Monday, November 30, 2015

The End of Special Education Part II

In the add insult to injury category, on 16th November, USED sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to clarify that all IEPs must be aligned to state academic content standards (Common Core for most of us) for the grade level of the student. Let that sink in for just a sec. Realize that this letter is for "guidance" and is not actually a change to IDEA, which, for probably a very short while, is the law of the land. 

At the bottom of page one (the missive is seven pages long), in tiny type, is a clarification, or as I call it, weaseling out of any responsibility for any harm done, directly or indirectly, to a student with a disability because of this asinine, if not illegal, "guidance." Here is a tidbit: "The Department has determined that this document is a “significant guidance document” under the Office of Management and Budget’s Final Bulletin for Agency Good Guidance Practices...The purpose of this guidance is to provide State and local educational agencies (LEAs) with information to assist them in meeting their obligations under the IDEA and its implementing regulations in developing IEPs for children with disabilities. This guidance does not impose any requirements beyond those required under applicable law and regulations. It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person." Right. Thanks for letting parents know (oh wait, they didn't receive this letter) that in one paragraph you ignore IDEA and in the small print excuse yourself from culpability. <insert expletive of your choice>

The letter then goes on to discuss FAPE and how an IEP is the vehicle through which a student has access to FAPE. Ok, I'm good with that, but (seems there's always a "but") the paragraph before provided guidance that is the exact opposite of what an IEP actually is! Please, tell me. How are districts to provide FAPE while following USED's guidance (for which it takes no responsibility)? 

The next several pages are devoted to the interpretation of "general education curriculum" (read: state standards) and how USED thinks students with disabilities will magically be able to meet grade level standards, or at the very least close their own achievement gap year to year. I have no trouble with challenging students with disabilities, nor with attempting to close academic gaps. I do, however, have big issues with only allowing a small number, as yet undefined, to have modified standards and assessments that are appropriate for those individual students. That is the spirit of IDEA. To give access to an education, to the extent possible, to all students. Making it exponentially more difficult, just because (or because you have no idea what the hell you're talking about - which seems to be the case with USED), is cruel. Thank you, Nancy, for that word. That is exactly what it is. 

The example for implementation includes what must be the only idea the USED folks think special education is all about, that is using audio to help students who are reading significantly below grade level. If only it was as simple as subscribing to the reformy Audibles to cure significant reading deficits. Gee, wish I had thought of that. 

Are you seeing a trend here? Put changes up on the Federal Register. Ignore or blow off two years worth of comments and questions about the abject stupidity of the changes and the "supporting research." Then send "guidance" directly to district personnel which, as far as I can see, is directly in opposition to IDEA. 

Are you mad yet? 

Michael Yudin and Melody Musgrove from USED are hoping for feedback. Please give it to them: If you are interested in commenting on this document, please e-mail your comments to or write to us at the following address: US Department of Education, 550 12th Street SW, PCP Room 5139, Washington, DC 20202-2600. Mostly they want to hear how well their guidance is working, but hey, probably better to just tell them the truth. 

The End of Special Education - Part I

This is a post I've put off writing this because the topic is incredibly depressing. Now I've procrastinated to the point where there are several topics to touch upon and will probably split this mess up into a few posts. 

I feel like I'm standing still and the world of education, especially special education and ELLs, is being swept away in whirlwind of incredibly poor policy decisions. (Yes, I know, it's been happening for a long time. I've only been really clued in for the last 5 years or so. Bare with me.) Those decisions have nothing to do with teachers. Nothing to do with students.  

Let's start with the US SecEd Arne Duncan and the changes to regulations that became effective on 21 September 2015. "In order to make conforming changes to ensure coordinated administration of programs under title I of the ESEA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Secretary is also amending the regulations for Part B of the IDEA."  I wrote tiny bit about it here

What he really meant by that was a fundamental change in how special education will be approached: "[ESEA to] no longer authorize a State to define modified academic achievement standards and develop alternate assessments based on those modified academic achievement standards for eligible students with disabilities." In other words, unless the student is severely disabled, students will be able to perform the same as their neurotypical peers with  "High standards and high expectations for all students and an accountability system that provides teachers, parents, students, and the public with information about students' academic progress are essential to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers in the 21st century." Add in some unicorn glitter and a miracle, and voila! Instant student with a disability success! Gee, wish I had thought of that. <insert biggest teenager-inspired eyeroll you can muster>

As galling as the basic premise of these changes are, perhaps the worst is the alleged research cited in support of this garbage that is passing for education policy. Fortunately, someone has already taken a very close look at the cited research and published a paper annihilating those citations, Primum Non Nocere: First, Do No Harm. Read it. It is is nothing less than jawdropping in its findings. Remember, the SecEd just removed states' ability to modify standards and testing for students with disabilities. His justification? A meta-analysis done in 2010, based on 70 studies done between 1984-2006. You can read the abstract here

The gist of this is that meta-analysis included students in grades 6-12. No K-5 students were included. The students were receiving interventions in science, social studies, or English. The studies looked at seven types of interventions in both an inclusion setting and in a separate classroom. However, "The authors note that only a small number of the studies took place in inclusive classrooms and that previous studies of coteaching in inclusive classrooms have found that the effective strategies investigated in this study are rarely implemented in inclusive settings."  

In other words, the SecEd just changed the basics of special education based on a meta-analysis which the authors specifically say they did not look at special education interventions in a separate classroom and very few were done in an inclusion setting. It does NOT support abandoning alternative standards or assessment. It didn't look at interventions for K-5. Nor at interventions for math. Remember this as Duncan will surely go down in history as the worst SecEd ever. 

P.S. I have to include this gem from the meta-analysis abstract. Understand that meta-analysis is only as good as the research it's based on. So, in 2010, when this analysis was published, this seems wildly inappropriate: "Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI). The seven studies on CAI programs found computer-based instruction to be moderately effective. However, most studies on CAI were conducted during the 1980s and 1990s; it is not known whether the same results would be found with current CAI programs."  Is it just me? Why the heck would you include seven studies done at least 10 YEARS before, on technology that is changing annually? What is the point of this? Mark Weber? Any thoughts on this? 

P.P.S. The rest of the citations either didn't exist, were paid for by USED, weren't peer reviewed, or the conclusions of the research were limited in scope (even though SecEd cited in support of broader scope).

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Response to Intervention

Tomorrow morning, the New Jersey Senate Education Committee will be discussing, among a bunch of other bills, S445 Response to Intervention (RtI) Framework. I have lots of issues with RtI mostly due to the let's-put-off-classification-as-long-as-we-can nature of it. Nancy Bailey wrote a great piece on this just the other day. She wrote a much longer version for Living in Dialogue last January, also worth a read. 

This was my comment on Nancy's latest piece: 
"Thanks for this and the discussion, Nancy. New Jersey is looking to formally adopt the RtI model statewide. I’m actually testifying about it tomorrow morning. I do not support it. As a state, NJ has not been doing special ed well. And while many will argue that “quality” is an issue that is difficult to address, it is made much worse when districts have get a “pass” on having to properly identify students in a timely manner. We already have that going on. Why put a gold sticker on a lousy practice that leaves us with students finally being classified in high school?
To the point about having properly trained teachers in the classroom who actually know how to identify what’s in front of them. Yes! I’m in districts all over the state and consistently, the younger teachers have little to no experience with identifying or knowing how to intercede on behalf of their students.
The paranoid parent advocate in me thinks this is purposefully done. The end goal is to get rid of special ed entirely."

Put this move to implement RtI in context with a likely soon to be created Special Education Ombudsman position...working out of NJDOE, no less. Is it just me? Why the disconnect? Legislators have clearly recognized the need for help for students and parents. Theoretically, NJDOE already has OSEP to handle that. And, now they want to implement a system then further removes accessibility to timely, appropriate intervention. Frustrating, to say the very least.

Here is my written testimony to the NJ Senate Education Committee:

16 November 2015

New Jersey Senate Education Committee
Testimony on Bill S445 – Response to Intervention (RtI)

Thank you for this committee’s dedication to engaging the special education community and for continuing to sponsor bills with the aim of making education accessible for all. 

While the idea of tiered system, as RtI is, sounds appealing on the surface, I would like to offer a different perspective for consideration, from the ground level. As an advocate, I speak with many parents and teachers around the state, and indeed in other states. Universally, special education services are harder to secure and the quality of services from one district to another is hugely variable. 

When a system like RtI is put in place, it means that students with disabilities are put on an assembly line. If Tier 1 doesn’t work, onto the next. At Tier 3, if not working, then the student, hopefully, will finally be referred to the Child Study Team for a full evaluation for special education services. How much time is lost? There are no timeframes in RtI. It is subjective and relies on the ability of general education teachers, especially in the lower grades, to identify the difference between a learning disability and a student who may just be learning more slowly than their peers, but is still learning. In upper grades, this is even more problematic because precious time has already been lost. 

We already see this happening. Students are placed in the general education setting of Basic Skills Instruction (BSI), sometimes for years. The reason BSI hasn’t worked for many students is they simply have an unidentified learning disability. Dyslexia probably being the most common. Districts can honestly tell parents their children are getting extra help. The problem is, it’s not the right help. RtI will be a great enabler for districts that already stash children away in BSI. 

I ask you to consider more stringent guidelines for the framework. The timeline from one Tier to another should be short. The requirement to assess whether skipping the next Tier in favor of an evaluation for special education must take place. The “assessments” should either be specifically spelled out or listed as examples for districts and parents to choose from. The education and professional development (PD) for teachers, especially general education teachers must happen annually. PD should focus on the actual identification of learning disabilities. Finally, a referral to the Child Study Team for an evaluation for services should never be redirected to RtI. 

I implore you to consider the timeline for these students. How much time is too much time to waste? A couple of months ago you heard testimony on the necessity for high quality pre-school. And, the importance of that kind of early intervention on the impact on special education classification. Why should that be any less important in the K-12 setting?

Thank you, as always, for your time and consideration.


Julie B

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Good Education Day in New Jersey

It's really great to have something good to write about. Today there are three! Quick. Go but a lottery ticket! 

This morning, Chris Tienken tweeted out a teaser for a report on Common Core Complexity, which will be released in January. The gist of it is this:

"[Webb's] Level 1 and 2 Depth of Knowledge complexity accounted for 72% of the high school English language arts Common Core State Standards. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of the 9-12 CCSS English language arts standards were rated at Level 1. Almost 3/4 of the high school English language arts standards do not require creative or strategic thinking as currently written." 

Pretty damning when Common Core cheerleaders have been selling it as the best thing to happen in public education in, well, forever. Seems that may have a been a bit of a stretch. Anyone surprised? Thought not.

With the NJ Assembly elected and back to business, the governor had to follow suit. Today, Governor Christie signed into law two bills a lot of us have been working very hard to get on the books. S2766/A3079, which limits standardized testing in grades K-2 to diagnostic purposes only. No high-stakes standardized testing for our youngest students. And, S2881/A4485, which prohibits the NJ Department of Education from withholding state aid from school districts for having high opt out/refusal rates. 

Since it seems that New Jersey refusal numbers are around 125,000, that law will come in handy. 

No more excuses, New Jersey. Opt Out