First Person

Special Education: Initiative or Inertia?

Last July, the New York City Department of Education released an in-house memo of recommendations to improve services to students with disabilities.  So, in the midst of an election campaign and with little previous administration attention paid to this population, it seems fair to ask, “Hey, Mike!  Why special ed? Why now?”  Does this new initiative suggest commitment to change or is it a political document meant to convey progress rather than institutional inertia?

The DOE memo, if implemented, would improve instruction, graduation, and career possibilities for the city’s approximately 130,000 students with IEPs, the “individualized education programs” that federal law mandates for students with disabilities.  But DOE commitment to these recommendations is uncertain since the report reads less like a trusted expert’s focused analysis and more like an aide’s synthesis of progressive positions with an eye to mayoral politics.

The progressive perspective is at least in part represented by “Educate! Include! Respect!,” an April 2009 report by the ARISE Coalition, a broad coalition of parents, educators, and advocates brought together by Advocates for Children of New York.  I am a member of ARISE but the opinions expressed here are my own.  ARISE calls for 15 specific “action items,” citing recommendations of many other recent reports.  Two of these predecessor works are especially notable since they, like the DOE memo, were commissioned by Chancellor Klein: a 2005 “Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation” by Thomas Hehir and a 2008 report by the Council of Great City Schools.  The CGCS study specifically addressed issues in District 75, the “Citywide Special Education” district that serves students with the most serious handicaps.  So far, however, none of these studies seem have gained traction with the Mayor or Chancellor, whose leadership is vital if the long-standing problems of special education detailed by ARISE, Hehir, and CGCS are to be remedied.

While the above documents describe a series of possible reforms to address this poorly-served population, I deviate from their common wisdom in two important respects.  The first is the recommendation (and, so far, the only one implemented by the Chancellor) for a cabinet-level special education post.  The second is the continued existence of District 75.

The DOE memo states that both Hehir and CGCS recommend “a direct report to the Chancellor.”  While acknowledging arguments to the contrary, it arrives at the same conclusion which seems tacitly accepted by ARISE’s response to the memo.  This position is wrong as a general organizational strategy and, particularly, in the closed circle of current DOE decision-making.

Special education is a continuum within the broad spectrum of public school instruction.  This is not only promoted by federal requirements providing special needs students with mainstreaming opportunities in the “least restrictive environment” but by recognition that many students with disabilities spend only part of their day receiving special instruction, often in a mainstream class, and others receive only incidental special education services such as testing accommodations and related services (speech therapy, physical therapy, and the like) without ever being materially separated from their “gen. ed.” classmates.

To separate these and other students with and without IEPs from the responsibility of all top DOE managers is to continue the marginalization of these students and their parents.  This is particularly the case under Chancellor Klein who grants disproportionate power to a few intimates.  In that environment, a Deputy Chancellor-level advocate for Special Education and English Language Learners (hardly a felicitous combination except in the mind of someone with but superficial knowledge of either) is likely to be political window dressing rather than a real driver of institutional change.

Similarly expedient is the reports’ uniform recommendation to maintain District 75.  Dismantling the District is the third rail of special education politics since, though long a segregated instructional mediocrity, parents fear disaster if their severely handicapped children become the responsibility of larger organizational structures.  And those structures – non-District 75 schools, community school districts, and the Department as a whole – have historically shunned responsibility for these students, by definition those most difficult to educate.

But the time has come to break with this obvious failure and the insidious institutional culture that breeds it.  By every measure, District 75 lags not just because its students have special needs but because it has been treated as an educational backwater, rife with income and racial bias.  Wealthier parents, usually White, frequently opt out of District 75 schools through their ability to secure private placements for their children, often at public expense.  Notable is the following chart, adapted from the CGCS study at p. 72, showing widespread racial disparities, particularly the disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic students labeled with the highly subjective designation “emotionally disturbed” (CGCS does not break down its data for Asian, Native American, or Pacific Islander students):picture-16

These students are the least likely to graduate, are subject to high rates of suspension despite legal protections, and are the most likely to drop out.  Even their egregiously low levels of performance are probably inflated by DOE graduation data that has incorrectly counted so-called IEP diplomas as exit credentials and, as detailed by the Public Advocate, the failure to count as drop outs large numbers of disabled students who prematurely leave school.

While report after report emphasizes District 75’s poor record of performance and the failure of the present administration to bring it into the mainstream of reform efforts, each succumbs to the politically popular notion that District 75 should remain apart.  But as most clearly and prominently noted by the CGCS report, the only one which specifically studied that District and its students’ needs, the DOE must “reform and integrate the currently bifurcated system of services for students with disabilities into a universal and seamless design.”  Amen to that.  Parents need to be reassured that inclusion in the mainstream structure will strengthen, not diminish, their children’s instructional and career futures.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the ills of special education in New York’s public schools.  In addition to chronic problems of timely, appropriate evaluation and placement and below-par services, reports are surfacing of changed IEPs in small schools, failure to hire required related service providers under the current job freeze, the absence of students with disabilities in charter schools, inadequate funding under the DOE’s budget formula, and the instructional vacuity of many Collaborative Team Teaching classrooms.  These and other issues require urgent scrutiny and resolution by the administration.  Educators, advocates, and technocrats have spent years exploring the subject.  Substantive action, not electoral posturing, is now required.

First Person

Why I take class time to teach perseverance (and let my fourth-graders write on their desks)

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star
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Every morning, I hand my fourth-grade students dry-erase markers and ask them to do something unconventional: write directly on their desks.

Their task is to write a goal for the day. I have seen them write things like “Today I will be a better friend” or more abstract ideas like “My goal is to accept challenges.” When it’s time to leave, we celebrate those who met their goals and encourage those who haven’t to try again tomorrow.

Daily goal-setting is one of many strategies I use to teach perseverance, self-control, confidence and teamwork — “soft skills” often referred to as social-emotional learning. Most require just a couple of extra minutes at the start and end of our school days, but the payoff seems invaluable.

Research shows that students who internalize those skills may actually be better at learning hard skills like math and reading, and are more likely to graduate from high school. One study showed that students were more motivated when they were told their brains are muscles that can get stronger with practice, just like any other muscle. This year, I’ve already seen students use their daily goal-setting to focus on tasks they used to think they could not accomplish, like multiplication.

I’ve seen this strategy work with students of all ability levels. We are a diverse community, and the same goals don’t work for everyone, especially my students who fall under the special-education umbrella or whose primary language isn’t English. But that doesn’t mean they are excluded. Part of the learning process for students is crafting their own goals that will work for them.

Another part of this exercise is practicing compassion. Nothing makes my heart happier than seeing my students take a genuine interest in each other. They’ve even written goals like, “I want to learn to speak English” (with help from another classmate) or “I will help Alan with his math today.” And they actually did it. Those two students sat together in class and worked on sight words and multiplication problems.

An important part of this work is defining these ideas, like empathy, grit and determination for students so I can be specific about what we’re aiming for. (I like ClassDojo’s Big Ideas videos, which explain those concepts through the eyes of a little monster named Mojo, and prompt my students to talk about how they’ve felt when they didn’t know an answer or were intimidated by a task.)

An unexpected benefit of these lessons has been personal. Lately, my class has been struggling with getting off-task — and, as all teachers know, every minute I spend asking a student to please stop talking or stop distracting others is a minute not spent on academic content or teaching the rest of the class. At one of those moments, I asked my students to empathize with me, one teacher trying to reach 22 of them, and with their fellow students, who wanted to learn but were being distracted.

We talked as a class about building a new set of expectations for our classroom. And by the end of the day, I had received two hand-delivered notes, secretly created and signed by each student in the class, saying that they were sorry for disturbing class.

The notes showed me that my students are learning compassion and also that they are beginning to value their academic time. I hope that it was a sign of soft skills leading to hard skills — students recognizing that how they act has an impact on learning the skills necessary to solve problems and succeed.

Stephanie Smith is a fourth-grade teacher at Roy L. Waldron Elementary School in La Vergne, Tenn.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
johnteaching

Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens.