Small school students show gains

New York City’s small public high schools are producing gains for disadvantaged students, according to a new MDRC study, Sustained Progress.

Students who win the admissions lottery to these schools are significantly more likely to earn a high school diploma (70.4 percent) than applicants who lost the lottery (60.9 percent) than lottery losers. Small schools  increased the graduation rates of special-education students by 13.8 percentage points and of English Language Learners by 4.9 percentage points, MDRC suggests, though the sample size is small.

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.

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?

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.”

Evaluating special ed teachers

Paul Hogan teaches severely handicapped children in New York City, yet he’s evaluated with a framework designed for teachers of mainstream students. This is “tantamount to punishing and penalizing teachers who go into this demanding, difficult and highly *specialized* type of teaching,” he writes. The union hasn’t helped.

A classroom teacher can earn a “highly effective” rating only if students are observed by the evaluator to formulate high-level questions and take  “responsibility for the success of the discussion.”

Many students in District 75, which serves severely handicapped children, can’t speak.

In some cases  these non-verbal kids may be trained to push buttons on  electronic devices to communicate basic needs. “Bathroom,” for example, represented on the device by an icon or pictograph, is a basic need; as is “Hungry”. There are various picture/symbol communication  systems (TEACCH, PECS, etc.) that are used with some success with some students.  This is the kind of thing we do in special ed.. . . And let me tell you: if you are talking about a non-verbal child, classified by the DOE as “untestable,” who is incontinent and has struggled from birth with tripelgic or quadriplegic spastic cerebral palsy, you can take the Danielson Framework and burn it. It has no relevance to the  proper education of the child I just described.

Some students have IQs too low to measure. They don’t “initiate or adapt activities and projects to enhance their understanding.” They don’t exhibit “grade-level understanding.”

Exasperated Educator teaches and tests students with less-severe disabilities.

 

Pre-K works for at-risk kids in Texas

Texas’s pre-kindergarten program for disadvantaged students raises math and reading scores through third grade and reduces the likelihood students will repeat a grade or need special education services, according to a CALDER Working Paper. The study followed children from 1990 to 2002.

Instead of universal pre-K, Texas targets limited resources at high-need children, notes Education Gadfly. The Pre-K Early Start program cost less than half the cost of Head Start, which produces gains that begin to fade after first grade.  What is the PKES program doing differently? “In Texas, even pre-K has standards and curriculum—and they’re aligned with those of the K–12 system,” writes Gadfly.

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.

How federal rules block innovation

Federal education funding is supporting the status quo, argues a new Center on Reinventing Public Education report, Federal Barriers to Innovation. Authors Raegen Miller and Robin Lake focus on Title I funding for disadvantaged students and  IDEA funding for disabled students.

 The Title I comparability loop hole, for instance, prevents districts from adopting promising new technology–based school models. If a district has a high-poverty school staffed with inexperienced, lower-paid teachers, and an affluent school of the same size staffed with the same number of more experienced, higher-paid teachers, those schools are considered to have comparable staffing levels. The loophole masks the true educational costs of schools, reinforces a traditional compensation system that favors tenure and post-graduate education, and prevents districts from differentiating pay in strategic ways.

IDEA’s maintenance of effort requirement forces districts to keep spending money “without regard for its efficiency or effectiveness.” That blocks innovative teaching methods and technologies.

Instead, IDEA needs a “challenge waiver” system, Miller and Lake write.

Districts could be granted waivers for the 100 percent spending threshold on special education and related services “provided they furnish a coherent, strategic special education plan documenting the rationale for a lower threshold.” Such a system would encourage more data-driven decision-making, while random audits would ensure fidelity of implementation.

In addition, they call for “redirecting Title II funds (an amalgam of funding streams supporting ineffectual professional development and class-size reduction programs)” toward effective new instructional technologies.

Accountable for binder stuffing

“Mrs. Lipstick” teaches special education students who are too disabled to take standardized tests. Instead, teachers assemble binders with worksheets students have filled out to show they’ve been taught the same curriculum as non-disabled students. There’s no time to design and teach meaningful lessons, she writes on Organized Chaos.

I’m supposed to give a child a meaningless worksheet, briefly teach the subject and then re-teach it over and over again until the child can perform it for that worksheet only. Then I put the worksheet into a plastic sleeved binder along with all the other worksheets that have been a complete waste of time and I submit it for a grade. A meaningless grade because the child isn’t actually expected to know the information because I wasn’t expected to actually teach the information. It is a binder just for show.

Parents of intellectually disabled children don’t want this, she writes.

I can’t imagine one of my parents saying, “Oh yes, I want to know that my child can identify the Powhatan Indians on a worksheet. . . . That’s more important than knowing how to safely cross the street, identifying the letters, telling me that they love me, or counting to 10. And make sure it is on a worksheet. Not a fun hands-on activity that can help my child distinguish between American Indians and settlers, but a worksheet.”

Why spend the time on worksheets and binders? It’s supposed to show special education teachers are being held accountable, she writes.

Why should all children be taught the same lessons, regardless of their abilities?

Feds crack down on special ed efficiency

South Carolina has been hit by $36 million in U.S. Education Department penalties for “making tough but necessary cuts to all school spending in the midst of the Great Recession, special education included,” writes Education Gadfly. The “asinine” decision teaches states a perverse lesson:  “Finding ways to boost efficiency in special education literally may not be worth the trouble.”