Stop Paternalizing Children with Disabilities

In the many years I have advocated for children with disabilities, I have frequently encountered those who purport to care so deeply for children with disabilities (rarely their own) that they support methods of care and support and even legislation that purports to protect these children, but when analyzed more closely, does a great disservice to these children by preventing them to live as fully and independently as possible.

My advocacy has included combatting paternalistic policies and practices including segregating children with disabilities in separate schools, which prevents them from making friends with non-disabled children who will help them with sustaining networks in their adult lives.  Even worse, is institutionalizing children with disabilities under the guise of protecting them, but ultimately ruining their chances to live free and independent lives.

It has recently come to my attention that under the guise of helping students with disabilities, Louisiana’s legislature is proposing 2 bills that would undermine those children’s access to a quality education.

House Bill No. 993 contains the following highly damaging provisions:

  1. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities must meet state and local performance standards in order to graduate high school;
  2. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities must pursue the same “rigorous curriculum required for his chosen major by his school as approved by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education,” as all other students.
  3. Waives all state and local graduation requirements for students with disabilities.
  4. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities (along with all other students) must read at the “approaching basic” level on either the English/Language Arts or mathematics component of the 8th grade state assessment, as well as the other objective criteria established by the local school district, in order to be promoted from 8th grade to 9th grade.
  5. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities (along with all other students) who score at the unsatisfactory level on the state assessment, must complete a summer remediation program in that subject area in order to complete a high school major in that subject area.
  6. Provides that all pupil grade progressions for students with disabilities shall be determined by the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team.
  7. Provides that if a pupil with disabilities meets her IEP goals, she can receive a high school diploma.

House Bill No. 1015 goes even further down the road of degrading the education of children with disabilities in the name of protecting them.  It would:

  1. Exclude children with disabilities from the same grade promotion standards as all other children and simply allow their IEP team to determine whether to promote the child to the next grade.
  2. Excludes all state and local assessment scores from children with disabilities from the state’s accountability system.

While some may believe that these provisions serve to protect children with disabilities, my experience has demonstrated otherwise.  If these bills pass, Louisiana will be able to graduate its children with disabilities after 12th grade, even though federal special education law clearly allows students with disabilities who need up to 3 more years of education to receive those critical additional years of education.

Furthermore, these bills will make it impossible for parents of children with disabilities to determine how well their school districts are educating their children.  Parents and advocates of children with disabilities fought long and hard for the federal law provision that requires schools to educate children with disabilities in the general curriculum.  These bills take Louisiana down the road of a separate and unequal education for children with disabilities.  This is particularly troubling because the vast majority of children with disabilities are of average or greater intelligence.  Why take those students out of the the accountability system unless Louisiana simply wants to wash its hands of its responsibility for them?

The National Center for Learning Disabilities published an excellent report about the low graduation rates of children with learning disabilities (who by definition have average or greater intelligence).  That report reveals that Louisiana has the 2nd worst graduation rate for such children in the nation (only Nevada is worse).

This graph shows how badly Louisiana’s students with disabilities are faring when it comes to graduating from high school.  As you can see it fares poorly in comparison to both national and other state data.  Indeed, currently more students with disabilities drop out of high school in Louisiana than graduate.

HS graduation rate graphIf these bills pass, Louisiana will look like it is graduating the most students with disabilities even though it is providing less education to them.  Parents and advocates of children with disabilities cannot allow this to happen. Indeed, my fear is that if it happens in Louisiana, your state could be next.  For that reason, national disability advocates should weigh in to oppose these problematic bills.


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.


Critical Thinkers: Good for the Economy

While new and allegedly better standardized tests and an increased focus on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is all the rage, if you ask businesses and economists whether standardized tests and more STEM classes will improve the economy, they will tell you that there is still something missing from our work force: Critical Thinkers.

An anecdote from my junior high school education illustrates this issue.  My science teacher gave us a paper airplane assignment.  The rules were simple.  We could only use one standard 8.5×11″ piece of paper.  We could not add anything (like a paperclip).  We could tear the paper, but we could not remove any paper.  We worked on our planes and the contest begun in the hall, the winner determined by the plane which flew the farthest down the hallway.  Many fancy folds were made. However, my friend Brian made the simplest and best design.

Brian simply crumpled the piece of paper into a ball.  Due to its density it easily flew the farthest and straightest.  The teacher was furious as she believed he was making a joke of her assignment, and disqualified him, scolding him in front of the whole class. The truth is that Brian engaged in critical thinking and should have been praised for his simple yet effective innovation.

“When more than 400 senior HR professionals were asked in a survey to name the most important skill their employees will need in the next five years, critical thinking ranked the highest – surpassing innovation or the application of information technology.”

Certainly no one is suggesting that students do not need to learn to read and write or that STEM based classes are not valuable.  But the heavy push towards evaluating schools and teachers based on standardized test results is the antithesis to critical thinking education.

Good decisions require focusing on the most relevant information, asking the right questions, and separating reliable facts from false assumptions – all elements of critical thinking. And yet too few employees possess these essential skills. A survey of HR professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and The Conference Board found that a full 70 percent of employees with a high school education were deficient in critical thinking skills. Even among employees with a four-year college education, 9 percent were deficient in critical thinking skills, 63 percent had adequate skills, and only 28 percent were rated excellent critical thinkers.

Sadly, since our educational system continues to get stuck in political rhetoric, one can even find political platform statements which fly in the face of economic progress, such as what the Republican Party of Texas wrote into its 2012 platform as part of the section on education:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

If politicians really want to promote education which improves our economy, they will increase emphasis on critical thinking and decrease emphasis on teaching  non-critical thinking test taking skills.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Educational Accountability–Doing it Right

When it comes to accountability for our children’s education the battle lines are drawn.  On one side are those who believe that annual point in time testing answers all the questions about how much students are learning, and accordingly, how well their schools are performing.  This movement was at its height with the passage of the almost universally reviled No Child Left Behind Act.  Though its harshest measures have been waived by the US Dept. of Education in a majority of states, those waivers continue to insist on using annual point in time testing to measure accountability, though thankfully, other measures, such as graduation rates, are now added to the mix.

On the other side are those who believe that standardized testing is a sham and should never be used to measure either student performance or consequently school performance.  Indeed, some are now calling for a moratorium on such testing.

As usual, both sides have their faults.  Those who favor standardized testing insist that if we do not have a standard way to measure student performance, then we will never really know how to compare students, schools and school districts in terms of how well their doing.  They have a point.  Without standardized testing, for example, we would not have the evidence that our nation’s largest private school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), performs no better than its public school counterpart (MPS), and arguably worse, since those same standardized tests finally required collection of disability data, demonstrating that MPCP schools discriminate against students with disabilities by barely serving any of them, leaving a disproportionate number of those harder to serve students in MPS. The disability discrimination complaint I filed with the ACLU against the MPCP on this issue is still pending with the US Dept. of Justice.

Those that oppose standardized testing rightly point out that many of the tests are flawed, some racially biased or not suited to English Language Learners (ELLs) or students with disabilities.  They also correctly point out that many aspects of a student’s education cannot be measured by a single test, the most obvious example being behavior.  In addition, they have a good point in saying that blaming an individual teacher for how their students perform on a single test makes no sense when one examines all the other factors that likely affect the students’ performance, such as health, poverty and parental engagement.

So, how do we solve this dilemma?

In the Jamie S. class action settlement, I believe we found the answer.  In that settlement, we required the following:

  • A court appointed Independent Expert approved a high quality reading and math curriculum.  After all, it is simply unfair to measure students’ performance and blame teachers if the students perform poorly, if the tools the teachers are given by the school district are not rigorous and appropriate.
  • Over an 8 year period, starting with elementary schools, and moving up to middle schools, then high schools, all children would be REGULARLY assessed for performance in reading, math and behavior.  The Independent Expert would help build and ultimately approve data systems to monitor these assessments.
  • Any MPS student falling falling behind in reading, math, and/or behavior would receive Early Intervening Services (EIS) to address the student’s problems. While this could include a special education evaluation, that would only happen if EIS failed to resolve the student’s problem and/or there was evidence of a disability.

After 4 years of implementation, this settlement was showing signs of turning MPS around.  Sadly, MPS appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and had the settlement thrown out when the court decertified the class.  After that unfortunate decision, both MPS and the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI) abandoned the settlement.  Ironically, no part of MPS’ legal challenge ever questioned the educational validity of this accountability system.  Thus, education advocates who really care about improving students’ education should push for adoption of an accountability plan on the Jamie S. settlement model without waiting for a class action to force school districts and states to do so.

For more information e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.