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  • Public reaction was strong and many were troubled with the U.S. Department of Education rescinded 72 pieces of policy guidance in October; and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.

USDOE

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.

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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.

 

Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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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.

US Education System Earns a C

Education Week is a non-partisan publication which produces an annual national and state by state report card on the health of our education system. Sadly, the 2017 report released today does not bring good news. Overall, for the third year in a row, the report gives the American education system a C grade, certainly nothing to brag about. Thirty-four states including my home state of Wisconsin, which earned merely a C+, fell into the C- through C+ grade range.

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To  come up with that score, the report uses a multifaceted analysis, with 3 broad categories: K-12 Achievement; Chance for Success and School  Finance.

Chance for Success considers many critical factors in the lives of our children which help determine the probability that they will have a successful educational experience, including:

  • Family income
  • Parent education
  • Parent employment
  • English fluency
  • Preschool enrollment
  • Kindergarten enrollment
  • Elementary reading achievement
  • High school graduation rate
  • Young adult education
  • Adult education attainment
  • Annual income
  • Steady employment

School Finance also uses a multifaceted analysis including both equity and spending.

Wisconsin’s score breaks down as follows with its lowest score (D+) being in spending which raises serious questions as to how it will improve in the coming years:

Chance for Success: B (83.0)
*Early foundations: A- (90.3)
*School years: B- (79.9)
*Adult outcomes: B- (79.7)
K-12 Achievement: C (74.6)
*Status: C+ (76.7)
*Change: C- (69.9)
*Equity: C+ (79.2)
School Finance: C+ (79.1)
*Equity: B+ (89.2)
*Spending: D+ (69.0)

Unfortunately, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) means that each state gets to choose its path towards improvement. Given the stagnant lack of significant improvement over many years, skeptics have every reason  to be concerned that any significant progress will be made in the foreseeable future. As the Report Overview states:

The question that loomed over the celebrations hailing ESSA’s passage in December 2015 remains: What will more state control mean for historically overlooked groups of students?
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, recalled that when ESSA became law, an influential civil rights leader in his state tweeted that he’d lived through states’ rights and it hadn’t worked out very well, a reference to segregation.
“I took that to heart, I took it as a personal obligation” to make equity for all groups a central tenet of Wisconsin’s plan, Evers said.
Civil rights advocates are heartened by such sentiments, but caution that states have a lot of decisions left to make.
“We’re still kind of in the thick of it,” said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates in support of poor and minority students. “There’s a lot of conversation going on right now, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can definitively say here’s where that conversation is leading us, for good, bad, or other.”

Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers is running for re-election in April and faces 2 opponents, John Humphries and Lowell Holtz, so there will be a primary in February. Parents, advocates and voters who care about Wisconsin’s education  system should ask all 3 candidates how they intend to improve Wisconsin’s education system given these long standing mediocre results.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin State Superintendent has no power over the state’s spending on education and does not write the laws that govern our education system, so parents, educators and advocates will need to pressure the Governor and state legislature to demand more funding and less diversion to private school voucher programs and charter schools which have failed to improve Wisconsin’s educational outcomes.

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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.

Seclusion & Restraint Surges in Madison

In response to an Open Records request, I recently received the 2015-16 school year seclusion and restraint use data from the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). As MMSD has not published this data on its website, contact me at through my website if you want a copy of the data.

The use of these dangerous, aversive techniques rose significantly from the previous year, which had increased from the year before that as the numbers below reveal. Even more troubling is the wide variation of use of seclusion and restraint between schools and particularly high use in elementary and alternative schools, as well as among children with disabilities.

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U.S. Senator Tom Harking introduced the “Keeping All Students Safe Act” in 2014

MMSD 2015-16 Seclusion & Restraint Data highlights

Numbers of Students Impacted

  • Elementary School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 7.09
  • Elementary School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 5.23
  • Elementary School with Highest Use: Orchard Ridge: 16 students with disabilities/33 students without disabilities (lowest numbers were redacted by school district to protect confidentiality)
  • Middle School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 5.62
  • Middle School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 3.46
  • Middle School with Highest Use: Whitehorse: 7 students with disabilities/ 0 students without disabilities
  • Middle School with Lowest Use: O’Keefe had 0 incidents of seclusion or restraint
  • High School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 3
  • High School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 1.6
  • High School with Highest Use: East: 18 students with Disabilities/ 19 students without disabilities.
  • High School with Lowest Use: Shabazz had 0 incidents of seclusion or restraint

Numbers of Incidents

  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 56.29
  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 74.6
  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Seclusion  and Restraint Used in combination: 36.6
  • Elementary Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 94.29
  • Elementary School with Highest Use: LEAP (Olson Elementary Alternative Program): 435 total incidents (note as number of students was redacted, this means that 5 or fewer students were secluded and/or restrained a total of 435 times)
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Restraint Only: 12.38
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Only: 10.38
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Seclusion and Restraint Used in combination: 6.62
  • Middle School Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 16.15
  • Middle School with Highest Use: Sennett: 27 total incidents (note as number of students was redacted, this means that 5 or fewer students were secluded and/or restrained a total of 27 times)
  • High School Mean Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 7.33
  • High School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 5.17
  • High School Mean Incidents of Seclusion and Restraint Used in combination: 3.5
  • High School Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 9
  • High School with Highest Use: East: 49 total incidents

Districtwide Totals

  • Students with Disabilities Secluded and/or Restrained: 324
  • Students without Disabilities Secluded and/or Restrained: 231
  • Total Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 2,136
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 2,749
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion & Restraint in Combination: 1,369
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion and/or Restraint Use: 3,516

MMSD Analysis

  • 2% of MMSD students experienced seclusion and/or restraint
  • 5.6% of MMSD students with disabilities experienced seclusion and/or restraint
  • Seclusion and restraint use is highest in elementary schools (16.49%)
  • Mean incidents of restraint use in elementary schools was 56.3/building with a range per building of 1 to 436
  • Mean incidents of seclusion use in elementary schools was 74.6/building with a range of 0 to 309
  • There has been a steady increase in use of seclusion in restraint since data was collected for the first time in 2013-14 as follows:
    • 2013-14: 975 incidents of restraint and 1,387 incidents of seclusion
    • 2014-15: 1,266 incidents of restraint and 1,688 incidents of seclusion
    • 2015-16: 1,452 incidents of restraint and 2.064 incidents of seclusion
  • A small number of elementary schools account for the vast number of incidents with 23 elementary schools reported increased use and only 12 elementary schools reporting a decline.
  • MMSD hypothesizes that the increased use is simply due to better data collection
  • MMSD concedes that, “for those elementary schools that have consistently demonstrated increases in the number of incidents of restraint and seclusion, a pattern of over-reliance on restraint/seclusion may be evident.” MMSD plans training and follow up for these schools.

Conclusions

When I helped to pass Act 125 in 2012 to document and regulate the use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin schools, one of the chief goals was to reduce the use of these aversive techniques. Sadly, MMSD has gone in the opposite direction, and has failed to:

  1. hold principals of schools with continually increasing rates accountable for these increases;
  2. correlate the increased use of seclusion and restraint with a decreased use of suspension; and
  3. establish clear goals for the reduction and eventual elimination of the use of seclusion and restraint in MMSD schools.

Simply blaming the increasing numbers on better documentation is insufficient in the face of an ever increasing use of dangerously aversive techniques that are well known to traumatize children. In order to reverse this troubling trend, MMSD must insist on better training in the use of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and accountability for its staff and administrators who fail to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of seclusion and restraint.

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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.

 

School to Prison Pipeline Close to Home

Recently, the Madison school board voted to modify the contract it has with the City of Madison through which it pays for 4 full time police officers (one stationed in each high school). Unfortunately, rather than taking this vote as an opportunity for a serious conversation about the role of police in our schools, Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin threatened to remove the police from the high schools if an agreement is not reached within 45 days, though to date, he has been unwilling to engage in serious negotiations on the issue.

school to prison pipeline

Courtesy: Atlanta Black Star

While it is unclear how these negotiations will conclude, both the City and the school board would be wise to examine the available data on juvenile arrest rates to determine whether they are feeding the school to prison pipeline. I recently obtained a copy of a Dane County report with very useful data, Juvenile Population, Arrest, Law Enforcement Referral, and Recidivism in Dane County, 2007‐ 2015There is some good news. Despite an increase in the juvenile population in Dane County from about 45,000 in 2001, to just under 48,000 in 2014, the number of juvenile arrests have fallen from about 8,000 in 2001, to around 3,000 in 2015. While that is a dramatic decline, it is, nevertheless stunning to see the high percentage of juveniles arrested in Dane County. It should be noted, however, that the number of arrests of white juveniles was about the same as that of black juveniles in 2015, but due to the much smaller black population in Dane County, the arrest rate of black juveniles is 3.5 times higher than that of white juveniles.

However, arrests just start the juvenile justice process. The next step is a referral for prosecution. Referrals for prosecution also highlight a huge racial disparity. In 2015, 483 black juveniles were referred for prosecution compared to only 299 white juveniles. Overall, the juvenile referral rate has risen dramatically from 2007-2015 as follows:

  • Total juvenile arrest referral rate increase=37.7%
  • White juvenile arrest referral rate increase=41.1%
  • Black juvenile arrest referral rate increase=26.7%

The arrest referral disparity between white and black juveniles in 2015 is almost 2:1.

The most relevant data to the current debate about police in our schools is that the most common location for juvenile arrest is in school. In 2015, 22.3% of all juvenile justice referrals were from arrests that took place at school. The percentage of school arrests by race were split evenly among white, black and Hispanic juveniles at around 22% (no explanation is given for the other 34%). In 2015, 81 of the 188 Dane County school law enforcement referrals took place in MMSD schools, 67 of which were at MMSD high schools. It is worth noting that the single highest juvenile law enforcement referral has been the very generic disorderly conduct.

When juveniles enter the justice system they are assigned a social worker who makes a recommendation  to the district attorney regarding formal charges. It is worth noting that the DA has consistently charged juveniles at a higher rate than the social worker recommendation. In 2015, social workers recommended charged in 46% of cases, while prosecutors charged 56% of such cases. The racial disparities are stark. In 2015, prosecutors charged:

  • 62% of black juvenile arrestees;
  • 53% of Hispanic juvenile arrestees; and
  • 43% of white juvenile arrestees.

As the City of Madison and the Madison Metropolitan School District negotiate the future role of police officers in our schools, examining this data, with eye towards elimination of the school to prison pipeline and elimination of racial disparities in juvenile arrests should be a critical piece of the conversation.

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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.

 

 

 

Feds Support Positive Behavioral Supports, not Suspensions

On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Dept. of Education (USDOE), Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) issued an important 16 page guidance letter informing schools that they must do more to provide positive behavioral supports to children with disabilities, instead of suspending them. The letter decries the fact that in the 2013-14 school year, nationwide 10% of all children with disabilities were suspended for 10 days or less, and that rate rises to 19% for children of color with disabilities. The guidance focuses on short term suspensions because the law gives school districts far more flexibility with suspensions of 10 days or less.

USDOE

The guidance letter makes clear that,

Research shows that school-wide, small group, and individual behavioral supports that use proactive and preventative approaches, address the underlying cause of behavior, and reinforce positive behaviors are associated with increases in academic engagement, academic achievement, and fewer suspensions and dropouts.

Moreover,

Research shows that implementing evidence-based, multi-tiered behavioral frameworks can help improve overall school climate, school safety, and academic achievement for all children, including children with disabilities.

Since children who are eligible for special education are legally entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), OSERS makes clear that,

when a child with a disability experiences behavioral challenges, including those that result in suspensions or other exclusionary disciplinary measures, appropriate behavioral supports may be necessary to ensure that the child receives FAPE.

Therefore,

In the same way that an IEP Team would consider a child’s language and communication needs, and include appropriate assistive technology devices or services in the child’s IEP to ensure that the child receives a meaningful educational benefit, so too must the IEP Team consider and, when determined necessary for ensuring FAPE, include or revise behavioral supports in the IEP of a child with a disability exhibiting behavior that impedes his or her learning or that of others.

Of course,

IEPs should contain behavioral supports supported by evidence—IDEA specifically requires that both special education and related services and supplementary aids and services be based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable. As a matter of best practice, we strongly encourage schools to consider how the implementation of behavioral supports within the IEP could be facilitated through a school-wide, multi-tiered behavioral framework.

In many cases, it is not simply a matter of changing disciplinary practice. As OSERS states,

Appropriate supplementary aids and services could include those behavioral supports necessary to enable a child with a disability to be educated in regular classes or the setting determined to be the child’s appropriate placement. Such behavioral supports might include meetings with a behavioral coach, social skills instruction, counselor, or other approaches. In general, placement teams may not place a child with a disability in special classes, separate schooling, or other restrictive settings outside of the regular educational environment solely due to the child’s behavior when behavioral supports through the provision of supplementary aids and services could be provided for that child that would be effective in addressing his or her behavior in the regular education setting.

Program modifications and support for personnel may also be necessary to assure that children with disabilities are receiving the FAPE to which they are entitled.

School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child.

Fortunately, the federal guidance also includes resources, such for classroom strategies, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports Implementation and Self-Assessmentand a School Discipline Guidance Package.

The guidance identifies seven specific ways which may indicate that there has been either a procedural or substantive failure in the development, review or revision of a child’s IEP, including:

  • The IEP Team did not consider the inclusion of positive behavioral interventions and supports in response to behavior that impeded the child’s learning or that of others;
  • School officials failed to schedule an IEP Team meeting to review the IEP to address behavioral concerns after a reasonable parental request;
  • The IEP Team failed to discuss the parent’s concerns about the child’s behavior, and its effects on the child’s learning, during an IEP Team meeting;
  • There are no behavioral supports in the child’s IEP, even when the IEP Team determines they are necessary for the child;
  • The behavioral supports in the IEP are inappropriate for the child (e.g., the frequency, scope or duration of the behavioral supports is insufficient to prevent behaviors that impede the learning of the child or others; or consistent application of the child’s behavioral supports has not accomplished positive changes in behavior, but instead has resulted in behavior that continues to impede, or further impedes, learning for the child or others);
  • The behavioral supports in the child’s IEP are appropriate, but are not being implemented or not being properly implemented (e.g., teachers are not trained in classroom management responses or de-escalation techniques or those techniques are not being consistently implemented); or
  • School personnel have implemented behavioral supports not included in the IEP that are not appropriate for the child.

A child’s IEP may not be reasonably calculated to provide a meaningful educational benefit if:

  • The child is displaying a pattern of behaviors that impede his or her learning or that of others and is not receiving any behavioral supports;
  • The child experiences a series of disciplinary removals from the current placement of 10 days or fewer (which do not constitute a disciplinary change in placement) for separate incidents of misconduct that impede the child’s learning or that of others, and the need for behavioral supports is not considered or addressed by the IEP Team; or
  • The child experiences a lack of expected progress toward the annual goals that is related to his or her disciplinary removals or the lack of behavioral supports, and the child’s IEP is neither reviewed nor revised.

To avoid confusion, the federal guidance also makes clear that disciplinary removals are not limited to formal suspensions. They also include:

  • A pattern of office referrals, extended time excluded from instruction (e.g., time out), or extended restrictions in privileges;
  • Repeatedly sending children out of school on “administrative leave” or a “day off” or other method of sending the child home from school;
  • Repeatedly sending children out of school with a condition for return, such as a risk assessment or psychological evaluation; or
  • Regularly requiring children to leave the school early and miss instructional time (e.g., via shortened school days).

Inappropriate discipline without behavioral supports can impact the child’s right to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) appropriate for the child, as the guidance points out.

Circumstances that may indicate that the child’s placement in the LRE may not be appropriate include, but are not limited to, a scenario in which a continuum of placements that provides behavioral supports is not made available (e.g., behavioral supports not provided in the regular educational setting), and, as a result, the IEP inappropriately calls for the child to be placed in special classes, separate schooling, or another restrictive placement outside the regular educational environment (e.g., home instruction, home tutoring program, or online learning program).

While harsh disciplinarians may not be pleased with the federal guidance, parents of children with disabilities should be thrilled that the federal government has issued detailed guidance which is designed to ensure that children with disabilities stay in school and receive an appropriate education instead of receiving discipline funneling them into the school to prison pipeline. As an attorney who has represented children with disabilities and their parents in school discipline matters for well over 20 years, this guidance is a welcome tool to correct inappropriately harsh discipline meted out by zero-tolerance educators.

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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.

Inclusion in the Family

We all have telephone calls we receive that we never forget. Two calls which I will never forget came from my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Jeff and Miriam. The first call informed us that their 4th child, Arielle, was born, which was wonderful. However, they reported that Arielle had a stroke in utero which resulted in cerebral palsy.

Much to the credit of Jeff and Miriam, they were determined that Arielle would get the medical and therapeutic care that she needed, as well as a high quality education. Her 3 older siblings, were very supportive, and the family included Arielle in all their travels and adventures. Although the cerebral palsy weakened Arielle’s right side, she persevered and participated in all the physical activities at school and in the neighborhood park, as well as the many hikes her family enjoyed.

Her mother, Miriam, is a Rabbi, and her father, Jeff, is a Jewish educator. They made sure that she got a high quality Jewish education, including learning the Hebrew language and prayers, and most important of all, Jewish values.

When Arielle was growing, she often needed to use a brace to support her left lower leg. This made her disability visible to others, including some neighbors, who created the reason for the second call that I remember so clearly. Apparently, a neighbor did not think it was appropriate for Arielle to ride a bicycle like all the other children her age, so she called the police. The police, in turn, contacted child protective services (CPS), who contacted Jeff and Miriam, to investigate. Jeff and Miriam called me for legal advice and I supported them in being completely honest with the county social worker to inform them that they wanted Arielle to have all the joys of childhood and that she was perfectly capable of riding her bicycle regardless of the misperceptions of their neighbor. Fortunately, CPS closed the case without further action.

Two years ago, Arielle and her parents moved from Massachusetts, where she had lived her entire life, to Greensboro, North Carolina, which was a challenging change for Arielle. In addition to a significant cultural change, it required her to make new friends and navigate around a brand new school. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were pleased to travel to Greensboro to watch Arielle receive her diploma with a variety of academic honors, from Grimsley High School.

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Arielle in cap & gown with her parents Jeff & Miriam, and sister Leora, who recently graduated from Washington University.

The graduation took place in the evening. After the graduation, the school held an overnight alcohol-free party for the graduates. Arielle does not drive yet, so her mother took her to the party which started at 11 PM. Her parents assured her that they would keep their cell phones on overnight by their pillows in case she wanted to come home early.

My wife and I were staying in a guest house across the street from Jeff, Miriam and Arielle’s home. I am an early riser and shortly after I wake up, I meditate. While meditating, I relax my eyes and while they are often closed, occasionally they open. The morning after Arielle’s graduation, while meditating, I opened my eyes to see Arielle walking up to her house at around 6:15 AM, after being dropped off by a friend. That is a beautiful inclusive vision that I will never forget.

Arielle has been admitted to the University of Hartford, but she is contemplating taking a gap year before starting college. I am confident that whatever she decides, she will continue as she has done thought her life, to move through life with joy and confidence that she can and will be included in whatever she chooses to do.

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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.

Close the Achievement Gap: Increase Intensive Support

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education reviews the budget which its administration has prepared for the coming year, it would be wise to take a close look at its continuing problem with the ongoing racial, disability and poverty achievement gap and focus on how appropriate staffing can help to close that gap. While some improvements have been made, persistent gaps remain.

Students simply will not succeed if they are not in school. During the 2014-15 school year 2,477 MMSD students were habitually truant (meaning 5 or more days of unexcused absence from school) representing 9.8% of all MMSD students. But 1,235 of those students (nearly half) were African-American, representing 26.9% of all MMSD African-American students.

During that same year, MMSD suspended 1,713 students. But, 1,069 of them were African-American representing well over half of those suspended students. 402 of MMSD suspended students had disabilities, representing 10.9% of all MMSD students with disabilities, nearly half of all MMSD suspended students. While the data does not reveal how many African-American students with disabilities were suspended, when one adds the African-American suspended students and the suspended students with disabilities, that number almost equals all MMSD suspended students so it is safe to assume that African-American students with disabilities have the highest rate of suspension in the district.

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That MMSD’s discipline data reveals troubling racial and disability disparities is consistent with national data. But that should come as no solace to anyone, as nobody should admire the data. Instead, we need to apply solutions that we know will work to solve the problem.

While MMSD’s Behavior Education Plan has succeeded in significantly reducing the total number of suspensions, it also reveals another glaring gap for children in poverty. While 48% of MMSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a shocking 89% of MMSD suspensions were doled out to low-income students.

Finally, graduation rates also reveal a troubling achievement gap. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, 80.1% of MMSD seniors graduated in 4 years. But only 57.8% of African-American students; 56.8% of students with disabilities; and 62.1% of low-income students graduate in 4 years.

Fortunately, MMSD has a program designed to address the needs of its students with the most intensive needs. The Intensive Support Team (IST) takes requests from MMSD staff to address the needs of students in crisis. As of May 2, 2016, during this school year, there were 455 requests for support to IST. Of these, 411 were served by the team in one of several capacities (consultation, intake/assessment, professional development, short term stabilization), 250 were closed and the rest still active. This means that nearly 10% of referrals were not served and over 1/2 of all referrals are still receiving intensive supports.

Unfortunately, staff cuts were made to this team last year and the administration’s proposed budget does not propose to fill those cuts. The good news is that the budget is still in the discussion stage. School board member Anna Moffit has proposed to increase the IST staff by 3.5 FTE staff to address the unmet need for these students at a cost of approximately $250,000. In an era of tight budgets and state imposed revenue caps, Ms. Moffit recognizes that the money must come from somewhere so she has identified the following reasonable places where this money can be found: reduce spending on Technology Plan; reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers; or utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

The school board and our community must recognize that failing to meet the needs of these students has a significant cost both to these students and to society at large. A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights project from which I extrapolated the high cost of suspensions in Wisconsin, reveals that each suspended student who fails to graduate results in:

  • $19,572 in fiscal costs; and
  • $60,962 in societal costs.

Thus, if the IST is able to help only 5 more students at risk of suspension to graduate, it will have saved our community far more money than the additional cost which Ms. Moffit proposes spending on this worthy program. Thus, her proposal makes senses for educational, equitable, social and economic reasons and should therefore receive the support of the full school board.

Residents of MMSD who support Ms. Moffit’s proposal should e-mail the school board to encourage them to approve her amendment at: board@madison.k12.wi.us.

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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.

 

The High Cost of School Suspensions

While many school officials choose to suspend students who misbehave either to teach them a lesson or simply to remove a child who may have caused a disruption in school, they need to understand the long term consequences to both the suspended child and to society as a whole which result from these suspensions.

Today, the UCLA Civil Rights Project released an in-depth report on, The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and its Disparate Impact which takes a comprehensive look at the impact of school suspensions on children and society.

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This study demonstrates markedly lower graduation rates for students who are suspended even one time. Nationally, the graduation rate drops by 12 percentage points for suspended students!

The report then goes on to calculate the fiscal and social costs of suspensions which lead to high school drop outs.

The consequences are expressed as the lifetime differences between dropouts and graduates in: incomes; taxes paid; government spending on health, crime, and welfare; tax distortions; and productivity gains. Although the fiscal and social costs are related, the social costs include the aggregate losses incurred by dropouts personally such as their lower income, diminished productivity, and higher expenditures on health care due to poorer health. The fiscal costs are a subset of the social costs and cover only the losses experienced by federal, state and local governments due to lower income tax revenues and higher government expenditures on health and social services, and on the criminal justice system.

The report estimates that the national average economic loss per high school non-graduate due to suspension is:

  • fiscal costs to taxpayers: $163,340/suspended non-graduating student
  • social costs to society: $527, 695/suspended non-graduating student

When one multiplies all suspended non-graduates by these economic losses, the national economic impact is tremendous:

  • overall national fiscal cost to taxpayer: $11 billion due to suspended non-graduates
  • overall national social cost to society: $35.7 billion due to suspended non-graduates

On an optimistic note, the report then estimates the nationwide economic benefits achieved by reducing suspensions. For each percentage point of reduction, our nation would save:

  • $691 million saved in fiscal costs/1% reduction in suspension rate
  • $2.2 billion saved in social costs/1% reduction in suspension rates.

The report examines 2 states, Florida and California, but it encourages educators and policymakers to apply this impact to every other state. Thus, in examining Wisconsin’s suspension rate, while the suspension rate has been going down, in 2014-15, Wisconsin school districts nevertheless suspended 31,167 students, or 3.6% of all enrolled students. Using the report’s data, and applying the national average 12% increase in drop-out rate for suspended students, this means that the total economic impact for Wisconsin suspended non-graduates is estimated to be:

  • $610 million fiscal cost to Wisconsin taxpayers due to suspended non-graduates
  • $1.9 billion social cost to Wisconsin society due to suspended non-graduates

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provides suspension data by school district, race/ethnicity, gender and disability. For example, in the Madison area, the Beloit School District has the highest rate of suspension at 10.1% (nearly 3 times the state average). Racial disparities exist throughout the state. Statewide, Wisconsin school districts suspended 15.1% African-American students in 2014-15, nearly 5 times the state average. Beloit once again has troubling racial disparities, having suspended 21.8% of its African-American students that year.

Disparities are also troubling for students with disabilities. Statewide 9.5% of students with disabilities were suspended statewide (nearly 3 times the statewide average). Once again, Beloit exhibits disturbing disparities, having suspended 22.9% of its students with disabilities that year.

Thus, the economic impact on the most disadvantaged groups of students is many times higher than for white non-disabled students.

The report concludes with 3 major recommendations:

  1. When federal and state governments create and implement evaluation and oversight plans for schools and districts they should include suspension rates among the indicators they use to determine whether schools are high performing or in need of assistance.
  2. Use the suspension data as part of an early warning system for schools and districts. Thus, as more districts with high suspension rates explore alternatives, we will need data to help them distinguish between effective and ineffective interventions and policy changes.
  3. State and federal policymakers should provide schools and districts with incentives to improve their school climate, such as grants for substantial teacher and administrator trainings, and resources targeted at improving the collection and use of discipline data at the school level.

These are all excellent ideas, and local school districts need not wait for state and federal policymakers to implement local changes to reduce suspensions, thereby increasing graduation rates, and reducing fiscal and social costs to all of us. This report demonstrates that the investments are well worth the money and effort.

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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.