Among the Duncan-Obama administration's beliefs about education, we find the belief that special ed is unnecessary.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been pretty clear about this. He has argued that students with disabilities just need teachers who expect them to do well (Stop being dyslexic, Pat-- I believe in you!). The USED just this summer denied New York's request to use adapted testing for the Big Standardized Test-- students must take the test deemed appropriate for their chronological age and not their developmental level. And all along, trundling down the regulatory highway, has been this: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged; Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities,
That regulation says basically that states may no longer make any kind of adaptations for any but "the most significant cognitive disabilities." Now all students must ride the same one-size-fits-all magical test unicorn, because many education policy leaders believe that expecting all students to do well on the same test will cause all students to succeed. If you want an uglier spin, you could also say that the USED thinks that teachers are lying and making excuses for students with disabilities instead of teaching them. Here it is in government-ese:
The Department shares the goal that students with disabilities experience success. Removing the authority for modified academic achievement standards and an alternate assessment based on those standards furthers this goal because students with disabilities who are assessed based on grade-level academic achievement standards will receive instruction aligned with such an assessment
Translation: if we take away your ability to do modifications, you'll be forced to find a way to bring your teaching up to level. No more coddling those kids just because some fancy psychologist found them to be developmentally disabled or autistic or have some other kind of scientifically proven brain-based processing problem.
With all that in the background, we arrive at Pennsylvania's new Project MAX.
Launched at least a year ago, Project MAX is the result of the Pennsylvania Department of Education mating with a five-year State Performance Development Grant, and its purpose is simple enough:
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has been awarded a five year State Performance Development Grant that is designed to increase the capacity of local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools to provide all students, including those with complex instructional needs, with maximum access to and learning of the general education content and curriculum.
First, kudos to whatever bureaucrat coined "those with complex instructional needs." We've needed a new fancy-speak term for students with special needs, and this is pretty fancy!
Second, is it just me, or does this sound suspiciously like our old friend Mainstreaming?
PA has been working at Project MAX (short for MAXimiizing access and learning) for a year now, rolling it out in a few districts last year and extending the reach this year, so they ought to have a handle on it. Let's look at some materials that might help us make sense of all this. And let's start with this fun little "webinar" (which you might be inclined to call a video lecture) featuring Ann Ainkson-Hermann and Jacqui DiDomineco, from the PA Training and Technical Assistance Network. These two have three "objectives for this webinar" (aka "points they want to make").
Project MAX's first problem
First, they want to explain why students with special needs can benefit from having "challenging academic instruction" aka "being jammed through a one-size-fits-all instructional program with no regard for their actual developmental abilities." And in the fake chatty way of this sort of sales job, Ann offers this:
I don't know about you, Jacqui, but when I think about people having rich and fulfilling lives, I think about things like having a job, enjoying the community, having friends, being involved in recreational activities, and participating in family functions, and being as independent as possible regardless of how significant that disability might be.
You might imagine that this would be followed by an explanation of how forcing SWSN to be hammered through the general curriculum actually helps achieve these laudable goals. You might imagine that, and if you want to see any such critical link, imagination is all you've got to go with. Instead, Jacqui (who has a son with special needs) says, yes, right, that's what she wants, and Ann follows with the observation that the world has changed and if SWSN are going to have a happy place in it, they have to be thumped soundly with the PA Core (aka "Common Core pig with PA brand lipstick").
Project MAX loves the
We want all children to be ready for the world when they graduate. And for students with more significant disabilities that we sometimes refer to as have complex instructional needs, it means raising the bar for those students as well.
Is there any evidence that the PA Core prepares students for the world. No, there isn't. Is there any sense in saying, "Hey, Chris. You have trouble clearing the bar when we set it at five feet, so we're going to fix that by raising the bar to seven feet. That should make you a better jumper." There's only one circumstance under which that makes sense, and that's the situation where teachers and students are just half-assing things and need to have their lazy feet held to the Core Standards fire. But so far nobody from the state has shown the guts to come call classroom teachers lazy slackers to our faces.
Next, Ann (who is clearly in the driver's seat here) will move on to talking about the general curriculum, kind of. She kind of mushes the PA Core and general curriculum together, suggesting that it covers math and science and music and language and social studies and so on, and maybe Ann has just forgotten that the PA Core covers math and reading and writing and a little bit of those for science and social studies and nothing else at all. She compares the standards to a building code and tries to play the "kids can move anywhere and stay on the same page" card (aka "big load of baloney")
Jacqui pretends to be curious about the standards and Ann proceeds to explain the whole increased rigor thing, and if you want to read about why all of this refried Common Core beanery is bunk, there are plenty of posts here for that conversation, and we have miles to go. Jacqui also notes that, gosh, there are subjects other than math and English like science and music and art, and those matter too. But what do we do if a student can't match grade expectations in the standards, and Ann says, "Well, we pull the child pout of all those other classes and dedicate the student's days to nothing but test prep." Ha! Kidding. Ann doesn't admit that at all. She also doesn't answer the question, other than suggest that whatever we do, it's going to involve keeping that student in the classroom with same-age peers. Because we've apparently decided after looking at reams and reams of research that what's most important in a child's education is that the child goes through it in lockstep with other children born in the same year. That's the important factor in educating a child.
The discussion of the magical PA standards (aka "the part I couldn't bear to wade through for the zillionth time") was apparently or second objective, because we are now seguing into the third.
Project MAX doesn't love students
Well, you know, Jacqui, your last question about that is a very nice segue into our third aspect of this webinar, and that is, how can we help students with disabilities access and meaningfully participate in the general education curriculum.
And that sentence tells you a lot of what you need to know, because you'll note that our objective is not to assess and meet the needs of the child, or to meet the child where she is and help her grow from there, or to find an educational path that best suits that child's individual needs and challenges. No-- the goal is to find ways to help the student deal with the fact that she's stuck in the mainstream classroom doing the unadapted curriculum.
But we arrive now, obliquely, at the IEP Question (aka "Isn't this whole business borderline illegal under IDEA?"). Ann's answer is basically, "We can't completely dump the IEP, but we're now going to approach them starting with the assumption that the student is going to be instructionally mainstreamed. But we can totally individualized other stuff, like if he needs help with getting around or opening the leveled books that we're going to force him to read. The student will also still be free to choose where to part his hair. So school will still be totes individualized."
After discussing terminology like accommodations (aka "how you do it") and modifications (aka "what you do"), and UDL (aka "sometimes stuff we come up with for adaptations turns out to be useful for everyone"), Ann cues up a heartwarming and moving (I am actually not being sarcastic here) video of a student coping with Cerebral Palsy, which is impressive, but which also doesn't really address the issues for the vast majority of students who will get hammered by Project MAX.
Which is the very program that Ann is excited to introduce, and as everything up to this point has suggested, Project MAX basically starts from the premise, "How would we handle SWSN if we assumed that they had to be in a regular classroom and had to take the same BS Test and had to follow the same general ed curriculum as all students? What adaptations and modifications and accommodations would we make?"
Ploughing through other MAX resources, two prongs of the attack on SWSN are evident. One is the federally-approved magical wishful thinking approach. One MAX publication is called "Presuming Competence, Raising Expectations." Aka "Hey, teachers. Those low scores and low achievement of your special needs students? All your fault." The other prong is magical yet non-specified accommodations and modifications-- but only in the classroom and not on the Keystones or PSSA (Pennsylvania's BS Tests). But now the state knows that, since you have to get those kids ready for the BS Tests somehow, you classroom teachers will come up with awesome teaching techniques (because, I guess, we were all previously just kind of tossing the books at the students and hoping we wouldn't have to, you know, do stuff).
Can we see pictures?
And here's a magical graphic that wants to capture all the Project MAXitude:
Reasons and Faults
I do understand, a little. There's no question, at all, that sometimes students are mis-labeled as having special needs because they are obnoxious or troublesome, and there's also no question that sometimes students with special needs are sometimes the victim of low expectations.
But the federal response, and the state responses coming in its wake, are like finding cockroaches in one apartment, and then deciding to burn down all the homes in town. This is the repeated issue with education reform-- reformsters identify a real problem, and come up with a non-solution that they want to impose on everybody.
Project MAX is, first of all, insulting to the vast majority of teachers in schools across the state. Its message, not even very subtly hidden, is that the low achievement of students with special needs is entirely the fault of lazy teachers with low expectations. If the state so much as assumed good intentions on teachers' part, there would be an element of "We know you're doing your best, and you could probably use some extra help in doing this important and challenging work, so here's what we've come up with for you." But Project MAX never strikes that note. Instead it's just, "Get these kids' scores up. We know you've been just letting them slide because you're lazy and you don't believe in your students. Well, we're done going easy. Get off your ass and get it done, or else." But, hey, state-- thanks for suggesting modifications and accommodations, because we didn't know anything about that stuff.
Second, and worse, Project MAX is not interested in what the student needs. Or rather, it tells students and their families what they need-- "You need to pass the Big Standardized Test. And you need to be in a regular classroom." There's no recognition of individuality here-- you will all be hammered into those round holes, and if you happen to be square pegs, we'll just hit harder with an adapted hammer. Which is what we're currently telling all students in public school, so I guess we're reaching equity there.
And we know there are vultures waiting on the sideline, waiting for all those SWSN to take the test, fail the test, and "prove" that the public school needs to be shut down and replaced with a shiny charter.
As anyone who has taught for more than ten years knows, the special education pendulum is always swinging. We swing way over to "Let's put all the SWSN in regular classrooms and just make adaptations for them there so they can have the benefits of mainstreaming" until someone says, "You know, it would be easier to do these adaptations if these students were in their own self-contained classroom" and back and forth and back and forth.
How to wrestle the pendullum
The pendulum is always swinging because some folks are always looking a system. But students with special needs underline (twice, with bold italics) what we ought to understand about all students-- that each one is a unique individual and any system that you design will absolutely not serve the needs of some students. But some systems are better than others. Here's how you know you're designing a system that's worse:
1) Put the demands of the system ahead of the needs of the child.
2) Don't trust the teachers who actually work with the students.
3) Attach the whole thing to an unbending, narrow, unproven set of assumptions, such as, say, that getting a good score on a single standardized math and ELA test is an indicator of how good a life you'll live.
Project MAX appears to be failing on all three points. Maybe there will be course corrections, or teachers on the grounds will implement it in a way that makes it useful. But the early indicators are not good. Students with special needs (and really-- which students do we want to turn to and say, "Yeah, your needs are nothing special") need a system that responds to what they need, what they want, and what they can achieve. They need a system that helps them become the best versions of themselves they can be, and that frees teachers to help them do it.