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

Friday, October 03, 2008

Special education needs reform

I was visiting a local California high school today, and for some reason something I observed just set me off.  It was like the last straw.  An adult man, I assume he was an instructional assistant, was walking a high school student with severe disabilities by the arm, holding him as if he would run away, while he was talking on a cell phone.  I got really angry.  He wasn't talking to the boy, or interacting in any way.  The boy was NOT being treated as a human being but like a nonentity who he was just dragging around.  How can we possibly tolerate this?

But this type of thing is all too common in special education.  
Bear with me while I rant a bit...

People talk a good game, but you don't see it when the rubber hits the road.  Either they are evil or they are slackers.  I recognize that you have to choose your battles.  I literally take a half hour of every class I teach and talk about what is worth loosing your job over, because when you get into the system, it may come down to that if you are going to fight for justice in the public schools or other state agencies.  You know, in this political season, ask people who are dependent upon government services how things are going in terms of receiving those services.  I can tell you for them that it is largely a battle every step of the way.  And now we want to turn health care over to the government?  Ask people how it is to go through the government for adoption.  Ask people how it is to go through the government for disability services.  In nearly every case it is a nightmare.  Let me tell you a little about special ed, and think about whether you would want the government controlling any area of your life.

In special ed, it starts with IEPs, individual education programs which are largely incomprehensible.  They make no sense to anyone, but are signed by teachers, special education teachers, principals, school psychologists, speech therapists, and parents.  I don't fault the parents, but I do fault all the rest.  Recently I advocated for a friend's son at an IEP.  The teacher went through each of the objectives read and commented upon them.  I then spoke up and asked, "Can anyone here tell me what any of these objectives mean?"  The answer was that none of them could!  There wasn't even a fight.  I typically have teachers I am training bring IEPs of their students to class, ones that the inherited and they are largely, I would guess 70% of the objectives are nonsensical.  You would have no clear idea of what is to be taught, how it is to be evaluated, and whether or not the student achieved the objective.  Other objectives talk about what the teacher will do, like place a student in a stander for 20 minutes.  So the objective is basically met as soon as it is written.  There are typically not enough objectives written.  For many students with severe objectives, the objectives which should fill an instructional day are limited to 3 and are things like, will swallow, will not hit his neighbor, and will tolerate being touched.  That is so lame.  Teachers who write such objectives should be at best ashamed of themselves and at worst sued for malpractice.

Then we have state leaders who must be clueless, writing objectives and developing standard based assessments for students with severe disabilities.  So I have gone into classes where teachers are teaching severely disabled students, people who cannot read, or do basic mathematics, or perhaps even take care of their personal hygiene very well, about the orbits of the planets, or the atomic weight of gold.  I was literally in a class where one severely disabled student stood still while the others walked around him so they could learn about orbits.  Who are we fooling with such nonsense.  And the fact that such standards are being mandated by the state, in my case California, is nonsense.  But why are there such standards?  Partly it is a political battle, and neither democrats or republicans are going to get all students to grade level, the fact that they think they might tells you how foolish they are.  But it is also due to the fact that too many teachers are slackers.  There is great pressure in the public schools for teachers of students with severe disabilities to be simply baby sitters. It is interesting that in one of the reauthorizations of the IDEA act (individuals with disabilities education act) that the law states that if teachers are not writing goals about specified areas, they need to write why they are not writing goals in specified areas.  Doesn't that sound like rules to prevent someone from being a slacker? 

Then, school districts literally work, I have come to believe, to frustrate parents.  I know of one district in my area who basically has a person who goes to meeting to NOT give parents what they may want.  In another district, I was told by a program specialist that the state of the art classroom for autistic children is reserved only for children of parents who threaten to go to fair hearing.  Otherwise the students are given what the district admits by the practice is a substandard education.  Other districts do not provide translators unless the families request them, which takes a lot of guts if you do not speak the majority language, or provide translators who are instructional aides not paid to do so.  

Educational decisions are largely NOT made on pedagogy.  They are all too often based upon administrative convenience.  What is the cheapest way to go, how can we do what we always do without changing it, and so on.  I was in an IEP once where a child had worked his way out of being in a classroom for emotionally disturbed children.  At the close of the meeting, the administrator said, "We have no regular education placement, so he will have to stay in the emotionally disturbed class for 4 more months."  "Then, I will not sign the IEP" I said.  "This child has worked to get out of special ed, has been successful, but you are not going to move him because it is inconvenient for you? NO WAY. " And because I spoke up, he was place in a general ed class the following week.

Then there is little or no accountability within special education for the programs offered.  If a child doesn't learn, doesn't progress, the assumption is that it is his fault.  If we really expected that a child would improve, we would ensure that the instructional program we were offering was working.  That implies taking instructional data, which most teachers do not do.  At the same IEP that I mentioned above where I advocated for my friend's son, the district self righteously read through their program and would not be interrupted for questions.  When I was finally permitted to ask questions, I said, 
"Please read objective #1."  
Objective is read.
"Has any data been taken on this objective?"  
"So you really have no idea where the student is performing on this objective do you?"
No response.
"Please read objective #2."
Objective 2 read.
"Has any data been taken on this objective?"  
"So you really have no idea where the student is performing on this objective do you?"
No response.
"Please read objective #3."
Objective is read.
"Has any data been taken on this objective?"  
"So you really have no idea where the student is performing on this objective do you?"
No response.
I stopped after objective 4, but could have gone on.  There is little or no accountability for what we are doing in special education.  The IEP process has largely become a joke.

Another note on the IEP, they typically take an hour or so.  So we have to hurry.  That is, unless you have someone like myself there who knows the rules, and then the IEP can go on for as long as it takes to get a good result.  But without someone in the know, people are bullied into getting a result quickly.

Do you know that at the IEP the parent is the most powerful person in the room?  In another IEP, a speech pathologist who was very impressed with herself, was pushing the parents with her desire to teach sign language to their autistic son.  The parents said they didn't really want to teach sign language to their son.  She pushed again.  The parents less confidently replied again. She went on as if they hadn't said anything.  I finally spoke up.  "The parents have indicated that they do not want to have their son taught sign language.  We do not want to hear about sign language any more and your objective about sign language is dead."  That was the end of it because that is the level of power the parent has at the IEP.  Their only recourse is to take it to the next level, a fair hearing, and I can tell you that school districts do not want to do that.

Then I met with a teacher who was reprimanded because she didn't have the goals and objectives written into the form prior to the meeting.  You see, we are supposed to have goals in mind before the meeting, goals that we share with the family, but we tweak and finalize those goals at the meeting.  The idea is that parents have input and are not bowled over by a bunch of professionals.  But it doesn't happen that way.  Why? Probably because it takes too long to write the goals on the form at the meeting.

Then there is the revolving door of instructional assistants.  Do you know that one of the most critical aspects of an instructional program for students with severe disabilities is consistency?  Do you know that a characteristic of students with autism is that they need consistency?  But aides are moved through classrooms as if their presence or nonpresence, their skill level, whether or not they have already been trained by the teacher are all irrelevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  

So the system needs reform.  I try to do the best I can with the teachers I train.  I tell them that there will be great pressure on them to not reflect the best practices that I train them in.  I tell them that they will be told that what they learn in university is all just ivory tower stuff and not reality.  I tell them there will be great pressure on them to be mediocre.  I tell them they have been trained to be experts and they need to act like the experts.  Administrators do not typically know much of anything about special education.  I know that because professors who are friends of mine who train those people tell me that it is so.  I know that school psychologists know little about how to actually educate students with severe disabilities.  I know that because people who train school psychologists have told me so, and I have been in enough IEP meetings with them to understand that fact.  I was told once by a school psychologist to not request counseling for a emotionally disturbed child because it would cost too much.  One of my students was the one told not to offer a translator for exclusively Spanish speaking parents unless they requested it.  

If you are an administrator or a school psychologist and you are offended by these remarks, then do something about it.  Change the perception.  Run IEP's as they are supposed to be run.  Don't do things for administrative convenience reasons.  Provide access to the best programs because it is the right thing to do pedagogically for the child.  Demand excellence from your special education teachers, particularly those working with students with severe disabilities.  Ask yourself whether IEP objectives make absolute sense, and ask parents if they make sense to them.  If teachers cannot be accountable for student performance because they have not been taking data, call them on it.  "I don't want to see you go into another IEP without graphs of data on every IEP objective, and if you don't understand an IEP objective, for goodness sake speak up!"

It breaks my heart when I visit the class of a teacher who has graduated from a program of which I was a part, and has been teaching for several years, and has become like the mold pressures them to become.  It takes a real backbone to be a good special education teacher as you are not only trying to get past the disabling condition to provide the best education for the student, you are fighting the district to get appropriate services and materials.  I can tell you of teachers of students with severe disabilities who were literally placed in their classroom with NOTHING! No materials whatsoever.  They were then expected to purchase the materials with their own resources, or to fight to get reimbursed the $300 dollars for the year that was allocated to the district.

When parents come to you and are pissed off, there is a reason why, and it is not simply because they are unreasonable parents.  Look at the system you are a part of from their perspective.  A light came on for me when I realized I was basically the DMV or the IRS to parents.  It totally changed my perception of them, and the way that I did business.

More to come.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your blog about the government and our school system. It is a joke to get anything from the government and I have experience this personally with my mother. It is a never ending battle and it is designed that you don't get the what you are entitled to. Most people just give up because it is so frustrating. The school system works the same way. Parents who are not educated very well or do not know where to get help fall into a never ending battle with the school and district. I work for a school district as a Instructional Assistant SPE II. I work with moderate to severe children and love it! I see daily problems with the district's policies on how to educate children with disabilities and the run around the parents get. I myself have had the experience of an IEP meeting with both my children. Unfortuntaley I still am trying to fight for my daughter since I have not got what I would like for her yet. Even though I work at the school she attends she does not fit the "criteria" for RSP just yet. I am not sure how to push for her and I work for the district. So I can only imagine those parents who are completely in the dark feel. It is quite frustrating! I do work with an awesome teacher who pushes the line in his class. He does have to follow district policy ,but he pushes the line. His class is not set up like a typical class room and his program is built around his students needs not the districts. He has children who's parents have requested him. We have one student who is severly autistic who's parents had to get an attorney before they would place him in his class. Our principal has a special education background and she sees what the teacher is trying to do. We do have many though he do not like the program because it pushes the districts policies and skirts the line. Why are so many afraid to push the line when it comes to our children? We need to stop the government and disticts from telling us when and how we can educate these children. We need to learn that each child is unique and does not fall under their guidelines of teaching and loving.

Jeff McNair said...

Again today I got angry. I was in a Taco Bell. As I entered, I saw perhaps 8 intellectually disabled adults scattered around the restaurant, sitting by themselves, some eating, some just kind of staring. Over in a corner, two supervisors/aides were talking and doing their make-up. This is so typical of community outings provided for people with intellectual disabilities. Do the minimum, set yourself apart and don't interact. I asked which school they were from, and it turned out they were from an adult day care provider. But it was so sad. They should have been sitting with the group, having a conversation, engaging them, but they there largely ignoring them.

We follow the letter of the law, but the spirit is that we interact we engage dare I say we care. People in human services apparently don't care sufficiently enough.

J.H. said...

I agree with you, I was at one of my son's IEPs and it was a bunch of words. It was as if it was written in a different language. I understood what was being said, but my wife was a little confused. "Specialist" are quick to label a child with AD or ED. I went to my son's meeting and the school's phyic wanted to label our son as AD or ED, just because he gets bored in class. The school also had plenty of time to obtain my son's IEP, and failed to do so. They were trying to piece together his IEPs from Kindergarden, instead of asking the school district for a copy, or us. We always keep our chilrens' record available for times like this. This system has serious problems and with "no child left behind", more educators are confused more than ever. IEPs have too many fancy words that are not made clear to the parents, and we end up signing off on things we are clueless about, and in the end...the child suffers...

Anne said...

You are so right.
Oh so very right.
I am the mother of a 28 year old son with severe cerebral palsy. We knew 26 years ago when we opted out of the regional center that socialized health care would be run in a similar way to the regional centers.
And what hoops they were making Dustin jump through back them. I have posted some of his story at
onegirlfriday@blogspot.com with a link to his writings.
Thanks for your insights.

RachelD said...

I completely understand now why parents sue school districts. I see how every little thing they ask for becomes a fight. I think it is important to note that parents are an important part of the IEP TEAM. I recall my first year of interning-- it was common for teachers to say in IEP summary notes "IEP team AND parents agree on the offer of FAPE." Wait-- I thought the parents are part of the team-- not two separate groups?!
I think as a district we get defensive. When parents question something in an IEP they are labeled as "difficult" or their student as "high profile." AND THEN we get upset when we see parents who are uninvolved and students are bordering on neglect... So I ask-- WHAT'S THE BETTER SCENARIO?! It shouldn't be us against them-- it SHOULD be a collaborative effort. Have you ever noticed how the "difficult" parents are able to get services for their child? Have you ever noticed how the students with uninvoloved parents never receive the services they desserve? It's time for TEACHERS to step up and say-- "I think Johnny needs to be assessed for ______ service." AND the adminstrators need to back the teachers rather than slap them on the wrist for--- oh my goodness-- advocating for their students!

Anonymous said...

I know that this discussion involves Special Education specifically, but my comment addresses education as a whole in general.

My siblings and I went through the public school system. Both of my siblings were in Special Education. I was in general ed. When my mom had an IEP she took me along as extra support. I would always wonder why she got all dressed up and talked a little bit louder and demanded more than usual at these meetings.

Then I grew up and became a general ed teacher. Wow! What an eye opener. I have seen and heard so much negativity about special education that is it a shame. I have heard teachers say "IEP, what's that? I don't follow those things." I have also heard shouting, cussing matches occur between a Special Ed and a general ed teacher. The shouting match was so horrible that I closed my door and pretended not to be there.

Personally I have seen both teachers and administrators do the "convenient" thing more than once. My daughter's RSP teacher came to my house unannounced to drop of my invitation to an IEP. Then when I got to the meeting, we rushed through the goals. When I started asking for specific items to be added to the document, I was told that it was not necessary. Then I speak to her main teacher this year and find out that many necessary details were left out of the IEP. There was actually no administrator at this meeting so the RSP teacher was the decision maker who ran the meeting. I am a teacher myself but a novice when it comes to the IEP goals and objectives. I have been learning a lot about how to ask for things who to go to for action.

Another situation that I am going through right now involves my younger child who is gifted. She is in kindergarten but can function well in first grade. She goes to first grade for an hour 3 times a week. According to the first grade teacher, she is a smart cookie who knows how to observe and follow what the other kids are doing.

Well I asked for her to be assessed, her kindergarten teacher gave me the run around. She tested her but refused to give me a copy of the assessment. Then she sent home a blank copy of the test. My husband and I guessed we are supposed to do the test at home, so we did. Just as we thought, she has mastered the Kindergarten curriculum. When I asked for a meeting with an administrator and both teachers, the principal was not present. After sending several angry e-mails, I finally got an appointment to see the principal. At this time, he gave me a speech about how in his 27 years of teaching 1st grade, he has only promoted one student and he regrets it.

All I asked for was a fair assessment of how my child is performing right now. Why does everything have to be a battle. This is on-going in Special Ed and general ed. Some so-called professionals do not like doing their job. They just want to do the bare minimum and then wonder why students do the same! Thanks.

-One angry momma!

Anonymous said...

As a passionate special education teacher, I was very disappointed to read the blogs on this site. I agree, not all teachers are in this profession for the right reasons, but many are. Many devote their lives to helping your children reach their highest potential. Hopefully you will each have a teacher enter your life that makes a difference in the life of your child. Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I have been very disapointed with the comments on your blog. I am a christian special education teacher looking for answers to a few questions. Unfortunatley, I didn't find them here. I appreciate what you are trying to do, but found it a little negative for me. Thanks for the time you put in to helping these individuals, but don't be so harsh on special education teachers. That doesn't seem right. Good luck with your ministry and I hope God has big plans for the students you are touching. :)