My idea is to explore how other countries around the world are dealing with education and special education issues. I’d like to see different successful schools, wherever they may be, up close. I’d like to sit down with directors and administrators. I’d like to speak with government officials who keep a pulse on the education affairs of their communities. I want to learn more about education around the globe through speaking with locals, seeing the schools, and shaking hands with the people responsible for implementing the systems. If you know of any outstanding (public or private) special needs schools in other parts of the world, I’d love to hear about them. If you know any education experts from around the world, I’d love to be introduced to them. Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts or ideas. Read more about my mission.
Monday, May 1, 2017
Dr. McCarton spoke touchingly about her experience working with individuals with autism and also highlighted the collaboration she has observed between parents, educators, therapists, and professionals in the MCC community, which has facilitated effective instruction and meaningful progress. Dr. Devinsky spoke warmly about Dr. Sacks and painted a picture of a man whose love for his patients allowed him to understand his patients in a profound and personal way.
On this special 10 year anniversary, I would like to extend a heartfelt congratulations to MCC on the wonderful work they have done and wish them continued growth and success over the decades to come.
Monday, April 24, 2017
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
In considering the issue of what level of benefit is guaranteed to individuals with disabilities, the Supreme Court revisited Rowley, a 1982 Supreme Court case which first considered the FAPE requirement. Rowley involved a child with a disability who was placed in a regular education classroom environment and was making steady progress. The Supreme Court in Rowley decided that the school district had met its burden of providing the child at issue with a FAPE, and was unwilling to articulate a standard that would relate to all students with disabilities including those who were placed in special education classrooms. Although the Court in that case stated that its decision was limited to the particular facts of the case, the Rowley decision has been somewhat problematic for parents over the last 35 years because school districts have often cited Rowley as a basis for denying parents the additional supports and services that their children might need.
In articulating a more robust standard in Endrew F., the Supreme Court indicated that the new standard was necessary "to remedy the pervasive and tragic academic stagnation" that caused Congress to pass IDEA legislation in the first place. The Court made clear that the standard it was articulating was more demanding than the "merely more than de minimis" test proffered by the school district and applied by the 10th Circuit. (Interestingly, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was responsible for that 10th Circuit decision.) The Court also noted that every student's program must be appropriately ambitious and every student should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
Under the new standard, for a child who is fully integrated into a regular education classroom, appropriate progress will typically mean passing marks and advancement from grade to grade (discussed further below). For a child who is not fully integrated into a regular education classroom, however, the amount of progress that a child should be making according to his/her IEP will depend on the child's unique circumstances.
The Court was unwilling, however, to adopt the "equal opportunity" standard proposed by Endrew F.'s parents. That is, the Court was unwilling to define FAPE as "an education that aims to provide a child with a disability opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities." Although the legislative intent of the IDEA makes clear that Congress did mean for students with disabilities to have opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society, the Court was unwilling to require those opportunities to be substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.
The Court refused to establish a bright-line rule or elaborate on what appropriate program would look like in each case. As a result, the definition of "appropriate" will likely continue to be the source of much litigation between parents and school districts.
Finally, as I alluded to above, the Court specifically noted that there may be instances where a child is enrolled in a regular education environment, obtaining passing marks, and advancing from grade to grade, but still not be receiving FAPE (see footnote on page 14 of the decision). Take, for instance, the case of a twice exceptional (2E) student who is intellectually gifted, obtaining passing marks with little effort, and being promoted from grade to grade. If that 2E student's curriculum is not appropriately ambitious in light of his/her exceptional needs and abilities, it could be that the school district is not providing that student with FAPE. Time will tell how administrative law judges and courts are going to deal with this kind of situation.
In light of the foregoing, the 10th Circuit's decision was vacated, and the case was remanded for further consideration consistent with the Supreme Court's decision.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
I met with 1L's, 2L's, and 3L's and spoke with them about the field of special education law. I provided an overview of the field and described the nature of our legal practice. We also discussed recent trends and developments, and opportunities for aspiring special education lawyers. The students were engaged and enthusiastic, and asked thoughtful questions.
For those at Cardozo who may be interested in special education law, I would strongly encourage you to look into Cardozo's special education field clinic, which gives students the opportunity to complete an externship program at Advocates For Children.
Additionally, we are accepting applications for summer and fall internships at our law firm. Interested candidates can forward their cover letters and resumes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
On a personal level, I think it conjures up memories of teenage angst. I wince sometimes when I think about how much "fitting in" mattered in high school. How much your identity was wrapped up in who your friends were and how they perceived you. I remember my own angst and anxiety and feeling a sense of helplessness in figuring out how to cope with them.
Most people are able to emerge from that place of teenage angst. They strengthen their sense of self, learn how to self-advocate and cope, and find themselves eventually. But some don't. And sometimes the feeling of being overwhelmed by angst, anxiety, disconnection, and despair can be so crippling that it results in tragedy. Dear Evan Hansen confronts that fact.
On a professional level, I think the show reinforced my commitment to my work. As an attorney who represents individuals with special needs, I am fortunate to be in a position to be able to help people who struggle with the kinds of emotional and social issues that are central to Dear Evan Hansen by assisting them in obtaining the kinds of supports/services that can help them address their challenges and learn how to move forward.
Dear Evan Hansen connected with my childhood self as well as my adult self. The result was a powerful experience that has left a lasting impression. Thank you Ben Platt and the rest of the incredible Dear Evan Hansen cast for bringing this story to the stage.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
This case involved a young girl with a severe form of cerebral palsy who required the assistance of a service dog to assist her with various daily life activities. The school district refused to allow the girl to bring her service dog to school because it believed that the 1:1 aid the district had recommended on her IEP obviated the need for a service dog. The Frys believed that the school district had violated their daughter's rights under the ADA and Section 504, and they filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking declaratory relief and monetary damages for emotional distress under those statutes. They did not include IDEA claims in their federal lawsuit.
Both the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that the Frys had an obligation to pursue their claims through the IDEA administrative process before filing their ADA and Section 504 claims in federal court. The 6th Circuit's reasoning was that a plaintiff must exhaust the IDEA's administrative procedures whenever a plaintiff's alleged harms are educational in nature. That language sounds pretty broad...
In light of the above, a central question before SCOTUS on appeal was, When must a plaintiff exhaust the IDEA's administrative proceedings before bringing claims under other statutes?
From our law firm's perspective and for others who practice in this field, the Court's consideration of this issue is very welcomed. Requiring parents who are not challenging FAPE and cannot obtain the remedies they are seeking under the IDEA to exhaust their IDEA remedies before proceeding to federal court is a waste of time and resources. Additionally, there has been a significant amount of uncertainty relating to what claims can or cannot be heard in IDEA administrative proceedings, how the pleading of non-IDEA claims affects the parties' respective burdens of proof, and how non-IDEA claims should be pled or handled in IDEA proceedings in order to preserve one's rights under the ADA and Section 504 for future litigation in federal court. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has chimed in.
SCOTUS held that exhaustion of the IDEA's administrative procedures is unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiff's suit is something other than the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), the core right under the IDEA.
So how do you determine whether or not the core issue in a lawsuit is a denial of FAPE? First, pursuant to the Supreme Court's ruling in Fry, courts will need to look carefully at the substance of a party's legal papers to determine what the case is about. A party, for example, would not be able to escape the exhaustion rule simply by omitting the term "IDEA" from its legal papers (a technique referred to as "artful pleading"). But if, for instance, a plaintiff is seeking something other than relief for the denial of a FAPE, such as damages as a result of having been denied equal access to a public facility or having been otherwise discriminated against, then the exhaustion rule may not apply. Courts will also look at the history of the proceedings to inform their determination. That is, if a party has pursued administrative procedures under the IDEA in the past, that could be an indication that the substance of the party's claims relates to the IDEA.
It is interesting to note that the Court specifically did not answer the question of whether exhaustion is required when he plaintiff complains of the denial of a FAPE but the specific remedy requested is not one that an IDEA hearing officer may award.
Justice Kagan wrote the Court's opinion, 5 other justices joined in, and 2 justices concurred in part; there were no dissenters. SCOTUS remanded the case to the 6th Circuit for further consideration as to whether the gravamen of the Frys' complaint relates to a denial of FAPE, and whether the Frys previously availed themselves of the IDEA's administrative procedures.
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Some of the highlights of this year's conference included:
- General session and town hall with an esteemed panel that discussed shaping COPAA's mission, maximizing its impact, and humanizing the idea of disability.
- Selena Almazan and Denise Marshall's session titled School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice. This topic is particularly relevant now in light of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's school choice movement. During the session, data was presented and questions were raised concerning the effectiveness of school choice programs. The group debated whether students with disabilities will benefit or be harmed by school vouchers. And we considered some of the challenges that threaten the success of school voucher programs and how those challenges might be addressed.
- Judith Gran's Analysis of Educational Benefit Standards, which addressed what level of educational benefit is required under current case law for a student with a disability in order for the student's program to be considered appropriate. This topic is very timely in light of the Endrew F. litigation pending before the U.S. Supreme Court (see 10/1 blog post for a discussion of the case).
- Keynote presentation by Gary Guller, a disabled man who defied his physical limitations by climbing to the top of Mount Everest and, during the course of his journey, led Team Everest, a group of disabled individuals on an expedition to basecamp.
COPAA is a wonderful organization with an important mission. To learn more about its work or about how you can become involved, visit the website at www.copaa.org.
On a lighter note, Dallas is full of interesting things to see and do. It is worth exploring the Dallas Museum of Art, the Katy Trail, and the city's excellent restaurants. Dallas is also the city where JFK was shot so those wanting to learn more about that dark moment in American history can visit Dealey Plaza where a museum is now located.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Personhood and Civic Engagement
by People with Disabilities:
A Conference to Explore the Legal Underpinnings of Personhood and the Barriers to Participation by Persons with Disabilities in Civic and Social Life
A Cardozo Law Review Annual Symposium
The Symposium will feature Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, as the Keynote Presenter, and Professor Samuel Bagenstos, as the Featured Lunchtime Speaker. Panels will focus on the topics of Personhood in Popular Culture, Exercising Legal Capacity, and the Uses of "Disability," as well as Strategies for Promoting Inclusion.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
9:00 a.m - 7:15 p.m.
8:30 am - 9:00 am - Registration and Breakfast (Lobby)
9:00 am - 10:00 am - Keynote Presentation by Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Moot Court Room)
10:00 am - 11:15 am - The Interplay Between Notions of Personhood in Popular Culture and Developments in the Law (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by David Ferleger, Esq.
11:30 am - 1:00 pm - Exercising Legal Capacity: Legal Barriers to the Actualization of Personhood (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by Robert Fleischner, Center for Public Representation
1:00 pm - 1:30 pm - Lunch (Lobby)
1:30 pm - 2:30 pm - Featured Lunchtime Presentation by Professor Samuel Bagenstos (Moot Court Room)
2:45 pm - 4:15 pm - On the Uses of "Disability" in Pursuing and Realizing Rights (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by Professor Mark Weber, DePaul University College of Law
4:30 pm - 5:45 pm - Strategies for Promoting Inclusion (Moot Court Room)
Moderated by Professor William Brooks, Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center
5:45 pm - 7:15 pm - Reception & Dinner to honor the Keynote Presenter, Featured Lunchtime Presenter, Panelists and Moderators (Lobby)
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
The nomination, and now confirmation, of Ms. DeVos has been extremely controversial.
Critics of Ms. DeVos have pointed out that she is unaware of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the expansive federal law governing the rights of students with disabilities; that she has no experience with public school education and does not understand how the public education system works; and that her efforts relating to charter schools and voucher systems have not been effective.
Supporters of Ms. DeVos believe that an emphasis on charters and vouchers will give low-income families more choices as to where to send their children to school and force public schools to become more competitive.
Some other questions and concerns to note about DeVos's educational agenda:
- Where will the funding for charter schools/voucher programs come from?
- What level of oversight/accountability will be imposed?
- Will vouchers be available to all or means-based?
- Can vouchers work with programs that follow a for-profit model?
My personal thoughts will follow in a separate or updated post soon.
In the meantime here are some recent articles on the subject:
NY Times: Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie
The Atlantic: 5 Things to Know About Betsy DeVos, Trump's Pick for Education Secretary
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
The federal government filed a brief in support of the child and his family, arguing that school districts should offer a program aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child's circumstances. A number of groups submitted amicus briefs. For instance, a group of 118 former and current members of Congress filed an amicus brief arguing that the IDEA intended to provide meaningful and material educational benefits so that students with disabilities could reach their potential and live independently.
Oral arguments happened last week on Wednesday, January 11. The transcript of the oral arguments follows in the link below, as well as an article that provides a thorough analysis:
From what I have gathered so far, the justices seem to be of the mind that students with disabilities are entitled to greater educational benefit than the bare minimum. However, they seem to be grappling with how to articulate a clear standard capable of implementation.
Some justices have expressed concerns about what additional costs this would impose on school districts; whether it is appropriate for the justices, who lack expertise in education, to be the ones creating this standard; how to deal with students who, because of their disabilities, are unable to follow the general education curriculum at grade level; and whether articulating a new standard would create a flood of litigation and lead to the Supreme Court becoming involved in other education-related decisions in the future.
SCOTUS is expected to issue a decision by the end of June 2017. Stay tuned.
This case involved a child with autism for whom there seemed to be a consensus that 1:1 ABA services were necessary based on private evaluative materials. The school district had not conducted its own evaluations and did not have any materials suggesting that some other methodology should be used for this student. The school district's IEP team, however, while it may have relied on the parent's private evaluations and professionals to better understand the child's needs, did not follow their recommendations. This scenario may sound familiar to parents who have gone through the special education process expecting their team to follow the recommendations from the private professionals they have consulted.
One question presented in this case is, To what extent does an IEP team have to follow the recommendations of private evaluators and professionals with respect to the program and services that a child requires? A related and broader question is, To what extent is a school district obligated to consider "methodology" in making recommendations for a child with special needs? For example, in this case, where the child at issue was a child with autism for whom 1:1 ABA services were recommended, to what extent is a school district required to recommend the specific methodology of Applied Behavior Analysis, as opposed to a more eclectic instructional approach or a different one entirely?
A three-judge panel consisting of Judges Kearse, Wesley, and Droney agreed with the parent's argument that the IEP team's 6:1:1 classroom recommendation and its failure to guarantee any 1:1 ABA therapy in the IEP "went against the consensus of the evaluative materials present at the CSE meeting," which demonstrated that the child required ABA and a significant amount of 1:1 instruction. The Court articulated the following principle:
[W]hen the reports and evaluative materials present at the CSE meeting yield a clear consensus, an IEP formulated for the child that fails to provide services consistent with that consensus is not "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits," and the state's determination to the contrary is thus entitled to no deference because it is unsupported by a preponderance of the evidence. . . . This remains true whether the issue relates to the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction in a child's IEP.This is great language and parents should rely on this principle when advocating for specific programs and methodologies that have been recommended by private professionals.
Lots of good nuggets in this decision. I want to highlight one more.
Parents familiar with the special education process who have had their children enrolled in private placements may have been told by their IEP team, "Well, your child is progressing so nicely at his/her private placement, it's time to transition him/her to a less restrictive setting." The A.M. decision pointed out the flaws in this reasoning. The Court stated that the logical inference that a child has made gains while attending a private placement "would suggest that the more restrictive academic setting in which he was learning adequately addressed his needs and should thus be continued; not that the program should be discontinued and that he should be transitioned to a less restrictive learning environment. . . ."
A great decision for parents of children with special needs.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
I found the Winston Transitions presentation to be extremely informative with respect to addressing the needs of students who are transitioning out of high school but not yet ready to move on to college or work. The school offers a full-time program as well as a part-time option for those students who may be otherwise engaged with college or work. The full-time program occurs five days per week roughly from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Through constant assessment, the school identifies the needs, abilities, and interests of each student, and customizes each student's program accordingly. The school's academic curriculum focuses primarily on reading, writing, and math. Classroom instruction occurs in small groups and is highly individualized. Through the FOCUS program, students have the opportunity to receive 1:1 instruction in areas of need. Much of the workload is project-based, affording students an opportunity to work independently and seek out assistance as needed. There is also a heavy emphasis on social and interpersonal skills.
One of the aspects of the school that impressed me the most was the internship program. Internships occur two days per week for roughly ten hours per week, and are tailored to the students' particular interests and strengths. In order to foster independence and self-advocacy, students do not receive the support of job coaches. Instead, constant collaboration occurs between Winston Transitions and the students' internship supervisors. Students also receive training and feedback at the center, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the students' internship experiences, discuss how to handle internship-related situations, and practice the skills necessary to succeed in a work environment. This practical piece, in my opinion, is crucial to the learning process, and I was amazed by the manner in which the school has been dealing with it.
Winston Transitions is affiliated with Winston Prep, a highly-regarded special education private school for students with language-based learning disabilities, but students need not have attended Winston Prep in order to be admitted into Winston Transitions. It is also worth noting that the school building is conveniently located at 240 Madison Avenue not far from Grand Central station. The floor includes a living room space, an activities room, classrooms, a kitchen, and a recording room (used to create podcasts), and offers a warm learning environment for its students.
A substantial number of the families enrolled at Winston Transitions receive government funding pursuant to remedies available under federal and state law for students with disabilities who have been denied an appropriate education by their local school districts. Students who have received a high school diploma may not be eligible for such funding. Parents should be mindful of this and consult an attorney for advice regarding how to approach this issue.
Monday, October 31, 2016
If you would like to learn more about transition planning, the Rebecca School is presenting a panel event on this subject on November 8:
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Every child with a disability has a right under federal and state education law to receive a free appropriate public education from his/her local school district. What constitutes an "appropriate education" for a student with a disability, however, is the source of much litigation.
Courts have generally held that a school district need not maximize a student's potential. However, in considering what affirmative obligation a school district does have, different courts around the country have been applying different standards.
Some courts have held that an appropriate education is one designed to allow a student with a disability to achieve more than trivial advancement while other courts have held that an appropriate education must be reasonably calculated to result in meaningful or substantial educational benefit.
The Supreme Court is expected to chime in. The outcome of this case could significantly affect the landscape of IDEA litigation and, more importantly, have broad implications for the rights of students with disabilities.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
When I recently became acquainted with an organization called Facing History And Ourselves, I was immediately intrigued. Facing History is a non-profit international educational and professional development organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism and prejudice in order to help students make the connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives. I have had the opportunity to learn more about the organization by familiarizing myself with its pedagogical principles, observing a classroom lesson, attending a teacher training workshop, and interacting with instructors and program directors. For example, during the class I observed, I listened to students discussing a piece of art depicting the Holocaust and considering what the artist may have been thinking or feeling while creating it. During the teacher training workshop, I listened to a room full of educators debating Indian Residential Schools (schools that were set up to re-educate Native American children by stripping them of their Native American heritage in order to get them to assimilate European customs) and considering what activities and exercises they might use in the classroom to teach this lesson to their students. The workshop sparked debate about identity, morality, racism, and religious/cultural intolerance. I have also found the reading materials to be well-organized, manageable in size, and thought-provoking.
I am amazed by how the program forces individuals to examine history through a critical lens -- considering difficult issues such as racism, discrimination, and genocide -- and asking important questions about what led to these events, how they could have been prevented, and what lessons can be derived for the future. Facing History emphasizes that the atrocities of the past didn't happen in an instant but, rather, in many cases they were the result of years of cultural and societal tensions.
What I find most impressive about the program is how it connects the past to the present. I think Facing History has the power to help young students understand what I could not -- that history is intertwined with and relevant to our daily lives because we have the ability to draw from the lessons of the past to positively influence the present and future.
For more about Facing History, you can visit https://www.facinghistory.org/.
Friday, February 19, 2016
I’ll focus on education. In the U.S., our education system is broken in many ways. Moore travels to Finland, France, and Germany to glean important insights regarding education. In Finland, Moore learns about educating the whole child. Finnish schools assign little, if any, homework and have few, if any, standardized tests. Students are encouraged to play and socialize, think critically, be creative, and become independent. There is also equity in Finland, which means that most schools are of high quality, so children can attend their zoned schools instead of parents having to shop around. In France, school lunch programs are taken seriously. They boast a level of culinary excellence that does not exist in the U.S. They also have an instructional component, and students are taught how to maintain a balanced and healthy diet. In Germany, schools are exploring ways of teaching about the Holocaust. Their emphasis is on owning their country’s history (good and bad), recognizing where moral failures occurred, making amends for those failures, and improving their society as a result. We should be striving for these things in the U.S. American children would benefit from receiving a more well-rounded education, and learning how to live a healthier lifestyle. There should be a greater emphasis on recognizing our country’s moral failures, discussing them openly in a constructive manner, and grappling with how to learn from those experiences in order to improve as a society. I think there should be a greater push for this in our schools.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
So much to be done, but where to begin?
I started with to-do lists. Lots and lots of to-do lists to organize myself and keep focused. I stayed busy and positive. Build a website, place ads, print business cards, network, speak with parents, meet with schools, and find clients!
From time to time, when I needed a distraction or an emotional boost, I would turn on an episode of The Office. Yup, watching The Office in the office. The show was a gift from my then-girlfriend now-wife who bought me the first couple of seasons on DVD when I told her I had never seen the show. Something tells me, though, that she probably didn't intend for me to watch it in the office.
I pounded the pavement, and clients started to call. I was eager to provide exceptional service, obtain outstanding results, and impress my clients. I am proud of the results we have achieved. At the same time, with every new client comes the responsibility of proving ourselves again. That is a responsibility I continue to take seriously no matter how long we've been around, how expert we've become, or what results we've achieved in the past.
I remember a friend questioning my decision to start my own firm. Something to the effect of "Are you for real?" I might have brushed it off then if not for the fact that I was doubting myself the same way he was doubting me. Six years later, though, I can say, yes - I am for real. The firm has grown significantly, and I feel like I've come a long way. Since starting out, I have hired a full-time associate and office administrator. We've handled hundreds of cases, helped numerous children and families, successfully litigated and settled cases of substantial monetary value, and built a reputation for tenaciousness, dedication, honesty, and exceptional results. I take great pride in that, and look forward to helping many more families navigate the special education legal process. I continue to be deeply interested and invested in the practice of special education law, which has been both professionally and personally fulfilling, and I am excited to see what the future holds.
I am thankful to the parents who have trusted us to advocate for their children, and the various professionals from whom I have learned so much. I am excited about developing the firm's global mission and sharing my experiences with you.
While I reflect on this very happy six-year anniversary, I also look forward to many more years of advocating for children, and being able to watch them grow, develop, and succeed.
I would also like to take this opportunity to wish you and your families happy holidays and a wonderful new year.
All the best in 2016.
Friday, May 22, 2015
See also: https://storify.com/yangbodu/nordicedtech
The Resonaari Music School is an amazing program that offers a variety of programs and opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. The directors of the program have incredible passion for their work, and the combination of their passion and the music thumping in the background entranced me. What struck me most about Resonaari was how the school supports people with special needs. While it is not exclusive to people with special needs, it provides a warm, nurturing environment in which they are able to discover abilities they never knew they had, connect with others through musical collaboration, and develop their sense of self-worth. Resonaari also provides extra support and modified instructional materials to those who require them. Observing one group of students, some of whom had special needs, while they practiced for an upcoming concert performance was one of the highlights of my visit.
I was also impressed by the program’s reach and influence. Resonaari has collaborated with the Finnish National Board of Education regarding the development of a national music curriculum. Resonaari is also engaged in ongoing music research, including how to adapt music for people with special needs. In addition, Resonaari has influenced the creation of similar music programs in other parts of the world, and is part of a global movement to connect people with music.
More information available at: http://www.resonaari.fi/
More information available at: http://www.ruskis.fi/in-english.html
The Keskupuisto Vocational School is exclusive to students with special needs, whose issues range from attention to autism to severe psychiatric disorders. Keskupuisto offers a wide array of vocational programs including mechanics, photography, audio visual, technical design, music, dance, and cooking. Classrooms are small and structured, one-to-one support is available where necessary, and students are expected to complete a significant amount of on-the-job training in order to apply their in-classroom learning to real-life settings. The school offers both certificate and non-certificate programs, as well as unique opportunities for immigrant students. The facilities are immaculately clean and beautifully designed, and located just a few steps away from Helsinki’s Central Park. I toured some of the classrooms, and spoke with students and staff, and was impressed by the students' work.
More information available at: http://www.keskuspuisto.fi/en.php
Thursday, May 14, 2015
The first thing that struck me was the physical appearance of the schools. The buildings were beautiful and new. Outside spaces were vast with lots of room for students to roam. Indoor spaces were filled with natural light. The classrooms were clean, organized, and colorful.
I was impressed by the teachers. The teachers I spoke with came across as intelligent, serious, committed, and engaging, and they were enthusiastic about their work. I was also impressed by the amount of independence that the teachers possessed. Teachers were in charge of their classrooms without being accountable to a higher school authority, which I think promotes ownership. Since principals do not spend time monitoring their teachers in class, they can focus on broader school issues such as budget and development, which benefits the school and, in turn, the students. Teachers still obtain professional development throughout the year, but when it comes to their classroom teaching, they are trusted and respected as professionals, and given substantial freedom.
I was impressed by the level of attention to each child. Teachers and staff meet frequently to discuss the needs of all students in the school - both general and special education. Based on those meetings, the school staff can respond to each child's needs in whatever manner is appropriate. For example, schools may provide extra academic support for students who need it, or reach out to social service agencies when children need the kind of support that would extend beyond the school day. Schools have designated special education teachers who move from class to class, and since they do not have their own classrooms to teach, they can provide varying levels of support to students from different classrooms, as needed. This allows school to be flexible about meeting students' needs as issues arise, and does not require a formal diagnosis or a complicated administrative process.
I also got the feeling that schools in Finland focus on the whole child. All students receive a free lunch, irrespective of family income, which has the positive benefit of (1) making sure that no students go hungry, and (2) not singling out students who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford lunch. In addition to the regular academic curriculum, students must fulfill demanding language requirements, which require them to master Finnish, English, and Swedish. Students also benefit from non-academic specialties such as sewing and woodworking. In general, the schools were warm and nurturing environments, and the students seemed happy, well-behaved, and engaged.
I think it's also worth noting that I did not detect concerns about onerous accountability standards or compliance requirements.
All in all, the schools I saw seemed like nice learning environments that were committed to their students' success.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Some of the points that stand out most in my mind from my conversations with people at the University have to do with inclusion, equity, high-stakes testing, and immigration.
Three-tier model – Finland’s three-tier inclusion model calls for escalating levels of support to meet the needs of those with special needs. Most students in Finland, at some point in their education, receive special education support, which could range from just a few hours of academic tutoring for a child with mild needs, to consistent academic interventions for a child with moderate needs, to a full-blown individualized learning plan for a child with severe needs. My impression was that these supports are implemented without a whole lot of red tape – i.e., it’s pretty easy for parents to access these supports. Teachers and administrators seemed to be laser-focused about helping the child, and less concerned about compliance and accountability. Resources are deployed to schools accordingly. In many schools, for example, part-time special education teachers who do not teach classrooms of their own are available to provide additional academic support on an ad hoc basis to any students in the school who require it.
Equity - Finland emphasizes equity a great deal. That’s not to say that every school is perfect, but the percentage of inferior schools in Finland is smaller than in most other countries around the world. Finland works hard to maintain a balance that allows parents to feel confident that their local school is as good as any other. In the U.S. there seems to be a much larger disparity between our good schools and our poor or mediocre schools. Our schools need to be more balanced.
High-stakes testing - High-stakes testing basically does not exist in Finland. There is only one high-stakes exam at the end of high school, and a number of low-stakes subject tests that students are required to take in certain subjects. These low-stakes subject tests are generally used to develop “best practices” for schools and teachers; they do not impact the students themselves. Since Finland doesn’t emphasize high-stakes testing, more time can be devoted to actual learning. In the U.S., there has been a lot of debate about the consequences of students losing out on classroom learning time because of test preparation. Maximizing in-class learning time makes sense, and I was impressed by Finland's emphasis on this.
Challenges - Finland has its share of challenges as well, including: (1) Budget - Even in a small country of 5 million people, resources are limited and decisions have to be made about where to give services and where to cut them, which can result in certain demographics being underserved; (2) Staff – Some teachers may have more traditional teaching styles and be less inclined to adopt new learning approaches; (3) Immigration - Immigration in Finland is increasing, and the government is grappling with questions about who to admit into the country and how to educate new immigrants. How the government addresses these issues in the future could have important implications for the Finnish education system.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Although the Finnish Board used to conduct school inspections to evaluate whether teachers were teaching effectively, teachers today are afforded a significant amount of autonomy. This frees up resources, which the Board can spend in other areas. The Board’s current role involves collecting information from schools (teachers and/or school administrators are expected to complete questionnaires), conducting research, and compiling statistics to inform conclusions about the school system as a whole. While some students may be expected to take standardized tests sometimes, high-stakes standardized tests generally do not exist in the Finnish system (with the exception of one standardized exit exam when a child graduates from high school). I was amazed by Finland's approach to oversight and accountability, which was strikingly different from the U.S.'s.
The Board is involved with curriculum development to some extent, but the guidelines it develops are only loosely followed by the municipalities. The Board may dictate what skills should be worked on, but the local schools determine how those skills should be worked on. The Finnish curriculum sounded less onerous than the U.S.'s Common Core, but it would be interesting to take a closer look at how the two approaches compare.
How Finland is able to achieve and maintain equity among its different schools when the schools operate independently and without substantial federal involvement is a question that persisted in my mind throughout the trip. In Finland, schools and populations vary widely between regions of the country, so maintaining equity and ensuring that all school districts receive adequate resources doesn't come without challenges. I was impressed with the high level of quality among its schools despite those challenges, and I questioned whether federal involvement was important in order to achieve consistency.
The idea of "special education lawyers" is foreign to people in Finland (not sure where that would leave me if I moved to Finland today). In Finland, the government usually provides the services that are required without legal proceedings being necessary. While there is a mechanism in place for parents who are dissatisfied with the supports being provided, those complaint procedures are rarely if ever used. When they are used, lawyers are typically not involved. I was impressed with the ease of accessing supports and services.