A Potential Crisis for Special Education Families?

Across the nation, k-12 classroom teachers have been rightfully praised for quickly adapting to the new normal of virtual education. As tens of millions of students were forced to quickly shift to Google classroom and Zoom and other such tools to finish the 2019-20 school year, teachers adjusted to do the best they could in an incredibly tough, and unplanned, situation. 

For many students, it meant a lighter class load. A single school day broken into two. A shorter learning period. Grades were not to be discussed. And states cancelled their spring state assessments.

Three months into the great coronavirus virtual education experiment, we are now confronting a reality where many states may not have their students return to traditional classrooms in the fall. And in some that do, learners will deal with a “hybrid” schedule requiring some days in a physical building and some days online to ensure the needed social distancing that traditional public schools just haven’t been built to address.

All of that is ok, for the majority of students. We adjusted our expectations. In some instances, it was helpful for parents to see how hard it is to actually teach or to keep their kids on task, providing an eye opener into the realities of instruction. It was a temporary inconvenience that will soon pass. 

That is, of course, unless one is a special education family. As millions of families came to trust and praise their schools for adapting to virtual instruction in the age of corona, many special education families couldn’t overcome their distrust for a system that has taken actions over so many years to deny those with special needs the education to which they are entitled. 

If anything, these school closures may likely cast, in the long term, a nasty spotlight on the harsh realities of special education in the United States. They may showcase our collective lack of interest or commitment, as school systems, on the learners who need those systems the most. And they may, ultimately, do more to advance special education services – through likely class action lawsuits – than we have seen since the initial passage of IDEA. 

Might this seem a little harsh? Yes. Might this be unfair to teachers who are honestly doing their best and are exceeding the expectations of mainstream families? Absolutely. But challenging times cannot and should not absolve school districts from their obligations, and they definitely shouldn’t grant them a pass in challenging times for what they refuse to do during the easy times. 

In my highly resourced, overachieving school district, an email to special education parents at the start of quarantine announced that they were suspending all 504 and IEP meetings until traditional school resumed. Such a decision likely violated federal law. And until state directives forced the district to change course more than a month after it issued such an order, it also could have been seen as an act of educational malpractice. 

For those parents who have spent years engaging advocates and lawyers and spending tens of thousands of dollars on both to ensure their public schools are adequately educating their kids, there is little comfort in knowing that all the accommodations they fought for were tossed out the window in the name of BrainPop videos or Kahn Academy lessons. And that certainly is true as the “temporary” response of this spring is now potentially extended into the next academic year. 

What of the student who needs speech therapy, but whose district fought during the IEP process to deny such services virtually, demanding they could only be provided face to face?

What of the special services department that simply sends families a link to some online occupational or speech therapy activities to do at home with their children, never mind that parents are not trained service providers or may not even speak the language that their child needs the therapy in?

What of the family that fought long and hard for an array of needed accommodations, now to be told that they are all on hold until September or beyond, depending on what decisions the state and locality make?

What of the family already struggling to show that their special needs child is not making adequate gains, only to now be told this past year will be written off (just like the three or five years before it) because of unforeseen circumstances?

Any parent who has even sat across the conference table from the school administration for a 504 or IEP meeting knows what is coming next. Over the years, we have watched the number of people around the table grow, and we’ve seen the binders of data around them get larger, as we’ve witnessed the stonewalling, the delays, and the excuses increase. The administrators who become the adversaries of special needs families are trying to wait it out, hoping enough time passes so that the student is no longer in the school, the OCR complaint is no longer ripe, and a new clock starts at a new school, repeating the process all over again. 

In an already adversarial, contentious relationship between special needs families and resistant school districts, covid-19 school closures became the latest armor to protect systems from their legal and educational duties. 

One only needs to look at the IDEA guidance provided from the US Department of Education at the start of this great experiment to see this unfortunate fact. A whole lot of “mays” and no “musts.” School districts that pivoted to virtual learning only needed to ensure access to the same learning platforms, not to the accommodations their legally binding IEPs required.  

Truth be told, those who have never been through the 504 or IEP process would be aghast. We want to believe that all those involved in the learning process have nothing but the best interests of the child at heart. And while that may be true for the individual teachers involved in the process, it is nowhere near the truth for the system itself. Having sat at that table, having had my school district try to tell me – incorrectly –  that their rules trumped state and federal law when it comes to special education, parents like me are all too aware of the lengths districts will go to restrict their obligations. And we are all too wise as to how a time of crisis and pandemic could be used to deny millions of special needs students of the education guaranteed them under the law. 

Online videos and group chats may work for the vast majority of k-12 students for the past few months or even for the next school year. For those learners, they will make up the learning slowdown over the next few academic years to follow. But for those students who are already behind, for those who have fallen further and further back as their families have been required to fight a system hellbent on denying them, what happens to them? A high school diploma for those learners doing seventh or eighth grade-level work is hardly the reward. 

IDEA protections exist today because the parents of special needs students refused to be denied and refused to accept lesser for their kids. Some may enthusiastically see this covid-19 experience as the gateway to virtual education. Instead, at least for special needs families, it may be the match that reignites the special education community, providing the needed spark to empower parents. 

What About Special Education in the Age of Corona?

As so many rightfully praise classroom teachers for quickly adapting their instruction for a new, virtual environment, advocates need to be sure that such desperate times do not provide school districts the opportunity to shirk their duties when it comes to IDEA and students with learning disabilities.

Big kudos to Emily Richards and USA Today for placing a spotlight on this important issue, and for speaking with dear illl’ Eduflack about his district’s decision to suspend IEP and 504 meetings for an undetermined period (read until next fall).

For students who already receive accommodations and special services to catch up because of the years their families fought to get them the adequate educations they are guaranteed under the law, lack of leadership by the US Department of Education and adversarial relationships with school districts that have denied special needs learners is a potential recipe for disaster.

“I get that this is the first week. But everything we have fought for in my son’s (individualized education plan) now gets put on hold,” Riccards said.

Read the full article here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2020/03/19/coronavirus-online-school-closing-special-education-teacher-distance-learning/2863503001/

From CAP, How to Leverage #ESSA to Elevate Teaching Profession

For much of the past year, the education community (yours truly included) has opined on how proposed federal budgets and actions coming from our nation’s capital pose a clear and present danger to teaching and teacher preparation. After all, when you essentially look to zero out all Title II moneys for teachers and their continued support, what is one supposed to think?

All hope may not be lost, though. The good folks at the Center for American Progress lifted the curtain on an important project in which it has been engaged. The first is a new interactive tool developed to spotlight specific efforts to elevate the teaching profession. On the site, users can click on a given state and choose a particular focus (compensation, career pathways, licensure, recruitment, retention, and the like) to see how individual states are innovating and meeting the specific needs of educators in its jurisdiction.

The second is a white paper that takes a deep dive into what specific states are doing to use ESSA and its Title II provisions to modernize and elevate the teaching profession. There, CAP explores hot-button issues such as recruitment and diversity, teacher prep and new teacher supports, licensure and certification, compensation and loan forgiveness, data support, and pipeline-spanning initiatives.

What’s particularly terrific about that issue brief is it spotlights the work in states that often don’t get the shout-outs when it comes to innovation and teacher supports, but are states that are really doing tremendous work. All serve as examples of what can be done and what should be done in an environment where we believe that change and innovation really isn’t possible, based on legislative restrictions.

Give both a gander. You won’t be disappointed.

Because Fed Ed Isn’t Meant to Be Creative

Earlier this month, the good folks over at Bellwether Education Partners released their review of the state implementation plans for the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA. In its review, Bellwether found that that the states were largely unimaginative in responding to the new federal mandate. The minds at Bellwether were looking for innovation and the unexpected. Instead, they got what was largely expected.

But isn’t that the point? We’ve seen time and again that the feds aren’t looking or the most unique thinking when looking for state responses. Whether it be No Child Left Behind and Reading First or Race to the Top, we want creativity that isn’t too creative. We want unique thoughts that align with the non-unique checklists of reviewers. We want the what we expect.

Over on dear ol’ Eduflack’s BAM! Radio Network, we take a look at the responses to the state ESSA plans, and how the critics are looking for far more from state ESSA than they should expect.

When it comes down to it, state ESSA plans are meant to serve as a floor, not a ceiling. They are intended to make sure that every state is expending the required minimum effort when it comes to ESSA implementation. It now falls to the field to push them harder, to seek ceilings on what is possible that are always beyond reach.

If we look to bureaucratic responses to formulaic funding plans for innovation, we will always be left disappointed. Maybe it is time to read between the lines at what states might now be able to do.

 

Where’s the New Education Federalism?

The start of the Trump administration promised, when it came to education, a return to state and local voices being the final word when it comes to policy. But as the US Department of Education provides its reviews of state ESSA plans, why doesn’t seem like a reinforcement of the Federalism witnessed during both the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top eras?

That’s the question we pursue on the latest edition of BAM! Radio Network’s #TrumpED. Give it a listen. Please. 

Doing What “Works” In the Classroom

Last week, educators across Florida went to the state capitol in what has become a common refrain. Florida teachers demanded more respect for their profession. They asked for a reduction in testing and its emphasis. They took on the perceived “profiteering” in public education, whether it be seen in charter school operators or textbook publishers.

There is no question that the education profession has been under attack for many years, and there is similarly no question that educators deserve greater respect than they largely get. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. We look to teachers to be everything from guidance counselors to social workers to parole officers, and then we expect them to get every child under their care into Harvard. (sure, a little hyperbole, but what would an education debate be without it?)

Eduflack was struck, though, by a comment made by a Florida school district’s head of employee relations. Obviously responding to a question about why 3,000 teachers descended on Tallahassee to speak their minds, this school official said, teachers “want to get back to doing things in the classroom that they know work.”

This is a common refrain in the post-NCLB world. But what does it really mean? Does it mean we want to empower teachers to do what is most effective in teaching the kids in their care? Or does it mean to let teachers do what they want, when levels of accountability were low?

“Doing the things that they know works” would seem a tip of the hat to research-based instruction, where we have qualitative data showing the instruction boosts student learning. It speaks to longitudinal studies that seek to pinpoint what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to instructional practice. And it is almost lifted directly from the NCLB law itself, particularly as we talked about scientifically based reading when it came to Reading First and the creation of the What Works Clearinghouse over at IES.

If that’s what going back to doing what teachers know works, then sign me up now. Give me a placard and a megaphone and let me shout loud and proud for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom.

But please don’t tell me it is code for letting us go back to the way things used to be in the 1990s, when it was the Wild West when it came to both instructional practice, student expectations, and accountability. Please don’t suggest we go back to the good ol’ days when inputs ruled the day and outcomes were horrible things that were just whispered about.

When a third of fourth graders are unable to read at grade level, we don’t know what works (and if we do, we certainly aren’t using it). When that same percentage of fourth graders are unable to earn a college diploma eight years later, we sure don’t know what works.

Yes, we need to empower teachers. They need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and pedagogy to succeed in the classroom. They need to be supported – by financial and human resource – to lead their classrooms and reach their students. They need to be give real-time student data (and know what to do with it) so they can adjust and tailor instruction to meet the needs of this year’s class of students.

Yes, all educators should be using what works in their classrooms. Alas, we still have a long way to go before we can agree on what those research-effective practices are, and where evidence trumps philosophy.

 

Does Accountability “Eradicate Goodness?”

As a nation, No Child Left Behind has been the law for more than 13 years now. Good, bad, and ugly (and with the occasional waiver from any of the three), NCLB governs K-12 education in the United States.

Listen to any of those who were responsible for bringing it into law, or those who were responsible for implementing the law, and you’ll hear one of the most important components was “accountability.” NCLB was designed to hold states, districts, schools, teachers, and students themselves for learning. Test scores determined if adequate progress was being made. If it wasn’t, then federal dollars were at risk and great public shame could come to those put on the “list” for failing to make AYP.

We all recognize that, at some point in the near future, NCLB will be replaced with some variation of the current “Every Child Achieves” bill that is currently working its way through Congress. A great many legislators, organizations, individuals, advocates, agitators, and the like are all look to make the changes that help them the most or reflect their own dreams and desires for federal K-12 governance.

And we will see change. We likely will see a number of changes. We will likely see changes that aren’t even warranted (or may not be demanded). But one thing should be clear. We aren’t going to see federal law do away with accountability.

I understand there are a great number of people who want to accountability go the way of the dodo. Those that want to see all the sticks replaced with carrots and federal law governed by the philosophy that we are all a success and we’ve earned trophies just for participating in the schooling process.

But results count. There are clear benchmarks of what students should know and be able to do at the conclusion of each grade. There are clear expectations of what it means to finish the fourth grade or to graduate from high school. And when students enter fourth grade unable to read at grade level or head into 12th grade functionally illiterate, someone needs to be held accountable. The state. The district. The school. And the student himself.

So it a cryin’ shame when we see folks who should know better thinking that a redo of the ESEA law can and should mean the total elimination of any and all accountability. Particularly when they frame it as, “Doing anything punitive in nature eradicates what goodness is going to come out of this bill.”

For those keeping track, those are the words of Sheila Cohen, the president of the Connecticut Education Association. They were spoken, as captured by the Connecticut Mirror, in response to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy siding with civil rights groups who want to see accountability provisions remain in the federal law, including the NAACP.

“The principle of accountability is not negotiable to us,” said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “This was the raison d’etre of the original act. Educational systems must be held responsible for narrowing and eliminating gaps in opportunity and achievement for students of color.”

Proll is right on point here. Educational systems must be held responsible. They must be responsible for both the inputs and the outcomes. They must both admit there are serious concerns when it comes to achievement and opportunity gaps AND that we need to everything possible to close those gaps. And no, simply blaming “poverty” is not going to get us there.

There cannot be accountability without some sort of punitive action. Otherwise, there simply is no accountability. Are we to simply say, borrowing from the old Robin Williams routine, “improve the schools, or we’ll ask you to improve them again?” Decades have shown us it just doesn’t work that way.

Instead of believing that something punitive eradicates all that is good in nature, perhaps we should borrow a little from Newton’s third law of physics. For every act of accountability, there is an equal and opposite act of achievement. That the possibility of a negative impact will actually lead our schools to make the requisite change to close those persistent gaps that need to be closed.

Urban Supes: We Want Greater Accountability

While all the things that go bump in the night tell us that tests and standards and accountability are responsible for the complete and utter fall of western civilization as we once knew it, a large and impressive group of superintendents (present and former) representing some of the nation’s largest school districts have a different view. They believe strong standards, assessments, and accountability are required if we are to provide all kids with a top-notch school experience.

Over at Education World, I write about how this group of school district leaders is calling on Congress to ensure a great public education for all kids. In asking Congressional leaders not to lose sight of the gains many of their districts made because of accountability measures in place, these educators offer a very simple equation for success. As Eduflack writes, these supes are telling us:

We believe in strong academic standards. We need annual tests in core subjects to determine student progress in meeting those standards. Those test results need to get back to teachers quickly, so they can adjust classroom instruction accordingly. States need to make sure this happens as intended. If it doesn’t, the feds need to step in. That’s how we make sure all kids—regardless of race, family income, or zip code—get a world-class public education.

It’s an important lesson from an impressive list of education leaders on the front lines of school transformation and improvement. I hope you will give it a read.

Duncan: ESEA “Outmoded and Broken”

For those keeping score, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was slated for reauthorization in early 2007.  These acts are supposed to be reupped every five years.  And like clockwork, we tend to forget about the clock and leave existing laws in place long after their expiration date.

The five-year cycle allows us to recognize that the work changes around us.  The K-12 education space is vastly different today than it was when the law was written in 2001.  From the stronger role of technology in the classroom to the growing needs of addressing a growing ELL population, circumstances change.  The Federal law governing our public schools should change as well.
But it has now been a dozen years since the current law was written.  We should be preparing for our second revision, and not still waiting for a re-up that is more than six years past due.  But we wait.
A few years ago, Eduflack opined that EdSec Arne Duncan didn’t need reauthorization.  That the Administration could and would adjust Federal education law through the introduction of new programs (like Race to the Top) and through greater flexibility to NCLB (as we’ve seen with the NCLB waivers and the waiver waivers).  And to date, Duncan and company have done a good job playing the hand they’ve been dealt, recognizing that Congress was not looking for another major bipartisan lift on education policy, so one just lives with the law that brought ’em.
Sure, we’ve seen both the House and the Senate debate and even pass some reauthorization legislation.  But the differences between the two chambers has been significant.  And there seems be a lack of urgency in either side of the Hill to really move major legislation that will improve educational outcomes and opportunities for our kids.
Today, though, Duncan took to the pages of The Washington Post to call for a refocus on ESEA and a demand for its reauthorization.  Taking aim at a recent House bill out of sync with Obama/Duncan priorities, the EdSec is using his bully pulpit to refocus the spotlight on our need for ESEA reauthorization.
Some of the highlights include:
The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom – with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career.  Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities.  Zip code, race, disability and family income should not limit students’ opportunities or reduce expectations for them  The progress of U.S. students should remain transparent.

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all.  The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach.  But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world.  History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always need the needs of the most vulnerable students.
He continues:
In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change.  Principals, teachers, governors, state education chiefs, superintendents, parents and students themselves know what is and isn’t working. They can guide us to a better law.

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties should agree on a bill that raises the bar, protects children, supports and improves effective teaching and school leadership, and provides flexibility and supports good work at the state and local level.  We should give them the resources and the flexibility and make sure we all are accountable for the job we are doing on behalf of our children.

We are fighting not just for a strong education system but also for our country.  A good law is part of that fight.
Kudos for Duncan and the folks down on New Jersey Avenue for seeking to regain congressional attention on ESEA reauthorization.  But will it help?  With issues like accountability, testing, and Common Core State Standards under attack from both the left and the right, it seems unlikely that Congress will find the gumption to take a meaningful stand and do the right thing here.  But we can hope, can’t we?