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Special Education Teacher Shares Views During Education Department Listening Tour

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan has started a 15-state "listening tour" on No Child Left Behind, and during his first visit, to rural West Virginia, he heard from a special education teacher:

Reichard told Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday that she works all year long to boost the self-esteem of mentally impaired students at Bunker Hill Elementary, only to see them fall apart over standardized tests.


"They feel so good about themselves, and then they look at a two-paragraph reading passage, and they know six words," Reichard said. "I have one child here that's a nonreader, and she's going to have to take the test, and she's going to cry.

Is Duncan offering a hint of what might be coming in NCLB and testing of students with disabilities? His response to this teacher was that her story was an example of how the federal government should be "looser" with how states meet goals. This will be a theme to watch.

The Education Department says these meetings will be taped and summaries will be published on the department's website. A synopsis of the West Virginia trip isn't available yet, but some pictures of the trip are here.

14 Comments

Duncan didn't get CPS to use research-validated programs of remediation or initial instruction, delivered with fidelity by thoroughly trained staff. As a result, the scores of kids with disabilities in CPS deteriorated markedly. Since he didn't know how to do it right there, nobody is going to be expected to do it right anywhere. High expectations, set in accordance with what legitimate research shows actually works, appear to play no part in Duncan's approach to special education and children with disabilities.

He should resign, right now, if this is what we can expect from him in the future.

It's going to be a long, hot summer for those who care about children with disabilities and know what they can do when given appropriate programs with adequately trained teaching staff.

For this I supported Obama? Arrgh!

I teach high school MOID/SID students who are on a standard based, portfolio alternative assessment. Alternative assessments should be based on a student's IEP, not general ed. standards. NCLB is trumping students' IEPs which in turn, jepordizes student opportunities for a crucial Life Skills curriculum.
I dearly hope changes will be made to NCLB to benefit our students.

I think I agree with Dee, if I am understanding her correctly. I know that I am very much in disagreement with the teacher who was advocating either exclusion from the tests or alternate content for students with disabilities. What strikes me as being absent from many of these speakers on behalf of their poor disabled students (whose self-esteem is always ruined because they try so hard but don't have a hope of understanding what is on the test--but never appear to be in a group that is eligible for individualized alternate testing), is the voice of disabled adults. It seems to me as though this group could provide a world of insights into the value of education provided to them in specialized settings and with alternate curriculum. What is the experience of students with disabilities on graduation? We know statistically that they are less likely to be enrolled in college, but also less likely, as a group with many variations, to be employed. What is the opinion of those five years, ten years out (as well as those who dropped out) of the preparation that they received in their schooling? I just cringe when I hear the kind of thing that the article presents with regard to students with disabilities--poor hard workers who just can't "get it" and are devastated by the testing process. It just seems to be very self-serving and even at times degrading.

"but never appear to be in a group that is eligible for individualized alternate testing"

If I understand your point here, the reason for this is that administrations are restricted on the number of students who can receive alternate assessment and so not have to go through the standardized tests. IIRC, it's 1% of a building's student population (it is here anyway, I think). At a small school, that's never as big a number as the kids who might actually benefit from alternate. Result: students with considerably subnormal IQs having to take the exact same test college prep kids had to take, with the only accommodation being someone to read the test to them (except for the Reading test, all of which they must read themselves - even if they're at a 2nd grade reading level).

"I just cringe when I hear the kind of thing that the article presents with regard to students with disabilities-- poor hard workers who just can't 'get it' and are devastated by the testing process. It just seems to be very self-serving and even at times degrading."

Perhaps, but that's pretty much the way it is.

SpEd:

No--my point is not that the limitations on the numbers of students who qualify to be tested alternatively mean that some kids with cognitive disabilities have to "take the test." First--the 1% cap indicates not the number of students who can be alternatively tested, but the percentage of alternative scores that can count towards AYP. In other words, every student's testing situation should be determined by their individual need. The 1% cap was set based on the percentage of students with such cognitive disabilities in the population. Districts and states may apply to allow up to 1.5% based on the needs (based on data) of their specific population.

However, when one looks at the data for kids with disabilities, kids in most categories of disability (even those that are not cognitive) are achieving well below their non-disabled peers. There has been (by my observation) a widespread belief that the function of special education in this country is to provide an alternate environment for students with disabilities in which expectations are lowered and they progress at a rate behind that of their peers. For many this is the working definition of disability. These people are frequently indignant when confronted with an opposing point of view that what is supposed to be "special" about "special education" is that it provide intensification where needed in order to keep students on track with their peers, and accommodation to overcome various unique barriers that they may face (ambulatory, visual, auditory, manual, emotional, etc) in accessing the general curriculum. They generally view such expectations as impossible, as well as harmful, to their students with disabilities.

Where I cry, in response to the student described in the article, is that either the student is mis-categorized, or the student is being mis-educated. First we have to answer the question of why the student is not reading. Does the student have a cognitive disability? If so, she should be receiving alternative testing. If not, what is the problem? One might suppose that at this point the student is roughly four years behind her chronological peers (in reading). This is a very serious gap for someone in the normal range of intelligence (although it does seriously beg the question with regard to how that has been determined). Is anyone asking why this is?

I'm not sure where our misunderstanding each other lies, or if we're really saying the same thing. All I'm saying is that there are *truly* cognitively delayed students ("truly" meaning "not misdiagnosed") all across the country required to take the same tests as the regular ed students, and doing so without any more accommodation beyond a reader. I have yet to have someone clearly explain to me why this absurdity exists, and I'm wondering if I should hold my breath until the new administration recognizes and addresses it. I suspect I shouldn't.

SpEd:

No, we are not saying the same thing. I wonder what data source you are using to determine that "truly cognitively delayed" are taking the same tests as non-disabled students. I would further need to know by what process this is taking place--as the law does not required it. I can attest anecdotally that non-compliance with law in special education is pretty rampant--frequently due to ignorance, or local policy/practice that violates state and legal regulation.

Again--anecdotally--there has been a good bit of monkeying with who is/is not considered to be disabled based on which way would better advantage the district. If the district sees this as a way to get federal dollars, they are likely to identify more kids. If parents are savvy about requesting the services that their kids are entitled to--not so much. In my state, prior to NCLB, students with disabilities were routinely waived from participation in any testing. Hence, more kids identified (and before there was a required 95% minimum number tested, attendance during test week might decline).

I would suggest that the assessment process for kids who are cognitively disabled is far more complex than the standardized tests--owing to them being far more performance-based and individualized. This may disincentivize the folks who would prefer that kids with cognitive disabilities just be overlooked totally.

Perhaps you could respond with regard to why this happens in your own district.

While it is certainly true that in some cases NCLB has led to inappropriate assessment, Margo/Mom is making an important point. Special education teachers are deeply caring individuals, but sometimes their concern for a child's "self esteem" can end up hurting a student's long term needs. I winced when I read the description of a special education teacher working all year long to boost her student's self-esteem. Surely these students are better served by a teacher who gives them a realistic sense of their strengths and weaknesses, a clear set of strategies to empower them meet their goals, and an intensive curriculum that aims to bring them up to grade level within a reasonable time frame. Yes, I realize that in many cases a reasonable time frame is going to be more that one year. And of course, this is not realistic for students who are truly cognitively impaired, but as Margo/Mom points out this is not the case with the great majority of disabled students. There are times when I think that our obsession with self-esteem is one of the most hurtful things we have done to students.

Note to Margo/Mom: I wish you would refrain from "teacher bashing". Teachers are hard-working, dedicated, if imperfect professionals. When you denigrate teachers, you undercut the effectiveness of your message.

Ray:

I do wish that teachers were more able to see themselves as individuals within a system and to take systemic criticisms less personally. It is entirely possible to be very hard-working, dedicated and caring individuals and either be engaged in doing the wrong things, or functioning as a part of an inadequate system. Make no mistake--I do view teachers as professionals with both a stake and responsibility for the system of which they are a part. But it is not about "bashing" teachers.

As a parent, it is very hard to stand aside and watch as hard-working and well-meaning individuals engage in behavior that cumulatively results in the exclusion, infantilization and short-changing of one's child's education. I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to refocus many of these "hurt feelings" kinds of responses to looking at the system, and its impact on whole groups of students. It is very difficult. I cannot tell you how many times I have been "redirected," because "this isn't the time or place for that discussion," or "we are only here to talk about your child."

MM,

If a student has been diagnosed as CD (or whatever) by a duly appointed authority, and that diagnosis is in their MFE and IEP, then teaching staff are to handle them as such under penalty of law. The teachers have no choice.

If the administration or the state says CD students are going to take the exact same tests as anyone else, even with accommodations, there again teaching staff have no choice but to comply.

Some of your objections, seems to me, would be better aimed at administrators - district or state - rather than teachers who simply do what they're told, are required by law to do EXACTLY what they're told, and have little freedom to do more than they're told, even if it's for the best.

SpEd:

You should be aware that in the case you describe either the district or the state is in violation of federal law. You do have recourse because in following such directives you too are in violation of federal law. You could contact the Office of Civil Rights.

You cannot determine the contents of the IEP based solely on the label of the child. Each IEP is to be individually determined. Such "categorical" determinations are specifically outlawed.

Recourse? To the Fed?

NCLB - federal law that isn't going anywhere anytime soon - dictates that ALL subgroups, including IEP students, will be at grade level (not ability level, mind you, but grade level) in Reading and Math by 2013-2014 school year.

There is no recourse.

Forgot to add:

By what method will the State and Fed determine that these groups (including special ed, mind you) have reached or not reached grade level in a given subject? The only way they think they can: via the standardized tests. That's why all but the lowest sp. ed. kids are taking them now.

SpEd:

Please read the law, as well as IDEA. I regret to suggest that information given to teachers (as well as parents) with regard to what the law requires (and does not require) is not always the most accurate. Actually, Safe Harbor provisions guarantee that no subgoup ever be required to reach 100% proficiency. But, again--the selection of the appropriate test, and testing situation, for any student with an IEP is to be INDIVIDUALLY determined by the IEP TEAM--comprised of a number of individuals. There is no such thing (legally) as a categorical requirement, service, accommodation or test. If your district requires this, the Office of Civil Rights should be very happy to hear from you.

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