Category Archives: Special education

NY Times: Schools struggle to educate severely disabled

Here we go again, I thought to myself when I surveyed the front page of The New York Times this morning — front and center, a Really Big Article (three-column front-page art and almost two full pages inside) all about the costs, challenges and (implied) futility of educating students with severe disabilities in public schools. (Trivia and gratuitous personal revelation: When I worked at the paper we used to call features of this type and heft a “Big Heave.”)

The story is impotant because the Front Page of The New York Times says it is, but it’s been done many times over the years, in various guises. Yes, it costs a lot more money to educate students with severe disabilities, and it is also true that No Child Left Behind has perhaps caused schools to spend more time trying to impart academic knowledge to these students rather than the life skills (making change, riding public transportation) that some — but which ones?–might find more useful in their post-school adult lives. 

Most of the comments on the article seem to be about the “waste” of spending money educating students who would be better taught to live out their days quietly out of sight in group homes.  But here’s the part I find most troubling:

Donovan’s [a student with severe disabilities profiled in the article] love for music requires no translation. He sings in fragmented high-pitched tones, or in throaty notes that blossom into rhythmic phrases. But Mr. Adams [a former aide] got him to achieve more.

By getting Donovan into a really happy mood, by tickling him or giving him a head rub, he found he could get him to sing “Old MacDonald” with him. And though he does not speak, Donovan managed the “Old Mac” and then — his favorite part — a loud “E-I-E-I-O.”

“Singing, that’s a form of talking,” Mr. Adams said, adding that Donovan reminded him of his mother and brother, both of whom were blind. “He understands very well, quite as much as you and I do. If he could talk, and he could see, he could express himself a little bit better.”

Without knowing it, Mr. Adams’s efforts had touched on recent research in educating severely disabled children that focuses on using emotion and human connection to reach them. As higher functioning areas of their brains are underdeveloped, emotion moves them at a deeper level, lighting up the same part of their brain, the limbic system, as meaningful music, and possibly creating a bridge to greater intellectual cognition.

 . . .

Since Mr. Adams was reassigned to other students, Donovan no longer sings “Old MacDonald,” aides in his class said. He also appears to have forgotten how to indicate, with a nod, which is more: one marker tapped against his arm or two, said Sharon Naftali, his former classroom teacher who works with him in a yoga class. “It wasn’t practiced,” she said.

So in other words, a former aide managed to elicit leaps in communication and interaction from the student — learning that has now lapsed because of lack of practice, and lack of consistent expectations. To me, that’s the tragedy — not Donovan’s presence in school or the cost of maintaining that presence.  Read the article and tell me what you think.

Important changes to the student assignment proposal

UPDATE: Here is the presentation from the Feb. 24 meeting and an updated version of the Superintendent’s proposal for a new student assignment system.

At tonight’s meeting of the student assignment redesign committee, several important changes to the Superintendent’s proposal were suggested and accepted by Commissioners in attendance (committee members Wynns, Mendoza and Kim, and invited Commissioners Norton, Yee and Maufas. Commissioner Fewer was absent). These changes are:

  • The Superintendent suggested an amendment to the proposed policy to introduce a one-month public comment period on the proposed attendance area maps before they are accepted by the Board and implemented as part of the new student assignment policy. This would give community members a chance to see the maps and comment on them before they are formally incorporated into the policy. No timeframe for the maps to be released was specified, but the policy must be fully implemented by November 2010. Presumably, the maps would be available for public inspection by September at the very latest.
  • The Superintendent also proposed amending the CTIP definitions as follows: CTIP 1 would now comprise the 20% of census tracts with the lowest average scores on the California Standards Test (CST); CTIP 2 would comprise the 80% of census tracts with the highest average scores on the CST. A map of average CST scores, by census tract, appears below (the dark green areas are the new areas proposed for CTIP 1, and the light green areas PLUS the dark green areas are the PREVIOUSLY proposed CTIP 1 areas. Dark purple, lavender, and light blue are CTIP 2 areas; the new proposal would add the light green areas to CTIP 2. To make this crystal clear, download this larger image, containing a key (and also Treasure Island, which I cropped from the image below):
  • The final change was proposed by Commissioner Wynns and found acceptable by Board members in attendance.  For elementary school, CTIP 1 preference would now come higher than local preference, and the policy would also contain language establishing a reciprocal preference for residents of CTIP 2 areas who want to attend CTIP 1 schools.  Board members liked this approach, after assurances from Orla O’Keeffe that flip-flopping CTIP 1 and local preference in the policy proposal would have little effect on school composition, but would give residents of the most underserved areas additional preference to attend higher-performing schools. In combination with the above proposal (to shrink the CTIP 1 preference area to the lowest performing 20% of census tracts), Board members felt the adjustment would better align the policy with what we heard from the PAC and Parents for Public Schools during the community engagement effort.

We also had a lengthy discussion about special education. It continues to frustrate me that the staff is talking about “service areas” and creating a parallel system for students with disabilities. The law is clear: whenever possible, students should attend the schools they would have attended if not disabled; if their individual needs can be served more appropriately at another school, then the district may offer them another placement. In any event, the district is obligated to offer students with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) — defined as: receiving an education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with nondisabled peers and remaining in  regular classes unless, even with supplemental aids and services, education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

The problem is that the district is maintaining that putting special education students through a “separate but equal” kind of lottery is adequate to meet these legal requirements. I disagree, as do most other special education parents and their advocates. In other school districts, offers of placement are generally made at IEP meetings (an IEP is an Individualized Education Plan, developed by a team of general educators, special educators, parents and any other persons knowledgeable about the child’s educational needs — the “IEP team”).  In San Francisco, parents receive a “program” offer — e.g., inclusion or a special day class — and then an opaque and highly secretive school district process determines the actual school where the program is delivered.

I am instead advocating for a simple sentence to be included in the district’s new student assignment policy under the “Special Education” heading: For students in special education, school and program placements will be determined by the IEP team. 

District finds success with Response to Intervention

According to Education Week, the Chula Vista Elementary School District (27,450 students in grades K-6) is having remarkable success using the Response to Intervention (RtI) model with English Language Learners (ELLs).

[District administrators and researchers] say response to intervention has helped the district dramatically raise test scores in mathematics and reading for ELLs. In 2008, the California Association for Bilingual Education recognized the district with its “seal of excellence” award. For the past two years, the district has ranked high on California’s academic performance index. It scored 833 on the state’s growth accountability index in the 2008-09 school year, as 31 of its 44 schools exceeded the target of 800. In addition, the Chula Vista Elementary district has never missed its state’s goals for adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is unusual for a district with so many students who aren’t fluent in English.

RtI is supposed to be a more efficient way of evaluating the effectiveness or various instructional approaches with struggling students, looking at how they respond to increasingly intensive interventions. If, after a few weeks or months, the student has made little or no progress, they are immediately qualified for special education.
I am particularly heartened to hear about Chula Vista’s experience, because I’ve long been concerned that learning differences in ELL students are left unaddressed too long, because school staff assume those learning issues are caused by a lack of English skills. We are supposed to be implementing RtI in this district, and I’m hopeful that we will see the same encouraging results as Chula Vista.

Public comment: a parent’s views on special education

I received this email tonight, from a parent who wasn’t able to speak at Tuesday night’s board meeting (the video of the meeting is here; the CAC for Special Education item starts about two hours in).  I think it’s worth posting here (with the parent’s permission, and edits to keep it anonymous), because it sums up where we aren’t (and need to be) in special education:

I am the parent of two children at ______ Elementary and have been involved in Special Ed either through Resource or Speech or both for the last eight years.  My children have always been in general ed with a push out/pull in model and are examples of the 80% of  Special Ed children who are invisible on the playgrounds around the district.

Even though children like mine comprise 80% of the Special Ed population they comprise very little of the conversation about meeting the needs of Special Ed children.  My children go to one of the premier  elementary schools in the district but I would argue that the RSP services rank along with probably the most mediocre.  I like many parents in this district have had to go outside of the district to get proper remediation for my  children. 

My youngest child has a Specific Learning Disability and has been referred by Resource at my school to Slingerland Summer school for the last two summers yet she has never seen this method used in her resource work.  Why would we recommend an intervention that they (the professionals) at the district do not practice ourselves?  I think the answer is that the resource teacher knows what the child needs but is not trained to work with the child in the needed methodology. Between 4 and 6 kids every year from [school] get referred to Slingerland every summer ( 3 hours a day for six weeks at a cost of between $1000-$2000 per kid–and this is inexpensive for this type of work–$90 per hour is going rate) yet we do not have the RSP teacher trained in the method for use year round with all her clients.

 That we do not have a trained reading specialist available to each site seems almost criminal as one in five children nationwide experience some level of difficulty in acquiring reading skills.  It should not be by sheer accident of birth that a child is born into a family that can afford to pay for proper remediation so the child has the opportunity to learn to read.  All children with normal cognitive abilities can be taught to read given the attention  and most importantly proper teaching methodologies.

This brings me to the Board’s response to the CAC Report last night.  I felt in listening to the interaction between the Board and the Committee representatives that the commissioners . . .  lacked awareness in the issues facing the CAC committee and parents of disabled children in the district.  Please note:

  • There were comments made about the level of outreach and representation that the committee makes to African American and Latino Families.  The committee is comprised of volunteers with no funding (even for photocopies!) to make outreach to a population that due to “confidentiality” issues are isolated. I am not a member of the CAC but attend meetings regularly ( as I noted I have had kids in Spec Ed for 8 yrs and was not aware of the committee until last year or PAC for that matter!) and I would invite [Commissioners] to take the time to attend a meeting to see the diversity and meet the parents.  My name is [not Latino] and my children are Latina–representative of the diversity and mixed heritage of families in our city–do not judge by surname or the skin color of the parent representing the child.
  • The issue is probably less of race than of resources.  If African American and Latino families are over represented in Special Ed, I would argue that they are also the least able to pay for the expensive remediation or services needed to keep their kids out of Special Ed. For the 80% of Special Ed  kids  who are in resource (also over represented by these groups) a really hard look at how we are implementing RTI in grades K-2 and if these K-2 teachers are trained to spot and act on early signs of at risk for reading failure would be of incredible value to those students (frankly  of life changing value).  This does not even speak to the at risk kids who are unidentified in our district…low third grade reading scores speak for them….
  • I would argue that critique of CAC representation should be more about disability than race.  A better representation would be well rounded in having experience in the programs for Special Ed rather than focusing on race.  I have no experience with Inclusion or Special Day classes and would not be able to speak on that experience…regardless of race you need representation based on exposure to programs.

For all the talk about “Social Justice” last night I can only say that I felt that the basic needs of the children are being left out of the conversation.  I believe that what every parent wants in this district (and hopes they get for their tax dollars) is a system that gives every child the same opportunity to a good education to prepare themselves for their responsibilities as adults in the community.  This free education should be available to every child regardless of race, economic status or disability.  We need to see that we do not stray from that path.

Meeting recap: SpEd overshadowed by Cobb turmoil

Tonight’s meeting was another long one . . . items get backed up late in the year because of meeting cancellations during the holidays; we had our long-scheduled report from the CAC for Special Education, a great discusion about the group’s longstanding recommendations to the district, and a presentation from Special Education director Clare Davies about inclusive practices in the school district (as a way of commemorating National Inclusive Schools Week). It was gratifying to hear Commissioners request that the Superintendent and staff finally answer the long list of recommendations the CAC has been making for as long as I’ve been paying attention. We need to close the loop – either commit to implementing recommendations, describing how and when we’re going to get there, or definitively say we’re not going to implement particular recommendations, and describe why.

Still, I’m sorry to say that the important discussions of special education and inclusive schools were overshadowed by the big topic of the night: the continuing turmoil at Cobb Elementary School over the fate of the Montessori and General Education programs. Supporters of continuing a General Education (GE) program at Cobb mobilized again to show the school board how strongly they feel about keeping Cobb the way it is; there was also a contingent of families from the Montessori program. GE supporters wore orange stickers; Montessori supporters wore yellow baseball hats with red stickers (“Oh no!” one board member whispered to me when she saw the color-differentiated groupings. “This is supposed to be one school!”).

For the most part, comments were respectful, but anger definitely spilled over. It’s  clear that the GE supporters feel disrespected; and that they view the Montessori program as an alien presence rather than a welcoming or workable option for their students. From the Montessori side, there is clearly bewilderment at the backlash — the Montessori supporters view their program as so good and so necessary that it’s hard for them to understand that the GE families and staff view them as insensitive interlopers.

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Happy Inclusive Schools Week!

This week is National Inclusive Schools Week,  an annual event celebrating schools that welcome all children and families. Tonight, parents at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy hosted a showing of Including Samuel, a very moving account of a family’s determination to include Samuel, a young boy with a disability, in everything they do.

At tomorrow night’s Board of Education meeting, we will be observing National Inclusive Schools Week several ways: by honoring the teachers at the Presidio Child Development Center, the district’s only inclusive preschool program, and by hearing a report by our Special Education department on inclusive practices in SFUSD.  (We’re also issuing a commendation to Support for Families of Children with Disabilities, a great support organization.)  Finally, the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, a group of parent advocates working to improve SFUSD’s special education programs, will present its annual report and recommendations to the Board.

Students with disabilities make modest gains

The Center on Education Policy has examined three years of reading and math scores on state tests for students with disabilities nationwide, finding that students made small gains between 2005 and 2008. According to Education Week:

The study found that students with disabilities showed progress at all levels of proficiency in 4th grade, where the median percentage scoring at the basic level or above was 71 percent. Most states showed more gains than declines among students with disabilities over the three-year period.

But there is still a yawning gap between students with disabilities who take the regular state tests (those with cognitive impairments usually take modified assessments) and their non-disabled peers. At the 4th grade level, for example, the median reading score for students with disabilities was 41 percent proficient, while 79 percent of  non-disabled students scored proficient. The gap continues to worsen in the upper grades – at the high school level, the median reading score for students with disabilities was 31 percent proficient, while 77 percent of  non-disabled students scored proficient.

The study represents a glimmer of hope that our schools are starting to take the achievement of students with disabilities more seriously, but there’s still a ways to go. Fully-funding IDEA to take some stress out of the system would help a lot; so would an overhaul of curriculum to make sure we are really offering students content in a way that supports their learning. Taking some of the “special” out of special education might help too — meaning that we should advance the idea that all of our students are all of our students and dispense with the “these are mine, those are yours” kinds of programs that deprive students of uniformly high expectations and rich content.

Did autism rates just double?

A chill went down my spine when I saw this headline – apparently the new National Survey of Children’s Health, last conducted in 2003, has now set the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders at 1 out of every 91 children (up to now the conventional prevalence statistic has been 1 in 150).

The study is published in the newest issue of Pediatrics, a respected peer-reviewed scientific journal, and is based on surveys of 78,000 parents on the health of their children by government researchers.

I don’t really question that the researchers found a much higher prevalence, but I do have questions about whether more cases are being identified on the milder side of the spectrum. I’m personally convinced there is more autism generally, but that at least some portion –maybe the biggest portion–of the increase is due to a broader definition of what constitutes an autism spectrum disorder. For example, many adults who today say they have Asperger’s Disorder would not have been diagnosed as having autism when they were children.

I haven’t had a chance to read the full journal article but will weigh back in on this when I do.

Senior Dad: State of special education

Tonight I am listening to Senior Dad (Stan Goldberg)’s podcast on “The State of Special Education,” featuring “known parent advocates” (inside joke) Katy Franklin and Robin Hansen, and Colin Ong-Dean, a sociologist who has written the just-published “Distinguishing Disability: Parents, Privilege and Special Education” — a book that is now on my wish list!  In this wide-ranging discussion you hear the righteous anger of parents who have seen the system fail their own children as well as others, as well as research from an academic who has studied the complexities and inequities of special education.

It’s really worth a listen, and not just because they say some nice things about me. For anyone who wonders why special education parents are so angry, this hourlong program is a must.

Update: Special education achievement gap

I have been given updated results for special education students in SFUSD on the California Standards Test in English/Language Arts and Mathematics; the data in the original post changed very little.