Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit?

Last week, the US Supreme Court began hearing a case regarding one of special education’s trickiest corners: educational benefit. Parents and schools have clashed over the concept for decades. The essential question involves how much benefit students with disabilities are expected to, even entitled to receive from their education. Take a moment to consider how nuanced this question is. Should the expectation simply be that students make at least some progress? How will the acceptable level of progress be quantified? Is there any definitive way to prove a lack of progress is the fault of the school?

The case in question concerns a student with ASD and ADHD not making progress in a public school. The parents sent him to a private school, at which he allegedly made progress. The family wants the district to pay for the placement. Such requests are fairly common. The key to the case will be proving the student wasn’t making progress at the public school due to some lacking on the part of that school, thus making the placement at the private necessary for educational benefit. Also before the court is the issue of what should be considered an acceptable level of progress. Was the student reaching this? Was providing access to an appropriate curriculum enough, or did the school have to ensure a certain echelon of performance? If so, what should that be? 

Many advocates push for schools to ensure meaningful progress. This will be difficult to define. A student with a severe intellectual disability and a sensory impairment will have a different capacity for growth than that of a student with a learning disability who is also gifted. If meaningful progress is quantified and applied to schools via precedent or even an eventual adjustment to IDEA, what is that going to mean for schools that are barely able to keep enough paraprofessionals in their building to help students go to the bathroom? Will schools be expected to move beyond the notion of simply providing access to FAPE and towards an expectation of the best possible educational opportunity? What happens when students, despite a school’s best effort, still make insufficient progress? Will pending adjustments result in better educational outcomes, or simply an increase in due process cases schools in which schools have little means of defense?

I turn the matter to my readers. Should schools be lashed to a requirement for meaningful educational benefit? What should be the definition of “meaningful?” How will it differ from the current expectation of progress being noted during an IEP term? I don’t think any issue in special education is as wrought with controversy. I look forward to your comments.

Discussion Starter: Educational Benefit?

Discussion Starter: How Are Charters Doing Where You Live?

I recently asked about issues that will impact education in 2017. As a follow up, I’m dedicating a post to the status of charter schools. Specifically, I’d like readers to share the relative success of charters in their area. If any readers have insights regarding how their local charters are responding to the needs of students with disabilities, these would be especially relevant on this blog.

I’m expecting what others report to be similar to what I’ve found where I live. Philadelphia’s charters get results that are as mixed as what the city’s publics get. Some charters seem to be exceeding the outcomes publics with similar populations are managing, although a few crucial variables might be skewing results in favor of the charters. Other charters are disasters and should be chained shut, but the same could be said for many of the city’s publics (which is part of how Philadelphia has ended up with so many charters). My city might not be the best litmus, as too many of the issues impacting school performance are beyond what any school could address.

What is happening with the charters in your community? Are they improving upon what the local publics offer? Are they worsening anything? If you respond, sharing the composition of your community (rural, suburban, urban) might be helpful.



Discussion Starter: How Are Charters Doing Where You Live?

Discussion Starter: Education Issues for 2017

A fitting way to end 2016 is to look forward to what the most pressing educational issues of 2017 will be. What can we expect to be on the minds of educators as the year unfolds? Will federal-level initiatives meant to further the propagation of charter schools dominate education news? Could changes in funding create additional staffing shortages as early as fall 2017? Will wrangling over the Common Core remain a principle concern? What will the coming spring look like for parents seeking to opt out of state tests?

While something unanticipated could emerge to become a focus for educators and others on the periphery of the field, chances are the most significant issues will be a continuation of those in place at the end of 2016. We’ll likely see more discussion of classroom concerns such as the nature and purpose of grading and homework. Schools will wrestle with how to address intolerance and violence on and off campus. Districts, state departments of education, and lawmakers will examine the strain of pensions on budgets. Issues such as these aren’t approaching resolution. Some aren’t going to have clear resolutions.

I have my suspicions regarding what will on the minds of those in the field in 2017. Have I missed anything? What do you think will be most critical to education over the next twelve months? What will be solved? What will get worse? Share in the comments and best wishes for the new year.

Discussion Starter: Education Issues for 2017

Discussion Starter: How Much Freedom of Speech Should Teachers Have?

The question I’ve posed is difficult to answer in any satisfactory way. A few considerations obscure the original question. Does a reliable tool for measuring freedom of speech or expression exist? If such a tool exists, how readily can one apply it to the words and actions of teachers? Additionally, in what contexts should one measure the speech and expression of teachers? Do we only consider the classroom and what is said in the course of instruction? Do we include a teacher’s use of social media outside the workplace? Do conversations at a grocery store matter?

Beyond these initial qualifiers, the essential question is whether or not teachers have the license to express their views with impunity while employed by a school. Precedent suggests they do not. Examples are plentiful of teachers losing their jobs over off-hand comments and opinionated tweets. Similar examples abound in other fields, so this isn’t merely a concern for those working in education. Might the threshold for tolerating aberrant or challenging comments made in or out of the workplace be lower for educators? Should it be?

Most schools have policies meant to answer these questions. As school employees, teachers are beholden to these policies. Repeatedly, circumstances have arisen that have tested established policies. From teachers launching into unsolicited sermons exposing their political views, to students taking umbrage with seemingly innocuous banter during homeroom, recent and ongoing situations have muddled conventional understanding of acceptability. The threshold for tolerance might be changing.

I turn this discussion to any readers who care to comment. What I’m seeking are thoughts on the parameters of speech and expression that should apply to teachers.


Discussion Starter: How Much Freedom of Speech Should Teachers Have?

Discussion Starter: Does Teacher Attire Matter?

Continuing with my series of questions meant to stir conversations about the field, I ask the titular question: does teacher attire matter? The question comes at a time when controversies regarding student attire make news almost monthly. Less attention is paid to teacher attire, but this fall saw an exception when a teacher from Georgia found herself scrutinized on social media for what she apparently wore while teaching fourth graders.

Examining the question and attempting to answer it throws into relief the nature of the controversy. Few are concerned with what male students or teachers are wearing. The issue repeatedly involves what female students or teachers wear. Is this a problem for the females in question or for the males around them? That could become a larger discussion. Keeping the conversation grounded to education, the fourth grade teacher from Georgia posted pictures of herself on social media showing outfits some considered to be too form-fitting to be appropriate for her job. Were they? Who decides this?

When I saw the pictures, my only concern was whether or not she’d be comfortable all day wearing such high heels in an elementary classroom. If she could pull that off, good for her. Beyond that, I saw little that likely would violate typical standards of professional dress in a school. A few commenters mentioned how she might distract the nine-year-olds she taught. Perhaps. Would she distract them (or even high school students) to the point of disrupting learning? Probably not.

All that should matter is whether or not she (or anyone else) can effectively perform her duties as an instructor in what she wears. These duties include interacting with parents and other stakeholders, but primarily involve building literacy and math skills in her students. If student performance slipped in her class alone and every other variable could be ruled out as a cause, I’d still question whether or not her attire was making the difference. Parents might object to her attire, but they’d need to have solid grounds for their objection before any action would be justified.

My take: as long as teachers of any sex or gender are abiding the code of professional dress in their respective schools and aren’t dressing in a way that demonstrably disrupts learning, they should be able to dress as they please. Sure, they have some obligation to set positive examples, but I don’t know that form-fitting attire necessarily sets a negative example.

Thoughts? Should anyone care deeply enough about teacher attire to pitch a fit about it if a teacher wears something slightly snug? Discuss in the comments if you wish.

Discussion Starter: Does Teacher Attire Matter?

Discussion Starter: Do Teachers Get Paid Enough?

This post will be the first in a series I’m calling “Discussion Starters.” I’m going to present topics in education with the intention of encouraging conversation amongst readers in the comments. I’ll share some of my thoughts in each post. Readers can take over the conversation from there.

For the first Discussion Starter, I’m going with teacher salary. Specifically, I’m asking if readers feel teachers get paid enough.

Speaking from my experience, I can say I got paid plenty. My salary as a teacher was beyond what I needed. Admittedly, lived a different lifestyle than most of my colleagues lived. I had no car, no mortgage, and no children. With so few expenses, I didn’t long for any more than I earned. Living and working where I did helped, being in a city and state known for relatively high teacher salaries. I’ll acknowledge that my experience might have been atypical, which sets up my overall feelings about the matter.

The fairness of salary is somewhat relative. Within a given district, individual teachers will vary in how they can make what they earn work for them. Additionally, earnings at different steps range dramatically in many districts. Both of these factors are true of other fields. Salaries vary significantly from district to district and state to state. Some are better matched to proportionate costs of living then others. Again, this range is true of other fields, but the range is especially great in education.

So salaries are relative. Are they fair per the level of education and responsibilities teachers have? One must remember most teachers are paid for ten months of work and for shorter work days than most have in other professions. Their gross pay should be considered per the number of hours they work. Even if their gross seems low compared with other fields, they tend to receive extraordinary and low-cost benefits. Despite a ten month calendar, most also enjoy generous paid leave. These factors start to make teacher earnings look appropriate.

I’ve not included some intangibles, such as the complexity of what teachers face each day, or the absurd hours some choose (and “choose” is crucial here) to spend outside regular work hours planning, preparing, and grading. I’m not about to say teachers don’t put in a difficult slog. I do think the value of their salaries depends on where they teach and how they decide to live their lives in relation to their salaries. Considering their actual contractual responsibilities, their salaries be justified.

What do you think? Chime in via the comments section.

Discussion Starter: Do Teachers Get Paid Enough?

Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching

Co-teaching has become a default model for delivering special education. It comes in many forms, but the unifying characteristic is having the special education teacher in the general education classroom to ensure the facilitation of special education programming. It makes sense in many situations. It doesn’t in others. How schools implement it varies tremendously. So does how well it works.

How did we get to co-teaching? An inclusive approach to special education is no longer a theoretical notion. It’s how schools deliver special education to most students with IEPs. By law, these students must have access to the general education curriculum alongside their peers who don’t have disabilities. Increasingly, schools are pushing to make inclusion an afterthought, with classrooms being designed from the start to accommodate a range of needs.

To make this happen, general education teachers need help. Here is where special education teachers enter the fold. For many years, special education teachers were supporting cast members, taking needy students aside to work with them in resource rooms or other settings. Special education teachers would collaborate with general education teachers to make adjustments to assignments and tests that would improve access for special education students. Today, special education teachers continue in this collaborative role, but the trend is for them to allocate most of their time in general education classroom with the general education teacher, ideally incorporating some form of co-teaching.

Many smart people have figured out ways to make co-teaching work. Like almost anything else in education, the most effective mode might depend on the array of needs in a class. Possibilities range from having the teachers share the responsibility of working with all students to having the special education teacher work with students needing extra support in a small group. The half dozen or so variants of co-teaching together form a playbook for how to create and maintain an inclusive learning environment. With the playbook already written, one would think schools could run effective programming.

Perhaps the greatest hindrances to making co-teaching work are the rushed or absent preparation teachers too often have for the endeavor along with the lack of common planning time needed. In some schools, teachers have a professional development or two and are left to figure out how to do this on their own. Special education teachers might be told to push in to a general education class with little direction regarding what this pushing in should entail. Meanwhile, co-teachers frequently lack common preparation periods. Sometimes arranging for this isn’t possible. Communication becomes hampered. Functional co-teaching isn’t likely to materialize.

Compounding such problems, more students tend to need support than there are special education teachers available to provide it. If these students are dispersed among several concurrent classes, the special education teachers likely won’t get to work with them for but a few intervals during the day. Teachers need to be flexible, but they can’t be in more than one place at a time. If the students with disabilities are grouped, schools can be accused of tracking them, even if this would facilitate efficient co-teaching. Scheduling headaches trip up good intentions.

A typical scenario follows. The special education teacher is assigned, doesn’t know what to do, and ends up being an expensive assistant. He or she will circulate in the classroom and help wherever possible. This can be of benefit to students, but it might not be the best use of this professional’s skills. It tends to undermine the special education teacher’s standing in the eyes of students as students see him or her as a helper and not as the authority in the room.

Continuing, the special education teacher and general education teacher might not get along famously. They might differ in their views regarding management and in how to best support the needy learners in the classroom. In some highly toxic relationships, the general education might feel the special education teacher is almost an intruder rather than a teammate, while the special education teacher might feel more of an allegiance to the students than to his or her colleague.

Beyond such a scenario, other programmatic pitfalls lurk. These depend on how adamant a school is about having students with IEPs in the general education classroom for the maximum amount of time. One of the longstanding difficulties with inclusion is making certain students who need more concentrated support aren’t being lost. Some students might need pull out service. Administrators might be reticent to arrange for this because they feel pressure per IDEA indicators to keep up the percentage of time special education students are in general education.

When a school is inflexible about this, students can get shortchanged and can be left floundering with minimal support in classes that aren’t appropriate for their needs. As special education teachers are assigned as team teachers, they might not be available to those floundering students.

Co-teaching doesn’t have to be a jumbled affair. Schools must consider it a tool that might be of benefit when including students, rather than a mandate that must be followed. It also need not be an organizational and collegial mess. Much of the time, it is productive and beneficial. It does require preparation. It does demand organizational forethought. Co-teaching can be a twist in the conceptual paradigm many teachers have about their selected vocation. The autonomy that some might have sought simply might not be there. It can be in the best interest of students for whom inclusion is appropriate, though. The point of all this is the benefit of students. If co-teaching is working, a school should continue using it. If it isn’t, everyone needs to take a close look at why.

Some Thoughts on Co-Teaching