ABC’s by Halloween for all kindergarteners

Should All Kindergartners Know Their Letters by Halloween? asks Peter DeWitt in Education Week. ”Even children from high-poverty and limited literacy homes” can do it, if properly taught, says Dick Allington, a University of Tennessee education professor.

What struggling readers need is more and better reading instruction not a different sort of reading lesson. In my view schools need to adopt a curriculum framework that everyone will use with all students. This includes remedial, special education and ELL teachers.

Learning disabilities are a myth, Allington believes.

I think what we have learned in the past two decades is that there are some kids teachers give up on and then largely ignore. These kids get labeled LD. So for a total of how many students have an actual disability, I’ll go with 3%. That pretty much covers all the severe disabilities (blindness, deafness, severe mental impairment, etc.).

Here’s Allington’s take on effective reading instruction.

Investors fund pre-k in Utah

People talk about preschool as an investment. In a Utah school district south of Salt Lake City, investors will spend $7 million over eight years to expand an early-childhood program, reports Education Week. If fewer children require special education, the district will ask the state to share the savings, which will be used to pay back the loan with 5 percent interest.

This fall, Goldman Sachs and the investor J.B. Pritzker will pay for the expansion of an early-childhood program in the 67,000-student Granite district through a social-impact bond, also known as a pay-for-success loan. Social-impact bonds are loans that seek to achieve a positive social outcome, and reduce future costs, by investing in prevention and intervention programs in the public sector.

Utah gives schools $2,600 per year for each student who requires special education. “Many students are placed in special education simply because they trailed their peers academically upon entering elementary school,” experts say.

If there are no savings — a Utah State group will decide — then the investors will lose their money.

Feds end ’2% rule’ for disabled students

Disabled students won’t be counted as proficient — unless they’re really meeting college and career readiness standards, under  new regulations proposed by the U.S. Education Department. Currently, the “2 percent rule” lets states count up to 2 percent of disabled test-takers as proficient, regardless of their achievement levels.

“We have to expect the very best from our students and tell the truth about student performance, to prepare them for college and career,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “That means no longer allowing the achievement of students with disabilities to be measured by these alternate assessments aligned to modified achievement standards.”

Being honest about students’ achievement is a good thing, but educators will be embittered — even more so — if they’re held to impossible standards. Students with disabilities achieve more when expectations are high, but — even with the best teaching in the world — many won’t able to meet standards linked to college readiness. (“Career” is thrown in there, but there are no lower career-ready standards.)

ACT: College hopes rise, scores fall

Most students aren’t ready for college, according to the latest ACT college readiness report. The composite score dropped to 20.9 in 2013, the lowest in eight years. That’s probably because more students — including less-capable students — are taking the exam.

Only 26 percent of test-takers in the class of 13 met all four readiness benchmarks in English (grammar, sentence structure, organization, rhetorical skills), reading, science and math; 39 percent met three of the four and nearly one-third did not meet any.

Twelve states are testing more than 90 percent of seniors, including students who don’t plan to go to college. Also, for the first time, disabled students with testing accommodations, such as extended time, were included in the overall reporting numbers.

College-readiness benchmarks were developed by ACT to predict whether a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical first-year college course. Students this year did best in English, with 64 percent achieving the standard. Forty-four percent met it in both reading and math, and 36 percent hit the benchmark in science.

This year, ACT moved the reading benchmark up 1 point to 22 and science down 1 point to 23 to match expectations for performance at a national sample of colleges.

It’s time to debate ‘mainstreaming’

It’s time to debate whether debate whether mainstreaming special-education students is fair to all students, argues attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, author of Fixing Special Education, in a Wall Street Journal commentary.

When teachers focus on students who need more attention, other children get less attention, writes Freedman. Yet parents of regular-education students rarely challenge policies that place high-need children in mainstream classrooms.

The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials.

Fourteen percent of students are in special education today: 70 to 80 percent have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, ADHD, etc. While federal regulations govern special ed, 80 percent of funding comes from states.

Students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed.

Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct.

Educators and parents should join a “robust, inclusive and frank national discussion” on how to fix a broken special education system, Freedman concludes.

I’d be very interested in what teachers really think about inclusion. How many are getting the supports they need to do it well?

ADHD drugs don’t raise kids’ grades

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder medications don’t improve academic achievement, according to new studies, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are sometimes called “cognitive enhancers” because they have been shown in a number of studies to improve attention, concentration and even certain types of memory in the short-term.

. . . However, a growing body of research finds that in the long run, achievement scores, grade-point averages or the likelihood of repeating a grade generally aren’t any different in kids with ADHD who take medication compared with those who don’t.

Boys who took ADHD drugs performed worse in school than those with similar symptoms who didn’t, according to the study, which tracked students in Quebec. Girls on ADHD drugs reported more emotional problems.

The dangers of IQ tests

Testing a child’s IQ can pin on a permanent label that denies future learning opportunities, writes Jessica Lahey in an Atlantic review of Scott Barry Kaufman’s Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness.

As a failing elementary student, Kaufman was tested by a psychologist, who decided he had a low IQ and was “seriously learning disabled.” His parents gave up their plan to send him to an elite private school and instead sent him to a school for children with learning disabilities. “My fate was sealed by a single test,” writes Kaufman.

(Not really. He earned a doctorate at Yale and became a cognitive psychologist. But it wasn’t easy.)

Intelligence changes depending on environment, Lahey writes.

. . . people who believe intelligence is fluid, and can be increased through hard work, are much more likely to put in that hard work and show that intelligence is fluid. Unfortunately, children who believe their intelligence is fixed are far more likely to avoid challenges and simply allow the label to speak for itself. Put simply, children who believe they can become smarter, become smarter through effort and persistence.

Labeling all kids as “gifted” doesn’t work, however. Students who think their intelligence is fixed, whether they think it’s high or low, don’t work as hard as kids with a “growth mindset,” according to Stanford’s Carol Dweck.

For “gifted” kids, that can mean that they are so worried about marring the shiny veneer of that label that they never risk failure, and for the “seriously learning disabled” kids, the grungy tattiness of their label can lead to apathy and hopelessness.

Analyzing learning disabilities can identify what sort of help different children need, Lahey concedes. “I have even recommended intelligence testing for students who, despite their persistence, diligence and effort, are not succeeding in school.”  However, all too often, “a label signals a death knell for future effort, learning, and academic achievement.”

 What if we praised our students’ efforts to learn and grow and improve rather than praised them for showing up at school or on the soccer field, label affixed and prominently displayed? What if we watched those kids carefully, and taught them that they are not the measure of their IQ, but of their efforts to do their very best with what they have?

Yes, but some kids have more than others to work with. Kaufman wasn’t just a slow kid who worked hard.

Kaufman found a book on intelligence in the library and looked up the IQ he’d been assigned at the age of 11. The chart said: “Lucky to graduate high school.” He didn’t believe it, even though his teachers did. Finally, a learning resource teacher said she’d noticed he was bored. ”You don’t seem to belong in this classroom,” she said. “Why are you here?”

He left the learning resource room with “his growth mindset and his well-honed skills of grit, diligence, and persistence,” Lahey writes. Now an adjunct psychology professor at NYU, he writes the Beautiful Minds blog on Scientific American. Here’s Kaufman asking Is Your Child Ungifted?

Teachers wear black to protest testing perk

Some teachers wore black T-shirts in protest as they wrapped up the school year at Southampton High School (New York), reports the Southampton Press. They disagreed with the principal’s decision to let a school employee’s anxious child take a Regents exam in a small room instead of the gym. The student has no disability diagnosis that requires special accommodation.

Dr. (Brian) Zahn, the principal, said two students were accommodated during end-of-year testing after showing symptoms of short-term disability brought on by anxiety, with one showing signs of nausea.

According to Dr. Zahn, some of the teachers wearing black shirts on Friday told him it was “to protest testing improprieties,” while others said it was “to voice our displeasure with testing overall.”

School was over, but students and staff were attending graduation rehearsal, and teachers were grading tests.

Technology aids disabled students

Technology is helping high school students with learning disabilities take “middle college” courses.

The promise of iPads for special ed

Technology can free special education students from worksheets, writes Anya Kamenetz in The promise of iPads for special ed on the Hechinger Report.

When Neil Virani walked into his middle school special education classroom at Mulholland Middle School, part of the LA Unified School district, three years ago, he encountered a roomful of students with a range of cognitive, emotional and physical challenges. But the most toxic problem they had to combat was the low expectations from the school system they’d been in since kindergarten. “All they had was coloring books and watercolors. They were not working on any academic aspects of the curriculum,” he says. “When I saw a [previous] teacher had written of  a student, “they don’t require ELA writing instruction because they’re never going to manipulate a writing device,’ I said, before I met him, this kid is going to write.”

Today, not only are most of his students reading and discussing stories, producing sophisticated written essays, and scoring proficient in math, they are drawing mind maps to organize their thoughts, building catapults in class to demonstrate physics principles learned from the game Angry Birds, and shooting and editing video documentaries of their experiences, which they storyboard in advance with cartoons.

The iPad and its wide range of apps has enabled students to meet the “highest possible realistic expectations,”  the teacher says.

A student who has control over only one finger was unable to write with a $15,000 assistive technology chair. One involuntary movement would erase what he’d typed. After an hour with a $500 iPad, he wrote his name for the first time.

The iPad has changed his students’ thinking, says Virani. “They believe in themselves; they can do what anyone else can do.”