Thursday, December 29, 2016

Rethinking Special Education

For a long time, the way we do special education has...irked me. And I mean in general, not just my pretty messed up district. I imagine it irks a lot of people out there. But, for some reason, I never hear about the pretty ridiculous ways we have set up to make this whole darn thing work. I think we all have a case of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Image pulled from Pinterest: 

 Here are just a few wonderings:

1) Why do we write year-long goals based off of specific standards? Why can't the goals be more broad, like "student will progress in the math curriculum"? Ok, maybe not that broad, but that's pretty much what I want to accomplish. Why do I have to write that a kid is going to practice addition and subtraction skills for a whole year? I don't really want that, I want them to be successful when we do our addition/subtraction unit. And then yes, I want them to carry over that knowledge as it pops up in other needed. But quarterly benchmarks on something we aren't actually studying at the moment? It's annoying and messy. My kids generally need EXTRA time to learn new material. How can I cover the standards I'm supposed to be teaching AND the standards that are in the IEP goals at the same time? Gen Ed kids only have to cover the one topic, but my kids have to do way more work in a less cohesive format. And I want the kids to be successful in all the topics we cover, are you really expecting me to write a goal for all 60+ standards in Common Core for any given grade level?  It's stupid.

2) Want to know what else is stupid? IEP minutes are stupid. They are SO RIDICULOUSLY DUMB. What we actually should be talking about is fluid, flexible, fully-resourced access to multiple different educational opportunities based on the needs of the kid at the moment. There is a lot of stuff that happens in the gen ed room that my kids could absolutely participate in. And there are certain units and activities that they would enjoy with their peers. And splitting minutes rarely works (ie half the Literacy minutes as pull-out). Maybe you've figure out ways to do the split thing, but all I've seen is it confusing kids and staff alike with kids being dumped into a classroom mid-lesson completely lost. Why can't we write in "support as needed" or "change settings as needed." I get this is harder to enforce, but there HAS to be a way to add flexibility into the system.

3) Which brings me to educational contexts. You can write the best IEP in the world, but if the school and district where you are has decided to criminally underfund education or completely warp the educational experience with ideological gibberish, what good is it? Educational CONTEXTS matter and we should be able to describe what the student needs beyond the individual. For example, I would put kids in inclusion IF there were caps on freaking class size. But my state has no caps, so I won't subject my students to so-called inclusion classrooms of 34 or more kids, sometimes in split grade-level classrooms. Or, if we weren't subjected to developmentally inappropriate standards (Common Core, cough...cough....) and insane pacing guides, I'd have my kids in the gen ed setting more. The way it is now is completely inappropriate. I need to be able to write in these whole class, whole school needs that affect my students.

4) IEPs written in legalese, not accessible AT ALL to parents and the students themselves. IEPs are a mess of acronyms, clinical reports, numbers and data points. Why can't these things be more user friendly? 

5) And SHORTER!! How do some districts accomplish the same legal documentation with less than 10 pages while others are requiring 50+ pages of work?? Why??? WHY?!?!?

6) IEPs are NOT transferable from district to district. We get kids who transfer in from other districts all the time. And the IEPs they come with end up having to be completely re-written in order to use them is our district. Why the complete lack of consistency across districts? Are there NO guidelines in IEPs? What the hell?

7) Data collection is OUT OF CONTROL!! I mean, tally marks, graphs, charts, constant progress monitoring. Before there were disgusting "no excuses" charter schools using numbers in lieu of children, there was special education. Quantitative, harsh cold, "objective" data used for everything. IQ tests, reasoning tests, behavioral tests, standardized test scores, behavior plans...all if it. I understand wanting something "objective" but come on. When I worked in mental health, we did daily charting on behavior, needs, interventions in narrative format. I found that WAY more helpful than freaking percentages, trials, charts, etc. Sometimes it's easy to forget we work with children under all the data. Maybe that's on purpose....


I would guess that the answers to a lot of these questions is...lawyers. Special ed is completely plagued with lawsuits and the ensuing obsession with all things data and numbers. Doesn't quite mesh with the job of working with human children. But I understand how the system doesn't work and hiring lawyers is pretty much the sole line of defense. Still, after 40 years of this growing technocratic solution to the "problem" of beautiful, unique children, things are spinning out of control.

I imagine a very different way to do special education. It doesn't involve needing an IEP in order to get services. Rather, that every child in a school gets an individual learning plan that is incorporated into the school's overall workings. That ALL kids have access to social workers, to learning specialists, to small quiet settings, to accommodations/modifications as needed. No label necessary.

But that utopia is very very far away in today's educational landscape of shrinking budgets, cutthroat accountability, and harsh school choice policies that turn diverse learners into liabilities on your books.

But can't we think of some better ways to function within the system that we've got? Like really, can't we? Something flexible, but binding? Something clear to non-educators, but still addresses all the legal requirements? Something short, transferable, and gets the job done? I know we can do better.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The New Best Way to Destroy Special Education

The best lies are always ones based in some truth.

The newest austerity project for districts across the nation, including the Chicago Public Schools, is to claim that special education budgets must be decimated: in the name of racial equality. Now, the refrain to destroy public services in the name of equality should sound familiar if you've been paying attention. Remember how corporate ed reformers claim that we must dismantle and privatize public education because of inequality, because of Civil Rights, because of racism? In fact, this is a favorite tactic of neoliberalism more broadly.

And now it's coming for special education.

Special ed has flown somewhat under the radar of the neoliberal education reform debate. Usually, it's brought up in the context of pushing out kids with special needs from "schools of choice" especially the charters where a significant disability is simply a liability on the books for free market privateers. These kids find themselves bounced around schools until they land back in the neighborhood school which must provide services, only now that school has been so striped resources as public money flows towards privatizers, the child languishes through schooling more unsupported than ever.

So now, districts that have had funding sources dry up-are looking to save money on the backs of their most fragile-but also most expensive-students: students with special needs.

Now, the one thing that stood in the way of this desire to slash costs, was that darned federally-protected document called an Individual Education Plan. There was legal recourse if this plan was not implemented. Charter or neighborhood, parents and kids had some rights. So the privatizers decided to use their favorite tool: a plea of racism and inequality as a reason to DENY services to needy kids.

Now, back to the beginning of this post, the best lies do have some truth in them. We do often see racial disparities in how special education services are doled out.

Yet all the studies I've seen focus solely on the individual. The problem has been completely framed as one of personal biases-usually the classroom teacher-who makes a racist decision to refer a child for special education. Those studies further the "bad teacher" mantra of the edreform crowd. (So naturally, it is those studies which get funded and published. Academia has been bought and paid for long ago. Sigh....)

Now, in an equal society, we should not see racial disparities. That's true. But who believes we live in an equal society?? We live in a deeply racist society, with real and damaging material impact on the quality of life, especially for kids, based on a legacy of racism.

District officials would have us believe that the rates of special education should be exactly the same, no matter the circumstances. And since they are not, teachers must just be over-identifying. Therefore, massive cutbacks in special education are not only warranted, they are a civil rights mandate.

No! Do not fall for the okey-doke, as my union president loves to say. They are using the language of equality to justify further inequalities.

If you live in a community experiencing massive environmental racism such as a lead poisoning epidemic, guess what? There should be higher rates of special education needs. If you live in a community facing tides of trauma and violence stemming from the intentional disinvestment, lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, underfunded schools....guess what? All those factors can lead to learning challenges!! We know that too many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can warp a child's ability to learn as well as affect behavior. Since we don't protect kids from trauma in our society, special education is frankly all we've got. Yet, we ignore these obvious factors because those in charge would have us believe "equality" just means all the percentages equal out without touching the true underlying racism beneath?

In fact, students with special needs in affluent, often white areas, are getting far MORE special education services. Low income kids and kids of color are actually already being denied fair and equitable access to special education services and these budget cuts are exacerbating a bigger problem. It's likely that kids with special needs are actually under-identified in systems that are so underfunded and understaffed, that it's not possible to follow up on every suspected case.

Make no mistake. Special education is under attack. We either stand up to save it, or we allow those in charge to continue to discriminate in the name of "equality."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton, From a Chicago Teacher

Dear Madame Secretary,

I am writing to you today from Chicago on behalf of all the children, families, and staff in the middle of a massive manufactured crisis brewing in the Chicago Public Schools. A crisis in major part worsened by your friend, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton-AP
I am a special education teacher at an elementary school on the far South Side of the city in a high-poverty African-American community. Thanks to Rahm Emanuel's increased attacks on neighborhood public schools like ours, we are living under truly abhorrent conditions for teachers and students alike. My school is a survivor of his vicious, racist school closings from 2013 where the school down the street was forced into ours creating chaos and disruption for all involved. We have been beaten down by at least five separate rounds of budget cuts over the past 2 years since, with yet another round of cuts on the way. These cuts have seen lost teaching positions causing large class sizes (41 kindergartners in one classroom!), split classrooms (more than one grade in a class), and the laying off of other vital staff members. We no longer have a Librarian. We lost a much-needed clerk. We lost our Climate and Culture Coordinator and our mentoring program. CPS even has stolen our social worker and psychologist for all but a day or two a week despite the high number of children who have experienced trauma and need therapeutic services.

And we are indeed experiencing trauma. We are a school located in the middle of a neighborhood facing massive spikes in violence, thanks to Rahm's racist policies causing a lack of housing, jobs, and opportunity. Just yesterday, I sat huddled in my classroom, protecting my students during a lockdown as violence swirled around us, leaving a man dead on our streets just down the block and 2 others injured. As I comforted my students, crying and scared in the dark, the obscenity of Rahm's call for teachers to sacrifice MORE tore through my thoughts. Children at my school are in mental health crisis. Yet Rahm and his unelected school board have cut the very healing services we need now more than ever. As teachers, how can we allow these horrid conditions to stand?

Not only has Rahm gone after neighborhood schools, particularly in Black communities, but now he and CPS are coming after our most vulnerable population: students with special needs. CPS has changed funding formulas and procedures to access vital special education services in an attempt to save money for their crisis off the backs of our most fragile learners. We have seen harmful disruption in special ed services, with massive lawsuits brewing. Teachers are being laid off, support personnel are being lost, busing and transportation is being cut, and CPS has created a mountain of bureaucracy designed to prevent access to services. We are at criminal levels of harm to students.

Would you allow your granddaughter to attend a school suffering these types of assaults?

You say, "Black Lives Matter." Well now is the time for you to show that the Black Lives of children, children with disabilities, children living in poverty here in Chicago...that those lives matter to you. That the lives of Black Educators who are being laid off or pushed out of teaching in droves matter to you.

You say to teachers, "I'm with you." I heard you speak at the AFT National Conference this summer where you promised us that you are on our side. Well, in Chicago we are under attack, an attack led by your party's out-of-favor embarrassment, Rahm Emanuel. As the chosen candidate of the Democratic Party, we ask that you intervene directly. If you ask teachers to say, "I'm with her" then you need to show us that you truly are with us in our time of dire need.

Teachers in Chicago are on the eve of the second teachers' strike in four years. Members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike because we see the unacceptable reality of underfunded, sabotaged schools every day. We are willing to stand up and fight for the schools our students deserve. While we deserve fair compensation and should not shoulder the burden of the elite's created fiscal crises, this strike is about so much more than our pay.

Secretary Clinton, I invite you to come walk the picket line at my school should we go out on strike beginning on October 11th. Show us which side you are on. The wealthy bankers that profit off of Rahm Emanuel's privatization schemes or the families and teachers of Chicago?

It's time for you step up and show what kind of president you will be.

Katie Osgood
Special Education Teacher
CTU Delegate at a CPS Elementary School

Teachers and staff during the April 1st One Day Strike

Saturday, July 16, 2016

New CPS School Budgets are Stinky Turd Lumps

CPS has done it again. If you thought "Student Based Budgeting" was a bad idea (it is) then you will not be surprised to learn about CPS' brand new way to harm kids with budget cuts and to blame principals for the fallout.

Let's call it..."lumping." Instead of the previous system that funded special education positions (teachers and support staff) centrally, now CPS is lumping ALL sped and general education monies into one giant half-empty bucket. When student-based budgeting hit the schools three years ago, essentially slashing budgets, special education remained relatively protected. I mean, special education has...well, "special" protections under federal law.

Not that CPS didn't try to cut those darn expensive special education services. Last year, CPS DID slash those budgets. Only to receive a crap load of "appeals" from schools that ended up forcing the district to shell out even MORE money for sped. Turns out, special education has NEVER been funded adequately. (I know, I know...I'll give you a moment to get over your shock.)

So this year...I gotta give it to those wily CPS budget shenanigan-makers...they came up with a pretty ingenious way to cut back on expensive sped. They are going to make principals steal from the general education population! In order to meet those pesky federal requirements for special education, principals will be forced to cut gen ed positions, specials, after-school programs, and who know what else in order to fund the protected sped positions. And the district saves money!!! Win win!!  Yay!!!!!

By placing all the funds in one bucket, principals are left in a horrible predicament. They were told explicitly to staff sped FIRST. Because lawsuits. But what are principals supposed to do when the leftover money is not enough? Time to make those "tough choices," I guess. Like, cut teachers until there are 35-40 kids in a class. Maybe not have so much gym, art, or music. Kids don't need those fancy classes anyway, right? Three Rs people!! And after-school programs? Sports teams? Who needs those? Give the kids some video games and a picture of a tree, they'll be fine.

Oh, and no principal had better even THINK about hiring any teacher with more than 3 years in the system. Under SBB, this was already the sad new normal for general education teachers, and now this reality is hitting special education. But hey, this is great news for CPS! Fewer of those difficult tenured teachers who know that schools could and should be better places for kids and are crazy enough to go on strike to get the schools Chicago's students deserve. Nah, those teachers are nothing but trouble. Newbies, let's go with newbies. Especially for the most vulnerable population of kids in the system. Don't know what IEP stands for? No problem! Never written a Behavior Intervention Plan? Who cares! Line up here for the open positions.

This whole thing has the feel of a great big turd tied with a lovely pink bow. Look! Each school's budget is BIGGER than last year!! Hooray! Last year's budgets did not include sped costs.. Nope, CPS is just trying to hide their crappy numbers. This year's budgets are just cleverly disguised cuts.

I don't know about you, but this is unacceptable. No wonder principals are fleeing the district. No wonder teachers are on the brink of a strike. We need to fill the streets and put an end to all the nonsense.

I will go out on strike to force this district and city to adequately fund our schools. Will you?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Obscenity of Teaching in These Times

**I am beyond angry. Beware strong language ahead.**

It feels like the world is crumbling around us. Our state remains without a budget-the longest period of time any state has ever gone without one-causing serious defunding of vital social services and added stress to every working person in Illinois. Our city seems to be devolving into chaos: lack of services coupled with spikes in violence. There are threats of our entire school system closing down. Whole neighborhoods seem one spark away from mass popular explosion.

And in the middle of this disgusting manufactured mess, people continue to try to go about their lives. But as a teacher, the cruelty of current education policy seems all the more obscene.

The neighborhood where I teach on the far south side of Chicago, is one of the neighborhoods most impacted by the mayhem. We have had a number of incidents of violence in the direct vicinity of the school including nearby shootings that forced our school to go into lockdown. There have been graffiti incidents on school property. As the longest school year winds down, behavior issues in the school worsen.

And in the middle of all this, we are forced to disrupt our students' lives even further with obscenely inappropriate testing.

Yesterday, the juxtaposition of the trauma both inside and outside the school came to a head. I spent the whole morning administering the mandatory district-wide assessment, an assessment which the Chicago Public Schools does not allow full IEP accommodations making it completely inappropriate especially for my non-reading students with special needs. But there I was, disrupting all my kids' routines and schedules, giving out this pile of garbage test. No less than three of my kids had meltdowns just before testing. The added stress and change in routine was too much for them. They began to cry and scream. It was traumatic to watch. It always hurts to see your kiddos cry.

But somehow we made it through the day. And then the worst happened. Right at dismissal there was a threat of imminent danger to our school. Our school went into another lockdown. A voice on the intercom telling everyone to lockdown while our security team (God bless them) rushed through the hallways moving all the kids packing up their bags at their lockers back into their classrooms in a mad jumble of confusion and fear.

My kids with special needs had already been dismissed to their homerooms when this most recent lockdown happened. A teacher told me afterwards how one of my babies-a girl with significant social/emotional needs-was on her way to the bus when the lockdown happened and security ran through the halls telling everyone to get inside their classrooms. She didn't know where to go so she tried to get back to my room all the way at the end of the hall. She has a physical disability which makes it hard for her to walk quickly so she was crying and emotionally breaking down in the hallway. Thankfully, my amazing colleagues took her in and calmed her. I can't believe this little girl had to go through that trauma after a day of testing. Obscene. Obscene.... 

How do we keep doing this? I can't believe that anyone is still talking about testing as a civil right. Come to my school and administer the damn test yourself if you believe that. YOU be the pawn in this twisted, sick, rigged game if you still spout that baloney. YOU add to the trauma of kids already beyond the limit any human being's ability to cope. 

Kids huddled in the corner of a dark, locked classroom in our schools experiencing constant trauma...but the powers that be would talk about teacher evaluation, test scores, and our unions as the problem. Fuck all of you. Fuck you.
There is violence happening around us. The violence of austerity. The violence of poverty. The violence of mass incarceration. The violence of chaos thanks to an immoral, unethical, truly evil ruling class that cares nothing about the pain and suffering their neoliberal policies breed.

This will not stand. School MUST be made a safe place for kids. We need the flexibility to create places of healing, not high-pressured, chaotic, joyless test prep factories.

Some days, I don't know how to keep going. I am participating in the trauma. One thing I do know, I won't stay silent about these horrors.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Limits of Social Justice Curriculum

For a number of decades now, the topic of social justice curriculum has dominated the progressive wing of education. Teaching culturally-relevant curricula, reading diverse books, focusing on social justice inside our classrooms is immensely important work. There are many great organizations that have centered that work such as Teaching for Change, Rethinking Schools, Teaching Tolerance, or Teachers for Social Justice here in Chicago. There are still a number of teacher prep programs and university-based educators who push for social justice curriculum in schools, although like everything else in neoliberal higher education, those programs are under attack.

However, I want to write today about the limitations of this kind of work in truly pushing for the liberatory change we need.

The Rise of Social Justice Curriculum Under Neoliberalism

First of all, let's be clear that the reason this form of social justice curriculum came into vogue was because of decades of attacks on working people and the repression of the uprisings we saw in the 60s and early 70s. The focus on the individual classroom experience for students outside the fight for systemic change-or even as a proxy for collective action-came about precisely because those movements of the 60s and 70s were being viciously beaten back. The collective had failed so so-called liberatory educators turned their focus to individuals. This shift happened throughout academica as neoliberalism took hold. The idea that became popular was if only students were exposed to histories that were relevant and told the often misrepresented or completely erased histories/herstories of people of color, working people, women, indigenous peoples, LGTBQ, or any other oppressed groups, students would learn more deeply and become advocates for change themselves.

Now I want to stop here to say, clearly and loudly, that I applaud the call for this type of full and culturally-relevant teaching. Learning about our world from outside the ruling class' narrative is extremely important. As is learning that math can be used to stretch empathy or Science to push for equality. My point is not to say that this push is not important-it is!!-but it is not sufficient. And we need to go deeper in our understanding of how these ideas are sometimes being used to dismantle the possibility of actual action that could lead to the transformative change we need.


This type of focus on the curricula can and is too easily co-opted by the other side. If you go to the Teachers For Social Justice Curriculum Fair, you will likely meet administrators in charters schools and other people who support neoliberal education reform. There are history teachers in CPS who will teach Howard Zinn while actively working with Teach Plus, an astro-turf faux teacher voice group that intentionally circumvents union activity. There are so-called "social justice advocates" who spend their time online attacking rank-and-file teachers who are pushing back on racist testing, on Common Core, on charters, on the attacks on our pensions, on Teach For America claiming that the only relevant work is social justice teaching in our classroom. Teach For America does an amazing job of spouting social justice language while doing the work of the 1%. And these misuses of social justice language and curriculum must examined.

The teaching of social justice curriculum has been strangely warped into a tool for the oppressors. Too often, the loudest voices from universities berating average teachers for not doing enough social justice curriculum would never be caught on a picket line or risk their jobs by challenging the neoliberal status quo of their own universities. They focus on a hyper-individualism of teachers alone in their classrooms against all odds teaching social justice, pretending that teachers don't operate in a system that will squash these attempts.

Teaching Social Justice Curriculum, something that is a highly political act, has been co-opted by some into an individualistic moral act. The individual teacher must teach these one-off lessons as proof that they are legit "social justice educators", but their political ideologies, actions, and affiliations outside the classroom remain unchallenged. This is how Teach For America has infiltrated groups like Teaching Tolerance or even Black Lives Matters.

It's not right to berate teachers already under a horribly oppressive system that is attacking teachers in every way. Until we win more battles through our fighting unions, social justice curricula is severely limited. There may may be a few teachers who teach specific subjects (usually Social Studies) in specific grade levels (7th and higher), often only in general education settings and who are privileged enough to teach in a setting where their every move in not monitored and scrutinized by administration. But for many of us, reading that culturally-relevant book or designing lessons around real-world problem is something we must do "in the cracks". We are exhausted and beaten down by the weight of a thousand harmful mandates, but the social justice warriors out there would beat us down further for not teaching the "right way."

Twisting "culturally-relevant" Teaching

But what even is the "right way" to teach social justice? In the elementary school where I teach, teachers are for the most part only teaching culturally-relevant books. Go into any teacher's room and see the majority of read-alouds feature people of color or girls. If anything, the push for "culturally-relevant" curriculum has pushed out a focus on any other people or places than the direct community where we work even in the Middle school grades. Since we are an African-American school, that's all we study. Definitely better than a Eurocentric curriculum, but kids have no exposure to any other global perspective. It's a weird perversion of what I believe the original folks pushing cultural-relevancy in classrooms were seeking, but it's a reality that no one is talking about. My kids know everything about the Civil Rights Movement-at least in the sanitized and a-political way it is taught today. They can spout off famous Black scientists or tell about the life of George Carver Washington. But they don't know where Mexico is. The could not understand a story about Mexican-American families also fighting for desegregation in schools. They had no understanding of global problems and oppressions much less how all our fights are connected.

At the end of the day, this diversity of curriculum does not challenge the ruling class. In fact, neoliberal 1%ers have no problem advocating for this type of work precisely because it does not challenge their power. Heck, go to my high school-one of the most privileged public schools in the U.S.-and you'll find Howard Zinn and other social justice materials being used. Even 20 years ago, I remember having those conversations about race, about oppression, about the realities of our world. And it didn't matter! Most of my peers went on to the ruling class lives they were destined for. Social Justice curricula did not change the realities of our systems.

Instead of this strange worship of superteacher-inspired social justice curricula, I wish that educators would be encouraged to actually organize in their buildings/places of work. Organizing is not the same as teaching and social justice advocates would be wise to remember the difference. Recently, the CTU sponsored an event geared towards helping educators facilitate student activism. While I did not attend the event, my understanding is that the speakers focused on classroom-level social justice curricula and not on practical ways to foster actual action. It was a completely missed opportunity for giving helpful advice to teachers who want to support student activism that is happening independently from the classroom. The advice could have included trainings for students & teachers to have organizing conversations, how to set up an actions, social media tools that have helped in the past, and a clear outline of the legalities involved with this type of work including when and where organizing can happen legally so people can know how radical they are actually being.


When "social justice" is taught in an intentionally apolitical way, it misses the whole point it was intended to accomplish. It's how someone can be a Teach For America apologist and simultaneously push "social justice" in the classroom. It's that same contradiction of apolitical teachers teaching about the Labor Movement in class-about working people and people of color-while refusing to participate in their own union that is actually fighting the powers that be. It's those online bloggers who write about how teachers are failing their students by never teaching social justice while berating those same people for organizing nationally to stop the current attacks. What IS that?

We have to be honest about what is happening out there. It was not the amazing social justice-inspired Social Studies curricula that saved Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment neighborhood high school in that area of the city-from closure. It was the courage and bravery of a small handful of people who went on a hunger strike. Action! Students in Chicago are not hitting the streets in protest thanks to the powerful curricula of their teachers-though I'm hoping that that must have helped. It's the addictive nature of the movement that is arising in this city. Many of the student leaders are children of teachers. That is not a coincidence. Others have parents who were thrust into this movement after experiencing the horrors of having their child's school closed. It's the movement. How can we help to nurture folks into action during these exciting times if we keep misdiagnosing the causes? Organizing matters. Movements matter.

Organizing and being part of a growing movement is what is activating people. You can't control when movements arise. But it's happening now. It hasn't been like this for a long long time. We must change our rhetoric and historical understandings to match our times. Social Justice curriculum is important. People should keep doing it when possible, but don't let that become a cop-out to actual action.

Get off the blogs and twitter. Get out of the universities. Stop moralistically bragging about your lesson plans. Stop attacking rank and file teachers trying to start resistance where there is none. And for god's sake, stop partnering with our enemies who speak the language of social justice while doing the work of the ruling class.

Now is the time of action and organizing.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Problem with Common Core Math Standards

Here is a comment I wrote last year about my own experiences and thoughts on the Common Core math standards written on Diane Ravitch's blog: and some discussion that followed. Been thinking about the impact of the CCSS on my classroom a lot after administering the CCSS-aligned PARCC exam for the past two weeks....
To me, as a special educator trying to make sense of Common Core Math Standards for third and fourth graders, the problem arises in both the specifics- specific standards that are simply developmentally inappropriate for many (not all) kids-and the sheer amount of standards. Here in Illinois, our old standards were about 7 pages for PK-12 and not even dense text. The old standards covered multiple grades (early elementary, intermediate elementary, middle grades etc….) not individual grade levels. They were outlines, general guidelines to show what topics to cover. Different curricula and individual teachers had a lot of leeway in deciding how to tackle those topics.
The Common Core standards, on the other hand, are 52 pages long for math alone! They are highly prescriptive and require very specific teaching techniques. For example, for third graders (these are 8 years olds!) one standard says,
“CC.3.OA.8 Solve problems involving the four operations, and identify and explain patterns in arithmetic. Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (This standard is limited to problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers; students should know how to perform operations in the conventional order when there are no parentheses to specify a particular order (Order of Operations).)” 
These are some really hard concepts for kids many of whom developmentally are still thinking concretely. Say nothing about our students with special needs. And we’re asking them to do straight-up algebra. There are also multiple concepts in this one standard: mastery of all four operations, two-step word problems, creating algebraic expressions, rounding answers, and using mental math strategies. Seriously, this is ridiculous! By forcing this kind of complicated and abstract thought on kids who aren’t ready will make kids turn off to learning. And just wait ‘til you see the tests like PARCC that accompany these standards. They looked like college course exams instead of tests for elementary students.
Let’s talk about the amount of standards. For third grade alone, there are 35 of these complicated standards. There are less than 37 weeks of school in the Chicago Public Schools calendar, and in schools like mine, up to 15 weeks of that time is interrupted due to testing. The pacing is way too fast for many kids. The amount of standards required per grade level leads to a whirlwind of concepts being thrown at kids who are often aren’t ready for them even if they were given sufficient time.
And my kids with special needs are especially damaged by these standards. Their education is being warped in order to comply with these federal mandates. Teachers everywhere feel the tension around teaching concepts we know kids aren’t ready for, and what we’re being forced to do every day just to keep our jobs. The Chicago Public Schools IEP system won’t even let us put in standards from lower grade levels for our students to work on-they say it has to be the chronological grade level of the child regardless of where they are currently functioning.
I’m tired of people saying, what’s wrong with the “mathematical practices”? Nothing, if that’s all the standards were. It’s the other 52 pages that is harming students, especially in the younger grades and kids with special learning needs. There were no elementary teachers or special educators included in developing these standards, which is very evident in practice.
Common Core sets kids up to fail. That’s not the kind of teaching I believe in.
 Here is a comment written in response:
  • Katie,
    I appreciate the frustration you are expressing. The CC standards are a long document. When you actually look at the number of pages for each grade level, it is actually much more manageable although certainly not as meager as 7 pages for all the grades–which sounds to me more like a list of topics rather than standards.
    My experience is this:
    — CC is new and teachers/parents are having a hard time changing to what is new
    –the math is particularly daunting to educators who have relied on their own algorithms rather than a clear conceptual understanding of what those algorithms do
    –making the switch requires really good and ONGOING professional development to help teachers along with the unfamiliar parts of the standards
    –many materials claiming to be Common Core are confusing the issue and making it harder for teachers by providing pages of materials that actually confuse rather than help with conceptual understanding
    –many textbooks over-teach what is actually required and if teachers follow those texts page by page, they will be overwhelmed and frustrated
    –Common Core is sometimes being confused with testing as accountability and although many proponents of one are proponents of the other, they are not the same thing
    I hope you will give Common Core math more time for you to digest it. Try things out without being too hard on yourself. Some of your special ed kiddos will take to concepts and LOVE them. Others will certainly respond better to learning the steps of an algorithm. Special Education is always the hardest area of implementation and I respect what you do immensely.
  • @educhange Thank you for your thoughtful comment, but I disagree. I don’t need more professional development in order to teach developmentally inappropriate standards. And no one ever mentions the pacing required to cover everything-it leaves our kids with disabilities far behind. In fact, since the general education curriculum has changed so significantly, myself and many colleagues are having to rethink Least Restrictive placements for some students with disabilities. I teach special education at a Title 1 neighborhood school on the south side of Chicago, so my students are often some of the most vulnerable kids in our system. And Common Core is harming them. We are seeing behavioral and academic consequences to implementing an experimental, inappropriate set of standards.
    But to take a step back, we know Common Core was not primarily written or pushed by educators, but by the testing industry and proponents of neoliberal education reform. Seem from that point of view, where schools like mine need to “fail” in order to promote privatization and to extract profit from our public K-12 system, the Common Core’s difficulties are not a fluke, but done by design.

PARCC is the Worst Test I've Ever Seen

Here are some more thoughts on the PARCC test:

I administered the test to third and fourth graders with disabilities (8 & 9 years olds.)

The PARCC reading passages are ridiculously long. After I argued my way into being able to provide the accommodation of oral reading for certain students with disabilities, I immediately regretted that decision as just reading the passages and questions was a ridiculously arduous task. Even I, as an adult, felt fatigued from reading out loud the over three page essays, and there were up to three of these passages per testing session. And the texts were all at least one, possibly more, grade levels above the year I was testing. Every. Single. One. Some of the adult-level vocabulary even made me stumble a few times. And there were a number of foreign words in some texts. And I'm not talking Spanish. Why? Why? Also, even though the passages were many pages long, there were no pictures to help children place text (other standardized tests for younger kids often provide some picture support.)

Many of the passages also used excerpts from real popular young people's literature, giving a huge advantage to any student who happened to read that novel. Since they were excerpts, though, this also meant that students were reading completely acontextual passages that SHOULD be in a context. They were parts of a novel, after all. One passage I read was from a favorite book, but used for this purpose completely destroyed that story. Plus, the story was set in a different country and time period yet the kids were given NO BACKGROUND on any of it. 

All the passages I read were also incredibly biased-both in terms of being truly racist tests but also in terms of bias towards affluence. They covered topics that were so obscure, or so obviously tied to wealth and the ability to travel, that I wanted to pull my hair out. Horrible choices. Certainly nothing that my African-American students in the inner city my could relate to, and as it was a testing setting, there was no way to give even a few simple background facts to help the kids place the stories. Some passages were even borderline American propaganda-driveling over American symbols or White Western history, that my school's relatively Afrocentric curriculum definitely did not cover. 

Then the questions asked of the students were horribly, like worse than I've ever seen, ambiguous. The possible answers were very closely related and you could easily make an argument for more than one correct response. In fact, in some questions, they asked for more than one response, which was a confusing format. Also, for each and every response, there were two parts, the first a general answer and the second a quote from the text that "proved your response." Talk about confusing! 

And then there was the essay. This was were I want to stop tearing my own hair and start tearing the damn test. Multiple parts, demanding dialogue evidence and use of literary language. And more complicated than essays I've written at the college level. I do not exaggerate. For eight and nine years olds with disabilities who can barely write a sentence. I got the accommodation to scribe for my students, but even that was a joke. I read the questions, and the kids just spouted off random answers that proved they had no idea whatsoever about what the passages were about. But why would they? We would NEVER read three pages of text unsupported without context in my classroom!

Some teachers also reported that the passages on the test were the same as last year, perhaps adding to the super strict testing policies. Probably field testing. Using our kids as guinea pigs for Pearson's profit.

After giving these tests to students in the morning, my classroom would descend into chaos by the afternoon. The kids were exhausted, their usual schedule and routines completely disrupted. They were irritable, and at one point, one girl with a severe emotional disability began to cry for about an hour, as in wailing tears. The staff kept saying, "Shh...classrooms are still testing!" as if that were the problem. Another girl had a temper tantrum mid-test, I had to remind the folks helping to administer the exam to just stop the test! No reason for pushing kids to meltdowns. My student with Autism stopped coming to school altogether. This child already had attendance issues, but after one day of testing, he never showed up again for nearly a week and a half. (Definitely a smart choice, on the kid's part. They'll still try to make him do make-ups, though.) Other students were snapping at one another like I've never seen and even the staff had short tempers, including myself.

I was so upset after administering this test that I ended up calling in sick as my mental health was honestly being affected. I'm not sure I'll be able to build up trust again with my students. SEVEN frickin' days of this nonsense. Kids were so spent, I allowed semi-structured independent work sessions each afternoon after testing. No formal teaching/learning happened in my classroom for two weeks. And this test doesn't even count! The test that actually counts starts just after Spring Break. YET MORE TESTING for my fragile learners!!

PARCC is truly the worst test I've ever seen for young kids. And I am no fan of ANY standardized test. But I feel dirty after administering this stinking bag of rot.

Friday, March 25, 2016

PARCC and Real Live Children

There's a lot going on in Chicago right now. I was proud to become delegate at my school this past week and participate in the CTU House of Delegates vote to authorize a one-day strike this April 1st. This action is inspiring and energizing for me and I am excited to take part.

But quietly, behind all the news, contract negotiations, and decisions about strategy on how to fight back, our school has been prepping for the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam which begins next week. 

I am against all standardized testing, but want to take a minute to highlight why the PARCC exam is especially harmful.

I teach in a special education classroom at a neighborhood public school in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood. Our K-8 program is 99% African-American, almost all from low-income backgrounds with many families in deep poverty. My class covers kids in third and fourth grade who have disabilities significant enough to warrant them being removed from their general education setting at least part of the day. The PARCC test begins in grade 3, so my students are the youngest kids exposed to this test and in many ways, the most vulnerable.

And the PARCC test is straight-up cruel.

1. The test itself is ridiculously long and inappropriate for any 8 and 9 year old, but particularly for my students with special needs. This round of testing (unclear if there will be two rounds, one in March and one in May, like last year) lasts for 3 ELA (Reading) sections and 4 Math sections all on separate days lasting about 1.5 to 2 hours each including the extended time accommodation on students' IEPs. Essentially, my students will miss their Literacy Block nearly every day for two weeks. And that does not take into account make-up tests, technical glitches, staff absences, and all the other unforeseeable circumstances that invariably arise. In addition, our ancillary staff (inclusion teachers, paraprofessionals, specials teachers, clinicians) get pulled from their regular duties for WEEKS ON END to test all our students. Also, our STEM/computer lab and library will be in use for weeks and weeks meaning it is not available for students.

But take a look at what the test is asking 8 and 9 year-olds to do. Put yourself in their shoes. (I am using the "Sample items" from the PARCC website.)

The main task is for students to read TWO long passages, answer questions, then WRITE AN ESSAY comparing and contrasting the two selections (highlighting mine).
 Now let's take a look at the two passages:


These passages are each over a page and a half. A page and a half! When I typed some of one of the passages into Word to do a readability test, the passage came out as OVER a sixth grade reading level!!! (This all has to do with the Common Core's new "more rigorous" reading levels, which have no basis in research, and are completely arbitrary measures.)

 Now, I don't personally remember ever having to read long passages like this in high school or even in college in a timed exam setting. Like never. Even the SATs used shorter passages. And don't forget these passages are TOTALLY RANDOM, not something connected to a curriculum where students could have had time to build background knowledge and discuss the concepts. They are cold reading massive chunks of text under time pressure, answering complicated questions, and writing essays that ask really difficult questions like this:

Eight and nine year olds. Eight and nine year olds! Can someone please tell me why an eight year old needs to be engaging in literary analysis?? Anyone?

And talk about culturally biased. How many inner-city children, or any children really, have exposure to words like "cougar" and can understand Japanese cultural allusions. Ironically, my particular school did once have a Japanese program and my kids might have has background knowledge on "kira-kira", only the program was cut two years ago thanks in part to pressures of standardized tests like this one.

2. PARCC, like other standardized tests, does not honor IEP testing accommodations. For most of my students, I intentionally include "Reading the whole test aloud" and "Scribing answers" during testing. But we are being told that the PARCC test does not allow these types of accommodations. Why does the testing company get to trump the legally-mandated IEP team's recommendations?  Also, what do the test designers think they are learning from this test other than the fact that my students cannot do the acts of reading and writing? You don't need three separate testing sessions for that. Normally for assessment purposes, unless I am specifically assessing reading levels, I am more interested in determining the students' ability to comprehend and respond to text-thus the accommodations. Many of my students, as a direct result of their disabilities, are reading texts like this: 

What the hell are my kids supposed to do with over three pages of dense text at the sixth grade reading level?!?

Now many of the kids actually CAN respond to more complicated text and questions WITH ACCOMMODATIONS. I tried to challenge our school testing coordinator on this, but she maintained we could not implement these basic accommodations. I'm not sure this is true-brings up lots of questions about implementation problems-but even if I could get the accommodations in place, it wouldn't change the actual inappropriate content of the darn tests.

3. High-stakes tests like PARCC actually trigger mental health crises for too many children. During my time teaching at a psych hospital, I saw far far too many kids being brought in to our inpatient psychiatric facility as a direct result of standardized testing. As in, the student had a mental health crisis in the middle of testing-including harming themselves or others-and had to be brought to a hospital via ambulance. 

Just think on that.

Someone with the means needs to do a study looking at spikes in mental health problems and psychiatric hospitalizations due to testing. I have no doubt based on the anecdotal evidence I've seen that this problem is much more serious than anyone is reporting. Some intake counselors have told me that kids are reporting testing and specifically PARCC in their intake interviews prior to hospitalization. This abuse needs to be brought to light.

In my classroom alone, I can identify 2-3 students who will likely be harmed-HARMED-due to this testing, especially given the PARCC test's ridiculous expectations. I have students with Autism who emotionally break down to tantrums when given large tasks, students with severe social-emotional issues who are triggered by even a slightly challenging short math problem much less three pages of text. I have kids who are suffering from PTSD, homelessness, lead poisoning, domestic violence, parental incarceration, and poverty. How can I, in good concision, give my students this test? It will break the trust I have tried to build with them. I'm afraid for real mental health breakdowns next week.

4. These tests are damn expensive and DO NOT EVEN COUNT for anything other than to check the box that we are jumping through the Federal government's accountability requirement-something that should have been written out of the ESSA law. 

CPS uses the NWEA for actual accountability purposes (also a terrible test, but for different reasons). So all the time and money used for PARCC doesn't even count in evaluation or school ratings (not that ANY testing should count, but gotta fight that nonsense in the state legislature.) So we still have to do WEEKS of testing for THAT darn test starting in May. And PARCC and NWEA are completely different kinds of tests which means we've had to double prep for two different inane tests that harm kids and rob schools of joy and autonomy.

And how can CPS "we're so broke" even justify the costs of these tests? I'm sitting here today writing this because CPS forced a furlough day on us all. Plus, they have cut our school's budget I think four times this year? We lost teachers and staff over the summer due to budget cuts, then again at the 10th day causing layoffs and mass shuffling of classrooms over a month into the school year, then more money last January, and again last week. Yet there's money for the ridiculous test? Pearson is getting paid, but teachers have to buy their own copy paper and soap? Please....

5. The test is designed to fail. Looking at what the actual test asks of kids, it should come as no surprise that last year's results were dismal. Of course they were. Imagine giving a student in the beginning weeks of a first semester Chinese class a test designed for the fourth year course. The test won't tell me anything about that student, that teacher, or that Chinese program. It just tells me that I gave a bad test.

Frankly, there are even more reasons to hate the PARCC. Go check out the More Than A Score website to see more and get info on how to Opt Out.

So let's review....

The PARCC test is mind-mindbogglingly inappropriate and long. It gives NO USEFUL information for teachers or schools. It ignores IEPs. It is damaging to kids.
It triggers our most vulnerable learners destroying trust and joy in the classroom. It robs classrooms of SO MUCH STINKIN' TIME. 

Oh, and by the way, PARCC originally was in 24 states, but has now dropped to only 6. 

There is NO REASON for Illinois to continue using this test. None.
Additional Thoughts:

Now here's the truth. I have not engaged in much work at my school around resisting this test. The parents I work with, frankly, are overwhelmed with the everyday problems of living in poverty, working multiple jobs, housing insecurity, navigating impossible systems, AND they are trying to survive all this with a child, often more than one, who has significant disabilities. I know they care about the cruelties of testing and what's happening to their children's schools, but asking them to fight one more system is a hard ask. 

The teachers at my school are also completely overwhelmed with this system. From our horrible evaluation systems, to crippling workloads, to never-ending mandates, we are all exhausted.

This is why I am incredibly thankful for the parents, teachers, and students who ARE engaging in testing resistance for all of us. 

Some people complain that testing resistance and Opt Out efforts are too white and middle-class. That's definitely an inaccurate depiction of what's happening in Chicago. But I also don't care because frankly these issues impact schools like mine even more negatively than more stable middle-class schools. Only we don't have the ability to fight the same way for the very same reasons those in charge are pushing testing and accountability hardest on our school.

Please, keep fighting this! It's harmful and it has disparate impact on low-income students of color as well as students with disabilities and students still learning English.

I don't know what I am going to do next week. I suppose I could become a consciousness objector, but my kids would still be forced to take this test.

This I do know: When we all strike on April 1st, I will be glad for the break from the madness that is the PARCC exam. I will be glad that my kids will get an extra day away from school during this sickening testing season. I know I am clinging to the hope that maybe someday we can get rid of all this horrible testing infesting our schools.
I know I will be proud to participate in the fight for the kinds of schools and city my kids actually deserve.

PARCC needs to disappear. And I hope this post helps people understand why.