Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Is The Influence Of Money On Education Policies?

I started this blog just over a month ago. What finally got me to this point was a press release from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. They blasted the Opt Out movement, citing the need for standardized tests for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. The press release was signed by themselves and eleven other civil and disability rights organizations.

I did a cursory look to see where some of these groups get funding. The Gates Foundation is a usual starting point for me. As it turned out, none of the disability groups had received money from the Gates Foundation. However, six of the civil rights groups received a total of $46,538,043. Wow.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
The American Association of University Women (AAUW)
Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD)
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA)
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF)
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)
National Urban League
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)

Then, I found another press release from The Leadership Conference issued about a month earlier. This one was called for the re-authorization of ESEA -- specifically encouraging maintaining annual standardized testing, maintaining the 1% cap on those eligible for alternative assessment, and data collection. Forty-one civil and disabilities rights groups signed this one.

So, I started looking into them. Mind you, this is just grants from the Gates Foundation. I haven’t even looked at the Walton and Broad Foundations yet. The total grant money is $1,757,814,434.00 (yes, that says billion) for just twenty-two of those forty-one groups. The majority of that money is for a huge scholarship fund set up with one group, but that still leaves a little over $170 million granted to just twenty-one groups. That’s a lot of money. Sorry to say there are disability groups who did receive grants.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Alliance for Excellent Education
American Association of University Women (AAUW)
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Association of University Centers on Disabilities
Children’s Defense Fund
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)
Democrats for Education Reform
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund
Easter Seals
Education Law Center – Pennsylvania
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools
National Congress of American Indians
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
National Down Syndrome Congress
National Indian Education Association
National PTA
National Women’s Law Center
New Leaders
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
Southern Education Foundation
Southern Poverty Law Center
Stand for Children
Teach for America
Teach Plus
The Education Trust
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The National Disability Rights Network
The New Teacher Project (TNTP)

What are those grants for? Here are some examples (directly from the Gates Foundation website): 
  • General operating support (presumably keeping a roof over their head and the lights on)
  • Educate, inform, convene and communicate with its national coalition of civil rights advocates about the [Gates] US Program’s Education Strategies (Common Core, Core-aligned testing, teacher evaluations, and data collection)
  • Support an advocacy, communications, and policy development initiative promoting federal high school policy reform and participation as a member of the Campaign for High School Equity
  • Provide support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to foster a strong charter sector that allows every family to choose a high performing public school that delivers an excellent education for their children
  • Advance the rights of Latino students to a college and career ready public education and to support the priority policies of the Campaign for High School Equity
  • Support implementation of a strategic plan for national PTAs to promote college-readiness, and higher student performance outcomes
  • Continue and enhance its parent advocacy training modules for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that were originally created during its Gates-funded National PTA sub-grant in 2010
  • Build the pipeline of outstanding secondary school principals, and support secondary principals and their schools through the implementation of a secondary reform strategy
  • Support Common Core implementation and teacher effectiveness programs
  • Support bringing low-income and minority students in Teach for America (TFA) classrooms to proficiency
  • Begin pressure testing possible education finance reform solutions—both substantively and politically
  • Create new early college charter high schools and redesign existing charter high schools
Dr. Wayne Au noted in his guest column in the Washington Post on May 9th, we can’t know how much that money influenced those groups’ decision to sign on (the May 5th release) to what are clearly Gates’ aligned education policies. OK, I agree with part of that, with the exclusion of the grants that are very specifically focused on Common Core and encouraging others to buy into it too. Is it unreasonable to think that these groups are more likely to support press releases endorsing Gates’ education policies than not? I don’t think it is. Which leads me to…

What does this mean for parents and students who these groups represent? While not familiar with some of them, I am with many, and they do really good work. Why is there such a disconnect when it comes to education policy? And why does it have to be test the crap out the poor and disabled kids vs. they will get completely lost or ignored unless we do that testing?

As a parent, I’m really disappointed that the discussion (presuming there’s even that going on) is so narrow and so narrow-minded. I know there are better ways to assess students. There are ways to assure the quality of those assessments from district to district. The current policies of standardize and test everything is failing all of our children. The lack of creativity involved in how to “fix” this is truly astonishing. It’s lazy. And, the organizations in this country who should know better, or seek to know better, are just toeing the corporate line to the detriment of their constituents. It’s very disappointing.

P.S. I’m sure you will all die from not-surprise; there has yet to be a reply to my email sent on May 5th to Mr. Henderson, President of The Leadership Conference.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Standardized Tests and Students With Disabilities

This is a touchy subject. Civil rights and disability rights groups would have us all believe that by not having our kids tested, their rights would be violated. I understand the history. I get it. As a parent, I’m telling you it’s wrong. That thinking, as well meaning as it may have been at the beginning of No Child Left Behind (I'm being generous), is simply wrong.

For many with IEPs, who are not educationally at/near grade level, standardized tests are completely inappropriate. The scores do not reflect what a student has learned, nor do they demonstrate actual growth and achievement during any given year. And, really, when you get right down to it, the Federal cap of 1% being allowed to be eligible for alternate assessment completely contradicts the purpose of an Individual Education Plan. Here's why...

Standardized tests do not provide meaningful feedback. A designation of "not proficient at grade level" tells the parents and teachers nothing about the student they don't already know. Maybe more basic than this, why would you give a test on something the student hasn't learned?

Since no one gets to see the questions or answers on these standardized tests, how can anyone (not just special ed) determine any specific strengths or weaknesses? The answer, of course, is they can’t.

Accommodations tend to be more time, separate testing environment from general ed classmates, and frequent breaks – none are actually helpful if the student is not working at grade level.

Accommodations, like reading passages to the student, may be moderately helpful, BUT, then it may mask reading level issues – we experienced this problem with 7th grade NJASK. Oh, look! Her ELA score is so much higher than last year! (Nevermind, it still wasn’t “proficient.”) Funny thing about that -- it wasn’t that she couldn’t comprehend, it’s that she couldn’t really read.

We know these scores, regardless of arguable validity, are used to withhold services. A student does moderately well, but maybe not quite "proficient," or has an unexplained jump in scores from one year to next (see above) and that not-quite-proficient score is used as an excuse to deny evaluation for classification, or to directly deny a requested service (like reading – Orton Gillingham, Wilson, etc.), because that score was "good enough."

For the parent who is looking for an evaluation, the story goes like this. They ask for a meeting. The child study team brings out the test score and tells the parents, "Look how close he is to proficient! Johnny doesn't need an evaluation. He's doing so well, he's so happy, and gosh, he just has the nicest smile. We'll give him Basic Skills Instruction (BSI)." The parents, completely not savvy, think "Oh, ok. Johnny will be getting help. Thank goodness they want to help."

What's so insidious about that scenario is the student doesn't get a proper evaluation. The standardized test score doesn't actually tell anyone anything useful. And, BSI is a general education placement, not special education. We know that teaching to the test in that smaller environment does work to raise test scores. My sparkly district has been spending at twice the rate of our neighbors doing exactly that for years. The student does not get what they actually need and somewhere down the line, the parents figure it out, are mad as hell, and they finally (hopefully) get the evaluation they should have gotten to begin with.

How do we fix this? Because, I can't stress enough that assessment in general is not the issue. Of course, we need to know how our kids are doing. Standardized tests, like PARCC and SBAC, aren’t going to inform us of what we need to know. Personally, I prefer the use of portfolios. I would much rather have my daughter’s progress monitored by her teachers throughout the school year – using both the teachers’ own assessments and projects. I would rather she demonstrate what she CAN DO, rather than just failing a test that is inappropriate for her to begin with. Why is this such a difficult concept?

This isn’t rocket science. Really.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Our Dirty Little Secret

I want to share with all of you an example of what parents of children with disabilities go through in New Jersey. Sadly, this is not new, nor is it likely to change anytime in the near future. There needs to be a fundamental shift in how NJDOE/OSEP view these students, how individual districts view them, and how communities value them (or don’t).

This happened in my home K-8 district in Bergen County. This is a beautiful, close knit community. We take care of each other, we have very active civic organizations, and we even have two small, well-embraced, adult disability housing facilities. What we don’t have is that kind of support for the families who happen to have children with disabilities. It’s our dirty little secret.

Parents struggle to get evaluations. Scratch that, they struggle to get anyone to take their concerns seriously. Their teachers generally do, but are afraid to speak up. Parents struggle to get classifications and appropriate services. The district is adept at dragging the process out as long as possible (sometimes years), many times by simply not explaining the process to parents who have no idea how any of this works.

As you read this statement, made by a father, please remember that as parents, part of our job is to raise children who can make their way in the world as independently as possible and to become functioning members of society. I am absolutely sick of districts getting in the way.

It’s difficult to stand here and speak about the state of and the attitude towards Special Services in this district knowing it falls on deaf ears and has no apparent effect on the continuance of the treatment of the families in this town. The fact is that [Sparkly District] has an awful reputation with regard to their treatment and programming for special needs children and their families and it is evident that this works just fine for you all -- if it didn’t, things would be changing.

Maybe you are blinded by your personal feelings towards specific members of the community who fight for this population’s rights. Maybe you have grown too familiar with one another and cannot separate or comfortably voice your own personal opinions, experience, or agendas if they differ. You are professionals and our children are counting on you. To continuously ignore, deliberately avoid, and create a divide within the educational community you serve is a disgrace to your positions. You may start by seeking professional guidance and perhaps attempt to gain some understanding of the population causing you all so much aggravation. Maybe then you could begin to understand that this goes far beyond the here and now for our young children.

This is about our children who are suffering and in my case a child in crisis due to educational neglect and incompetence. Those words may seem harsh but in the two years we have been fighting for my daughter’s rights and needs, we’ve had horrifying experiences. We’ve had a district sub nurse assure me she is familiar with insulin shot protocol and then inform me she isn’t sure if she gave my child 4 or 8 units -- the 8 units would have killed my daughter. Following this incident I was then accused of abusing my daughter’s 504’s attendance policy because I rushed from work to pick her up. When we brought this up we were told, “It was a one off and to move forward” by an administrator who was unaware that this nurse had been hired for the remainder of the year. Remember that this is a child’s life we are talking about!

This year my daughter continued her struggle and began acting out and running away…again, we had been fighting to address her needs to avoid it affecting her schoolwork and functioning. Prevention costs far less.  An evaluation was finally agreed upon…a one-on-one aide was assigned to her due to her running away or “elopements”. In February, the school lost my daughter for a period of time that changed each time it was questioned. The story changed as well from initial contact to a scripted formal response that took nearly 24 hours to put together, and then further adjustments to the story were made in the letter that followed…Our lawyer doesn’t buy it, and neither would you if it were your child -- after all, how do you lose a child with a one-on-one aide that is placed with her because she runs away?  The only story that never changed was my daughter's and that of her classmates. Parents talk.

My daughter is just coming out of crisis mode and will thankfully be in an out of district placement. Two years of fighting for services and support -- being told I am “handicapping my daughter” by requesting such support.  I sat through meeting after meeting where her medical doctor and counselor’s insights and orders were completely ignored. This is unacceptable…either start to collaborate reasonably or own your ignorance, apathy, and discriminatory reputation. Enough is enough of excuses and well-crafted responses.

Neglect and incompetence…that is the new growing reputation of the [Sparkly] School District and not just among the Special Needs community. Our children impact their classmates-parents talk -- and the tide is turning from apathy to empathy and disbelief. That is a fact…a fact you continuously ignore despite what you have heard from so many and more to come. Just because you are [Sparkly District] does not make you exempt from the reality facing all districts today. The sign of a truly great district doesn’t come from carefully crafted test scores and superficial awards. It comes from fulfilling the legal obligation to provide an appropriate education to all children…you fail over and over again at this. You have the teachers who are more than capable -- you need the administration to lead them and the backbone and ethics as a professional Board of Education to do what is not only your legal obligation but what is right for all of our children.

I understand that it was difficult to educate my daughter with the special needs that she has.  However, you failed to identify and find the appropriate resources over the course of a two-year period subsequently resulting in the fact that you had crushed her spirits and represented school as a frightening and lonely place to be. What young child with disabilities could flourish in such an adverse environment? It is my hope that my daughter and other children with challenges and disabilities never experience such an unwelcoming and unsupportive environment again in their formative years!

With that being said and on behalf of our family’s devastating experience here, we are furnishing you with the required copy of the complaint we are filing with the New Jersey Department of Special Education Programs.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Nancy Bailey's #14

Nancy Bailey has a great post today discussing what she'd like to hear presidential candidates address in education. She laid out 1 through 13, but 14 through 16 she asks her readers to weigh in. Number 14 on her list is special education, a topic on which she usually writes. As you can imagine, I have a thing or two to say about special education from a parent's perspective - pretty basic stuff, really.

  1. I want to know how they will better fund special education (since fully finding anything these days is a pipe dream).
  2. How will their Education Secretary encourage/support states to:
    1. educate parents on their rights.
    2. educate districts on proper procedures for identifying, evaluating, classifying, and delivering services to students with disabilities.
    3. ensure OCR complaints are fully investigated in a timely manner.
    4. ensure special education teachers have access to professional development relevant to their specialty.
    5. ensure that all K-5 teachers have training to be able to identify problem areas, like reading, and know what to do about it.
  3.  I hope they understand how important it is to educate students with disabilities. The purpose of which is to help them become the best citizens they can be. (Does that sound sappy? Eh, maybe, but it's true. Everyone has something to contribute.)
  4.  I want them to be brave enough to actually listen to parents and teachers. We are the ones living this every day. (Maybe this should be number 1.)
It's been an interesting week here in New Jersey. I was at two public meetings in Trenton. At one, I heard several really fierce parents and teachers plead for the attention of the State Board of Education as students' IEPs are being changed without consent, as those students are losing their paraprofessionals, as some schools in their city are disproportionately burdened with more challenging students than others, and all called for the resignation of the state appointed superintendent.

At the other, I was told by a representative of special education schools they would not be supporting an Assembly bill aimed at barring special education and ELL students from taking the PARCC exam. While I don't support the bill as written either (those pesky Federal requirements get in the way), I was completely taken aback by their reason -- our kids have to be tested [using PARCC] to know how they are doing. *le sigh*

My response to that was, of course we need to know how "our kids" are doing, but PARCC isn't going to tell us that. Our teachers are.

Bottom line, who is actually listening to parents and teachers? Will any of the presidential candidates, from any party, be that person?  Am I asking too much? It doesn't seem like a lot.