Category Archives: Education

Teaching Disabilities

While most of the public debate focuses on No Child Left Behind and whether the new standards implemented by states can effectively assess teacher’s performance, many students in schools across the country are still years behind and have trouble grasping the basic concepts in math and English.

The term learning disability is still relatively new to the world of education. As education experts realized everyone learns in different ways it became apparent they need to figure out ways that account for all different learning methods. Today, over six million students have been diagnosed with a learning disability and have sparked debate within the community on how best to teach students. As a way to figure out ways to help students that are behind, they have been diagnosed with different disabilities that describe the problems they are having in class.

“I have dealt with kids who curse and scream and fight and cut class, and read on a 1st grade level (when in 6th grade), and can’t understand basic concepts, can’t spell or write ‘properly,’ are three grade levels behind (age wise), and kids who talk back and refuse to do work.” Jonah Stevens, a Special Education teacher in New York’s South Bronx, said when asked to describe his experience teaching students who have learning disabilities.

A learning disability is different from being mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed because these students can still be in the classroom with their peers. A disability can affect different aspects of learning and are diagnosed as affecting specific areas where the child is struggling. Almost half of students diagnosed with a learning disability are performing below where they are supposed to be in math and English and 22 percent of them drop out of high school.

Some of these diagnoses are more popular than others such as Dyslexia, a language and reading disability, or dyscalculia, where students can have problems with arithmetic and other math concepts. Not as well known are Dyspraxia where students have difficulty writing, and Central Auditory Processing Disorder where it can be hard to process and remember language-related tasks. While they may be able to remember words to a song they hear, the learning disabled may process thoughts slowly and then have difficulty explaining them later.

After determining what kind of disability the child is facing, a Individualized Educational Program (IEP) is written for that child that the school is supposed to follow. These accommodations could mean extra time on a test, a computer to take tests or write papers with, and at times placed in another room to learn methods that will help them study. But even with these tools in place, Stevens said “most of the students I have dealt with are just very far academically behind and therefore can be behaviorally difficult” making it harder for him to give his students the individual attention they need.

While it is not known what causes someone to have a learning disability, it does not break down ethnic lines, but usually socio-economic. In many districts across the country, schools do not have the resources necessary to handle their students’ needs. According to Dr. Louis Kraus “There are some schools that are incredibly well positioned to do that, and there are other schools that are less able to do that.” Dr. Kraus works with children and families with learning disabilities and advises fifteen school districts in Chicago. As most school districts around the country get their funding based on the neighborhood they are in, it becomes harder to get what students need to learn. It should not come as a surprise Stevens is facing an uphill battle since the South Bronx is one of the poorest districts in the country. According to Kraus “some of the better school districts have been able to provide some of these needs and less funded school districts are less able to provide for these kids.”

While many experts agree that inclusion in the classroom is best for these students, figuring out the best way to teach them still remains a problem. Studies have shown teachers with more experience are better equipped to help them, and knowledge of different teaching methods for new teachers is useful as well. Like everyone else, students with learning disabilities can have difficulties in one area but excel in another. But even in the areas where they can excel, it becomes harder because they have to focus more on the areas where they are struggling. For teachers, their goal is to figure out the most effective way for students to express their interests in ways that suits them best. Stevens said that “The number one thing in dealing with students with disabilities, and teaching in general, is having good management skills. In many cases it means developing good personal relationships with students in order to have control and the respect of your class. If you do not, your teaching experience will become an awful battle.”

In most cases students diagnosed with a learning disability are pulled out of the classroom for a time so they can receive extra help. But new concepts are being implemented that keep students in all inclusive classrooms.

The Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) takes into account current technologies, combined with proven teaching methods, and puts them into one classroom. The theory is that whether a child is learning disabled or not they will have all the resources he or she needs in one place. Dr. Srikala Naraian, of Teachers College at Columbia University, describes that concept as shifting “the focus from the deficit to the social environment. What kinds of support can be given to all kids in the classroom instead of looking at these kids of needing or having deficits. Recognize they are inseparable from structural support and see what they can do.” This new concept is meant to get the students the support they need because, according to Naraian “there are areas they may be struggling in that may not qualify them to get special ed.”

Every student already has strengths in different areas and UDI is meant to bring them out. According to Naraian teachers in the UDI classroom are supposed to present “a choice (for students) in all different ways you present the content to engage their learning and different ways to get them how to demonstrate how they learn.” That way you are focusing on their strengths while making sure they understand the content. While UDI has been gaining momentum in recent years, there are still many questions that need to be answered.

“No matter how much of an idealist that may sound for many kids there are many kids who just can’t have their needs met because of behavioral outbursts that can occur within the mainstream classroom.” Says Kraus, who does agree that all students should be with their peers, went on to say “but it tends to be quite costly because of the amount of staff they have to have.”

The Principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy (SLA), Chris Lehmann, says that UDI isn’t a bad idea “I think any time you move away from cookie cutter curriculum and you allow them to practice their own skill sets, their own interests, and don’t assume a deficit model it helps all students including those with learning disabilities.” Lehmann believes the real problem is “you assume that everyone can do the exact same thing, then you really put kids with learning disabilities at a real disadvantage where as if you allow people to play to their strengths and learn how to minimize their deficits, because everybody has deficits.”

SLA is a magnet school which has allowed them to have a little more freedom then other public schools. Lehmann said they designed a curriculum that all the teachers were involved in, which helped teachers and students alike. “One of our big winners has been for us at SLA is that we have developed a very strong language for learning between teachers and I think that kids many times suffer from getting lost in school in many ways that are avoidable.” Having this common approach to teaching, he notes, helps students with disabilities because they do not have to adjust to different teaching styles throughout the day. “So the more you can create a common language of learning the more teachers can walk the same walk and sort of enforce their own sort of internal discipline of what they need. Then you are individualizing with a common set of goals, a common set of language, and common set of rubric, a common set of input, and when you do individualize in that environment the individualization becomes very, very powerful.”

But of course there is only so much a school can do. “There’s no special education society” Lehmann says. “You walk into a voting booth and you vote for who you vote for. And it’s the same way with jobs you work for who you work and it’s up to parents to help realize their full versions of themselves when they leave our walls.”

In order to best help those with a learning disability, Dr. Kraus believes a early diagnosis is necessary. That way these children know what to do early on to prepare for class and which studying methods work best for them. Parents should also be aware of other issues, such as corresponding emotional problems. The majority of parents are happy to have their child diagnosed with something after noticing the problems they are having in school. “Much more often than not the parent, with good intervention, learns an appropriate understanding of what their child’s needs are and can work irrevocably with the school systems.” But it is not uncommon to find parents looking for a cure. Kraus said many parents ask “When will it be fixed? And you can’t tell a parent, when, if at all, it will be fixed. You don’t know how far the child will go with interventions. Sometimes it goes incredibly well, sometimes not so well.” It can become a difficult situation for parents and put teachers in a difficult situation because “you can’t guarantee it but what you get to do is work with them and get those interventions in place as early as possible.”

Lehmann said “it’s an understandable impulse to think that a school can cure their child, and it’s not about that as much as we may want it to be. It’s about helping kids to mitigate their deficits and play to their strengths. And learn how to live with a disability that isn’t going to go away no matter what you do.”

For many of the teachers who work with the learning disabled the reward comes from trying to help. Stevens insists that despite the obstacles “I always come back because every student deserves the opportunity for an excellent education.”



Filed under Education, Learning Disabilities

Inquiring Is Just The Beginning

Whenever information is put out by government agencies it’s a good thing, and as this information becomes easier to access through the internet, people should be asking about how the programs they are paying for are helping them live their lives. But it’s just as important to question the data itself.

The New York City’s Department of Education has taken a good step by implementing “customer service” surveys by asking parents, teachers, and students, how they feel about their schools. This is the third year they have conducted this survey and the results havestayed the same. Parents indicated a high level of satisfaction with their schools at 91 percent, and 94 percent of parents were satisfied with the level of education their children received. Student satisfaction was also high with 91 percent of students saying adults at the school were able to help them understand what they needed to do at school.

One area that should please administrators and parents is that 78 percent of teachers said the school leaders gave them regular and helpful feedback about their teaching. After the abrupt exit by Cathie Black, you would think New Yorkers would want better leadership, but only 5 percent of all respondents said more effective leadership was needed. Instead, the biggest issue they cited was class sizes with 23 percent believing they needed to be smaller.

This was the largest participation rate by these groups since the survey started in 2008. Instead of speculating what people think and the media running stories on a school failing, we see the majority of those participating in New York City’s education system are pleased with that they see. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking more questions or looking for a way to improve the system.

When academic studies show that only 1 for every 5 New York City high school graduates are ready for college, there is a clear disconnect between those within the system and those outside of it. Politics of course also plays a roll. Mayor Bloomberg would rather focus on the fact that more students in NYC are graduating high school while he has been in office.

The problem with any public opinion poll is that the people answering the questions can only refer to what they know or how they feel. Sometimes this can be a lot, but in most cases it’s not. In the world of education parents may not realize their children are behind because they have seen how their child has improved their reading, writing, and math skills. But they can’t compare it to other students in their school, other schools around the city, state, or country.

But people who study education policy may have a different take then those who were questioned here. Academics are the ones who have to know (or are supposed to know) all the stats, the studies, and ideas floating around on how we can improve America’s education system. If a thorough debate and analysis is to be taken they need to be brought into the discussion for the outside view.

That being said, there are a lot of good educators out there who know and are working to make improvements. While these survey’s are a good first step to open up the discussion, it is just the beginning.

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Filed under Education, Government 2.0, New York City, NY

Building Better Schools, Means Better Buildings

There was big buzz in the education world when the NAACP sued the Department of Education in New York City. On their website they list the reasons for the suit:

*   The “regular school’s children” had library access for a little over four hours so that the “new charter school’s kids” could have access for almost seven.

  • Traditional school students were moved to a basement, where they were next to the boiler room, to make room for their charter school peers, and teachers of the regular students were forced to teach in the halls due to lack of space.
  • Students in the traditional public school must now eat lunch at 10 a.m. so that charter school students can enjoy lunch at noon
  • New York state law requires the city to involve parents before announcing its intention to shut down a school or make way for a charter to share a school’s space.

But in the Daily News, Stanley Crouch said “The suit is proof of how low a great civil rights organization has fallen since its days of advocating for racial equality in the face of tremendous hatred.” He further criticizes the organization, claiming the only reason why they are doing this is because charter schools are non-union. “Poor teaching performance is dismissed or explained away with the position that everything will be just fine if teachers are paid more money and given more benefits. The UFT (United Federation of Teachers) does not admit to its members’ inferiority, even if test scores and graduation rates stay stagnant.”

We don’t know if student’s are having class next the boiler room, but do you really think a librarian is telling students in a school that they can’t enter the library? That would have to be the meanest librarian ever and the NAACP should focus on getting that librarian out of the school. But there’s not much link to this and the teacher’s union. Yes, the NAACP and UFT have been on the same side on many battles, but (my uneducated legal analysis) I can’t see how a win for the NAACP would also be a win for the UFT. Even politically, does either group really want to be responsible for closing a school?

Now at the risk of sounding old, when I went to high school we had lunch at 10:30am. Yes it was a public school, and no it wasn’t a charter. The building was transformed into a school after being a factory for over a decade. In fact, the trucks for American Express still move in and out of a garage right next to it.

It’s a small building, and during my sophomore year the principles were forced to accept (because it was considered one of the best schools) around 200 more students then had graduated the previous year. The hallways were always crowded and if your class wasn’t on the same floor it usually took over five minutes to get there. In my senior year, rooms in the basement were opened because there wasn’t enough space on the other three levels. There was no boiler. Administrators had no choice but to schedule lunch at odd times because the cafeteria was too small to hold everyone. The question then became whether it was better for the students to have lunch early or late. Speaking from experience, eating that early wasn’t fun, and by the time my last class came I was so hungry it was hard to concentrate.

There are other parts in the city where classes are being held in trailers. This isn’t right, but the problem is not the Board of Education kicking out traditional schools, it’s structural. There simply aren’t enough schools for the growing young population in New York. So we not only need better schools, we also need better buildings.

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Filed under Education, NAACP, NY, NYC, reform

Teachers Take Tests Too

Last night, Superbowl Sunday, I went to my friends place to watch the game and hang out. I’m thinking we’ll order pizza, have a few beers, place a few dollar bets here and there, and hopefully watch Ben Roethlisberger lose. Both of the guys I watched it with are teachers, and as I found out, Sunday nights are work nights. This is the third year my friends are teaching, they started out through the Teach for America program and both of them had family members who were teachers. As it turned out, in your third year of teaching in New York City, teachers have to go through an assessment process to determine if they should be granted tenure or not. So instead of being able to watch football, one of them spent virtually all day yesterday, the weekend, and about three quarters of the game, building a portfolio based on the last two and half years of his teaching.

In all honesty I don’t think I’ve ever seen my friends work so hard. Both of them were the type of students who didn’t have to work hard to get an A in class. Yes, I hate those people too, but obviously I’ve digressed. The portfolio he put together was huge. It had graphs of their student’s performance, tests they administered, assessments by their principal, and their own take on the results. It was in a twelve inch three ring binder with barely any room left. What also took me by surprise was that out of the twelve teachers that were up for tenure at my friends school, only two of them were going to get it.

There has been a lot of pressure to change tenure systems in public schools. In New York City, a key administrator from the Department of Education warned that if the New York does not change how tenure is granted, it can be in serious jeopardy of not receiving money from the Race to the Top program, or the No Child Left Behind. States across the country are competing for these grants and any additional funds school districts can get would be a big help. While many states are considering to simply remove tenure for teachers, New York City has taken a different approach.

Before he left, School Chancellor Joel Klein wrote a open letter to the teachers and described the problem as “a loose tenure system isn’t good for anyone—it hurts students, it disrespects successful teachers, and it leaves those who are not up to the difficult job to struggle.” It makes sense. There is no possible way that all teachers will be as good as we would like for our students, and in most cases, some will be better at one aspect of it then the other. In 2010, New York rated teachers on their effectiveness, and only if they were deemed effective or highly effective would they even be considered for tenure.

I liked the assessment my friend put together for three reasons. First, it didn’t just focus on standardized tests. Instead, it looked at the overall picture and took into consideration other important aspects of teaching that standardized tests don’t. Those aspects include experience (the amount of years a teacher has been in the classroom), where the teacher was teaching (looked into demographics, what kind of school the teacher is in), and tests delivered in the class room.

Quick Tangent: Standardized tests and tests delivered by teachers are very different. Standardized state tests only gauge what students should know, and only tells us which classes/teachers did better than others. The tests administered by teachers tell us the same information, but also allows for something to be done about it. Standardized tests are given at the end of the year where by that time the students have either learned the information or not. But teachers who give their own tests can give them early on or in the middle of the year to determine which of their students needs help. The teacher tests are also created in conjunction with the principal to make sure they are acceptable.

Second, it keeps teachers on edge. My friend wants tenure, who wouldn’t? You don’t have to worry about losing your job (unless you do something really bad), in New York you get all the Jewish holidays off(which most school districts in the country don’t), your salary usually increases as the years go by, and most importantly, you get out around 2:30pm leaving you the rest of the day to get errands done. Tenure is a great carrot to hold over teachers heads to make sure they don’t lose focus and give them something to achieve. Critics always worry about the teachers who are slacking off, but if they know they can get canned when they don’t have tenure and are forced to prove they are doing work (work that most teachers want to do), it makes everyone happy.

Third, and I think the most important one, it makes teachers evaluate themselves. Believe it or not, teachers work weekends. My friends get up at five in the morning to get to school on time, and trust me, as a twenty-four year old that’s no easy task! They are usually exhausted and don’t have the energy to think about the classroom (that is unless you go out to drinks with a bunch of teachers. You will, without question, hear some great stories.). As much as I hate to give my friends more work to do, they should be looking to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they can improve.

Even if you have tenure, assessments are always a good thing. There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be looking to improve their work. In the classroom, assessments are the teacher’s responsibility. They can’t argue someone else is telling them how to do their job, or that the tests are bad. If their own assessments show they’re not doing a good job, proper steps can be taken to help them, or it will show they are just not cut out to be a teacher.

These teacher assessments can be combined with programs that are already being designed to help teachers. There are plenty of growing websites and blogs that are working to devise ways that help teachers teach. Combining them with assessments will give all teachers a fair shot for them and their students to succeed.

The debate to determine how to hold teachers accountable won’t stop, and it shouldn’t. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in this country, and those who do it shouldn’t be demeaned. But it is important to know which ones are doing well so we can acknowledge them for it. Standardized testing became popular because it’s the easiest way to assess teachers, and the easiest way for states to qualify for federal grants. Students deserve better, and figuring out ways (like self assessments) to make schools better is the least we can do.

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Filed under Education, NCLB, New York, New York City, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teachers

Teaching to Teach

Out of the several issues President Obama will have to tackle these next few years, renewing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Law will be one of the toughest. One would think that a piece of legislation that Senator Kennedy pushed through Congress, and was signed by President George W. Bush, that in this new bipartisan era it wouldn’t have much problem getting through. But then again, the first vote to be taken in this new Congress is the “job-killing” repeal of the health care law.

The biggest problem President Obama will have trying to re-authorize NCLB will be that both Democrats and Republicans have issues with it, and some are legitimate. When the law was first enacted funding for NCLB was non-existent. States that were trying to implement its policies were unable because there was not enough money in the federal budget. This lead to the second problem: in order to qualify for what little funding there was, states had to device a way which would assess schools. The law never said that standardized tests had to be implemented, but it was the cheapest way to qualify for the federal money.

Since Arne Duncan took over the Department of Education, he devised a new way for states to compete called Race to the Top. The difference here was States had more standards to meet. Yes students still had to take tests, but more charter schools had to be created, and assessments had to be submitted. But in every race there’s always a loser. While most states changed their education system in order compete for the millions of dollars being dangled in front of them, most states did not receive any money, or not as much money as they thought they would or should get. When the second round came up, the states that got shunned threatened not to participate and derail Obama and Duncan’s image of how schools should be run.

I have no problem with using money to get what you want. It’s done all the time. Whether it is to stop people from drinking and driving, regulate pollution in streams and rivers, or building new wind turbines for energy, this is how our current government works and has for a long time. The problem I do have with this policy is that it won’t help children learn.

Making students take tests won’t get students to understand what they are being tested on. Where Secretary Duncan and school Superintendents around the country should focus its efforts, is figuring out the best methods to teach teachers how to teach, and the best practices that enable students to learn. Then, incentives can be given to states based on what we know works, instead of assuming a one shoe fits all approach. Which brings me to my second point.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been studying which teaching practices work best. One of the key findings is that smaller classrooms produce better outcomes for students. Reason being; the teacher is able to give those students the attention they need. But if you’re going to give more money to states to hire more teachers and build more schools, you have to make sure the teachers being hired actually know how to teach. The Gates Foundation is looking at what the best teachers are doing now, so teachers of the future can learn from them.

One of the recommendations by the Gates Foundation is to take the students that are seriously struggling and put them into other areas where they can get the help they need. They are not specific on which students they are, only that the students who will be moved should be based on the criteria they develop. But let’s assume the students that are moved have learning disabilities.

In the past, I have written about learning disabilities, and while the research being done will indirectly help teachers teach these students, it is still not an issue that is being dealt with. Even the best teachers will have to adjust their methods so the student with a disability can properly learn the material. But shifting them to another room is not the answer. As long as they are willing to work hard, students with disabilities can be in the same classroom as his or her peers, but putting them in another room will only make them feel as if they are below everyone else.

There is no reason why Congress needs to politicize this issue. When NCLB was first enacted in 2001, there were obviously aspects of the bill both liberals and conservatives liked, otherwise, it would not have passed. In the State of the Union Address, President Obama should talk about the success this bill has had since it was first enacted and how it is a way to enact changes to a system that desperately needs it.

Many more studies need to be conducted, and this post does not even begin to scratch the surface of what is wrong with our education system. But once there is a compilation of methods that are proven to effectively teach students, incentives should be given to states to teach, and teach those policies to its teachers.


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Filed under Arne Duncan, Democrats, Education, Gates Foundation, Leanring Disabilities, NCLB, No Child Left Behing, Obama, President Obama, Republicans, Teach, Teachers

>Staying Positive


My intuition was partly confirmed when I was searching information for this post. After you type in “learning” into Google, “learning disabilities” is the third term on the drop down list.

I found some very good sites on what learning disabilities are, and some ways which parents can help their children, and adults can help themselves, when one is learning disabled. Kids Health and the Learning Disabilities Association of America has great information, and can help answer a lot of questions for people whos lives they effect, or for those who have never heard of the term learning disability.

There was a recent New York Times article which showed the problems teachers have when they have to teach students who are extremely disabled. What makes learning disabilities unique, is that you would never know that someone has a learning disability unless he or she tells you. Learning disabilities not only effect the development that one learns, but social development as well.

Students have only recently begun being diagnosed with learning disabilities, and they usually are in their early teens. Now, I don’t know anyone who liked middle school. Whenever I talk to anyone about it they always have bad memories, mostly from being picked on because, as you know, everyone is cool when they are twelve years old.

While school is a place to learn the skills that prepare you for the world, it is also a place where you are supposed to learn how to interact with other people without your parents telling you how to behave. But having a disability can make it difficult. Since you are struggling, school becomes a place where you are not comfortable. You are forced to work harder then your peers but still not getting as good of grades, your teachers keep telling you you’re doing something wrong, and then your friends are calling you an idiot. It’s not fun, and needless to say, you don’t feel too good about yourself.
Having a learning disability is not something that goes away. While there are methods which can help those who are learning disabled, there is no way to fix whatever it is that causes someone to have these troubles.

There still needs to be research done to determine how to help students who are having these struggles. But what we know is that these students need extra help not just with their homework, but figuring out the best ways for them to learn. Time needs to be set aside with a teacher who can show students how to take notes, organize their work, and also give them the confidence necessary in order to succeed.
Believe it or not though, there are some positives to have a learning disability. For one, you know what you’re good at. I’m 24, most of my friends have graduated, have jobs, and I still hear that they don’t know what they want to do with themselves. Even in undergrad, no one knew what they wanted to major in and had to figure out their niche. When deciding what type of job or career path someone with a disability wants to go in, they’re going to choose something that works toward their strengths. In the end they will be doing a job that they enjoy, and after all the struggles through school, will also be able to take more satisfaction in whatever they decide to do.
Being learning disabled also makes you a hard worker. All the days with tutors, or studying late at night, students with disabilities will be used to working those long hours that employers might need their employees to do.
Since learning disabilities are still relatively new to the world of education, those with disabilities may feel alone. But it is always important to remember that there are a lot of people with learning disabilities out there. Which is why I suspect so many people are googling the term. And even though it may be difficult at times, it’s important to think positively. Take a break from school/work and do something you enjoy, which people should do whether they have a disability or not!

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Filed under Education, Learning Disabilities, Public Policy