‘Accountability’ proposal is anti-choice

The Charter School Accountability Agenda is a “front” for opponents of school choice and reform, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. The authors, Center for Popular Democracy and In the Public Interest, have union backing, he writes.

The agenda includes requiring an “impact analysis” on how new charters would affect district-run schools. It’s “absurd” to let existing schools keep out the competition, Biddle writes. That’s especially true in cities: Urban charters improve achievement — and raise the odds students will earn a diploma and go to college — according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes and Rand studies.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

KIPP charter students in Manhattan. Photo: Beth Fertig, WNYC.

The agenda would let district schools keep per-pupil funding when students transfer to charters. “Why should any district be entitled to receive dollars for kids they are no longer serving?” asks Biddle.

It also calls for charters to enroll as many special-needs students as traditional schools.

Charters have fewer special-ed students because they’re less likely to put a disability label on students with learning problems, Biddle writes. They focus on teaching struggling students instead of sticking them in a “special ed ghetto.”

The American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed the agenda, ran a very low-performing charter school in New York City, notes Biddle. The school met just one of 38 goals set by its authorizer and was “rated a failure mill” by the city’s education department. The school had little tolerance for special ed students.

UFT Charter meted out-of-school suspensions to 17.8 percent of special ed students in 2011-2012 and in-school suspensions to another 20 percent of them, according to data submitted by the school to the U.S. Department of Education. This is higher than the out-of-school and in-school suspension rates of  1.5 percent and 6.5 percent for kids in regular classrooms.

United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local, will close the K-8 school, but hopes to keep the high school going.

NYC union’s failing K-8 charter will close

Running a charter school is harder than the United Federation of Teachers thought. The New York City union will close its failing charter school’s elementary and middle school, but ask for authority to continue its high school.

Students read at UFT's charter school in 2013. Photo: Geoffrey Knox

A reading class at UFT’s charter school. Photo: Geoff Decker

“When the school opened in 2005, then-UFT President Randi Weingarten said its success would demonstrate that unions could play a starring role in efforts to improve the school system,” write Geoff Decker and Sarah Darville on Chalkbeat NY. Weingarten also hoped to show that a union contract was not an “impediment to success.”

The UFT Charter School has been one of the lowest-performing charters in the city.

“Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new school-grading system, the school earned the lowest of four marks in all four categories, including the school environment and its success at closing the achievement gap,” write Decker and Darville.

Curiously, only 2 percent of the school’s students are English Learners and 10 percent –below the public-school average — have an Individual Education Plan.

Unions and charter schools don’t mix, writes Darren. Two California charters run by schools of education — UC Davis and Stanford — also closed due to poor performance, he observes.

Florida drops special-ed diploma

Florida’s special-ed students must take college-prep classes required for a standard diploma, reports The Ledger. A new state law has abolished the special diploma alternative. .

At Roosevelt Academy, a school for learning-disabled students in Lake Wales, ninth-graders were transferred from intensive math to Algebra I two months into the school year to comply with the law.

The special diploma is not accepted by state universities and may not be accepted by state colleges, technical centers, employers or the military.

But at Roosevelt Academy, teachers don’t encourage their students to go to college.

“We tell them that if you want to go to college, don’t come to our school,” said Phillip Miles, a life skills math teacher. “We’re preparing you for work, not college.”

Miles’ students are way behind in math. His class taught practical skills such as how to make a budget or calculate sales tax.

About 80 percent of Roosevelt Academy graduates have jobs by the time they collect their special diploma. That’s goal they and their parents set when creating an Individualized Education Plan.

Till now, special-ed students could earn a special diploma by mastering the “employment and community competencies” in the IEP and completing a semester of successful employment.

Now all students will have till age 22 to pursue a standard diploma — or settle for a certificate of completion.

Teachers are supposed to make college-prep courses accessible for disabled students.

In geometry, for example, a student who has trouble writing or speaking might point to an equilateral triangle rather than draw one or explain why it is equilateral.

. . . “They have to fail for four years before they even get a certificate of completion,” said Henry Smith, vocational teacher and career placement coordinator for Roosevelt. “I guarantee you the dropout rate is going to be astronomical.”

Seventeen states offer only a standard diploma, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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?”

Special ed kids sort trash, parents complain

Special ed students won’t be assigned to sort trash as part of a “life skills” class at a Southern California high school. Patriot High special-ed students were told to go through campus bins to find recyclables that had been thrown away.

Jurupa Unified Superintendent Elliot Duchon apologized to angry parents for the assignment.

“It is disgusting,” said Carmen Wells, who complained after learning her autistic son was digging through trash on his first day as a high school freshman.

Half of school staff aren’t teachers

Half of school employees aren’t teachers, reports The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach.

The U.S. spends a much larger percentage of education funding on non-teaching staff than other countries, more than double the spending in Korea and Finland.

Teacher aides represent the largest growth category over the last 40 years. “From 1970 to 2010, aides went from nearly non-existent to the largest individual staff position, outside of teachers,” according to the Fordham report.

Teacher aides have little, if any, positive effect on students’ academic achievement,” concludes an analysis of Tennessee’s Project STAR. Decreasing class size to 14 to 17 students in the early grades raised achievement significantly, especially for black students.

School staffing has increased by nearly 400 percent since 1950. Much of the growth occurred from 1970 to 1980. “Passage of several pieces of federal legislation — such as Section 504, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and Title IX (Equal Opportunity in Education Act) — likely played a big part in changing the makeup of schools.”

Aides often are hired to work with special ed or English Learner students. That is, the adult with the least training works with the kids with the most needs.

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.”

End special ed

It’s time to end special education, writes Matt Richmond, co-author of Financing the Education of High-Need Students. The special ed model, developed in the 1970s to end the exclusion of “handicapped” students, is “broken,” he writes.

It assumes that only students diagnosed with a disability have needs that require attention and support. The student who reads poorly due to dyslexia gets special help. The student who reads poorly because his parents didn’t read to him – or his family moved three times when he was in first grade — is out of luck.

Monitor all students’ progress and help those who need it, without requiring them to fall into a disability category, argues Richmond. Response to Intervention is an effective model, ” but current laws limit its potential reach.”

Tearing down the divide between special education and general education would benefit everyone. The disability label is not necessary or helpful; it does not define the needs of a child or his potential — nor does the absence of a medical disability negate a child’s struggles or measure his advantage. Our laws and funding structures have created a line which is harshly demarcated but entirely meaningless. In reality, there are no special-ed kids or general-ed kids; there are simply children who need an education. Each one unique. Each one requiring special attention. And every one deserving it.

The special ed funding formula is badly out of date, writes Clare McCann on The Hill. Federal funds are based on old enrollment numbers: Districts with declining enrollment get more federal dollars per student than growing districts. In addition, small states get more than larger states.

Congress was supposed to reauthorize and revise the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) several years ago. 

Special ed quotas for charters?

Some propose requiring charter schools to enroll the same percentage of “special needs” students as district schools, notes an Education Next forum.

Charter schools should serve all kinds of students, argues Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University.  On average, only 8 to 10 percent of charter students are in special education compared to 13.1 percent in district schools. Severely disabled students also are much less likely to attend charter schools.

Some charter schools “counsel out” disabled students, telling parents the school is not a “good fit” for their child.

Charters that recruit and enroll disabled students would receive more funding, making it possible to hire special ed staff that would help all students, he argues. And charters would be taking their “fair share.”

Special ed quotas are a bad idea, responds Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

It would create “perverse incentives for schools to overidentify students as disabled.” Some charters work hard to avoid labeling students as “learning disabled” or “emotionally disordered.”

. . . as schools of choice, not all charter schools will be equally attractive to, or effective with, kids with disabilities. A “no excuses” school may be a good fit for students who respond well to a highly structured and very strict culture but not be effective at all for others. Although a school’s “mission” should never be an excuse for a charter school to exclude students whose families feel it is the right fit, we also should not expect that all charter schools will attract an equal number of all types of students.

Disabled students should have access to schools that have the staff and resources to meet their needs, writes Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.  Often, they’re concentrated in low-performing schools that are overwhelmed by students’ needs.

Many high-performing district schools “employ strategies to screen out such students as well, either by not providing the services needed for special education students, or by employing admissions policies that make it difficult or unlikely for such students to gain access.”

High spending, low performing

Camden, New Jersey schools spend $27,500 per student to run some of the worst schools in the state, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Twenty-three of the district’s 26 schools appear on the state’s list of the 70 lowest-performing schools, but the city will spend almost as much per pupil in the current school year as the state’s highest-spending districts, Avalon and Stone Harbor, spent in 2012-13. Camden made headlines earlier this year when the superintendent said only three high school students of the 882 who took the SAT in 2011-12 tested “college ready.”

The district graduates only 49 percent of students.

Camden is a high-poverty city. Special education costs are high.  “There’s no secret to how we got here,” said former school board member Sean Brown, who served from 2010 to 2013. “There definitely was leadership failure going on, high management turnover, and a lot of things we had to spend money on.”

 The district, which has lost 1,000 students over the last five years to charter or out-of-district schools, has gained administrators and staff, increasing spending 10 percent and creating a student-employee ratio of 4-1 and a student-teacher ratio of 9-1.

. . . Of 2,700 district jobs, only 46 percent are held by teachers. School-based non-teachers such as aides and maintenance employees account for 40 percent and the central office for 13 percent, according to district figures.

“In a first-grade general education classroom earlier this month, 11 pupils sat cross-legged on the floor around a teacher who read to them while a second teacher, also assigned to the classroom, sat in one of eight empty desks,” reports the Inquirer. Yet, at one of the high schools, “special-education staffing can be so tight, teachers not certified in special education say they have had to fill in.”

 Classrooms in Camden often come equipped with smartboards, iPads, and laptops. But in the same rooms teachers might lack access to a working printer, the tech support they need to use the smartboard, or a basic set of textbooks requested a year ago.

“We don’t have a lack of resources here. We have an improper allocation of those resources,” the district’s state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said.