Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wasting Minds

Ronald A. Wolk was a long time editor of Education Week and has long been involved in educational issues. His 2011 book Wasting Minds: Why our Education System is Failing and What We Can Do About It, discusses how we might change the education system to better meet the needs of our children. It is reminiscent of C. Schwahn and B. McGarvey's Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning: Learning in the Age of Empowerment. Both authors see our technology as being capable of being the driving force behind reenvisioning schools. Both see our current educational system as being so far from meeting the needs of our students and society as needing a complete redo.

Many educational professionals I have spoken with will give lip service to the idea that they feel all students should have Individual Educational Plans, like we do for students with special needs. They advocate differentiation to meet the needs of students in the classroom. That being said, I have yet to see differentiation actually work for either my gifted or my Aspie children. Teachers may say yes they will. The special education teachers wanted what was best and occasionally would proactively alter an assignment to meet the needs of my son, but rarely was anything done on a consistent basis. With a great deal of prodding they provided acceleration for my daughter, but separate assignments- not so much. The current age of CCSS testing has only made matters worse.

I agree with both sets of authors that schools are not going to evolve to provide individualization. We need a do over. We need an Apple compared with an Univax technology. While charter and laboratory schools were established to try out new ideas, most are now just variations of what is being done in the private sector. Some programs exist like the Met schools use a more different plan than most. Some innovative new constructions of schools have been built around technology access. Most "new" programs are not radical departures from the current plan.

In order to do this we need to create a parallel program that demonstrates the feasibility and success of a radically different program. There might be some increased support for such an idea at a time when opt-out of testing has created a national scandal. I am not necessarily talking about charters as they are used today, but charters of the past- innovative places to try out ideas. We need to see about using technology to meet individual needs. We need to ignore the idea of age-based grading and somehow figure out how to establish flexible multiage grouping. Think one room school houses on steroids of technology.

I think it can be done. Clearly others agree that it can be done. The question is do we have the social-political will to attempt the new build of our educational system.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Illusion of Full Inclusion

In some ways The Illusion of Full Inclusion: A Comprehensive Critique of a Current Special Education Bandwagon, Second Edition edited by James M. Kaufman and Daniel P. Hallahan was an easy book for me to read. I knew when I picked up this book of essays that I agreed with the major thrust- that there needs to be a continuum of services available to meet the needs of children. That any single choice program, such as inclusion, is not right for all. That parents, teachers, other professionals and sometimes even the students need to be involved in placement decisions. This book upholds those views in spades.

My difficulty with the book was its extremely repetitive nature. The first part includes 8 chapters on the historical context of inclusion. If anyone is interested in this area, select any one of the chapters and you will have a comprehensive explanation of the background. The second part focuses on policy analyses, commentaries and research. Many of these 8 chapters do a quick revisit of the history before launching into a description of the concept that full inclusion rarely means full inclusion for the most severe, especially emotional disabled, students; how there exists a dearth of research supporting full inclusion; and how teachers are not prepared to tackle the influx of special education students into their classes. The third part of the book is the least repetitive- disability specific issues. There are parent and professional writings about the need for a special classes and special schools, the gist being that special needs require special education.

If someone is looking to justify a special class placement, this book provides lots of ammo, but one need not read the whole thing to get what is needed. Cherry pick the essays based on personal interest, focusing on one per section. That takes the 449 page book down to a  rational size.

If someone is a true proponent of full inclusion, this book will be an uncomfortable read. It confronts the lack of research, the divergence of special and general education, and addresses issues of social equity. It attacks the concept that place is the determining factor in  a placement being least restrictive. These ideas will be profoundly challenging and may be discarded outright. I would challenge people to read some of the essays with an open mind to see if they can understand why parents fight to keep their special schools open such as the one told here in Tennessee and here in California. We need to recognize that one option is not right for all and that these complex decisions should not be made by politicians or school boards, but by people in the front line who are most influenced- parents and students and teachers.

Equity literacy

The Declaration of Independence includes an often misunderstood phrase, "all men are created equal,... with certain inalienable Rights... Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Some interpret this statement to mean that all men are entitled to equal outcomes. This is one defense of socialism, but it was not Thomas Jefferson thought when he penned these famous words. He thought all men should have equal opportunity. Personal abilities, drives, and education would play an important role in determining how successful a person was. He was a great defender farmers and held much scorn for big business. A farmer who worked hard, stayed on top of the latest in agricultural improvements and personal development was more likely to be successful than the one who did not put forth the effort. Jefferson also knew there were no guarantees. Jefferson saw the corrupting power of big business. He was, however, one of the wealthy farmers of the day and saw nothing wrong with amassing personal wealth.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a small but great thing. We are entitled to not worry that our life will be capriciously eliminated, to freedom to pursue our religion and speak our mind, and to try to find happiness so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. We are not guaranteed happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.

Paul C. Gorski and Katy Swalwell in the Educational Leadership March of 2015 article, Equity Literacy for All, see a different interpretation of the ideals of our democratic state. Their article begins with a discussion of multiculturalism where a student declared, "There's racism at this school, and nobody's doing anything about it!" (p. 34). This is a sad but all too often true statement about society in general and many schools in specific. The authors then slowly incorporate ideas of sexism, homophobia and class inequality into the discussion of how to build equity into schools. states that equality is "the state of being equal especially in status, rights and opportunities" and equity as "the quality of being fair and impartial." There is a subtle difference between equality and equity that seems to have eluded the authors. Equal and fair are not the same thing. While I cannot argue against the idea that "heart of a curriculum that is meaningfully multicultural lie principles of equity and social justice- purposeful attention to issues like racism, homophobia, sexism," I do find fault when they tag on "economic inequality" (p. 36) to the list. They seem to have defined social justice as economic equality. They argue that we cannot prepare youth for participation in democracy without attention to "formidable barriers to an authentic democracy" which they have defined as including "poverty and sexism" (p. 39). They argue that the teacher's goal is for the "students to understand the issues involved and commit to working toward a society with less economic inequality (p. 39). Somehow they have equated equality with equity and the former as a requirement for a democratic state. Economic equality is necessary for a socialist state not a democratic state. People paying attention to sexism, racism and homophobia are paying attention to the social status we currently equate with the governmental structure of democracy where, to paraphrase Lincoln, we do not trample the rights of the minority under the will of the majority.

We want students to have equal opportunity to achieve great things, something a quality education facilitates, and we want them to be compassionate with people who have less or are hurting, but I do not believe that we want them to all have equal outcomes- we need plumbers and engineers, maids and teachers, doctors and police men. Truly equal would have them all earn the same amount, incur the same amount of debt for training and work the same hours. I know few teachers who want to work 48 weeks a year (goodbye summer break) and few people who think their neurosurgeon should not be paid more than their maid.

We serve students better when we give them the tools to rise above poverty and to reach out to people of different classes, sexes and sexual preferences then when we try to eliminate the differences that create these preferences. Education that truly provides a foundation, health care that enables people to be healthy, and housing that keeps everyone warm and safe and dry are the background. We do not want everyone to live in the same 1200 square foot ranch or apartment. We want them to have choices. When we ensure the foundation, we ensure opportunity. That is what our founding fathers wanted for our democracy.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The illusion of full Inclusion Kavale and Forness

The Illusion of Full Inclusion is a series of essays about inclusion edited by James M. Kauffman and Daniel P. Hallahan. In it, Kenneth A. Kavale and Steven R. Forness wrote History, Rhetoric and Reality: Analysis of the Inclusion Debate. As I have read this book one rationale for full inclusion has appeared over and over- improving social acceptance of people with disabilities. The authors paraphrase a great deal of research saying that "findings generally revealed a tendency toward more tolerance with increased contact" (p. 247). We hear many heartwarming stories about people with disabilities achieving social heights such as prom king or a cheerleader prom queen. These stories hit the news with splash and we can say, "Look at what good inclusion has done for these wonderful kids."  We are depressed when stories about bullying of similar students hit the news. When the boy with autism invites his whole class to his birthday and no one shows up, we celebrate the community efforts to try and rectify the wrong. Unfortunately as the authors point out, research suggests that "simple contact with students with disabilities does not in itself result in more favorable attitudes and improved social acceptance" (p. 254).

Peers may tolerate the student with disabilities. They may countenance the idiosyncrasies that a child may have, but that does not mean they will accept him. My experience with my son bears this out. He was fully included for most of his education. Everyone in school knew him. They would say hi and he sometimes responded. Some would look out for him, let him sit with them for lunch and not tease him. No one invited him to a play date or birthday party. He never received a phone call from a peer. My son's teachers insisted he had many friends at school, but he could not name most of his classmates. There were other students with disabilities who were not tolerated by their peers. They were bullied, teased and left out. Merely being in the classroom and not treated badly does not mean you have friends.

Justifying inclusion on the basis of social acceptance is ridiculous. This is especially true of students who exhibit negative and/or socially unacceptable behavior. If you think back to your childhood, you will remember knowing who were the class brains and the class dunces. We did not have formal labels for these kids, but we know who was strong and who was weak at all manner of activities. To think that kids will not discern differences because they are in the same room is also misguided. Kids will know. We need to teach them that those differences are part of the human condition. That people have different strengths and weaknesses. That humans are valuable for the sake of being human. We can teach how to treat people, but tolerance should not be mistaken for friendship.

Yes, some students with disabilities will be friends of peers without disabilities, but just putting them in the same room will not make it so. We can facilitate acceptance and friendship but cannot require it. We cannot say that one setting is right for all people anymore than we can say that we will be friends with everyone we work with. Kavale and Forness have it right that any program that puts all students in one setting is misguided. These decisions need to be made on a case by case basis with input from parents, school staff and children. We need to not present parents with a Pollyannish view of inclusion. There are costs and benefits to it. Some students will thrive around typical peers, others will not. Peers may not become friends with those with disabilities. Some will. Some will see these students with differences as targets. Some will defend them. Others will simply ignore them.