Parents choose special-ed charters

Charters designed for students with disabilities are renewing the “inclusion debate,” reports Arianna Prothero in Ed Week.

A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School. —Patrick Breen for Education Week
A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School.
—Patrick Breen for Education Week

Diana Diaz-Harrison opened a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism, and similar students. The Arizona Autism Charter School, which enrolls 90 students, “is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities,” writes Prothero.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That usually means mainstreaming students.

Some parents prefer a specialized school designed for their children’s needs.

About 100 charters are designed for special-ed students, according to the  Center for Education Reform. While some are disability-specific, others “serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.”

Several years ago, I visited charters designed for disabled and mainstream students in Michigan and California as a freelance writer on Unique Schools for Unique Students, a Center on Reinventing Public Education book on charters for special-needs students.

Not everyone thinks mainstreaming is the best strategy.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

Many students at Arizona Autism Charter School were doing poorly in mainstream classrooms, says Diaz-Harrison.

Special-ed co-teachers may function as “very expensive finger pointers,” writes Peter DeWitt, who’s taught inclusion classes, in Ed Week. The Goldilocks quandary remains: “How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized?”

Anti-vaxxers attack student documentary

Our society is “under-vaccinated,” argues Invisible Threat, a film made by broadcasting students at Carlsbad High near San Diego. It was completed more than a year ago, but anti-vaccine activists raised such a furor that few have seen the film, reports the Los Angeles Times. 

The high school’s PTA canceled an on-campus screening in May, fearing a protest.

Some of the students initially believed vaccines and autism were linked, they told the LA Times. As they researched the issue, they changed their minds.  “It was all social controversy. There was no science controversy,” said Allison DeGour, who will be a senior this fall.

Here’s a free trailer:

California’s whooping cough epidemic is escalating.

Affluent parents are the most likely to put their children — and others — at risk by avoiding vaccination. Latinos have high vaccination rates and less whooping cough, apparently because they tend to trust doctors’ advice.

No longer autistic

Mark Macluskie, 16, who is no longer autistic. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for The New York Times

About 10 percent of autistic kids grow out of it, researchers now believe. Intensive behavioral therapy seems to help, but it’s not clear why some children “beat” autism and most do not, writes Ruth Padawer in the New York Times Magazine.

Mark Macluskie was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at the age of 3.

He showed no apparent interest in those around him and seemed to understand few words. He threw stunning tantrums. And even when he didn’t seem angry, he would run headlong into walls and fall over, then get up and do it again, like a robot programmed to repeat the same pattern eternally, seemingly impervious to pain despite the bruises spreading across his forehead.

His mother, Cynthia, researched therapies so she could teach Mark at home. By the time he was 8, he’d caught up in speech and behavior, but not in social skills.

Cynthia . . . watched DVR recordings of “Leave It to Beaver” with Mark, stopping every few minutes to ask him to predict what might happen next, or what he thought Beaver was thinking, or why June reacted the way she did. When they had watched every episode, they moved on to “Little House on the Prairie” so Mark could practice reading facial expressions.

. . . At parks and restaurants, they watched the faces of passers-by and played social detective, with Cynthia asking Mark to find clues to people’s relationships or emotions. “He didn’t seem to learn that stuff through osmosis like other kids do, so I’d have to walk him through it each time till he got it.”

When he fell in love with robots, Cynthia invited four typically developing children to come over two afternoons a weeks for “robot club.” The five kids began writing code and entering contests.

At 11, Mark no longer met the criteria for autism. Three years later, he competed in a world robotics competition. “He was partnered randomly with teenagers from Singapore and had to strategize with them on the fly,” writes Padwaer. “They won several rounds.”

Now 16, Mark is a “typical geeky teenager,” albeit one who co-hosts a weekly Internet radio show,  “Tech Team,” with 32,000 listeners.

On a parenting blog, a father writes about the kids who don’t beat autism. They are the majority.

Is the Core too much for disabled students?

Can special education students keep up with the Common Core? On the Hechinger Report, Amanda M. Fairbanks looks at a special-ed class for third- and fourth-graders at a Long Island school. Nicole Papa plays an audio recording of a nonfiction article about bullying and peer pressure. Then, she reads it the first part again and asks students to think the main idea.

Her students have “diagnoses ranging from autism spectrum disorders to learning disabilities to mood disorders.” They don’t read well enough to get through the article themselves.

“A couple of years ago, I would never have tried such a difficult passage with these kids,” said Papa, reflecting on her lesson. “My students are stepping it up and showing some unexpected successes. I see the light bulbs go on and I see a lot of growth in their comprehension, in their vocabulary and in their confidence. They know they’re doing exactly what their peers are doing right across the hallway.”

They’re doing it at a much slower pace. While the mainstream class finished the first of four English segments in October, Papa’s class was still working on it in May.

Common Core’s higher expectations is tackling a “huge underachievement problem,” said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Nevertheless, Celia Oyler, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is troubled by the uniformity she observes when visiting special education classrooms.

“Every child is being given the same materials at the same time,” said Oyler, who runs the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project and directs the inclusive teacher education programs at the college. “The very essence of meeting the needs of children with disabilities is that learners need to be doing things at different times.”

Most special ed students weren’t meeting the old standards, notes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

Jackson Ellis, who’s starting fourth grade in Louisiana, is on the autism spectrum.  “There’s always been a gap — academically, socially — between what he could do and other kids could do,” says his mother, Rebecca Ellis. “When the standards changed, the gap grew into this canyon overnight.”

Wanted: Employees with autism

Autism Can Help You Land a Job, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Germany-based software company SAP believes people with autism may be better at certain jobs. The company wants up to 1 percent of its workforce — 650 people — to be autistic by 2020, according to Jose Velasco, head of the autism initiative at SAP in the U.S.

People with autism spectrum disorder—characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior—tend to pay great attention to detail, which may make them well suited as software testers or debuggers, according to Velasco, who has two children with the condition.

. . . “They have a very structured nature” and like nonambiguous, precise outcomes, Mr. Velasco said. “We’re looking at those strengths and looking at where those traits would be of value to the organization.”

“Autistic employees at SAP take on roles such as identifying software problems, and assigning customer-service queries to members of the team for troubleshooting,” reports the Journal.

CDC: Autism rate surges by 30%

One in 68 children has autism, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 30 percent rise over the estimate only two years ago. The “proportion of children with autism and higher IQ (is) on the rise,” said a CDC statement.

“It could be that doctors are getting better at identifying these children, there could be a growing number of children with high intelligence [who are autistic], or it could be both,” said Coleen Boyle director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, in a telephone news conference.

Autism rates vary by place. “Only one child in 175 was diagnosed with autism in Alabama, while one in 45 was found to have the disorder in New Jersey,” notes the Washington Post.

The CDC is encouraging parents to have young children screened for autism in their early years. I’d guess high-IQ parents already are doing that. 

Autism begins in pregnancy, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers discovered “focal patches of disrupted development” in cortical layers of the brain that are developed during pregnancy.  

The brain regions most affected were the frontal cortex, which is associated with complex communication and comprehension of social cues, and the temporal cortex, which is associated with language.

The core problem

Why is this Common Core math problem so hard? asks Hechinger’s Sarah Garland.

A frustrated father posted a subtraction problem from his second-grade son’s math quiz on Facebook.  Students are supposed to write a letter to “Jack” telling him what he did right and wrong in using a number line to subtract 316 from 427.
Common core math problem
The father, Jeff Severt, who has a bachelor’s in engineering, told “Jack” he was stumped by the problem himself. “In the real world, simplification is valued over complication,” Severt wrote.

Severt’s son is on the autism spectrum and has problems with attention and language, so this kind of problem is especially difficult, the father said.

Jason Zimba and William McCallum, lead writers of Common Core math standards, blamed a poorly written curriculum for the problem, writes Garland. Common Core requires fluency in the simple skills of adding and subtracting, just what the critics want, said McCallum.

The question appears to be aiming for several Common Core math standards for second grade, writes Garland.

Students are supposed to understand place value and to add and subtract using “models or drawings and strategies based on place value … and relate the strategy to a written method.” They must “explain why addition and subtraction strategies work, using place value and the properties of operations.” The standards call for using number lines.

“Being able to explain how you arrived at an answer – not just memorizing a formula – is also one of the standards’ key goals for students,” she writes.

In the math problem encountered by Severt’s son, “What the kid did is kept subtracting 10. So they didn’t go down to the smaller unit. And whoever is looking at the problem is supposed to see that the student was confused about place value,” said McCallum. “A discussion in the classroom is supposed to talk about how 10 is 10 times bigger than one, and 100 is 10 times bigger than 10.”

But mashing together the different standards for place value and the number line is potentially confusing. “The number line is not an appropriate model for place value,” Zimba said.

The writing component is also problematic. “The standards don’t require essay writing in mathematics,” Zimba said.

The Common Core isn’t a curriculum, said Zimba. “The curriculum authors are going to interpret the standards in different ways.” Some of them will do it badly.

There’s going to be lots of bad implementation. It’s inevitable. Test scores will drop. That’s inevitable too, if only because the tests will be new and unfamiliar. Parents and teachers can share their frustrations on social media. Politicians are getting cold feet. Arne Duncan is out of bribe money. I think Common Core is in trouble.

New standards are tough on special-need kids

Teachers are supposed to enable all students — including those with “the most significant cognitive disabilities” — to “access” the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, writes Katharine Beals in The Atlantic. How?

Beals teaches special education teachers at Drexel and Penn education schools. Most have been told that all their students must be given grade-level assignments, regardless of their abilities.

Common Core tells schools to offer “support services, individualized instruction, and assistive technology,” but don’t “state what these services are or how they would work,” writes Beals. Curricular materials may be altered or presented “in multiple ways,” but only “within the framework of the Common Core.”

One eighth-grade English language arts standard:

 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Using a simplified or alternative text at the student’s reading level appears to violate the requirement for “grade-appropriate level of verbal complexity,” writes Beals. A teacher might add glossaries and storyboards, but not provide a readable text. 

A sample task is provided: 

Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot.

Beals imagines a 14-year-old who comprehends language at a fourth-grade level. No technology or storyboards could provide “access to how accountability and authenticity play out in the complex paragraphs of Tom Sawyer.” Take the sentence describing Tom taking a beating from the schoolmaster for an infraction committed by Becky Thatcher:

“Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.”

What, short of simplifying the text or spoon-feeding its meaning to her, will it take for our language-impaired 14-year-old to grasp this 67-word sentence, with its complex syntax, words like “flaying,” “indifference,” and an outdated sense of “should,” and the inference needed to grasp the contextual meaning of “captivity”?

And just wait till she gets to Shakespeare.

Another eighth-grade reading goal, R-L 8.3:

Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Students with autism struggle to understand character and motivation and to draw inferences from dialogue, Beals writes. In a journal article for special-ed teachers, Stephen, an eighth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism), doesn’t understand a text in which a bullied and ostracized boy quits going to school.

How, the authors ask, can Stephen’s teacher help him meet R-L 8.3? By creating a comic strip that shows the characters’ thoughts, including a thought bubble for Matt that reads “I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school!”
In other words, the teacher can help Stephen meet the standard by giving away the answer!

Six percent of students have significant cognitive disabilities, writes Beals. “Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals” and lowers their achievement.

Entrapping the handicapped

An undercover cop befriended an autistic 17-year-old, persuaded him to buy marijuana and arrested him, reports Reason TV.  Special-needs students made up most of the 22 teens arrested on drug charges at a Riverside County, California high school.

Why the special ed gap?

Some 13.1 percent of New York City charter school students receive special education services compared to 16.5 percent in traditional public schools. That’s because special-ed students are less likely to apply to charters, concludes Why the Gap?, a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In addition, charters are less likely to place students in special education and more likely to “declassify” them.

There’s no evidence charter schools refuse to admit or “push out” disabled students, writes Marcus Winters, the lead researcher, in the New York Daily News.

Parents of students with special needs are less likely to choose to apply to charter schools, especially autistic students and students with a speech or language disability.

The reason isn’t clear. Disabled students enrolled in special preschools that feed into district schools may be inclined to stay within the system.

The gap grows by another 20% as students progress through the third grade. Nearly all of this growth occurs in the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed category of student disabilities: specific learning disability. That’s important because specific learning disability is a category widely recognized to be over-identified among low-performing students.

On average, students attending New York City’s charter schools “learn more than they would have in a traditional public school,” Winters writes. “Thus, it is possible that some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically.”

More special-needs students enter charter elementary schools than exit, Winters writes.

The difference is that when charter school students with disabilities move, they usually end up in a traditional public school — perhaps because there are more of them, or perhaps because charters accept relatively few students in non-gateway grades — thus reducing the percentage of students with disabilities within the charter sector.

Mobility is high for special-needs students. They are somewhat more likely to leave a traditional public school than a charter.

New York now requires charter schools to set enrollment and attendance targets for students with disabilities, Winters writes. Bill de Blasio, who’s likely to be New York City’s next mayor, advocates requiring charter schools to serve students with special needs at the same rate as traditional public schools.

It would be easy to do: Just hand out more learning disability diagnoses and keep students from leaving special ed. But it wouldn’t be good for students.

A study of Milwaukee charters found similar results, writes Jay Greene. Charters there also were less likely to classify students as learning disabled. He thinks funding incentives are driving special ed placement.