NY State passes legislation allowing dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia to be targeted

Pile of Invoices, Man Using Laptop on the Background

“Gov. Cuomo just signed into law a measure codifying federal protections permitting the words dyslexia, dysgraphia (which affects writing ability) and dyscalculia (affecting mathematical processing) to be used in determining eligibility for special education services and developing Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs.”

This legislation matters. Before, educators were discouraged from using specific terms such as these when writing IEPs, even when the evidence was clear that a child struggled in one of these areas. I think this is a step forward in better targeting children’s needs.

That said, however, I also have some hesitation about the use of these terms.

1) Many IEPs are written with few (relatively) objective data points as a reference. Most schools don’t have sophisticated enough assessments to be able to make a diagnosis that is so specific. As I have always cautioned parents at an IEP meeting, we are making an educational diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis. But when people start throwing around terms like “dysgraphia,” it sounds officially sanctioned, like it’s the pronouncement of a doctor, when it’s really just a supposition made with little background nor training on assessing and supporting these specific disabilities. And it may also end up promoting some learned helplessness on the part of both teachers and students when they start labeling general academic difficulties with these terms.

2) Another problem with such terms is their lack of specificity. There’s debate about whether dyslexia even exists. Having worked with students with all three of these conditions, I can assure you it definitely does. But you shouldn’t have to take my word for it. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to uncover more knowledge about such conditions. For example, it appears that dyslexia is related to trouble with phonological processing which stems from a reduced plasticity of the brain.

The difficulty, however, is that even when we apply more specific terms like “dysgraphia,” it’s still not very clear about what exactly needs to be done to address the issue. We know that early intervention is essential, but what does one do with a dysgraphic student in 8th grade? Teachers (and parents) would love to know what that medicine should be.

3) What if a student demonstrates all three of these things (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia)? We often end up just labeling them LD (a “learning disability”) and leaving it at that. But this begs the question of whether it is then even a disability at all. It may be a compounding of socio-economic factors, environmental factors, and a lack of access to early interventions and support.

But at the end of the day, whatever the cause, and whatever the label, is all less relevant than what is being done once the label has been applied.

What will we do to support children identified as struggling mightily with reading, writing, and math? And is what we’re doing actually helping? That’s the most important thing.

Finally getting serious about educating kids with dyslexia, NY Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon in the NY Daily News

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The problem with special education

Learning Disability | Learning Disability Stock Photo When u… | Flickr

There’s a problem with special education in the US. Marc Tucker tries to get down to the bottom of things

“The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student’s performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.”

I think Tucker’s hypothesis bears some truth. From my own experience as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how the label introduces its own set of psychological burdens. And we have a lot of kids being labeled who are simply struggling with academics, but not with any overt “disability” that can be clearly discerned.

“Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place.”

So how do other countries keep students out of special education?

“The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education. But it does not stop there. It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.”

Reading this list, it just seems so common-sense, doesn’t it? Yet the tragedy is that there is little political will nor ideological support for these kinds of investments in the US. You start saying this kind of stuff too often, you get labeled as some kind of socialist or union shill. The reality is that when it comes to things like public education and social services, the people in the US who have the money and/or power to make things happen are most interested in things that sparkle and that offer the promise of a quick fix.

Yet Tucker also provides an interesting point in his conclusion, when he brings up the outlier in special education labeling, Finland, which labels upward of 38 percent of their kids:

“In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help. Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem. Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get “special education” help at least once in their school career. Because that is true, there is no stigma. Every school has a “special education” teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it. This is an idea worth conjuring with.”

This definitely bears promise. In fact, this is how the special education team at my former middle school began approaching services. We recognized just how much of a stigma being labeled “special ed” had on kids, so we set about rebranding our work. We called ourselves Student Support services–because at some point, every student needs some kind of support.

Sounds a lot more positive, doesn’t it? Maybe special education as a system needs to be rebranded in this way.

Have We Got Special Education All Wrong?, Marc Tucker on Huff Post

Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

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“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

Early Conflicts with Teachers Can Lead to Special Education

“The relationships preschoolers form with their teachers can predict their school performance in early-elementary school, concludes a new study.

Through statistical analyses of data on nearly 1,000 preschoolers, researchers from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education find that students who experienced conflict with their teachers in preschool were likelier to be referred for special education later on in elementary school—especially for boys whose language skills were low for their age.”

—Carmen Constantinescu, “Children’s Preschool Classroom Experiences and Associations With Early Elementary Special Education Referral” in EdWeek

College and Career Ready? Maybe neither

Last week, I wrote about how NY was moving to lower high school diploma expectations for students with disabilities. Since writing that post, the NY Board of Regents has voted in the law, effective immediately, which has created some confusion for principals.

I’ll admit I know little of the landscape of NY high school exit requirements, since I’ve spent my career at the elementary and middle school levels. What remains unclear to me is what a “local diploma” really means, and how it connects to a viable career, as some advocates for students with disabilities are saying (as reported in this Chalkbeat piece). I’m open to being further educated on this, if anyone out there wants to school me. But right now it seems to be a mechanism for diminished expectations for some students, while enabling adults to claim higher grad rates.

Chalkbeat reporters Alex Zimmerman and Annie Ma further report that “Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.”

It’s also unclear to me how reducing requirements for students with disabilities connects to “project-based” measures, as this is not an explicit component of the law itself, which you can view in an overview of on this document provided by NYSED. I’m all for performance-based assessment (which is maybe what Kaminsky meant to refer to—to my knowledge, project-based learning is a pedagogical strategy, not a form of assessment), but utilizing PBA does not require lowering expectations. If these supplanted the traditional Regents exams, I’d be all for it. But I still wouldn’t stand by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

On Twitter, The74’s Matt Barnum challenged my thinking on high school diploma requirements:

His post provides an overview of research which suggests that stringent high school diploma requirements may have little of the expected benefits (increased academic achievement), while it can have many unintended downsides, such as an increase in drop-out and incarceration rates.

I find this research compelling and a fit rebuttal to the imposition of high standards without compensatory attention paid to providing alternative options.

But I still don’t think lowering expectations for an academic diploma for some, or any, students is the answer. A high school diploma should signify that a student is prepared to enter college.

Not all students are prepared to enter college, whether due to ability or interest. However, all students could be better equipped to begin a career.

The greatest underreported story of last year, in my opinion, is that dramatically greater numbers of students are now failing the GED. This is far more problematic than students failing to obtain a HS diploma.

Couple this with the general dearth of well designed and funded vocational programs and opportunities in the US.

Over in Kentucky, however, there is a more sane and equitable approach that does not require diminishing expectations, as Emmanuel Felton reports. In KY, they are building two tracks between what it might mean to be “college” and/or “career” ready, and this makes a lot of sense to me. Instead of devaluing a high school diploma just to allow states to claim higher graduation rates, we should be investing in alternative pathways to a career that are both viable and rigorous.

 

Teachers and Education Officials: Expect More from Students with Disabilities

 

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By Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers.

I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from NY state education officials is accurate.

I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work.

When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?

Can’t?

I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability.

When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them.

Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.

It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

We’ve been here before. NY State used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “IEP diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them.

I know that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean.

What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them? We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this.

But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying, What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet — it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there.

Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize.

If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to build alternative pathways to careers.

But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs.

 

*an extremely wide and diverse bucket, BTW. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.

Adaptive Learning: Rock Climbing

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“When you’re on a rock ledge,” Willson says, “there’s a sweet spot of arousal and stress that opens you up for adaptive learning. You find new ways of solving problems.”

—Florence Williams, “ADHD Is Fuel for Adventure” on Outside

Provide Scaffolding, Not Lowered Expectations, for Students with Disabilities

What can be done from a child’s earliest educational experience, either at home or at school, to promote what’s possible for all children?

One is people not assuming that disability means inability to access education. We see this in national studies, that people are very, very quick to modify curriculum for kids and not as quick to provide accommodations. It should be the other way around. It should be accommodate first, and modification should only be done if the child is not intellectually able to handle the content due to an intellectual disability. And, even with many kids with intellectual disabilities, modification is not necessarily required, depending upon the course. Modification of curriculum should be a suspect practice, but it starts with attitude. It starts with the notion that, from the beginning, many people look at kids like Daniel and they assume he’s incapable because he’s got so much neurological stuff going on, because that’s the nature of cerebral palsy. He couldn’t speak for many years. He speaks quite well now because he’s been given good speech therapy. In Daniel’s case, he was very fortunate as a preschooler to have a teacher who recognized his intellectual capability, even though he couldn’t speak. He also had supportive parents. Daniel’s case is one where there were many adults in his life that made a big difference.

Interview with Harvard Professor Thomas Hehir on Usable Knowledge

A Glimpse of My Own School Ecosystem

I am fortunate to work in a great district school. I would happily send my own child (if I had one) to Jonas Bronck Academy. I work in co-teaching classrooms across 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I actively receive some of the best professional development I could ever get due to the fact that in each of my classrooms every single day, I get the opportunity to observe and collaborate with highly effective teachers.

Here’s a video in which you can get a glimpse of this wonderful school ecosystem. However, what you won’t see is the community of adults who actively surround these children with love each day. Try to keep that community in mind as you watch, because they are what enables what you do see to exist:

On the Limits of Problem Solving

When Mark and I aren’t blogging about schools and ecosystems, we like to get together for a cold beverage and talk about…schools and ecosystems. Our conversations usually start with some really lucid, optimistic ideas about how we can promote our approach to school design, how we can build connections between like-minded teachers, or how we can help our students become better people. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I are in problem-solving mode. We’re thinking about the obstacles we face as teachers, the obstacles our students face, and we’re trying to come up with ways to overcome those obstacles.

After a couple of beverages, our ideas usually become a bit less lucid and, sometimes, a bit less hopeful. In particular, since we both teach students with disabilities, our conversations often circle around the problems that disabilities present, both for us as teachers and for our students as human beings in a world that likes to pretend that such disabilities don’t exist. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I have abandoned problem-solving mode. We’re not proposing new programs or methods that could somehow measure our disabled students’ academic progress. At this point we’re more contemplative and, I think, a bit more humble.

Anyone who’s taught students with disabilities has (I hope) learned some humility. We’ve learned that no matter how a school is designed, no matter what type of curriculum we use, a child with severe ADHD who is off her meds will not be able to stay in her seat for very long. We’ve learned that increasingly rigorous curricula do not, in fact, help a student with an emotional disturbance control his anger. Even the most rigorous standards will not prevent this student from getting out of his seat, picking up a chair, and throwing it at the girl sitting across from him.

I don’t list these examples to suggest that we should abandon all hope and stop teaching students with severe disabilities. I list them to suggest that we should approach the problem of disability with humility. We should acknowledge that as a society, we are uncomfortable with disability and we are often frustrated that people with disabilities are not able to meet the same demands placed upon the rest of us.

I could hear that frustration in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s voice when he recently proposed new “accountability standards” for special education students, stating without a shred of evidence, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Duncan was in problem-solving mode. He believed that he had figured out how to fix our students with disabilities. The solution is high expectations and rigorous curricula, which apparently aren’t already in place.

I have a feeling that the solution is actually not so simple. I recently read a brilliant essay by Fredrik deBoer on what he calls “the death of nuance.” In this piece, deBoer criticizes the ProPublica news service for its coverage of the use of restraining holds on school children. DeBoer describes his own experience as a special education teacher teaching students with severe emotional disturbance, a job that required him and his co-workers to physically restrain students when they posed a severe threat to themselves or others. He writes:

Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood.

DeBoer does not argue for or against restraining holds. He does not pretend to have the solution to the problem of disability or mental illness. Instead, he raises some serious concerns about our inability to have intelligent, analytical discussions about complex issues like disability, education, or mental health. He writes:

I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them…I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers.

Reading deBoer’s piece, I was reminded of Arne Duncan’s facile approach to the problem of teaching students with disabilities. The notion that all we need to help students like the ones deBoer describes are high expectations and robust curricula reflects an ignorance so profound that I don’t even know how to respond to it, except to say that when the federal appointees in charge of our public schools are so completely incapable of grasping the problems that teachers and students face, it’s time for those people to get out of problem-solving mode. Any solutions posed by people with such a clear inability to understand the complexities of public schooling and special education will only make things worse.