Tuesday Tips!

Hello friends and colleagues,

I created Tuesday Tips in 2021 and emailed them to subscribers each Tuesday for 13 weeks through MailerLite.com. If you’d like to subscribe (it’s FREE!), please let me know at miriam@schoollawpro.com.

The Tips are designed for special and general educators, administrators, parents, and others who may be interested. They are practical and provide guidance for our schools.

Because they’ve been very popular — especially during these challenging COVID times, I’ll repost them here, once a week, starting with the First Set of 13…

This was originally posted on Medium

A term I heard, new to me, during COVID upended my view about special education: “General education students with IEPs.” Really? Who are these students? Do you know any?

Labeling students as disabled because they struggle is wrong, especially if our goal is to educate them better. Such mislabeling has even been called abusive! Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Learners and How WE Can Fight It: Hettleman, Kalman R.: 9781635766394: Amazon.com: Books

Instead of plugging these students into an ill-fitting 45+ year old legal system — the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted in 1975 — and further bloating it with mind-numbing procedures, huge costs, amid decidedly mixed results — and now burdened by COVID compensatory services claims — we need a new way to think about and work with struggling students — especially post COVID. For true student success, we need a new “normal” by focus, focus, focus, with passion and commitment, on educating them in general education through high quality teaching and learning opportunities.

Far better to engage an army of excellent teachers than to continue to engage an army of bureaucrats and lawyers, as we have since 1975. Especially as, sitting right next to these students in our classrooms are “general ed students without IEPs,” many of whom are equally behind, equally hurt by COVID, equally at risk. The group without IEPs often includes at-risk students, immigrants, tuned out students, students in poverty, students lacking effective technology at home, non-English speakers, and others.

Can you tell the difference between these two groups? Probably not, especially as disability labels for students with “mild or moderate needs” are imprecise and may reflect parental advocacy and certain ZIP codes more than actual student needs.

Who are “general education students with IEPs?” Undoubtedly, they are among students with mild and moderate needs who make up 80–90% of today’s students with disabilities with IEPs. Other countries, like Singapore, Finland, and others, don’t label struggling students this way; instead, they focus on educating all students through early and targeted interventions. As do many successful US school districts.

Meanwhile back to our law. Notably, this skewing of percentages was not planned by the IDEA, which was enacted for students with severe and profound needs — who now make up just 10–20% of today’s students with IEPs. Let’s be clear. “General education students with IEPs” do NOT include these 10–20% of students. For them, the special education system should proceed as is. Indeed, many schools expended enormous funding and effort to bring those students back early during the pandemic to meet their needs.

Let’s focus instead on the many other students for whom, tragically, legal constrictions often impede great education, highlighted by the current crisis.

Within that legal framework, we hear that special needs students suffered during the pandemic. They did. No doubt. Many parents are suing their schools for “compensatory services” to make up for lost services. See NPR’s report, Families Fight Schools For The Special Education COVID Shut Down : NPR. Notably, the NPR report highlighted the 10–20% of students with severe and profound needs. Whether claims settle or go to due process hearings, they challenge schools. To meet that challenge, California set aside $100 million to help resolve these disputes. How California plans to deter costly special education disputes | EdSource.

In fairness, stop and think for a moment. Isn’t it also true and very real that, besides students with IEPs, many others fell behind during COVID. What about them? Sadly, as I see it, instead of a rational response to a public education crisis, we revert to the comfort (?) of the old law that ill-fits today’s reality. Couldn’t we better spend that $100 million?

For compensatory services claims for students with IEPs who missed therapies, placements, meetings, etc., we have an army of lawyers. These cases are easy to win. After all, our federal Department of Education refused to waive any requirements for schools due to COVID back in 2020. The students’ IEPs were NOT fully implemented. The Feds told us they had to be. Case closed. Next!

Billy is entitled to 50 hours of speech therapy, a private school, or whatever he missed. Schools, ordered to pay, will deplete their budgets. Note California’s $100 million pot to alleviate this burden.

But are we being smart or wise? Are these wins good for students or for public schools? Phyllis Wolfram, Executive Director of CASE (Council of Administrators of Special Education), warned that if schools pay out all that is owed through compensatory services, we may break the system of public education.

Ironically, providing compensatory services may further exacerbate the struggles of many general education students without IEPs. It may lead more parents to seek IDEA eligibility for their children — further bloating the special education entitlement with more “general education students with IEPs”. That’s the nature of an entitlement — those who have it, get. Those who don’t are on their own and may try to get in on the deal.

What shall we do instead? Focus on learning, more than labeling. See, e. g., excellent education in communities that implement a competency-based system (CBS) and work to meet all students’ needs with timely intervention — whether the students are struggling, advanced, or in between (About CBS / About CBS (westminsterpublicschools.org) ). Notably, Westminster’s motto is: “Services before labels.” Right on!

See also programs that focus on hiring excellent teachers to build learning from the very beginning, so that students may not need any labeling. See, e.g., Harvard Education Publishing Group (hepg.org). And see the many communities where, surprisingly, harmony grew during COVID — and no compensatory services are claimed! These districts improved communication between home and school — building trust — through person to person, human connection, as they worked with students. Schools Up Communications Game During Pandemic (govtech.com)

In sum, the push for compensatory services happens seemingly automatically, by law, and since it’s an entitlement, dare we ask if there’s any science or rationality behind it?

Speaking of science — do we have evidence that an additional 50 hours of speech therapy, a year late, will help Billy? Is it the best use of scarce public resources? Does it make sense — or are we just filling a “right” — like automatons. Next!

Speaking of equity, fairness, wisdom, inclusion, and our public schools — Do we have any explanation to give to that student who has no IEP — of the reason we don’t focus on him?

We don’t. And we don’t.

If COVID didn’t shake us to our core, what will? Sure, 50 hours of therapy will be compensated. Public schools will pay. As “the only game in town”, more parents may seek IDEA “protection” for their children, further depleting general education programs and budgets. Advocates may rejoice. But is it good for America?

It is not. It’s time to change our path. Or, are we doomed to keep grasping that 45+year old system that ill-fits today’s challenges — because change is hard and powerful interests stand in the way? I hope not!

Let’s, at least, change the conversation and stop labeling general education students; let’s do something different for all students — with or without IEPs, as CBS and other effective programs already do.

It’s time to pivot toward all students who need good teaching, more than they need labeling, procedures, or rights. Far better than “compensatory services” for the few is real education for the many, especially those who fell behind during COVID. If we don’t pivot, that needy child without an IEP may learn less and less, more parents may lose trust in our public schools, and learning losses may lead to further watered-down standards. None of this is equity, reasonable, inclusive, equitable, or wise.

We’re overdue for a new “normal.” The question is: will we answer the COVID alarm and opportunity? The time for choosing is now.

This was originally posted on Medium

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman


Here’s my story just published in Fordham Institute’s Flypaper.

Sitting on a Boston city bus, I watched a mother with a young child. For the twenty-five-minute ride, they didn’t speak a word. No “Look at that little girl on the bicycle” or “We’re having pizza for dinner!” When you’re with a young child for that long, do you talk to her?

The dearth of language is where critical learning gaps begin for many poor and disadvantaged children — gaps that often don’t close in school, no matter how much we spend or how early we start. Now President Biden’s “American Family Plan” proposes to spend $220 billion to create “high quality” preschools for three- and four-year-olds, expanding on President Obama’s push for four-year-olds in preschool.

Will it work? It depends on why Biden is proposing it. If it’s for childcare and social and behavioral skills, then yes, it probably will work. But if it’s to build pre-academics and cognitive development for kindergarten readiness and future schooling, it probably won’t!

A long history of creating out-of-home institutions for young children reveals that they may not be the most direct path toward school readiness. While we know that preschools can improve children’s behavior and social skills, they don’t do much to boost language and academic development. And assuming that such programs will be “high quality” is unrealistic, given our disappointing history of “high quality” K–12 programs in many cities and other areas serving our poorest and neediest children.

A large body of research has shown that though preschool programs like Head Start may give children a boost, the gains often fade by third grade. Kalman Hettleman, responding to the assumption that a “universal guarantee of pre-K will enable students to achieve academic success all the way up the school ladder,” cautioned:

That is conventional wisdom, but it’s also wishful thinking. For various reasons, early childhood education has been oversold in education politics and policy It is not a vaccine that prevents future learning failure. [Emphasis added.]

In short, preschools aren’t great at improving language or pre-academics, even as the benefits they do have don’t seem to last for long, especially for our most needy children. So they may not be the most direct way to get children ready for kindergarten.

Instead, President Biden should follow what works and build an “all-of-the-above” approach: not only “high quality” preschools for child care and the development of social and behavior skills — but also home-based support for language and other cognitive development. He should empower families — parents, grandparents, and other caregivers — to fulfill their vital roles as children’s first teachers, especially for language development.

Research, including the seminal 1995 Hart and Risley study, which led to the “30-million-word gap,” tells us that improving early education, especially those vital language skills, starts at home. School readiness grows out of these skills, as other leaders have recognized. In 2015, for example, President Obama convened a White House conference to “bridge the word gap and put more young people on the path to success,” stressing the importance of talking to babies to close that 30-million-word gap.

Indeed, because parents are children’s first teachers, research supports helping them be as good as they can be. One evidence-backed way to do this, as described by Grover Whitehurst, is to pay parents directly to take care of their little ones and talk, sing, and read to them at home, on the street, at the playground, everywhere! Hart and Risley’s legacy lives on in efforts, often by non-profits, to empower families through research-supported home visits and other means. (See, for example, California’s First 5, Child and Family Research Partners, Providence Talks, Start Early (formerly The Ounce), Child Mind Institute, and Zero to Three.) Indeed, by age three or four, when children head to preschool, those who haven’t enjoyed strong language development at home are often far behind, and schools have not been able to close those gaps.

Yet a home-based approach is a hard sell, even as research shows that the path to improve early education — especially those vital language skills — starts there. Washington remains deaf to this promising path. As I see it, the American Family Plan would ultimately disincentivize this most powerful approach. Families who choose to be home with young children would receive nothing for their effort, while those who opt out of home enrichment would get free preschools!

If President Biden’s goal is education, he should ensure that the American Family Plan supports moms, dads, grandparents, and other at-home caregivers to be the best teachers they can be, and make it more likely that when their children finally do head to school, they’re ready to learn. He should pivot toward home.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA, is an experienced school attorney, author, and passionate reformer. Her most recent reform book is Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos the Build a NEW Education Law. For more information, please visit SchoolLawPro.com.

This was originally posted on Medium

TRUST — Build trust for schools, students, and parents because trust is the coin of the realm!

I believe that TRUST is necessary for excellent education — trust among players — students, teachers, parents, administrators, tax payers, and others.

Excellent education means that students learn all they can to become all they can be! That is the WHY of schools; it’s where our discussion should start — with the WHY. Schools should focus on student competence every day, all the time. Yet, they often can’t and don’t. As I see it, lack of trust contributes to that.

Positive relationships between schools and families are vital. Yet, the special education law and dispute resolution don’t promote that. In fact, as I see it, they head in the opposite direction! They are costly, anxiety-​​producing, and often trust busters for all parties, with NO research proving that the mandated procedures and requirements improve student outcomes. Tragic.

What is trust? It’s a firm belief that you can rely on the strength, ability, truthfulness, honesty, of someone or something. It gives you confidence in that reliance.

The “coin of the realm” is a country’s legal currency, valued like money. Before he died at age 100, George Shultz reflected on advice he got when he first became Secretary of State — “Trust is the coin of the realm.” He carried that lesson with him for his entire life — and wrote a short and breezy book about trust and relationships to celebrate his 100th. shultz_finalfile_web-ready.pdf (hoover.org) It includes this gem:

“When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the coach’s room, the office room, the government room, or the military room — good things happened.

When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen.

Everything else is details.”

And, there’s this about trust. The US is the only established democracy where the level of ‘social trust’ is falling. ‘Social trust’ means that people believe that most people can be trusted and that they’ll abide by established norms. For example, they believe that if your lost wallet is found, someone will return it to you! Our social trust used to be 50%; now it’s less than a third. Without trust, what’s left? “Why are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?” The Wall Street Journal, December 19–20, 2020.

And, as you can imagine, distrust is trust’s opposite. Here’s Francis Fukuyama’s excellent summary:

“By contrast, people who do not trust one another will end up cooperating only under a system of formal rules and regulations, which have to be negotiated, agreed to, litigated, and enforced, sometimes by coercive means. This legal apparatus, serving as a substitute for trust, entails what economists call “transaction costs.”

“Widespread distrust in a society, in other words, imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” Citation at end of this post.

“Transaction costs.” One special education statistic that remains in my head is this. Teachers have just 27% of time left to teach. The rest is taken up with writing reports, attending meetings and other bureaucratic requirements — “transaction costs.” Yet, for the WHY — we have NO evidence that these improve outcomes!

“We have a problem, Houston!” Trust is NOT in the air!

What can we do about it? This post is designed to be practical and helpful with steps you can take on Monday!

First, words matter. Use them wisely. Be honest. Avoid ‘doublespeak.’ Try not to create an ‘honesty gap!’ The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘doublespeak’ as language that can be used in more than one way and is used to deceive people. The term, ‘honesty gap’, popped up in the testing/achievement arena and refers to the gap between information parents receive and how students are actually doing. An ‘honesty gap’ and ‘doublespeak’ are trust busters. Don’t use them!

Here are some oft-used terms that I see as trust busters.

“Closing the gap.” A great goal, but what does it mean? Is it real? Concerns are raised when we lower or ‘dumb down’ standards, provide invalidating modifications, hurt advanced students who are already proficient, obsess about getting all students to college, ignoring the real world benefits of vocational and technical education and the reality that many students are unprepared for college, etc. etc. Joke: We can “close achievement gaps” by simply ending achievement! How about aiming to “narrow gaps” — which may be more realistic and honest. And, far more satisfying because it gets to the WHY of education — how about focusing on student competence as CBE (competency based education) schools are doing, making it about individual student growth, not gaps with others.

“All students can learn and meet the same challenging academic standards.” Really? What does this mean? Is it honest? Does it build trust?

We want what’s best for your child.” While that may be what you want personally, it’s not what the law requires of you, as a school employee. Your job is to provide an ‘appropriate, not a best, education. Saying that we want what’s best for your child overpromises and underdelivers — a sure trust buster.

“Parents and schools are equal partners” at Team meeting, in planning the IEP, etc. This is not so. Saying it leads to a loss of trust. See Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (US 2017). The two parties have very different roles under the law. Schools provide expertise and parents provide input that schools need to consider. Parents may have expertise about their child at home and in the community, but not about education and how the child performs at school. While the parties hopefully act as partners, calling them “equal” is confusing doublespeak. What, exactly, does it mean?

There are many other troubling terms. Which ones have you questioned and tried to avoid because they kill trust? With a moment’s thought, you’ll think of several!

In sum, the “honesty gap” and doublespeak hurt efforts to build trust and positive relationships in our schools.

On the other hand, here are two positive words that I urge school personnel to use. Describe yourself as the ‘expert’ that you are in your chosen field and as the ‘advocate’ you are for the students you serve. Own those words: expert and advocate!

Second. the language challenge is a practical dilemma. Nancy, a successful special education director, told me this story. After she retired, she filled in as the acting principal of a school in the district, where she learned the heavy toll on trust and honesty in the special ed world. As acting principal, she was able to speak honestly with parents and students — for the first time! Something that she could not do in the world of special education (lest what she said would come back to haunt her in a dispute). Think about that!

What about trust in other countries? During my pre-COVID 19 visit with a school principal in Holland, she laughed out loud when I asked if they hire lawyers to resolve disputes about services for children with disabilities. Lawyers? NO — they resolve disputes with parents, educators, and administrators.

What about here at home at meetings? Try this! Walk into an IEP Team meeting. How long does it take you to know if there’s trust among the players? What are the benchmarks? How can you tell if staff members or parents feel heard?

Third, a bit of history about due process and some special education numbers. In 1975, Congress enacted the special education law, the IDEA. It provides an individual entitlement to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities and rights for their parents. As we all know, this entitlement involves due process. I highly recommend the book, Rights Talk, to understand individual rights in the US. Citation in the back.

Numbers. In 1975, about a million students with disabilities were excluded from US schools or not appropriately served. The law targeted students with severe and profound needs — who now make up 10–20% of all students with disabilities. 80–90% of today’s students with disabilities have mild/ moderate needs. About 14% of students are covered by this law. Due to COVID-19, we expect the numbers to go up — as, by report, more parents already seek eligibility evaluations.

The pandemic also highlights an on-going challenge about students with mild and moderate needs. Can you really tell who is a student with a disability and who is ‘at risk’ or just losing ground? Often, the difference has more to do with student ZIP codes and parental advocacy than the students themselves. Gaps have widened for so many at-risk students and students with disabilities — both groups, creating a real challenge.

Amazingly (to me, at least), the law and its due process system do not mention TRUST. It’s all about rights for students and parents and responsibilities for schools. A damaging effect of this law has been the loss of trust between school and home, in spite of its best intentions. For example, teachers often practice ‘defensive’ education, lest a dispute blow up into a litigation. Parents who wish to nourish and help their children need to study the law to fight against the very teachers and schools whose mission is to educate their children! Too often, they describe their child as more disabled than she is. See, e.g., Chino Valley USD, OAH Case # 2020060369; 2020100601.

When I was a hearing officer, I heard a parent describe her teenage son in excruciating, negative detail. I finally asked her, “Do you like this child?” She looked up, stunned, and then smiled. She got it! The hearing became more honest and real.

Due process damages relationships. Let’s not forget that the very next day after testifying at a hearing, teachers have to work with the child and parents. It takes an emotional toll on parents and staff. Its incentives are wrong. Many educators quit and walk away.

The law is built on the premise that parents advocate for their child against their school and teachers; that parents and students need “protections” from schools and that parents have to fight, fight, fight. The law places a huge burden on parents: many can’t advocate effectively; savvy parents often can; poor, uneducated — often can’t. Surely, the system lacks equity.

Lost in all this is the fact that most parents are pleased with their children’s special education services and progress!

Notably, most (94–96%) hearing requests settle without a hearing or decision. The number of decisions in the US is down. (We have no numbers yet for the COVID-19 time and beyond). 2262 decisions were rendered in 2011–12, compared with 4537 in 2006–7. Though the number of decisions is small, that’s a mixed blessing. Among continuing challenges are the constant fear of litigation, settlement costs, the fact that incentives are wrong (e.g., lawyers’ fees; trusting outside, not inside ‘experts,’ etc.), and the fact that ‘professional development’ often is about dotting all I’s and crossing all t’s.

I’m sure you can think of other examples of damage to trust that today’s system creates.

Fourth, it’s time to ask whether today’s approach, even with various ADR (alternate dispute resolution) options, is still appropriate or necessary for students or parents?

Would anyone seeking to create a positive, collaborative system for teachers, parents, and students set up the adversarial, bureaucratic, and trust-killing system that we have?

In sum, the IDEA’s effect on trust, built on adversarial due process that emphasizes rights and litigation, not learning — is very concerning. We need to change it! For the long haul, I urge us to reimagine educating all students, including students with disabilities (in two distinct groups with different needs and rights) by building positive, trust-based, innovative approaches for our post — COVID-19 future. We may even question whether to continue with the current entitlement system. Here’s a starter article for this overdue conversation. Special education post-pandemic — what and how? | by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA | Dec, 2020 | Medium

Fifth, but for now, what to do on Monday!

Take steps to build trust with families — especially during and after COVID-19. A surprising silver lining of the pandemic has been that many schools report improved parent outreach and collaboration. What have you done for outreach? Have you shown that the school is doing all it can for their child? Have you engaged families in honest dialogue?

1. Catch students being good. Focus on strengths! And share with the parents!

2. Speak Plain Language without doublespeak and the ‘honesty gap’. What is plain language? | plainlanguage.gov Drop the acronyms or provide a glossary. Acronyms are often disempowering — an immediate barrier to trust.

3. Be the child’s advocate! Own that word. Be the person that parents know has their child’s interest at heart. Earn their trust!

4. Be the expert that you are in your area of expertise and stay in your lane! Own that word!

5. Earn trust by doing what you said you will do. Over deliver and under promise. Not the opposite!

6. Be the district’s eyes and ears — about parental concerns. E.g., when they first bring a “friend” to a meeting or ask for the child’s student records or…Hire a hand holder — like Raye!

7. Smile — Go that extra smile.

Consistent, positive, small steps can go a long way to build trust.


Sixth, explore ADR options within today’s entitlement system.

Besides mediations, resolution meetings, and other ADR options, I’d like to introduce SpedEx — Massachusetts’

· child-centered

· voluntary

· trust-based

· free for parents and school districts

· successful dispute resolution system that develops an appropriate program for the child.

SpedEx is designed to be child-centered, result in an appropriate placement that provides a FAPE in the LRE, and trust-based! It’s success rate in developing accepted IEPs — parents and schools working together with an outside consultant (paid for by the state education department) — stands at 80–90%. That is amazing! It also likely means that the parties will continue to work together in a trusting relationship in future years. Please check it out at SpedEx (squarespace.com).

Imagine other dispute resolution options for all students — with or without disabilities; with or without an entitlement.

· Ombudsman for all students.

· A monthly open school night to meet with the principal — no appointment needed. Like Jimmy, my son’s principal, did!

· Informal resolution options developed by students, teachers, and parents.

· Student-centered, not process-centered, approaches.

· Outcome-based, not input-driven, systems. It’s the WHY of schools and WHY we care about making them better.


We’ve acknowledged the fact that trust and distrust are problematic in the wider world.

Let’s build around the reality that trust in the special education world is a huge challenge.

On Monday, take practical steps to build and grow trust in your world.

Keep the conversation going! These are a few of my favorite books and sources….

Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville (1835, 1840).

IEP and Section 504 Team Meetings… and the Law, Miriam Kurtzig Freedman (2017).

Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, Mary Ann Glendon (1991).

Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality, Richard Thompson Ford (2011).

Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law, Miriam Kurtzig Freedman (2017).

Start with Why — How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek (2009)

Try Common Sense — Replacing the Failed Ideologies of the Right and Left, Philip K. Howard (2019).

Trust — The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama (1995).

shultz_finalfile_web-ready.pdf (hoover.org), George Schultz (2021).

This was originally posted on Medium

What’s the best thing that happened to you today? Victor Perton, the “Optimism Guy” asks us.

For me, it’s that I’m here in Australia (by ZOOM) at the Diversity and Inclusion Forum on February 3, 2021 (actually it’s February 4 already, in Australia) with Victor and another presenter. I was invited by my friend, Ivan Kaye, and am very grateful for that.

What an incredible world we’re in these days. Business and education leaders can “meet” half way across the world and discuss important issues from their diverse perspectives. Victor’s positive message is infectious. Check him out at the “centre for optimism” in Australia. The Centre for Optimism — Home.

Looking back now, a few weeks later, it was indeed a fun and rich Forum!

So, here’s what I said…..

As a public-school attorney half way around the world from Australia, I have the opportunity to share ideas with you, business & education leaders — with optimism, an open heart, and ZOOM!

First, let’s ask WHY. WHY do you have a business? What is your purpose? I’ll let you answer that.

WHY do we have public schools? WHY do you send your kids there? What is the purpose? Alas, we have many different purposes, different values, that compete sometimes…. My answer (which may differ from yours) is that the purpose of public schools is to educate all children — average students, students with disabilities, advanced students, & everyone else — in academics — skills and knowledge — as well as social, emotional, & behavioral skills — in appropriately diverse and inclusive settings — so they can become competent adults & citizens! Competence is the goal in all of the above. With my definition for education, I would rename the conference, the “Diversity, Inclusion, and Competence Forum.”

I’m all for inclusive practices that align with excellent teaching and learning in our diverse schools. Unfortunately, they don’t always align. We often lack appropriate balance among competing values, which detracts from reaching that competence goal.

Today, I’ll focus on US schools and students with disabilities — 14% of our students. We expect that percentage to grow because of the learning gaps and lost opportunities created by the COVID pandemic’s school closures.

What do you do in business if it fails? Hopefully, you pivot.

In our COVID and post-COVID era, what should we do in public schools with poor outcomes for many students, including students with disabilities — as we have in the US & I’m reading, even in Australia. We should pivot!

But do we have the political will to do so? Are we able to harness diverse values for a common goal? Will we be able to steer diversity and inclusion to also focus on competence for all students? Those are big questions, going forward.

Disappointing student outcomes? For example, the 2019 TIMMS (Trends in International Math and Science Study) show that gaps in US schools are widening — even before COVID. Education Week, February 3, 2021.

Of course, there are many reasons for disappointing student results. They may relate to multiple in-school practices and failures, as well as in-community realities of poverty, family breakdown and dislocation, non-English immigrant experience, and many others. All are worthy of focus.

But, for today, let’s focus on how inclusion as practiced in the US may lead to disappointing student outcomes.

First, what is inclusion? Did you know that inclusion in schools has different meanings in different countries? And that it’s controversial — “contentious” as a 2013 Australia report calls it? And that the definition is evolving? And that we have no unified definition?

For example, inclusion may mean that all students have the right to be included in public education — whether in mainstream schools, special programs, or special schools. See, for example, Singapore’s practice that defines inclusion as providing education for all students, as well as Australia’s earlier practice which, is undergoing changes. Or, for a different perspective, see Finland’s example, where students are not labeled with a disability for special services. All students who need them can receive interventions. One statistic that stands out for me is that by the age of 16, 60% of students have received “special education.” Essentially, inclusion is a non-issue. Education is personal and special for everyone.

So, what are we talking about in schools? It’s rather impossible to clarify the term, inclusion, as it means different things to different people in different countries at different times. A moveable concept.

In the US, inclusion grows out of the 1975 special education law’s “least restrictive environment” requirement. It has come to presume that students with disabilities are educated together with their peers who are not disabled in the same general education classroom according to their age, unless they can’t make it in that setting, even with aides & services, and need a more restrictive setting — which often turns out to be a drawn-out, litigious process. To make inclusion work, schools try many approaches, such as providing 1:1 aides and paraprofessionals, curriculum adaptations, accommodations, modifications, differentiated instruction, technology, multi-tiered systems of support, and other approaches.

Helpful as these are for some students, as I see it, the US definition distracts us from our schools’ primary purpose — which is education, ensuring that students graduate as competent adults. In spite of good intentions and massive efforts by devoted and often excellent professionals, inclusion often does not enhance learning for all, especially students with disabilities. As well, we lack objective fact-based data to really know what works and what doesn’t. Much of our current “research” is advocacy-driven. Reports are often shrouded in incomplete or misinformation — raising the term, the “honesty gap”.

Sadly, many of the practices used to make inclusion work kill trust — which is vital. Schools often overpromise, but under deliver. This is especially so, as the focus of inclusion is on the students who need additional support to meet grade-level standards — not on all students, including those who are at or above grade level already. What about those students and their parents? Where is the “all” in all students?

Yet the beat goes on. Many educators and administrators pride themselves in having “inclusive” schools. But again, as I see it, they often fail to focus on the primary purpose of schooling for all students — to graduate competent young people.

Here’s a story about how far this imbalance is going, taken from my book, Special Education 2.0.

I recently spoke with an elementary school principal about this. He was a kind, soft spoken man, proud to share that he has an “inclusive school.” I asked if he knew of any research about inclusion from the perspective of general education students. He did not. What he has are anecdotal stories — many of which touch the heart.

When asked if general education teachers or parents of general education students complain that inclusion is not working for them, he said they do. But, and this shocked me, he tells parents who don’t like it that they can pull their kids out and send them to private school!

I asked one of many obvious follow-up questions — is he putting the interests of students with disabilities ahead of others? He acknowledged that he is, saying we have to educate all students!

I was speechless. I felt that he did not appreciate the irony of what he had said. Which students are “all” students?

There you have it. Inclusion at work in one elementary school. I was left to wonder how common this principal’s attitude is.

What to do instead? I believe we must focus on all students, on proven approaches that balance learning and inclusion. As one of many examples, check out Competency-Based Education (CBE). There, all students are taught and flexibly grouped by current needs in multi-age settings, and by age or interest in some content areas. “Services before labels,” is the motto in Westminster Colorado, a CBE school district. All students receive personalized interventions. The schools focus on competence for all students — with inclusion taking a supporting role. CBS / Homepage (westminsterpublicschools.org)

See also the work of the Aurora Institute, a national organization for CBE. Aurora Institute — A New Dawn for Every Learner (aurora-institute.org)

For other promising approaches, see Nate Levenson’s advice to the new Biden administration, Advice to the Biden administration on improving special education. More money isn’t enough — or most important. | The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In closing, let’s go back to WHY — schools should help students become competent young adults, with strengths, ready to flourish in their worlds. For that, make learning, not just inclusion, work by aligning academic learning and inclusion far better than we now do. This will also rebuild trust in our schools.

Westminster, CO (near Denver, in our beautiful Rocky Mountains) is a CBE — Competency-Based Education school district. Pamela Swanson, its superintendent, says that the most important day for students is the DAY AFTER GRADUATION! I love that! Graduates are ready to meet their lives! It’s purpose-driven! Congratulations Westminster!

Today, let’s be optimistic. I believe that an open discussion of these concerns will help us to build better schools & maybe even better businesses!

This was originally posted on Medium

Elon Musk and Vernon Jones asked for advice. Here goes!

Dear Mr. Musk and Mr. Jones,

Amazingly — as I’ve been watching and reading the news, it turns out that both of you have asked for similar advice! So, I hope it’s alright that I’m addressing you together. You want to know how to spend money and promote ideas and policies that will move the needle forward and make a real positive difference for our nation. Thank you for that question and invitation, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Vernon Jones, Georgia state representative.

For half a century, I’ve focused on education — first as a teacher, then as a school attorney, and now as a reformer and writer. I’ve learned a few things that I’d like to share — most pivotally, that education is the vital key to maintaining our nation and democracy and that we are failing so many of our students and our nation. As an immigrant English-language learner in 4th grade, I experienced how wonderful public schools can be — they were for me. But now, so many of our students are failing and losing out on the opportunities our nation holds for them — especially students in poverty, minority students, English language learners, many students with disabilities, and many other vulnerable groups. Gaps between those students and others are widening. The pandemic has made the situation worse — even dire.

Yet, in our centers of power in Washington and elsewhere, responses to crises generally involve creating new programs or funding current (often failing) ones.

My solution? Let’s look at the research before we jump in. It tells us to work with families at home. Work with moms, dads, grandparents, and other caretakers with children aged 0 to 5. Our solution to school failures and widening gaps among students lies in helping children before they get to kindergarten. Because many children come to school unprepared to learn, let’s do the right thing. Let’s be guided by efficacy and research before we create new programs or throw more good money after bad.

Research supports the benefits of a more direct (and undoubtedly less costly) approach. In the field of education, it makes sense to pay attention to a child’s home situation when he or she comes to school unprepared. Home is where the child’s first teachers live and is the most practical place to start preparing children for the social and educational experiences they will have in school. Home is where children’s educations begin with their parents and caregivers — especially in the vital area of language acquisition. From there, their education can branch out to daycare centers, preschools, or schools. As I see it, education does not start with an institution — other than the institution of home with family.

I suggest that we start in the home because powerful research supports the efficacy of this approach. In 1995, Professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley turned early-childhood education on its head with their report, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Frustrated by their experience with programs that had no lasting effect on children’s language and growth, they sought a different route. Hart and Risley tracked verbal interactions in forty-two “well-functioning” families of infants and their parents in different socioeconomic situations — children whose parents were middle class/ professional, or lower/working class, or on welfare. Once every month until the children in the study reached age three, the researchers visited their homes, counting the number of words the children experienced.

They discovered that the numbers in the different groups varied widely, creating the now famous “30-million-word gap.” That is, children whose parents were on welfare heard and processed a reported 30 million fewer words in the first three years of life than did children of professional parents. I remember President Obama referring to this research in his speeches.

Even if that oft-cited number is too high, and even if other researchers have questioned this study (as they have), the essential message was astounding back in 1995 and still resonates today: education begins with children’s first teachers at home! The early life experiences of many children from lower-class or welfare families often does not prepare them to be “ready to learn.” Once in school, many of these children fall further and further behind. We know that if a child does not read by third grade, that child is more likely not to complete K-12 education. Some of these children enter the special-education system as students with disabilities, especially children in the categories of students with learning, speech or language disabilities (which comprise close to 60 percent of all students with disabilities served by the law). The bottom line: The importance of early-language acquisition at home cannot be overstated, especially as we know that early gaps continue into the school years. See, for example, Jessica Lahey, “Poor Kids and the Word Gap,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/10/american-kids-are-starving-for-words/381552/

Given this reality, I am troubled that too often the push for early-childhood education circles back to the earlier, often disappointing institutional programs outside the home! Please help us here! Please use your creativity and clout to lead us to better ways.

Where is evidence that creating new programs will be effective on a large scale? See the long history of inconclusive evidence for the effectiveness of Head Start, a federally funded program, and similar programs. Of course, there are gems of schools — public and private, regular and charter, but they are not scaled to large systems.

The Economist’s “In the Beginning Was the Word” echoes this caution:

In January (2014), Barack Obama urged Congress and state governments to make high-quality pre-schools available to every four-year-old…That is a good thing. Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the [language] gap in much earlier development that [research has] identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life.”

Feb. 22, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21596923-how-babbling-babies-can-boost-their-brains-beginning-was-word

Why do we not, instead, follow the research and good practices on language development and pursue the direct avenue at home? Why do we not proactively work with parents and children in the first place? If parents do not realize how important their role can be, let us take this opportunity — and duty — to share with them the value of talking with, reading to, playing and singing with their babies. The key is to talk, read, and sing!

Pockets of promising efforts are currently under way. We need far more. Here are some samples of programs for families of children up to five years of age.

· A program in Providence, Rhode Island, called “Providence Talks” sends trained visitors into homes to do what is described above. Home — Providence Talks.

· Too Small to Fail’s “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing.” Too Small To Fail

· California’s “First 5,” a state initiative enrolling parents and caregivers in research-supported practices; First 5 California — State Site.

· Zero to Three. Home • ZERO TO THREE.

· Start Early, formerly An Ounce of Prevention; Homepage | Start Early.

An ounce of prevention, indeed! In order to ensure equity for young children, we need to scale these in-home efforts toward national policy to help parents be as good at teaching as they can be. They can then send their children to school ready to learn, often without a need for any disability label.

Mr. Musk and Jones. You are both amazingly creative. Help us help our children and our nation! Let’s talk! Perhaps you/we can create prizes for parents and caregivers who are “doing the right thing” for their children. We need to be positive and encouraging. We need to find heroes at home! Prizes? Perhaps a ride in a space ship or in a Tesla?! Let’s honor and reward and encourage people. Together, we need to end the “opportunity gaps” that now thwart the lives of so many little kids — before they even start!

Mr. Musk and Mr. Jones, please help us here! I for one — and many others — stand ready to work with you on this vital crucial effort.

Thanks for reading,

All the best,

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA

This was originally posted on Medium

School crossing signs. See US in bottom right corner!

This was originally posted on Medium

Many, many thoughtful and concerned people are asking this vital question. Let me set my thoughts –as of right now. I’ll write more about this, of course.

Here’s today’s conversation starter.

Today’s headlines tell us two very critical and disturbing facts about our public schools.

First, that student enrollment is down — across the board, with special declines at kindergarten levels. Parents are not sending their children to school. They are seeking and creating other options for them.

Second, that funding for public education is far down. All those businesses that were forced to close because of the pandemic, all the stay-at-home orders are leading to less tax revenue — in fact, many businesses are, instead of contributing to the general funds, receiving funds from public sources. As a result, funding for public schools is less available. And… pre-pandemic, there was already some movement toward less support for public schools CITE! For all children.

So in this time of turmoil, what is happening in special education? Special education is the federal program for students with disabilities that started in 1975 at the federal level with the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Today, that law provides services for some 14% of US students. The costs? It’s hard to estimate, as, to date, Congress has not demanded an accounting. So, by estimates, the costs for special education services are around 21% of school budgets and for educating students with disabilities — accounting for both the general and special education services they receive –are estimated at 40% of school budgets. Think about that!

Yet, even in these dire times, it appears that special education lawsuits continue and that bureaucratic requirements have not budged. A brief discussion with a data analyst revealed that nothing has changed — the same numbers are still being crunched as in pre-pandemic days. As well, my quick informal inquiry about the two types of lawsuits that are typically being brought now illustrates for me the essence of our overwhelming challenge: Whither special education after the pandemic?

The first type of lawsuit grows out of the reality that many school districts now serve only the neediest students in person — while keeping most students are remote. Not surprisingly, parents of children with milder needs are bringing claims to have their child in school also — claiming that the child is more disabled than the district had determined.

The second type of lawsuit concerns compensatory education — the lawsuits we’ve been expecting. Such lawsuits attempt to make up for lost services and lost skills and knowledge during the pandemic. It is clear beyond doubt that many students with disabilities have suffered learning loss and that many services were not provided. Undoubtedly true. Therefore, these are generally claims that will prevail!

But, a fact overlooked too often in our discussions about special education, is that such types of loss are also true for many general education students, especially poor, non-English speakers, homeless, etc. Yet, only students with IEPs are entitled by law to compensatory education. Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of CASE — the Council of Administrators of Special Education — warns that if we pay all compensatory services that may be owed to students with disabilities, “It would break the system of public education.” Think about that! Is that what we want for any or all of our children?

What is the essence I cited above? Special education, the law of rights through the labeling of a small group of students as entitled under that law — can expect that group to ever expand until the system breaks down. As I see it, we are there now.

In many ways, the law of good intentions has grown beyond recognition since 1975 — and become ever more expansive in terms of the student labels that it now includes, costly, complex — and I daresay, intrusive on the continued effective functioning for our schools for all students.

What to do instead? I suggest we return to a sensible program by acknowledging the obvious. Even during this pandemic, many school districts acknowledged that there are in essence, two groups of students with disabilities –those with mild/moderate needs (who make up 80–90% of the students covered by this law, and those with profound/severe needs (who make up 10–20% of the students covered by this law). Schools have started to serve this latter, smaller group in person. This division also tracks the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Endrew F. v Douglas County. We do have two distinct groups of students with disabilities — now served under this one law. The fit is not great. We need to do something about that!

I believe that we should consider that the vast majority of students with disabilities with mild and moderate needs, and general education students, need schools to more than ever — provide better general education. Better teaching. More focused lessons. Personalized as needed. These students need education more than they need “special” education.

Luckily, we have some superb models. Please check out competency based education, as practiced in Westminster Colorado. — Where Education is Personal. https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps. And see, in general, the Aurora Institute. https://aurora-institute.org/our-work/competencyworks/competency-based-education/

Another model is the reading contract — whereby schools promise to get everyone to read and to keep at it until success is achieved. Please check out Nate Levenson’s work and his new book, Six Shifts to Improve Special Education. Since most students with mild or moderate disabilities enter the system because they did not learn to read, this approach is promising. Be direct. Teach reading!

There are many other promising models and fabulous professionals working across our nation for all students. They need our support. As I see it, the special education law should no longer include these students as the system has become dysfunctional — and is not even helpful for the students it seeks to help. See, for example, the fact that labeling a student in order to serve him — is not helpful — in fact, damaging to many. It’s time for them, as well as all students to get the best general education services possible. See, for example, Kalman Hettleman’s writings. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0326-special-education-20190320-story.html

For the 10–20% of students with severe or profound needs — yes, our society owes them an appropriate education. Perhaps a task force of all stakeholders can develop a better way forward — that focuses on appropriate education more than compliance or legal procedures.

If we don’t fix this, I see our public schools imperiled. We’ll see more parents exit. We’ll see less public support for public education. Already, those trends have started. Ultimately, my fear is that broken policies that keep on keeping on and don’t focus on ALL students will leave our public schools evermore for the have nots. Such a development would be tragic — as public education is the backbone of our democratic republic. We need a new model that will make the current one obsolete, to quote Buckminster Fuller. I’ve set out one controversial path. What is your path?

As a passionate supporter of public education, I see the pandemic as the opportunity to finally fix our very broken system and build schools that can work for all students. Our nation needs that now more than ever.

After the pandemic: whither special education? What do you think? Your thoughts? Your plan? Your suggestion? I’d love to hear!

This was originally posted on Medium