NHL, Middle School Graduate

NHLMiddleSchoolThree years ago, we were very nervous. Our son was about to graduate from elementary school and move to middle school. Elementary school had been one fight after another. We moved schools after our son was attacked and the principal tried sweeping it under the rug. We fought with the new school’s principal to get a 504 plan and got yelled at by him because we went above his head when he was dragged his feet. We were denied an IEP because our son’s intelligence meant that they didn’t think he was suffering academically (despite him suffering socially and emotionally – both qualifiers for IEPs). We fought to get his aide changed when the one he was assigned thought yelling at our son repeatedly was acceptable.

Even when things did seem to go NHL’s way, it never lasted. Good aides and teachers had to leave. Quiet moments were punctuated by new crises. We could never enjoy the good times because we knew that something bad was just around the corner.

Needless to say, we were afraid going into middle school. How would NHL handle the increased workload? How would he deal with changing classrooms multiple times a day? How would he deal with the different teachers and students? So much could go wrong that we braced ourselves for a disaster of epic proportions.

Then, the most amazing thing happened: Nothing.

Well, nothing bad at least. NHL’s aide, JG, met him at orientation and they quickly hit it off. JG went above and beyond, even taking it upon himself to learn about autism so he would understand NHL better. He was there by NHL’s side every day, but wasn’t overbearing. He knew when to pull NHL back and when to let him be himself. He slowly, carefully guided NHL all the while walking that all-too-thin line of friend, mentor, and teacher.

Speaking of teachers, NHL’s were incredible also. They saw the potential in him and worked to bring it out. They struck up a strong rapport with him and gained his trust – something that wasn’t easy to do. After years of struggle in elementary school, NHL’s love of learning was like a candle that was about to flicker out. All of his middle school teachers have turned that flickering candle into a raging bonfire. He loves school again so much that when he had the flu one year, he was upset that he couldn’t go to school for a week. That was the worst part of the flu to him. Not the aches and the fever, but missing out on learning more.

The multiple classes actually worked in NHL’s favor. As with many people on the autism spectrum, NHL loves his schedules. He doesn’t deal well if they aren’t strictly adhered to (at least, not without prior warning). In elementary school, though, the teacher’s schedule might say that math ends at 1pm, but since the same teacher teaches all subjects, she might go long. NHL did not like that at all. In the middle school, though, the bell rings when the class is over. The teacher might be able to shout out a homework assignment as the kids leave, but he/she can’t decide that the kids all need to stay for ten more minutes. The schedule is strictly enforced and NHL thrived with that.

He also thrived with the subject matter. In elementary school, they would often go over the same material over and over to make sure that all of the kids understood it. This left NHL bored. He understood it the first time and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t being allowed to learn more. In middle school, though, the pace was picked up which suited NHL just fine. His mind was a sponge that was finally being given the water it so desperately wanted to absorb. He also was placed in honors classes in the seventh and eighth grades which helped surround him with more students who were intent on learning and not messing around.

When it comes to the students, he found people who were willing to accept him quirks and all. I had the pleasure of going on four field trips with him during his middle school career and each time I loved seeing him interact with his peers. NHL is like me in so many ways that I feared he’d be like me socially. I was bullied and reacted by withdrawing within myself. The less I showed the outside world, the less ammunition I thought I’d give my bullies. I desperately wanted to socialize, but always felt embarrassed by my every action.

NHL, on the other hand, feels no such embarrassment. Yes, this can lead to times when he does things that are inappropriate, but it also means that he doesn’t hold back when forging friendships. I liked that the students seemed to forgive NHL his excesses and still wanted to interact with him. To give one example, during a recent trip to Montreal with his class, I was in charge of NHL and three other students at the Jean-Talon Market. There was so much to see and eat, that the kids wanted to see everything. Unfortunately, part of the stop involved completing a scavenger hunt. NHL can’t help himself when it comes to scavenger hunts. He feels compelled to speed through whatever area he’s in until he’s completed it. NHL’s classmates were getting visibly upset with his constant verbal tugs to move onto the next thing so he could fill in the next line. The one girl in the group, who’s been friendly with NHL for years, threatened to judo chop him if he didn’t stop. And yet, later that day when we went shopping in the underground market, she voluntarily joined NHL and I with another of his friends on our shopping adventure. She knew how to express her frustration with NHL without completely severing herself from him.

I could go on and on about how wonderful middle school was for NHL. Were there bumps? Sure. Still, they were so few and far between that we actually found ourselves relaxing. We didn’t react to every small speedbump as if it meant that everything was going to grind to a halt. We began to (*gasp*) trust that his teachers and aide could address it – which they did. They thought of us as all being part of a team whose job it was to make NHL excel and they worked WITH us to make that happen instead of working against us because they thought they knew better. And guess what? When we all worked together, we succeeded in making NHL succeed.

Finally, I’ve talked about everyone but NHL. Middle school would still have been a disaster had it not been for NHL. All the support mechanisms in the world won’t help someone if they don’t apply themselves. After his first marking period was over, NHL received the honor roll, but the middle of the three levels. He immediately declared that he was getting the highest level the next marking period. I tried to caution him that we just wanted him to do his best and he didn’t need to worry about grades as much. I didn’t want him to be disappointed. Silly me. Like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield, NHL kept setting goals for himself and knocking them down. One marking period, his science grade went DOWN because he “only” got a 97 on the final exam.

NHL applied himself again and again, learning everything his teachers taught him and making it look easy. He struck up friendships and pushed himself more and more. Every time we thought “there’s no way NHL will be able to deal with this”, he not only dealt with it, but aced it. Sure, there were times when he held back his meltdowns until he came home. Times when his happy-go-lucky attitude switched to angry, at-the-end-of-his-rope teen the minute he entered B’s car. Still, we were happy to take that bullet because it meant that NHL was coping better in school itself. (We also worked with his teachers to find the sources of these delayed meltdowns and fix them in the future. Yay, team!)

So now NHL is off to high school. He’s leaving behind the familiar and facing the unknown again. We are nervous only because middle school has set such a high bar. Still, we know what NHL is capable of. He has such great potential inside of him and is am amazing young man. I can’t wait* to see him grow into an exceptional high school kid.

Congratulations, NHL!

* Well, maybe I can wait a little. Stop growing up so quickly NHL. That goes for you too, JSL.

Playing The Think Of The Children Card

Cuomo_QuestionRecently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo defended tying high stakes tests to teachers jobs. Instead of talking about any actual issues students and teachers face, Cuomo said: "We have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom."  Yes, Governor Cuomo was claiming that, somehow, high stakes tests would expose teachers wrongdoings. I could talk about the inability of tests to measure teacher performance or how high stakes tests just lead to teaching to the test. I’ll address how high stakes don’t reveal inappropriate sexual relationships later in this post. Instead, right now, I’d like to address the root cause of this statement.

Politics is a process where people of different opinions come together and work out a compromise. In an ideal world, that is.  In the real world, politics can often be the art of hiding your true intentions and scaring your opponents into submission.  When it comes to this, there are two phrases that can work to a politicians’ advantage: "Think of the Children" and "Terrorism!"  These are designed to silence opposition and bolster support.  Anyone who asks any uncomfortable questions or voices their opposition a little too loudly is branded as a traitor who either wants to see kids hurt or wants to see terrorists attack America.  People don’t want to be seen in this way – especially not other politicians – so some people will think twice before confronting someone using these phrases.

Before anybody thinks "this post is pro-Party A or pro-Party B", both parties engage in this behavior.  I’m taking all politicians who use this to task no matter what politician party they belong to.  In addition, this isn’t a new phenomenon.  There is a long political history of this, though the phrases have changed.  Back in the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy, opposing him and questioning his list could get you branded as a "Communist."  People didn’t want that label slapped on them so they stayed quiet.  A lot of people’s lives were ruined before McCarthy and his list were exposed as frauds.

The problem with these phrases is the same as their strength.  They silence opposition.  They stifle debate on the subject.  The promote advancing an agenda based on fear of reprisal as opposed to an honest discussion of viewpoints.  In addition, they cheapen the very things they claim to protect against.  Yes, there are times when children’s lives are on the line.  In those instances, it might be appropriate to say "think of the children."  However, when it is used in every third speech, it becomes the political equivalent of crying wolf.  Everyone gets so used to cries that kids will be harmed and/or that terrorists will attack that any actual threats are treated as political rhetoric.

When a politician declares that we must do X to "protect children" or to "prevent terrorism", you should always stop and question the politician’s motives, examine the course of action’s effects, and demand proof for everything.  In the case of high stakes tests tied to teacher jobs, Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated time and again that he is anti-public-school-teacher.  He wants to open more charter schools and would love to shutter as many public schools as possible.  They might not all be able to be shuttered since charter schools tend to only accept certain students, i.e. kids without special needs.  So he might to keep some underfunded public schools around to shove the special needs kids in.  As a bonus, he can point to how those schools are failing (since resources are going to charter schools and they need to spend more of their limited resources on special services) as reason to open even more charter schools.

Additionally, the teacher’s union refused to endorse Andrew Cuomo in the election.  They didn’t go so far as to endorse his opponent, but politics is often a game of "make a public show of supporting me… or else!"  Had Governor Cuomo harbored any thoughts of working with teachers, those were ditched once they didn’t support him.  Their lack of support needed to be punished so he’s ready to paint all public school teachers as lazy sexual offenders who are failing our kids.  That’ll show the union that next time they’d better fall in line.

With the motive in place, we need to look at the action’s effects.  Suppose Governor Cuomo goes forward and institutes high stakes tests tied to teacher jobs.  We’ll also assume (for the moment) that he’s right that there are a lot of teachers committing sexual abuse of students.  Governor Cuomo is insinuating that these tests will somehow root these teachers out and let us fire them.  The problem is that tests can’t possibly measure whether or not a teacher is having an inappropriate relationship with his or her students.  There’s not going to be a "fill in the bubble on where your teacher touched you" question.  (At least, I hope not, but I probably shouldn’t put it past Pearson.)  At best, you might be able to tell that a specific teacher’s class doesn’t meet the state-set standard.  This doesn’t mean that they haven’t learned the material and instead were having classroom orgies, however.  Instead, it could be due to various factors like kids who don’t test well (possibly special needs), a poorly designed test, or perhaps even a teacher who taught his kids well – but just didn’t spend a lot of time trying to teach to the test.  (So the kids learned a lot but just not what was on that specific test.)

Finally, we get to evidence.  Governor Cuomo claimed that there are teachers who have been found of sexually abusing students who can’t be fired.  I demand proof of this.  The merest allegation of sexual wrongdoing is usually enough to ruin a teacher’s local career.  Teachers who face this, might need to move districts – especially if the media was involved.  No matter how certain a jury finds a teacher innocent of all charges, some people will be convinced that the teacher whose face was plastered on the cover of the paper with the headline "LOCAL TEACHER ARRESTED FOR SLEEPING WITH STUDENTS" was guilty.  If the teacher was proven guilty, they can easily be fired and teachers have been.

I’m not going to claim that all teachers are angelic creatures only devoted to helping their kids learn.  In any profession, there are rotten eggs and teaching is no exception.  Look at enough teachers and you’ll eventually find one who did something bad to his/her kids.  However, finding this one exception does not mean that you get to declare him/her the rule and paint all teachers with that brush.  If he wants to play this game, we can certainly find plenty of corrupt politicians – does this mean that Andrew Cuomo is corrupt?  Perhaps he should take a high stakes test to determine whether he’s fit to keep his position.

Remember, real-world politics is (sadly) a game of "silence your opposition and push your agenda through by any means necessary."  Dirty tricks and smear tactics are a politicians’ conventional weapons of choice.  Don’t be fooled though.  Always question what they say and why they are saying it.  Perhaps if we "test" enough of their statements, the stakes will be raised high enough on them to weed out the bad politicians.

NOTE: The image above is a combination of a photo of Governor Andrew Cuomo taken by Diana Robinson and released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and "Simple Question Sign" which was posted by boobaloo on OpenClipArt.org.

This InBloom Flower Stinks of Corruption

rotten-common-coreI’ve written about Common Core, the over-testing of our kids, and InBloom quite a few times.  Yesterday, however, the Capital Region newspaper Times Union, had a front page article that showed that this entire situation was far more rotten than I ever thought.

Last month, I wrote about how NYSED and Commissioner John King needed to be held accountable when he shut down some forums because "special interests" (read: parents) got angry about Common Core, over-testing, and InBloom.  The Times Union article, however, reveals how the real special interests come into play.

There is a part of the New York State Education Department (NYSED) called the Regents Research Fund that a) doesn’t need to play by the same rules as "normal" government workers, b) isn’t comprised of anyone with a degree or background in education, c) isn’t beholden to (or even mostly known to exist by) the general public, d) is paid with money it raises from big corporations and wealthy individuals, and e) has a big say in what educational policy gets set in New York State.

Combine all of these and what do you get?  Corruption.  Big time corruption.  These people are raising money and have power over setting educational policy.  Pretty much everyone knows how money from companies and legislative power combine in Washington.  Company A wants a law written so they "donate" some money to Senator B.  Senator B then becomes their champion and pushes the law through.  It’s a win-win – if you only count the Company and the Senator, that is.  The American people all too often wind up losing in this exchange.

While there’s no direct evidence that donations resulted in educational policy being enacted, it’s a little unsettling to read the donor list.  The Times Union article listed some big donors and the third biggest was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  They donated $3.3 million to the Regents Research Fund.  Did that donation in any way influence NYSED’s decision to implement the Gates Foundation backed InBloom system?  A system which uploads student information (including but not limited to names, home addresses, SSNs, grades, attendance records and more) to Amazon cloud servers.  (As we all know, these can never, ever be hacked, right?)

Remember that these people are paid with the donations that they gather.  The more donations they bring in, the more money they can make.  Plus, unlike my Senator example above, they are out of the public eye and don’t answer to the people of New York.  If the Senator in my example tried passing a bill that overtly hurt a lot of people in favor of the Company from my example, he could wind up losing his re-election campaign.  It doesn’t always keep Senators and Representatives in check, but it’s something.

In the case of the Regents Research Fund group, however, this isn’t a problem.  If donations have strings attached, like implementing additional testing or setting up a system with potentially disastrous privacy implications, they won’t take the heat when/if their decisions cause a massive backlash.  You could fire Commissioner John King and every Board of Regents member, but the Common Core, over-testing, and In-Bloom implementations would continue because the Regents Research Fund would remain.

No wonder that Commissioner King and NYSED at times seem not to know exactly what the educational policy of New York State is.  During meetings, they’ve insinuated that districts or principals have the final say in these implementations.  When asked, though, districts and principals invariably state that this is news to them and they’ve been told that they don’t have any say and must do what State Ed tells them to do.

It’s been thought that this was a PR move by NYSED – attempting to shift the blame away from them and towards the local districts.  However, perhaps NYSED doesn’t know what educational policy is because they aren’t really setting educational policy.  The Regents Research Fund are.  NYSED and Commissioner John King might just be the figureheads to be trotted out to the press, public, and politicians and the scapegoats who take the heat so that the Regents Research Fund stays nice and comfortable.

This entire situation stinks.  Policy is being set by corporations and wealthy individuals via a "shadow department" of NYSED who isn’t accountable to the public.  This needs to be fixed IMMEDIATELY.  NYSED should fully disclose who the members of this panel are, what their backgrounds are, what donations were made, and what strings were attached to those donations.  If a full accounting isn’t made, state representatives should force the accounting to be made.  In addition, all InBloom implementations should be halted until this accounting is made.  (Since it can be hard to "un-upload" students’ information from the cloud.)

Sadly, I think NYSED (and especially Commissioner John King) will continue to use their favorite tactics of denying there’s a problem, blaming everyone else if a problem is proven, and refusing to budge from the course they’ve decided on no matter how many people protest.  Moreover, they will continue to allow the Regents Research Fund to be unaccountable, decide educational policy, and take big donations at the same time.

NOTE: The "rotten to the Common Core" icon above is comprised of "apple core" by gingercoons and "dollar symbol in 3D" by vijayrajesh.  Both are available via OpenClipArt.org.

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

common-core-monsterFor quite some time now, our kids have been tormented by a shadowy being.  This creature has  haunted them at every turn.  It has scared them and hungers for their brains – among other things.  I wish I could say that this creature is some monster of legends, but unfortunately it is quite new.

This monster’s name is Common Core.

I’ve written about Common Core before, but unfortunately it is still haunting our kids.  Some monsters are created in a lab.  Common Core was created by bureaucrats and people who were looking to turn a profit off the educational system.  Some monsters break loose of their confines and wreck havoc while their creators stand helplessly by, lamenting their actions.  Common Core’s rampage is being watched by its creators, but they are cheering it on.

Recently, New York State Education Commissioner John King held what was to be one of many forums to show how Common Core really isn’t a monster.  Instead, he was greeted by parents understandably angry about how their kids’ education was being ruined and how their kids are hating and not loving school.  (Common Core ostensibly is designed to get kids ready for college, but a child who learns to hate school won’t choose to attend college.)

King’s reaction to seeing angry parents?  Shut down all forums and blame it on "special interests."  (Translation: Parents weren’t just taking my message and shutting up about their complaints.  How dare they continue to complain!)

After much more complaining, John King and New York State Education Department (NYSED) decided to host some more forums, though with radically changed formats.  The first of these new forums started last week.

Unfortunately, from the get-go, King and NYSED didn’t make the right moves.  The first problem was the time.  They set it to take place from 4pm – 6pm.  If you are a parent of a school age child, you might know 4pm as "that time around which I am picking up my child from school."  If you are a working parent, you might know 4pm as "that time that I’m still at work."  If you are a teacher, you know 4pm as "that time that the kids are heading home but that I’m not off work yet."

In other words, the 4pm start time excluded parents (especially working parents) and teachers.  These are two of the biggest groups of people who might have complaints about Common Core and New York State’s implementation of it.  These are also precisely the "special interests" that King wanted to avoid.  (B was able to make it but only because her father was able to pick up the boys from school.  I was unable to attend as I couldn’t leave the office so soon.)

Eventually, the time was extended to 7pm to give people more time, but the start time was still an issue.

The parking situation was another issue.  The school building that was chosen could not handle the influx of people trying to park.  For one thing, it was a SCHOOL and thus had kids trying to leave at the end of the day.  You know, right when the forum was due to start.  There were also after school activities planned that would have complicated issues.  The principal wound up cancelling all after school activities, but parking remained and issue.  People had to park a half mile or more away and walk to the school.

To make matters worse, the governor (himself a huge Common Core supporter and the person who said that public schools might be shut down if they don’t raise their test scores) made sure there was a big police presence.  Again, the stated goal of this was to keep the peace, but exactly what were they envisioning happening?  Hordes of parents, teachers, and students rushing the stage screaming for King’s head on a platter?

At every turn, the victims of the Common Core monster were themselves being treated like monsters.

The forum wound up going off smoothly and a lot of people voiced their opinions of the Common Core beast.  Interestingly, King refused to look up at the speakers.  For someone who apparently wanted to put on a show about caring what parents, teachers, and students were experiencing, he certainly didn’t put any effort into it.  The only time he looked at a parent was when the parent called him on his lack of eye contact and TOLD him to look at her.

(For more on the forum, read B’s post today: Advocacy on the Go.)

After the forum, King declared that he had heard all of the concerns and would examine the test schedule.  A couple of days later, NYSED announced that a test would not be given and the media hyped this as a victory for those against Common Core and high stakes testing.

But it wasn’t.

The test in question is only being canceled for honors students who are taking a different test on that day.  This isn’t a great victory or even a small step in the right direction.  This is a token offering that is being made in the hopes that this one tiny test cancellation will make the parents, teachers, and students of New York State forget the devastation that the Common Core monster has wrought.  This is righting one garbage can when a whole city lies in ruins and saying "All fixed!"

John King and NYSED might still listen to parents, teachers, and students and fix this mess, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.  I want to be optimistic.  I really do.  The realist in me, though, thinks that more money will go to charter schools run by businesses looking for a profit, more money will go to big businesses like Pearson and InBloom looking to turn a profit off of students’ education and/or information, and students will remain last people actually considered when those in charge think about the education system.  Sadly, this monster movie is far from over.  The monster is still on the loose and very few people in charge seem to even care about the devastation it is causing.

NOTE: The monster image above is "godzilla danger" by morlok and is available from OpenClipArt.org.  (I modified it to add the "Common Core" text to it.)

Setting Our Kids Up To Fail – ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ Parody

man_with_microphone_smallI usually don’t post on a Tuesday, but this idea was too good to hold onto.  Awhile back, I was listening to Pandora and the Pink Floyd song "Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2" came on.  As I listened, I realized this could be perfectly adapted to the current school situation.  After the recent events with Commissioner John King, it just made even more sense.  If you need a reminder of what the lyrics really are, check them out here or watch Pink Floyd sing the song.

One last thing.  I’d video myself singing this except: 1) I’m not the best singer around and 2) I’m currently battling something and am losing my voice.  Feel free to video yourself singing these lyrics and post them online.  Let me know if you do and I’ll link to them.

Without further ado, here is "Setting Our Kids Up To Fail", an "Another Brick In The Wall" parody:

We don’t need to test ad nauseam.
We don’t need no Common Core.
No high stakes testing in the classroom
Pearson leave our kids alone
Hey! Pearson! Leave our kids alone!
All in all it’s just setting our kids up to fail.
All in all you’re just setting our kids up to fail.

We don’t need only test teaching
We don’t need more Scantron forms
No death penalty for public schools
John King leave our kids alone
Hey! John King! Leave our kids alone!
All in all it’s just setting our kids up to fail.
All in all it’s just setting our kids up to fail.

"Wrong, You fail the test!"
"If you don’t take the test, we don’t know if you’re learning. How can we know if you’re learning if you don’t take the test?"
"You! Yes, you teacher. Stop teaching creatively!"

Here’s hoping Pearson, NYSED, and Commissioner John King leave our kids alone soon.

NOTE: The "man with microphone" image above is by laobc and is available from OpenClipArt.com.

1 2