The Role of Special Education in a Democracy

Thank you to Tim Villegas and ThinkInclusive.us for the opportunity to originally post this at http://www.thinkinclusive.us/the-role-of-special-education-in-a-democracy/#sthash.6roeUDvk.dpbs

Democracy

Reflections on Ravitch’s Reign of Error from a Special Ed Teacher

The past few years I’ve been wondering when did being a teacher make me such an awful, greedy person in the eyes of our country? Thanks to being active on Twitter, I finally got a better understanding of what has been going on recently in education policy and how Obama’s Race to the Top has led to the proliferation of charters, even more high-stakes testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. It wasn’t just in my head; there was really something going on, a systematic pushback against public education. Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error put all the current policy problems that educators face together in one place with research and solutions. For educators, it has always been important to be educated advocates for our students. For our students, we are models of what it means to be engaged citizens, in order to fulfill that role, we need works like Reign of Error to keep us informed.

The problems identified and solutions that Ravitch offers are not new, but it is refreshing to be reminded why education policy matters so much in this country. Our education system is the bedrock of our democratic society. There’s a reason why when the rest of the world seems to be erupting right now that we continue to have civil protests and dialogue; although Congress can’t seem to get along, we are not a nation that rushes to take up arms.

This year, in the race to improve my students’ performance and demonstrate that I truly am a highly effective teacher, I had forgotten why I had chosen to be a public school teacher in the first place. I’m grateful to Ravitch for the reminder of John Dewey’s work and that,

“The public schools have taught us how to be one society, not a collection of separate enclaves, divided by race, language and culture. They have contributed directly to the growth of a large middle class and a dynamic society. Our nation’s public schools have been a mighty engine of opportunity and equality. They still are.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

As a teacher of students with multiple disabilities, I had a light bulb moment when I remembered school is not just about reading, math and showing that my students can access the Common Core, but about being citizens. Schools prepare contributors to society, not just academic scholars.

I’m sad to admit I had been sucked into the accountability vortex. With New York’s new teacher evaluation system in place, part of which uses the Danielson’s Framework, I was focused on using this framework to prove how meaningful my work is and that my students can learn.

You see, since most of my students are non-verbal, use wheelchairs, are dependent for all their care needs, and have health impairments, I am often asked, “well, what do you teach them?” Often the root of the question comes from the thinking that if they’re not learning academics, then why are we paying taxes for them to go to school? Wouldn’t these needy (and expensive) children best be served in a cheaper setting (ie. minus teacher salary), such as daycare or a hospital?

It makes me frustrated that people don’t naturally value the important place that children with multiple disabilities have in our society of diverse human beings. But instead of trying to explain that, my best answer in the past had been to explain how my students are learning, although it might not look like traditional learning, and that we are accessing the same general education curriculum that “typical” students are learning, but in a different way. We are focusing on the essential skills they need to learn, such as communication, choice-making, cause & effect, and joint attention.

But I have to admit that their question made me question what I knew was right. I became fixated on proving my students’ worth with data collection sheets and Common Core activities, which distracted me from the 1:1 instruction I knew my students needed in their individual, developmentally appropriate goals. (I say Common Core, because before this push I never felt such pressure to consistently show achievement that was aligned to the NY State Standards besides completing annual Alternate Assessments.)

So as I spend my summer days reflecting on my classroom last year and thinking about improvements for next year, it was a welcome reminder from Ravitch that I should stop running myself ragged just because my students aren’t valued by high-stakes tests and they don’t fit in a mold where I can have them pump out projects that show they understand the Common Core standards.

The reason my students deserve to be in school as much as traditional students who are learning to read, do algebra, and explain historic events, is because its not about the content, its about what all students are learning by doing these learning activities together in a common space. There is a reason we have public schools in this country.

“…they have enabled people from different walks of life to learn from one another, to study together, play together, plan together, and recognize their common humanity. More than any other institution in our society, the public schools enable the rising generation to exchange ideas, to debate, to disagree, and to take into account the view of others in making decisions.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.323)

This is what I teach my students. By working with them to communicate, interact with peers, identify their wants and needs, my goals are no different from a general education teacher.

“The essential mission of the public schools are not merely to prepare workers for the global workforce but to prepare citizens with the minds, hearts, and characters to sustain our democracy into the future.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.325)

In our drive to create college and career ready graduates, let us not forget that public schools were founded to create an educated citizenry, not just workers. Just because not all students will have a job one day or even be able to live independently does not mean that they are not an important part of our society.

Additionally, students with special needs bring diversity to schools that accurately reflect the world outside of schools. What better space than a classroom of students who have such a different experience of life than a “typical” child to help students learn “to take into account the view of others?”

“As communities grew, parents and concerned citizens realized that educating children was a shared public responsibility, not a private one…For many years, the public schools were known as common schools, because they were part of the public commons. Like parks, libraries, roads and the police, they were institutions that belonged to the whole people…But most people understood that paying for the education of the community’s children was a civic duty, an investment in the future, in citizens who would grow up and become voters and take their place in society.” (Ravitch, 2013, p.322)

At the end of the day, schools are in the business of making better people for a better world. Whether we teach math or communication, as educators we serve a valuable role in our democratic society. I know that a large part of my pride in our society comes from the strong public education that I received. So for this special educator, there is no more renewing feeling than realizing that my specialized teaching skill helps me and my students, support staff, and families become stronger, educated citizens of our American democratic society.

List of Works Cited

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error. New York, NY: Knopf.

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6 Goals for the New School Year from a Special Ed Teacher

Reading Lesson

On Labor Day weekend, I sat down with excitement and anxiety to set some goals for the new school. In typical beginning of school craziness, I am just now sharing them on my new blog! Last year I switched sites within my school, so I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out the school culture and not step on toes as I advocated for my students. On top of that, I was stressed out by all the new mandates coming from up above because of the Common Core Learning Standards and the new Teacher Evaluation system (APPR). As I poured over my end of the year notes and planned a strategy for the new school year, I decided there are 6 whole-class goals I’d like to set in order keep me from getting distracted this year by outside noise. Since I teach a self-contained class of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, I’m lucky to have most of my same students for a second year, so that we can jump right in.

6 Goals for the 2014-15 School Year:

1.) Worry Less about Teacher Evaluations

At the beginning of last school year when we were told the Danielson Framework for Teaching would be the rubric for the observation portion of our annual evaluations, I tried to figure out how I could show I’m highly effective with my population of students, even though the rubric was not intended for use in special education settings. Although I think I had constructive conversations with my administrators, ultimately I focused far too much energy on what Charlotte Danielson, who has spent almost no time in a classroom teaching, thought I should be doing. I lost sight of how I had been trained to teach my learners with multiple disabilities. After reading Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error this summer and blogging about it on ThinkInclusive.us, I realized just how far I had gotten from meeting my students’ actual needs. I won’t do that again.

2.) Take More Field Trips

In my fixation on the Common Core and trying to show everyone what I already knew, that my students could learn, I left no room for field trips. I was upset at the end of the year when I only managed to fit in one bus trip to the NY Hall of Science and one walking trip to a nearby park. I couldn’t believe that new demands and a new school site had knocked me off my game. In previous years, I scheduled trips into the community almost every week. These experiences were invaluable for my students who would not normally go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Highline park or bowling. For students who use wheelchairs and live uptown, getting to these locations can be quite a challenge for families. I know that families were grateful that their children got these experiences and it helped to solidify our relationships. Taking full advantage of teaching in New York City is one of my favorite parts of this job.

3.) Improve Systems for 1:1 Learning

I’m always looking for ways to provide more one-on-one instruction for my students. In a class with 12 students with multiple disabilities, where often the ratio is 2 children to 1 adult, its hard to provide the direct learning experiences that my students need, since they can complete very few tasks without adult assistance. I don’t have a specific strategy for this yet, but I hope new ideas will emerge as we start off the year. Last year, we were successful in the morning periods to split into small groups and have one small group have 1:1 workstations. I hope to extend this time or use this structure later in the day as well. Eventually, I would like to see each student have an even amount of 1:1 time that is with me, not just paraprofessionals, but establishing routines need to happen first.

4.) Use More Technology

Building on goal #3, I’m hoping technology will help me establish more routines and activities that will provide more individualized and 1-on-1 instruction. One goal I met over the summer was securing more iPads for my classroom! We have one original iPad that is several years old now that came from our school, so it doesn’t have all the great, new accessibility features. Thanks to DonorsChoose.org, my friends, family and a very generous donor who found me on Twitter, we have three new iPads for our classroom! I want to be cautious implementing technology, just for the sake of using technology, but I think four iPads will be a manageable number. I’m hoping my paraprofessionals will be as excited as me and be able to takeover some of the upkeep of the equipment. I’ve already seen how excited my students become over videos and music, I often joke that I should just leave the classroom and broadcast myself on the SmartBoard all day, if I really want everyone’s attention.

5.) Look for Inclusion Opportunities

One of the challenges of teaching a self-contained is that we lack peer models, especially for communication. Now that I’m more comfortable in my new school, I’m looking forward to creating more opportunities for my students to be with general education students.

6.) Have less Stressful IEPs

I’m really hoping that now that all team members know each other better, we can have a smoother process for creating coherent, student-centered IEPs. I never dreaded IEPs like I did this past year; they seemed to be a time drain and never quite came out to be what the student needed. Being the new member of a team can be quite a challenge. Not everyone approaches IEPs with the same mindset and people can become quite defensive about their work. With constant turnover in NYC schools, I know that sticking around means a lot, the fact that I’m here to stay should hopefully move us in a more collaborative direction. Having a second year with families also makes for more solid education plans because we have had a year of dialogue before sitting down in a meeting.

What are your goals for the school year? Any suggestions for me on how I can achieve these goals?