Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Miracle Workers

In the book, The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller overcomes all odds and succeeds in becoming a contributing member of society with the 24/7 one-on-one help of her very determined teacher, Annie Sullivan. As the title suggests, a miracle is not an everyday occurrence, but a once-in-a-lifetime thing, something that happens despite terrible hardships or impossible situations. A miracle is a rarity, and the Catholic Church attributes them to the intervention of saints.


Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, must believe that the teachers of America are all saints, capable of delivering miracles daily, but especially during standardized test time. In his proposed changes to the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Mr. Duncan wants to assure the public that there are no obstacles to Special Ed children reaching the goals of the new Common Core State Standards tests, the ones that “regular” kids are overwhelmingly expected to fail this year and next. Mr. Duncan expects every child with disabilities, physical, learning or emotional, to score in the proficient range on an above-grade standardized test, one that is offered with very few accommodations other than small group testing and extended time.


Good teachers can help the learning disabled kids make good progress, but since they cannot be identified as Special Ed unless they are at least 2 years behind, it’s ridiculous to expect such children to “ace the test.” Some may indeed, eventually catch up due to the right combination of in-school and at-home support. When I taught remedial math, there was a full-time learning disabled student who came to me for extra math instruction because she was heads above her special ed class in math. After 2 years we were able to mainstream her entirely for math because she was forging ahead of most kids in her grade in math. She ended up scoring at a proficient level on the state test in math. Reading, however, was not her forte, and she remained in her learning disabled category for Language Arts during the time she was with us.


Some kids are not going to make that kind of progress no matter what you try. I taught siblings in a family of mentally challenged kids and adults. Although I was able to help two of the kids who had an IQ of 47 and 55 respectively, their abilities in Grade 8 were far below what would be tested on the state test at this point. Think about a child being forced to take a 2-hour test in reading and in math on an 8th grade level when their reading and math levels were at a 2nd grade level. Algebra versus 2 digit subtraction, close reading of historical documents from the 18th century versus memorizing 200 sight words because phonics is impossible with your auditory perception problem.


Kids like the siblings in Special Ed are now able to take a modified version of the standardized test that is shorter and with alternative assessments and accommodations. Some kids actually score basic and proficient using these alternative methods and assessments! But Mr. Duncan is currently seeking to modify that to require only the most severely affected students to take the test. Students identified with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (visual misperceptions of words), dyscalculia (inability to work with numbers) and dysgraphia (inability to write legibly) will be considered not severe enough and have to take the 6 hours of ELA and Math tests at their grade level, despite performing at levels 4 or more grades below. Plus, their teachers, schools, districts and states will be penalized if they don’t score well.

Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits puts it this way:

After years of holding states accountable under the law for such things as timely evaluations of students and due process hearings, the Education Department plans to look at results. For the first time, the government will define compliance with the law not just in terms of what states do for students with disabilities, but with how those students perform… According to this new results-driven accountability framework, states will be responsible for students with disabilities' participation in state tests, gaps in proficiency between students with disabilities and their peers, and performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, the only national standardized test.


I don’t understand what the US Department of Education doesn’t understand about being in Special Ed. The reason a child is identified as such, is because they are performing at a level 2 or more years below their peers. If they were able to take the test and pass, they wouldn’t be in Special Ed!


The new portion of the IDEA law will put punitive measures into effect for those states that do not meet their goals for Special Ed students. If a state fails to meet goals three years in a row, a portion of their federal money for Special Ed services can be withheld. That’s puzzling, since what is the likelihood of being able to meet their goal in the fourth year without adequate funding? As far as I can see it, the federal government is setting up the cash-strapped districts for failure. Most money-starved districts have already had to cut back on extra personnel and service that would make it easier for students with IEPs to come closer to grade level. Classroom assistants and specialized reading programs have been reduced. Look at the Philadelphia School District that has had to cut personnel three years in a row, and is working on a bare-bones budget that doesn’t deliver the needed services to its students. There is 1000:1 ratio of counselors to students, 44 schools are getting counseling services one day every three weeks. There is a dearth of librarians, social workers, assistant principals, and materials and supplies. And the federal government wants to up the ante for special ed students? Until fair funding formulae are commonplace, the number of support services for students correlates directly with the funds available (or not).


Let’s employ some honest-to-goodness special ed teachers in advisory positions in the Department of Education to determine which pieces of the curriculum and which accommodations will be reasonable to use for their IEP students. Instead, we have a Secretary who has never taught, touting a curriculum written mostly by corporate testing people, not real teachers, a common core curriculum that has never been field tested, and regulations that no teacher worth their special ed certification would agree to. We have politicians and pundits, despite never having been competent K-12 teachers, who KNOW what teachers need to do to serve their students.


Sorry, I can’t buy it. We need policy makers with common sense who have the best interests of the children and their schools in mind, not the policy makers we currently have who never had the common sense to begin with.


We can’t work miracles with every child. Miracles are the exception. We are not Arne Duncan's Miracle Workers.


IDEA – What is it?

Arne Duncan’s Makeover of Special Ed


Still learning!