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The IEP That’s Up and Coming

  • Posted on November 12, 2012 at 9:00 AM

I thought I got through during Alex’s last IEP, his transition IEP. I thought this necessary change in schools would produce a positive change in programing. I thought the education part of Alex’s education that I’d been fighting so hard to get would finally become a priority. I feared that Ben being sent to a special program because of his behaviors would be a step in the wrong direction.

Instead, Ben is making great gains and sure to make more by the end of the year. And Alex’s program…

What is Alex’s program? I’m not entirely sure, because his schedule looks nothing like the IEP we discussed. Based on his schedule, you’d think Alex was on the fast-track to working at one of the special programs for adults with developmental disabilities in the next few years. Moving boxes, packing boxes, breaking down boxes…that seems to be what Alex is learning in school.

Reading, writing, math, science, social studies…those have seemed to take a backseat to Alex’s “education.”

I say “seem,” because I’m not sure. But I’m going to ask. I’m going to ask what progress they’ve made this year and what progress they intend to make, and then I’m going to shape their intentions to be what Alex needs. That’s the plan. Wish me luck!

Review: Waiting for Superman

  • Posted on May 20, 2011 at 1:14 PM

Waiting for Superman is a thought-provoking documentary.  Artistically, I think the filmmaker did a good job of creating a narrative arc and providing a dense piece, full of information.  However, I would caution any viewer from “buying” the message entirely.  The film was full of information; some of that information was factual and some of that information was opinion.  The danger is that much of the opinion was presented as facts.  It’s difficult to sort the two out without extensive research, so the entirety should be viewed with skepticism.

One thing I find very important in this film is that they stress how essential good teachers are to the education of children, but how the system—including, but not limited to the teachers’ unions and politicians that keep bad teachers in their positions—is dysfunctional.  That focus, that differentiation is very important.

Before writing this, I read quite a few scathing critiques.  Not surprisingly, many if not all of these critiques were written by people who have a vested interest in the status quo.  I would recommend against “buying” their messages as well, for much the same reason.  Facts and opinions are not the same, and yet both sides present their opinions as if they were facts.  This is unethical and it is not done in the best interests of the recipients of these services, namely the children.  Furthermore, over-simplifying and filtering an opponent’s message in order to set up a straw-man—which is what most of the critiques I read did—is unethical and logically fallible.  We’re talking Critical Thinking 101 here, so it’s especially sad that it was done by our teachers and administrators who should know better.  Finally, while these critiques occasionally would admit the problem is real, none of them offered a solution besides pushing forward with what we know doesn’t work.  These people are barriers to change and, for the sake of our children, change is necessary.

That does not mean that the changes proposed in the film are as solid and successful and inclusive as the makers of Waiting for Superman would have us to believe.  The narrator of the film referred to “every child,” meaning that even poor children and children “lost” in the worst neighborhoods should have access to a top-quality education.  And that’s fine.  I’m on-board with that message.  BUT that message does NOT include every child.  This film failed in addressing the needs of every child with the filmmaker’s choice to exclude special education from the discussion and from his documentary.  The discussion of quality education must address the needs of all children!  That not only includes the poor performers, but also children with special educational needs that require educational services other children do not need. 

Granted, that issue is not the point of the documentary.  However, it is my opinion that it should not be a separate issue.  Successful schools are schools that can meet the needs of all their students.  Changes in education cannot exclude the needs of children with special educational needs, including those who are behind due school failure and those who need special services to succeed in any school setting.  We must acknowledge that “what works” for many children will not and cannot work for ALL children.  There is no single SOLUTION.   This presentation, this complete absence of all things special education, damages the credibility of the entire documentary in my opinion; and yet, reading so many negative critiques of the film that offer no solutions, no alternatives, and no change leaves me feeling that we’re right back where we started.  It was even in the film.  This dialogue is not about the kids.  Instead, it’s about the adults, each with their own bias and their own self-interest and their own ideas.

Wisconsin’s Teacher Protests: What the Protests are NOT About

  • Posted on February 26, 2011 at 3:07 AM

Earlier this week, I wrote about the protests in Wisconsin that hit the national news feeds so hard.  It was the kind of political post that I try to stay away from on this blog.  However, I felt it necessary to post about what the protest were about, before I posted about what the protests were NOT about.

In the United States, we spend more to educate consumers about what products to buy than we spend to educate our children.  This fact provides a disturbing illustration of US priorities when it comes to education.  We do not pay teachers enough to hire and retain the high quality teachers our children deserve.  We do not devote enough resources to providing our children with the high quality learning environments they deserve.  We do not devote enough resources to develop the best methodologies for teaching our children, nor do we train our teachers in the existing best practices as our children deserve.

Imagine if parents, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders protested our country low prioritization of education.  Imagine if it happened in just one state.  The way the protests in Madison have spread, we could raise awareness to new heights.  Instead, teachers protest over their union rights, their pay raises, and the amount they must contribute to their benefits packages.  If the protesters in Madison are to be believed, union rights are sacrosanct, but our children’s rights to a high quality education are not.  If teachers have to be let go, if classes have to be shut down, if services for students with disabilities need to be pared back or eliminated—well, that’s fine.  Just don’t touch their union rights. 

Our public schools are in trouble.  Unions do not help the situation.  It seems like nobody is really helping the situation.  Our priorities haven’t changed.  Our country still wants to provide students with an assembly-line style education for as little money as possible.  As much as special education rights represent a dramatic shift from that mentality, that shift has only gone so far.  Too many people argue that special education deprives “real” students of the resources they need.  Providing those “real” students with individualized education isn’t even on the negotiating table.

Why not?  Why aren’t our children our highest priority?  Why is it so easy for education budgets to be attacked?  Why do we, the voting public, tolerate the federal government’s inadequate support for federally mandated education, while our politicians vote for pork barrel spending to buy off their constituents?

I’m a fiscal conservative.  I believe the government should live within a balanced budget.  But I also believe that our spending priorities have to benefit the people—not just some special interest groups, but all the people—first and foremost.  Few things satisfy that priority like providing our children with a high quality education.  But that isn’t our priority because the voting public, the protesters, and the lobbyists do not make it a priority—so our elected politicians do not have to either.

There are a lot of things worthy of protest.  There are a lot of things that are worth my time and energy.  Protecting union rights are not.  Once upon a time, when workers were systematically abused by their employers and unions fought against those abuses, the unions were worth fighting for.  Now unions are a political force unto themselves, answerable first and foremost to themselves, and then to the workers they represent.  Like any other special interest group limiting information or disseminating misinformation is their stock and trade, a means of influencing their base, and they are good at it.

The irony is that if our present day workers—including the college-educated teachers who are currently teaching our kids—had a better education, then these tactics wouldn’t work nearly so well.  But, that’s not really ironic at all.  It’s the whole point.  Why would decision makers provide their constituents with a high quality education when doing so would require them to meet higher standards of political discourse and legislative action?  It’d be like shooting themselves in the foot.

Bringing Neurodiversity into the Classroom

  • Posted on November 17, 2009 at 10:42 PM

A little boy steps off the bus, confused by his unexpected surroundings.  This year—the year he starts kindergarten—the bus stops at the backdoor of a new school, instead of the front entrance of his neighborhood school, after a much longer bus ride.  Maybe he knows he’s being ushered into this new school through the backdoor, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he even knows the classroom he enters is segregated from his peers.  We assume he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t talk about it, because he can’t talk about it.  You see, this little boy is my own son, and he is autistic.  We assume he’s unaware that he’s being treated differently (not equally), but we can’t be sure.  Of one thing I am sure:  If he’s not aware of it now, he will be aware of it when he’s older, just like the many autistic adults speaking in favor of neurodiversity.

Unlike past forms of segregation, my son doesn’t spend his entire day in the special education room.  He visits the regular classroom and his peers are told that, even though he doesn’t stay in their room, he is part of their class.  He comes in with an aide who helps him participate.  Then, when it’s all too much, she takes him away.  The school system recognizes his educational needs differ from those of his peers and claims those needs cannot be met in a regular classroom.  I know my son’s needs are not met in a regular classroom, but does that really mean they cannot be?  I grew up learning that “different but equal” is not equal at all.  Sadly, that doesn’t apply to my children or others like them, because our society fails to recognize people with atypical neurological development as equals at all.

Some refer to this forced inequality as disabilism and see it manifested in pervasive ways throughout our society.  Disablism refers to the societal tendency to single out, exclude or mistreat people with impairments, because of those impairments.  Segregated classrooms for the cognitively disabled are only one example of disablism.  Disabilism is institutionalized into the public education system, in part, by the behavior of teachers, service providers, and administrators that Dr. Thomas Armstrong, an educator and author out of California, calls the disability discourse, which he described as “an institutionalized discourse consisting of specific words such as ‘disability’ ‘disorder’ ‘deficit’ and ‘dysfunction’ to describe the lives of these children.”  These societal behaviors shape the environment in which all of our children learn and grow.  Telling children a segregated child is part of their class, while well-intentioned, still fails to integrate that child into their class.

Unfortunately, the regular classroom is not only designed to exclude specific students from the learning environment it fails to include any child in the learning environment.  The public school system is designed to teach standardized curricula.  It is not designed to teach the individual students expected to learn that curricula.  Individual teachers can transform that environment into something special, but this ability is not a requirement for employment and often the resources to do so must be found outside the public school system.  This fundamental flaw is not the fault of individual teachers, principals, or school boards, but is built into the educational system itself.

Our children are unique with individual needs that can only be met when they are treated as people, instead of a homogenized group.  Our children do not come standardized.  Yet, our educational goals and the learning environment we create to meet those goals are standardized.  Our children get pushed through the system regardless of what they learn.  Unless, of course, their needs stand out so much that the system rejects them.  The child who does not and cannot fit the standardized mold is diverted into the special education system.  There, they face the unfortunate reality that they are not deemed equal in our society.  They are different, but not equal; and disabilism and the disability discourse shape their futures.

Neurodiversity is a two-fold concept that can change the public educational system for all children.  Neurodiversity refers to a civil rights movement crafted by autistics that seeks true equality for people with cognitive disorders and mental illnesses—founded on the belief that neurological differences are natural human variations and deserve the rights, accommodations, and acceptance any other human difference deserves.  Neurodiversity also recognizes that neurological development is not standardized.  Everyone develop unique neurological processes that should be recognized, respected, and facilitated.

Everyone is neurologically diverse.  Everyone has unique educational needs our education system fails to meet.  Instead of designing an education system that meets the individual needs of our children, we have designed an education system that meets societal needs for measurements, cost-control, and resource allocation.  Changes to IEP legislation that require recording strengths as well as needs, separating a grade into groups that study different levels of mathematics or reading, using inclusive language, and telling students that those segregated in the special education system are part of their class address surface issues.  But the problem goes much, much deeper.  Our education system is fundamentally flawed.  It does not meet, nor is it designed to meet, the needs of the students we wish to educate.

Our children deserve an education system designed to meet their individual learning needs.  Our children deserve a learning environment that teaches children, not curricula.  Our children deserve teachers that are trained and qualified to teach them as individuals, recognizing and meeting their individual education needs.  An Individual Education Plan shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for students with special needs, but should be provided to all students.  Our school systems need holistic change.  We need to re-think how we teach, what we teach, and who we are teaching.  We need to rethink the qualifications our educators need and we need to rethink the needs our schools should be required to meet. 

Change comes slowly and painfully.  Holistic change may be easy to envision, but it is very difficult to achieve.  It won’t happen this year or next year.  But it can happen.  Change requires a lot of work, a lot of planning, and often a new allocation of resources.  An individualized education provided by well-trained, highly-qualified, and fully-resourced staff doesn’t come cheap.  But our children are our future and they are worth the work and they are worth the money.  The real question is:  Will we afford our children the respect and consideration they deserve?

Implications of Therapy

  • Posted on September 20, 2009 at 12:00 PM

Bev, of Asperger Square 8, has taken on an excellent project that has opened my mind to many new thoughts.  It’s called: A Checklist of Neurotypical Privilege.  While the entire document is worth reading (I highly recommend it) one piece stuck out and pricked me – mind, body and soul.

13. For a child of my neurotype, everyday teaching of the skills they will need to live in this society is called education or parenting—not therapy, treatment, or intervention.

The implication here is that for neurotypical children education is called education, but because neurodiverse students sometimes require different lessons, different teaching styles, and different techniques, their education is called therapy.

I consciously try to foster my children’s sense of worth and power.  I try to build them up so that they and others can better recognize their potential.  I do not, in any way, consider my children “less” because they are not neurotypical.  And yet, I never consciously thought about the implications of the use of “therapy” to describe our efforts to meet their educational needs.  The specialists who assist us in designing strategies and “interventions” to help my children learn are called therapists and they perform services that are funded as therapy.  I never once questioned these labels.  Now, after reading this document, thinking about it, and letting the issues it brings up fully penetrate my mind and my heart, I’m amazed and chagrined that it never occurred to me.  I’d long lost my comfort with the use of “intervention strategies,” which is a common phrase that’s applied to services intended to assist individuals with special needs.  But therapy always seemed completely innocuous.

When I think about the purposes of therapy, however, the point becomes clear.  The reason my children require therapy is because they do not learn all the things they need to know in a neurotypical manner.  Therefore, to teach them the things they need to know, we need to use different strategies, techniques, and behaviors to help induce learning.  Learning is still the goal.  So, whatever the means, teaching and educating are still the verbs.

Comparatively, consider the teaching strategies sometimes used with at-risk youth.  There are many, from charter schools to special programs, but they’re not called therapy.  These are children who often have neurotypical development, but face challenges not experienced by mainstream society.  To educate them as we should, we need to find ways to compensate for those challenges and this requires changes in teaching techniques.  In our language, we recognize that these differences and unfortunately we sometimes use language that denigrates the worth of the children, but we don’t call it “therapy.”  That’s reserved for students with disabilities.

Just as kids who perform below average or have problems due to their experiences, children who perform above average get specialized educational programs as well.  When I was a student, I attended classes that were labeled “differentiated.”  More was expected from me and my fellow classmates than our regular peers.  Specialized lessons were prepared for us and techniques were used to prevent the typical boredom children with above-average intelligence often experience in school.  It was differentiated, but still education – not therapy.

So, why do we use therapy to describe techniques used to teach students with special needs?  One obvious answer is that it hasn’t occurred to well-meaning people that the word might be offensive or inappropriate.  This is not a reason to continue using it, but it does explain part of the problem.  Like myself, there are others who have never considered the word might be controversial.  If this were the only barrier, change would be relatively easy.  Not genuinely easy, but more easy than it would otherwise be.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the only reason.  There is one good reason I can think not to change the use of the word.  Now, I caution you, it’s not a very good reason, in that it’s ethical or right.  It’s a good reason in that it benefits those the educational services are intended to benefit.

Simply put, the reason to keep the “therapy” label is funding.  Specialized educational services are expensive.  Funds are not readily available for these services.  In many American schools, the only reason these services get the funding the need is because it is federal law that they be available.  In many American schools, parents have to fight to get school officials to recognize that the services provided must be dictated by the needs of the child, not be the availability of resources.  This is a legal right won in the courts.  And it’s still an issue.  By changing the wording from “therapy” to “specialized educational services” one risks losing some of the oomph that “therapy” has.  Whether it’s accurate or not, whether it’s ethical or not, whether it’s true or not, “therapy” has a more respectable reputation with hints of medical necessity that “specialized educational services” lacks.  It’s all about shades of meaning here.  The research behind therapy and that supports its use is better funded and better supported than the research behind specialized educational services.  Programs for at-risk youth and for children with above average intellects are cut before students with disabilities, because the programs for students with disabilities have been propped up by law through the research that supports the benefits of therapy.  By changing the wording, you change the meaning in the minds of some of those you communicate with (which, admittedly is part of the point) in such a way that it’s detrimental to the programs being funded.

Now, again, I’m not saying that it’s a good thing that other programs are so easily cut from school budgets.  I don’t believe that.  I believe that all children, regardless of what their needs are, should get the educational services that fill those needs.  Society’s sense of the value of unique individuals has not progressed to that point yet.  By pushing for the human rights implications of education over therapy, I perceive a risk in damaging the fundability of those education services.  Ideally, the human rights implications would take priority.  They should.  But, the reality is that these services are often necessary.  I’m reluctant to advocate anything that would endanger their availability.

Which is not to suggest Bev’s document does any such thing.  I believe the purpose of the document was to open our minds.  If that’s true, then it certainly worked for me.