After Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced new rules for special education, requiring higher standards and more testing for students with disabilities, many teachers and parents debated this course of action on the blog. This teacher in Florida offered some real-life experience to inform the debate and, perhaps, the Secretary:
“Let me start by saying that I am an ESE teacher. I teach students with learning disabilities and language impairments. The students I have are in the unit they are in because they are at least two grade levels below their regular ed peers in reading.
“Currently, in Florida, we already have to give these students access to the same standards that their on-grade level peers enjoy. That has been the case for years. We already know that Florida tests pretty much everyone, no matter their disability. Again, this has been the case for years. I can’t believe that in this education environment that there are many other states that are significantly different. And yet, Arne is going to say that these students aren’t getting a quality education? That they aren’t held to high expectations?
To me, it is pretty obvious that these students are held to much higher expectations than their regular ed peers. It would be like telling two mountain climbers that they have to reach the same peak, but one of them will do it with both hands tied behind his back. Sure, he can have some accommodations. Someone can hold his rope steady. Someone else can yell out supportive verbal encouragement. He can even take longer breaks, and we’ll take away any time requirement (as long as he finishes in the same day that he started).
“The world of special ed was already insane. I’m not sure where this takes us. As I said, in my class, the students are all at least two years behind in reading. What I didn’t tell you is that I teach in an elementary school. What this means is that many of these 3-5th graders are non-readers. The few that can decode are either doing so at a kindergarten/first grade level or at a level approaching grade level but without any comprehension whatsoever of what they have just decoded. Despite this, they have the same designation on paper (or computer) that other LD kids have who are just slightly behind their regular ed peers.
“In Florida, as I imagine is the case in other states, we already track academic progress. You might think it would be as easy as seeing what they are capable of doing at the beginning of the year and then comparing that with what they are capable of at the end of the year. Not so. Remember, they are working on the same standards as their regular ed peers. And, so, they are tested with the same tests that their regular ed peers take. This means that a fourth grader who cannot read anything above “see sam run” is being tested on those “rigorous” non-fiction passages that are on a fourth grade level (not the fourth grade level of yesteryear but the new, improved 6th grade, I mean 4th grade level of today). And then we track their progress on a graph. If you’re thinking that these graphs look like random peaks and valleys, you are correct. When you cannot read and you are given a test, you are just going to guess. Which is what these students do. Sadly, they have become so inured to this that they guess on the few items that they actually are capable of doing.
“The federal government is already involved through NCLB, etc. These students count towards AYP. They count towards the school’s “grade.” The schools have every reason to give these students everything they’ve got, so why aren’t the slackers doing anything to give them a “quality education”? Well, they are. Florida is an RtI state. To get an ESE label, a student has to show that they are “resistant to interventions.” That is, they have to show that they require extensive interventions, that if they are weaned off of the interventions, they regress. Or, they have to show that despite intensive, research-based interventions, they are still showing no progress. In other words, before these students come to me, they have already received every intervention imaginable. In addition, even after they are found eligible for ESE services, they are usually started in a less restrictive environment. If none of this has worked, why should it work when they get to my class? Indeed, it had to be shown that it did not work in order for them to get into my class in the first place.
“Alas, I’m afraid I do not have a magic wand or a bag of pixie dust with which to work miracles. So, what is an ESE teacher to do? Most of us actually work with the studennts where they are at. And we move them forward from there. There is no huge spurt of growth (very rarely anyway), but they do make academic gains. None of these gains will show up on the regular ed grade level assessments, but they are there nonetheless. We’ve often wondered why these students aren’t given meaningful assessments that will show growth and that will actually tell us where these students are still struggling (thanks, FCAT, I already knew they couldn’t read on grade level). Now we know why. It’s to show that these students aren’t getting a “quality education.”
“I would tell you that these students, who are as bright as you or me, struggle immensely with academic subjects. That they are usually Language Impaired as well. That most of them are also ESOL students. That most of them come from low SES homes. That most of them come from single-parent households. That many of these parents come in to thank us because their child used to hate school and now they want to go. That their regular ed teachers in the past told us that they wouldn’t do anything in class, that they would shut down when anything was required of them, and now they are working in class. That through a lot of hard work and effort of both the teachers and students, the students get to a point where they stop saying, “I can’t do this, I’m stupid.” That non-writers become independent writers (legible despite the many spelling, grammar, and convention errors). That non-readers become readers (yes, still way behind their regular ed peers) and learn to enjoy reading. I would tell you these things, but it doesn’t matter because none of it shows up on the tests. The tests show that these students are not making any gains. And, as we all know, there are no excuses.”