Undue Criticism of Special Education

I’m frustrated with the finger pointing that sometimes occurs between general education teachers and special education teachers. In the seven years I’ve been an administrator, in three different districts, I’ve seen this occur too often. At times, when a student accomplishes something through the services of a special ed teacher, gen ed teachers have the audacity to say the special education teacher did the work for the student. This is insulting to the student and to the special education teacher.

If we think about the different roles of the general education and special education teacher, we see a different focus. Generally speaking, the special education teacher focuses on each student’s strengths and weaknesses and works to capitalize on one and improve the other. General education teachers focus on delivering the content, while differentiating instruction, for all students in the class.

As I see it, everything the special education teacher does is to help the student succeed for you, the general education teacher. Why then, do general education teachers sometimes criticize the special education teachers when the child meets with that success? This seems absurd to me, because that’s exactly what the special ed teacher is hired to accomplish. Strengthening our students, helping them to succeed– this is the basic purpose of our school system.

General education teachers, special education teachers, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, specialists, administrators, and students have one goal: student success at every level. It’s nobody’s business to point the finger at any other person in the system. It’s everyone’s business to work together as a team in the best interest of the child.

Teachers who determine that students could never do the work without the special education teacher doing it for them should let go of their trusty bell curves. It’s time.

February Break is Not Needed

One of the built in benefits of the school schedule is the fresh start provided at the beginning of each quarter, semester, and school year. This is a terrific opportunity for every student to “get it right” with attendance, homework completion, and academic achievement. Either the student is continuing his or her strong efforts from previous terms OR he or she gets the chance to start over with good intentions.

As a teacher, I always enjoyed the opportunity to start fresh because a new term usually meant starting a new topic or unit. Historically the third quarter is the toughest on students in regard to rigor, and overall grades generally reflect this fact. It’s a time to really push for  content in our rush toward the Regents exams. In New York State, schools are measured and judged by our graduation rate and by the performance of our students on our Regents exams, particularly at the mastery level of 85 and above. This puts tremendous pressure for improvement on everyone from the superintendent to the principal to the teacher to the student.

As we embrace this new beginning, this third quarter/second semester fresh start, we look forward to only three weeks of uninterrupted instruction when we enter another break, one week off starting with Presidents’ Day. Many of our students will return this Tuesday after a full week off without daily attendance, attending only for their scheduled Regents exams. This February break is a problem.

Any school counselor certainly knows, and most teachers, that the return from and anticipation of school breaks is hard on many children who do not enjoy that time at home for any number of reasons. We just get our kids back in the swing of things, and BOOM, another break.

In my opinion, the February break is a worthless waste of time. Many advocate that we were better off with two weeks at Easter time. I don’t honestly care one way or the other if Easter is one week or two, but can definitely say that the February break is an interruption to student learning that we don’t need.

Cheating or Initiative?

Our teachers are giving mid term exams right now. One of my requests is that they completely align the mid terms with the Regents, taking Regents exam questions on content that’s been covered to date and giving a test that mirrors the Regents.

Having said that, if a student goes on-line and looks up all of the old Regents exams and answer keys, works the problems, studies the answers, and scores a 100 on the mid-term, what do you call that? Cheating or Resourceful?

I think this takes initiative, review, and serious study time. The teacher knows the exams and keys are out there, pieces together old questions to make the exam, everyone has the same opportunity to look up the questions and answers, is it cheating?

Creating a Culture of Literacy

Today was a superintendent’s conference day and our entire faculty focused on literacy. It was our privilege to welcome Melvina Phillips, who authored the book, Creating a Culture of Literacy, for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) , as our teacher today.

We talked about literacy across the content areas and focused on literacy strategies that content area teachers can employ immediately. Melvina taught the strategies to us through modeling and practice. I walked away with several strategies I know will help our students in the classroom.

I gave every teacher an exit ticket out the door on which they could reflect on something they learned, something they needed to successfully implement, something that worries them or affects them from today’s learning, and anything else they needed us to know.

It was interesting how many of our teachers expressed concern about two major points. One, they worry that our administration won’t see it through and two, that their colleagues won’t participate.

I learned clearly today that it’s my role as the principal to help teach strategies by providing peer coaching time and staff development, to allow opportunities to practice, and then to encourage (read: require) all teachers to help our students by applying these literacy strategies in the classroom. Regularly. Melvina said that all students need the opportunity to read, listen, write, discuss, and investigate in every lesson. It’s my job to help teachers learn and practice, then expect it to be done, regularly and well.

The fact that so many teachers were worried about their colleagues didn’t really surprise me. But if I don’t move forward and set high expectations for all faculty because of those teachers who don’t want to learn, to change, to make things better for our students, then I’m just leading to the least common denominator. Just like teachers who expect little of themselves and their students because of those kids who aren’t motivated and won’t work.

I’m a better leader than that, I refuse to allow those teachers firmly entrenched in status quo to dictate what happens for our kids. I expect our teachers to do better than that and I expect more from myself. For all of the wonderful teachers in our building who were willing to LEARN what Melvina taught today, I won’t let you down.

To retain or not to retain, that is the question.

We have a Dean of Students, Dan C., who handles discipline in G-Town. He and I had an interesting discussion this morning about retention. It’s not the first time we’ve had this discussion and it’s generally the same every time.

About two years ago, a considerable number of students were retained in the middle school because they failed multiple subjects. Dan’s point of view is that this consequence for lack of effort and achievement sends a powerful message to these students and to others who may be barely passing. My point of view is that it primarily increases the chances that the retained students will drop out. Dan argues that we can’t measure what effect it has on the students on the borderline and also that those retained students would likely have dropped out anyway.

My argument about the preponderance of research indicating the negative consequences does not convince Dan that retention is a poor choice. The National Association of School Psychologists cite the following in a position paper on retention:

Research examining the overall effects of 19 empirical studies conducted during the 1990s compared outcomes for students who were retained and matched comparison students who were promoted. Results indicate that grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (reading, math and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Again, Dan argues that this does not measure what impact retention may have on those students in danger of being retained, or who are barely passing. This position paper by the NASP is sufficient evidence for me that retained students are in more serious danger of dropping out based on retention alone. Do we sacrifice the retained students in order to teach the rest of the student population a lesson?

I’m not arguing for social promotion. Here’s where Dan and I agree. If we are saying students aren’t adequately prepared for ninth grade, what are we going to do differently? Just repeating the same thing they already failed at is not likely to help. We need a bridge year or semester or something. And when do we examine the underlying reasons the students are failing? I am hard pressed to believe that it’s just because they refuse to do the work and we need to teach them a lesson, a work ethic. I just don’t believe that children choose to fail, rarely, if ever. Where then is our responsibility to go back and evaluate our curriculum and instruction? Our remedial programs? Our early identification of students who need additional support?

And still I have students entering 9th grade this year at 15 or 16 years of age. I’m not talking about one or two kids.  How will I possibly motivate them to stick around until they are 19 or 20 years old for a diploma? I would consider an accelerated program in high school to get them through in three years, as Dan wisely suggests, but they most likely require AIS and remediation and extra time, not less time.

I come back to the responsibility of instruction and programs that is mine as the principal and is detailed in this report by reading specialist Debra Johnson.

Meaningful Learning

Skilled teachers intensify learning by providing authentic instruction and meaningful assignments while holding high expectations for all students. Such assignments deal with the significant concepts of a discipline, incorporate higher-order thinking skills, are connected to the “real world,” and allow substantial time for discussion and idea sharing among students (Peterson, 1995). Furthermore, teachers can employ several learning models to create active learning environments that reflect a shift in the relationships among teachers, students, and knowledge. In these environments, students work together to frame their own questions and investigate them. Active environments require collaboration and communication, and encourage more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information than do traditional classrooms (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000). Active learning environments require students to take responsibility for their own learning and develop strategies for learning (Costello, 1996). Instruction in active environments emphasizes depth of learning rather than breadth of learning (Peterson, 1995).

Is this the kind of learning our retainees experienced? Did we do enough? Did they get the best instruction and intervention along the way? Did we teach them to read for comprehension? Did we involve the necessary support personnel? Did we form relationships with the students and their families? Can we ever do enough? I guess when our graduation rate is in the 95%-100% range instead of only 79%, then perhaps I’ll be satisfied. The problem for me is that they’re not statistics, they’re kids who I know, and I also know they’re much better off entering the world with a diploma.


When I think about our encore subjects, or specials as some districts call them, I think my expectations are greater in some ways than for the core subjects. After all, teachers of encore subjects don’t have to worry about the Regents exams and they aren’t scrutinized in the K-12 analysis of data. So why would my expectations be greater?

For many children, this is the only place that they can excel. For a student who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a successful learner, physical education, art, music, technology, and home & careers may be the only place the student finds success. This makes the child’s experience in those classes critical. As I’ve written here before, we have to connect with our students in ways that make coming to school important to them and the “specials” are a great way to make that happen.

As teachers and parents talk about high expectations, let’s remember to include these encore subjects. But let’s remember them as the place where students have an opportunity to create, to enjoy, to appreciate, to move, and to love learning. The encore subjects, above all, should allow children to follow their passions and to enjoy school. I have high expectations for them because they afford the diversity of learning that I so long for in our schools.

Thank you to the wonderful, caring teachers working so hard in these subjects. As staff development efforts continue to focus on data analysis in the core subjects, never forget how important your role is for our children. Finding success with you may just motivate students to keep working on those math problems and journal entries. Let them love what they do with you.

Just a little success at something.

David O’Rourke proposed an interesting activity at a meeting I attended yesterday. We’re focusing on our students who drop out, specifically those who are Native American because they are dropping out at a significantly higher rate than our other students. David is leading our three-district initiative.

Yesterday he asked us to take two minutes to think about one student who is failing two or more subjects and who’s unlikely to graduate. Imagine what he may need to get him there. Well, I’ve taken more than two minutes to think about it because I haven’t stopped yet.

It brings me back to this idea of one high school fits all again. Why? Because when I imagine what every student needs to stay in school, it’s success. She needs to find success in our school that’s so compelling it makes her want to return every day. It doesn’t have to be success at everything, but at something, at anything.

Let me use an example. When I attended elementary and middle school, I was in most of my classes with Leslie Horn. Leslie was smarter than me. She always did better than I did on every assignment, in every class. As a child thinks, I concluded that she was smarter than me, plain and simple. I don’t remember being upset about it, because I also knew that I was smarter than Ronnie B. Probably just about every kid could look to his right and see someone who was smarter and to her left and see someone who wasn’t. But what about the kid at the end? That’s the student we lose.

We need to provide lots of different opportunities to succeed that result in a diploma. Not just one way.

When Leslie and Ronnie and I got to high school, we went in different directions. Leslie went into the Honors courses; I went into the Business courses and Ronnie B. went into vocational courses. Each of us got to excel at something, got to stop comparing, got to find our own success. I remember being surprised when I won a DECA competition; just as Ronnie B. may have been surprised to find out he was terrific at fixing cars. But we got to find out. We got to take different routes and isn’t that what the rest of our lives is all about? When we enter the work force, we go in the direction of whatever it is we’re best at—I’m not singing and dancing on Broadway for a reason. And I love my job, because every day I get to follow my passion, education. With my students who struggle the most, all they get to do at our high school is more of what they struggle with, through remediation and AIS and doubling up on subjects they can’t pass.

Why does everyone have to get out of high school in the same way? Who decided that’s the only way that’s worthy? I want a school where we can help our students determine their strengths and do more of what they’re good at, whatever it may be. And I want to help them figure out what that is instead of showing them where they fall short.

He’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice. . .

I have a great idea for motivating our students! We can publish a list of those students most in need of improvement. By raising their level of anxiety, it will encourage these students to do much better. Without that, they won’t work hard, won’t look at the research, and won’t endeavor to improve. But I think with the implementation of this list, everything will change and all children will succeed. 

Better yet, let’s also test our neediest children, those who are new to English or have special needs beyond consultant teacher and resource room. And when those students can’t meet our standards, can’t succeed on the same Regents exams as all other children, we’ll put their names on a list too. That will motivate them to do better, I’m sure of it. 

And while I’m thinking of it, let’s issue a list for parents in need of improvement. And principals. And teachers. I’m sure that soon all of our successful corporations will follow suit, publishing lists with the names of employees who are in need of improvement. This may be the most revolutionary method of motivation ever, change is guaranteed. Companies who have wasted time, energy and money on employee incentives, on corporate climate, on strategic planning, can just use the list motivator! 

Think of it, we’ll just test the living daylights out of everyone–maybe even the President of the United States. We could even have a list of Presidents in Need of Improvement. Now there’s an idea.

Why are we using blogging in the classroom?

This afternoon, I posted about two teachers in G-Town who are experimenting with blogging in the classroom. When I posted, I was thinking about the technology and the fact that the students are really being expected to do the same kinds of things as in a traditional classroom, just in a different medium. I was wondering how much valuable time will be spent on the technology and if it’s motivating our students to learn the content.

Will Richardson posted today and it was exactly what was on my mind about teachers using blogging in the classroom.

Will writes, “At some point, I’m hoping Jeff will scaffold up from “the same-old-report in a different format that has a big audience” work to more “critical analysis of the content that we’re producing to test our ideas” work. I mean that, at it’s core, is what is powerful about these technologies. They allow us to take risks with our ideas, to test them in authentic ways with real audiences, and learn from the process. (In many ways, this post is a risk.) Why shouldn’t we be asking students to do the same?”

I wonder what that could look like. I’ve only been blogging since July and I want students to feel that same motivation that I do to write. But I’m not following an assignment. I’m writing about the topic that’s most motivating to me and I’m writing for an audience who shares that interest. I’m excited to hear what they say about my ideas. I’m disappointed when what I write resonates with no one and I get no feedback. That’s what I want our students to have. A reason to write well with well thought out ideas for a real audience.  

High Schools Need Improvement

New York State listed the 228 High Schools Identified As Needing Improvement today. I’m happy to say we’re not on this list, but we are a high school in need of improvement. Our teachers and students can do better and we have too many dropouts. I can do better as their principal.

Every good teacher and administrator knows that we can always do better. In addition to the day to day management of our building and all that it encompasses, I spend a tremendous amount of time researching and problem solving to increase our achievement and graduation rate. We look at the test results, teaching practices, curriculum, literacy, professional development opportunities, culture, drop out prevention plans, school climate, and especially, at our students.  And thank goodness, we had gains in June’s Regents results that helped us make AYP (adequate yearly progress) and keeps us as a school in good standing.

I live in dread that we won’t continue to improve, despite our best efforts, and we’ll end up “on the list”. Defined as a failure.

But hey, New York State is happy to help as they’ve outlined corrective action. That’s great because I’ll take any good idea I can get, anything that’s scientifically research based anyway. And I’d like to spend more money and time on high quality professional development.  I provide written notification to parents on our results. We already have a teacher mentoring program. And hell, I’ve no idea how to promote more parent involvement. They’re either really involved or never involved. Our building improvement team sponsors six or seven major events per year to improve climate and to bring in our families, so we can do more there. Maybe being on the “list” won’t be so bad anyway. I just hope if G-Town lands on the list, they give us more direction than that ’cause I’m already there.