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Swimming against the mainstream.

Mr. Idstein describes the shoals of a special education bureaucracy that he and his staff had to navigate in order to obtain a higher level of service for one second-grader.

ON MY LAST day as an elementary school principal, two of my best teachers gave me a going-away present. They meant it as a gag gift to be disposed of as good riddance to bad memories. But they were mistaken. I could no sooner throw away their gift than I could keep from writing about the aggravation, frustration, and lost education that it represented. The gift was personal, but the problem belongs to us all.

My "present" came housed in a box that had originally contained 500 envelopes but now contained only three thick folders. These folders were bulging with the documentation that had been required for us to navigate one student through the shoals of a special education bureaucracy to a higher level of service.

Moving this student to a "more restrictive environment" took almost nine months, hundreds of hours of work, and thousands of dollars to achieve. If the district had hired an aide to do nothing but teach this one child, it might have saved money.

As significant as the financial cost was, it remains secondary to the hours of instruction that were stolen from the other 31 students in the classroom. If we accept the relationship between time-on-task and student learning that is posited by the literature on effective teaching, then this lost instructional time translates directly into education that was stolen from these other youngsters. Most of them were neither special education students nor gifted students; they were the usual mix of children who form the bulk of our student population and who stand without advocate in the political arenas of education.

The claims I make here come from 15 years as a public school administrator, the last five of which were spent as a building principal. In addition, I have spoken with colleagues across the nation about the issue. And while they have not been unanimous in their agreement, the overwhelming majority have echoed my concern and encouraged me to write about the matter.

Let me first say that my argument is not with the spirit of the federal law that is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It may not even be with the letter of the law. My problem no doubt lies in the cumbersome implementation of a law that has magnified the concept of due process to the point that it overshadows other school-based concerns, such as instruction and learning.

I believe that the majority of students who are mainstreamed under the IDEA are properly placed and are benefiting greatly from that placement. I further believe that the need to protect these children from an instructionally segregated environment is genuine and has been addressed through this legislation. The concept of "least restrictive environment," however, has created a gate through which students generally move in one direction only. Trying to move a student to a more restrictive environment clearly involves swimming against the mainstream.

Critics will be quick to point out that there is no provision in the law that prohibits movement of a student to a more restrictive environment. True as this may be, it doesn't make swimming against the mainstream any easier. Let's look at why one such move cost my school and district so much time, effort, and money.

Ronald Doe was a second-grader with above-average intelligence as measured by the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. However, his behavior was severe enough to warrant placement in a Level 1 special education classroom at the start of the year. Our Level 1 classrooms represented a true mainstreaming situation. One-third of the students in these classrooms had been identified as needing special education, and two-thirds of the students were from the general population, including top students. The case for Ronald's placement had been made the previous year at a cost in time and money similar to that incurred in the current saga.

Less than a month into the school year, Ronald started exhibiting behaviors that made him stand out from all the other students in the classroom. At first it was only the intensity of his behavior that was salient. He would scream, throw furniture, talk to himself, and hit other children with unmatched fervor. The classroom discipline plan called for consequences for each of these behaviors, and they were administered unemotionally by two exceptional teachers.

As this behavior developed, both of the teachers and their instructional aide watched Ronald closely in a heroic effort to catch him being good. When they did, they heaped praise and sometimes tangible rewards upon him. While he obviously enjoyed this positive attention, it did not suffice to maintain the good behavior, despite the fact that he was being reinforced almost continuously. It was as if there were another mechanism at work in his brain, saying, "I'll see your systematic efforts at behavior control and raise you random responses." We ended up enforcing the classroom discipline plan more as a model for the other children in the classroom than in the hope of changing Ronald's behavior.

As principal, I was called in almost daily to remove Ronald from the room to protect the other children. One of the three adults in the classroom was usually forced to deal with Ronald on an individual basis. Simple arithmetic would indicate that the mean instructional time per student was significantly affected by this fact alone. Add in the time it took for the teachers to keep a daily log of his behavior, write an individual behavioral contract, and meet with his mother and me to agree on appropriate rewards and punishments, and the loss of instructional time was even greater.

ONE OF THE most frustrating features of this process was that we had to take each step in its prescribed sequence. It wasn't enough simply to be reinforcing, because we might just be missing the "proper" reinforcer. So we found ourselves charting beginning behavior, establishing consequences, removing consequences, establishing other consequences, and so on. Indeed, sometimes it seemed we did these things as much for the purposes of "building a case" as for modifying Ronald's behavior. I realize that saying such things will raise the hackles of many special education supervisors and professors of special education. My response is to ask, "How many classroom teachers see this as an honest statement of the reality they and their principals face daily?"

Ronald was duly unimpressed with the best-laid plans of Skinner's mice and men. He proceeded to escalate his assault on the instructional environment in predictable fashion. It continually amazed me how limited the repertoire of available disruptive behaviors is. As I talked to my friends and colleagues about Ronald's conduct, they said such things as, "Oh yes, we see that, too. By the way, has he started licking other students' faces yet?" He had.

He had also rolled around on the floor, thereby delaying recess or lunch. He had eaten paste, paper clips, staples, and various other binding materials and had repeatedly stabbed himself in the arm with pencils. He had alternated between screaming and laughing raucously. In general, he pushed every button he could think of to make his teachers push the button on the wall that would summon me to come to the rescue.

When I removed him from his classroom, I would isolate him in the conference room next to my office, if it was available. If not there, I would place him in the speech room; if not there, then the bench. He did not seem to like to be isolated in these ways and would cry and moan and eventually fall asleep. Yet his behavior did not change. I kept Ronald in supervised isolation only long enough to locate his mother, who lacked a home phone, and let her know that I was bringing him home.

I could continue this account, detailing how his teachers and I visited his home on several occasions in an effort to make him feel good about himself or how we provided transportation for his mother to make it easier for her to attend meetings with teachers. Food and gifts were provided anonymously during the holidays, and I even delivered a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia to his home for Christmas, compliments of our World Book sales representative. In short, we went more than a few extra miles in an effort to help Ronald fit in and feel a part of school.

During this same period, we met weekly with the "Student Success Committee" in our building and implemented the committee's suggestions, many of which I have reported above. The day arrived, however, when we said, "Enough is enough." We felt that the time had come to seek a higher level of service for Ronald.

The first step in this process was to take the case to the Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) in our building. This team was made up of the school psychologist, the educational diagnostician, the speech therapist, the classroom teachers involved, and me. A student's parents or guardians are also invited to MDT meetings.

At a typical MDT meeting, the teachers present their reasons for requesting a higher level of service, including the documentation of their efforts in the classroom. I add comments regarding my role with the child and relate what has gone on between the home and the school in an effort to help the child. The members of the MDT then suggest interventions to be tried in the classroom before proceeding. Typically, two such interventions, along with baseline data and sufficient time to determine their effectiveness, are to follow the MDT meeting. Time can sometimes be saved when the suggested interventions have already been tried and documented through the efforts of our school's Student Success Committee.

The next step, if approved by the MDT, is to take the case to the school district's Individual Placement Review Decision (IPRD) committee. This committee includes several school psychologists, speech pathologists, educational diagnosticians, cluster coordinators, the director of special services, and, occasionally, the principals of the sending and receiving schools. Parents or guardians are invited and often attend, and they may also bring formal representation. There is frequently more than one such meeting.

At these meetings documentation and motives are questioned, and parents, who are often opposed to having their children moved to another building, have a chance to make their case. After the technical issues of compliance with federal law have been resolved, the issue of developing parental support for the proposed move is addressed. This typically involves a full-scale campaign that includes arranging for the parents to visit the new school, meet with teachers and the principal, and observe classes in session.

All of this is done to obtain the parents' permission to let us provide more resources for their child. Our track record with students who have been moved to more restrictive environments has been exceptional. Every student who was so moved during my five-year tenure as principal settled into his or her new academic environment after a very short period of adjustment and coped extremely well in the new setting. The academic performance of these students improved -- and, in several instances, they were moved back into Level 1 settings within a year or two.

Despite this track record, most parents remain resistant to a move. And unless the parent consents, the child cannot be moved without going to court. While it may have happened, I know of no case in which our district was willing to go to court under these circumstances.

In Ronald's case, these procedures took even longer than usual because his mother missed meetings and charged us with incompetence, neglect, and racism. In general, we found our progress thwarted at every turn. However, we persisted, and his mother finally did visit the new school in question. She found that it was a humane place, peopled by happy children, caring teachers, and sensitive administrators. It was also well-staffed with psychologists and other support personnel. In general, she found it to be everything we had been telling her it would be.

Once Ronald's mother granted permission for the move, we had to update the psychological and educational testing that had been done on Ronald, and this further testing was also delayed pending his mother's permission. The final obstacle involved transportation arrangements. Since Ronald did not live in the attendance area served by the new school, a special bus had to be dispatched to pick him up at home and return him after school.

Given the time taken from teachers, principals, psychologists, educational diagnosticians, speech pathologists, the director of special services, and the transportation division over the nine months it took to obtain this placement, it is not difficult to see how the cost of this move mounted. Readers might think that, in order to make my point, I chose the most difficult, cumbersome, and time-consuming case in our files. But the unfortunate truth is that Ronald's case was typical. It was not our most difficult or our most time-consuming or our most frustrating case. And in its very representativeness lies the real problem. No amount of explication on my part can ever do justice to the frustration, sense of abandonment, and feeling of demoralization that such cases bring to teachers.

IN THE CASE described here, the teachers and the paraprofessional involved were, indeed, the best and the brightest. They were extremely competent, dedicated, conscientious, warm, loving, and caring people who wanted nothing more than to practice their profession and help the children in their charge to learn and to grow. Their efforts were rewarded with nothing less than a full-scale attack on the orderly educational environment that they sought to establish in their classrooms. Their calls for help were answered with as cumbersome a bureaucracy as has been mustered in the history of educational bureaucracies.

Please understand that I do believe that the students who are protected by this bureaucracy have every right to that protection. But the other students in our classrooms have rights too. They have the right to a safe, orderly classroom. They have the right to a teacher's attention when they need help. They have the right to a teacher who is fresh and energetic enough to plan for them. They have a right to a teacher who feels respected and supported.

The issues involved here are not simple. Certainly there are cases in which a teacher does not have the skill to handle an individual child or group of children. Such children may, indeed, be misplaced in more restrictive environments, when a different teacher or a different setting in the mainstream would best meet their needs. When such students are placed in more restrictive settings, it is a tragedy that can and should be corrected. It seems that we could certainly shift some of the resources consumed by the long and cumbersome identification process to a more careful monitoring of students in more restrictive settings for the purposes of moving them back into the mainstream when appropriate.

We also have to acknowledge and confront the racial issue inherent in discussions such as these. Minority students are disproportionately represented in special education classrooms, and we must muster the integrity and the courage to confront such issues squarely and to seek answers.

Above all, we have to let our teachers know that we understand and appreciate the incredible pressure that they feel when forced to work with students who remain impervious to their best efforts. We also have to let the parents of students in the general population know that we are at least equally concerned about the education of their children and that we are taking their needs into consideration as we try to devise classroom structures and design classroom strategies. If this means that we must sometimes swim against the mainstream, then so be it.
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Title Annotation:seeking more services for special elementary school students
Author:Idstein, Pete
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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