Saturday, May 14, 2011

What lessons are our children really learning? It is time to break the code of silence and the phony outcomes game!

What lessons are our children really learning? It is time to break the code of silence and end the phony outcomes game!

Jimmy has disabilities and struggles at school, but had never been evaluated for special education. Some kids that live near him were bullying him, before, during and after school. His parents complained to the school staff, but little was done….. and he became more and more upset. In an apparent effort to deal with the bullying at school, a speaker was brought in to address all the students about bullying. At the end of the speech, he offered the students his email so they could write him. The next day, Jimmy wrote that he was being bullied and was not getting protected and was having suicidal thoughts. The speaker told the Principal, who called the parents and suggested that Jimmy be hospitalized. When Jimmy returned to school, little changed. The bullying continued. Jimmy finally couldn’t take it any more and fought back. He was suspended for fighting and still the school did not stop the bullying nor evaluate him. What does it teach the victim when he is ignored when he seeks help and, not getting help, is punished when he fights back? What message does it send to the bullies when they are not punished, but the victim is? Can teachers feel safe and supported if their administrators are not willing to take decisive action to maintain control of the school and assure that bullying, aggression and violence are not permitted?

Sally has learning disabilities, AD/HD, Reactive Attachment Disorder and auditory processing problems, along with other disabilities. She is only 8 years old. She receives special education services at school and has an outdated behavior plan that calls for the staff to record all of Sally’s behaviors and to email the parents if there are any serious behaviors. Recently, the teacher and staff in the class have been logging as many as 180 behaviors a day and emailing the parents 10 or more times a day about all the problems she is having. Most often, the reports show the behavior, but nothing is being done to change the behavior or to change the strategies that have been repeatedly unsuccessful. Because the plans aren’t working, Sally is spending much of her class time in time out and the staff are spending much of their time recording behavior data, but not addressing the behavior. Isn’t learning supposed to include learning that we need to change our strategies when they aren’t working? Isn’t it likely that Sally has learned that she can escape the work that is difficult for her if she acts out, because then she is removed from the work? Is that what we want Sally to be learning about behavior? How much academic learning is Sally able to do when there are so many behavior problems occurring? What is the teacher learning, when she is spending enormous time recording data and sending reports to the parents, but no one is analyzing the data or helping her to identify what may be causing Sally’s behavior or to find better strategies for addressing it?

Andre had a reading disability and Asperger’s Syndrome, but is very smart. His teachers didn’t think that he had a disability, because he was able to perform reasonably well in school. The parents were insistent that he needed extra help or would begin having serious problems. The school finally agreed, but the teachers were skeptical, feeling that he didn’t need their help and it was a waste of time. At the end of the year, one of the teachers told the parents that Andre had made remarkable progress with the strategies that she had started using, but that she had discovered that many of these strategies were also very helpful with most of her other students. It’s great that the teacher was able to recognize and acknowledge the effectiveness of the strategies the parents were recommending, but what would have happened if the parents hadn’t known to ask for a change? How long would Andre have had to fail before the staff realized that something different was needed? Isn’t part of learning that we always strive to find solutions to problems and to find new and better ways to learn and teach, even if things are working adequately? Sometimes new strategies initially involve more work. Working with kids with disabilities, and teaching generally, can be emotionally and physically exhausting. But what lessons to we model for kids when we repeat what is familiar, rather than challenge them and ourselves by trying things that are new and setting standards that require them and us to stretch higher?

Tommy’s mother was worried that he didn’t seem to be learning much at school and struggled with the little homework that he brought home. Recently, the school did a three year reevaluation of Tommy. Tommy’s mother was very confused because the staff reported that he had made lots of progress and had tested in the average range in the school’s psychological testing. Tommy’s mother decided to get an outside evaluation done to help to figure out why Tommy was struggling so much if the school’s testing was accurate. When the evaluator began to test Tommy, he not only reported that he was familiar with the tests, but that the teacher had spent worked with him to practice taking the tests at school and had helped him while the formal tests were being done by prompting him if he was giving an incorrect answer. How is Tommy helped by being assisted to perform on a school evaluation so he will appear to be functioning much higher than he really was? What will Tommy learn from being assisted to cheat on an important test? What accountability does a teacher or evaluator have for encouraging a student to cheat? Is this isolated or are educators receiving subtle or even explicit pressure to teach to the test and to take questionable measures to increase the test performance of their students?

Bonnie had a variety of fine motor and speech problems. She had an IEP with very modest goals in these areas and she was getting passing grades. Even though Bonnie had many continuing problems with speech and sensory-motor skills, the therapists and teachers decided she no longer needed speech or OT services and that the teachers could provide whatever help she needed. Is it realistic to expect teachers to know how to help Bonnie if the specialists aren’t involved? Is it fair to Bonnie or the teachers to expect them to do even more to assist with Bonnie’s problems when they already have a full load of activities and aren’t trained to provide these services? Is it wise educationally to reduce services to Bonnie (perhaps to save money), when the many needs Bonnie still has may create further academic and other problems for her as she continues with her education and into adulthood?

These stories are amalgams of the experiences of a number of children with whom I have worked in the last few months. While the names and details have been changed for obvious reasons, each story is based on real situations. There are many excellent, committed and compassionate teachers and educators working in our schools. And there are many good schools and good school districts. We ask them to do the impossible, but give them the resources to do what is unacceptable. But in the ongoing debate over the lack of adequate outcomes from our educational system, as part of the debates over No Child Left Behind, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the push for accountability, innovation, flexibility, and less regulation and control, the stories above and many variations are frighteningly commonplace. I have grave doubts that some of the proposals for reforming education that are currently being discussed will improve the schools. In fact, I fear that many of the proposals may make things worse.
Students and educators all deserve better! It is tempting to focus on quantitative measures to promote higher quality in our schools, but it is an impossible mission. We must broaden our view of the role of the schools to include not only academics but the wide range of life skills. These cannot be measured on school-wide tests.
We must broaden our training of teachers so that they are using the best educational practices to teach our students academics (skills that many currently lack), but also prepare them to be leaders and models for our students in relation to values, behavior, communication, and service. We must shatter the code of silence within schools in which low performance is hidden and professional evaluation is seen as a threat, rather than seen as a means to identify and solve problems. We must break down the barriers to parent involvement, both those erected by the educators and those resulting from parental indifference or inability to find time to be involved.
We must invest in teaching new teachers not only the basic content information they need to teach a subject, but much more in how to be a good teacher. We must rethink and redesign our ongoing in-service and continuing education programs for current teachers to give them access to the training to learn and master best practices. We must demand that administrators set expectations for their teachers and their schools that are geared to excellence in teaching, to maximizing the performance of all students, not only on test, but in their day to day work, and we must redefine the schools as open communities involving educators, parents and businesses, rather than as fortresses to be defended against attack from the public or from complaining parents or policy makers. We must recognize the importance of public education, the need for high standards and the cost of quality education. We must invest in our children, our teachers and our schools, rather than paying lip service to quality, accountability and innovation through gimmicks that require change, but are not likely to achieve the true changes we want and need. We must expect outcomes that improve the quality of our children’s education and their ability to succeed as adults, rather than outcomes that show statistical improvement, but do not correspond to improvement in real life. Too often, parents and teachers are now seen as opponents in the political arena. Isn’t it time that teachers and parents united and demanded better training, resources, and support.? It would be better for all of us.


  1. Our compliments on this extremely thoughtful post -- from your fans at 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter.

  2. That certainly is the way it goes. As an advocate and as a parent I've seen some incompetence, lots of bias, outright negligence, and I've watched parents and students attempt to convice and administrator of what the needs are when the administrator's job is to actively not be convinced.

    Riding dead horses seems to be an educational hobby these days.


  3. I have to say this is exactly why we wound up homeschooling. I didn't want to--I'd still rather be working--but when my 7 year old was thinking about suicide because of the way he was being treated in school and we had to fight administration and teachers EVERY step of the way to get him protection and help, it was and is the right thing to do. Took me more than two years as a homeschooler to undo the damage to his self-esteem and confidence that one ignorant teacher did in one semester. I believe in education for all, but I don't believe this system works at all...

  4. I am always torn about these issues. There are many good teachers out there, but the system seems totally dysfunctional and often hostile to kids and parents. Some schools embrace parent involvement, but manysee the parents as the enemy and become defensive and shut down in the face of legitimate parent effort to address concerns. Some teachers are great....some are just punching the clock and some do real harm. There needs to be better training, supervision, accountability and support for all. Even the good teachers are often put in impossible positions. I also think that many schools and educators don't fully understand the emotional impact of poor teaching and/or indifferent treatment for the students, whether from other students or, worse, from staff members. The same is true in relation to parents. It is challenging to have a child with a disability. When the school is unresponsive or hostile, it creates a whole new level of stress, anger and trauma for many parents.

  5. Ah, many of us find ourselves there. I un/homeschooled for eight years. Undoing the damage to him caused me great loneliness and financial hardship...years without a job or updated training, and dwindling 401K. But I think I won :) as at age 16 and at uni locally, he's finally being heard, being included, and while he's still ASD, ADHD, EFD...he's happy and successful.

    Matt, there is a deeper problem than meets the eye. Even SPED administrators don't seem to understand what they don't understand. Many cannot even, for instance, define what Executive Function Disorder means, how it affects organization, and the limits of remediation. And I've yet to meet one who can name more than three ways that weak theory of minds presents. And many of the supports in place for ASD, EFD, and ADHD are simply an act of dragging a dead horse around the track --constant repetition of what doesn't work because...we are used to throwing things that don't work into the pot and choosing from those to justify our programs.

    For instance, you wrote, "Isn’t it likely that Sally has learned that she can escape the work that is difficult for her if she acts out, because then she is removed from the work?"

    It could also be that Sally is anxious enough to not be able to learn and/or not be able to attend to behavior, because lots of kids like Sally are overwhelmed in groups. But that she's learned escapist behavior is what is thought of most often, and then (typically) the blame is put on the child and the parents. All Sally has learned is how to fail and the meaning of ostracism.

  6. Starfish- I agree with all of your comments. However, there are many explanations even beyond those you mention. The key point is that the administrators and teachers lack critical knowledge and are not provided or do not seek out training and information that is current about disabilities, new information about well known disabilities or about best practice in diagnosis and intervention. For teachers, some of this is not by choice, but by lack of opportunity and resources. For administrators and school systems, however, it is not just a lack of knowledge, but sometimes a desire to avoid expanding the scope of information, as that carries with it the need to do more and spend more. (The more disabilities we recognize and the more we know about best practice, the more we and our staff will need to do). Right now, the push is to reduce the numbers of kids eligible for services, reduce the level of service and reduce the degree of individualization. Many of the examples I gave involve kids that are especially vulnerable to this because their disabilities are less obvious and do not fit neatly in the "off the shelf" services that are generally available.

  7. I chanced upon this blog and this entry, and particularly this quote in your comment, "I also think that many schools and educators don't fully understand the emotional impact of poor teaching and/or indifferent treatment for the students, whether from other students or, worse, from staff members. The same is true in relation to parents. It is challenging to have a child with a disability. When the school is unresponsive or hostile, it creates a whole new level of stress, anger and trauma for many parents."
    This is the position I find myself in now. I'm at a loss as to how to proceed.
    My son was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor when he was 2. He is 14 years old now and a survivor of three years chemo. Because of his traumatic brain injury (TBI), he has profound learning disabilities, but is also intellectually gifted. To speak to him, you would never suspect any kind of LD. Without accommodations, you might not suspect giftedness in his school work. (It's apparent speaking to him that he is brilliant and this works against him--the "off the shelf" services do not apply to his needs.)
    After a huge battle with the Dept. of Ed, he was funded to attend a special ed school from grades 2 to 8. While I think the structure was better than the alternative--mainstream--he was bored to tears the whole time and would come home to listen to books on tape, read (once he was able to), study up on his own interests, etc. His fund of knowledge on topics ranging from Apartheid to Physics to the Civil War to international politics surpasses most adults.
    Finally for high school, I pulled him from the special ed school and he was accepted into an accelerated public high school program. He has an IEP which specifies several accommodations. Unfortunately, it's like pulling teeth to get the teachers to comply. Some are just too bumbling, but others are out and out hostile to him and to me.
    It's been a battle with the teachers, the principal, the school district. Of course they are strapped for resources, but also so unfamiliar with this learning profile--they just assume (despite his neuro-psychologist coming to the school and explaining his profile and how his deficits can be addressed) that I am a hysterical narcissist who can't bear to see her son receive a C. I very much get the feeling they wish we would just disappear.
    I have a PhD in Education and teach at the college level. I agree that teachers need better training and it's so true that the accommodations they need to implement for twice exceptional/LD students would benefit all the students. However, what do I do now: I'm at my rope's end trying to figure out how best to "crack" this school so someone "gets" it. What can I do to get them to comply with the IEP and provide my son the education he's entitled to? The alternative of going back to the special ed school is like sending him to intellectual prison. I feel like I need public relations firm/diplomatic corps so I don’t offend and alienate.
    Thanks for any advice!

  8. Maria- There are many issues here. The USDOE has issued interpretation letters making clear that accommodations must be provided to students with disabilities in higher level classes as well as in regular classes. The bigger issue that you raise is compliance. This is a pervasive problem. Teachers are not allowed to refuse to implement services or accommodations that are written in the IEP. The first step is to build in as much direction as possible into the IEP so there is no confusion or ambiguity as to what the staff must do. It is also important to try to build in feedback loops, reporting measures and other ways of tracking implementation so that the teachers are aware that they are being monitored. This may make them more compliant or at least give you an earlier head's up if they are not cooperating or doing their job. Unfortunately, however, there are no "Special Ed Quality Control Police" (other than you), and implementation is a huge problem. It is even more difficult because it is hard to prove non-compliance and administrators tend to defend their staff. I always think it is best to move up the ladder, trying to work things out informally and collaboratively as much as possible. At the same, document the problems and your efforts to correct them. At some points, parents have to resort to the state complaint procedure, requests for due process or OCR complaints in order to get the attention of the administration. Even then, it can be difficult. An important additional strategy is to try to find internal allies within the staff that can both monitor, give you feedback and advocate for your child internally. That is often more effective. Also, if they are willing to speak publicly (a big if!), that also gives you more leverage if you have to complain. At a broader level, this is a systemic problem and reflects the general lack of quality and buy in of many schools and some of their staff. Absent strong support from the administration for appropriate service, the teachers are given the message that non-compliance is permissible.