(I first published this piece in Medium.com. Please check out my writing there!

We’ve heard about the “IMPOSSIBLE burger” — making burgers from vegetables, not beef. Some people think it’s actually yummy!
So how about the IMPOSSIBLE Fix for special education!

It’s time and it’s not complicated: focus on teaching and learning for all students, general and special education, not procedures, rights, due process, litigation, and the ever-present anxiety-laden fear of litigation that so wrenches today’s schools, teachers, students, and parents.
For the 80–90% of students with disabilities who have mild and moderate needs and are educated mostly in general education classrooms, and their general education peers, focus on learning in schoolrooms — not their parents’ fights in courtrooms.

Notably, in 2017, the Supreme Court, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County, acknowledged the existence of two student groups who receive special education. We know that 10–20% of them have severe or profound needs, and often require complex and costly services. For these students, I believe it’s time to convene a summit to plan a new way forward.

The IMPOSSIBLE Fix focuses on the 80–90% of students with disabilities who have mild or moderate needs and are mostly in general education classrooms. It’s time to substitute the entitlement and due process rights they have had since 1975 when the law was enacted to ensure that all students with disabilities receive education services. That goal was achieved long ago. We now educate more than 6 million students under this law — 13–14% of all students! The entitlement, the only one in our schools, is no longer needed, in my view. Uncapped, it is costly and has become dysfunctional, damaging, and often impedes good education practice.

Really? End the entitlement and due process? That sure is radical! Yes, and probably IMPOSSIBLE. But, let’s at least consider this path. I see it as the only way to fix the mess we’re in. And, if we can’t end it — let’s limit and cap it.

Imagine a 2nd grade teacher with 24 students — five of whom receive special education services. She knows she has to take care of those students first — lest a dispute or hearing arise! How does that help all students learn? How is that fair to those children and the other 19 in the classroom? How is that best practice?

I’ve been writing and speaking about reform at least since 1995. It seems like forever! My writings and presentations are usually well-received, and I often hear: “You’re doing important work. Keep at it.” “Good luck with that!” And the most poignant, “You’re saying exactly what I’ve been thinking and have been afraid to say….”

Yet, nothing really changes until, hopefully, now. Over the last 5–10 years I’ve sensed as new feeling… that more and more people are willing to consider real change. Here’s how we can get to where we need to be to focus on schooling and learning for all students, including the 80–90% of students with disabilities and their general education peers.

1. That table. Invite the right people — all stakeholders people to the table. Since special education students make up around 13–14% of all students, have them be that percent at the table. Fill the table with general education teachers, administrators, parents who work with and love -average students, advanced and gifted students, English language learners, students in poverty, students in wealth. You get the idea. All students. No more trying to fix special education by inviting only those in the “biz” with a sprinkling of others. Instead, invite 13–14% of stakeholders who work with and represent special education — teachers, administrators, parents.

Then, seek honest input from those at the table. Ask open ended questions. Build a summary that everyone takes back to their lives, shares, and revises, until you repeat that meeting at that table. And repeat until we fix the mess we are in.

2. The options. Create attractive options that will substitute for the cumbersome and burdensome system that, after all the paperwork, meetings, and other procedures leaves special education teachers with just 27% of their time for — you guessed it — teaching! Many leave the field as a result, creating a special education teacher shortage.

Creative attractive options already exist. Here are but a few examples.

Check out Vermont’s sweeping education reform. https://info.dmgroupk12.com/
And see excellent work in competency-based education in Westminster, Colorado. https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps
I’m also eager to learn more about Karen L Mapp’s program for parent and family engagement at Harvard.

Oh, there are so many other examples of schools and others doing effective work for all students. It’s time to open the floodgates!
Instead of the time and money spent on nonsense –paperwork, compliance, litigation — nonsense because these do not improve student outcomes and, often, get in the way —

Instead of due process and litigation, seek the “the IMPOSSIBLE Fix” of dispute resolution options that are relationship and trust-building and do not involve litigation.

Instead of labeling students as gatekeepers to services, through the failed “wait to fail” model, provide early and steady interventions for all students — from the most needy to the most advanced.

Instead of endless focus on student weaknesses — what they can’t do — focus on their strengths and passions — what they can and love to do!

Instead of training parents to become mini lawyers to fight against the very schools that educate their children, train parents to help their children learn and benefit from all the gifts that schools offer.

3. The benefits. Treasure benefits that will result from implementing the IMPOSSIBLE Fix. These include more time for teaching and learning, better partnerships and more trust between schools and parents, fewer teachers abandoning the field, moneys spent on best practices in classrooms, not winning strategies in court rooms, and the best news of all: better outcomes for all students, as teachers will have more than a mere 27% of time for teaching.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to make the IMPOSSIBLE — actually POSSIBLE!

Let’s create the Impossible Special Ed Fix!

After hearing the last debate and Kamala Harris’ busing story from years ago, here’s my teaching story from those years….

My memorable year teaching as Berkeley integrated its schools
COMMENTARY
JULY 24, 2019
MIRIAM KURTZIG FREEDMAN

Who would have thought that my one year teaching in Berkeley more than a half century ago would make me feel like a participant in events that are now the subject of political debates and front page stories?
It brings back powerful memories of an inspiring time in public education.

I was a young social studies teacher at Garfield Junior High School in 1966-67, one mile from the elementary school to which Kamala Harris would be bused three years later through a two-way busing program undertaken by Berkeley’s school board — not a federal mandate. Even before the busing, I remember that my junior high school was already working to make integration work under the leadership of our inspiring Superintendent, Neil Sullivan. He was in the forefront of that effort. Before coming to Berkeley, he helped Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy integrate the Prince Edward County schools in Virginia.

Sullivan got us teachers on board with the mission. At the time, most black and other working class families lived in the flatlands near the San Francisco Bay and most white and other more affluent families lived in the hills, many with spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay. My junior high school was somewhere in the middle — an area we dubbed “the Gaza Strip.”

Though I taught there for only one year before moving away, it was a truly memorable year. I was inspired by Superintendent Sullivan. I think my colleagues were also. There was one meeting when he asked us, the teaching staff, to add 20 minutes to our day to make the plan to integrate the schools work. Without hesitation, and though no extra pay was offered to us, we agreed to do that. I remember just feeling lucky to be part of history in the making.

Several other memories come to the surface. On “Sloppy Day,” many black girls came to school in lovely brightly colored pantsuits while many white students came dressed in pajamas and other raggedy outfits, their hair uncombed. This picture of contrasts is forever etched in my mind. It was already clear that integration would require children to learn from each other in the years to come.

The memory that stands out most is Back to School Night. Parents from the whole city showed up. I taught in an era when junior high school classes were tracked. As it turned out, my classes were either level one or level three. My level one classes were made up of mostly white students while my level three classes were mostly black students.

On Back to School Night, I most vividly remember the parents of my levelthree students. They insisted — very adamantly — that I demand high standards from their children. They cared deeply about challenging their children academically and not making excuses for them. The parents were inspiring. I was grateful for their passion and did my best to do what they asked of me.

Looking back over these 50-plus years, times have changed. Garfield is now the Martin Luther King Middle School. Black students are now mostly referred to as African-American students. Tracking social studies classes in a junior high school is a thing of the past. Yet that year was precious and powerful. We were all together; we were inspired; we had a great leader; we were building community for all of Berkeley. It was heady.

Though I taught in several schools after Berkeley, none was undergoing desegregation efforts. As my experience with that challenge is limited to this one inspiring year, I leave it for others to decide if our work was the cure-all we had imagined.

Looking back, we can see that many schools and classes are still racially divided, gaps in learning persist and while some students benefit greatly, the picture today is mixed. Undoubtedly, there’ll soon be another big “cure-all” idea.

Instead, how about this modest proposal: transformative ideas from legislators and other entities not at the school can only go so far. The work that matters and has lasting value, the work where all learning and teaching takes place, is at the local level, in the classroom. We need to focus our efforts on helping teachers, students and parents to work actively together for what matters: improved learning and opportunity for today’s students.
•••
Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a former teacher, is an experienced school lawyer and author of Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law.

https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/opinion/tn-dpt-me-patrice-apodaca-column-newport-beach-20190610-story.html

My question:
Who appointed or voted for the College Board to have an “unhealthy power over college admissions,” to quote Ms. Apodaca, and to continue to mess with our public schools? Why do they have all that power? And, why do we continue to allow them such unfettered leeway?

I’m struck by Ms. Apodaca’s statement that [the adversity index] is a desperate, cynical attempt by this company to stay relevant and maintain its unhealthy power over college admissions.

It may well be.

As I see it and as I’ve written many times, in the name of “good, equitable, fair, and maybe even positive ideas,” the powerful College Board has managed to ruin accommodations policies on the SAT and for our schools. What does the score mean if someone takes the same test with twice as much time as others get–and nobody knows! That’s their policy–and it’s powerful. Thus, it’s disheartening for teachers to uphold their honest grading policy when the big guys won’t do that. Second, as I see it, the College Board also has–in too many ways–set the curriculum for our PUBLIC schools–by what they decide to test on any given day. They decide and we sneeze. And third, now this? A flawed attempt to fix a real real world issue of inequality.

Did you vote for them? Did you appoint them? I know that I didn’t.

Here’s George F. Will’s column, June 7, 2019.

I’ve put in BOLD my questions for starters.

1. Who voted for the College Board to be our “earnest improvers?”
2. Who picked them to “shape th world of social inertia?”
3. Who is promoting their latest attempt to keep the SAT relevant–in an increasingly diverse world (where many colleges are now test optional) that has made that test “descreasingly important?”

The College Board’s intrusion into our schools is very concerning. They have already ruined the accommodations policy–so that tests may not even be standardized! They have influenced to a great degree what is taught in our high schools. And now this.

Who voted for them? Who appointed them? I sure didn’t!

The SAT’s new ‘adversity index’ is another step down the path of identity politics

The earnest improvers at the College Board, which administers the SAT, should ponder Abraham Maslow’s law of the instrument. In 1966, Maslow, a psychologist, said essentially this: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The College Board wants to solve a complex social problem that it and its test are unsuited to solve.

The College Board has embraced a dubious idea that might have the beneficial effect of prompting college admissions officers to think of better ideas for broadening their pool of applicants. The idea is to add to the scores of some test-takers an “environmental context” bonus. Strangely, board president David Coleman told the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger that this is not, as the media has named it, an “adversity index.” But it is: It purports to measure 15 factors (e.g., poverty or food-stamp eligibility, crime rates, disorderly schools, broken families, families with education deficits, etc.) where these test-takers are situated. Coleman more convincingly says to the New York Times: “This is about finding young people who do a great deal with what they’ve been given.”

Perhaps the board’s evident discomfort with the label “adversity score” is because its more benign-sounding “environmental context” gives a social-science patina to the obverse of a category (and political accusation) currently in vogue, that of “privilege.” By whatever name, however, the SAT’s new metric is another step down the path of identity politics, assigning applicants to groups and categories, and another step away from evaluating individuals individually. But if the adversity metric becomes a substitute for schools emphasizing race, this will be an improvement on explicit racial categories that become implicit quotas.

The SAT was created partly to solve the problem of inequitable standards in college admissions. They too often rewarded nonacademic attributes (e.g., “legacies” — the children of alumni). And they facilitated the intergenerational transmission of inherited privileges. Most importantly, they were used to disfavor certain groups, particularly Jews.

By making an objective — meaning standardized — test one component of schools’ assessments of applicants, it advanced the American ideal of a meritocracy open to all talents. However, it has always been the schools’ prerogative to decide the importance of the SAT component relative to others. And as “diversity” (understood in various ways) becomes an increasing preoccupation of schools, the SAT becomes decreasingly important.

Any adversity index derived from this or that social “context,” however refined, will be an extremely crude instrument for measuring — guessing, actually — the academic prospects of individuals in those contexts. It might, however, be a good gauge of character. Physicists speak of the “escape velocity” of particles circling in an orbit. Perhaps the adversity index can indicate individuals who, by their resilience, have achieved velocity out of challenging social environments.

But the SAT is a flimsy tool for shaping the world of social inertia. Articulate, confident parents from the professions will transmit cultural advantages to their children — advantages that, as the SAT will record them, are apt to dwarf “adversity” bonuses. As Andrew Ferguson, author of the grimly hilarious “Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College,” says, America’s least diverse classes are SAT-prep classes.

The Chicago Tribune warns, plausibly, that the “secret-sauce” of the SAT’s adversity score — schools will know it, applicants will not — will “breed more public mistrust” of colleges’ admissions processes. But calling, as the Tribune does, for more “transparency” implies that the more admissions’ criteria are made public, the better. However, private deliberations and criteria about applicants protect the applicants’ privacy interests.

Furthermore, asserting a public interest in maximum transparency encourages government supervision of — and the inevitable shrinking of — schools’ discretion in shaping their student bodies and ensuring that some cohorts are not largely excluded.

Unquestionably, such discretion often is employed in unsavory ways to serve academia’s fluctuating diversity obsessions, some of which contravene common understandings of equity and perhaps civil rights laws and norms. Soon a Boston court will render a decision, probably destined for Supreme Court review, in the case concerning Harvard’s “holistic” metrics, beyond “objective” ones (secondary school transcripts, standardized tests), for — it is alleged — the purpose of restricting the admission of Asian Americans. They, like the Jews whose academic proficiency was a “problem” eight decades ago, often come from family cultures that stress academic attainments.

Caution, however, is in order. Further breaking higher education to the saddle of the state is an imprudent (and, which is much the same thing, unconservative) objective.

I read, with great interest, the Education Week Blog by Christina Samuels,

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/2019/05/teachers_feel_unprepared_to_teach_students_with_disabilities.html

The blog summarizes a report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood– an advocacy group for students with learning disabilities. The report concludes that most general education teachers feel unprepared to teach students with disabilities and that most of them want more training.

That may be all well and good, BUT to get a full picture of teachers and their needs that can actually help our schools and students, we need to hear directly from general education researchers and advocates about this vital issue–not just from special educaiton players. Do general education teachers want more training? Do they support the inclusion effort? Do they believe that approach is the way to proceed for most or all students? Etc. Many important questions are left on the table when research does not take a wide enough view of the situation.

Who– besides learning disablity groups and their advocates– is doing research about teacher preparedness to teach ALL students— from the most needy (including special education students) to the most advanced and all in between? That research needs to be understood. We need to hear from them.

We need a full picture. Without that, we may again move to solve the wrong questions.

Finally, finally some backlash. Let’s hope it catches on and grows! The parents and students are right.

What they are getting is NOT personalized learning. It is not enriched teacher-student relationship learning. It is not excellence in teaching building excellence in students–one student at a time in a personalized way. Learning should be personal, of course, but it should be part of a rich curriculum with excellent teaching. It’s not what computers can spoon feed to children. How do we know this? Because the tech whizzes that bring us this do so for other people’s children–not their own.

It’s too bad that both teacher-based learning and computer-based learning are called “personalized learning.” They are not the same. The tech companies have latched on to this rich trove. We need a new name for what these computers are doing….maybe “technology-assisted information” or “techonology assisted skill building” or “technology-assisted child management” or ???

Teachers can provide personalized learning. Machines do not. And just like Silicon Valley’s elites, I don’t want my kids or grandkids to become pawns for tech companies.

Then what is the computer in every lap surge? It’s a powerful sales pitch for computers by Silicon Valley–spoonfed to school administrators at fancy conferences and dinners.

A computer in front of every child builds customer loyalty at an early age. It also creates glazed eyes and apparently headaches for some and other health challlenges for other children. And the sad hypocritical underbelly of course, is that the children of Silicon Valley’s elite aren’t allowed to have laptops in their classrooms. Their private schools bar such technology. Take that and think on it!

Laptops are for other people’s children–

Call it what it is. It sure is not personalized learning–something every child deserves to have.

Here’s my recent op-ed in the Palo Alto Weekly. Caution! The loophole is NOT the extra time that some students need in order to demonstrate what they know and can do. The LOOPHOLE IS the fact that the College Board (SAT) and ACT don’t notify colleges and universities when tests are taken with nonstandard conditions. Read the sad tale of what that “attractive loophole” has lead to…

https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/04/05/guest-opinion-close-extra-time-loophole-on-standardized-satact-testshttps://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/04/05/guest-opinion-close-extra-time-loophole-on-standardized-satact-tests

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/abuse-of-extended-time-on-sat-and-act-outrages-learning-disability-community/2019/03/29/d58de3c6-4c1f-11e9-9663-00ac73f49662_story.html?utm_term=.12e3add4d108

It’s a good tale. I liked the analogy about disability parking spots and was not persuaded by the ACT’s statement that “The system worked.” It certainly highlighted the many stakeholders and competing interests in this sad tale.

But–as with so many of the stories about the current scandal–it focuses on many stakeholders, including the students, disabled or not, parents, advocates, colleges, cheating, and the abuse of extra time to take these tests, etc.

Yet, it does not focus on the tests themselves….and the fact that they are no longer standardized (and are, in reality, different tests). It’s that “extra time to run the 4-minute mile” without a flag problem, even as College Board acknowledged that extra time is a “nonstandard condition.”

I do hope a reporter somewhere picks up this story–about the tests themselves. It’ll explain so much of this mess to good people who are scratching their heads about the extra time loophole. What is the why behind this portion of the scandal? How did we get here? What have these companies have done to their own products–the so-called “standardized” tests? And ultimately, why do we all still pay so dearly in money and anxiety, etc. for them?

I’m waiting for that story.

And you? Are you waiting too?

As part of the college application scandal, today’s Wall Street Journal reports that more students use SAT accommodations. I’m quoted in that article.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/college-admissions-scandal-relied-on-more-students-taking-the-sat-untimed-11552943635?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

Yet, the key reality I focus on is not about students or parents–it’s about these huge and wealthy testing companies, the College Board (which administers the SAT) and the ACT. Sixteen years ago, they created the totally predictable pickle we’re now. At that time, they initiated nonstandard so-called “standardized” tests–if you can believe that! They invalidated their very own product! And the public continues to pay for it dearly with actual dollars and much anxiety.

What happened 16 years ago? In 2003 these companies decided to stop notifying colleges and schools when a student took the test in a NONstandard way, as with extended time. Mind you, it is not illegal provide such notice (called “flagging.” ) Valid tests continue to do it–as they should. Check out my 2003 story about this, “Disabling the SAT.” A sorry tale indeed.

It was obvious then that this development would become a loophole. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“The rates at which students receive testing accommodations also vary dramatically by zip code, with well-to-do, empowered parents being able to pressure the system into giving their children extra support. ….

The (College) Board’s decision to end flagging is likely to exacerbate these problems. Now that there is no consequence for taking the SAT with extra time, so-called diagnosis shopping will undoubtedly become even more common among the well heeled, who can afford the privcate psychologists and the pricey lawyers….”

Now this freebie loophole has blown up.

Let’s not blame parents. Let’s not blame students. Let’s finally be honest and blame the companies for no longer providing tests that are standardized.

I’ve written many times about the options these companies have–these include bringing back the flags, ending timing for anyone (thereby creating a different test–let’s be honest about this), creating a new test, no longer having these tests, etc., etc. The public also has options which it has already exercised, as more colleges make these no-longer-standardized tests “optional.”

Let’s see what the College Board and the ACT finally do about the mess they created. I trust and hope they will do the right thing and make standardized tests –standardized– again.

The misuse of SAT and ACT accommodations is an important and unfortunately wholly predictable story as we see in the current college admissions scandal.

As a school attorney, I see the current scandal to have been predictable and waiting-to-happen ever since 2003, when the College Board and ACT stopped flagging test results that had been taken under non-standard conditions. And yes, it is gameable.

My 2003 story, “Disabling the SAT,” actually predicted the current mess:

“The rates at which students receive testing accommodations also vary dramatically by zip code, with well-to-do, empowered parents being able to pressure the system into giving their children extra support…The Board’s decision to end flagging is likely to exacerbate these problems. Now that there is no consequence for taking the SAT with extra time, so-called diagnosis shopping will undoubtedly become even more common among the well heeled, who can afford the private psychologists and pricey lawyers.”

And, so, 16 years later, here we are!

I don’t blame parents for trying to “help” their kids. That’s what parents do. I blame these companies for creating this loophole. In my law practice, I saw parents becoming savvier, making their requests earlier (in junior high school or early in high school) to have a history of “extended time” for the College Board or ACT to act on. The loophole was provided for them by these companies. Who can blame them for using it?

But my concern over the years has been elsewhere. It’s been about these tests themselves. With “nonstandard” accommodations–mostly extended time—these tests are no longer standardized and no longer valid because they don’t measure what they purport to measure. That is, how a student performs in a timed situation. It’s time to get honest and real about this.

So why do these costly and by now uninterpretable tests still have such sway? Good question!

In terms of the misuse of accommodations, the numbers don’t add up. Alas, hard data from the College Board is not readily available. So, working backward, starting with the fact that 13% of students have “IEPs” and an estimated 2-3% have “504 plans.” There is some overlap in these two programs. And, of course, many students with disabilities who do NOT take these tests at all!

Yet, we have anecdotal stories that in some upscale suburbs close to 18-20% of students have extended time and in some private schools–around 40%! And, one can only imagine that in low income communities, those numbers are very low. Equity? Fairness? Honesty? Test validity? In an ungameable situation these numbers just couldn’t be!

What to do about this? These companies have choices. One obvious question becomes: when will they throw in the towel and stop timing any of these tests? That sounds easy. But NOT so fast…

….. because we know that there’s no free lunch. When and if they do stop timing these tests, the tests will be easier to take and less anxiety-producing. Here again, careful what you wish for as we will witness yet another notch in the lowering of standards in our schools and colleges because, in the real world, timing IS an important attribute and skill set in many areas of modern life. Pick your poison. Another story for another day.

Of course, these companies could go back to flagging test results given under non-standard conditions which would immediately wipe out this loophole. That is a perfectly valid and still legal option. To implement it, however, the companies would need good hard evidence of why they time these tests. Why? Why? Why? We still don’t have a clear answer to that basic question. And that’s where this story needs to start. Why are these tests timed? What important and fundamental knowledge or skills they measure that are time-dependent? This question needs an answer.

Or, we could throw up our hands and stop using these no-longer standardized tests—as many colleges already have. No testing! Some people would be relieved. I am not one of them, as it would mean yet another notch in our lowering standards. I would vote to bring back the flags and force the companies to explain why these tests are timed. Convince us that timing is essential. If they can’t do that, they should stop timing anyone and stop the madness.