“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More on Special Education reforms

So this week, I have been in several classrooms. Last week, I was with a brand new teacher who had been left alone, still in her first week of teaching, with 6 high school aged students with severe to profound intellectual and physical disabilities. She asked me to stay for a few extra minutes so she could take one of the girls to the restroom while I watched the others. I think this is a rare situation at this school, but it is unacceptable nonetheless.

In another school, I discussed the focus on state standards with several teachers of severely disabled teens. One teacher indicated that the curriculum is no longer focused upon teaching functional skills that the students will need to be adults who are functioning as independently as possible. Instead, everything is so geared to preparation for the CAPA exam that students are to take a district designed preparatory exam. I am confident that those who designed it thought they were being very innovative. The problem is that the state that mandated the test is so obviously wrong so the practice test is obviously wrong. For example, questions ask severely intellectually disabled persons about noble gasses and planetary orbits which is beyond rediculous. I will tell you that to me, the California Alternative Performance Assessment or CAPA is goofy.

An alternative means of measuring student progress may be what is needed. Something that makes teachers accountable, however, is less norm, standards based. The moderate servere population is just too heterogenous to have such standards. CAPA and other assessments are futile attempts to squeeze people who do not test well on standardized assessments into them. In reality what is needed is criterion referenced assessments, that chart a students growth against his current level of performance. What is needed is for teachers to develop criterion referenced training procedures and then implement them with a data based approach. Additionally, the kinds of things that are being assessed are all to often totally irrelevant to any aspect of the student's life.

But I believe these tests are also the result of poor teaching in far too many moderate to severe disability classrooms. It could be the State's effort to make teachers accountable. I cannot tell you how many times I have visited a classroom where the children of whatever age are simply being babysitted.

I have been in a high school classroom where the lights were off because it was nap time.

I have been in a classroom with 12 profoundly disabled students and a teacher and 1 aide.

I have been in classrooms where 20 minutes of the 6 hour instructional day was spent on IEP objectives.

I have been in classrooms where each student only has 1 or 2 IEP objectives.

I have been in classrooms where students are spending their instructional day in front of the television.

I have been in classrooms severely disabled students literally sit for hours with no interaction from anyone.

And so on and so on.

If I am the teacher's supervisor, these things stop immediately, to the degree I am able to get a teacher to change. But you don't have to look too far to see low expectations, activity based babysitting going on in public schools.

In two classrooms I was in over the past two weeks, there were also two students who were characterized as behavior problems. However, when I worked with the students, and then the teachers followed up with those same students, many of the behavior problems went away. I will never forget the words of one of my student teachers many years ago. She naively observed, "When I made the curriculum interesting, the behavior problems went away!" It is true for students of any age. I think I related how I was working with a young man with severe disabilities in a classroom, who followed me to the door, signing as I was leaving, "More work. More work." It broke my heart.

In another school, I watched as instructional aides took students out to the playground. I then entered a classroom. When I came back outside, I counted the aides. There were 12 on the playground, 9 of which were sitting around picnic tables in the shade, 2 who were kind of walking around monitoring things and another standing and watching. In other words, there was NO interaction between the aides and the students, none of the aides were participating in games or play with the students and all this was occurring in a large grassy playground area in the center of the school where anyone could see what was happening. This is a high priced private school for students with severe disabilities.

It is so sad.

Then I found out this week that one of the teachers that I have trained, one that I took particular interest in has become something of a slacker. I know that she knows what is right, what she should do in her classroom. But she has succombed to the pressure to be incompetent, to do little or nothing. It is funny, because to a significant degree, if you do what your district wants you to do as a moderate to severe disabiltiy teacher, you will not be doing what is in the best interests of your students. If you judge your performance on the evaluation by your principal, that may not be the correct standard as your principal may know nothing.

I am always appealing to my students.

You have a responsibility to expect the best from your students.

You have a responsibility to demonstrate how to interact with severely disabled people.

You must be accountable for the instruction that goes on in your classroom.

You cannot give in to the pressure to be marginal.

But they sometimes do anyway.



Anonymous said...

It is difficult to teach in the classrooms you describe. I know, because I am sure one of the students you describe is mine. Or might as well be, because he is here. "Tony" signs all day long for "more work" and with intense engagement, he produces it.

But disruptive behaviors are pervasive, and affect the behaviors of others to the extent that Tony's issues disrupt our efforts to reach others and affect our work with our kids.

I think one of our most difficult problems is deciding what, exactly, we should be doing to improve our students lives. We select an activity that that he/she can participate in successfully, and when challenged about the activity's functionality, I don't have an answer. I have no idea what good it will do a 21 year old girl to be able to put a small purple ring on top of a larger yellow one. So why am I doing it?

Your post today helps me find focus, Jeff. What can I do tomorrow that will make the future of my students better than they appear to be today?

See you,


Jeff McNair said...

You are so right Mark.

It is difficult because of the challenging behaviors faced, it is difficult because of the severe disabilities the students face. It can also be difficult because of the setting, the school in which one is trying to make a difference.
I think the best we can do as teachers is to try to make a difference in the life of a person with a severe intellectual disability. We ask ourselves the question, "Is there anything educationally that I can give to a student that may make a difference in her life?" If I can find that thing or those things, I work toward them. So, if I can teach someone to recruit attention from the environment through language or switches, I will work on that because it may make a difference for them as an adult. If I can give someone something to do in their leisure time other than just sitting or watching TV, I will try to work on teaching that.
As you indicate, the questions must be asked, and all we can do is to use our training to think through the issues and come up with the optimal solution we can. We then teach that solution will all the best practices we can garner.
God bless you in your work, Mark.

RachelD said...

The more time that passes the more discouraged I feel as a teacher.
I have a hard time seeing colleagues take on the babysitting approach-- I am blessed to have one friend within the district who I can collaborate with and we can keep each other motivated. Everyone NEEDS that one colleague who will support them when they are taking the seemingly hard road of DOING WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO!

It seems to me that if you "keep them quiet", and stay quiet yourself, administrators are happy and they assume you are a "good teacher." Let's throw that out-- please!!!

I say bring on the accountability!!! I would love to have an adminstrator ask to see IEPs, ask to see data, implementation strategies, schedules, etc. TAKE AN INTEREST IN WHAT WE ARE DOING... Rock the boat a little. Those that are doing what they are supposed to...have nothing to hide.

Jeff McNair said...


Anonymous said...

I would also welcome an administrators demand to examine the IEPs and a look at the data.

Bring on the accountability, Amen!

Anonymous said...

As I am reading your blog out loud to my husband he stops me and asks," why in the world would you want to get into this profession?" I looked at him and said, " I can do better, I can make a difference". He gave me a kiss on the head and went on his way. I have been a substitute in the same school district for 11 years. I am sad to say that I have seen most of the behavior you are commenting on. I have substituted all levels of Special Education and have seen slackers in all. I feel lucky if the aides show up. There have been many a time where other aides will say that they just will not come if the teacher is not there. So there you have an unfamilar person trying to do her best with no lesson plans ("the aides know what to do") and no aides. What is amazing is that no admisistrators ever come to see how you are doing. They do not even know that the aides are not there. I find this disgraceful. So one would ask, "Why do this, why not teach in a "normal"classroom?" I answer again,"I can do better, I can make a difference".
Thank you Dr. Mc Nair for inspiring me to do better, giving me the drive, and helping me see where I need to be in the educational field.