baby steps

City announces broad outlines of a special education overhaul

School officials outlined a plan to change the way city schools serve students with disabilities at a closed-door meeting this morning with special education advocates.

The plan’s first step: Telling schools they have to accept, and “embrace,” students with special needs.

“For too long, educating students with disabilities has meant separating them from their general education peers,” Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said in a statement. “Today we are building on the premise that every school must be able to educate the vast majority of these children.”

That premise represents a badly needed advance for the city schools, according to special education advocates.

“The principles in [the plan] are wonderful, but they’ve been law forever,” said Maggie Moroff, who coordinates the ARISE Coalition but was not speaking on the coalition’s behalf. “The overarching goals are exactly what they ought to be, it’s just that in my mind they’re not so novel.”

In a statement, Laura Rodriguez, the department’s first deputy chancellor in charge of special education, explained that under the plan, schools will get more flexibility to design new programs for students with special needs; will collaborate more with parents; and receive a toolkit to help them improve instruction. They’ll also be held accountable for meeting students’ special education needs, she said.

How any of this will happen is not yet clear. A PowerPoint presentation given this morning offers few details, and Klein and Rodriguez did not offer more, Moroff said.

In the first phase of the plan this fall, about 200 schools will get specialized special education teacher training through 10 Children First Networks, the new unit of organization for how schools get administrative and instructional support. Those schools and networks have not yet been announced. The department told advocates this morning that it has the funds to carry out the plan.

Moroff said she was surprised by the vagueness of the plan revealed this morning, which comes more than six months after Rodriguez was appointed to lead special education reforms. “I sort of thought they were going to have something more fleshed out,” she said.

According to Moroff, the plan hews closely to the recommendations delivered by former DOE executive Garth Harries, who conducted a controversial study of the special education system during his final year at the department. When Harries released his report in July, special education advocates said they were heartened but would reserve judgement until the department announced implementation details.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”