A Retired Teacher Reflections on His Birthday

I woke up this morning to notification beeps on my smart phone realizing for the first time that I was not a work on my birthday.  When one is retired, one has the freedom not to have to stand and teach in a 90 degree room on a late June day.  People were posting to my timeline on Facebook giving me birthday wishes.    By the early afternoon, about 40 people wished me Happy Birthday.    As I scrolled down the names of many of my friends, I soon realized that each person was important to me at different times of my life.   Besides the usual family members, there were childhood friends and many teaching colleagues.  Some were from the time I first became a teacher while others became friends with me later in my career when I was an Educational Evaluator on a child study team doing diagnostic testing of disabled students.

Then it hit me.  I began to remember another birthday—one that took place in 1978.   When I woke up that June morning, I was headed for an interview for my first real teaching job.   Instead of Facebook notifications and email messages, there were birthday cards.   Yes, I remember the time when people walked to the drug store, bought a card with thought, wrote a short message, signed their name, and mail it in time so that it would get to you either on or before your birthday.   When I look at those old cards, these signatures still keep alive the memory of my parents, aunt, uncles, and friends no longer with us.

On that day I reached my 24th birthday.  I was younger in age than both of my sons today.   To tell the truth, I was still pretty naïve and in some ways not completely grown up at that time.   I was living at home with my parents and my room still had somewhat of an adolescent quality to it.   My bookcase was lined with many college books and science fiction novels. On another shelf were some of my board games, such as Scrabble and Monopoly.  I still had a box on a table filled with old baseball cards (foolishly thrown out a week before I would get married three years later).  There was my old twelve inch black and white TV with its rabbit ear antennas and seven live stations.  There was my FM stereo radio, cassette, and turntable which endlessly played my little collection of vinyl records from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Associations, etc.

I wore a brown suit that day with a polyester shirt and thick tie for that first real interview.  A few weeks before, I finished my Master’s Degree in special education at Queens College. Interestingly, I did my teaching internship in a school that is presently up the block from where I live right now.   I student taught in a class made up of emotionally handicapped neurologically impaired students.   The class consisted of ten boys that were in third/fourth grade.  To tell the truth, my supervising teacher probably was a little weak in terms of managing the students, but her heart was in the right place.    In this white, middle class school (now primarily Asian), the special education class I was assigned did stand out.  Not only were many of the students of color, but they were often loud while the rest of the school was quiet as a church.  I recall one teacher who constantly complained about the noise our NIEH class made.  Little did I realize that a quarter century later she would be my superintendent!   The special education class I interned in did not really interact with the school because we entered the building through a side entrance and ate lunch at a separate time.  These disabled students were not even allowed to participate in assembly or gym.   This was a very different world.

I took the bus to Forest Hills that day to take the train to an ungentrified downtown Brooklyn.  Besides a few old office buildings on Court and Livingston Streets, there were a few run-down stores and dilapidated brownstones on the side streets.  This was my first visit to 110 Livingston Street.   This building, today a luxury condominium, was thought to house what would be considered the paradigm of bureaucratic incompetence.  I passed the Great Hall of the Board of Education to the elevators and made my way to the floor (I do not recall which one) that housed all the offices in charge of special education.   At that time, special education was divided into different bureaus.  There was the Bureau of the Physical Handicapped, the Bureau of Health Conservation, the Bureau of the Emotionally Handicapped and the Bureau of Students with Retarded Mental Development.   I had to make my way to the Bureau of the Physically Handicapped.   I recall having my heart in my mouth as I opened the door.

In the office sat two older men in shirt sleeves who were probably younger than I am today.   One was standing and I told him who sent me to them.   To my surprise, after they sat me down, they talked to me very informally which calmed my nerves.   Besides the usual interview-type questions, what I most recall was pieces of the conversation that reminded me what a different world 1978 was from today.   They both told me that I was being offered a very difficult job a minority school in South Jamaica.   They told me the students would be difficult, I would not have a lot of resources and that I will probably make many mistakes.   However, they told me not to worry because all young teachers make mistakes and often have difficulty reaching these children.   They just hoped I had a little bit of a tough hide, but, at the same time, really felt something for these kids.   One said that all teachers make goofs at the beginning, but really good teachers learn from their goofs.  And great teachers learn from others.  No one asked for a demonstration lesson or a portfolio of my lessons and student work.  They gave me a job based on their own impressions of me and not data.   They were looking for a good person who did have some skills; but I sense they were looking primarily for someone with a good heart.   By the way, both these supervisors were educators who understood what I really had to face in what is today called a high need school.

Today, I probably would not have even gotten the job.   After all, I would have to prove success even before I even started in the classroom.  Expecting me to do the best I could is not good enough for the present reform crowd.   I would have to say that I expect these high need students to achieve above grade level and reach proficiency on every common core assessment. I would have to bring a 200 page portfolio showing sample lessons and data showing student growth from my internship.   My Master’s Degree would not impress them unless I passed all four state teaching examinations.  On the other hand, if I came through Teach for America and attended an Ivy, I would not have to prove anything.  Instead of encouragement, I would probably be told that if I failed with these students, my career would be short lived.  Unlike today,   in 1978, they still wanted teachers who would turn their love of children into a career and not into cogs measured by data points.  That was the world I came into as a teacher and will always believe in.   Children and teachers are people and not human capital. I retired because I measure the human and not the economic value of children and teachers.

Advertisements

Tom Friedman—Policy by Anecdote

These days, I carry a handy little application on my Iphone and Ipad. It lists each Common Core Learning Standard by grade and its correspondence to college and career readiness. I carry it because we are mandated to put these little CCLS numbers on our lessons plans, rubrics, and even bulletin boards in an attempt to placate the DOE’s Common Core police. However, I also have an ulterior motive for carrying this application. I like to use it against those who are now wedded to the CCLS as a new type of educational religion. Now, we have several new gospels. They are the gospels according to Saints Coleman and Saint Duncan.

I have just written to the New York Times and to Mr. Tom Friedman in particular because he has violated CCLS RI.9-10.8. This standard states that ninth and tenth grade students must “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient. Students must “identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.” Oh, Mr. Friedman, how can you engage in such shoddy reasoning in your op ed piece. One must follow the Common Core. Evidence must not be based upon anecdote but on expert opinion. In addition, one must evaluate the expert opinion to make sure that the evidence is “valid.” A common core student review book I recently perused stated that valid evidence is evidence provided by “expert scientific opinion.” Only research that uses scientific methodology as taught by the hard as well as social sciences could validate a general hypothesis.

Based upon a little anecdote about a high school student who feels it is more important to answer his Facebook messages than do homework, we now paint every single American student with the same brush stroke. In addition, this little tidbit proves that the basketball player in charge of the DOE is correct in his opinion about the laziness of American students—especially middle class suburban kids. Mr. Friedman, for this one anecdote, I can offer another one in contradiction. I know this kid, who despite having ADHD and other medical issues, studied five hours a night all through high school and graduated with a 4.0 GPA as well as got an ACT score in the 99 percentile. This resulted in a complete scholarship to a top state university campus where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. By the way, he also has about 800 Facebook friends. I can vouch for the veracity of this story because I am talking about my own son. I know of another young man that was diagnosed with a significant learning disability as a boy, who also worked hard despite having parents that had to work two to three jobs to make ends meet here in New York City. He studied hours a day on his own and made it into a four year college. And this student is a friend of my son.

Do my stories prove me right and Mr. Friedman wrong? No, these stories prove nothing. They are nothing but anecdotes that are nothing more than firsthand accounts that have no scientific or research validity. They are no better than those TFA stories about the superman teacher who worked day and night to get their kids from a quartile ranking one to four in a single year. Instead, one must look at valid and reliable data. Not the fake biased data of those fly-by-night nonprofits financed by our billionaire friends, but real research that can stand up to peer review at the university level. One can only accept research that is critiqued, analyzed as well as ripped apart at the seams to make sure that it measures what it is supposed to measure.

What the mainstream media is now giving us is propaganda and not journalism. Journalism is hard because one must look and analyze different points of view. One must determine if a particular point of view use either facts or research as its evidence. For example, Ravitch and others cite valid and reliable research that drill down into PISA scores to show there is no significant achievement gap between American and foreign students when you compare apples with apples. Suburban-middle class American students perform as well as or better than many foreign students on these challenging international assessments. The media does not report the fact that in America we do something that many foreign countries do not do. We include everyone in our score obviously depressing the total aggregate. Often, other countries exclude certain populations in order to skew their scores. Furthermore, many countries in this world still do not even attempt to educate certain students. There are nations in this world that exclude those who are disabled or those who cannot pass certain tests to acquire a secondary or post-secondary education. There are countries that divide students along academic and vocation tracks based upon a single assessment. I for one do not wish to emulate such countries. I have no interest in emulating a country in which one assessment determines the course of the rest of your life, such as Korea and some European countries. I also do not wish to emulate the educational system of a Communist totalitarian state (China) that rigidly teaches students to obey and not think.

Mr. Friedman should instead realize that this middle class student on Facebook may have been turned off by our educational system because of NCLB and RTTT, which has been national policy for over a decade. Psychological research shows that when students are frustrated, they give up. If one is given tasks that are too hard, one tries to escape. Special education has always taught that you start a child form where they are. Standard reading practice for the last century has always been that you work with a child at their instructional reading level. Students do not learn when you give them material at their frustration level. Most students will not rise to the task when the work is beyond their ability. When I was in high school, I hated Spanish. I avoided studying it like the plague because I had a lot of difficulty memorizing words. Only when a teacher showed me a bunch of mnemonic strategies did I become a more willing student. Imagine what would have happened if instead of giving me strategies, I was given more random words to memorize. If that would have happened, I may not have had a thirty-six year career as a teacher because a foreign language requirement at that time would have barred me from entering college to even become a teacher .

This has always been a nation built upon the ideal of giving people second chances. We gave millions of immigrants the second chance to start a new life during the 19th and 20th centuries. We have always tried to give students who failed second chances. Yes, I did fail one semester of Spanish in high school, but I recouped with some extra help from my teacher, a good friend (who was great with languages) and my parents. Good teachers always allow students to make up missed worked or give students a second chance to pass a test. We have high school equivalency diplomas that enable those who flunked out of high school to benefit from some type of post-secondary education.

However, what is happening now in this country is the attempt to create a privatized educational system that is stratified, segregated and intentionally violate worker rights. Now here I am making a general statement that needs evidence to back it up. By looking at the education budgets of many states and cities, public school funding is being cut in favor of unregulated charter or voucher-based schools that have no oversight and choose their students (Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina). Experienced and tenured teachers are fired or forcefully excessed in favor of TFA five week wonders (Florida, Louisiana, Illinois). Rich curriculums, music, art, and extra-curricular activities are all being cut in favor of charters for the sake of creating VAM testing using the Common Core. And yes, there is a good amount of child development research that shows that the Common Core violates how most children learn.

When only 30% of total students , 7% of disabled and 5% of ELL students in New York State can pass a Common Core assessment, there is no doubt that the vast majority of our students will feel demoralized. Children are not lazy when they are tested on items that have never been taught or are significantly above their ability level. One does not build an educational system upon a curriculum and assessments that only above average students can hope to pass, so that our public school system can be dismantled. Do not kid yourselves in thinking that the corporate reformers who have controlled educational policy this last decade have even an iota of altruism. Their goal is a charter-based, free-market educational system to primarily line their pockets and secondarily educate a few subservient managers and docile, non-thinking workers bullied into submission through schools that offer zero-tolerance. As for me, I want a curriculum that will teach students how to question and challenge those in authority. According to a recent blog by Diane Ravitch, Mr. David Coleman once said that no one really cares about what a student thinks and feels. What is important is writing and reading information text. Thus, the Common Core is an amoral curriculum. There is a Common Core module analyzing the Gettysburg Address. It is supposed to be done without referring to its historical context. It has to be analyzed based on whether Mr. Lincoln used “evidence” to support his points. If our 16th President would have been taught by the Common Core, we would not have one of the greatest pieces of oratory that epitomizes what our nation believes in. Abraham Lincoln had a sense of justice and the belief of what was right and wrong. That little speech has given our nation a moral compass. Those who want to force this nation to adapt a utilitarian curriculum appear to have no ethics or morality. I guess such a utilitarian view of the world makes it easy to fire teachers and remove students who do not fit into their cut throat view of mankind.

I told Mr. Friedman in my letter to him that the problem was not with us coddling parents or with educators who are trying to hold onto a tiny scrap of dignity. The problem is with those who have controlled educational policy since the Bush era. If our public school system is now struggling to survive, it is because those in power have given us body blows and have kicked our groins. If Mr. Friedman likes the reformers so much as well as the Common Core, it is high time he start measuring his skills and his own beliefs by their standards.

Thoughts on My Final Year of Teaching

            Next week, I am returning early to school to set up my room and get ready for my final year as a public school teacher.  If you listen to the so-called reformers, we union teachers are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings who only care about our high pay.  Last Saturday, I went to Staples for Teacher Recognition Day to get a few discounted items.  I ended up paying over $200 for essential supplies.  Being that our school has no budget for supplies, I had to buy dry erase markers, white board cleaning fluid, pens, pencils, index cards, extra notebooks, fasteners, paper clips, binders for my lessons and monitoring tools, a lesson plan book, etc., etc. 

            When I get to school tomorrow, I will have to move furniture, inventory my supplies, climb, tape, and clean.  It will take many, many hours to do all this.  I do this out of love and not any type of monetary compensation.  I can spend the extra week relaxing, but it would be impossible to be ready for the kids if I did not do this.  By the way, I worked all summer until Friday.  I worked in one of the special education offices for the Department of Education.  I did annual reviews for students who receive special services by the DOE, but remain in private schools at their parent’s expense.  I did over 130 cases because during the school year there are not enough people in the office I worked in to do the job.  Why do I work?  I have to.  I am grateful to have this job because if I did not earn the extra money, I could not make ends meet.  Besides me, almost every teacher in my school has to work in the summer.  However, according to the reformers, we have these fabulous summers off to lounge in the sun.

            I am starting this year with a lot of apprehension over the new evaluation system that has been imposed by our state education department.  As a special education teacher, I am very concerned.  Only five percent of disabled students passed the ELA and math tests.  Therefore, if my kids do not show enough growth on tests that play into the disabilities these students have, I may be rated ineffective no matter how effective I am rated in the classroom. 

            Recently I read in Diane Ravitch’s blog about the Common Core first grade curriculum in which six-year-olds have to learn comparative religion and the impact geography had on the development of the ancient river valley civilizations in Mesopotamia ( I kid you not).  This ELA unit has hundreds of abstract vocabulary concepts that used to be taught in middle and high school.  I have to look now at the curriculum that my fourth and fifth grade resource students will have to learn.  I hope that micro and macroeconomic concepts do not come into play for my age group or I do not stand a chance of being an effective special education teacher of learning disabled and language impaired students. 

            Seriously, I do not plan to change the way I teach my students.  I will do my best to teach them the skills that they really need to succeed.  My goals are for my student to meet their IEP objectives.  I care not one iota about this curriculum.  I will not teach them goals that are unachievable.  Whatever happens will happen.  I plan to do my “personal best” as I have done since 1978.   I know that for the last 35 years, I have been an effective special education teacher in which most of my career has been with high need students.  I taught kids that had everything stacked against them.  Yet, I do know many who have made it against all odds.  One of my students is a supervisor for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (who has a learning-disabled adolescent) and another is presently a registered male nurse in a large city hospital after spending part of his life in a correctional facility.   These former students are real people and not data driven numbers or some TFA made-up anecdote. 

            I will tell you one thing.  When I retire on July 1, 2014, I am not going to rest.  I am just closing a chapter.  I plan to begin anew.  I plan a chapter in which I will adamantly advocate for disabled children and fight to save the public education system.  We retired teachers will become an army to oppose the reformers and privateers.  We cannot be intimidated and will not be afraid to speak truth to power. 

Small Lies, Big Lies, and Statistics

            Over the past few days, I was torn whether or not to publish a letter I wrote to Michael Mulgrew.  I was hesitant for several reasons.  First, I hold a position with the United Federation of Teachers and I was in no mood for flak from those just above me because I would be publicly disagreeing with the leader of my union.  Second, I thought that if I sent the head of my union a personal letter disagreeing with him, I should at least have the courtesy to wait until he replied.  Right now, it is over three days since I sent the letter and as of yet, no reply.  What prompted the letter was an email to union members critiquing Bloomberg’s reaction to the recent results of the ELA and Math Common Core State Assessments.  In a nutshell, he made two statements that I had to disagree with.  One, that educators developed the Common Core and that the Common Core is the way to make our students college and career ready as well as develop deep higher level thinking skills.

            In the last seventy-two hours, three things convinced me that I have to publish the letter. First, I asked the opinion of several bloggers who I greatly respect.  One wrote me saying that I should not care what he thinks while the other blogger said that my letter was powerful and needed to be heard.  Next, I read a great blog from NYC  Educator critiquing Mulgrew’s email to the members that put into words many of my own feelings.  And finally, a memory from college hit me in the face.  When I was 19 year-old Queens College sophomore in the year 1973, I took my first statistics course.  When you took statistics at that time, a computer, which was the size of a room, could not help you and my $60 Casio calculator could do no more than basic operations.  Calculating complex statistical formulas had to be done by hand.  After my first test, I got a grade of 49.  I was devastated.  I went to the professor and told him of my worry about my GPA if I failed his course.  What was his reaction—laughter.  This was not what I expected.  He said, “Look, with the type of statistical calculations I gave you and the short amount of time you had to do it in, your mark was great.”  Then he pulled out a piece of paper and showed me a bell curve he developed using the grades for the test.  The curve showed how the grades would be distributed to represent A, B, C, D or F.  His bell curve revealed that my grade represented an A.  He said that thinking 49 is a failing grade is nothing more than one mathematical construct.  Then he reminded me of the scoring system for the SAT which was a different construct.  During his course, I learned that his favorite statement was that there are small lies, big lies and statistics.  One can make a statistic mean anything.

            This, my friends, is what Commissioner King and his cohorts in the state decided to do.  They, and their supporters, have created a construct—a construct with a political purpose.  Before they can destroy public education, they have to prove that it is a failure.  All we have to do is not teach students a new curriculum and invent a grading system knowing most of the questions will be so challenging that only 30% could possibly answer the requisite number of questions that they deem to represent a passing grade.  King, Bloomberg, Walcott, and their corporate reformer friends have no care about the emotional damage that anyone feels when one fails.  The way I felt entering that professors office decades ago is magnified a hundred fold in the hearts of many children today. 

            This is what I wrote to Michael Mulgrew in response to his email.

I am writing you as a loyal union member and a special education teacher in a middle class ethnically diverse neighborhood who knows a lot about testing because I spent nearly two decades assessing disabled children as part of a school assessment team until this Mayor deemed my psychometric skills to be worthless.   Nevertheless, under my belt are a lot of graduate level coursework as well as thousands of hours of field experience in administering and analyzing valid and reliable norm-referenced educational assessments.

Therefore, based upon a lot of research and reading, I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that educators developed the Common Core Standards and that these standards represent a valid instrument to determine if a student is college or career ready.  Educators did not develop the Common Core Standards.  Many of those who developed these standards are deeply involved in the corporate educational reform movement.  Many articles I have read about its development stated that the developers worked backwards and often disregarded some basic tenets of child development.  Furthermore, we are taking on faith standards that have not even been longitudinally tested.  We are taking on faith that these standards will make students college or career ready.  We all know that so many reforms in the past half a century failed because, like the Common Core, research was lacking.  Where are those “open classrooms” or the “New Math” of my childhood?  Both were just fads, just as I believe the Common Core is a fad, which led to no significant educational achievement. 

I, and many others, could only accept the efficacy of the Common Core Standards if there were real research over a number of years showing that students who learned by a curriculum derived from these standards had higher achievement than those students taught by a more traditional curriculum.  I have a sense that many of your rank and file teachers are unwilling to put their careers on the line based on standards that I feel were developed with a political agenda.  The agenda is to convince the American people that our present public school system is a failure and that only a privatized charter-based system is the way to go.  A system, that will in the end, destroy our progressive union movement.

Any assessment in which only 25% to 35% of students can pass is invalid.  A valid test is standardized in such a way that it creates a bell curve.  These assessments do not come even close to creating a bell curve.  Instead, these assessments look more like cliffs.  Many students are set to fall off such a cliff–especially students with disabilities.  Special educators are taught that to help students with learning challenges, one must start where they are.  One does not start at the bottom of an unclimbable precipice.  I work with many students who have, through no fault of their own, significant language impairments that make this curriculum impossible to master. What will become of many of these students when they reach 8th grade and modified promotional standards terminate?  How many times are we willing to leave back such students and destroy their self-esteem before we realize that what is really needed are many vocational programs that will serve the needs of a very diverse disabled population?  There is a big difference between a high IQ child with minor sensory problems and one who may have a severe language impairment that results in a borderline IQ.  Sadly, this curriculum will result in many special education teachers, like me, who are willing to work with the latter child, being punished by someday being rated ineffective because of an invalid assessment based upon invalid standards that work against the educational needs of such children.

Children need to reach their potential.  Unfortunately, I see these Common Core Standards setting up roadblocks based upon a student’s economic class, language proficiency and disability.  Those born economically advantaged will go to either private schools or charters exempt from these standards or whose parents have the resources to get them the extra tutoring needed to pass these tests.  Those children born to parents who do not have the resources will end up in schools that will not have the funds necessary to create the academic intervention services needed to compensate for their parent/guardian’s inability to afford the extra tutoring needed to pass from grade to grade. 

Our focus is completely wrong.  These standards are broken and unrepairable.  I fear, in the end, it will lead to the dismantling of our system of public education and social stratification in this great nation.  In the 18th century, our founding fathers created a flawed constitution called the Articles of Confederation that they realized was unworkable.  But they were smart.  They scraped the document and started anew.  Many of the best and brightest, at that time, got together, and through compromise and negotiation, came up with something workable.  They came up with a constitution that was flexible enough to change with the times.  These Common Core standards are unchangeable stone monoliths that block our way to creating a society and nation that has always believed in education as the great leveler as well as creator of economic opportunity and social mobility.  Let us think before we jump!

             Mulgrew’s lack of response is just a continuation of what has been happening to education during the last several years.  There has been a lack of dialog between those in power with us teachers.   They refuse to engage us, to debate with us.  I offer a challenge.  I challenge those in power—not only Mulgrew, but also Duncan, Gates, King, Rhee, and Broad to engage us in a public debate on the national media stage without moderation or commentary.   Let them engage people like Ravitch, Cody, Haimson and others who spent years doing peer reviewed educational research.  Let the American people decide who has the answers. 

            Public education is not a failure overall.  Yes, we have not been as successful educating limited English proficient, high need and disabled students.  However, look at the small number of students who graduated high school at the turn of the twentieth century and the millions who graduate college today.  These are not false statistics but head counts. Look around at your own families.  I had a grandfather who came to this country with nothing.  He had no formal schooling.  He was a baker making $14 a week.  Only one of his five children went to college.  The others had to drop out and work during the depression.  However, 70% of their children went to college in the 1960s and 70s.  Of those who were born after the mid-1950s, almost all went to college and became professionals.  And of our children, all went to college.  This is one family, multiplied by millions. This is not failure, but success beyond the wildest dreams of those 19th century pioneers who began America’s public education movement.  It is a dream worth preserving.

Common Core and the Suspension of Child Development

It was 1977 and I was taking a child development course for my Master’s level program to become a special education teacher. The assignment was simple. Take two children of different ages and conduct some learning experiments on them. The objective was to see if Piaget’s theories were true. I needed two children, so I asked my cousin if I could borrow her two kids—David and Rachel (who still remember as adults the fun we had doing all this). David was eight-years-old at the time while Rachel just turned five. Of course, I did that famous conservation experiment of pouring water into a tall thin glass and the same amount of water into a wide narrow glass. Obviously, both thought that the tall narrow glass held more water even after both watched me pour the same amount of water into both glasses. What is the importance of this experiment? Well, young kids think very concretely and not abstractly. And how do you develop abstract thinking skills? Give them many of concrete experiences over a long period until their brains become mature enough to understand the abstract concept that no matter what the shape a container may be, if you pour the same amount of liquid into that container, it is still the same amount

This experience I had with my cousins came hauntingly back to me about a month ago when I tried to teach a bunch of fifth graders to estimate fractional sums using benchmarks. The concept appears simple. Take a number line, start at zero, make several benchmark points, such as ½ and 1, and then estimate whether a given fraction is close to these benchmarks. For example, if we add 7/8 and 3/8, we should estimate that our answer will be about 1 and ½. Obviously, 7/8 is close to one and 3/8 is close to ½. With our adult minds, this is a no brainer, but not to the fifth grade mind—especially a mind that may have a learning disability. My kids just did not get it. I used every special education, multisensory method on the books. I color coded, used fraction bars, as well as visual illustrations, etc., etc. Most just wanted to add the like denominators and did not want to estimate first using this method. I then decided to question them intently to understand why they were having such difficulty estimating. To my amazement I discovered the reason. All my concrete manipulatives and illustrations confused them even more. Each manipulative and drawing was a different size and they did not understand that no matter the size or type of fractional illustration presented that the fraction was really the same size. It was hard for these fifth graders to understand that if I cut a pizza in or a jelly bean in half, it was still a half. Therefore, I made a fatal teaching error that many new teachers make. I assumed knowledge or understanding that my students really did not have. To prove their lack of understanding, I took two jars of different sizes and poured a glass of water in each. I asked them to write on their personal white boards which cup had more water and most chose the tall, thin cup again. Piaget came hauntingly back and now I understood why these LD kids were having such difficulty with this common core concept. I realized that it was not that many wouldn’t learn it, but that many couldn’t learn it. They were just not ready.

Furthermore, I tutor several middle school students in math. I work with one learning disabled 8th grader who is, with a lot of extra help, passing within an integrated setting. Fortunately, his parents have the resources to purchase my services for three hours a week. In addition, not only does the student have a highly experienced special education co-teacher in his math class, but he also gets additional special education teacher support services three times a week within a very wealthy suburban school district on Long Island. To his benefit, the student although learning disabled has strong intellectual potential that enables him to easily learn the various strategies I and his teachers have developed to help him do the math. Yet, when tested on these concepts, he mostly gets grades in the low seventies on tests in which problems contain three or more steps and which requires him to describe using mathematical terms various math processes. One problem he got wrong had to do with the Pythagorean Theorem. Mathematically, he knows the formula and can apply it to solve problems presented algebraically. He understands that if we want to find the unknown length of one side of a right triangle, he can do so as long as he knows the length of a hypotenuse and an adjacent side. However, on a test in which a problem derived from a sample CCLS standard, he got completely lost. The problem had a right triangle containing adjacent squares for each side. The question asked what assumption the student can make about the area of the largest square. Furthermore, he was expected to explain his assumption in mathematical terms.

After looking at the problem, it appeared familiar to me. I then remembered where I saw a similar problem. I decided to take a trip to my attic and opened up an old box. Within the box, I found my high school review books. After a little skimming, I found a very similar model problem—within my 10th grade Amsco geometry review text. Then I remembered the difficulty I had with my first term of geometry in high school and all the extra help I needed to master and understand those theorems at the time. Now we expect a student to master concepts that used to be taught to 15-16 year old students thirty of so years ago. A 16 year old student is well into what Piaget calls the formal operational stage of development. Those are fancy words that mean that a student of that age can more easily understand very abstract concepts. Now we are supposed to expect a 13 year-old student to have the same capacity as a student that is very close to college age. Obviously, some 13 year-old students can understand such concepts, but most will have difficulty, again, because they may not be developmentally ready—especially if a disability is present. When I recently stated this at a meeting, I was told that I have low expectations for students. I replied that I do not have low expectations, but realistic expectations. And that these expectations are based on a good deal of scientific research.

The Common Core curriculum appears to be one that was developed by anecdote and not by research. I remember when my youngest son graduated from high school, the Valedictorian was an Asian young man who came to the United States two years previously without knowing a word of English. I recall the Principal saying to the audience that it was possible to accomplish so much when one perseveres and works hard. What he didn’t mention was that this student probably had an IQ that was through the roof! It would be unreasonable to expect other immigrant children to accomplish what this student did when research has shown it takes an older student five to seven years to learn enough academic vocabulary to perform well in an English language school. One should not build a curriculum that could only be easily mastered by above average and superior students that make up only 15% of the total population.

Interestingly, just yesterday I received an email from my school district which contained a list of math vocabulary terms students are expected to master at each grade level. When I looked at the kindergarten math vocabulary, there was the term “decompose” which means to break down complex numbers to get a better understanding of place value. To expect a kindergarten student to understand and use this concept is beyond ridiculous. When I was in Kindergarten, I am pretty sure I had no idea what this term meant and I am also sure my kindergarten teacher had no interest in teaching me its meaning when her greater concern was that I know how to write my name, address and phone number in case I got lost. I really don’t think there is any necessity for a five-year-old to use college level vocabulary to explain complex math terms when many still need to develop one-to-one correspondence. Of course, someone who supports common core would say that all they are doing is raising the bar. However, this is a bar that is twenty feet up and for a five year old impossible to master. By the way, yesterday I asked three kindergarten students to decompose the number 12 and they replied with blank stares. I have been involved with educational testing for nearly thirty years. A good part of my career involved administering diagnostic tests to determine if students had learning disabilities. I clearly remember when I was taking courses in diagnostic assessment, a professor saying to us that when most students fail a test, the problem is not with the student, but with the test. Therefore, if most students at a certain age will not be able to master these so-called common core standards, the problem is not with the kids, but with the standards. Standards that unfortunately violates every rule of child development.

The True Face of Charters

Scam artists have been with us since the beginning of time.  Probably the first one mentioned in literature was that pesky serpent in the Garden of Eden.  The scam artist can always size up an easy mark.  Usually, it is someone a little bit naive, looking for an easy solution to a difficult situation.  I was not expecting to find a bunch of sly and slick hustlers this summer when I worked on an IEP team for a Committee on Special Education in a large urban school district.  These hustlers often came in the guise of educational directors for some very well-known charters that have found fertile ground in one of America’s most diverse cities. 

For over three decades I have dealt with parents of disabled children at IEP meetings that often determine the classification and educational program of such students.  Often, these parents are traumatized by such meetings.  At such conferences, parents have to deal with the fact that their once normal child is replaced by a child who now has a “handicap.”  I have seen sophisticated parents freeze up at such meetings and lose the ability to ask rational questions or make appropriate decisions.  But when parents are not sophisticated, they become easy prey to being hoodwinked by the system  or by someone who often puts themselves up as an “expert” who has “the child’s best interest in mind.” 

The scenario often goes like this.  Little Johnny begins a neighborhood public school in a high needs community.  If the child did have any preschool, it was often an unstructured or informal day care situation so the parent can work to make ends meet.  But often, the entrance of the child into a neighborhood school is the student’s first educational experience.  Immediately, the child begins to have difficulty.  The school attempts to help the child through some interventions but finally a decision is made to refer the student to see if he or she is eligible for special educational services.  Usually, the parent is resource poor and has little knowledge about where to find the necessary help for the child.  On most occasions, I have found such parents first concerned and then desperate for help because their situation prevents them from having the ability, resources or the means to help the child themselves.  I remember one such family this past summer.  It consisted of a mom, dad and a young child of color who after a year of kindergarten could not recognize the letters of the alphabet and most sounds.   The father was working two jobs and the mother had a third job so they could have a roof over their heads.

Someone gave them a flyer about a charter school in the area and they talked to the educational director.  When they met this director, they brought along the child.  The director told them, obviously without formally assessing the student, that the problem was probably not with the child but with public school.  They were told that the charter had young,dedicated teachers who were “always” successful in getting “every one of their students to read.  They even told the parent that they even had special educational services.  They had a fabulous resource room teacher that has gotten every child he has worked with to read.   They applied and luck was with them.  The child was chosen to go to the school. 

The parents must have had high hopes that the child would finally succeed, but it became clear that by the time the school year was coming to an end that the child was not succeeding in first grade.  To be fair, the charter gave the child at risk resource room services and at risk speech services.  But when Spring came, the educational director told the parent they were referring the child to the Committee on Special Education for some formal services.  She told the parent that she always comes to these meetings to make sure the Academy’s children get what they need. 

When I reviewed the case with the team’s psychologist, general education teacher and parent member, it was obvious that this boy probably had significant problems for a long time.  The psychoeducational assessment showed that he had a borderline IQ, significant language delays and was working academically still on a preschool level.  Obviously, the child needed a small class.  When the parents, child, and educational director came into the meeting, the first meeting I ever had with a charter school, I was expecting the parents and educational director to disagree.  However, when the meeting began, the director begin to speak.  She said that they realized right away that the child had very special needs and that they did their best.  She went on to say that it was obvious that “The Academy” could no longer meet the needs of this child.  Immediately, I was able to read the body language of the parents.  They were not expecting that the charter would abandon their child.  They were in tears.  I naively asked if the charter had a collaborative program or a self-contained class.  I should have realized the obvious answer. 

As the summer progressed, I soon realized that with charters, it was the same play, but with different actors.  Here would come a young educational director to the meeting with the parents.  The child often needed more special educational services than the school provided.  The director was always there to help the parent make the “right” decision.  Obviously, the “right decision” cut the child loose from the school “in a nice way.”  The charter did not have to expel the student who did not fit in.  The parent, voluntarily, with a little coaxing from the educational director, chose to put the student in a special educational program that the school did not provide.  Thus, the pupil had to return to the public school. 

This is the true face of the charter movement.  They scam the parent into believing that their school can work miracles without really knowing the child.  When it does not work out, they cut the child loose.  Of course, it looks, on paper, like the parent made the decision, but in reality, it was a well-calculated manipulation.  Interesting, years ago, some high achieving public schools in this urban area, used to do the same thing.  These high achieving public schools, ten, twenty years ago, had few special educational services, and thus if a student needed more, the pupil was sent elsewhere and the building’s high reading scores were saved.  But eventually, being public schools, they were forced to create more services and these children would eventually remain to be served.

It is easy for a charter to say that all their kids perform well when they can easily skim off those children who cannot succeed in reaching grade level performance without a lot of help and intervention.  It is easy to say all your kids are college bound when you get rid of those who can never reach such a goal through no fault of their own.  To me, if you are a public school or if you accept public money as they do, then you must obey the law and serve all disabled children as traditional public schools have to do.  In the years I was a classroom special education teacher, I could not choose the kids I wanted.  I knew it was my job to serve all kids that came to me.  Charter schools have to do the same.  No charter school should get a penny of public money unless it is willing to serve “all” children.  A child may get into a charter through a lottery, but once there, the student must be served no matter what.  By the way, I have not yet seen a charter school devoted solely to special needs students!