairly understanding of someone with a learning disability.  They have less comfort with having a mild intellectual disability and certainly less than having an emotional or behavioral disturbance!


In my experience, there is a broad overlap between the mild disability eligibility areas.  It isn’t until you get a couple of self-contained classes side-by-side that the contrast comes more sharply into focus.


I was a long-term sub in a middle school EBD classroom who happened to have P.E. at the same time as the neighboring LD class.  I’ll never forget the kickball game where the EBD kids took on the LD kids.  Since I had kids who were skipping or in ISS, I only had 3 kids in the class who took on 10-12 kids in the LD class in a game of kickball.  I had misgivings, thinking it was hardly fair for the EBD kids who were outnumbered 4:1.  And I was partially right.  It wasn’t fair.

It was a massacre. 


The LD kids had many more difficulties with their fine and gross motor functioning, motor planning and were just generally more timid.  The EBD kids had no such physical limitations and were fearless in their aggressiveness.  That was the first time I had seen such a stark contrast between these two groups.  After 3 kids with LD kicked the ball and it was either caught or they were thrown out, the EBD kids went on to score 15 or so runs before us teachers said they had to give the other team a chance.  The kids with LD were up…3 up and 3 down.  We had to mangle some rules so they could give everyone a chance to kick the ball.  About 2 of the kids with LD made it to first base and none ever scored.  It was apparent to me that day that there was a lot more to the LD label than intellectual functioning.  There were sensory perception issues that went beyond simple reading comprehension or math calculation.  These were bright students who were not seeing the world the same way as most other people, or at least in a way that lent itself to winning a game of kickball against a team they outnumbered.

Keep in mind, these were self-contained students who represented the most “disabled” in their respective categories.  It is much more difficult to spot who is who among a group of resourced/mainstreamed students.  In fact, if you read the two articles cited below, there is some argument as to whether or not LD is a legitimate category of disability at all.


Over at Education Gadfly you can read another article on the LD classification in special education.  Hat tip to Liz who gives her own take here.


 Once I entered the world the severe and profound, such ambiguities and politics ceased to be factors.  Anyone can just look at my kids, and there is no question at all as to whether or not they are exceptional.  And I’m okay with that lack of ambiguity.





Re-Doing “A Special Education”

19 Mar

In a prior post, I did a small review of an excerpt of a book A Special Education by Dana Buchman. A couple of things have developed out of those few lines. One is that I happened to hear an interview with Ms. Buchman on the radio program The Satellite Sisters. As a parent, I could identify with much of what she has gone through in raising a child with learning disabilities. Ms. Buchman’s story, as she says, is a narrative of the emotions behind the journey.

The other thing that fell out of my little review was a comment from Ms. Buchman’s publicist offering me a free copy of the book as well as a copy of a book on autism by Stanley Greenspan. As much as I’d love to accept, I’ll have to decline those generous offers. If being anonymous wasn’t such a big deal for my blog, I’d be more tempted. I also still haven’t started reading my signed copy of Robert and Lynn Koegel’s book on pivotal response training!

Dr. Stanley Greenspan will get a post of his own in the future, especially if he gets some sort of buzz going.
From what I’ve gleaned from Ms. Buchman’s excerpt and interview (Nice publicity work, Ms. Warren!) her book will interest parents of young children with disabilities, and may even become a source of inspiration and courage for them. However, it’s important to note that Buchman was (and still is) a woman of considerable means when going through her experience. She could afford a private school, private therapies and interventions. The emotional journey she went through will be recognizable but other experiences may be less universal.

And then I did notice that Liz at I Speak of Dreams linked over and gave it some treatment. Or at least her commenters have. Go on over there and see what she and her readers think. That, as much as anything, prompted me to give a more thorough look at the topic. After doing still more reading on the topic than I ever intended to do, I have decided that Ms. Buchman isn’t quite the publicity hound I might have originally thought. In fact, proceeds from her book are being donated to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. You can read an interview NCLD did with her here. Okay, so I feel like a bit of a flake for snapping to such a quick judgment of a book I haven’t even read. Maybe that first chapter wasn’t the best one to feature, or maybe I have entirely too many personal biases to give her a fair and impartial treatment.