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Best and Better


I've been working with middle school students for five months now. We're at the end of the second quarter. It is evaluation time. As a classroom teacher I assess student academic progress and assign a grade. This is done with my co-teacher. We look at scores on tests and quizzes, award points for homework turned in, and measure class participation. Standard procedure for every teacher.

As a special educator, I also prepare quarterly reports that measure progress on IEP goals and objectives. This is not as concrete a process. Although an IEP is written with goals that are supposed to be measurable, it is a challenge to measure exactly how much a child's comprehension in reading has improved, or whether or not they are using appropriate writing and revision strategies 100% of the time. It is best practice to base my assessment on teacher reports (for all classes where that skill is used), review student work samples,conduct observations in class, and talk to both parents and students. Best practice is not always actual practice. I admit it. I'm doing my best, but my best isn't always best practice.

What we're really trying to do is determine whether or not our services as special educators are making a difference. Is the child improving his academic abilities? Can he read faster and more naturally, understand what he reads, and write a reflective analysis effectively? Can she perform algebraic functions and complete homework as assigned? Academic goals are tracked through the appropriate classes. But what about social-emotional goals?

Southern Middle School, like many schools today, has students identified as having an emotional disturbance as the handicapping condition. These students' goals may include appropriate social interaction, coping with stress, controlling anger. The progress the student makes on these goals is much harder to measure.

With a math goal I talk to the math teacher. With a reading goal, I check with all the content teachers. With a social-emotional goal, I need to measure progress in all the child's classes. Physical Education class is a challenge for ED kids. It's a larger class, often in open space, with people moving around. A lot can happen. Foreign language classes can be a source of frustration for students who don't cope well with frustration. I also need to check in with the counselors, and the administrators. Hallways and cafeterias can be tough for our ED students. To measure progress on social-emotional goals, I also should find out if the student is subject to disciplinary actions. And of course, I review the student's progress with the school psychologist, who has a whole different perspective on what's going on with this kid.

All of this information is summarized in several sentences, and mailed to the parent. If I can report progress being made, then the IEP continues. If the student is not making satisfactory progress on their goals, and I report that, then I need to begin the IEP review process. In that process we'll try to identify why a student is not successful, and what supports we can implement for him.

The question I ask myself at the end of each quarter is this: If a child is not successful, shouldn't I have known it before now? Can we afford to wait a full quarter to find out a student needs more help? Again, best practice tells me that I should be aware of my students' needs and progress at all times. Again, best practice is not always what happens. So in the quarterly review progress, I also review my own progress as a case manager. Am I successful?

We tell students all the time, "Do your best". But what we're not telling them often enough is this: "If your best is not good enough, you must make it better."

I'm still a young teacher, only three and a half years into this career. I've only been a department chair for special education for six months. When I get frustrated, and tired, I tell myself, "I'm doing my best." But now I am admitting that my best is not good enough. So my goal is to "make it better". I can't measure my success unless I set goals for myself. To set goals, I need to have an objective. My objective is to have more frequent contact with the students on my caseload, and to develop good portfolios of their work so I can measure progress more accurately. I have nine weeks to do it. One quarter. I'm giving myself nine weeks to meet my goal of becoming a better case manager.

I'm doing my best. I need to make my best better.


I can understand your challenge of not waiting to long to assess. Is it possible to keep a short time of work samples and review at set times so you can look for improvement or lack thereof.

As the parent of a special needs child I would love be involved in this process. Maybe working with active parents and asking for thier feedback could also help.

As a Spec Ed Masters Degree Student I know there is a lot of paperwork and other activities that also take up your time. Is there anyway to limit paper work so it serves purpose of measuring student progress status and reflecting this to others so you don't have to do double paperwork?

Just questions as I am in no position to judge or give advice.

Ron Dixon

I believe Ron is on the right track with utilizing involved and willing parents in the process. I'm sure you already do a lot of this. I appreciate your stream of consciousness, your line of questioning and your loyalty to your students. I am a music teacher for grades 4-8 in a struggling inner city school system in New Jersey and a large percentage of my students hold IEP's. I develop most of my lessons these days from a special education perspective in order to maintain some continuity for our struggling students, while keeping the music fun and fresh and challenging for those students who do not reflect these academic challenges. It's called differentiated learning isn't it? It's really all I do, music is just the vehicle.
My question for you is, when you switched down to the middle school level from high school, and into special ed for the first time, did it effect your salary guide placement at all? I'm not sure of the legalities on this and I am actually considering a switch as well, to a world language classroom-specifically Mandarin Chinese. Please let me know what you know about this.

I think there are many other interrelated factors in the education of a child that can influence the amount of improvement that can be measured by a single evaluation tool or test. Possibly the test was not the proper measurement tool, the student failed to develop the necessary cognitive learning connections, or the student did not fully understand the prerequisite skills needed for learning to take place. These are just a few of the possible reasons for inadequate learning and the student will may develop the desired ability with more educational guidance. The lack of increased learning on the part of the student is not always the fault of the teacher. When both the teacher and student are putting forth their best effort, the level of skill developed by the student cannot be faulted.

Hanne, I taught special education for six years at the elementary level. Don't be hard on yourself. It takes at least two years to really get your job down. There is an enormous amount of paper work in special education that regular education teachers do not have to deal with.

Now, as for data collection it can be done. My IEP's included goals and objectives, so I developed a system where I was taking data on the objectives. I would do this on a regular basis at least 1-2 times per week. Of course, you may have some students with severe disabilities where gains are much slower.

In addition, each quarter, I would have a couple of days just for testing. I would then use a curriculum based assessment such as the Brigance Inventory. It is very informative and measureable.

Keeping a working portfolio on each student is also very handy. Once a week, I would collect from each student a worksheet, art work, anything that would show me and their parents if gains were being made on their goals.

Keep up the good work!

As an educational advocate, we serve many individuals and families who have concerns with IEP's and other issues.
Now, imagine the students who have famlies not involved in their learning, who may be struggling with basics needs. Those students need support, and there is a gap of those who have and those who do not. Portfolios of recent work will help demonstrate what theat student is, and what they can become.

I enjoyed this blog because I am always wrestling with many of the questions posed. Am I good teacher? am I fair? etc., but you are doing a good job because your goal is for the child to learn while having a positive experience. You are not just advocating a passing grade, instead you are keeping high expectation for these students. That's always my concern because some parents expect their children to get A's even if they are not performing a that level.

Some students use their classification as a crutch to get away with doing nothing and then disrupt as well, yet at the end of the quarter they expect a good grade.

I was impacted by your question "What we're really trying to do is determine whether or not our services as special educators are making a difference. Is the child improving his academic abilities?" This is a confirmation of your integrity as a teacher.

My inclusion teacher has access to my grade book and she calls parents when the grade goes down. At first I was shocked when she sent a student to my room to fetch my grade book for her, but I got used to it. However, I can't get used to her policy of letting the kids get away with doing nothing and then at the end of the quarter she has them copy the missing work from other students and she enters the grade in my book so the students pass and everyone looks good. This practice is extremely disturbing to me because it seems dishonest and because I know that the student can do much better if they completed their daily work and Hk.
Thanks for the work you do. You are doing right.

I would like to reply to a couple of the postings. To Celina: I had a similar situation but with was with my supervisor. I was the inclusion teacher and the student was doing little work (If any). The math teacher and I were in agreement to fail her for the quarter and when my supervisor found out he told me "No one fails in Inclusion." When the teacher and I sat down with mom, mom was in agreement that yes, her daughter SHOULD fail because it is teaching her to be responsible for her actions... This was a 10th grader. But teachers who make things "easier" for the student, are trying to dodge the bullet and not having to call home to say "Suzie in not doing her work." Or she doesn't want to say "This is not an appropriate setting for the child." She's trying not to make waves... simple as that. People wonder why kids get promoted to the next grade and can't do grade level work because of kind hearted teachers who want everything to be "Ok".
The other point is this: I had a student (not inclusion) think the work the inclusion kids did was "easier". To show him it was not "easier" just presented differently I gave him the a test that the inclusion students were taking. All I did was create more space on the page for the work to be done. In this boy's eye, there was less work to do, which is his mind's eye was "easier". Yes, I was called on it and when I showed my supervisor the modified test to the original... that was the only change. I was told I was not to give a child who is not Inclusion a modfied test... he was a resource room student. Would you believe the boy passed the test?! He passed because he thought it was easy... more white space... more area to do computations. In NY, unless a child has Alterative Testing on their IEP, every child has to sit and take the NY State Exams and their is no modifications that can be made to those exams... so are we serving the students by making things "easier" for them instead of breaking down the subject matter into smaller "pieces" for them to better understand? Even then, if they don't understand the process... just follow the steps. Sometimes understanding comes later down the line.

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  • Pam: I would like to reply to a couple of the read more
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