School House Wonk

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Leveraging Unique Talents

It’s graduation season, a time of celebration as students mark major transitions in their lives, moving onward and upward from high school, college or graduate school. For parents, graduation represents a major milestone on their child’s journey towards independence and adulthood.

But for many parents whose children have autism or other disabilities, graduation is a goal often postponed, sometimes indefinitely or even permanently. Even those fortunate enough to earn a degree often struggle to get and keep a real job for real pay. While we’ve improved access to education for people with disabilities, access to transition services and meaningful employment remains far too elusive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts. The numbers for the autism community are particularly troubling; one 2009 study revealed that employment rates for people with autism are among the lowest of all disability groups.

This week, SAP, a German software company, announced plans to help the autism community change its employment odds. The world’s biggest business-management software maker intends to hire people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

“SAP sees a potential competitive advantage to leveraging the unique talents of people with autism, while also helping them to secure meaningful employment,” the company said. SAP will begin its hiring project in Germany, then North America, with the aim of having people with autism make up 1 percent of its 65,000 member workforce by 2020.

To achieve this goal, SAP will partner with Specialisterne, a non-profit that “works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” SAP’s partnership with Specialisterne is the brightest spot thus far in a modest but promising trend of training and employment projects aimed at people with disabilities.

SAP executive board member Luisa Delgado said that SAP and Specialisterne “share the common belief that innovation comes from the ‘edges.’ Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”

Management consultant expert Peter Drucker famously stated that “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.” SAP and Specialisterne are applying this same principal to people with autism by utilizing their unique strengths while helping them overcome their challenges, so that they can work, contribute to society, and lead meaningful lives with dignity.

Well done.

Beth T. Sigall

May 25, 2013


Pioneers! O Pioneers!

Two of the nation’s premiere appellate attorneys are leading separate litigation efforts against the California public education system, which, if successful, could dramatically alter the K-12 landscape in the Golden State and beyond.

First, former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olsen of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and the non-profit Students Matter filed a lawsuit last year in Superior (state) Court on behalf of nine California public school students against the state of California, the state department of education, and three separate public schools districts. The groundbreaking lawsuit alleges that California laws governing teacher tenure, teacher dismissal, and “last in/first out” hiring policies too often result in the assignment of ineffective teachers, particularly to low-income students. Plaintiffs claim these hiring and assignment practices lower academic achievement for students, thereby depriving them of their right to “equal opportunity to access quality education” as guaranteed by the California Constitution. The two largest California teachers unions recently intervened as defendants. Trial is set for January 2014.

In a separate effort, appellate attorney Michael Carvin, with the law firm Jones Day, and the Center for Individual Rights filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of ten California teachers against the National Education Association (NEA) and the California Education Association in federal district court in California. The lawsuit challenges the state’s “agency-shop rule,” claiming it violates teachers’ rights of free speech and free assembly because mandatory union dues (up to $1,000 per year) are spent mostly on political activities supporting the Democrat Party.

The Daily Caller’s Paul Bedard writes that a 2012 Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, which restricts how public unions can get money from nonmembers for political uses, may provide a mechanism for striking down the controversial agency-shop rule.

In the Knox case, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that agency-shop rules deserve further scrutiny: “Because a public-sector union takes many positions during collective bargaining that have powerful political and civic consequences, the compulsory fees constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights.”

Carvin, lead counsel for plaintiff teachers, explains it this way: “Forcing educators to financially support causes that run contrary to their political and policy beliefs violates their First Amendment rights to free expression and association and cannot withstand First Amendment scrutiny.”

These cases taken together tackle long-standing and controversial policy issues surrounding the K-12 system. Both bring to the forefront basic notions of how we think about the teaching profession. Both are worth watching closely.

Beth T. Sigall

May 13, 2013


This past week we learned of yet another serious allegation of abuse of a child with special needs. The incident involved two staff members, and purportedly occurred at an elementary school in Marysville, Washington.

Meg Coyle and Jake Whittenberg of King 5 News report that the seven-year-old child in question has multiple challenges, including ADHD, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. The energetic second-grader is the adopted daughter of Angi Wilson. The child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help address her various needs.

Ms. Wilson claims staff members at the school placed her daughter alone in a small storage closet for two hours as a consequence for misbehaving (the door was removed, with a piece of plywood serving as a barricade). Ms. Wilson also claims her daughter at other times has been dragged by the collar, pinched, hit and had her hair pulled – all by staff members.

School administrators placed the staff members on immediate paid leave while investigating the matter. Time-out rooms are allowed under district policy, but only if regulations are followed. In a surprising twist, the District has refused to allow reporters to see the closet.

I’ve written previously about the devastation suffered by families of children with disabilities when those children are abused by their teachers. In some cases, parents who suspected mistreatment but couldn’t prove it placed a hidden microphone on their child, only to discover horrible episodes of abuse of their child.

Children with special needs can be particularly vulnerable to abuse, given that many cannot speak or communicate effectively. These students often are placed in self-contained classrooms away from their peers, who could serve as witnesses to misconduct. Moreover, when students do manage to speak up, their claims are at times met with skepticism. For example, some parents at the Marysville school refused to consider even the possibility that teachers might be abusing children; they instead blamed the child. Said one parent: “I think it’s the kids themselves playing around and put themselves there (in the closet).”

All this translates into the painful reality of special education classrooms that have small groups of disabled students who cannot describe to their parents what they see going on with their classmates or what they are experiencing themselves. And while the overwhelming majority of teachers are doing remarkable work with challenging students in these classrooms and beyond, it only takes a few ugly episodes to shatter the bonds of trust with parents. Every parent of a child with special needs who reads a story like this inevitably wonders: “What if my child is being abused? How would I know? What can I do to prevent it?”

A law recently passed by the Washington state legislature and awaiting signature by the governor would require that parents be notified when a child with an IEP is placed in a time-out room or is otherwise restrained. This is a good start, but more is needed.

It’s time for school districts to place security cameras in self-contained special education classrooms. The Texas Senate passed a bill this month mandating cameras in special education classrooms after hearing “heartbreaking” testimony from parents describing episodes of abuse. Video technology is now widely available. These cameras provide an extra set of eyes and ears for our most vulnerable students, and can also protect teachers against false claims of abuse. If we can place cameras on school buses, in crowded high school hallways, at doggie daycares and inside ATM machines, we can and should place them in self-contained classrooms.

Beth T. Sigall

April 27, 2013

Some Thoughts on Autism Awareness Day

Today (April 2) is World Autism Awareness Day. April is Autism Awareness Month. You may have noticed lots of people, places and things “lighting it up blue” today to help raise awareness.

Autism has been part of our lives since July 2, 2002. On that day, at a hospital in Washington, D.C., our oldest son was diagnosed with autism.

Since that day, we’ve travelled together on a remarkable journey. Our son has gone from someone for whom the basic stuff of childhood – speaking, playing, learning, dressing and just living – were hard. Extraordinarily hard. Fast forward to today and we see our beautiful teen-age son who truly has the world ahead of him. He’s gone from someone afraid of water to someone who jumps in the swimming pool with reckless abandon. He used to fear all dogs; he is now completely devoted to our black Labrador, Lucy. In the past 12 months he ran a 5K race, learned how to ski and mastered writing computer code using two different programming languages. He went from a struggling reader to someone who just finished Jules Verne’s classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And best of all, his infectious sense of humor routinely results in all of us cracking up at dinner time, especially his two younger brothers (who adore him as much as his parents).

And so today, when we hear so many vital messages about autism – about education and policy and research and support – there is one message from our family that we want to send to everyone: Thank you. Thank you to every family member, friend, neighbor, therapist, counselor, teacher, doctor, nurse and even, yes, strangers, who took the time to help us. We are forever indebted to your kindness. We would never have arrived to where we are today without it.

I’m often asked, what does autism need? What can we do to help? There are many possible answers to this. It’s a complex issue that touches on multiple domains: science, public policy, education, awareness. But looking back, if there is one common thread that unites it all – the one thing any person could do to help another person with autism – to me it can be summed up in two words: unconditional love. Because if we start with unconditional love, no matter where our journey takes us, we know that journey won’t be so scary. It will be a journey we travel together and one that will take our son and so many like him to extraordinary heights. And so again, from our family to everyone we say on Autism Awareness Day, THANK YOU for supporting our son and people like him.

Beth T. Sigall

April 2, 2013

Partial Homeschooling For Gifted Students

In my school district, Lake Washington School District (LWSD), there is a waitlist for students who have qualified for our gifted education program (known as “Quest-Highly Capable”). Qualifying for gifted education involves earning high scores on standardized tests, including day-long testing on Saturdays, as well as strong teacher recommendations and consistently high grades on report cards. Yet the reward for some students who make it through that arduous process isn’t a spot in a gifted classroom, but a number on a waitlist. Even worse, students may only stay on the waitlist for only one year; after that the student must re-test and re-qualify all over again. LWSD states that while it does the best it can to offer gifted education to every student who qualifies, it does not have the resources, particularly the classroom space, to offer gifted education to all qualifying students.

Nancy Mann Jackson of writes that some school districts and parents are tackling this problem through partial homeschooling. With partial homeschooling, parents and districts work together by allowing students to attend their traditional public school for part of the day, then take advanced classes or work on projects on their own time. It is a highly individualized approach that allows talented students to pursue their passions.

According to Kathi Kearney of the Gifted Development Center, gifted children are the fastest-growing group to leave traditional institutions for homeschooling because of the shortage of gifted education options. With partial homeschooling, students can take classes at their traditional school, and then pursue gifted education in alternative settings (online, at home, at a community college, with a tutor, etc.). A partial home school student can still access school activities such as sports or clubs. This flexible approach can provide the best of both worlds for gifted students; students are engaged with academic work that challenges them, while they also maintain important social bonds with their school community.

Beth T. Sigall

February 14, 2013

Note: Lake Washington School District is located in Redmond, Kirkland and Sammamish, Washington

Fairness, parenting and the world of autism

This past summer marked a significant milestone in our journey with autism as we passed the 10-year anniversary of our oldest son’s diagnosis. July 2, 2002 is certainly a date that will remain permanently etched in our collective memories as parents. You never forget the day your child is diagnosed with autism. I remember everything about that day – even the pattern on the doctor’s necktie. I kept looking at the necktie instead of directly at the doctor trying to keep from tearing up. I knew I needed to be focused because this was going to be hard and I needed to be strong. Really strong. Looking at his necktie helped keep me calm.

We walked out of Children’s Hospital that day with the same wonderful little boy (now age 13!) we walked in with, and also with the emotional juggernaut of being thrown into a world we’d never navigated – not knowing what was ahead, and yet also knowing that we needed to step up in the biggest possible way to do the best possible job parenting our son.

Looking back there are so many lessons learned – I can’t possibly touch on all of them in one blog post. There are large lessons about patience, endurance, empathy and unconditional love. And smaller lessons, too, like the best way to teach getting dressed or brushing teeth to someone who has a hard time with motor planning.

Recently I came across a wonderful Facebook page written by a woman named Karla. And reading her posts brought to the forefront an issue we grappled with, particularly early on, with our son – the issue of fairness. Because there is a really tricky balance with parenting and autism: how much do you accept the person with autism for who they are and embrace their autism, and how much can/should you help them through therapy or other strategies so that they can learn to navigate a world where most people don’t have autism.

Karla’s ASD Page gives parents and the non-autism world a glimpse inside the thinking of a person with autism. Her poignant and at times biting commentary describes what life is like with autism.  She makes a compelling case that life with autism can be a rich and rewarding one, not just second-best or runner-up to a “normal” life.  By offering this glimpse inside her world, Karla shows us that an autism life is a viable if not a remarkable thing. Part of the problem as she sees it is moving the non-autism world toward a better understanding of how people with autism view and experience the world. She characterizes her mission as “not fighting autism, but working with it.” Amen.

I highly recommend following Karla’s AD Page on Facebook.  She gives people with autism a voice, and those without autism need to listen.

Beth T. Sigall

October 12, 2012

More R&D, please

One of my favorite economists, Tyler Cowen, recently posed an important question in his must-read blog “Marginal Revolution.” It’s a question I’ve pondered for many years: why is funding for R&D in public education astonishingly low?

Cowen writes that as a nation we spend less than $1 billion per year on education research.  He contends this is a paltry amount when compared to the $140 billion we spend each year on medical research. Cowen aptly views education and medicine as “two sides of the same coin” in that both are services that advance human health and happiness (in the case of medicine) and economic productivity and happiness (in the case of education).

So, Cowen asks – how to explain the 140:1 ratio?

The question generated lots of interesting responses. This list (partially edited) from a reader was particularly thought-provoking:

1. The beneficiaries of education improvements [kids] don’t vote.
2. Medical research is inherently expensive relative to education.
3. Accounting definition confusion (a lot of education and medicine are research and maybe medicine is better accounted for as research).
4. We do research in the practice of education just as in the practice of medicine; we just don’t do as well capturing the data.
5. We don’t see a lot of obvious ways to improve education from education (as opposed to waiting for the internet to save the day which won’t be accounted as education research).
6. We psychologically don’t accept trial-and-error in education, so we build buildings, buy computers, and hire teachers, whereas all medicine is trial-and-error and we oddly accept that is easier.

Beth T. Sigall

October 11, 2012

It’s October. Do you know where your child’s IEP is?

The beginning of October is an important checkpoint for parents of children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). By the time October arrives, your child’s school and teachers have had a month, sometimes more, to get to know your child and to understand how your child functions in the school environment. If your child has an IEP, this also means your school should have that IEP up and running. And as a parent you need to make sure that’s happening.

How? The best place to start is the actual IEP. Parents should go back and conduct a quick review of it. Here are the three main parts to the IEP parents should review as part of this “quick check” exercise:

Annual Goals & Short Term Objectives: these are the academic and functional goals that allow your child to make progress in the general education curriculum. Parents can start by going over the goals with their child. Parents also can review completed work sent home, and ask the teacher(s) for time to review the completed work file at school.  Teachers generally either keep a file of completed and/or ongoing work at school, or send it home on a regular basis. Many school districts now offer parent access to online grading so that student work completion and grades can be monitored at home. This is a terrific resource for parents. No matter which method you choose, it’s critical for parents to monitor completed work, and that includes work on IEP goals.

Overall, it’s important for parents to not wait until report card time or IEP progress report updates before doing a quick check on how things are going, as those more formal reports are issued infrequently (usually two or three times per year). IEPs are a complicated machine with many moving parts. For them to work and work well they need to be monitored and checked on a regular basis. As is the case with practically every machine, regular inspection and maintenance is more effective than waiting for a complete breakdown.

Program Accommodations/Modifications and Support for School Personnel – The accommodations/modifications portion of the IEP arguably is the most important. These are the specific tools students with disabilities need to help them make progress in school. Typically they cover areas related to the presentation of materials, timing/scheduling of classwork/homework, and the setting and format of instruction.

There is a wealth of information available describing the types of accommodations and modifications used to help students with disabilities learn and thrive in school. Commonly-used ones include preferential classroom seating (e.g., near the teacher’s desk), copies of lecture notes sent home, visual breakdown of tasks, extended time on tests/assignments, advance notice of schedule changes, and assistance from classroom aide as needed.

To ensure accommodations and modifications are being implemented, parents again can ask their child, their teacher, or review/observe completed work. In my years of representing parents in the special education process, the accommodations/modifications piece frequently is overlooked or misunderstood. At times responsibility for implementation is murky, which can result in accommodations falling off or not being implemented properly or consistently.

Service Matrix – This is the part of the IEP that details the level, frequency and duration of services the child receives, who is responsible for providing the service, and the location for delivery of it. For example, a student who has reading goals might receive instruction from a special education or reading teacher 30 minutes per day, four times per week, in a resource room. Again, now that we have reached October, it is vital for parents to check to make sure those specific services are being delivered as described in the service matrix. Other types of services commonly seen in IEPs include speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral support.

All of the above checks can be accomplished through (an always polite and brief) email to teachers, review of work sent home and possibly a quick visit to school to look at the completed work file. Building in these regular “well-checks” help parents become proactive partners in the IEP process. Most importantly, developing the habit of regular check-ins can help decrease the stress and frustration that often is associated with managing your child’s IEP.

Beth T. Sigall

October 3, 2012

Elites Enter the Online Arena

Much has been written about the explosion of online learning in higher education. In Elite Colleges Transform Online Higher Education, A.P. writer Terence Chea examines potential tipping points of this phenomenon.

While online learning has been around for a while, the recent entry of elite universities into the digital learning arena – with an outreach to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide – has elevated the conversation. With top-name universities now offering many courses online for free, we may be witnessing a permanent realignment of the higher education universe.

This past spring, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering free, online courses for the first time. According to Chea, massive open online courses – MOOCs – may be the biggest game changer yet in digital learning. Advocates claim these courses lower costs and expand access to higher education, all at a time when higher ed costs are soaring to the point of fueling student protests.

Chea and others report that last month “a dozen major research universities” announced they would offer online courses through the platform known as Coursera (joining Stanford, Princeton and the universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania). Harvard, MIT and University of California, Berkeley have already signed on with another online learning portal – edX. Chea reports that over 120 universities have expressed an interest in joining this consortium. Most universities offering these courses do not extend course credit with them, only certificates of completion (with a few exceptions, such as the University of Washington). So far that hasn’t mattered, as demand for these courses continues to soar.

So what makes these courses so attractive? First, the technology is better. It’s more interactive, and the curriculum is higher quality, according to the students who take them. Universities also claim the courses are as rigorous as the brick-and-mortar versions. Second, the virtual learning community greatly enhances learning. With access to thousands of other students at once, students can rely on more than just the professor and her teaching assistant to work through problems or get questions answered. There’s an entire (albeit virtual) community of engaged learners. Third, it speeds up the process – students can take more classes online and work through credit requirements more quickly (and on a time schedule of their choosing).

And the downsides? Cheating (there’s a lot of it), and lack of a personal connection. Plus some courses, particularly liberal arts or science classes with labs, simply aren’t well-suited for online learning.

Then there’s the overriding concern about wholesale extinction. Specifically, some fear universities (and their professors) will suffer the same fate as many newspapers did (bankruptcy) at the onset of the digital media age, because if you can get your content for free online, why should you pay the high price tag normally associated with elite schools?

My take: Elite universities aren’t going away anytime soon. Here’s what to watch – if employers are willing to hire students who complete certain courses (e.g., technical) without earning the traditional two or four-year degree, get ready for a complete paradigm shift. When employers focus less on traditional degrees earned, and more on content mastery as demonstrated by course completion, then you’ll know online learning has really arrived. Chea reports that this may already be happening in the tech industry, where some companies are asking online learning providers for “introductions” to students who successfully completed their online courses. Coursera is even considering this development as a possible revenue generator by charging students for certificates and employers for identifying top students.

Beth T. Sigall

August 13, 2012

Raising the Bar

This past weekend at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten offered a new idea for the teaching profession — a bar exam. Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuck reports that Weingarten proposed a bar exam as a way to determine whether new teachers are ready to teach. Weingarten envisions a test that emphasizes critical thinking skills more than rote ones; it would also include a clinical piece to provide hands-on experience.

Weingarten then moved the conversation to Twitter (@rweingarten), where she spent much time clarifying and otherwise explaining her bar exam trial balloon. One explanation of particular note was a recent Gallup poll that, according to Weingarten, showed confidence in public education is at an all-time low.  Another was the need she sees for teachers to become proactive in finding solutions to the problems faced in public education by leading, not just reacting.

According to Sawchuck, while a bar exam for teachers has common-sense appeal, only a test that is both rigorous in content and requires a high score to pass stands a chance of working. And even then, other political obstacles stand in the way. While teachers unions might seem the most obvious roadblock, Sawchuck points to colleges of education and state licensing boards as groups that have opposed past efforts on raising the bar to becoming a teacher.

My take: A bar exam would help align the teaching profession with others, such as law and medicine. Raising entry-level requirements in a thoughtful and substantive way (i.e., not with more paperwork or seat time in continuing education classes) so that education colleges are producing teachers who are ready to teach seems like something we can all agree on.

The AFT plans to release a report sometime this year, again according to Sawchuck, on how to improve the quality of teacher preparation. Perhaps Weingarten’s announcement is paving the way for some big ideas, such as a minimum-entry 3.0 GPA requirement, or a “national, rigorous entry test measuring college-level subject knowledge, rather than the basic-skills tests states currently administer.” Sawchuck writes that only one state – Texas – requires an entry test for new teachers normed to the college-aged population.

Beth T. Sigall

July 2, 2012

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