Monday, March 12, 2012

We Have No Idea “What Works”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “we know what works” which is often repeated by corporate education reformers such as Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada. Yesterday, I read the latest blog post by veteran math teacher and TFA alum Gary Rubinstein. He warns TFA novices that “If you’re about to begin your career as a TFA teacher, I think you will take your job much more seriously if you know that you are about to attempt something that nobody has really figured out how to conquer yet.”

And the idea that “nobody has really figured [it] out” really struck a chord. As someone who works with some of the toughest kids--kids with significant behavior problems, severe learning disabilities, histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect, cognitive and developmental delays, and mental health problems--I leave my job many days thinking “Wow, I don’t know how to reach that kid.”

Guys, we have no idea how to teach these kids. Most get placed (eventually) in special education (thus the higher numbers of low-income minority children in Sped). Some get further segregated into therapeutic day schools. I’ve visited and worked in many different settings in the spectrum. Inclusion or self-contained, special school or mainstreamed, I am not convinced any of our current ideas really work for a large chunk of kids. I don’t even think that special education is what I am doing many days. It’s more like “chaotic impoverished environment control”.

All I know is this: the best that seems to be out there requires a heck of a lot of resources, really really really small (and I would add mixed-ability) classes, an excess number of adults of various specialties, and a whole big bunch of flexibility and creativity.

More than anything, I worry about segregating these kids into separate classrooms or institutions. In my hospital, we often get the most challenging kids from their respective schools. Imagine that one student who everyone in their school building knows as “the problem kid” all concentrated together in one place. Believe me, there are some days life gets pretty interesting in my classroom. But one of the saving graces about my classroom is that there are usually a number of peers with positive behaviors mixed in. At a mental health facility, we get a number of patients who are extremely depressed or sometimes suicidal, but often very strong academically and behaviorally.

The other big saving grace is of course the extra staff support. Having to run a classroom alone with the kids I work with would be, well, impossible. I often joke that in order to find sanity, I had to work in a mental institution. Before working as a teacher in a psychiatric hospital, I worked in a 99% low-income, 100% African-American elementary school on the south side of Chicago as a special education teacher. Without the resources, staff, or assistive technology to run an effective special education program, those kids were being seriously denied the opportunity to learn. And then to add to that, one of our special ed teachers was a first-year alternative certification teacher who was absolutely unprepared for the task. The Gen Ed teachers had far too many children in their classrooms to do inclusion effectively and our resource room became a dumping ground warehousing any student with behavior problems. And I learned the hard way that no untenured teacher should EVER point out how criminally inadequate the education we were providing these kids was much less try and change it.

Which is why I am absolutely appalled that ed reformers are turning to charters to save the day. In my job, students cycle in and out of the program with an average stay of only about a week or two. We have a forty bed unit serving ages 4-17 so I have worked with literally hundreds and hundreds of kids from around Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. First, I have met countless children with behavior problems who have been told to leave the charter school they were attending. No surprise there as this push-out phenomenon is fairly well reported. All I have to add is that I meet A LOT of these kids, many from the high-profile charter chains here in Chicago.

But there is an even stranger part of the story. Of the children I work with who still go to charters, I have noticed a disturbing trend. Almost without exception, the charter school students with IEPs (or without, but who are being hospitalized for psychiatric issues) are academically strong students who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. Yes, they officially have “disabilities” (whatever that means), but they are the types of problems which do not affect the rest of the class. They are also the types of problems where, with the right supports, these young people can generally be successful academically.

I really need to do some more research into this phenomenon of “selective disabilities”, but for now let me say that charter schools are very careful to “protect” their learning environments. And I do get that. Without the right resources and supports, the kids with behavior problems are really really hard to work with and to reach. But then why do we throw the burden onto the neighborhood schools which are receiving even less? I have been to the charters in this city. They have more. They could take more of the toughest kids. But they don’t.

Which is why it scares me when people say, “we know what works.” I don’t think we know much at all. Charters have certainly figured out ways to make certain kids sit down and be quiet. And the good charters use that control over the student body to create positive learning environments, at least for the students who can “cut it.”

But I don’t call helping kids at the expense of other children a “success”. I’m sorry, but I don’t want my behavior kids segregated out of opportunity. If all the money, power, and influence is being pumped into charters then I want my students to get some of that! Plus, these kids suffer when they are in classrooms concentrated with negative behaviors, all because no one wanted to invest in the types of supports like small classes, tutors, social workers, and aides that might have given them a fighting chance.

I challenge any of those “We know what works” people to visit my classroom. I want Wendy Kopp and her husband to come to my classroom and try some of their favorite KIPP strategies. Bring that TFA binder too. And good luck with that. I hope they don’t mind having a chair thrown at them while getting cussed out by an 8-year old. (Don’t worry Wendy, I’ll step in and help the child calm. Like most decent teachers, I won’t sit back and let someone else figure out “what works” on an innocent child. For his sake, I’ll help you out.)

We don’t really know what works because every child is different. And the people who think we’ve figured it all out have probably not spent much time with the kids I work with. But we do know some things that help, just most of them require more money. A lot more money. I think the bigger question is not “what works” but how much we are willing to spend on these kids. The answer? Plenty…for their prison cells.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Teach for America is great! Just not for my child...

Today I came across a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp. She rightly condemned the public release of teacher test scores in New York City. I applaud her for speaking out against this disgusting act. But as I read, I became enraged when I saw a story about Ms. Kopp's own experience with her child's teacher.

She writes:
A few years ago, my son had a teacher who under the current system would probably be ranked in the bottom quartile of her peers. This wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm or effort on her part—you could see how desperately she wanted to connect with her students and be a great teacher. Knowing my son was in a subpar classroom didn't make me angry at the teacher. It made me frustrated with the school—for not providing this young educator with the support and feedback she needed to improve.

Wait a second...Wendy Kopp was upset when her child was given an unsupported (but enthusiastic and hard-working) young teacher? A teacher who really meant well, but wasn't getting the help she needed to reach all her kids? And Kopp calls this a "subpar classroom"?

So let me get this straight, when Kopp creates a program which by design puts unsupported young people into subpar classrooms, it is fine? As long as it is for other people's children?

And then she seems to argue that it was the current "system" and not the individual teacher which was to blame. And yet Teach for America constantly argues that their recruits are better people, that they fight educational inequality on the individual classroom level. Teach for America does nothing to address ANY of the systemic problems which drive educators away from high-needs schools.

I suppose that's not entirely true. I should add that some Teach for America alums go on to join the corporate reform movement ( a la Michelle Rhee) which is actively damaging many classrooms. Way to change the system! Too bad it's for the worse.

When it's her own child, Wendy Kopp seems to think enthusiasm, hard work, and youth are not enough. And that teaching contexts matter greatly. But for all those teachers teaching other people's children...not so much.

Is anyone else outraged by this?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Dear America

I am the hand that points my students towards possibility.
So stop tying my hands to your damn tests.

I am the shoulder my students cry on.
So stop burdening my tired shoulders with threats and punishment.

I am the mouth which whispers encouragement in my kids’ ears.
So stop silencing my voice when I tell you what the children need.

I am the eyes that see new pathways to understanding for my kids.
So stop pulling the wool over these eyes saying I need no preparation or training to best see the way.

I am the ear that listens to my students’ stories.
So stop telling me that their life circumstances don’t matter.

I am the spark which lights the fire of creativity and inquiry in my students’ hearts.
So stop dousing my spark with hateful, cruel words.

I am a teacher and I do the hard work that is education.
If you believe in education, you need to believe in me.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Ideal Special Education World

I’ve been thinking a lot about what would make Special Education in inner-city schools successful. While doing some research, I came across this article. My own experience being a Sped teacher at a south side elementary school in Chicago was that schools were not able to come anywhere near what was needed to meet all the kids’ needs. There were not nearly enough staff and the school was far too overwhelmed by the intensive daily needs of practically every other student. I felt the school used my classroom, the resource room, to warehouse children for nearly the entire day, without even an aide or a cohesive curriculum to teach them. And when they weren’t with me, they were thrown back into the overcrowded general education classrooms completely unsupported. Much like this article says, “The pressure from high stakes test-based performance assessments leaves no incentive for teachers and administrators to invest general education class time for individualized attention or to implement diverse culturally responsive teaching methods.” It always came down to a resource issue and the lack of staff to meet these kids needs. They were effectively swept under the rug, away from view. On the other hand, the school where I did my student teaching ran a full inclusion program where the kids didn’t have much opportunity for those necessary 1:1/small group skills-building programs to increase reading skills. I say neither a full inclusion or full pull-out model meets these children’s needs. They need something flexibly in between.

Here’s my vision (putting the issue of money to the side for a moment. Hey, a girl can dream, right?):

I see a school where every single classroom, or at least inclusion classroom and early grades K-3, has two main teachers for the entire school day. These teachers would share the burdens of planning, grading, assessing, and classroom management equally. And they would be equally responsible for every child in the classroom, regardless of special education status. At least one should be trained in special education and ideally at least one should have 5 or more years of experience in the classroom. (This would dilute the negative impact of inexperienced teachers on low-income students with special needs.) The class size should still be capped at a relatively small size. I would say no more than 20 children in a group.

In addition to full, day-long, consistent inclusion services, there would be at least one additional (and more depending on the number of students) pull-out teacher. He/She would pull students out for individual or at most groups of 2-3 students with similar ability levels for intensive, skill-based, comprehensive reading or math practice. I believe those kids would get more in a 20 or 30-minute individual session to work on skills than an entire day thrown into a cross-categorical dumping grounds like we have now. The pull-out would focus on those essential reading or math skills, while the inclusion teacher would make sure that all children had access to the content at grade-level.

Teachers and the school would also be given flexibility on curriculum and teaching content. The team-teachers would decide based on the students’ interests and needs which topics should be covered and how. (Again, I do realize this autonomy is nearly impossible by our standards-loving, test-crazed current educational landscape.) There could be some general topics (standards) that needed to be touched upon, but otherwise the two professional teachers would be given extreme freedom on how to reach each student in the class.

There would also be a strong focus on early identification of learning or behavior problems. An intervention specialist should be assigned to the lowest grades to support the teaching and to be in charge of collecting data on any student that is struggling beginning in Kindergarten. The RTI paperwork would be completed by this staff member and taken off the shoulders of the teachers.

The school would have a full-time social worker who would run lessons with each class every week on appropriate social skills and conflict resolution in addition to meeting with students individually. I would love to see a social worker assigned to each grade-level cluster (K-2, 3-5, 6-8). Also, a full-time school nurse would also be present in the classrooms as an advisor and instructor on healthy living at least once a week.

The school would use positive behavioral supports, and would not ever suspend or expel a student in all but the most extreme cases. (Actually, I would honestly say they should never expel a student. There is always a way to help. I don’t understand how the word “expulsion” is used at all for the legally-mandated public education every child is entitled to.) There would be “cool down” rooms for agitated students, places that were not a punishment, but a place to refocus in order to quickly come back into the group. Perhaps older middle school students could sometimes advise younger students on how to calm and return to class. There would be individualized and age-appropriate/action-appropriate interventions which focused on learning from mistakes and making amends with the classroom community, not penalties. And there would absolutely never be a “no excuses” or "zero tolerance" discipline policy.

I get that these interventions would take extra money. But it’s money that would be better spent than the slew of consultants, test preparation materials, and punitive alternative placements and lawsuits currently being given exorbitant funds. And it would not just help the special education students but ALL students saving on later remedial academic classes. And by focusing heavily on the younger grades we could circumvent the later costs of special education and alternative schools for middle and high school students. Also, it seems to me that the over-representation of poor, and minority students identified for special education speaks more to how poorly we resource their schools during that critical time when children are learning to read. At the school I taught in, I could have theoretically identified over a third of any class as meeting special education criteria, but the real problem was lack of appropriate early interventions compounded by classroom environments not conducive to learning like large class sizes, few books, and lack of early special education services. (My school didn’t even offer special education services until the third grade. This is criminal.)

I suspect that affluent districts are doing something closer to what I describe above. They are not having to make the choice of whether to educate kids appropriately or to throw them away in a ‘resource room’ or self-contained room in order to “save” the learning environment for the other children. This better of two evils approach is also how charters and turnarounds justify not serving all students. If kids just don’t “fit in” to the school culture, then the school is off the hook in meeting their needs. I always thought that special education meant meeting a child’s individual needs no matter where they were behaviorally or academically.

I think the charter schools and turnarounds actually make the situation worse, as they set up strict “no excuses” discipline policies which practically guarantee that the kids with outward behavior problems will not succeed. And as every special education teacher knows, those behavior problems are often tied to learning problems.

At the end of the day, most inner city schools are too overwhelmed and too understaffed to truly meet the needs of every child. And I don’t believe many alternative placements are better. They have concentrated behavior problems which unfortunately lead to more chaotic and violent places for young people. Recently, a student was stabbed and killed during an incident outside one of these alternative schools in Chicago. While some alternative schools are resourced well enough to handle these tough behaviors, most are just holding grounds, with staff doing what they can, but it is rarely is enough. My kids at the psychiatric hospital where I work repeatedly tell me horrific stories of daily fights, gang activity, and lack of staff. It’s heartbreaking.

I think these kids with special needs, or just any child who struggles (I don’t believe the label is important), need to be our main focus in education reform. I think any school that is struggling should be given a two-teacher model with additional support staff being used constantly. I think the schools should have a wide and rich curriculum so children who don’t excel at math or reading still have a chance to shine in art, music, or athletics. And if kids have inclusion teachers all day, they should continue to have inclusion support in art, music, and gym. And of course these kids need recess and down time, time to be children, not academic robots.

I hated that job in CPS because I knew I couldn’t give the kids what they needed alone. No matter how I played around with the staffing or schedules, it was never enough. At first I blamed myself and sunk into a depression. But later I began to see how I was set up to fail. I saw why all the special education positions needed to be filled every single year. Before working in CPS, I always had believed that advocating for students professionally and with a sound research and practice base would be enough. But I was sadly mistaken. My administration did not want the pot stirred, they did not want to hear about the deficiencies in our program. They wanted me to shut up, close my door, and keep the kids occupied and as far away as possible from the other students. And when I continued to fight for those kids, I felt the very real retaliation and threats that administrators hold over their staff. I understood for the first time why due process rights matter and how union protections were necessary. I was a first year teacher and I learned the hard way why teachers need unions.

But I am lucky because I now have a position outside the school system, which means I can (relatively safely) advocate for students with special needs and ultimately all children in these underserved communities. So watch out CPS, I intend to make some noise!!!