Wednesday, August 15, 2007

INDIANA: SPECIAL ED CLASSES FAILING

Contrary to what you might think, most special education students don't suffer from Down syndrome or other severe cognitive disabilities. Nor are they unable to learn in school or pass the ISTEP-Plus exams. Most have been diagnosed with "specific learning disabilities" such as dyslexia. Others suffer from speech impediments or behavior difficulties that stem from problems at home. In many cases, special ed students can perform well in school -- if they are taught by trained professionals. Unfortunately, there's a shortage of special ed teachers.

Concerns over special education have grown over the past decade, as the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability requirements force school districts to show whether they are giving at-risk students, including those in special ed, the attention they need to succeed. Many school officials -- across the nation and the state -- are concerned that the requirement to test even the most severely disabled students makes educators look bad. Some local and state educators want to lower expectations for special ed students. Considering the evidence found by The Star, lower expectations seem counter-productive.

Too many special ed students are dropping out of school. Forty-nine percent of special ed students ages 14 to 21 who left school during the 2004-05 school year -- 5,200 young Hoosiers -- dropped out, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Only 28 percent of special ed students nationwide dropped out that year. The state trails the nation in graduating special ed students. Only 40 percent of special ed students who left school graduated compared with a 55 percent national average.

Blacks, already more likely to land in special ed than whites, fare worse than others in those settings. Sixty percent of black special education students -- 1,400 youngsters -- dropped out that year, compared with 47 percent of whites. Nationwide, only 35 percent of black special ed students dropped out. Graduation rates are even more abysmal. Twenty-seven percent of blacks leaving special ed in 2005 earned a diploma, compared to 43 percent of whites. Thirty-nine percent of black special ed students nationwide graduated in that period. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to spend more than 60 percent of their time in special ed classes. They get fewer opportunities to achieve academically.

Most special education students aren't suffering from mental retardation or other cognitive disorders. Mentally retarded students make up just 13 percent of Indiana's special education population between the ages of six and 21. While they make up a larger portion of the state's special ed population than the national average, they aren't the majority. Forty percent of special ed students are primarily diagnosed with "specific learning disabilities," a wide-range of disorders that include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Another 24 percent are primarily diagnosed with speech impairments caused by brain injury and such birth defects as cleft palates. Students suffering emotional disturbances account for the rest.

These students can learn, notes Erin Dillon of the Education Sector, an educational think tank, in a recent report. Sixty-nine percent of third-grade special ed students who didn't need accommodations passed the math portion of the ISTEP-Plus exam last year, barely trailing students in regular classes. For the most part, this can be done while still mainstreaming students into regular classes to avoid the stigma of special ed labeling. Additional help, including reading specialists and counselors, is key to helping those students achieve. The use of individualized learning plans, mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, can also help parents and teachers help students succeed.

Sadly, a shortage of special education teachers, especially those trained in handling emotional problems, means that students aren't getting the specialized instruction they need. So classes end up being taught by instructors with little or no special ed experience.

Another problem is the over-diagnosis of learning disabilities, especially among young black and white males. The lack of intense early remediation to deal with achievement gaps is a culprit. Cultural differences between students and the teaching corps, which consists mostly of white females, also doesn't help. Black males, who made up just 30 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools' overall population in 2004-05, accounted for 39 percent of those diagnosed with a learning disability and 53 percent of the emotionally disturbed population.

Solving these problems will require systemic changes in the public education system: Improve pay for special ed jobs, along with merit bonuses to attract talented teachers. Provide specialized training for all instructors to sensitize them to the needs of special ed students and help streamline them into regular classrooms. Be more discerning in diagnosing special education needs. This can be helped by luring more males, especially black men, into teaching.

There are some special ed students, notably those with mental retardation, whose ability to learn will always be limited. But a large pool of students has the potential to do great things, given the opportunity. That's why it's so important to address this need -- a need that lies at the root of many learning issues facing educators. The students deserve better.

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What a great idea from Britain

Pupils are to be given a question-by-question breakdown of their GCSE and A-level results over the next fortnight, which could give parents the ammunition to sue schools for poor teaching. Edexcel, one of the country's largest exam boards, will give heads feedback on the performance of all their students and teachers when they publish their results for the examinations, starting on Thursday. Not only will heads and teachers be able to compare results for questions across year groups, but some fear that parents and pupils will be able to do the same.

Teaching unions have expressed concerns that Edexcel's latest move could be exploited by parents to punish underperforming staff and have called for the information to be used solely for in-school improvements. Next week more than 200,000 sixth-formers will receive their A-level results amid expectations that a quarter of entries could achieve an A-grade, thereby putting greater pressure on students aiming for places at the top universities.

Jerry Jarvis, the managing director of Edexcel, admitted that revealing more information could encourage parents to sue schools, but he said that it was crucial that pupils knew whether they had been taught badly. "The last thing we want to do is damage the teaching environment, when we're short of heads and so on," he said. "So we don't want this technology to be used to sue schools, but we know that parents want the best for their children, so the pressure to get the results is going to come."

Last year the examination board piloted the results feedback system of 1,500 pupils at 10 schools. From next week the results of all the 1.2 million pupils taking Edexcel GCSE and A-level examinations will be made available to heads all over Britain. Teachers will also be able to apply to see the results of their pupils. They will be able to compare them across the year group, with the national average and with past years. But they will not be able to look at other schools' results.

The students will also be able to access their own results, module scores and grades online. But they will have to ask their teachers for the school's comparative figures. They will also be able to tell how close they were to a higher grade and gauge whether they should ask for a re-mark. Mr Jarvis is also considering arming students with their test results throughout the year, as well as their classmates' average, the national average in a subject or course and that of neighbouring schools. "If I then see that I'm likely to gain a C and I can see that the class is performing at a much lower level than others, what do I do with that information?" he asks.

Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that part of the problem was that parents were not expert at understanding the marking system.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, said most heads would welcome the information, and that they would be concerned only if it allowed parents to make comparisons between classes. "I don't think it will be easy to make comparisons on that basis, but obviously there's a concern that parents will try to and come to erroneous conclusions," he said.

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1 comment:

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