Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just Say "No!, Mr. Governor!

 On the news, President Obama says he is giving the states the option to opt out of the 2014 requirement for the No Child Left Behind expectation that every child in America will score in the Proficient range. Did that requirement shock you? It should! Kind of hard to imagine that EVERY child in America is above average. I do not mean, of course, that we should not try to teach every child as if he or she had the power to be proficient.

I have a good friend who was diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school. She does indeed have a learning disability. But she was told at almost every turn that she could never learn enough to take the SATs or go to college. Luckily for her, she had a teacher who advocated for her and arranged for her to take the SATs. Luckily for her, one college saw that she was an intelligent person who deserved a break. Very few people in her life cared that she wanted to attend post-secondary school. They automatically assumed because she was Special Ed, that she could not manage it. She will graduate from University at the end of the year with a degree in Museum Education.

One thing NCLB did do was make school districts care about students like my friend, who has the intelligence to learn, but just needed someone to care about teaching her. NCLB made districts care about the minority students and their intellectual well-being. They need to care about under-represented students who may have been shuttled off much too easily to Special Education classes simply because they don't speak English well.

What NCLB did not do, however, was take into consideration that there are many students in this country with limited intelligence. Students who will not be able to reach the prescribed milestones in the years their other peers do. Those who will need 8 years to be able to read on the 3rd or 4th grade level, some of them because of the nature of Special Ed today.

The trend toward inclusion is wonderful for those who are marginally compromised in their disability. It exposes them to challenging work, the same as their peers without learning problems, and it expects the regular ed teacher to be able to always teach them in appropriate manner, with appropriate materials, testing them while using all of the accommodations their IEP calls for. If you think this is actually happening, think again. With NCLB, the teacher must concentrate on the achievement of the students who are currently scoring Basic and push them towards Proficient. The teacher has no time for the advanced or very slow children since it's all about moving students to the Proficient level.

On the other hand, there are students with IQs of 47 sitting in regular ed classes, who are not being served at all well by inclusion. These are the students who are reading at a first grade level sitting in a fifth grade classroom, students who might be able to count to 100, add to 20 and subtract with aid. These students also spend only 2 hours a day in the Special Ed class, sitting in the regular class for Social Studies, Science and Writing. Taking tests on grade level subjects that the regular ed teacher has had to design for them on their first grade level. Yeah, right. But the NCLB says that schools are not serving them if they cannot score in the Proficient level according to what other children their chronological age are expected to know. Teachers would not mind if these students were tested on their IEP levels. Most teachers would welcome accountability for Special Ed kids on those terms.

No wonder there are cheating scandals associated with State testing in Georgia and Pennsylvania! Schools in high poverty areas have enough trouble teaching kids without disabilities. An overwhelming number of children in these areas begin school at Kindergarten with no preschool experience. They have little idea about books,  a very small vocabulary as compared to middle and upper-class kids their age, and may come from houses where heat and food are scarce. Their families function in survival mode with little hope of ever getting ahead. Many parents turn this into a push for their child to get the best education possible so they can get out of the cycle. but more parents are so overwhelmed by their circumstances, that educational issues have taken a back seat to mere survival. These are the students least likely to succeed.  Superman rescues the former, not the latter children.

It is the exceptional child who can succeed in this environment. The exceptional ones are solid gold in public schools. They are also the students that the charter schools recruit. Charter schools don't want special ed kids or kids that are behaviorally challenged. They leave their education to the public schools. They send them back to the public schools when there is no way to help the charter reach Adequate Yearly Progress. Then they become the public school's problem.

Why in the world would a state that supports the idea of a public education, opt in for NCLB given these circumstances? I hope it is a no-brainer for the governors to say, "We're opting out." Lord knows we need the break!

Still learning!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thank you, Sister!

My school experience was fairly unremarkable. I went to 12 years of Catholic school in Philadelphia. Eight of these years were spent in a huge school of 2700 students. There were 6 classes of each grade, from first to eighth. Inside those classes were way too many students for those who may have had any learning problems.

In my first grade class there were 8 row of 12 desks to hold all of us. 96 children in a first grade classroom. Picture it. How in the world did the nuns teach us anything? I remember word lists sent home that we had to memorize, as a prelude to reading. I often confused s-a-w and w-a-s, and w-h-e-n and w-h-a-t. I remember my Mom giving me hints in order to figure out the words. When I became a teacher, I asked my mother how in the world did I learn to read? She answered, "I taught you to read! The kids that didn't have their parents' help were left back in first grade or went to public school."

The discipline of the classroom made for children who were quiet and compliant. I was so afraid of my first grade nun, that I wet my pants because she told us we could not go to the bathroom unless we raised our hand and she called on us. She didn't see my hand among the 95 other hands in the class and I couldn't hold it. I remember being totally embarrassed, walking home to my brother's taunts at lunch time. Luckily my mother is a reasonable person and didn't make a big issue out of it.

Until I went into 6th grade I had not yet realized that you could have fun in school! I had looked at school as someplace that was scary and tense. A place I neither enjoyed nor detested. Until Grade 6, that is. Sister Christine Marie was an unusual teacher. She put on music on Fridays and encouraged us to paint, sketch or color whatever the music led us to imagine. She taught us about modern art and played the guitar. She had two brothers in religious orders who regularly came to visit, telling us of foreign places and bringing little gifts for us. Sr. Christine Marie opened up a world I had not previously known could exist in school, a world of creativity and adventure.

Seventh grade brought even more profound revelations about school. Sister Frances Bernardone ran her classroom in a manner in which you WANTED to be good. She rarely had behavior problems in class even though I think she was a brand new teacher. Once she was absent and we behaved badly for the substitute teacher. When she came back, there was no yelling or punishment, just disappointment in how we acted for the sub. Her quiet disappointment made us feel as big as an ant. We never misbehaved again!

Sr. Frances would greet us in the schoolyard every morning asking us to stump her with a joke or riddle. Every day began with a joke! We learned all manner of things and when one of us would try to get over on her, she'd query, "What are you thinking? Do you think I fell off the Christmas tree in this habit?" She regaled us with tales of daring teenage escapades with her brother, like the time she and her brother took their father's car for an unauthorized midnight ride. She pushed us with comments about junior high meaning taking greater responsibility for learning. She made you want to learn all you could, to please not only her but yourself.

She was the reason I volunteered in High School to tutor in a school in West Philly. I wanted to try and see if I could be the kind of teacher she was. Little did I know, she taught in the same school as I tutored in and once I discovered that, I actually got a chance to thank her for her inspiration. I think of her often and was saddened to hear of her early death a decade or two ago. Generations of school students definitely missed out on her innovative and loving techniques.

Hopefully I have been able to inspire others as she has done for me. Thanks, Sr. Christine Marie and Sr. Frances Bernardone, for all you taught me - much more than the curriculum.

Still learning!