I am a School Psychologist. I received my degree in school psychology at a Historical Black College (HBCU) called Howard University in 2007. I began my professional career as a School Psychologist in a charter school in Washington D.C. and later in nearby Laurel, Maryland. The schools I had chosen to work at served students and families from lower socio-economic statuses, as well as predominately Black communities. Like my other School Psychologist colleagues, I administered IQ tests and other processing batteries, completed behavior analysis and plans, work reports on student performance and achievement, attended IEP meetings, etc. It wasn’t until I moved to California in 2014 and accepted a position as a School Psychologist that I first learned of the landmark lawsuit referred to as Larry P vs. Riles (1979).
For those that are unaware of this case or it’s significance, the Larry P v. Riles (1979) court case is a landmark lawsuit that changed special education for Black students across California and banned the administration of standardized intelligence quotient (IQ) tests for the placement of Black students in special education. The case represented a class action lawsuit of Black parents in San Francisco who challenged the over-representation of Blacks students in special education classes and programs based on standardized assessment. During the court case, the basis of the argument in opposition to IQ tests and standardized assessment for Black students were that the tests were biased, founded in Eurocentric “White supremacist” culture and were overall discriminatory. The court case concluded with a permanent ban on IQ testing of Black students within California and the ban continues to this day. California is the only state with such a ban. Therefore, you can understand my initial shock and confusion when I learned that as a school psychologist in California, I would not be allowed to utilize the familiar assessments I had previously learned in Washington D.C and Maryland.
I’ve since lived in California for the last 5 years and during that time, I’ve had numerous debates on the validity of this law and its purported ability to reduce over-representation of Black students in special education. The California Association of School Psychologists (CASP) wants the ban lifted and notes that their reasoning is that the ban has not been effective in curbing the overrepresentation of black students in special education. As a School Psychologist and now Director of Special Education, I don’t need to see the hard numbers to know through observation that this law has not been effective in reducing the disproportionality of African-American students in special education, but simply banned the use of assessment tools, that while imperfect provide valuable information about an individuals' overall cognitive learning profile. It is my belief that the issue is less on the assessment batteries themselves, but instead the interpretation of the results by the individuals administering the assessment.
While I understand you may not want to take my professional judgement and beliefs as truth, let me share some relevant data. Both nationally and locally within California, disproportionality of Black students continues - but now specifically, disabilities are more related to perceived challenging behaviors. According to a KQED article, A Landmark Lawsuit Aimed to Fix Special Ed for California’s Black Students. It Didn’t, Lee Romney shared, “But data released in 2016 show that Black students nationwide are still being placed disproportionately in special education—particularly in categories like ‘emotional disturbance,’ which are tied to behavior.” The author further shares, “Many black families find themselves navigating the system because nearly one in three black students in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is in special education—compared to one in eight non-black students, district data shows.” The data suggests that disproportionality for Black student in special education is still rampant and reform is still needed to address the issue.
Given our current place in history, the year 2020 has been filled with uncertainty due to the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 and the social-political cry to action due to recent undeniable viral videos of the on-going pervasive crimes against black bodies, people, and minds. However, I wonder if now is the time to review this law, its utility, and take action to lift the ban. I wonder if now is the time to re-think and re-examine our educational practices, policies and procedures to truly create an equitable educational system for all students, but specifically those disenfranchised by the system. My vote is to lift the Larry P ban and instead focus on full inclusion efforts, new special education eligibility definitions and criteria’s such as Patterns of Strengths and Weaknesses model (PSW), and overall improvement of educational programs for teachers, school psychologists, and other related service providers that don’t just infuse “cultural competency,” but dismantle implicit bias and racism. The call to action is now!
This year our program rolled out Guidelines for Data Collection and Sharing. We are going to be addressing this topic in strands, in supervisions, and in team meetings. While the development of strategies approaches and tools are important, so to is the WHY.
We’ve all been on school campuses that are under-resourced and over-extended. It can be difficult to prioritize your most valuable, your time. When every need feels urgent, how do you know where and when to lean in? How do you say no when asked to support “just one more student, they really need it”? How do you advocate for your student to decrease the amount of support they receive when their teacher feels they still struggle so much? It is through the collection and sharing of data that we are able to prioritize our time in order to provide the most high-leverage interventions. This is also how we can highlight the successes of our students who may continue to struggle.
There was a meaningful special education case law that passed in 2017 the Endrew F. vs Douglas County School District case. This case changed districts’ obligation from ensuring students with disabilities achieved some educational benefit to requiring that they make meaningful progress. The United States Department of Education wrote this Q & A on the Endrew F. case. They are quoted as follows:
“SEAs should review policies, procedures, and practices to provide support and appropriate guidance to school districts and IEP Teams to ensure that IEP goals are appropriately ambitious and that all children have the opportunity to meet challenging objectives. States can help ensure that every child with a disability has an IEP that enables the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum and is appropriately ambitious in light of the child’s circumstances.21 While many States and school districts are already meeting the standard established in Endrew F., this is an opportunity to work together to ensure that we are holding all children with disabilities to high standards and providing access to challenging academic content and achievement standards.”
In alignment with the findings in this case, All In is on the forefront of developing and implementing best practices for data collection and sharing.
IEPs: A Story About a Love/Hate Relationship with IEPs and an Approach to Remembering the Children and Families we do it all for!
As this blog post due date approached, I kept thinking to myself, what is something meaningful, timely, and relevant that I want to write about? I will be completely honest and let you all know that the Individualized Education Plan or IEP was the last thing I thought I would choose.
In fact, after barely getting half-way through a marathon of back-to-back 30 day interim IEPs for an entire caseload of middle school students, I was starting to think I might never want to hear that acronym again. Then seemingly out of nowhere, while holding a stack of draft IEPs in preparation for the second half of the marathon, something crucially important occurred to me. It may go without saying, but what I realized was that each of those sets of pages represented a child who was somewhat literally and figuratively in my hands. The late nights preparing, the long days of meetings, the commute during rush hour traffic--- all of these efforts were made in my best attempt to support a school community to help each of these kids get what they need and deserve. Unconditional Education is clearly centered around this very concept. Yet, this driving purpose can sometimes get lost amidst the myriad work demands.
While there are many ways to reconnect with your purpose, one strategy I suggest is to find ways to re-grounding in a child and family centered approach. When I shift my thinking about IEPs in this way, it helps to humanize the IEP process that can otherwise feel pretty arduous. A place I like to look for inspiration is understood.org. It’s a website full of resources designed to help parents who want the best for their children with learning and attention issues. Referencing articles and resources designed for parents can help shift our focus back to thinking through the lens of the child and family. Here’s one great example! Check out these free Student Profile Templates that can be used to empower students to engage in self-reflection and self-advocacy by preparing a resume of what they want their teachers and school teams to know about them. In addition to the benefits for the child and family, imagine how much more effectively a student prepared resume might be when compared to a case manager distributing a summary form. Resources like this provide a great example of how small shifts in your approach to the IEP process, can make a big difference in the way we see, acknowledge and honor each of our students. If you try it out, please let me know what you think!
Inclusion of students with disabilities into the school of their choice is a civil right and should be thought of in that way. Students with disabilities may do things differently that may be apparent in the way they talk, dance, learn, smile, etc…. however they aren’t deficiencies. In fact, as human beings the one thing we have in common is that we are all different. Unfortunately, it is our society that has developed a hierarchical structure defining our differences with some differences being labeled positively and others as deficient. This is an antiquated paradigm plagued by prejudice. This prejudice has stratified our society and socialized us into only knowing how to connect with individuals with commonalities and excluding individuals that are different.
What makes this even more challenging is that most people don’t recognize this prejudice and often disguise it by compassion or pity. For example, people may be better able to recognize their racial or cultural bias but are less likely to recognize their prejudice against people with disabilities. The simple fact that as a society we continue to engage in a practice of segregating students and individuals with disabilities into “special” placements, facilities, and homes suggests adherence to this prejudice. This way of thinking needs to change and be added to other civil rights initiatives fighting for equal rights and justice.
One of the most basic and easy change to make is simply the presumption of competence. In other words, the belief that individuals are capable unless there is absolute evidence to thwart that belief. Instead, a mindset shift and belief that assumptions about individuals and their abilities should be rooted as, Anne Donnellan mentioned in her book, Movement Differences and Diversity in Autism-Mental Retardation: Appreciations and Accommodations People with Communications and Behavior Challenges (1994) in a concept referred to as “Least Dangerous Assumption.” Anne Donnellan writes, “Least Dangerous assumption states that in the absences of absolute evidence it is essential to make the assumption that, if proven false, would be least dangerous to the individual.” It is always safest and most respectful to make the “least dangerous assumption.”
Consider how this relates to student school placement for a student with a disability. Imagine there is a child with limited verbal language and difficulty moving due to the impacts of cerebral palsy. Teachers have worked with her for months and have not seen any evidence of what she understands. In fact, the teachers are beginning to wonder if the child has any understanding at all. These teachers can make two assumptions: “what you see is what you get” or “I bet this student knows a lot and doesn’t have an appropriate way of expressing ideas”. The first assumption is limiting and focused only on the students deficits, whereas the second assumptions presumes competence and a belief in the possibilities. The second assumption leaves room for high expectations, creative problem-solving and hopefully to the idea that with a use of a communication device this students voice and ability to self-express will blossom.
But consider what happens when as educators and school communities we rely on the old antiquated paradigm focused on deficiencies. Consider the outcome for students and individuals with disabilities. What if the teachers gave up and chose to believe the first assumption? What harm is caused by this assumption? What is lost for the student and individuals with disabilities?
We all have strengths and weaknesses and more importantly differences. We all have a desire for acceptance and inclusion. It is up to all of us to examine our own core beliefs and spread the word around inclusion of individuals with disabilities, as well as, the “Least Dangerous Assumption.” We can no longer allow the paradigm of prejudice and exclusion to exist for individuals with disabilities as this is what is truly dangerous.
Although there is no evidence to indicate that discriminatory practices (including school mission, vision, culture, school-family-community relationships, policies and procedures, resource allocation, and collaborations) in the school setting are the cause of dis-proportionality, research does show a correlation between the two, suggesting that systemic change is a practice that would benefit already marginalized students. Sullivan, Artiles, & Hernandez-Saca provide a general address to dis-proportionality in school settings, recommending how to best benefit from a consultant when looking at a long term (5 year) restructure targeting systemic change in the special education process. In addition, they identify efforts to support the reduction of dis-proportionality, resolutions schools can apply systematically to combat dis-proportionality, and they also make suggestions around reshaping school systems which shape disparities put into place by the school itself.
Systemic change is a HUGE task and calls for comprehensive vertical reform of perspectives, policies, and practices, which could prompt a shift towards reflecting, rethinking, and restructuring oppressive systems. Equity, vision and philosophy of education, stakeholder involvement, professional collaboration, resource allocation, and curriculum, instruction and assessment which support diverse learning are noted as imperative components of systemic change. It is not an easy solution and it most definitely requires dedication and openness at every level over an extended period of time. However, there is belief that it is possible and necessary to eradicate the intersectionality and disparities for ethnic minority students who have also been identified as having a learning disability.
Take a look at this article to read about it in more depth!
Many of our programs support students with significant academic, behavioral, communication, social, and emotional needs in the general education setting with highly coordinated services. Our partner schools are all at different stages of implementation of successful inclusion programs and our staff all play key roles in the development and delivery of these programs.
Inclusion is a mindset. Successful inclusion programs require more than a belief in the principle of education all students together. It requires training for staff and students, highly individualized student services, and additional research on the long-term outcomes.
This article explores the history of inclusion in education and what current research says about the outcomes of inclusion programs. It discusses some of the considerations required to build and maintain effective inclusion program and discusses some of the positive outcomes both for students with disabilities and students without disabilities.
If you didn’t already know by now, I am passionate about inclusion for all students. My passion for inclusion began when I accepted a position working for an agency called Maryland Coalition for Including Education or MCIE. It was in my work with MCIE that I first was introduced to Dr. Paula Kluth and learned of her work in inclusive practices. I had the privilege of attending a training specifically focused on her book, From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K-12 Inclusive Classrooms, that changed my perspective and mindset on inclusion. I recently came across a Q & A session with Dr. Kluth that I found useful and thought I’d pass it on. Here’s a little information about Paula Kluth from her website and a copy of the Q & A link below:
“Dr. Paula Kluth is a consultant, author, advocate & independent scholar who works with teachers and families to provide inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities and to create more responsive and engaging schooling experiences for all learners. Paula is a former special educator who has served as a classroom teacher and inclusion facilitator. Her professional interests include differentiating instruction and inclusive schooling. She is the author or co-author of ten books. They include: “You’re Going to Love This Kid”: Teaching Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms; A Land We Can Share: Teaching Literacy to Students with Autism; The Autism Checklist; Joyful Learning: Active and Collaborative Learning in the Inclusive Classroom; and From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K-12 Inclusive Classrooms. Paula is also a director of a documentary film titled “We Thought You’d Never Ask”: Voices of People with Autism. Dr. Kluth has been awarded numerous honors in her field & community. Most recently she was a recipient of the 20 Under 40 University of Wisconsin Alumni Achievement Award for her work with students with autism. She was named the National Down Syndrome Congress Educator of the Year in 2007 and the Belle Center of Chicago’s Inclusion Advocate of the Year in 2006”
“Built on the shoulders of the civil rights movement and ideals of equitable educational opportunities for and treatment toward people with disabilities, (special education) has come to be criticized as a means of reproducing societal discrimination and inequalities” (Noltemeyer & McLoughlin, 2012).
Many steps have be taken to ensure that students with disabilities receive equitable access to their education. Guiding principles and laws such as Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) are in place to ensure students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) receive supports that meet their unique needs, while learning alongside non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible. Beyond upholding these basic guiding principles for students who are already in Special Education, we must also consider what needs to happen before we would refer a student to be evaluated for a disability.
Our responsibility of providing equitable educational opportunities begins with providing ALL students with sufficient opportunities to learn. Here are a few steps we can take:
Blog post written by:
Tamarah Tilos, Assistant Director of Academic Intervention
The topic of school vouchers is in the national news these days, as President Trump has been inaugurated and the Senate is moving through confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, nominee for Secretary of Education. What are school vouchers? School vouchers are, as the name implies, vouchers-- for families to use to cover tuition at schools other than public schools. They are funded by the government, and are currently available in 14 states and Washington D.C. You can read more about school vouchers here: School Vouchers 101: What They Are, How They Work — And Do They Work?.
Let’s think about the students we serve. Many of them are eligible for special education and have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). If they were to use vouchers to attend private schools, what might this mean for their special education services and supports? Here are some key points from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, reauthorized in 2004:
If you’re interested in learning more about special education in private schools, here’s another website to peruse.
Wondering what this means and looks like in practice? What is the actual impact of school vouchers on students with special needs and their families? Here’s one article that gives some insight-- "Vouchers Put Some Parents in Squeeze on Special Ed Rights" . There are certainly varied experiences across various settings. If you have a personal experience to share, or find another article documenting a different perspective or experience, please share in the comments section!
Blog post written by:
Alli Guilfoil, Director of Academic Intervention
October’s Diversity & Inclusion topic of the month, Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility, led me to grab a book off of my bookshelf at home. Darrell recommended this resource to me when it came out last year, and our guest blogger, Alan, coincidentally focused on this same resource in his blog post this week! But I’d like to echo the recommendation of Zaretta Hammond’s work, and particularly this book: Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.
In the first chapter, “Climbing Out of the Gap: Supporting Dependent Learners to Become Independent Thinkers,” Hammond highlights the teaching and learning gap that exists between culturally and linguistically diverse students and their white, English-speaking peers. Ms. Hammond does not specifically speak to students with disabilities, but we know that diverse learning styles compound the challenges of culturally and linguistically diverse students in our education system – and I encourage us to keep this in mind as we reflect on our current practice and possible ways to grow and improve our practice.
“Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students. Their curriculum is less challenging and more repetitive. Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brainpower. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners” (p.12-13).
...So what can we do about it? Hammond’s Ready for Rigor Framework organizes the high-priority components of our work with students that build the environment to support students to be more independent, self-directed learners. These are the areas where we need to build our capacity as educators in order to better support diverse learners. What I know about our team is that we build strong relationships and connections with students, and create safe spaces for learning. Here’s what I wonder…
If so, what conditions or factors help/allow us to do so? If not, what holds us back? In what ways could we do this better or more consistently?
I invite you all to add comments to share your reflections, suggestions, questions, and experiences.
Blog post written by:
Alli Guilfoil, Director of Academic Intervention
All-In! Partnership Team