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?

Do charters serve fewer disabled students?

Charter schools are doing a better job serving special-needs students than reported, according to a New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Nationwide, charters serve fewer special-ed students, according to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report. However, the New York study finds “important variations in the enrollment patterns of students with special needs,” said Robin Lake, CRPE director.

In New York, charter middle and high schools enroll more special-needs students than district-run schools, according to CRPE. Charter elementary schools enroll fewer.

Some district-run elementary schools offer programs for special-needs students, the report noted.

Charter schools at the elementary level might also be less inclined to label students as needing special education services. This raises a troubling question: are charter schools under-enrolling or under-identifying students with special needs, or are district-run schools over-identifying them?

Instead of setting statewide special education enrollment targets, policy makers should set “school or regional targets that pay careful attention to those very specific factors that influence such enrollment choices as locations, grade-spans, and neighborhoods,” the report advises.

Setting targets assumes that every school should include the same percentage of disabled students. I’d like to see more schools (charter or district-run) designed for students with specific special needs, such as attention deficit disorder or autism, and more designed for academically gifted students.

When school reform gets personal

After two years as a teacher and nearly 20 as a policy wonk, Scott Joftus saw his ideas tested when his two daughters started school, he writes in When Education Reform Gets Personal in Education Next. His “daughters are ready learners who attend a high-functioning school.” But . . . 

As a policy wonk, I believe that student learning flourishes in classrooms that include students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. As a father, I want my daughters to appreciate diversity of all types. But I also want them to be surrounded by children who come to school ready and eager to learn. These goals come into conflict when some students are constantly disruptive; the policy wonk must preach patience to the father who wants the class disrupter out.

My daughter’s kindergarten class included a troubled boy who was going through the foster-care placement process. He is exactly the type of child that can benefit most from an excellent education, but he regularly disrupted class. One day, when I was in the classroom, the teacher—talented, but inexperienced—spent more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task.

The boy’s “disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school,” Joftus writes.

The tension between my understanding of good education policy — driven by a deep commitment to equity and the belief that an outstanding education can transform lives, and this country — and what is right for my daughters makes me both a better policy wonk and a better father. The tension also illustrates why school reform is so difficult.

Read it all — and be sure to read the comments.

Mediocrity guaranteed: Do it all in every class

Telling “every school to meet every need for every kid” is a recipe for mediocrity, writes Rick Hess in Ed Week.

New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott has committed to educating special-needs children in neighborhood schools, especially in elementary school. However, parents are finding their local schools aren’t prepared to serve all special-needs students.

That should be no surprise, Hess writes.

If we told the owners of the terrific local burger joint that they also need to start serving sushi, pizza, enchiladas, and French cuisine, because people have different preferences, and everyone has a right to eat, I suspect it’d have an adverse impact on quality. If I told a first-rate high school math tutor that he had an obligation to also tutor in science, Mandarin, and history, because he’s the only tutor in the neighborhood, the quality of his work might decline. Yet, this “duh”-caliber observation is largely absent when advocates are asking schools to shoulder yet another burden, especially when discussing how to best serve kids with special needs.

. . . the issue is not whether we ought to serve all kids. That was resolved decades ago. We all agree that we should. The question is whether we think every school, or every classroom, ought to be expected to meet every need of every student. And that strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity.

Or worse. In my 11 years of blogging, I think the complaint I’ve seen most often from teachers is that they’re expected to teach children of vastly different achievement levels, abilities and disabilities in the same classroom with little useful support.

 

Rethinking special ed

Special education is costing more and more, yet results are disappointing, writes Rick Hess. Nate Levenson, a former superintendent who reduced special-ed spending while improving achievement, has written Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education.

Levenson suggests:

  • a relentless focus on reading, including clear and rigorous grade-level expectations for reading proficiency, frequent measurement, and early identification of struggling readers with immediate and intensive additional instruction, up to 30 extra minutes per day;
  • rethinking what special ed students are taught in general education classes to avoid overplacement of special ed students in special classes and keep them in front of the best teachers;
  • maximizing class time with content expert teachers.

Special education teachers know how to identify disabilities, but aren’t trained in how to teach math, English or reading, even though that’s their primary duty, Levenson writes.

Also in for some tough medicine is the practice of co-teaching, where a special ed teacher is paired with a general ed teacher in a regular classroom for students with and without disabilities. Levenson writes, “Co-teaching is like dieting. Lots of people want to lose weight and look good in a bathing suit, but actually doing so is hard.”

Miriam Freedman talks about what Massachusetts is doing to speed resolutions of disputes (SPED-X) and cut down on paperwork (Process Lite).

Some states, such as Massachusetts and New York, identify almost twice as many students as disabled as other states, such as Texas and California, notes Fordham’s  Shifting Trends in Special Education.  The poverty rate doesn’t explain it, writes Mike Petrilli. But it does correlate with per-student spending, adjusted for the cost of living. High-spending states have higher rates of special-education identification.

Thirteen percent of the difference in identification is correlated to spending, estimates Harvard Education Professor Marty West. “It could be that better-resourced systems identify more kids because they have the capacity to serve them separately, but even if that were the case there is a lot of variation that it can’t explain (look at Rhode Island and Texas, for example).”

Petrilli wonders whether tighter school budgets will result in smaller special-ed caseloads.

San Francisco school officials want to save money by mainstreaming all special education students, reports the New York Times.  That includes mainstreaming 16 students with severe behavior problems who attend a private, nonprofit school at district expense.

(Sylvia) Hewlett’s son attended six San Francisco schools before his ninth birthday. His mother said he sometimes became so frustrated that he physically attacked his teachers and classmates.

Ms. Hewlett enrolled her son, who is autistic and turns 12 in July, at Erikson four years ago. “Now the boy can write,” she said. “The boy can read. The boy can spell.”

Alternative programs exist for a reason, writes  Ms. Cornelius.  Seriously disabled students get a chance at an education and other students and teachers get a shot at a safe, peaceful classroom.

‘I don’t want to be a teacher any more’

In her 35th year in the classroom, an Oregon elementary teacher discovers to her surprise: I Don’t Want to be a Teacher Any More.

Starting in the ’90s, class sizes began growing. Teachers were given janitorial and clerical duties to perform, such as cleaning their own classrooms.

Worried about test scores, her district required all teachers to use the same instructional materials.

At the same time, class sizes and special needs were growing. The behavior classroom was closed and its students were mainstreamed into the regular classroom. I tried to become an expert on dealing with anger issues. I tried to learn how to help fifth graders with severe disabilities, limited mobility, and cognitive levels of very young children, all in my regular classroom now filled with 30-35 students.

One day, she realize she’d had enough.

Maybe it was the severely autistic boy who showed up at my door the first day with no notice, but I don’t really think so.  Maybe it was the rigid schedule the principal passed out for everybody to be doing the same subject at the same time of day, or the new basal reader we have to use that we aren’t allowed to call a basal reader. Maybe it’s the look in my student’s eyes when we’re reading the newly required dry textbook when I’m used to wild and crazy discussions about amazing novels.

Her school missed AYP because two few English Language Developing students passed reading.

I thought of the little boy I had with an IQ of 87 who could barely read.  I thought of the little girl in a wheelchair who’d had 23 operations on tumors on her body in her 11 years, and the girl who moved from Mexico straight into my class and learned to speak English before my eyes, but couldn’t pass the state test.

Last year, she was offered $20,000 to retire, but turned it down. At 55, she wasn’t ready to quit working. This year . . .

Ricochet, who teaches high school, is fed up too.