Twice (Thrice?) Exceptional Curriculum – Antonia Guccione, MA, MS [Guest Blog Post]

Possession of a college degree as well as a Special Education credential does not necessarily mean one is ready for all the challenges of meeting the needs of diverse learners. If one thinks having a curriculum guide and a set of text books is going to do it, one is mistaken and must seriously reconsider his or her career choice.  Individual planning for certain groups and learning styles is a must.  But don’t count out lessons geared for  gifted and talented students when planning for those with learning or other disabilities.

I learned this through a course I took in teaching the gifted and talented offered by a local college and taught by an expert in the field of Twice Exceptional Education, Dr. Susan Baum. “A Toolkit for Teens” served as the basis of many of the lectures.  The course was not simply taught in a didactic manner; it was also taught experientially.  There were lectures, but there were also less traditional experiences.

Through this course, I learned to weave cinematherapy into my Middle and High School language arts classes. Important themes, such as bullying and independence as well as deceit and, of course good and evil, could be studied by watching characters and the choices they made in movies such as The Princess Diaries, Contact, and Cast Away.   The onus was on the characters in the movies, not on the students in the class. Writing summaries, taking notes, making inferences, and drawing conclusions were included at every step.  If writing was a challenge, drawing, role playing, and giving speeches were encouraged.   We also studied goal setting, action plans, and time management.  These lent themselves nicely to mathematical lessons. We learned about stress busters as tools to combat anxiety and how and when to use them.  We studied Active Listening and “I Statements” as well as the difference between assertive versus aggressive language and actions.

The bottom line is that in the quest to meet standards and assessments, there are different paths to follow. Differentiation is a complex process which requires creativity and skill.  I strongly recommend this Toolkit for Teens in planning your next semester.  It is a strength-based model and focuses on what students can do despite what challenges they might have.  Whether students have been diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder, ADHD, or Executive Functioning issues, these lessons and activities provide helpful strategies. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. All students need enrichment activities.


Antonia Guccione, MA; MS

Antonia is a consultant, educator, and author with over forty years’ experience working with students of all ages, strengths, and needs.

Bring Back Some “Old School” Education

There is a common belief among the education community that education theory is evolving.  Ph.D.s and school administrators keep thinking up new ways to ‘improve’ our education system, for example ‘common core’ and ‘standardized testing’.  Problem with that theory is we are graduating more children from the K-12 system now who do not have the basic skill set to get a job, live on their own, or function in the post-secondary education environment. I have a thought about that: we have abandoned some of the tried-and-true methods that worked in the 50s, 60s, and 70s for the sake of ‘experimenting’ with our children’s education.  My suggestion is to resurrect some of those ‘old school’ methodologies.  Here are some techniques that studies have proven to be effective: 1. Bring back music and the arts into our school systems as mandatory courses Studies have repeatedly shown that music and art trigger portions of the brain that ‘core subjects’ do not and help the brain process other subjects better, for example math. One study showed that listening to music reduces distraction when doing schoolwork.

“We seem to have two attention systems: a conscious one that enables us to direct our focus towards things we know we want to concentrate on and an unconscious one that shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant. The unconscious one is simpler, more fundamental, and linked to emotional processing rather than higher reasoning. It also operates faster.”

“Music is a very useful tool in such situations. It provides non-invasive noise and pleasurable feelings, to effectively neutralise the unconscious attention system’s ability to distract us.”

Other studies have concluded the same, indicating that our ability to concentrate during studying is enhanced by music. The same is true with art, but for different reasons.

“Almost as soon as motor skills are developed, children communicate through artistic expression. The arts challenge us with different points of view, compel us to empathize with “others,” and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition. Empirical evidence supports these claims: Among adults, arts participation is related to behaviors that contribute to the health of civil society, such as increased civic engagement, greater social tolerance, and reductions in other-regarding behavior. Yet, while we recognize art’s transformative impacts, its place in K-12 education has become increasingly tenuous.”

“We find that a substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes.”

2.  Return vocational training to K-12 education An article in Forbes magazine a few years ago observed:

“Throughout most of U.S. history, American high school students were routinely taught vocational and job-ready skills along with the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.”

“[T]he focus shifted to preparing all students for college, and college prep is still the center of the U.S. high school curriculum.”

“Not everyone is good at math, biology, history and other traditional subjects that characterize college-level work. Not everyone is fascinated by Greek mythology, or enamored with Victorian literature, or enraptured by classical music. Some students are mechanical; others are artistic. Some focus best in a lecture hall or classroom; still others learn best by doing, and would thrive in the studio, workshop or shop floor.”

“The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers.”

The reality for most school-age children is that they will only be exposed to college-centered curriculum in public school and those who don’t have that interest will suffer.  It was exacerbated when President Obama “called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school ” during an address to a joint session of Congress in 2009. However, it is well-established that not every kid should or can afford to go to college.  What is perhaps worse is that the drive for every child to go to college has resulted in student loan debt skyrocketing and nearly impossible to elminate due to a lack of jobs in those sectors.

“Now that the Department of Education has made this data available, it appears that, in fact, the average student loan borrower takes longer than ten years to repay his/her loans.”

“Because more than half of defaults [on student loans] occur outside the [time] window covered by current federal default statistics, overall default rates are much higher than previously thought.”

“These data suggest that whether a degree is completed, and what type of degree is completed, may be more important factors related to the increasing default rate than the amount students borrow.”

The data is pretty clear – jobs that graduates get can’t keep up with repayments of student loans.  This argues in favor of a trade education, where the student debt is likely to be much lower, but job security is much higher. 3.  Teach cursive handwriting The benefits of learning cursive go way beyond the ability to sign checks.  Article after article touts this curriculum, but schools have abandoned it because it is the “computer age”.  That’s not an excuse. A New York Times article from 2013 discussed how learning cursive stimulates the brain.

“Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets.”

“As a result, the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation.”

“Regardless of the age we are in or the technological resources at one’s disposal, success is measured by thought formation, and the speed and efficiency in which it is communicated. Because of this, students need a variety of technologies, including cursive handwriting, to succeed.”

William Klemm, Ph.D., Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, offers numerous biological and psychological benefits of learning cursive. Still another author provides 10 reasons to learn cursive, not least of which are:
  • Improved neural connections
  • Improved fine motor skills
  • Increased retention
  • Ease of learning – “Cursive is of particular value to children with learning challenges such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and difficulties with attention.”
Conclusion While this may not cure all of our education woes, it certainly is worth trying.  We are failing our kids right now.  Why not go back to methods that worked in the past instead of experimenting with the new?  It is my opinion if we accept the basic premises that (a) not every child is cut out for college; (b) that providing alternative skill set training expands the opportunities for our kids; and (c) returning to proven-successful teaching methodologies, such as inclusion of music and the arts and teaching cursive, will improve their academic progress and cognitive abilities, then we are likely to see a brighter future for our children.  

5 Things Wrong With Public Education Today

Here are my thoughts and observations about what is wrong with our public education system today:

1.  Too much is spent on school administrators and not enough is spent on teachers

2.  Too much is spent on extracurricular activies, particularly sports, and not enough is spent on arts, music, home economics, and trade (auto shop, mechanics, wood shop, etc.) classes

3.  Too much time is spent on preparing students for standardized testing and not enough time is spent on teaching students how to learn independently

4.  Too much is spent on fighting expensive legal battles and not enough is spent on providing special education and related services

5.  Too much is spent on changing curriculum (for example, common core, Pearson) and not enough is spent on allowing teachers to apply their ‘on the ground’ knowledge of their students and subject matter expertise

And here is a bonus one:

BONUS:  Too much is spent on internal fortress building and not enough is spent on involving the community in our education system, such as involving parents and local businesses in the process

Just my opinion.

 

Is special education instruction by a paraprofessional legal?

Recently, I was asked this (not so) hypothetical:

“4th grade child has an IEP (high functioning Down Syndrome) and is placed in a life skills classroom. There is one special education teacher and seven aides rotating through the classroom.  Reading and math instruction is being solely taught by an aide with the teacher touching base with the child once a week for this instruction. Are there any laws or regulations that say direct instruction can be delivered by a paraprofessional?”

Here is my analysis and answer:

A State may only receive federal funding for special education under IDEA if: “The State educational agency has established and maintains qualifications to ensure that personnel necessary to carry out this subchapter are appropriately and adequately prepared and trained, including that those personnel have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities.”  20 U.S.C. Sec. 1412(a)(14)(A).

“The qualifications under subparagraph (A) include qualifications for related services personnel and paraprofessionals that— (i) are consistent with any State-approved or State-recognized certification, licensing, registration, or other comparable requirements that apply to the professional discipline in which those personnel are providing special education or related services; (ii) ensure that related services personnel who deliver services in their discipline or profession meet the requirements of clause (i) and have not had certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis; and (iii) allow paraprofessionals and assistants who are appropriately trained and supervised, in accordance with State law, regulation, or written policy, in meeting the requirements of this subchapter to be used to assist in the provision of special education and related services under this subchapter to children with disabilities.”  20 U.S.C. Sec. 1412(a)(14)(A) (emphasis added.)

So, first, paraprofessionals in the special ed environment (implementing an IEP) must be properly certified in the discipline they are teaching.  This is true for reading and math.  You must look to the State’s education code on who has the proper certification and/or licensing to meet this certification requirement.

They must also be appropriately TRAINED and SUPERVISED.

What does “trained” mean?

All special education teachers must be HIGHLY QUALIFIED.

“Each person employed as a special education teacher in the State who teaches elementary school, middle school, or secondary school is highly qualified.”  20 U.S.C. Sec. 1412(a)(14)(C); 20 U.S.C. Sec. 6319(a)(1).

This is especially true for core academic subjects.  20 U.S.C. Sec. 6319(a)(2).

For paraprofessionals (aides), specific requirements are set forth in the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Each local educational agency receiving assistance under this part shall ensure that all paraprofessionals hired after January 8, 2002, and working in a program supported with funds under this part shall have— (A) completed at least 2 years of study at an institution of higher education; (B) obtained an associate’s (or higher) degree; or (C) met a rigorous standard of quality and can demonstrate, through a formal State or local academic assessment— (i) knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing, and mathematics; or (ii) knowledge of, and the ability to assist in instructing, reading readiness, writing readiness, and mathematics readiness, as appropriate.”  20 U.S.C. Sec. 6319(c) and (d).

What does “supervised” mean?

Again, the No Child Left Behind Act explains the duties of a paraprofessional (aide).   20 U.S.C. Sec. 6319(g).

“A paraprofessional may not provide any instructional service to a student unless the paraprofessional is working under the direct supervision of a teacher consistent with this section.”  20 U.S.C. Sec. 6319(g)(3)(A).

The question is whether the special ed teacher checking in once a week is appropriate direct supervision.  This will depend on the facts of what the teacher means by “touching base” with the student.  In other words, is the teacher ever observing or monitoring how the aide is providing instruction?

Conclusion

So, can paraprofessionals teach core subjects under an IEP?  Maybe, but doubtful.  (1) They must be properly certified; (2) “highly qualified”; and (3) properly supervised.  Investigation into the facts of each case will determine if these three required elements are being satisfied.

Sorry to give the age old lawyer answer of “it depends”, but each case can be different and the only way to give a definite answer is by what the detectives on Dragnet always said, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

 

 

How Common Core is Misguided!

Since the U.S. Department of Education more or less mandated implementation of the ‘Common Core‘ education standards on a state level, I have seen numerous examples of how such suggested teaching method fails. As a small example, several states have opted out of the Common Core or backed away from some of the assessments associated with the standard.

There is a simple explanation of why Common Core is misguided: Methodology. Neither the federal or state departments of education should be concerned with teaching methods or even content. They aren’t competent to do so. It is acceptable to set minimum standards for what students should know by a certain level of education (e.g. basic algebra by graduation from high school) in order to be able to access higher learning (college) or obtain employment after high school, but it is not useful or productive to suggest how teachers should get their students to achieve those levels.

Why? There are a multiplicity of answers to the question why government should not dictate teaching methodology.

(1) Those in the teaching profession have received their degrees and certifications in teaching methodology, so we should just let teachers do what they do best – teach. They are ‘on the ground’ (so to speak) and are in the best position to know what works and what doesn’t with their students. Someone sitting in Washington DC or a state capitol has no concept of individual student needs in a classroom. Further on this point, each state – nay, each locality – will vary on what teaching method is best and bureaucracies are too inflexible to adapt to these variances.

(2) Enforcement is expensive. First, consider that virtually all textbooks and materials had to be changed or purchased anew to conform with the Common Core. Second, teachers had to learn the new methodology, so there is training expense. Third, parents and the public also needed to be informed, so there are marketing and public information resources that are expended. This is not a cheap proposition.

(3) Standardizing methodology disregards the needs of the disabled and those who learn differently. While emphasis and resources are spent on the Common Core, it is at the expense of those who truly need the support of government to ensure their access to education. For example, special education has taken a backseat to Common Core implementation and school districts are taking advantage of that by pushing back against parents who are trying to help their disabled children. The U.S. Department of Education, which as direct Congressional authority to enforce special education law, has essentially ignored the setbacks relating to education of the disabled. If resources were not dedicated to Common Core, they could be focused on enforcing special education law.

There are numerous other reasons why Common Core is an effort in futility, but as with other social experiments by government, we won’t see those effects until we have a population of young adults who aren’t able to function in the workplace or in institutions of higher learning. That is not a social experiment worth the risk.

I encourage all of you to contact your state legislators and governors and tell them to opt out of Common Core and let schools get back to the job of teaching kids rather than complying with nonsensical federal mandates.