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.
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.
Monday, April 20, 2015
I have been visiting Finnish schools, meeting with educational experts, and exploring programs that are addressing education and special education in unique ways.
Over the next few days, I hope to report back about details from the trip and insights I have gained.