Posts filed under ‘Special Education’

A Blogger’s Reflection

Five years ago, I started the SchoolsRetooled blog and began to gather my thoughts on the US PreK-12 Education Delivery System and, more specifically, urban education. Periodic stints back in the classroom have put the blog on hiatus, and it flagged quite a bit after a family tragedy a couple of years ago. But I stand by my initial vision for education reform, not as a call for competition but, rather, a renewal of the system itself to create the capacity to fully integrate 21st Century innovations and continue to evolve toward excellence.

In December 2011, near the end of my first year of blogging on SchoolsRetooled.com, I published Seven Keys to Education Reform. In this 10-page summary of my approach to system reform, I identified seven levers of change that could improve the system’s functioning by getting more information from data systems, taking a broader view of pedagogy, streamlining organizations around the mission of educating the children, and providing incentives for common ground among educators and between educators and the communities they serve. Beyond organizational dynamics, my thesis presumed an absence of fault on behalf of any of the participants in the education system and, in particular, an end to ageist scapegoating.

In the years since then, policy conflicts defined by political affiliation have shaped the conversations among educators, much to my dismay. My biggest disappointment has been the extent to which the goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were allowed to slip away and the 2014 deadline passed unnoticed. The Obama Administration relaxed the accountabilities, pushing for the Common Core State Standards and advancement of teacher evaluations. Conservatives renewed their support for competition for public schools, choosing incubation of ideas in charter schools, often with private bankrolling.

By the time ESEA was renewed late in 2015 bipartisan support was achieved in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with very little prescription for how this would be ensured. The clearest policy directive was the prohibition on any further Federal intervention in accountabilities that the legislation defined as states’ rights. The legislature was ruled by Republicans in both houses; the Obama activism in lieu of overdue ESEA renewal was over.

I continue to believe in system reform. The quiet period after the passage of ESSA allows me to reflect here on progress made with my own agenda as well as initiatives needed in the future.

On no-fault education reform

Education reform has evolved such that rhetoric is less about frenzied reactions to missed targets for student achievement on high-stakes tests and more about opportunities for concrete system improvements and real school transformations. However, the worst performing districts often remain trapped in blame-based failure cycles. They will not be able to get out of their own way until they become more inclusive in their solutions, recognizing their allies and working in concert rather than with antagonism and derision.

On a student-centered data system

Data systems have shown great strides within education, but they are not student-centered. ESSA authorizes a limited number of districts to experiment with student-centered accounting, but they focus only on the revenue stream, not really addressing matching of revenues to expenses at the student level. I continue to believe that we will not be able to manage student outcomes effectively until both sides of the equation are in synch. Once the money is at stake, school systems that are reluctant to embrace the challenge of student-centered accounting will realize its necessity. Data on student outcomes and teacher effectiveness will follow logically.

On broad-based pedagogy

Software is beginning to catch up with the structural changes in hardware and data. This bodes well for implementation of blended learning, which balances digital resources with tradition methods. In addition, personalized and competency-based learning can be realized with greater potential for educators and students to share management of the learning process.

Educators are accepting technology that combines attendance, assignment completion, and grading in databases that can also support student portfolio development. In addition, these same platforms support collaborative projects that can be pursued and documented on shared platforms. Textual content is available digitally, and learning is becoming an interactive, multi-media experience. Student support is routinely enhanced with multisensory digital options and close-reading strategies.

On alignment to mission and benchmarks

There have been many experiments in school transformation; however, reorganizing the actual schools has not been a priority yet. I believe this will happen organically as data systems provide better information on student outcomes.

On performance incentives for Special Education

New Special Education guidelines from Federal regulators have shifted emphasis toward student outcomes. This promising development should help to accelerate progress toward grade-level proficiency. I continue to recommend earlier student involvement as members of their education planning teams, but there has not been much movement in that direction. For now, younger students tend to be present more so if they have disciplinary hearings than for prospective planning sessions.

On school leadership and general management

A couple of years ago, the time seemed ripe for two trends to deepen. The first was the emergence of empowered parents demanding a voice in troubled schools. The second was the trend toward education schools entering joint ventures with their management school counterparts within major universities.

Threats of parent trigger interventions have given way to mayors and school district leaders joining to speak with one voice, a more politically savvy voice that recognizes the importance of community members proactively. The university-based collaborations have gotten caught up in concerns about educators finding a back door to access to highly competitive MBA programs. I suspect the long-term solution will be dual degree programs that require admission to graduate programs in both the business and education schools.

On portable pensions

The issues around underfunding of pension plans continue to dominate the conversation, and most actions are currently being focused around solvency. Unfortunately, the recommendations are more likely to be made by those who have mismanaged the programs historically. The pension beneficiaries have continued to be called out for reasons that baffle me – they are the only people who have given up their pay to the fund without fail through the whole fiasco – and ways to eliminate funding shortfalls that reduce obligations to the pensioners get more traction than ways for the government employers to pay back their missing contributions to their employees. This is particularly troublesome when government entities got holidays from making their contributions in lieu of Social Security, something that would never be allowed in the smallest of entrepreneurial businesses.

On financial incentives linking educators to performance

As I stated originally, validated educator effectiveness reports need to precede merit-based pay. There has been significant progress in teacher evaluations and leadership performance assessment. However, there is more work to be done, which necessitates postponing this objective for a while longer. The recent developments in technology cited above should offer greater options for multiple measures of educator performance, a key to getting beyond controversial value-added test scores as the proxy for overall effectiveness in schools.

On valuing people of all ages

The fervor has died down over targeting veteran teachers as the source of all evil in education, and the conversations around accountability for test scores alone have softened. That said, charters schools continue to be organized with an unwritten rule against hiring teachers beyond a fairly young age. Teach for America and other similar programs continue to be granted exemption from teacher prep rules, giving an edge to youth-oriented private organizations that funnel a revolving door of teachers into public systems. As these groups mature, they are demanding a greater role in leadership at the risk of stifling the voices of educators with a deeper commitment to schools and important insight into the issues.

Advertisements

January 22, 2016 at 12:44 PM Leave a comment

Using the IEP to Ensure Access to Grade-Level Curriculum

Several years ago, a US Department of Education memorandum announced a planned shift in Special Education policy to emphasize academic outcomes and progress toward grade level performance. This past November, a significant step toward such a benchmark was announced. Now that school is back in session after the holidays the reality is sinking in…this is kind of a big deal.

Late last year, the US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services issued new guidelines focusing on access to grade-level curricular content for students with disabilities. These new guidelines suggest that IEP goals for students who, for example, are below grade level in Math or ELA should clearly address interventions at two levels:

  • Accommodations that would ensure access to the curriculum in relevant content areas with alignment with State standards at the grade level of the student’s enrollment, and
  • Interventions that should lead to accelerated progress, i.e., greater than one grade year of progress per education plan year, towards grade level competency in the primary Math or ELA disability.

This is good news for students with disabilities. The best intentions in Special Education often have been undermined by regulatory procedures emphasizing a student’s eligibility for services. For more progressive schools, this latest memorandum will reinforce existing commitment to inclusive practices for Students with Special Needs across the curriculum. However, other schools will need to rethink their programs and make adjustments in their…

  • Goal-setting process for IEP teams,
  • Instructional strategies for students,
  • Professional development for teachers, and
  • Ongoing assessment of students’ academic progress against IEP goals.

The Office of Special Education urged educators to continue to pursue high expectations for achievement for Students with Disabilities. Perhaps most significant is the Education Department’s effort to address some of the process that was missing from the strictly results-oriented NCLB. As such, it represents a strong step forward for educational equity.

January 8, 2016 at 9:19 AM Leave a comment

A Very Special Need – for Students Desperately Wanting to Be Different…from Themselves

High school special educators know a lot of students who ultimately identify in the LGBT community…students who are trying to shelter-in-place in a small group setting after the very traumatic experience of trying not to be themselves for a very long time. They often are medicated for ADHD and offered therapy for counter-intuitive behaviors in which they indulge in hopes of being accepted among students who identify as straight. PTSD is not just for warriors.

We don’t talk about this, but I wish someone would study it (maybe they have?)…so we can be informed and address it more appropriately. But I truly believe that there are a significant number of students among the Special Needs population who are misdiagnosed. They are anxious, appear hyperactive, have difficulty focusing in school, act on impulses that get them in trouble, and accept punishment in a manner that suggests self-loathing. They also are very bright and can think fast, produce fabulous school work, and excel in most endeavors in a very safe place. Let’s call their disability Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, for kids whom life had taught to wish they were someone else.

I want to say it is okay…you are going to be alright. And no, we cannot find the person who did this to you and made you different, but you are beautiful. But that often is not what the student who is engaged in an internal battle over his or her identity seems ready to hear, especially from an adult who could not possibly understand what a teen is going through. And the rest of the world is making some progress, but it is not fast enough. In the meantime, unnecessary pain and suffering continues as students try to recede among the wallflowers or jump out of their own skin in search of sameness with everyone else.

What can we do to create an authentically safe place in school? And what can we do to advance the cause of acceptance in the work place, on a park bench, or in the retail dressing room or public restroom? Sadly, our students expect the worst. And for some that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it might help to stop adding the Special Ed label and misguided interventions to an anxiety disorder that we might just be perpetuating. I am happy to offer a safe place. Just wish it were not a stop-gap measure for an all-too-imperfect world.

March 8, 2015 at 9:14 AM Leave a comment

Building a Concrete Bridge to Study Skills in 9th Grade

Today’s high schools are becoming more adept at inclusion of Students with Special Needs, and skills classes have become a great source of support for that effort. However, the transition to high school can be difficult for 9th graders, and they may not be ready to process generic skills for application across the curriculum. Sometimes they need concrete examples from specific classwork, homework, or test prep to give the concepts of study skills meaning before they can activate strategies independently.

There are good things happening in Special Education. Students with Special Needs are being educated alongside their peers in inclusive classrooms. Higher expectations have become a reality, along with genuine preparation for college. Heterogeneous classrooms often have general and special educators in a co-teaching environment, and students may also receive support through teaching assistants or paraprofessionals as well. Those who still need additional scaffolding also may attend skills-based classes with a curriculum aligned around student success.

By high school, the quick study cannot keep it all in his head. Last minute cramming for a quiz or test will not produce long-term memory for final exams. And the free association technique for writing will not autocorrect for audience and voice. Students must be taught how to read, write, and study across the curriculum. They must organize materials and time judiciously, and they must forego the usual distractions with intent. That done, the student can become more accomplished in the exciting, bewildering, and frightening world of emerging abstract thought. Facilitating this transition is not an easy task for the adults.

Teachers, counselors, and parents must be a team as they triangulate around the adolescent’s knowledge, maturity, and stamina as a student. Each must be prepared to provide guidance, stimulation, and structure that will support the young adult’s success. Most children will figure out many of these strategies and begin to activate them on their own. However, the full picture needs to be formalized like any other algorithm for life. This is especially true for Students with Special Needs who have found comfort in a concrete world, or those who struggle with focus or executive function.

Study skills classes are based around essential skills and habits of mind that can be explicitly taught. However, the student may not value these lessons unless there is a concrete link to results. Sometimes the special educator must sit and complete assignments alongside a student. Or scribe for a writer or test taker in an alternate site. Or wait for the good grades that document the results of diligence. School-wide, classroom-based, or personalized digital systems that provide quick feedback to the student will reinforce good work habits and support organization further.

My personal style as a teacher of skills has been one of activism, especially with 9th graders. A year of bad choices and consequences made no sense to me with a child who was still unclear on his or her role in the process. I organized for a child who was scattered, perhaps hovered a bit more with a procrastinator, and got a confirmation email from other teachers on the team before I fully accepted that a 14 or 15-year-old had “nothing to do.” The last case, of course, offered the promise for that dream curriculum of study skills…the one that I hoped to enable for my colleagues who taught upper grades. In the meantime, I set goals with students and often worked as hard as they did to achieve those objectives. Because sometimes in Special Needs, the students have to work harder than others to get to the next level, and no child should not be alone in that effort.

July 15, 2014 at 9:13 AM Leave a comment

Turning Leadership to a Young Man’s Best Advantage

I am a believer in Girl Power…but today’s reflection is on empowering young men, something of a lost art in an era of binary thinking. As our young women have grown, we have neglected our young men, especially children of color, and we owe them a chance to feel the power of being strong in their minds, their hearts, and their best intentions as leaders.

For several years, I taught advanced algebra in a small Special Ed classroom in an urban high school. The class typically comprised 10-12 young men of color between 17 and 19 years old. There may or may not have been a young woman in the class, never more than two. The students were typically quite astute in their ability to size up a situation, find their best interests, or cut their losses. Learning the math was rarely a problem.

Students who had been taught in relative isolation for up to 13 years often had a strong behavioral component to their learning style issues. One of the more striking aspects was the ability of cohorts of students to organize themselves around the mission of undermining instruction. And the usual mistake was to attempt to resolve the problem through punitive disciplinary measures…more isolation, more conflict with the ruling regime of adults.

But the reality of the situation was that there were true leaders among the students. They had realized that they were being under-served academically, but they were not prepared to fail quietly. So how does a school community come together to turn an emerging adult child’s natural leadership to his (or her) best advantage?

Some of the issues I encountered…

  • Gaining the trust of my students that I was on their side.
  • Reflecting on student choices to help them become more self-aware.
  • Getting beyond the survival mode and the solipsism that attends it.
  • Acknowledging the leadership inherent in self-directed behavior regardless of its positive or negative outcomes.
  • Engineering enough successes to break failure cycles.
  • Giving up my own ego needs for being the most visible leader in the room.

That last one was a revelation. I still led my classes, and I overheard one of my toughest customers whispering to a classmate, “Never mess with Kathleen on the math.” That was a relief, but I also sometimes heard, “Okay, it’s just us guys in the room…” Receding into the background was not a problem so long as the learning happened. Leaders needed a chance to choose their audiences and to get frank feedback to see themselves as others saw them.

Consequence-based discipline sounded right, but it had as a prerequisite that students have a vision of being successful. Young men trapped in failure cycles did not benefit from another chance to see the negative consequence of their actions or choices. In fact, such plans often motivated frustrated leaders to cut to the chase…to hurry up and fail and get on to the next item on the agenda. They could not see success as an incentive if they hadn’t experienced one in recent memory. I had to sort of drag a few students toward their own best interests.

In addition, manifestations of egocentric behavior tended to be more diagnostic of despair than indicative of an older child’s maturity. However, the two often went hand-in-hand. I was dumbstruck once when I encountered one of my students diligently moving through the school posting notices of a one-on-one basketball contest he had organized for later that day….WHILE THE SCHOOL WAS IN A LOCKDOWN  OVER A GUN SIGHTING! Basketball was his one strength, but he was not a team player. The contest was his one chance to show his stuff, and a stupid gun was not going to ruin his big day, He was still furious with me later for interrupting his progress. I finally found the words, “Being in the halls made you look like a suspect…and I do not want that for you.” He started to get it.

March 8, 2014 at 11:41 AM 2 comments

New PreK-12 Education Priorities for the Returning Obama Administration

The Common Core State Standards, NCLB waivers, and Race to the Top initiatives have altered the landscape in education in the absence of an NCLB rewrite. On this day of reflection after Election 2012, I offer a few thoughts on resetting policy priorities until ESEA renewal becomes feasible.

Entering the 2nd term, in my humble opinion, the Obama Administration could benefit from raising the priority of three issues in PreK-12 education…

  • Decision architecture for education finance, reporting, and analysis
  • Federal support for government employee pension reform
  • Incentives/accountabilities for grade level proficiency for students in general or special education and students who are English language learners

Decision Architecture

The Race to the Top program (RttT) has instructed states and districts to design new approaches to student funding, teacher effectiveness, and student outcomes. Having completed the idea generation phase for reinvention of the decision architecture within education authorities, it is time to draw expertise from beyond traditional regulatory compliance models. Educators need to learn from non-education sources with more expertise in aligning information and analyses to the mission of educating children efficiently and effectively.

The finished products should draw on the best of the general industry models and those presented by RttT exemplars. They should include a standard for financial reporting that is student-centered as well as data elements to be automated in support of teacher effectiveness and student outcome reports.

Pension Reform

Government employee pensions are straining fiscal resources while yielding inequitable benefits for plan participants and limiting their career mobility. Current retirees and vested employees need security with their defined-benefit pensions. Separately, the wisdom of continuing to underwrite such pensions in the future needs to be assessed. However, any introduction of defined-contribution pensions for new or unvested employees would result in eventual bankruptcy for legacy plans.

The Federal role in the issue could be one of mitigating the financial crisis in pension funding. Changes to the tax code could lower the effective cost of borrowing for sponsors to meet pension obligations. In addition, elimination of the Social Security opt-out would extend the safety net for employees switching to higher risk, defined-contribution pension plans. A prior post discussing this issue can be found here.

Grade Level Proficiency

When redefining the data elements needed for measuring student outcomes, Federal regulators will need to keep in mind new targets and deadlines for general grade-level proficiency among PreK-12 students. Longitudinal tracking across content areas will need to be enhanced significantly, especially to ensure that students receiving services in Special Ed or ELL programs are demonstrating accelerated progress in response to accommodations and modifications.

This shift in emphasis should create incentives to move beyond regulatory compliance to demonstration of real benefits for students, a continuation of the work announced in an Education Department notice available here.

Other items on the Federal agenda

Meanwhile, teacher preparation does not need to be such a high priority on the Federal agenda. Educators are being trained under a variety of conditions ranging from rigorous 5­-year programs that combine baccalaureate and master’s degrees to boot camp immersion programs or online courses with limited apprenticeships. Aggressive evaluation of the most highly structured programs exclusively is both unfair and at risk of overestimating the state of the art in actual practice. In addition, success has been seen with many teacher prep models, raising doubt that the problem lies with the pipeline of new teachers.

Rather, a crucial lapse in quality arises because individual schools and districts show uneven results with their ability to keep teachers in top form professionally throughout their careers. That is a local problem that is being addressed retrospectively through the teacher evaluation process. Prospectively, Federal regulators should consider grants for demonstration projects to introduce general management and human resource expertise from general industry into education leadership development.

November 7, 2012 at 2:46 PM Leave a comment

Sustain Funding to Narrow Achievement Gap in Special Education

Hold that axe, Professor Levenson. Your $10 billion solution for the Special ED budget would deliver a blunt cut to funding just as the program is implementing more functional policies to promote efficiency and efficacy of services. Let’s look at the who and the how of Special Education services before punishing districts for deviations from an arbitrary median. And don’t forget…closing the achievement gap for students with Special Needs means results measuring their achievement against that of all students, not just other students with disabilities.

Effective use of funds for students with Special Needs is essential to their futures. Outcomes for these students during K-12 schooling can be determinants of their success in life relative to their peers without disabilities. However, what constitutes optimal sources and uses of funding is still very much in flux.

Variations in expectations and the intensity of services are rising in Special Education. At the same time, emerging technologies are creating new options that could make personalized learning ubiquitous in schools. Meanwhile, budget-conscious policy analysts led by Nathan Levenson and the Fordham Institute are seeking prematurely to cut spending in Special Education based on isolated cases of better student outcomes with less money. Let’s stop for a glimpse from the special educator’s chair.

For many students with moderate disabilities, the goal is to achieve results on par with their peers without disabilities. Special educators provide classroom accommodations and modifications that level the playing field while students develop compensatory mechanisms to overcome their obstacles to learning. These students can have their best abilities harnessed to accomplish great things.

For students with severe disabilities, the goal is maximizing independence and quality of life in spite of constant challenges. They will always require services, but any strengths must be developed and leveraged to reduce the intensity of their service needs and facilitate their participation in adult lives. Their academic achievement gap is unlikely to close.

However, included among students with intensive Special Needs is a unique and growing population of children along the autism spectrum. While educators lack a full understanding of students along the spectrum, there is hope to one day unlock their potential for communication and connection to society at large. We cannot yet predict how high their performance could be with appropriate intervention. In the short run, this is a high-cost service area with evolving expectations.

Despite the variations and complexity of disabilities, the Fordham report suggests limiting spending in Special Education in a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the essence of Special Education: the individual education plan. Further, even as we attempt to increase the personalization of education for all students, Fordham would target SPED staffing cuts that would reduce the impact of the small resource classroom, the very incubator of innovation for new teaching methods.

Many instructional techniques that have become best practices in the general education setting were developed initially for students with Special Needs. Essentially every student has learning style issues. We have a success cycle of recognizing students whose special needs interfere with their progress, designing interventions on their behalf, and, if successful, building capacity for serving more children with more general dissemination of new methods. So it could be with new technology as well.

That said…Yes, it is appropriate to question how Special Education dollars are spent. However, the size of budget requirements for Special Education is the symptom. It should not be treated with blunt cuts to match median spending at a seemingly random moment in time. Rather, the underlying causes of unbridled growth in demand for high-cost services need to be examined. Among those are…

  • Financial incentives for over-diagnosing special needs in an eligibility-based model
  • Systematic absence of longitudinal data on progress toward grade-level proficiency within the education planning process
  • Lack of participation of the children in their own education planning until they are in transition for the end of secondary education
  • Changing profiles for intensity of special needs within the population of students with disabilities

Historically, Special Education services have been funded based on eligibility without tracking performance. In addition, regulations only required reevaluation of academic achievement every three years, again to document eligibility at the given time. As a result, there has been no incentive to routinely seek longitudinal evidence of academic growth or effectiveness of modifications and accommodations.

At the Federal level, new policies are in development to collect longitudinal data and increase accountability for closing the achievement gap for students with Special Needs. Also, many state policy teams have already addressed efforts to improve classroom accommodations to keep students with minor issues in the mainstream setting using the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. In the event they are approved for Special Educattion, I have suggested another policy initiative – a more active role for the children in their individualized goal-setting and program planning – that could allow them to be their own advocates in accelerated achievement.

Beyond system adjustments, technology has become available that holds promise for blended techniques in learning. Several emerging technologies are already enhancing access to lessons and raising the level of personalized learning without increasing the number of special educators. However, technology models have not reached a level of robustness and general accessibility to dictate adjustments in staffing.

Meanwhile, the Fordham Institute sponsored the study by Levenson on spending and outcomes in Special Education. The conservative think tank has suggested pruning the budget for Special Education services by $10 billion using a simple national median rate for across-the-board SPED funding, regardless of the needs of the children. There are no best practices underwritten with this new formula. Apparently the money saved speaks for itself…the cure for any budget-busting program is to underfund it.

The study began with spending data from 1,400 school districts. However, the conclusions were drawn from ten pairs of districts that were chosen for their unique validity as cohorts that yielded the desired results for conservative spending. That desired outcome was evidence that the district that spent less outperformed the other in student outcomes. I cannot help wondering what happened with the other 1,380 districts.

Nevertheless, application of an arbitrary median spending model that is not reflective of student needs or evolving practices in Special Education is poorly informed and without merit. And it would short-circuit legitimate efforts to close the achievement gap for Students with Special Needs.

September 7, 2012 at 3:00 PM Leave a comment

Older Posts