Archive for August, 2009

Optimistic Saturday

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

This is an interesting article on the response in California to Obama’s Race to the Top.  In it State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell states that though he favors the  promise of reform,

I would never, ever support any evaluation of our educators based solely on the California Standards Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program.  Our state assessments were not designed nor developed for that purpose, and using this single test would not provide an accurate evaluation of the work being done in our classrooms.

That’s nice to know. I hope he means it. It’s also good to hear that there are politicians out there who aren’t jumping on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s bandwagon.

Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara)  and Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) both raised a pointed question about linking teacher evaluation to student data.  Alquist asked, “Why would a really good teacher want to be a teacher in a really tough, low-performing school if the model for assessing that teacher and child doesn’t take into consideration all the factors that make for a difficult situation?”

Mitchell said “It would be foolish to have a one-size-fits-all system (for evaluation). No one at this table is talking about a ham-handed teacher evaluation system that says ‘Your students scored X on the STAR tests, so this is your salary.”

Thank you, Senators.  In a recent exchange about a post in nyc educator I was advised that “Politicians are not the answer – until you show up at their door with thousands of people.” This may be true but it’s still heartening to know that there are politicians out there who seem to have a clue.  Unfortunately, their websites don’t except the comments of non-constituents.  So if you’re out there, Senators: keep it up!

The Big News

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Have been taking a breather from my feed reader, too depressed to “mark as read.” The LAUSD School Board’s decision to allow for the privatization of 250 schools, about a fourth of all of the schools in the district, sent me directly to the DOE to see which/how many schools are candidates for charter takeover.  The answer: a lot  (For a good primer on what program improvement is this seems like a pretty good summary). As far as I can make out if you are a PI 3+ school you can roll out the welcome carpet to charter suiters, many of whom will be corporate entities.  What a PI 3+ school is, I’m not sure. Does it mean schools that are in program improvement years three and over, or years four and over? If anyone can tell me I’d like to know. In the meantime , it’s a week before school and many of my colleagues are already putting their classes together, without pay, on their own time. I salute them and pray for us all during these turbulent, uncertain times.

I’ll Take Manhattan (Part Two)

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

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I would like to spend some time with the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank report that states that children are over-diagnosed with SLD (Specific Learning Disabilities) to make school districts money, but I am too busy gearing up to teach my SLD students, many of them with disabilities so severe they have fallen three years behind their peers academically and have become completely disengaged from learning. So I will take a look at the report piecemeal over the next few days…

Today let’s start by thanking the authors for this definition of Specific Learning Disabilities:

According to the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), SLD is defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved [in] understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations.”[4] Included in the SLD category are conditions such as perceptual handicaps, developmental aphasia, and dyslexia.

The authors then go on to say:

SLD is among the mildest of the disability classifications covered under IDEA and, importantly for our purposes, is also the one whose diagnosis is most dependent on subjective evaluations.

Okay, let’s stop a minute and do a little exercise.  Find or make a maze, get a mirror. Now try to draw a line within the maze borders while looking at your hand and the maze in the mirror.  Pretty hard? Frustrating? Overwhelming? Make you want to give up? Throw an eraser at somebody? Join a gang?

So SLD is “among the mildest of the disability classifications?” Really? Ask someone who has it how mild it is. Someone who has to live with it day to day. Some kid trying to learn the English language maybe.

Sometimes SLD is a comorbid condition, that is, it exists in the company of another disability, say autism.  Many autistic kids are diagnosed as SLD because the autism label brings with it more costly treatments (speech, OT, ABA), treatments for which a district prefers not to pay. Ask an SLD student with undiagnosed autism how mild his condition is.

To be continued…

I’ll Take Manhattan (Part One)

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I would like to spend some time with the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank report that states that children are over-diagnosed with SLD (Specific Learning Disabilities) to make school districts money, but I am too busy gearing up to teach my SLD students, many of them with disabilities so severe they have fallen three years behind their peers academically and have become completely disengaged from learning. So I will take a look at the report piecemeal over the next few days…

In the last three decades, special-education programs in the United States have grown at a tremendous pace. Much of this growth reflects a growing incidence of students diagnosed with the mildest form of learning disability, called a Specific Learning Disability (SLD), and thus the hardest to distinguish from an ordinary cognitive deficit.

First of all, I don’t understand this sentence.  What is hardest to distinguish from an ordinary cognitive deficit?  SLD?  If so why is it difficult to distinguish from an ordinary cognitive deficit, and for that matter what is a an ordinary cognitive deficit?

Perhaps I will learn as I read on…

Some have speculated that a sizable amount of the growth in special education may not reflect a true increase in the incidence of disabilities. Instead, it may be the result of financial and other incentives that spur school systems to classify struggling students who may not truly suffer from a mental or physical disability as learning-disabled, and thus entitled, under various state and federal mandates, to receive more than ordinary attention, for which the school systems in question are compensated.

At this point, I conjure up a picture of greedy district officials plotting how they can over-diagnose kids to get their hands on state money. But wait a minute.  As a special education teacher I know the opposite is true. District administrators are trying to find ways (by utilizing Learning Centers, Response to Intervention, etc.) not to over-identify children. Why? The more students an RSP teacher qualifies, the more likely the special education population at a given school becomes a “numerically significant” subgroup.  To make Adequate Yearly Progress, a school must prove through state testing that it has met all of the AYP criteria including, as the California DOE website explains, “requirements for numerically significant subgroups.” What constitutes a significant subgroup? Again, the California DOE:

A subgroup is defined as numerically significant for participation rate if it has 100 or more students enrolled OR 50 or more students enrolled who make up at least 15 percent of the total enrollment.

A subgroup is defined as numerically significant for percent proficient if it has 100 or more students with valid scores OR 50 or more students with valid scores who make up at least 15 percent of the total valid scores.

Thus if you have a numerically significant subgroup of special ed kids at your school, their test scores alone could keep you in Program Improvement status, which if you are a teacher or an administrator, could eventually mean your job. Why would you want to over-qualify kids? Doing so would be like shooting yourself in the foot.

Well, that does it for Part One of this writer’s critique.  So many tables so little time…

Mayor Bloomberg on Class Size: Let Them Eat Cake

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

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“If you’re going to spend an extra dollar, personally, I would always rather spend it on the people that deliver the service,” Mr. Bloomberg said when asked about the report on Thursday, calling class size “an interesting number.”

“It’s the teacher looking a child in the eye, and teachers can look lots of children in the eye,” he added. “If you have to have smaller class size or better teachers, go with the better teachers every time.”

So says New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, and maybe that would be true in a vacuum, the kind where all  kids come ready to learn and without disabilities, but if you’re teaching, for example, autistic children, getting that eye contact becomes a lot harder as your numbers go up.

I want to be fair. I want to think that officials like Mayor Bloomberg have the best interest of our kids at heart, but there’s something so flip, so Marie Antoinette about saying that class size is “interesting.” Some studies say that class size doesn’t matter, some that it does, but isn’t it a bit cynical to suggest, as an expert does in this February 09 article, that parents only want smaller classes because they can’t appreciate the less obvious benefits of superior teaching? Parents, are there any of those among us who don’t worry about the quality of our children’s teachers? And parents, in lieu of definitive information for or against smaller classes, shouldn’t the government err on the side of caution and place our kids in classes where there is less noise, more space, and more humane conditions in which to learn? Wouldn’t we all love to send our children to the Sidwell School where the Obama children go. According to its web site:

All classes (in the lower school), with the exception of one third grade class and one fourth grade class, have team teachers. Individual class sizes range from one teacher for every ten students in the lower grades to one teacher for every sixteen students in some fourth grade classes.

Why does this esteemed institution, school to the children of presidents, value smaller class size? Are its parents misinformed too? And why, as Mayor Bloomberg suggests, does there have to be a tradeoff between smaller class size and better teachers? If it’s money that separates us from smaller class size (and of course it is), politicians should simply say so. Otherwise give us our cake and let us eat it too.

The Point of No Return

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

I will fall over dead if districts that opt to cut local special ed funding while receiving stimulus money return to former levels once stimulus dollars run out. Under stimulus rules any district that receives money from the bailout can cut local special ed spending in half. Once stimulus money runs out the districts are supposed to return local spending to pre-stimulus levels. Will they do this? As this Freep.com article points out:

The answer… will vary by district. Some — such as those experiencing enrollment declines — are in a position that will allow them to cut local spending without affecting their special-education programs.

But for other districts, going back to the pre-stimulus level of local spending will be necessary. Special education is a federally mandated program with strict federal and state regulations that affect how much schools can cut programs.

But such “federally mandated programs” have many service options, each with a different price tag. I don’t know which shell game the districts will play but can easily imagine the following: Little Autie receives a pre-stimulus services from a one-on-one aide. The district convinces parents that  Autie doesn’t need the aide because he doesn’t stab himself with pencils anymore. All he needs, they claim, is a special ed teacher to consult with the teacher in his general ed class. Stimulus dollars flow in and local funding is slashed by 50%. In two years the district runs out of federal money and Autie starts stabbing himself again.  But now guess what? The funding for the one-on-one doesn’t exist anymore. Not only districts that experience enrollment decline but those that switch kids to cheaper service models will be allowed to cut local special ed funding, and that is a very scary idea. Good luck to the rightfully worried Detroit parents mentioned here. They realize what all of us should: that we are at the point of no return.

No More Tiers

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Haven’t heard  too much about Response to Intervention (RTI) this mild Los Angeles summer but have a feeling I will when school starts up. In a nutshell, students who would formally go directly to special ed for evaluation now must get intervention as a first line of defense. Ran across this description of RTI from a publisher of such interventions and you can expect to see other vendors lining up too. Selling the new miracle cure is what these guys do best. Intervention comes in three flavors: mild, medium, and hot.

Mild (Tier 1): “These students receive a minimum of 30 minutes 3 times per week of a new supplemental research-based intervention.”

Medium (Tier 2) “Students receive supplemental research based interventions for a minimum of 45 minutes 3 times per week or 30 minutes per day.”

Hot  (Tier 3): “The student’s Special Education IEP, Gifted or ESOL plan will dictate additional accommodations and modifications to be used.”

This approach sounds reasonable. Special ed should always be a last resort. But if a kid really needs special ed he should be able to get it as quickly as possible. Though a lot of lip service is paid to testing and monitoring, in the real world kids who need Tier 3 could be stuck in Tiers 1 and 2 for over a year. Let’s hope that is the exception and not the rule. Let’s hope also that RTI isn’t just a way of cutting back on the services that our kids need the most.

Cash for Clunkers

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

And now to add support to Arne Duncan’s Cash for Teacher Clunker plan new studies  prove that size doesn’t matter:

Class-size reduction, which receives another large chunk of Title II funds, is popular with teachers and parents. But its extremely high cost raises questions about whether there are more cost-effective ways to boost student achievement. And research shows that giving students a highly effective teacher will have a much greater impact on their achievement than reducing class size.

Does it matter that the  Center For American Progress has Obama connections that bias its views? Dude, don’t harsh my mellow. Of course it does. But we’re all liberal, think-tanky here. Who cares that in matters educational we out-W W (thank you, Michael)? That we have no evidence to back up our claims? What if the scant evidence supporting small class effectiveness ain’t so scant.  ”Just Come on down!” as Cal Worthington used to say. Get ready for the new low-tenure, overcrowding-resistant teacher at your dealership today. Bring in that beat-up salary-guzzling union member and make a trade.

It’s incentive time, baby.  Dealer Days!

Paul’s Case

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

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In Willa Cather’s great short story “Paul’s Case” we meet a kid who’s crapping out in school. Why is Paul doing so poorly, driving his teachers nuts?  School is boring. He wants bright lights and glamour in his life. His drawing master tries to understand him:

…he declared there was something about the boy which none of them understood. He added: “I don’t really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there’s something sort of haunted about it. The boy is not strong, for one thing. I happen to know that he was born in Colorado, only a few months before his mother died out there of a long illness. There is something wrong about the fellow.”

But of course this isn’t true. There is nothing wrong with the fellow. Paul just knows the score. After a check-forging binge that gets him a great room at the Waldorf he has a revelation:

The flowers, the white linen, the many-colored wineglasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra, all flooded Paul’s dream with bewildering radiance. When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added–that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass–Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all.

Now Paul would probably wonder a lot harder. At least in his day schools offered art. As Diane Ravitch in a recent interview said:

The biggest downside of NCLB is that it has promoted false, anti-educational values. Certainly high test scores are better than low test scores, but that is not all that matters in education. What about science, the arts, history, literature, foreign languages? My hunch is that NCLB is doing nothing to reverse the dumbing down of our children and our society, and may even be accelerating it.

Should that dumbing down worry us or are kids so dazed by “bewildering radiance” that for them schools have become a joke. Don’t ask Paul. He threw himself in front of a train:

He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.