Endurance

When I was a child, I had very little physical endurance. It was extremely difficult for me to swim across the public pool without getting winded and running further than 50 yards posed a huge challenge. Eventually, with a lot of practice, and good swim instruction, I learned how to swim long distances and eventually earned my life saving and water safety instructor certificates.

Running even a moderate distance posed an even bigger challenge for me. Since I was not athletically gifted, it was a big deal to me to try to earn a Presidential 50th percentile patch back in 6th grade which I missed in 5th grade because my time in the 600 yard run was too slow. As it turned out, I was sick on the day my gym class ran the 600 yard race, but my gym teacher allowed me to run it when I returned, along with a girl who had also missed the race due to illness. Since she was not particularly fast, I was really worried that running with her alone would not set a pace fast enough for me to earn my 50th percentile patch, so I asked my very fast friend, Mike, if he would be willing to run ahead of me and pace me. He agreed, and the gym teacher had no problem with Mike setting the pace for us. Sure enough, Mike’s speed and my determination to do my best to keep up with him enabled me to run fast enough to earn my 50th percentile patch. I was overjoyed!

As a young adult, I developed arthritis and started swimming regularly as it was a very good exercise that did not cause problems for my joints. Initially, I just did the breast stroke since my endurance was still not very good, but I learned that if I slowly added in the crawl, first 1 in 10 laps, than 2 in 10, eventually doing predominantly crawl, though continuing a mix of strokes to vary my exercise, I was eventually able to swim a mile without difficulty.

When I reached my late 40s, since I was also an avid bike commuter, many friends suggested that I try a triathlon. My initial response was that I could not run long distance so it was out of the question. But, at some point, that response rang hollow, as I was playing ultimate frisbee with much younger people, and that involves a lot of running. I discovered that there was a triathlon distance known as a “sprint” that was only a 5 km run, which seemed remotely possible, even though I had never run longer than a mile, and had not run a mile since 10th grade gym when I had to do so.

I vividly recall my first 5K training run. I had measured the distance in my neighborhood and had a nice route mapped out. I set out from my  house and within a few hundred feet, I was already huffing and puffing and wondering if I would be able to run the whole distance. Fortunately, another part of my brain responded by reminding myself that it did not matter how fast I ran, and even if I had to walk some of the distance, I should keep on going. Sure enough, I was able to complete that training run and compete in my first triathlon on Father’s Day of that year. After 3 years of competing in sprint triathlons, I pushed myself to an Olympic length triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run) which I did for 2 years before deciding that I had accomplished my goal of proving to myself I could run, but since I still did not like running very much, I could give myself a break and just spend more time on my bike which I enjoyed more.

I have been thinking a lot about endurance lately. Initially, my thoughts were personal related to my spending a week with my wife’s family in Puerto Vallarta and enjoying sunrise open water swims of about a half an hour in the ocean each morning. Today, I must have worried a nearby fishing boat who pulled up to me and asked if I was ok. I told them I was fine, although it turned out that the current must have pushed me out further than usual, and my 30 minute swim stretched into 40 minutes.

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However, there are also systemic reasons for thinking about endurance. Since I do a lot of education advocacy, I have read a lot about one of the big school reform topics known as resilienceThe concept is to support children who have suffered one or more traumas in order that they can be resilient and overcome their trauma in order to succeed.

While there is nothing wrong with appreciating resilience and to the extent possible, teaching children to become resilient, the problem with such an approach is that the ability to be resilient is not inherent in everyone. Expecting that all children (or even adults who suffer trauma) should be expected to become resilient, despite the many traumas they may have suffered, and lack of support they may have at home and in the community is simply unrealistic.

In reflecting on my efforts to increase my own endurance, it dawned upon me that a better education policy would be to train children (and adults) to increase their ability to endure challenges, as over the long haul, resilience presumes that one should be able to overcome trauma and worse yet, may be a failure if one cannot overcome the trauma. Yet, like my experience with long distance running and swimming, though my body is not designed to run or swim quickly, in focusing on improving my endurance, I have been able to steadily increase the distances than I can swim and run.

Since the November 2016 election, many of us who abhor the daily traumas foisted upon our nation and the world by the current administration, need to focus on improving our endurance to stay involved in public policy despite the ongoing nightmares emerging from our nation’s capitol. It is not easy, but nothing that requires endurance is easy. However, through focus, dedication and support of friends, family and community, we can all improve our endurance to emerge from the nightmare that our current President and his minions have created in order to return to a better world where we focus on supporting each other instead of tearing others down.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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Othering & Belonging

Last Sunday, my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim held the 3rd in a series of Adult Education programs featuring members of both our synagogue and the wider Madison Jewish community who led discussions on inclusion of various parts of our community. The first session focused on people with disabilities, the second focused on transgender members of our community, and the most recent session focused on racial and ethnic diversity and was facilitated by Shahanna McKinney-Baldon. Shahana led a very rich discussion based on her experience as a Jewish woman of color.

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Photo credit: mochajuden.com

Shahana introduced many ideas, including the fact that a majority of Jews are people of color. She also briefly touched on the body of work known as Othering & Belonging which is sponsored by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California-Berkeley. As Shahana did not have time to discuss this in detail, she encouraged us to research it further for ourselves and upon doing so, the work compelled me to share what I learned with my readers.

The Othering & Belonging web site contains many articles as well as information about its conferences. In an article entitled, The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belongingauthors John A. Powell and Stephanie Menedian make a compelling case that:

The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of “othering.” In a world beset by seemingly intractable and overwhelming challenges, virtually every global, national, and regional conflict is wrapped within or organized around one or more dimension of group-based difference. Othering undergirds territorial disputes, sectarian violence, military conflict, the spread of disease, hunger and food insecurity, and even climate change.

They define “othering” as:

a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone.

They conclude by identifying:

belonging and inclusion as the only sustainable solution to the problem of othering. As dispiriting as world events may seem, humanity has made tremendous progress toward tolerance, inclusion, and equality. We live in a period of dramatic social change and unprecedented openness in human history. Whether we continue to march toward a more inclusive society while taming our “baser impulses and steadying our fears” depends on us.

Of course saying that we want to move away from “othering” and towards “belonging” and actually doing so are two different things. That is why although my synagogue’s tag line is, “inclusive Jewish community,” and our membership includes Jews of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ+ community, and a majority of couples who are from intermarried religious backgrounds, simply putting that on our website and proclaiming it is not enough. That is why we sponsored these diverse inclusive adult education programs and continue to do the hard work required to put our lofty thoughts into action.

As the Othering & Belonging conference web site states:

Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging means being able to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures. Belonging means the right to contribute and make demands upon society and institutions.

Thus, it is helpful for each of us to examine our actions and determine if we are engaging in othering or truly making our best efforts towards ensuring that those who may be outside looking in are welcomed to fully participate and belong. This requires actively welcoming and listening to people who come from different backgrounds than us. It further demands that we examine our own actions and inactions and challenge those whose actions push difference outside by othering and actively support those who truly welcome full participation in all societal structures in true belonging. None of us do this perfectly, so all of us can improve and change the entrenched systems of othering into naturally welcoming systems of belonging.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Defining “Appropriate Education”

Ever since Congress passed the original law requiring public schools to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPEto students with disabilities in 1975, everyone involved in the special education system has struggled with the definition of “appropriate.” This includes teachers, parents, advocates, attorneys and the court system. The problem, of course, is that the word appropriate defies precise definition. On one hand, the law does not require public schools to provide children with disabilities the best possible education, even though parents should always advocate for that. On the other hand, if a child fails to make any progress and merely gets a de minimis education, that is clearly not appropriate and therefore violates the law. The challenge has been in that huge grey area in between. Some have said the the child is not entitled to a Cadillac type of education, but only a Chevrolet. I like to add that the Chevrolet must have 4 wheels and be in sound operating condition.

Fortunately, earlier this year, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court offered updated clarification on this issue and rejected the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals definition of appropriate. The 10th Circuit had ruled that public school merely needed to provide, “merely more than de minimis” education to children with disabilities, but in the case known as Endrew F., the Supreme Court stated that,

a school must offer an IEP [individualized education program] that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

While this case, especially in light of its unanimous nature in an often divided Supreme Court, is very important, earlier this week, something even more important happened when the U.S. Department of Education issued a Q&A on the Endrew F. decision. This Q&A is very important because:

  • Many advocates feared that Secretary DeVos would eviscerate enforcement of the special education law known as the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act);
  • Public reaction was strong and many were troubled with the U.S. Department of Education rescinded 72 pieces of policy guidance in October; and
  • Most important, as set forth below, the Q&A fully supports both the substance and rationale of the Endrew F. decision and thus the U.S. Dept. of Education appears prepared to enforce the IDEA according to this landmark decision.

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Due to the importance of both the Endrew F. decision and the administration’s interpretation of it, everyone involved in the education of children with disabilities should be aware of the following key points emphasized by the Q&A:

  • Public schools must offer an IEP that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” to all students with disabilities, including those performing at grade level and those unable to perform at grade level.
  • “[A] student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all…The IDEA demands more.”
  • Each child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances, and every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
  • In determining whether an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, the IEP Team should consider the child’s previous rate of academic growth, whether the child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency, and any behaviors interfering with the child’s progress.
  • The IEP Team, which must include the child’s parents, must give “careful consideration to the child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.”
  • The IEP must include annual goals that aim to improve educational results and functional performance for each child with a disability. This inherently includes a meaningful opportunity for the child to meet challenging objectives.
  • Annual IEP goals for children with the most significant cognitive disabilities should be appropriately ambitious and “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The Q&A concludes by stating that,

IEP Teams must implement policies, procedures, and practices relating to: (1) identifying present levels of academic achievement and functional performance; (2) the setting of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals; and; (3) how a child’s progress toward meeting annual goals will be measured and reported, so that the Endrew F. standard is met for each individual child with a disability.

In sum, with both a typically divided Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Education which advocates feared would take special education backwards, making strong statements in favor of a meaningful definition of appropriate education, parents and advocates now have important tools to insist that children with disabilities receive the kind of education that will allow them to make meaningful progress every year.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Vague Goals Produce Vague Results

Three years ago, I wrote with concern that the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) Behavior Education Plan (BEP), while laudable in its purpose to reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve in school behavior, would be challenged to make genuine progress without specific goals. While I would be glad to admit that my prediction was wrong, the recently released Quarter 1 Review of the BEP confirms my fears.

school to prison pipeline

To be clear, due to some criticism of the BEP, including my own concern that it had vague goals, and insufficient staff training and support, a new implementation plan was adopted along with the following goals:

1) to promote and increase positive student behavior and social emotional growth, 2) to reduce use of out-of-school suspension and 3) to decrease disproportionate use of out-of-school suspension practices for African American students and students with disabilities.

Yet, these laudable goals are not specific, i.e., how much should positive student behavior and social emotional growth increase, how much should out-of-school suspensions decrease, and how much should disproportionate use of out-of-school suspensions for African American students and students with disabilities decrease? Moreover, if even these vague goals are not achieved, who should be held accountable for the failure to achieve these goals, and in what manner?

Remarkably, three years after the BEP was passed by the school board, without explanation or justification, the report concedes that:

A small number of schools, however, are working on establishing stable response systems, and achieving a basic level of positive student behavior and support for social emotional growth. These schools experienced, in first quarter, a disproportionate increase in level 2-5 behavior due in part to a lack of robust systems to support positive student behavior.

To be sure, there is good news in the report. For example:

  • Compared to first quarter of 2016-2017, the out-of-school suspension risk ratio for African American students in middle school has decreased significantly from 20:1 to 8:1.
  • The district-wide out-of-school suspension risk ratio for African American students and students with disabilities in Quarter 1 of this year is the lowest (10:1 for African American students and 6:1 for students with disabilities) it has ever been when comparing data from the past three first quarters of school.

However, these improvements are in stark contrast with the following bad news:

  • an overall increase in behavior events by 18% this year compared to 2016- 2017;
  • Elementary schools account for 61% of all level 2-5 incidents in Quarter 1 this year. Three of those schools had 28% of all elementary level 2-5 incidents;
  • Out-of-school suspension rates overall have increased by 15%, as compared to first quarter last year; despite reduced risk ratios, the increase is driven largely by middle school (24% increase) with students of all ethnicities accounting for some portion of the increase;
  • At the high school level, out-of-school suspensions and level 2-5 incidents are slightly up this year compared to last year, and the increase mostly impacts African American students; and
  • Most schools are below the expected baseline of implementation in the intervention category and have strategies “off track” to address the need.

Remarkably, the report’s Next Steps contain absolutely no focus on problem schools, specific goals to achieve or accountability for failure to achieve the many goals that remain out of reach.

What remains unexplained is how the behavior incidents dropped from 17,015 involving 3,841 students in the 2015-16 school year to 14,929 incidents involving 3,344 students, but then rose to exceed the already high 2015-16 numbers to 17,678 incidents involving 4,112 students. Without evidence, the report attributes this over 16% jump to, “more cohesive and comprehensive school implementation of practices foundational to behavior education.” Yet, such a statement is clearly counter-intuitive since the primary goal of the BEP is reduce behavior incidents, a dramatic rise in behavior incidents the 3rd year of implementation simply cannot be the result of better implementation that is counter to the goal.

Regarding the disproportionality goal, the report states that:

Disproportionality, particularly for our African American students, students with disabilities, and male students persists. With a disproportionality increase of 2%, in behavior incidents for African American students supporting schools, particularly addressing the implementation area that focuses on decision making. While we have not yet moved the needle for our African American students, we have experienced a 2% decrease in disproportionality for male students and 7% decrease for students with disabilities.

Since it is well documented that the school to prison pipeline is fueled by out of school suspensions and expulsions, one must wonder why MMSD has failed to reduce out of school suspensions. Yet, the report reveals that:

Out-of-school suspension rates overall have increased by 15%, as compared to first quarter last year, an increase (24%) driven largely by middle schools.

Worse than that and perhaps revealing the complete failure of accountability in implementing the BEP, the report honestly concedes that:

this data is not surprising. A key reflection, following the evaluation, was that continuing to do more of the same will not move the needle.

While the report praises the fact that out of school suspension disproportionality for African American students has decreased, such a decrease hardly matters when the overall suspension rate continues to rise.

The report fails to comment on the deeply troubling data that out of school suspension disproportionately for students with disabilities increased significantly. While 15% of MMSD’s students have disabilities, 55% of out of school suspensions involve students with disabilities, up from 50% in the prior 2 years. Sadly, the report fails to mention a single recommendation about how to improve supports for special education staff and students to mitigate this problem.

To its credit, the report is candid about the many ways in which the school district is off track in implementing the BEP. What it does not explain is why such failure is allowed to persist. Towards the end of the report, all schools are listed by where they are in implementing the BEP divided by 3 phases. This shows that elementary schools are making vastly more progress in implementing the BEP with a majority of those schools already at phase 3. But, without explanation, this chart also shows that no middle schools are at phase 3 and only half are at phase 2 of implementation, and even  worse, no high schools are in phase 3 and only 1 (Memorial) is at phase 2.

As I have said since I praised the adoption of the BEP, the plan is a good one, the failures then as now continue to be that it has:

  • vague goals;
  • lack of accountability; and
  • insufficient staff training and support.

Until the MMSD school board addresses these problems, we can expect to see a continuation of mixed results from an otherwise laudable plan, which is a wasted opportunity to improve the lives of our students and keep them out of the school to prison pipeline.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact  him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.