Monday, June 11, 2012

Jaye Bea Smalley: High Expectations And Special Education

New special education policies vs. failed special education policies by Jaye Bea Smalley

There are City Council hearings on the DOE’s new special education initiative tomorrow, Tuesday, June 12, starting at 1 PM at 250 Broadway. The DOE is intent on pushing through this initiative despite the fact that their own power point [see slide 13] shows no gain in attendance or achievement for students with disabilities who were moved into general education classrooms in Phase I of the initiative. Moreover, the DOE special education reference guide provided to principals tells them they must enroll any students suitable for inclusion in regular general education classrooms until the class size hits the contractual maximum of 25 in Kindergarten, 32 in grades 1-5, and 30 or 33 in middle school (depending on whether the school gets Title one funding.)  
This is the first time I have seen DOE openly mandating maximum class sizes in any grade since 1990, when the first state class size reduction program began; defying both state-mandated Contracts for Excellence goals and the supposed autonomy of principals to use available funding to reduce class size if they so choose.  Finally, the same document contains clear warning with a punitive tone to principals, unlike any I have seen before in a DOE directive:
If patterns of recommended programs suggest inappropriate recommendations that do not seem in the best interest of students, central teams will conduct a more intensive audit of student IEPs. For recommendations that are not in the best interest of students, regular progressive disciplinary measures for school leaders and IEP teams will apply.
In my mind, this has the potential for disaster; for both general education and special education students crammed into classes of up to 32 – with insufficient attention and support.  The below was written by Jaye Bea Smalley, an expert parent on this issue,who is head of the Citywide Council on Special Education.    -- Leonie Haimson
With an assault of school co location/closing hearings slated for most of the year and testing scandals making national headlines, the education advocacy community can focus attention on the reform.  With the recent funding changes and mounting concerns brewing at the school level, I don't see anyone winding down for summer break.  I serve on the Citywide Council on Special Education (CCSE) as the co-chair.  This is my second term since it was reconstituted under the reauthorization of mayoral control in 2009. We have been in dialogue with the DOE and multiple stakeholders regarding the phase one and the implementation of the special education reform for two years now.  I would like to provide my perspective on the special education reform.  
I became involved in my leadership role as a result of my personal experience: I am a parent of two children with disabilities; they have very different needs, one doing quite well with a program in the spirit of the reform.  That’s right, I said in the spirit, not embracing the reform.  I thought this would be a good time to give my perspective on the reform.  With all the stuff circulating, I feel there are some key points missing that are needed to fully contextualize it all.  
The reform isn't failing students with disabilities, well at least not yet, the current system is.  In NYS 8.4% of 8th grade students with disabilities were proficient in reading according to the 2011 ELA results.  Less than 1% were above proficient. 
It is important to consider that the majority of students are classified as learning disabled, followed by speech and language impaired.   
The data presented to date on the reform is irrelevant.  Phase one schools moved more students to a LRE [less restrictive environment] is meaningless without considering the progress of those students.  The graduation rates they show moving a hair are completely pathetic.  They should all be buried until they get within the same universe as any other group.  To complicate matters, one year of ELA/Math scores is not enough call to draw an association between the two.  Most of the people reading this are familiar with the problems of only giving schools three years to show progress.  
Has the DOE failed to inform the public on the results of the reform?  Yes. See the CCSE's questions and DOE responses.  They should identify best practices from schools which have been able to best utilize their resources to ensure the continuum of services is delivered to give SWDs more access to the general education curriculum and environment.  They should identify changes to budget allocations to better serve all students inclusively.  They should identify instructional strategies put in place for SWDs that become strategies for their general education peers.  All of these should be institutionalized so they are shared among parents, the public and educators. There are schools out there, but how are the practices being systemically shared?  
Articulating students who require services 20%-60% of the day are going to get double amount of funding following them.  How do we know what those dollars will be spent on and that that they will go directly toward resources to support them?  After all, the money is following the student right?  Veronica Conforme, the CEO for DOE told me that most successful schools did not use different resources, but used their existing resources differently.  Wait, hmmm is the money really following the student?  
Parents and community members have been frustrated by the lack of accountability at the network level for some time.  The answer is that they are a support department.  So what is a support department doing monitoring placements for LRE and deciding which principals have suspicious referral patterns?  That seems like regulation, not support.   Do networks have the authority to this monitoring?  LRE is an indicator IDEA monitored by the state at the district level as part of our IDEA state performance plan.  We have heard detailed plans for professional development (PD) of network staff but very little if any for comprehensive at the elbow PD in schools.  When you consider the direction for class size and capping this does not bring comfort to anyone.  
While I realize this may all be kosher from a contractual and legal standpoint, it is beyond the moral brink.  Class size is one of the most tried and true research based methods for ensuring educational progress.  Many parents are unaware that the state raised the level of SWDs that could be in a co-teaching class from 12 to 14 with mandate relief last year.  [LH note: the DOE is also mandating that SWDs be placed into general education classes with no limit to the number, until the total class size reaches the contractual limit of 32 in grades 1-5, and 30-33 in MS; see above.] The argument to the legislature was that it would only be for instances when general education students already in the class started to receive services, not to add additional SWDs.  I am curious to see how this plays out in articulating grades across the city.
Yes, it is all truly outrageous, unconscionable, and all the more reason to count down the days until we have a new Mayor.  Yes, there will be some children who are not served well due to these policies.  Yes, they have tons of litigation coming their way, and rightly so.  Having said all of this, I still see opportunity for our students with disabilities.  Something had to change.  In the words of independent living father, Ed Roberts, maximum danger equals maximum opportunity.  He believed when things get really bad and you are most vulnerable, you have the most significant opportunity for change.  Ending mayoral control would solve many problems but not the progress of students with disabilities.  The reform gives parents an opportunity to push for systems change.   
Before there was ever a reform, some people had successfully fought for our children to be educated in program and schools that did not traditionally welcome students with disabilities including myself and living legend Ellen McHugh. She will tell you, this is hard work.  In many instances children do need very specific programs.  However, many children with learning disabilities are placed in self-contained programs that lower expectations and ultimately put a Regents Diploma out of reach.  We should fight for the reform to be implemented properly; with full support for our students, teachers and schools and with transparency.  We should expect fidelity in the implementation; consistent communications and full parental engagement.  

Remember, program goals and services are still mandated.  Parents’ rights have not changed.  The one thing the DOE is saying that advocates and savvy parents have always said for years is to develop meaningful IEPs. Agree on the goals; without meaningful goals, you can't plan for the most appropriate services and programs.  Then work with the school to decide what programs and services they can deliver to ensure your child makes adequate progress and meets those goals.  Don't agree if you are not confident or in full agreement that they will implement the services and/or program.  Take one year at a time, it is reasonable to think that that your child who is in full time ICT in 4th grade may not need a full time ICT program in middle school. 
Ultimately, schools that are successful in educating students with disabilities inclusively have a culture that supports it: a culture of high expectations for all students, hard work and problem-solving in a supportive environment for staff and open communication with all parents.  -- Jaye Bea Smalley