A guest post from Bianca Tanis, Parent, Special Educator and Co-Founder NYS Allies for Public Education
The current education reforms being implemented in NYS are an assault on the dignity and the rights of students with disabilities, plain and simple. While educational leaders seem to be suffering from an extreme case of magical thinking, parents of children with disabilities know better. One cannot wish a disability away anymore than a teacher can “teach” away a disability with inappropriately difficult curricula or tests. As parents of students with disabilities, we want our children to reach beyond their current capabilities; to think otherwise is insulting and ridiculous. However, students who struggle despite consistently putting forth their best effort still deserve to feel success, even if it is not the same success of their typical peers. If we continue to measure all students against the same target (an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all target), students with disabilities are denied their dignity and their right to a free and appropriate education.
Who is to blame for this shameful bullying? While some would say the implementation of the Common Core, I would argue that we can place the blame squarely on the shoulders of No Child Left Behind, the Race to Nowhere (aka Race to the Top) initiative, and poor leadership. The current accountability reforms put forward in NCLB and RTT force schools to subject students with disabilities to inappropriate assessment practices and curriculum thereby violating the mandates and rights of disabled students put forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. NCLB and RTT mandate that all but 1% of students with significant learning and cognitive disabilities must take the same assessments as their non-disabled peers. The high-stakes nature of these tests discourages the use of a modified curriculum for disabled students as schools, administrators, and teachers are evaluated based on the results of these tests. Teachers feel that they must teach grade-level curriculum to their disabled students or at least expose them to it in an attempt to prepare them for these inappropriate and demoralizing tests, often times many grade levels above the students’ current instructional level.
When he is not insulting parents of all races and genders, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would have us believe that these tests and standards will ensure that students with disabilities have the opportunity to reach their full potential. The fact is that these education reforms may actually impede a student’s ability to reach his or her potential. Forcing children to take tests they can’t access is a waste of instructional time, and yields no useful instructional information. I would argue that time spent on a test that a student can’t read would be better spent learning to read. This does not even take into account the small matters of student self-esteem and motivation. I imagine that drinker of the Reform Kool-Aid are able to sleep at night by telling themselves that working to the best of one’s ability but never experiencing success is a great way to learn perseverance, which will in turn can only lead to “career and college readiness.”
At this point it is widely believed that a large proportion of the Common Core Learning Standards are developmentally inappropriate. That’s what happens when you use back-mapping to arrive at standards rather than research, developmental psychology, and most of all, educational experience. They are problematic for all children, but even more so for students with disabilities. Careful scaffolding of information and skills is especially important for students with disabilities. Implementing the Common Core Learning Standards across all grade levels simultaneously has resulted in serious gaps in pre-requisite skills and background knowledge for students with disabilities. To date, neither the New York State Board of Regents, Commissioner of Education John King, nor educational leaders at the federal level have addressed this fact or worked to remediate the damage, demoralization, and regression that has been inflicted on many students with disabilities as a result of this irresponsible implementation.
But bullies are never satisfied, and the NYS Board of Regents thinks that it is imperative that society be able to pinpoint just who is “good enough,” who is “career and college ready,” and who is not. The current policies in place regarding graduation and diploma requirements stigmatize students with disabilities, and ensure that many students will no longer earn a diploma of any kind. As of July, 2013, IEP and vocational diplomas have been phased out. Students with an IEP must achieve 55 or higher on five Common Core based Regents Exams or a 65 or higher on the ELA and Math Regents Exams to make up for scores lower than 55 on the other three exams. If a student is not able to do this, NO diploma will be awarded. Instead, a disabled student will receive a Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) Commencement Credential signifying that the student meets criteria for entry-level employment. Students who are assessed using the NYS Alternate Assessment (NYSAA) are only eligible for a Skills and Achievement Credential.
There is NO evidence that employers will value this credential or accept it in lieu of a diploma. Awarding such a credential rather than a diploma stigmatizes and identifies students with disabilities due to the fact that it is ONLY awarded to students with disabilities. When a young person with a disability is asked by a potential employer if he or she has a high school diploma, not only do they have to answer no, but they will have to disclose that they have a CDOS Commencement Credential, thereby outing them as a person with a disability and violating their right to privacy and confidentiality afforded them by education law. As a society, are we really so paranoid that we fear young men and women who are not “career and college ready” slipping by undetected? Who does this new policy benefit, other than those who wish to easily separate and identify students with disabilities?
As a result of these policies, students are being tracked into either diploma or credential pathways as early as 8th grade. It is unacceptable that parents and teachers must officially decide whether or not a student will receive a diploma when he or she is 13 years old. Most tragic is that many students are able to engage in academic curriculum yet lack the abstract language skills needed to pass a Common Core based ELA Regents Exam. We are forcing them to choose a “credential,” one that brands them as “other” rather than providing a third option. Students with disabilities will be denied a diploma based on arbitrary, untested learning standards that were created by 4 guys in a room, designed to win a race to nowhere.
If we stay on this path, we will not be known for our “world class” education system. We will not win a prize or be number one, because in the realm of real education and authentic learning, there is no number one. It’s time to let our elected leaders know that we would prefer our public education system be known for its strong commitment to individual differences, to basic human decency and to a fair and equitable society that supports and values ALL students, not just those who can fill in a bubble. You can side with the name-calling bullies, or you can stand on the right side of history and fight for the dignity of all students. Call, email and fax your elected leaders TODAY and let them know that you demand better. Visit http://www.nysape.org/change-nys-board-of-regents-elections—action-alert.html and hold the NYS Board of Regents accountable for their actions.