A walking ray of sunshine (and failure)

“This year, I have been blessed with a student who may be the nicest kid I’ve ever taught,” writes Exasperated Educator, who teaches in New York City.

Always prepared with an ear-to-ear smile and enormous enthusiasm, he is friendly to everyone even the mean kids. . . . No matter how challenging the lesson is for him, he works hard to understand. He is a walking ray of sunshine.

She’s also got a student who can process information in the moment, but can’t retain anything.

I model it. I give him manipulatives. I’ve had other students tutor him. I’ve given him extra homework. I’ve given him no homework. I’ve let him investigate the topic using videos or computer games. I’ve kept him at lunch for private tutoring. If he does understand the lesson, it lasts only a short while and certainly not into the next day.

It’s the same kid. As much as she likes him, she worries his inevitable failure will make it harder for her to be labeled an “effective” teacher. She resents that — and hates herself for thinking of this warm-hearted boy as a problem.

Value-added analysis is supposed to account for this kind of student: He’s maintaining his previous rate of growth — none — in her class. Whether it actually works like that is another story.  Exasperated doesn’t say if he’s been diagnosed with a learning disability. Inability to retain information should qualify him for an Individualized Education Program, though that’s no magic cure.

About Joanne


  1. I have several students who have trouble retaining information within a single period, let alone into the next day. They do not qualify for IEPs, mostly due to low IQ (as measured by a test I didn’t administer before I even had these kids, so I have no clue of its accuracy). If a child is performing at his or her potential, then an IEP doesn’t happen. IEPs are for kids who are not performing at their potential. If you’re meeting your potential in a general education classroom, you don’t get an IEP.

    I think @PatMattison has the right of it. The IEPs are really an institutional way of making sure kids get whatever we can give them towards their needs. A teacher who has taken it upon him/herself to do that is giving that kid what’s needed. An IEP wouldn’t change it other than to put the ball in someone else’s court. I’m guessing Exasperated is doing what a good special education teacher would be doing anyway.

    I feel for Exasperated. Some days I feel like I spend 90% of my time on 10% of my students.

  2. Crimson Wife says:

    The student needs a full neuropsychological evaluation because it sounds like he may have some sort of learning disability.

  3. PW beat me to it. You don’t get IEPs if all you have is low cognitive ability.

    In practice, this is stunningly unfair. I’ve seen really low IQ kids with an IEP, and other really low IQ kids without, based on whether or not the kid has something that can be written up as a learning disability. So a really low IQ kid who can’t sit still gets an ADHD IEP and support, but a well-behaved low IQ kid gets nothing.

    • lightly seasoned says:

      Yup. Exactly. We’ve all had these kids. I call them the sweet and lows. When they graduate, a few of them end up with jobs in the district doing custodial work, etc. because we know they have sterling characters and are great employees.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Amen. The LD/IEP process needs major revision. One of my disappointments in the president is that he is so damn conservative, not willing to make changes in so many areas where they are needed.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Do you really think it’s the president’s job to determine the appropriate process for identifying a student in need of an IEP or like? Should it really be the job of the federal government? Americans with Disabilities Act, I guess.

        I agree with you about the President working very hard to resist change, though, and I guess that does make him a conservative.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          IEPs and 504s are requirements of the federal government. The structure of special ed (a student is identified as having a “disability” and then has a right to different treatment which the local school district must determine and provide–directly or in an out of area placement) is set by federal law.

          Part of the president’s job is to determine how well federal laws are working and to propose changes to make them work better. When it comes to special ed, he has shirked that responsibility.

  4. Repetition is the mother of learning. Some kids can hear something once, and remember it for ever. Most kids need some practice. Some very pleasant kids need EXPONENTIALLY more practice than their age mates. In a past age, they might of been held back and then, on the second or third try, finally clicked with third grade… now, we pass them along, expose them to too much information too quickly, and they never learn anything.

    I think ‘hardworking but slow’ kids have really been hurt by social promotion. They would have persevered if we were willing to keep trying instead of passing them on after an arbitrary number of school days.

    Heck, these kids still have potential– look at Joseph of Cupertino! (http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/joseph.htm)

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear Deirdre Mundy:
      You demonstrate being ill-read when you use the word
      “exponentially” as s substitute of “much larger”.
      “Exponentially” means functional dependence
      of one variable versus the other
      according to the law of geometric progression.
      Two terms (as in your case)
      may belong equally well to arithmetic progression,
      to quadratic progression, or any other one.

      You may consult any of modern web-dictionaries.

      Your truly, F.r.

  5. palisadesk says:

    If the IQ is low enough, the student will qualify for an IEP on the basis of cognitive disability. Exact specs vary, not only from state to state, but within states. My district will classify a student whose GAI on the WISC is at the 6th percentile or lower. Other measures can also be used (Stanford-Binet, Woodcock-Johnson, etc.). The problem arises when a student does test at or below the 5-6%ile, but has some splinter skill on a subtest that is way up in the average or superior range. Depending on the committee making the decision, this anomaly may be discarded, but I’ve seen students with obvious and significant intellectual disabilities denied classification and services because they had *one* normal subtest.

    However, holding these students back does *not* work. They will learn slowly all their lives, and will never “catch up.” Keeping them with their same-age peers works IF they have reasonably average adaptive skills AND appropriate instruction is available *at their instructional level* in the core subjects. Children from different grades but similar instructional levels in math and literacy can reasonably be grouped together for this purpose.

    Poor memory for certain types of information is not, however, closely correlated with IQ in young children. Very bright students, not to mention numbers of average ones, may show poor ability to retain certain types of information without what we used to call “overlearning” — massive practice, with hundreds or even thousands of repetitions.

    However, some parents refuse classification, even if the student is below the FIRST percentile (at this point the child is learning nothing from participating in the general education class). If the student is not a behavior problem not much can be done.

  6. “If the IQ is low enough, the student will qualify for an IEP on the basis of cognitive disability. ”

    Well, but those are the “special day” kids, the kids who are deemed incapable of getting through school requirements and get a special diploma. In other words, if you’re deemed incapable, you don’t have to go to normal classes.

    But there are a whole bunch of low IQ kids who aren’t, to use the word we used to use, retarded.

    Holding them back is absurd, I agree.

  7. palisadesk says:

    “if you’re deemed incapable, you don’t have to go to normal classes.”

    In secondary, this is true. But at the elementary level, especially K-6, we have, in many places, “full inclusion,” which means the students with significant cognitive disabilities are in the same classes as everyone else (remember, 1 in 20 students would meet criteria for what we used to call “mental retardation,” so most elementary teachers can expect to see many students like this in their classes: not always one per year, but staggered numbers over time).

    Segregated programs are no longer commonly provided, thus dealing with the instructional needs of these students is quite challenging. If the student *also* has a diagnosis of autism an concomitant management issues, such as flight risk and episodic violence, s/he is more likely to get paraprofessional assistance. The really nice kids who are also slow learners are the ones most apt to be thrown under the bus, educationally speaking.

    The student that “Exasperated” writes about might, of course, have normal ability — we can’t tell from the information given. An assessment with the WRAML-II (or similar) could provide data on how to tailor instruction to maximize retention, which is the most salient issue described.

    • Odd, isn’t it, that kids who are later deemed incapable of having the ability to graduate have needs that are largely ignored in elementary school in the interests of “inclusion”.

      And yes, of course the kid might have normal ability—I think we were all responding to Joanne’s assumption that he’d automatically qualify for an IEP.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not a teacher, but I’ve taught some. Liked it best when I had sergeants for classroom management. Currently tutoring Nepali immigrants. Taught rookies in my business. Got a BA in psych toward the middle of the last century.
    So that’s my quals.
    Question: Is it a matter of IQ if a kid actually gets it? I mean, the article seems to imply the kid understands the concept. You can’t do that without a sufficient cognitive level. Retention is something different, isn’t it? Had that trouble myself. I know–it’s a secret–which concepts I can get and retain and which I need to learn and will forget and learn again to retain.
    IMnot certified O, this is not a matter of IQ.
    Is it possible to find out for each kid–time being an issue–how many reps it takes to cement one of these concepts?
    Or is the kid’s sunny personality automatically feeding off the teacher’s cues and leading the teacher to think the kid gets it the first time?

  9. This kid could be a couple of my relatives. I agree with Palisadesk that holding them back is not an effective strategy. Holding back is for average kids who miss a lot of school because of illness, or for other non-cognitive reasons. If kid is just a slow or ineffective learner, s/he needs to be able to complete school in the ususal number of years. In ED and MS, of course give them the reading and math instruction that helps them increase their skills through pull-outs or readiness grouping. In HS, help them find pre-vocational classes that fit their talents and preferences. Many will not excel at these either, but some will find big talents that standard reading/math/SS/science classes were unable to reveal.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    EB Saith:

    If kid is just a slow or ineffective learner, s/he needs to be able to complete school in the ususal number of years.

    Lovely sentiment. I have two questions, though.

    First, and most importantly: How?
    Is it not the case that things that are slow get to destinations more slowly than things that are faster? Isn’t that what slower means? How do we change the laws of physics? (Which are applicable only by analogy, obviously… but it’s a strong analogy.)

    Second: For what?
    They “need” to finish in the usual time in order to…. what, exactly?

    • In MD, it used to be that kids at the spec ed HS could stay until the end of the semester they turned 21. Maybe it was the same for the equivalent kids in regular schools, also. The focus at that school was getting the kids to employable status.

  11. Many states allow any student — not merely special ed students — to attend high school until age 21. This encourages students who want to work part-time to continue towards graduation, and allows slower kids (not necessarily special ed) to take fewer courses and receive more assistance.

    So, Michael Lopez’ point that we don’t need to push low-performing kids to graduate with their peers at age 16-18 is valid. They would do better, once they are in high school, to enter programs designed for them (my district has several of these, with good records of success in getting students to graduate with a diploma if possible, or to find good employment prospects, or to enter community college programs that are non-academic in emphasis). This gives them usually 6-7 years, rather than 4, to complete high school.

    Re Richard Aubrey’s query:
    “Question: Is it a matter of IQ if a kid actually gets it? I mean, the article seems to imply the kid understands the concept. You can’t do that without a sufficient cognitive level. Retention is something different, isn’t it?”

    Yes, retention and IQ are different (but measurable) constructs. If the student was truly cognitively disabled, he would likely not appear to grasp concepts or operations when taught — and, should he *claim* to do so (as some do, often innocently), it would be patently obvious very soon that he did NOT understand. So “Exasperated”‘s student is probably not cognitively disabled. He could even have a high IQ and exhibit the behaviors described. Statistically, of course, it’s more likely he is in the average range.

    Memory is a very complex thing, even memory for “rote” learning. Contextualized and de-contextualized information are processed differently; verbal, visual, episodic, sequential, procedural, motor, symbolic and other types of information are not only stored, but retrieved (and this may be the issue) differently. That’s why a thorough memory assessment might shed light on how to assist this student.

    An imperfect analogy we might be able to relate to is of being given complex directions from point A to point B, that include much information about street names, number of blocks, directions of turns, landmarks and so on. If one is familiar with the geographic area to some degree, one will “understand” the directions, but it is unlikely that one will be successful retracing the route from memory alone. Most of us use various strategies — writing down keywords, drawing a simple map, using AAA directions or Google maps, etc. to bypass these limitations. Most of us also, typically, are much stronger on some types of memory than others. I have spectacular verbal and numerical memory, for instance, but very little for what they call “object localization.” I have strategies to avoid this becoming a problem, but first I had to be aware of what the problem might be.

    Students with severe memory issues need the same information on what their limitations are and ways to bypass them. Memory skills can be trained to an extent, but only within a limited range.

    To Richard’s other question: “Is it possible to find out for each kid–time being an issue–how many reps it takes to cement one of these concepts?”

    .The answer is yes, but it is time-consuming and requires some 1:1 work and data collection. You need to get baseline data and set empirical tasks and measure number of reps over varying periods of time (and input-output channels) and measure performance in terms of accuracy, completeness, fluency. Engelmann and others did a fascinating study in the 70’s that demonstrated learning a paired association to mastery could require from 5 to 11 000 reps. What was most encouraging is that the weakest performers did, with training, improve their learning rate significantly though the weakest ones never “caught up” to the faster learners. They did however approach a reasonable number of reps — 100 rather than 11 000.

    The trained memory skills do not necessarily generalize to other types of memory. for example, if you develop good numerical memory and recall for meaningful numbers and digits, that skill will not transfer to memory for a sequence of moves, as in ballet or martial arts. You may have to start at a low baseline and work up again. Memory is a set of cognitive processes, not a single one, though some can be connected up and enhance recall which is why “VAKT” (visual-auditory-kinesthetic-tactile) strategies work for some learners with severe reading and spelling learning difficulties.

    • Palisadesk, good points. However, I think there’s a difference between allowing extra time to finish high school (a good idea, when students are willing to persist) and holding them back in K-8. Having 13-year olds in 5th grade is not a good thing, I think you will agree.

      • That last is why such kids don’t belong in an included situation, but in separate placement with others of similar age and academic needs.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Thanks for the info. Thanks also for pointing out that there may be hope, given the resources.
      Ref memorization: In HS French and chem, for different reasons, we were given daily ten-point quizzes. The first was vocab and the second quantum numbers. The chem prof said we were going to be taking the quiz until everybody got the quantum numbers right. My father said that if you write them down ten times, you’ve got it. Beats wearing your eyeballs out looking at a page and muttering to yourself.
      So I got a string of small A grades which helped overall.
      French, same thing. Write French to English ten times, reverse, string of small A grades. It’s easy, at least for me. Not even much intellectual effort.

  12. palisadesk says:

    EB said:
    “Having 13-year olds in 5th grade is not a good thing, I think you will agree”.

    Indeed. I made that point earlier in the thread, and many times before. I’ve actually taught a fourth grade with a dozen teenagers in it (including a pregnant sixteen-year-old) — that district was REALLY serious about meeting standards!. Besides that, retention in grade has very little evidence of effectiveness, costs a lot of money to no useful end, and it reduces the time available in secondary school for programs that might actually address the student’s needs.

    momof4, it may be your belief that these students don’t belong in an included situation, but the parents of those students — even those who are *severely* disabled — often disagree with you and refuse placement in segregated programs. Laws will need to be changed in order to force such parents to place their children in non-inclusive settings. As things stand, inclusion is their right, unless for behavioral or medical reasons the school can make a case against it. Highly unlikely, also, that politicians will lobby for kids with disabilities (cognitive or otherwise) to be forcibly sent to congregated sped classes.

    • I’ll hold my breath for the onset of common sense on this issue. Like so many other laws with unintended consequences, that one has serious flaws. Some kids can be successfully mainstreamed and some can’t. A relative’s school spent 3 years trying to remove a kid with a cognitive age of 1 from the regular HS classroom, because he was very disruptive (no surprise) and not toilet trained. IIRC, the early advocate for mainstreaming specifically excluded the top and bottom deciles, and that was long before the severely handicapped ever entered the public school system.

      Maybe I’ve been atypical in my friends, but the two with kids with significant (but not severe) cognitive handicaps both elected to send their kids to the spec ed HS (amazingly, still open) for life skills and employment preparation. One has been working as a housekeeper for a major hotel chain ever since.