IEP Academic Goals: A Remnant of an Older Age?

7 Jan

At my job, tensions and stress are running high as we try to do everything perfectly for a state organization that has all but declared war on us. Having failed at the ballot box, they are trying to accomplish administratively what they could not get done politically. At least this is how it feels. The level of compliancy required of our special education department surpasses anything done in any other school in the state. And we have 66 days to get all 1000 IEPs perfect.

In my previous writings regarding goals and objectives, my experiences were with those students who were k-8 or those with more severe disabilities. Since changing to a more inclusive environment that makes up the vast majority of those receiving services in high school, my eyes have been opened. There are some glaring problems and inconsistencies in the process that extend far beyond my particular school or the students I serve.

With students who have severe disabilities, or in a self-contained setting the caseloads were relatively modest and I was their main teacher for most of the day. This made collecting data, making observations and writing effective goals relatively easy. Whats more, these students were following an alternate and adapted curriculum, so even if we were basing what we did on grade-level standards, we had a great deal of latitude in what was taught.

In a more typical high school setting, none of these things are true. The caseload sizes are larger, the students switch classrooms several times daily and may even switch their class schedules in mid year. On top of this, the caseload manager may or may not even have this student in one of their classes. All of these things make monitoring progress problematic.

However the standards-based curriculum has rendered traditional academic IEP goals and objectives almost useless and meaningless on the high school level. As a caseload manager I have absolutely no say in the curriculum of a student as it is dictated by the state. The graduation requirements are dictated by the state. The topics on the end of course tests (EOCTs) are dictated by the state. The amount that the test counts toward the final grade is dictated by the state. The type of diploma is dictated by the state. The scope, sequence, and the speed at which material must be covered is dictated by the test, which is dictated by the state.

You see the trend?

So the question is this: what can an IEP committee possibly write in the way of academic goals that are meaningful? We can write anything we wish, although we are admonished to make sure they are based on the state standards. The problem is that the goals that we write are worthless if they do not lead to a student passing a required course that gets them through the required exam that grants them the required credits in order to get the one college prep diploma offered by our state. The true measure of any IEP component is whether or not it gives the student access to the regular education curriculum in the least restrictive environment. At the present time, there are no academic goals that succeed in doing that. The dictated curriculum can not be modified nor can the passing score on the required exam be modified.

The frustration I’m feeling comes from the fact that we are being pushed and driven into writing progress reports over our academic goals. Suzie is a 9th grader who is struggling mightily in her algebra class. She struggles with algebraic concepts like positive and negative integers and multi-step problems. She is lost with anything involving fractions. And she feels absolutely hopeless when confronted by a word problem. Suzie is not alone as most of the students in her co-taught class struggle the same way. You may know some students like Suzie. YOU may be like Suzie! Oh, and this is Suzie’s second time taking algebra after failing it the first time.

In the old days, we had a lot of options in what we could do for Suzie. There were other math classes that were geared to business, career and consumer needs. Suzie would like to be a chef or a work in a restaurant after graduation. But the hopes for graduation start to fade as she is stuck and unable to pass algebra the second time around.

What academic goal could I write for her to help her get her diploma? I COULD write one relating to learning how to use a calculator, as that is a standard test condition. But what objective and goal do I write that will help her pass the class? And once I write that goal, how can I or another teacher support and monitor it?

The academic goals and objectives of every high school student in our state are already written in the standards. There is nothing an IEP committee can do to alter those. The best we could do is to perhaps pick a couple of general goals to monitor. But monitoring is already taking place in the form of benchmark assessments, tests and quizzes and instruction is altered on the basis of those formative assessments in order to pass the summative assessment of the EOCT.

I wrote my goals with fine precision, making sure they were SMART and were in line with both the standards and the needs of the students. Suzie struggles with multi-step problems, which is a pretty consistent thread throughout any of the math classes. So my goal is “Suzie will independently solve an array of multi-step equations, using her calculator, scoring at least 75% on 3 consecutive trials.”

It is a wonderfully concise goal and designed for easy monitoring. I could give Suzie an array of problems at least 3 times and see if she can pass my little quiz. OR, more likely, I am going to look in the grade book to see if she has passed 3 consecutive quizzes. If she can do it 3 consecutive times, I’m pretty confident of mastery. If she can’t I am going to figure out why and see if there are any accommodations I can offer to help her. But what of she can’t do more than 2 in a row? Ever?

Do I lower the bar on the goal? Do I change the goal to something she might be able to master? This is how this game ends up being played, as there is some pressure to show mastery of goals. But even if Suzie has mastered 100% of her IEP objectives, if she does not pass her algebra EOCT, she is in for a third round or how ever many rounds until she either passes it or drops out. So where should I, as a teacher, devote my limited time? Should I monitor her and the other 25 students on my caseload more often and give them more quizzes or should I spend more time trying to teach them and help them pass the quizzes and tests they are already assigned? Do I help them by making MORE work for both them and me in order to get data for the IEP or do I devote myself to getting them through the class so they can get a diploma?

Unfortunately, there are no diplomas for mastered IEP objectives. There are no credits toward graduation that can be earned through mastering IEP goals. EOCTs are not tailored to the current functioning of a student who has a disability. Individual Education Programs can address student supports, but they can not touch the requirements of getting a diploma as those apply to everyone, regardless of need, disability, aspirations or aptitude. Academic goals at the high school level are not worth the time it takes to write one let alone the time spent trying to track them individually. The academic goals at the high school are very explicit and clearly spelled out in the state standards. Everything written in the IEP should be geared to accessing and mastering those standards if that is what our schools have turned in to. We don’t need extra academic goals to track unless the state is going to award some credit for students mastering them.

I don’t mind extra work and effort if it is for something that is worthwhile and produces some results. But the standardization of the curriculum, diploma and tests works against our kids who are by definition nonstandard. We are trying to fit square pegs into round holes here. Our kids are not stupid. They are often creative and brilliant in very nonstandard ways. We do nothing to honor creativity by wringing it out of them by our insistence upon the standardization of our educational system. We are going to have to find creative ways to facilitate and reward their brilliance and creativity while addressing their strengths as well as weaknesses.

I suppose that is why I am bothered and overwhelmed by the task at hand. It requires me to pigeon hole my kids into categories and then justify why they are not fitting into a system that was not built for them. While our school does its best to offer individualized and engaging ways to meet the needs of our students, we are hamstrung by a system that punishes nonstandard ways of doing things. The state wants to rig the game so they can point at us and say “SEE?!? You can not possibly meet the needs of these students in your setting!” Never mind that it isn’t working in the other settings any better. We’re a nontraditional setting, teaching nontraditional students in a nontraditional way. The measures and systems designed to measure us were designed for and by those married to the old system. We exist because there are those looking for ways to escape and flee the old way of doing things. They are refugees from places where they previously did not fit and did not thrive. And now those old forces are marshaling their influence and position in order to make sure no one thrives here, either.

Sir Ken Robinson is carrying the message. Am I the only one for whom this resonates?

You need to learn more about autism so you don’t judge me!

27 Dec

I remember my oldest when he couldn’t talk.  He finally started to talk when he was about 3 years old, after a lot of intense therapy done be various SLP’s, including a few working through Georgia State’s “Toddler’s Project.”  It’s only been a few years since they stopped tracking him and his progress, but I’m sure he was one of their success stories, combining AAC with various behavioral techniques.

Now we have a hard time keeping him quiet.  Back in the day, his meltdowns would be seriously long and loud crying jags that might even include him hitting himself.  The a couple of years ago, there was a lot of self-negativity as he felt awful about himself.  Some of it was actually amusing as he took responsibility for the sinking of the Titanic and the Cretaceous period extinction event.  During each stage, we always wondered what was next.  He’s almost 14 and has been going through full-blown puberty and teenage angst.  It can be a frightful thing for even the parents of the most typical children.  For those who have children with autism it is even ore perilous as so many things become magnified with adolescence.  The academic and social expectations go through the roof during middle school.

Just lately I have noticed a new trend with his meltdowns, which happen most often when we as parents put demands on him or reprimand him for doing something he should not be doing.  “OH!  You’re just discriminating against me because I have autism!” or “You hate me because I have autism!” or “You need to learn more about autism so you don’t judge me!”  He’s usually saying this while pulling at his own hair.

It’s kind of an astounding evolution in thinking and language.  But I do have to hand it to him: he is learning how to advocate for himself.  Back when he couldn’t talk, I would have never dreamed we would get to this place.  Even though the tantrums are not pleasant and even though when he gets to this point he doesn’t listen to anything anyone says, it is still movement forward.

We’re fortunate that he knew how to read before he could talk.  He always loved books and reading to him was actually something that was soothing and calming to him.  So when he was in 1st grade or so, we got him a book about someone who had a friend named Sam.  It kinda helped that he had someone close in the family named Sam.  We got it so maybe his own classmates might be able to relate to him better and it wasn’t long before he was reading it himself.  We never really tried to hide autism and what it was from him.  I do know parents that do that, in the name of trying to protect the kids from labeling themselves.  But kids do that anyway, even if they don’t know what exactly the label is.  Different.  Weird.  Dork. Nerd. Outcast. Freak. Geek. Retard.   Whatever you want to call it, kids will label themselves and each other.  I know parents who quit going on the annual autism walks because the kids were starting to ask questions about autism and why they were walking.

The latest book his mother got for him is Ellen Sabin’s Autism Acceptance Book.  He’s had that for a few years but now it seems to be sinking in that he is different.  The fact that he is using the label to kind of try to guilt us as parents seems to indicate that he is beginning to differentiate himself.  This is not a bad thing, even though it seems like he lashes out with it at the worst times.  He’s establishing an identity and autism is part of it.  It is part of who he is, and he isn’t trying to dodge this fact of his life.  In fact, he is kind of embracing it.  He can tell you that talking to yourself can be part of autism.  Being sensitive to sound can be part of autism.  He is getting to a point where he can articulate what is going on with him and is becoming more okay with it.  He’s not there yet.  EVERY teenager struggles with doubt and insecurity and finding a place to belong.  He’s trying to discover his own autonomy and identity and is gradually getting a handle on things.  Gradually.

I think the best way to help a child who has the ability to grasp the idea, is to be honest with them in all things.  And to accept them for being the individuals that they are.  We can all dream of there being some sort of cure, but that dream doesn’t help my son today.  It doesn’t help him with his schoolwork, his desire to fit in or to develop his own dreams for the future.  And by the time there is a cure, would he even want it?  He’s incorporating this into who he is and it looks to me like he is staking his claim on his own little piece of the universe.  It just happens to include autism.  I tried to search for “Autism Power” and all I saw were images, slogans and sights dedicated to “recovery”.  Unlike “Deaf Power” which returns all sorts of sites dedicated to the belief that deafness is only a disability because hearing people make it that way.  There’s a few images referring to Autism as a superpower, but I’m not sure I like that message either.

This (among other reasons)  is why I love the good folks on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog.  Autistics are beginning to take up their own cause for advocacy and are actually offering a lot of hope for people like my son.  The dialog is less on the horrible-ness of the disease and how hopeless it is, toward a more positive message of acceptance and that things ARE doable.  I see this as one of the major civil rights shifts of our day.  And if the numbers (1 in 88 births) are any indication, then we can expect a lot more voices demanding their right to exist.  Expect to see “Autistic and Proud” on a shirt or button near you.

The Truth About charter Schools: Teachers

30 Oct

 

It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

 

Steve Jobs in a 2005 commencement address to Stanford students

 

One of the lost stories in the controversy around charter schools is the stories of teachers. We hear about parents and students who end up doing battle against some sort of administrative body trying to start a charter school or trying to get into one. Or there is the corporation trying to start a school for profit. Or a local district trying to stop them.

 

In the middle we have teachers. And I’m ashamed to say we are often at odds with one another on this subject. Many of my fellow teachers don’t hate me for what I do so much as where I do it. Perhaps they think I have sold my soul to the corporate devil. I do not fully understand why I and my school are disliked so much, but we are. Public school teachers seem to generally oppose charter schools because we are seen as robbing the public treasury of money that should rightly go to them.

 

Full public disclosure: I currently teach in the largest charter school in the state of Georgia which is affiliated with the largest virtual public charter school in the country. I DO have skin in the game when it comes to how charter schools fare in the upcoming election.

 

Prior to coming to this school, I have taught in a variety of settings, traditional and not so traditional. I taught at small public schools and large ones. I taught in a residential private boarding school and then later at a residential hospital. I also taught in the state psychoed network. But over half my career of nearly 20 years has been in a traditional brick and mortar setting. Most of this blog was written while in that setting, albeit teaching mostly nontraditional students.

 

But I did get to a point where I was no longer willing to settle and wanted something different. So I resigned out with the idea of reapplying and effecting a transfer that I was unable to get any other way. I asked for several years and the answer was always the same: “We’ll let you transfer when we can find someone to replace you.” But they never looked for anyone to replace me!

 

The result was that I was out, very much like Steve Jobs when he got fired from Apple. I spent the next 2 years trying to get back into a field where I had formerly occupied the top of my game. I had a 100% pass rate on my GAAs every year I ever did them. I proved myself over and over in long-term substitute positions and had administrators who were interested in me. But the board office was not. I was branded for trying to take control of my own destiny.

 

I was not proud of going on food stamps, and was plagued by self-doubt. I still loved teaching but no longer felt like this business had any use for me. Perhaps it was time to go back to the farm in Iowa and forget about teaching.

 

But I held out, hoping that the speech Steve Jobs gave might one day be something I could also say.

 

Yes, life hit me with a brick. But I can honestly say that through the loss, I managed to find life again. I’m passionate about reaching out to kids again. I’m passionate about helping the parents of kids again. Actually, it was always my passion, but I just needed to rediscover it. And the virtual academy has helped me do that. I love what I am doing, and think of it as great work. I have never been a traditional teacher of traditional students. I am an oddball, an out-lier, a nerd, a geek and a misfit in so many ways. But the kids I reach out to are also feeling those feelings and need a hand that will not judge or bully them. They need to relate to someone who is like them and for a lot of them that someone is me.

 

The traditional brick and mortar setting works for many ‘traditional typical kids.’ But it is very unyielding and even cruel to those who do not fit the traditional or typical mold. This is equally true of teachers. Those of us who are nontraditional often come up against stiff opposition from traditionalists. It has always been the case throughout educational history that the industry has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into more modern methods and technology. Much of the opposition to me being rehired in my county was because of the fact that I had a blog. THIS blog. They hated the fact that a teacher could write and publish their own material free of their ability to control or censor it.

 

Any administrator or school board member can have their own blog if they want. But instead of joining the conversation, they want to shut down everyone, so that no one has a voice. And I am not a good fit for that sort of atmosphere. And I am not the only teacher who is not a good fit for stiff and inflexible working conditions.

 

Schools like my school become a haven for teachers like me who are otherwise nerdy misfits who will never coach a football, basketball or soccer team. I didn’t fully realize just how well fitted I was for this job until my mom asked me questions like “Don’t you get tired of being on the computer all day?” or “Don’t you start to feel closed in and get a little stir crazy?” No and no. I don’t mind it because I am, in fact, reaching out continuously and touching students and families where they live, no matter where in the state they reside. I had never heard of Grovetown, Georgia until I talked to a student and parent that lived there.

 

I am where I am meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. I’m helping students and their families get the best education that I possibly can give them. I am making a difference. I am passionate about what I do.

 

I’m not kicking dirt on my fellow teachers in traditional settings who are passionate about what THEY do. So I find it hard to understand why the opposite might be true. My former traditional school system turned their back on me for the sake of petty politics, and yet opponents of the Charter School Amendment are trying to scare people into voting against it with the claim that a charter school commission would be a purely political body. For 11 years such a commission approved charter schools in the state of Georgia including the one I work for now. It was not until a group of school districts, among them Gwinnett County, Dekalb County and Atlanta Public Schools filed their lawsuit, costing their districts in excess of $300, 000 did the State court overturn the constitutionality of the commission in a 4-3 decision. These 3 districts are the epitome of political hubris and nepotism that stifles the educational creativity and achievement that we need to get Georgia’s educational system out of the national gutter. But they claim the the commission is too political.

 

I’ve seen and personally experienced the hurt and damage inflicted by the nepotism of the local community school district. My fellow teachers know it exists and live in fear of it. Everyone knew what was happening but no one could do anything about it. They couldn’t even talk about it because some unelected person sitting in the board office had friends and relatives who were waiting to take their jobs irregardless of qualifications or merit.

 

In a charter school, parental and student satisfaction matter. They do not HAVE to be there. The local control exercised by the parents in their own homes with their own families can be exercised at any time. They do not have to appeal to a board member who gets elected once every 4 years to exercise the right to vote with their feet. I feel some obligation to honor those parents who choose to stick with me for the year and do the best that I can for them. I think all of my fellow teachers are committed to the kids they teach in the same way. We are born into it, and feel joy in doing what we feel is an important work.

 

All of the teachers I teach with are just as committed as our traditional counterparts. We are all certified and highly qualified, many with advanced degrees. We like what we do. We chose to be here. If you are a teacher, you don’t have to settle. There are other places and options where you can discover and exercise your passion for teaching. I highly recommend that you consider keeping as many of those options open as you can for yourselves as well as for other teachers like me.

The Truth About Charter Schools: Funding and Local Control

27 Oct

In the interest of disclosure, I do work for the largest charter school in the state of Georgia. My views do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer and should not be construed to reflect any other opinion other than my own. But I’m trying to present mostly facts here to educate those who might seek more knowledge before they make any decisions.

There is an election coming up, in case you might not have heard or have missed it. In the state of Georgia, neither of the presidential candidates have spent much time or money here, and neither state senator is up for re-election so it has been comparatively quiet here. Except for one issue: The State Charter School Amendment.

You can read the entirety of the legislation here. It’s barely over 2 pages long. In a week or so, the people of Georgia will cast their vote on this question:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local

approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” YES NO

That’s it. That’s all there is.

The Georgia school districts and the state Superintendent of Education have campaigned relentlessly against this amendment. I was going to link to the Boards of Education who have come out against the amendment, but instead I’ll link you to the school boards that I know of who have supported it:

[….sounds of crickets…]

Well, that was nice. If anyone knows of any public county or city school system that has voiced approval for the amendment, please let me know!

I will link to one BOE’s resolution here.

I actually agree with over half of of the preambular clauses of this resolution. I agree that education is important and that public education is critical to the future of our community, nation and state. I linked in an earlier article to Condolezza Rice talking about education as a national security issue and the civil rights issue of our times. I also know the reality of education funding, and the squeeze it has put on districts. Districts in the state are repeatedly being asked to do more with less.

And so, the districts across the state opine that state funded charter schools will divert money away from the local school districts thereby impoverishing them even more. But is this true?

Most of the funding for traditional public schools come from the local property taxes. There have been many efforts to reform how money is raised to pay for education but no one has succeeded in changing it and so property owners foot most of the bill for their local district expenses in education. The meltdown of the real estate market during the current recession put most districts in Georgia in a state of crisis as property values plummeted and tax revenues followed. But everyone who owns property still pays taxes on the assessed value whether they have children that go to the school or not. The only way I can escape paying my property taxes is to sell my property.

In the state of Georgia, the average district spends about $9,000 per student. And roughly $4,000 of those dollars come from the state. The other $5,000 comes from taxpayers of that district. If a student moves from one district to another, the state money follows that student while the local money stays. But when a school district is so bad that families begin moving out in en mass, then property values suffer and the district’s revenues suffer as well. Wherever the student moves, the state still recognizes its obligation to educate him or her.

So what affect does the charter school amendment have on this funding dynamic? If it is a charter school established and supported by the local school board, things don’t change much at all. The board still does the oversight of funds, same as usual according to the school’s charter.

However if it is a state charter school, then it is written in the bill that the state would fund it and not the local district.

So if Thomas is attending a regular school and withdraws to attend the school I work for, then the school district does indeed lose about 4,000 state dollars that go to my state funded charter school. However the remaining 5,000 local dollars are distributed among the remaining students to be used as the local board sees fit. In addition, since my school does not require students to leave their home towns or counties, the family continues to reside there and pay their taxes as normal. Thomas does not have to move to find a school that better works for him, and the district actually gains $5,000 as it no longer has to educate a student that was probably unhappy there anyway.

So the district’s argument that they lose money because of public charter schools is simply not true. Local school superintendents would have you believe that public charter schools are gigantic leeches on the backs of already beleaguered traditional schools. But this is untrue, and the only thing the Charter School Amendment does in regards to funding is to guarantee that local districts get to keep their local money. This amendment actually protects them and the majority of their funds!

The other club that districts are using against this amendment is that of taking away local control from local school boards. This is probably closer to the truth behind the popular opposition to this initiative. And when I first heard about this amendment, I was thinking much the same way. It was the state, taking money away from me, and establishing schools that my local school board did not want over their objections. It certainly smells like Atlanta butting in where it isn’t wanted, doesn’t it?

But the fact of the matter is much different. Charter schools are not initiated by the state. They are initiated by concerned parents of children who want to be served in a different way than the traditional schools are able or willing to do. So the first step is to petition the local board to establish a charter school. In the current climate, you can see that there is not going to be much sympathy toward such parents in these districts. So then they petition on the state level to the state Board of Education. Again, our beloved State Superintendent of Education has stated his mind in regards to charter schools. So where can families go now? Some of them are pulling up the stakes and leaving. Some of them are homeschooling. And some try private schooling. But remember the preambular statements in the above resolution? Public education is important, and parents ARE willing to make enormous sacrifices for their children to obtain a decent chance.

Local school boards are NOT the lowest level of local control. The most local control of all is in our own houses at our own kitchen tables. Families all over the state exercise their most fundamental right to local control and self governance when they decide how their children should be educated. What this amendment does is help to give parents an option; an avenue of control that is apart and distinct from that of the local board of education.

The 180 schools systems in Georgia are not ALL bad, but several of them seem to have distinguished themselves as being sub par. Many of the school boards seem to have proven out Mark Twain when he said “God made the idiot for practice and then He made school boards.” Just what is a parent supposed to do in such circumstance? Surely they can vote, but in the meantime their children still need to get educated.

Charter schools would not exist at all if no one wanted them. These same school officials speaking out against this amendment are the very ones who have helped create the demand for them, and yet want to cut off that option from parents.

The fact is that this amendment recognizes the right of charter schools to exist and the right of the state to fund them while protecting the local funds from being used to fund them. If parents don’t like a charter school, they do not have to send their kids there. Parents can and will vote with their feet. And this is precisely what local districts are afraid of. They are of afraid of the state taking control away from them, they are afraid of parents taking control way from them by opting out of their own systems. If the status quo is allowed to continue, districts will continue to deny opportunities for parents and students, and keep them bound to the same system.

In my previous article I pointed out why many of the students that I teach are ill-served by the present system. Public charter schools provide them the opportunity to continue their education while remaining in their home communities.

Voters who are concerned about this topic should vote their conscious, and make a decision based on the facts, not on the series of fictions and fears currently being publicized. Do not be swayed by Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: FUD. Be informed and be proactive. People need facts, not FUD. Read the bill as it is written, and make your decision based on whether it is something you agree with or not, not because of what I say or because of what your district superintendent says. Sure, I definitely have an interest in keeping my job, but I also have an interest in the students that I teach and their families. Shutting down state charter schools may make life easier for 180 superintendents who no longer have to compete with us, but it will not help the students that I teach who DO have to compete with the rest of the world.

Note:I saw this AFTER I had already written my piece. If you would like to see a debate on the issue, you can watch it here. My favorite quote is by Supt. Wilbanks “Parental choice is an issue that is overplayed.”

The Truth About Charter Schools: The Students

14 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Myths About Charter Schools

11 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are charter school authorizers in Georgia?

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

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

Moving on:

Myth: Charter Schools Are More Innovative and Flexible

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

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

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

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

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

Due diligence, Mr. Jones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Charter Schools Are Public Schools

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

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

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

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

Myth: Charters Serve All Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Charter Schools Increase Student Achievement

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

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

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

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

 

Myth: Charters Will Expand Choice and Create Competition 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals and Objectives Part 2:The Tyranny of 80 Percent

11 Aug

 

I need to write this to get it out of my system, despite the fact that I have a mountain of tasks that need to be accomplished before Monday. A major portion of my task list revolves around IEP goals and objectives.

 

One of the amazing things I discovered when I wrote my blog post back in 2006* about IEP goals and objectives (which later became published as part of a collection of articles in book form) was the level of concern parents have about this topic. As teachers, we have to write them and are supposed to be tracking them, because it is the law and best practice. However it always seemed parents were more anxious to talk about placement rather than spend much time on goals and objectives. However that article continues to be the most read post I have ever published, getting almost 28,000 hits out of 350,000 all-time views, plus it is read at the TPGTA website as well as many liking and reading it in the book. The message is clear: parents are intensely interested in this topic. Therefore, we owe it to them as well as to ourselves as teachers to get it right.

 

To their credit, the folks I am currently working with have revised their goals and objectives to be much better and pretty much follow the guidelines that I set up in that article. They are actually the best goals I have ever seen written as a an entire school. They get it…sort of.

 

As I started looking at my caseload and preparing to track the goals, the shortcomings of the 80% criteria mastery became more and more glaring and disturbed me more and more. While the goals were better written and more measurable, it was going to be an absolutely oppressive task to decipher, measure and track all of these goals for literally hundreds of students. We need to do better.

 

Somewhere along the line, 80% became this mysteriously magical number. To be sure, it is better than 60, 70 or even 75%. But in real life, our tolerance for 80% is low to negligible.

 

What if your employer offered to pay you 80% of your agreed salary 80% of the time? Would you accept that?

What if your car only started 80% of the time? Would that be acceptable?

What if 1 out of every 5 planes crashed while taking off?

Do you feed your children 80% of the time?

Do you think the government is going to accept you paying your taxes 80% of the time?

Which appliances do you want to perform on demand 80% of the time?

In which store would you shop at where you have an 80% chance that the merchandise you bought will be what is inside the box?

 

The 80% criteria is the criterion of mediocrity. There ARE times when it may be appropriate but they are few and far between for most busy special education teachers. Even moreso for parents who might be responsible for tracking some of these things.

 

Here is a goal I saw today (Name changed, but I think it might have actually been an example for how to write a goal):

 

“ Given instruction Wilma will increase her words per minute (WPM) to 100 by the end of the school year” The criteria was 80%

 

That was the objective, and it is pretty straight forward. It fits the SMART definition: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited. But there are still niggling problems.

 

Is she already reading 80 WPM? Is she going to read 100 words and miss 20% of them? Increasing reading rate is certainly a worthwhile goal. And if reading 100 WPM is worthwhile, why are we satisfied with 80% ? Why not 100%?

 

And this is where I have gotten LOT of resistance from colleagues, present and past. “100 PERCENT! OMG! **I** don’t do anything 100% of the time or with 100 percent accuracy! I would hate for anyone to expect me to be perfect 100% of the time!”

 

It is true that we are flawed human beings and prone to error. But when we take a plane, we expect to arrive at the correct terminal 100% of the time and have our luggage arrive at the same place 100% of the time. If it does not happen the way it is supposed to, we get mighty cranky and demand that things be fixed and made right.

 

While our students are as flawed as any of us, the assumption is that they are somehow more badly broken. Only a broken toaster would perform at 80%. Only a broken car would start 80% of the time. Only if we think a thing is broken and we have no intention of fixing it do we accept 80% as a criteria for performance. We need to change our thinking.

 

If the child is reading 80 WPM, and our goal is to get them reading at 100 WPM, then that needs to be the goal. And the criteria needs to be 100%. They either read 100 words correctly in a minute or they don’t. However, when we write the goals, we need to set proper conditions:

 

“Given one trial per day, Wilma will read 100 WPM for 3 consecutive days.” Criteria = 100%

 

Is Wilma expected to be perfect all the time? No. But given the deliberate and planned nature of a trial, I am pretty confident of her mastery if she can be perfect 3 times in a row. THAT, my friends, is a much better picture of true mastery. Yes, there will be the occasional plane crash, but most of the time, thankfully, things go exactly as planned. Sure, there are delays but the main goal is arriving at the destination. And even with how common delays are, we are not necessarily happy when they occur. So should it be with our goals and objectives.

 

While my thinking on goals is evolving, let’s try another goal:

“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work over 4 of 5 opportunities”

 

This goal is way better than most goals on the subject of handing in homework. Again, it is SMART. At least it does not have the onerous 80%, right?

 

Welll…it is actually not-so-cleverly couched within that criteria. It is a major improvement over “Handing in his homework on time with 80% accuracy” but it still has some brokenness and failure built into it. Why did we say 4 of 5? Why not just 5? Will Fred be capable of handing in 5 assignments over 5 opportunities this year or not? If he is, then why do we settle for 4? If he is not, then why are we making ourselves track 5 data points that he will never hit? Again, we need to strive for consistency in performance that indicates mastery. If we want him to turn in 4 assignments in a row over 4 days, then that should be the goal. And the expectation is that he will be able to hit 4 days in a row without a miss. “4 of 5” is actually like saying “3 in a row” because there is no possible way to hit 4 of 5 with being able to hit at least 3 consecutive times. It’s mathematically impossible. If you miss once, you are out after the second miss. This is why I often will truncate my objectives and do 3 consecutive trials with 100%.

 

So: Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work, on time, 3 consecutive times” Criteria = 100%

 

Now this is a behavoral issue. Fred is a smart guy, and he will master this objective in the very first week as it is written, You grade his first 3 worksheets and they are turned in on time but they are all blank! Or he rushes through them and scores a 50. THIS is where the 80% can come into play:

“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work on time 3 times in a row scoring 80% or better. Criteria = 100%” If Fred has academic problems we might say 70%, but we are making sure he actually passes the work he turns in. He does not have to be perfect in the academics, but he DOES have to demonstrate mastery on the behavioral part. If he misses just once, we reset the clock, give some additional support, and try again. We can track academics in a separate goal.

 

“Trials” v “Opportunities”

Our students have many, many opportunities to read, write and complete tasks, but we are not going to track and measure each one. We are going to set specific conditions when we measure progress. This deliberate and planned setting of an antecedent gives rise to a trial, which demands a response or behavior. This is the most fundamental component of instruction. We give a cue, they respond and we give feedback in the form of comments, a grade or even a reward. We certainly want our kids to generalize across settings, and this should happen once the task is mastered. We plan to test and teach Wilma to read 100 WPM, and we want this to carry over to when she reads social studies or science. But she has to master the target under the best of conditions before we go into other areas. A trial optimizes those conditions. An “opportunity” simply looks more haphazard. Most teachers use “opportunities” when they mean “trials”. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. With the huge number of goals a teacher has to manage with a caseload of 26 students, we can not afford to be haphazard. And since someone else might end up tracking the objective or goal you are writing, it is simply more humane to make the goals as easily trackable as possible. We need to stop abusing our colleagues with poorly written goals that require a math degree and several hours to track.

 

Let me give one more reason to make our goals easier. They need to be understood by parents and the students. Unless you are prepared to make a graph, you need to shy away from partial and broken goals. Almost 90% of my students struggle with math, and parents and and special educators do not vary substantially from that. Otherwise we would all be math teachers! Everyone understands 100% mastery and know it when they see it. This is especially true for behavioral goals but is just as true for many academic goals. Stick with making the goals more simple and achievable. Almost any goal can be manipulated into a 100% mastery criteria. Any parent will be able to understand and know when it is achieved and so will most students. Many of my students are gamers and they have a better understanding of striving for mastery than many adults. They understand the concept of questing and mastering a series of objectives is a sort of quest. We set our kids on it and when they complete one quest, we give them a new, more challenging one. But if they don’t understand the quest or know when it is completed, they quickly lose interest in the game.

 

So when is 80% or its fractional equivalent (4 of 5 or 8 of 10) appropriate? When we are doing something where we are willing to make a graph and when we can track larger arrays during our trials. Math achievement is a good example, where there is an array of 10 or more problems. The larger the array of measured trials, the more a percentage is appropriate. In the case of math, each problem represents a trial. Some behavioral goals where you are using time sampling or event recording and have over 10 data points lend themselves to using a percentage or fraction of a large total. The larger the sample, the more appropriate it is to use a percentage. But in that case, you still need to think about your marriage to 80% mastery. Percentages lend themselves nicely to automated collection systems, like computer-graded tests. If a computer is not doing the collecting and scoring, you are making your life miserable by living within a percentage,

 

One more thing about goals: Less is more. I have some students with over 20 objectives. If I have a caseload of 25 students (it’s actually 26), that means I am trying to track over 500 separate pieces of data! I can be either complete or accurate, but it is inhumane to expect both. It is simply impractical to devote the attention that each goal requires if I have to manually enter, manage and track individual trials and then decide if we are at 80%. It’s far easier to look for “3 in a row” or however many and mark that quest as complete as we go. Especially if I can keep it down to 100 or less.

 

When potty training our children, our goal is 100% . Accidents can and do happen, but that is the exception not the rule. We start out wanting Freddy to be dry an entire day, then 2 days in a row. Not for 2 days at 80%. Two days. Period. Then 3 days and so on until his diaper is dry for an entire week. Every parent nows that at that point, he is “getting it.” Then we move up to pull-ups and eventually his “big boy underwear”. We support him at every stage, striving for more and better consistency. Are we demanding that little Freddy be perfect 100% of the time? No! But we are striving for consistency. I won’t buy from any eBay retailer with less than 97% positive ratings. Why do we settle for so much less for our kids?

 

For most goals, 80% is simply not consistent enough. When we disengage from mediocrity, it makes life easier and better for all of us. I’m not programming for mediocrity or failure, I want to program for success! And true success in most meaningful things requires a higher level of consistency than 80%.

 

*Note: Back in 2006, I was blogging pseudonymously under the name “Dick Dalton,” hence how I was addressed in many of the comments at that time.

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