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.


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