Sunday, July 15, 2012

Giving Kids What They Need

The following post is a personal reflection about the world of public education, with consideration given to our special education students, based on powerful conversations I recently had in one of my doctoral courses that challenged my thinking...

          The public education system in our country should be anchored in one shared belief – every child who attends a public school will get what they need to meet with success when they enter the world as adults. That echelon of success will look different for every child but at a minimum, every child should be functionally literate (critical readers and problem solvers) at a twelfth grade level. Furthermore, the expectation is that our public schools will help our children assimilate, culturally and linguistically, so that when they enter society they will successfully integrate and contribute to the common good, fulfill societal needs and function as democratic citizens. It is imperative that our children understand these expectations and that they are exposed to various curricular modules and learning experiences that equip them with the skill sets they need to meet with success in society and become fully integrated (working, caring for themselves, etc.).

Being that all children come to school with different needs, abilities, background experiences, medical histories and readiness levels, it is imperative that the public school system is prepared to meet each child at their point of entry and move them forward. Does that mean that one group of children may get more than another group based on specific needs over a period of time? Yes! It may mean more materials or more staffing or more resources but regardless of the what, each child will get what they need to begin the assimilation process for an eventual successful integration into society. As the parent of a child with special needs, who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), I have the benefit of seeing things through this "atypical" lens. As a result of being born with a condition known as arthrogryposis and also being afflicted with congenital scoliosis, my son requires physical therapy, occupational therapy and a health aide by his side throughout the school day. Clearly, the majority of special education students, including my son, need more (resources, materials, funds, etc.) than most other children in their schools just so they can meet with some level of success and so they can have access to a level playing field. Although this does not necessarily mean that there is an equal distribution of resources among all the children in our schools, it does mean that we are giving these special needs students what they need. I view this blatant inequitable distribution of resources as the right thing to do because it represents a fair and appropriate distribution of those said resources. In the end, it is in our best interest, as a country, to spend more money during the schooling years on our special needs children so that we can increase their chances of being self-sufficient, functional and contributing members of society. If we don’t invest these extra resources at a young age, we may be forced to spend more money to support these students throughout adulthood and into their senior years when they may not be able to care for themselves because of a lack of skills.

Another reason I feel so strongly that it is our responsibility to inequitably support specific groups of students at any given time during their schooling years is that the roots of my educational philosophy are loosely planted in some of the ideas espoused by Thomas Jefferson. My loose interpretation of Jefferson’s belief is that the main purpose of schooling was to “rake the gems from among the rubbish” so that real talent could be identified and pushed ahead to the benefit of our country. This idea of identifying the specific talents of the children within our schools and then fostering and nurturing these talents makes so much sense. By cultivating these God-given talents and helping our children harness their power and impact, we are ensuring the success of our country within the global landscape especially in regards to economic competitiveness. It should be noted that my belief does differ from Jefferson’s in at least one significant way - it is my belief that every child is talented and gifted in some way and that it is our school’s responsibility to identify and develop these talents. From the time when humans are born and are developing in their primary years, I don’t believe that rubbish exists. Instead, I believe all of our children are gems and that by structuring the learning experiences within our schools in specific ways, we can identify each gem and help them develop and maximize their potential. Unfortunately, the identification process is not always easy. Yes, some of our children come to school where their natural talents are instantly visible but many of our students require more resources, materials, support, etc. in order to unearth their talents and begin harnessing their power.

With that in mind, it is clear that it is our responsibility, as a nation, to make sure that our public schools stand by the notion that fair is not always equal in our tireless efforts to give every child what they need to be productive members of American society.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Treatment Plan

Several years ago in a random (and rather embarrassing) accident, I tore a ligament in my knee. Upon initially being injured, I was pretty certain that it was nothing serious and that if I stretched my knee and walked around I would be fine. Well, what I didn't realize was that I was making the situation much worse and eventually, I could not straighten my leg so I eventually went to the doctor. Upon a quick examination of my knee, the doctor was pretty certain that all I needed was some physical therapy and my knee should be fine. Of course, he wasn't satisfied with making a diagnosis and laying out a treatment plan solely based on his quick examination and his history with similar injuries. Instead, I was sent for an X-Ray, which showed nothing was broken, and then an MRI, which showed a significant tear in my meniscus that would require surgery immediately. Upon reviewing the results, consulting with another doctor in the practice about what type of surgery would make the most sense and speaking with a physical therapist about an appropriate post-op therapy plan, my doctor successfully repaired and treated my knee so that it was back to full strength within a few months.

Well my fellow educators, herein lies the problem in the world of public education today. Certain people (educators with limited or no classroom experience, politicians, business men/women, non-educators, etc.) are laying out quick-fix "treatment plans" for how we can repair all the problems in the world of public education today. Unfortunately, these "treatment plans" are being laid out without close examination, without all the facts (facts that come from both hard and soft data), without consulting the people who are currently meeting with success in the field and without thinking about the people who are most important in the world of education - our children - and what they need! "Treatment plans" are being laid out based on the results of standardized test scores; "treatment plans" are being laid out to help facilitate the implementation of new standards; "treatment plans" are being laid out by a bunch of politicians, commissioners of education and other professionals who are sitting in a room discussing the problems and how they could be fixed; "treatment plans" are being developed in a vacuum; and most disturbing, "treatment plans" are being developed to address what BAD educators aren't doing instead of looking at what GREAT educators are doing (and how we can recreate those practices across the country)!

Are there some problems in the world of public education today? YES! Do we need to enhance practices being implemented in our classrooms? YES! Do we need to prepare our children to successfully function in today's world? YES! Can we address these issues by implementing new national standards (which I do believe have some merit) and examining the results of standardized test scores where our kids are answering endless multiple choice questions? NO! In my professional opinion, in order to address the issues in public education today, we need to tap into the resources in our amazing schools - we need to talk to the incredibly dedicated classroom teachers and specialists to find out whats going on and whats working; we need to talk to our passionate instructional leaders who understand that educating the whole child is our daily goal and that standardized test scores are merely a moment in time; we need to talk to our students' parents to find out what things they see working and what areas they would like to see enhanced; we need to talk to our kids and see things through their eyes - they can share such amazing insight into many things; and most importantly, we need to visit the many classrooms where incredible things are happening - instruction is being flipped or teachers are differentiating and personalizing instruction based on various data points or kids are having fun learning without realizing they are doing any work! This is how WE diagnose and treat a problem - examine it carefully, look at it from different angles, consult the experts and make decisions in the best interest of everyone involved. This is what WE need to do; the WE who live for the success of public education (or any education); the WE who have devoted our lives to doing what is best for children; the WE who get excited when we walk into a classroom; the WE who are passionate about learning and teaching; the WE who are GREAT educators who are using relevant and cutting edge practices, materials and techniques!

We must start a revolution and do whatever possible to make sure that "treatment plans" and educational reform ideas are NOT being developed and implemented based on what BAD educators are not doing.