Monday, August 11, 2014

Response: The Special Education Overhaul and NYC’s Special District

In a thorough piece on the special education reform that has begun in recent years in New York City Public Schools, ChalkbeatNewYork’s Patrick Wall focuses on several students, families and schools and how they have adapted as a result of new policies that steered students with disabilities to their neighborhood schools in Kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades, rather than schools with specific special education programs. 

What the article fails to mention is that these schools, with special education programs and related services already in place, are not just another community school option but are most likely part of New York City’s District 75. This district is an entirely separate district composed only of children with disabilities, most of whom are bused long distances to attend these programs. When people are discussing self-contained options for students with disabilities in New York City, it is important to understand that these are isolated self-contained classrooms in self-contained special education schools and that we are not just talking about another classroom down the hall. 

There are approximately 23,000 students with various disabilities in District 75 with schools throughout the five boroughs. Interestingly, the DOE’s new website no longer lists a specific number of students, only that there are “56 school organizations,” but you can find the number on their old website here. No other school district is organized in such a segregated fashion, as far as I can tell from much conversation and research. Across the country inclusion, in various forms, is the norm and it is rare to find more than a couple of self-contained classrooms in a district or even entire counties. Yet here in New York City, we not only have 23,000 students in self-contained classrooms, but in substantially separate schools. Although many District 75 schools are physically housed in buildings with other schools, anyone in NYC knows co-located schools spend more time fighting for precious space and resources than integrating.

A big part of the problem in New York City is that there is this funnel that flows right to District 75 for any child that a school deems too difficult to educate, like Joseph in today’s Chalkbeat article. It does not specify whether the other, more appropriate school that the administration found for Joseph was not a community school, but I would bet that it was a District 75 school. District 75 seems to be the missing piece of the special education reform story that no one mentions.

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I understand the benefits of a highly specialized environment for some students with significant disabilities, especially in a complex urban school system where these students might otherwise be in the corner of a basement somewhere. The problem is that in NYC we fool ourselves into thinking that these students have been brought out of the basement by having these District 75 school organizations, when in essence they only perpetuate the isolation of students with disabilities from their communities.

A red flag of a student who doesn’t belong in District 75 for me is when a student, like Joseph, is reading at a 3rd grade level, which means most likely he is not severely intellectually disabled. If he comprehends what he reads, he can most likely access middle school material presented visually or orally with some accommodations. Joseph also managed to get all the way through elementary school and only began to struggle in middle school. This is not the profile of a student with severe/ profound disabilities that District 75 was intended to serve.

Most students in District 75, because of their significant disabilities, are alternately assessed and do not take coursework that leads to a high school diploma. By high school, most schools focus on transition skills that will enable students to communicate in the community, have some independent living skills and possibly have some type of employment. When a student is sent to District 75 from a community school, their IEPs are changed to alternate assessment, which will forever limit their life options because they will obtain an IEP certificate, not a diploma.

Students with severe/ profound disabilities make up less than 1% of all students in NYC, most teachers and schools have never encountered such a student. A student with profound disabilities is non-verbal, meaning he does not use a single word and it is unclear what the child wants because they have not learned a formal communication system, who lacks all control of his muscles and is dependent on others for all their care needs, and who might also be visually impaired, deaf or both. Another student who may need the specialized environment of District 75 might have severe autism, meaning they engage in self-stimulating behaviors all day or be self-abusive and require strict behavioral programs to learn to not hurt themselves or meet their own care needs and gain independence.

No honest discussion about special education reform can take place without discussing the way that New York City isolates its most disabled students in District 75, taking the burden off of community schools who are fixated on test scores and data. I commend those who are trying to stop District 75 from becoming an easy dumping ground for challenging students and can only hope that this is the beginning of an essential change in our city. Until we think of all New York City students as “our kids,” not ours and theirs, no true special education reform will occur.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Take the “I” out of Special Education

It must be my old age. But many years into teaching, the things that stressed me most my first few years just seem so miniscule now. It pains me to watch younger teachers learning the lesson that not everything is in your control and you need to accept the things you cannot change right at that moment. Even in special education, it’s rarely the kids that send a teacher home crying, it’s unsupportive co-workers. Now that I can navigate the always shifting personalities of a school better, I still don’t understand why elders in our profession make it so difficult for new teachers.

A change is coming, I can see it, a special ed “oasis,” where me-focused individuals hid is crumbling.

But I fear they are sucking the life out of everyone around them before they go.

If you’re truly here for the kids, don’t you want to see this teacher succeed, along with all her students?

If you’re here for the kids,
why do you let old school policies and outdated thinking dictate how your school is run?

If you’re here for the kids,
why do you keep telling me how busy YOU are?

And it trickles down to all staff members who are suppose to be collaborating in classrooms.

If you’re here for the kids,
why are you talking about YOUR report?

If you’re here for the kids,
why ignore a teacher who asks you about how you’re working with a student?

If you’re here for the kids,
why are you talking about YOUR feelings and your supervisor?

If you’re here for the kids,
why are you talking about YOUR schedule?

During my undergraduate student teaching in general education, I had a funny moment where I was caught off guard by my clinical supervisor’s criticism. My supervising teacher continually gave me nothing but praise. After keeping a running record of my comments during an observation, the clinical supervisor pointed out that I used a lot of “I” statements. Like, “I need your homework handed in” or “I need you to do this task for me and then come back to me.” I had never realized this. It was something I was naturally doing. It sparked an interesting discussion about how you want students to do things, but not because they’re just doing it FOR the teacher. They should be doing things for themselves, not for YOU.

I think those who are working in special education need to take a close look at how many “I” statements they are using these days and really ask ourselves if we are truly “here for the kids.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Charlotte Danielson is not evil?

(As long as teachers can still use their intuition)

“Learning to trust your instincts, using your intuitive sense of what's best for you, is paramount for any lasting success. I've trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life. And the only time I've made mistakes is when I didn't listen.” – Oprah Winfrey

The other day I just happened to catch an NPR Radiolab piece on “Choice” and being “Overcome by Emotion.” Essentially, the hosts were discussing if we were all completely rational beings, like Spock from Star Trek, would we have an easier time making choices throughout our day. In theory, you think of course, but in reality it’s our emotions and intuition that keep us out of a circle of rationality. When you finally remember your favorite cereal from childhood, you are saved from the endless oblivion of choices in the supermarket aisle.

After sharing a series of interesting stories related to emotion and choice, Jad Abumrad came to the conclusion that, “one way to look at a gut feeling is that its kind of a short-hand average of all of this past wisdom.” (Quote is at 12:30)

Teacher Knowledge
I had a light bulb moment. As teachers, so much of our day is piecing gut feelings together. What separates a good teacher from a bad teacher is strong implicit knowledge of what good teaching looks like and how to implement it. Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle refer to this as “teacher knowledge” in their work on teacher action research. Listening to the NPR piece on the reality of intuition, I was excited that there was neurological evidence to support the notion that what teachers know is particular to teachers and is important in educating children.

But then I thought, “oh, no!” This does not jive with all these “teacher effectiveness” buzzwords I have been hearing lately.

Or does it?

Teacher Effectiveness Confusion
My first experience with the Danielson framework was while working with a student teacher last spring. She came to me concerned about using “low-inference evidence” to support her work with our students who were emergent communicators with multiple disabilities. I immediately thought, “you want evidence of what my students say, only? Hmm, most of them are non-verbal… how’s this going to work?” The student teacher gave an example of grading student papers without knowing who they were, so that you would not be biased. I thought, “great, my students cannot write and definitely do not independently do worksheets.”

This was what I was thinking of as I combed through the New York City’s Department of Education (DOE)’s website for implementing the new teacher evaluation system based on the Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, also known as Advance. (Because everything needs to have its own name in NYC, can’t just be APPR like the rest of New York State.) I was looking for a better understanding and I cross-referenced the DOE’s info with the Danielson Group website and other web resources.

A Danielson Framework Surprise
I have to admit that I have come to the conclusion that Charlotte Danielson may not be as evil as we have been led to believe. It seems that its our state education departments and local school districts in their rush for accountability that may be corrupting the important work of documenting what good teachers know and do.

Shockingly, I have to say that this particular PowerPoint from the NYC DOE was actually quite helpful. I appreciated that their definition of low-inference included what students say AND do. I also got the impression that this was about improving administrators’ practices, as well as teachers. I went looking for evidence that teachers had to be robots teaching to a strict norm, but I only found it on district websites about “norming,” not in Danielson’s actually work, like here.

Teacher Knowledge and Danielson Working Together?
I started thinking: is Danielson’s work finally what we as teachers have been looking for in order to prove our implicit teacher knowledge? I have always felt good teachers should have nothing to fear about being observed; could this be a tool that could confirm that we are effective teachers?

What Low-Inference Really Means
It turns out low-inference does not just mean grading papers without knowing who the students are, but can be something like using a checklist during your lesson to document that students are meeting specific IEP objectives. Low-inference has come to have two meanings in education: low-inference observations of what our students are doing by teachers and administrators and low-inference observations of what teachers are doing by administrators.

Because I am a special education teacher, I initially thought that everything I do is high-inference, such as observing children’s movements and facial expressions and drawing conclusions, and I became defensive. Actually, everything I do in my teaching is a series of low-inference (ie. evidence-based) actions that over time have formed my intuition. This is exactly why experience counts in teaching. As teachers, we need to think about it as taking evidence-based action, which will provide low-inference evidence for administrators. We need to specifically identify the parts of our practice that causes us to form opinions and determine next steps.

To eliminate confusion though, I wished they would have just used a simple phrase like “objective evidence” instead of “low-inference evidence.” The definition of “inference” inherently means, “a conclusion or opinion that is formed because of known facts or evidence.” (Merrian-Webster Dictionary) Conclusion is in the word, and it is confusing as to whether there is supposed to be low conclusions or low evidence. A low “conclusion from evidence” evidence?

Support for Teacher Intuition
Initially, I associated the Danielson framework and teacher evaluations as an attempt to eliminate teacher intuition. Low-inference was another buzzword for rejecting teacher knowledge. But low-inference is about being specific, which I think we as educators really cannot fight. We can no longer simply say that our teacher knowledge is immeasurable, but we need to be sure that the tools that are being developed accurately reflect the murkiness of teaching young minds. We need to let our implicit teacher knowledge shine, by investing the time to understand the Danielson Framework of Teaching and use it to support our profession.

So I leave you with the two questions I have arrived at today:
1.)   Are the Danielson Frameworks of Teaching an accurate way to demonstrate implicit teacher knowledge?
2.)   How can we be sure that the Danielson Frameworks are used accurately given the complexities of teaching students with special needs?

I hope you can help me by sharing how you answer these questions and I will continue to blog as I shape my own answers.

It is time for all teachers to channel our innermost Captain James T. Kirks, because as rational as Spock was, he and the rest of the ship would have been lost without the gutsy Captain James T. Kirk in command.

Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on. – Captain James T. Kirk

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reflecting to Begin Again: Life of a Teacher

It is not until the new school comes creeping up that I feel I am really ready to reflect on the previous year. It takes a few nights of good sleep and no stress to put everything in perspective. When you’re teaching, everything is in the moment. Danielson may be looking at my lesson plan, but any real teacher knows, it’s all about how you handle everything in your classroom besides the lesson plan. Switching gears to reflecting is always tricky, but so important.

I remember in college, during my teacher prep program, how many times they stressed keeping a teaching journal. Several years in, I still cannot figure out how a teacher finds the time to do that. If I wasn’t actively seeking ways to improve my practice or planning, or researching social services for families, I was trying to get to a yoga class or meet up with friends to keep the work-life balance. I’m always jotting notes on my phone or sticking a post-it with one sentence in a folder, but a whole journal entry? Weekly?! Monthly?! Yikes.

What I have held myself to is writing an end of the year reflection. I finally sit back, take a breath and admire the work my students and team have done over the past 11 and half months. Reflection clears my mind, helps me set my goals for next year and gives me that itch to get back in the classroom and do it all over again, but 10 times better of course.

Since most of my students are non-verbal or have very limited communication, I feel I owe it to them to document all their work for prosperity. When you have the experience of being someone’s last teacher, going back and adding the moments together helps to explain why some kids get a shorter time in this world then others. That’s why its truly special education.

Challenges of Misclassification and Class Size

What makes teaching exciting is that every year you meet a new set of students, even if in a self-contained classroom you keep some students, the combination is never the same from one year to another. The school year prior to this past one was great with a slightly smaller class I felt like the data and organization queen. I was an experienced teacher hitting my stride. I feel best when I am working my hardest and everything starts to gel. Systems are in place, students are following routines and learning, paraprofessionals and therapists are enthusiastic about what they are seeing and becoming a part of it all.

This past year, I ran straight into 12 students who were all over the map in terms of their needs and learning styles. Data went out the window as I spent the fall struggling with classroom management. In special education, where not all learners are on the same cognitive or communicative level, that meant coming up with 12 individual systems. While teaching lessons and writing IEPs, I also had to spend time with each individual finding out what makes them tick and what would motivate them to buy into our classroom. Bonding is the most important part of classroom management, especially with students with significant disabilities. (Dr. Jan van Dijk’s work is so helpful in making connections.)

A big problem for teachers in New York City though is the number of students who are misclassified. So often, a 12:1:4 ratio classroom for children with the most significant, multiple disabilities becomes a catchall. (And yes, NYC(pg 24) puts 12 students who need the most individualized attention in one classroom.) Children who don’t quite fit anywhere else or who were placed there in kindergarten are never given the opportunity to move to a less restrictive environment. As a teacher, you get caught between trying to meet these more academic learners’ needs by focusing on specific emergent reading skills and leaving my other students who are working on early communication skills in the dust. Yes, you can do both, but with 12 kids its impossible to do it all well. I have training, I have tried to figure it out every minute that I’m not sleeping, and I have failed. I hate that feeling that I have failed even before I started because of the system.

My students with true multiple disabilities and complex medical issues needed my attention and it was being pulled in too many directions. These students who use wheelchairs need frequent repositioning and that is not something that can wait. Pressure sores are really important to avoid and nearly impossible to heal. It’s another thing that takes time with an individual student; especially when not all staff is comfortable working with medically fragile children it falls to me to look out for each child. It’s also my job to be sure that when a child is on a mat that the children who are ambulatory and have behavior issues are not hurting him or her! On top of that, the families that have children who are becoming significantly more medically fragile over the years also need my support.

Unexpected and Uncontrollable Interruptions

On top of a challenging mix of students, this year because of the many interruptions we never hit our grove until May and then we lost it by June. To start, Hurricane Sandy really brought our class to a screeching halt too early in the school year. Some students were out for up to two weeks and many had difficulty with their phones, so we could not find out if the families were okay. With District 75, students come from all over to our schools, so it was not guaranteed that just because our neighborhood was okay, that our students were. When students returned, it was like starting all over again to establish our routines.
And then in the middle of January the school year came to another abrupt stop when ATU Local 1181 of bus drivers went on strike. If you’ve followed this blog, you know my story. I actually had time to document it because I had almost no students who could make it to school. That my students lost 5 weeks of instruction due to politics, and that no one really cared because they were the students in special education, is still sickening to me. If you listen to administrators or politicians they refer it to as a couple of weeks, when it was 5 weeks, plus a vacation week before students got back to where they belonged. After an odd half of a February break, an early spring break and other events, we were never really able to get into a consistent flow the rest of the year.

Despite that, I did see growth in my students. Unlike some, I actually enjoy administering my end of year assessments. (We use the Brigance Developmental Inventory and the SANDI.) It’s stressful to sit down individually with each student with an erratic end of year calendar, but seeing a small improvement in one communication area, or fine motor skills, or maybe even math is so exciting. This year though, I felt remiss about where my students would have been if not for natural disasters and politics taking away almost 2 months of their school year. Would Jessie be reading full sentences? Would Dom be writing his last name too? Would Steven be making picture choices? Would Florentina be toilet trained? As teachers, there is so much that is beyond our control.

To Begin Again

But what’s beautiful about being a teacher is that every school year is a fresh start. One of the best parts of teaching is the automatic reset that happens over the summer, even if it’s a few short weeks for us in special education. What other career gives you an opportunity to come back to a new beginning every year? A new beginning to be the best teacher I can be and help my students achieve as much as they can. An opportunity to take the lessons from the previous years and set goals for what I’d like to do better. It’s why I can’t see myself leaving the classroom anytime soon.

            “The world is round and place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.” - Ivy Baker Priest

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Not To Thank a Teacher

Don't Recommend that a Teacher becomes an Administrator*

After helping a colleague or having my class observed by an outsider, I often find myself fielding a compliment that actually really irks me. 

“So when are you going to become an administrator?!”

Paraprofessionals from my own class and throughout the school, who know I enjoy working with my students, often come up to me and ask why I am not an administrator. For years they have seen the best teachers move up and out and I think they are confused about why I choose to stick around. It’s a huge compliment from them.

I know they mean it in a good way and I am flattered. But I am also one of those big picture thinkers and my mind sets off on why it is that the only way to recognize a good teacher is to make them an administrator, where most of their day will be spent not with students. Why can’t I just be a really good teacher and be recognized for that? I would eventually love a position as a teacher leader, but my school is just not structured that way yet.

My natural reply is to thank the giver of the compliment and then explain that I love what I do and I am happy where I am. I could not imagine spending my days not with my students. I enjoy the unique challenges of managing a classroom and that every school year is a puzzle that I slowly, but surely, put together as I structure opportunities for my students to learn from each other, themselves and me.

Not wanting to be an administrator is not knocking administrators. I appreciate that good administrators make space for teachers to do their best work. But I think that its important to realize that a teacher’s craft and an administrator’s craft are very different, even though they are both working in the best interest of students.

If we really want to thank teachers during National Teacher Appreciation Week, we need to think about how we can respect the particular talent of being able to teach a room full of young students.

Have you ever received this “compliment”? How does it make you feel? How have you replied?

*unless having a discussion on career paths