Monday, June 26, 2006

Mt. Diablo USD is failing

Like all challenged students, my mildly retarded daughter (age 11) has, every year, been evaluated by school personnel to develop an individual plan for her education, called an IEP. Her IEP specifically calls for small-group instruction. She has, nominally, just finished fifth grade and is ready to move to sixth, although she is reading at a first grade level and doing second grade math. She has always been in an SDC or "special day class", a special-ed only class with a max ratio of 8 students per adult (usually 12-15 kids with a teacher plus an aide).

In May, we discovered (accidentally, and that's another long story) that our school district (Mt. Diablo Unified) is eliminating all SDCs in middle school, moving all learning-disabled and cognitively disabled kids into mainstream classes with resource support. The only SDC next year, they said, will be for specific groups such as deaf students or those with severe mental handicaps.

Special education students will spend all but one period each day in general-ed classrooms; a special-ed teacher or aide will accompany them, and they'll spend the remaining period in a kind of homeroom or study hall where SE teachers will review the day's instruction or "preteach" (gotta love the jargon) vocabulary and concepts that will be coming up.

The net effect is that children who are developmentally delayed and/or performing far below grade level will spend most of their day in classes of 30+ students being taught material well beyond their level. (In some schools, they will also lose the opportunity of having an elective class such as music, art, or drama, since the SDC period will occupy that time slot.) Although the district says that the SE teacher or aide will "keep the students on task" (jargon for "don't go to sleep, keep your feet off the desk"), and though the district says that staff member will coteach, helping prepare the lessons and helping interpret them within the class time for SE students—in spite of these promises, I believe my daughter will spend her time staring vacantly at the front of the room, while information she cannot absorb flies past her.

We have since determined, through our own detective work, that in fact there will be a few SDCs. We have told the district that their assignment of her to one of the "collaboration" or "inclusion" schools is unacceptable to us, and we're waiting for their response. But I predict that they'll simply tell us to pound sand; the district is clearly going to interpret the IEP and their offering so as to say that their plan qualifies as "full-time special education".

The legal and political background: There are several unrelated but interlocking reasons for this change, but the biggest is the way that George Bush's so-called No Child Left Behind law (which is officially the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) interacts with the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The ESEA/NCLB act denies federal funding for classes that lack a "highly qualified" teacher; for grades 8 and up, to be "highly qualified" in a core subject (English, math, science, history) a teacher must have a subject-specific certificate; and to be "highly qualified" in special education requires a special-ed certificate.

Very few special-ed teachers are also certificated in core subjects, and vice versa. Also, very few middle schools have separate teachers for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade special-ed; most classes have students with a mix of ages and academic levels, because this reduces the number of teachers and classrooms needed. Thus, in order to maintain SDCs in middle schools, districts must choose one of these:

  • Spend more to win over the small pool of dual-certificated teachers.
  • Set up 6th/7th grade SDCs separate from 8th grade ones, which would require hiring more teachers and would reduce the problem to one grade level but not eliminate it.
  • Put all special-ed students in a general-ed classroom, where a certificated core-subject teacher and a certificated special-ed teacher are present.

The more publicized provisions of the Bush ESEA/NCLB are the ones that require a lot of testing and that punish schools for not increasing their test scores. This, too, affects special ed: schools can only exempt about 1% of kids from tests, those with the most extreme handicaps, leaving children with IQs in the low 60s in the testing pool. Because low-ability students will take these counterproductive tests (yes, counterproductive: increased testing reduces student performance—go look it up), districts have a financial and procedural interest in teaching them the material, to the exclusion of instruction that would be more appropriate to their abilities.

So districts appear to be motivated by money, test scores, and simple convenience to maximize the number of students in the general education curriculum, regardless of whether that is appropriate for any individual student. The way I've put this to friends is: The highest functioning special-ed students—the ones with the least challenge, the ones who are closest to grade level—will probably succeed more under this plan; studies show that many SE students learn more when exposed to general-ed teaching. But the district is not starting with the top of the scale and gradually moving down, trying the program out on children with more and more serious challenges; instead, they have decided to move the majority of children (about 75%, as near as I can tell) all in one jump. I see no evidence that they are making a child-by-child evaluation of whether this is a good idea.

Put simply, I believe the district's convenience is overriding individual students' needs.

This is not to say that educational personnel don't care about kids; I'm sure the vast majority of them do, and most of them care a great deal. But there are two obstacles to that care. One is the differing motivations of individual schools and the district. We have been lucky to have great teachers throughout my daughter's career so far (from age 2-1/2!). Her latest teacher was dedicated, creative, involved—my daughter is not really very apprehensive about middle school, but she is very sad at having to leave Miss Holmes, something she has not expressed about any of her previous teachers. But even the most professional and enthusiastic teacher is limited by the district's budget and test-score priorities.

Perhaps the least important but most maddening aspect of our dealings with the district is also the second obstacle to care and concern for individual students: the complete lack of anything like a customer service attitude. The teachers and principals we have dealt with have always been high quality, concerned, and proactive. That is in stark contrast to district and office personnel, who only speak when spoken to, who volunteer very little information, who have been proven to lie to parents, and whose attitude seems to be that parents are the enemy.

The lastest complication arose today, when my girl arrived at a school (where she had never attended before) for the first day of summer school. Her assigned classroom was locked up with no teacher evident. In fact, there is no teacher for her class (it turns out there are two classes' worth of special-ed kids with no instructor); the school had gotten one substitute to take over, who scrambled to find drawing materials to keep the children occupied. The district has known since mid-March that she would be attending, yet believes that it's appropriate for my daughter to spend this week (the summer session is only five weeks long) being babysat by a substitute while they seek an official teacher.

We have already been through a summer where she did not learn because the class was filled up art, games, and movies; we won't waste her time on that again. We expect education from the school district, not day camp.

Not once has anyone said "I'm sorry" for my child being left without a teacher or for her being assigned to an inappropriate educational setting. Nobody at the district level has said, "We're working to fix the problem" or "I agree that this is wrong and I'll try to make it right" (though this attitude does turn up at the school level sometimes).

We can't be the district's customer, I guess, because we don't have the option of taking our business elsewhere. So in order to avoid being the district's victim, we must become its opponent. And I resent being cast into that role through no fault of my own. My daughter deserves better treatment, as does every child with retardation.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

America will never succeed at soccer

American men's teams will never succeed at international soccer... unless one particular change is made.

In international soccer, it's acceptable—in fact, it's a necessary tactic—to pretend to be injured, to "dive".

In America, it's shameful.

Until one of these things changes, U.S. teams will lose.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Herbert Sylvester Partridge, 1905-2006

My grandfather died yesterday.

"Syl" was a father, a banker, a Mason, and a band member. He sang songs in German, fished with his daughters, and after decades of playing the clarinet he took up the bagpipes at the age of 80.

He was the only person I was able to exchange the Phi Beta Kappa handshake with. He believed in a glass of sherry and a dish of ice cream.

He traced his own ancestors back to multiple members of the Mayflower company; his lineage included sea captains and missionaries, and his own father was a justice of the peace and school superintendent.

I toast Syl Partridge.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The best possible answer

From Snopes: On Wednesday, March 1, 2006, at a hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, Jamin "Jamie" Raskin, professor of law at American University, was requested to testify.

At the end of his testimony, Republican Senator Nancy Jacobs said: "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?"

Raskin replied: "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

First injury of the season

Every year, I'm pretty fit (by my own standards) in November, after three months of soccer coaching. Then things go downhill until the following June, when we start swimming daily and I start working my way back into soccer shape.

Today was our first real workout in the pool--very hot day, multiple kids playing (mine and two friends). And I sprained my wrist throwing one of them into the water. Damn, I can't even turn the key in the ignition.

It's going to be 100 degrees when I take Sally Ann and her friends to Waterworld on Saturday (Sally Ann's 11th birthday party). God, I hope it's healed by then.

Friday, June 09, 2006

There they go again

Truth is stranger than fiction: The Republican Congress is once again going to vote on whether to eliminate public broadcasting. Tell them not to.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

While I Was Out

Al Gore just called. He ran out of plaid flannel shirts and wanted to borrow one of mine. Well, I assume that was it anyway. I didn't listen long enough to see whether he was also endorsing someone in Tuesday's primary. Saturday we came home to four answering-machine messages--every one of them a 'mass mailing' political call, three of them recorded.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Michelangelo stands next to Raphael

The Online Photographer is almost finished revealing their Top Ten photographs. You should check out all ten if you're a fan of photography, of course, but if you're a fan of music check out number 6, A Great Day in Harlem.

(And don't worry: if you disagree with Mike Johnson's evaluation of the "end of jazz", your position is defended in the comments!)

Putting the lie to the "conspiracy theory" lie

In a carefully footnoted story, Robert F Kennedy Jr explains why the same methods used to reveal election fraud in other countries shows that it happened here. I don't believe that Bush himself stole his elections, but he has people to do that—the Supremes in 2000, and a nationwide operation in 2004. Among the over 200 bits:

"As much as we can say in sound science that something is impossible," [says a scholar who specializes in research methodology], "it is impossible that the discrepancies between predicted and actual vote count in the three critical battleground states of the 2004 election could have been due to chance or random error."