Teacher & parent leader critique new report & implementation of DOE's inclusion initiative

Saturday's post about the new report from the Public Advocate’s office on the DOE’s special education inclusion initiative, whose author refrained from interviewing any parents, teachers or other school-based staff, provoked comment on our NYC Education List.  I think I can speak for most parents who believe that given the right training provided to classroom teachers, sufficient expertise, including enough specialists to push in, AND small classes, inclusion could be a wonderful thing.   

But as usual with the NYC Department of Education, because of poor planning, mismanagement, top heavy spending on “network” and “cluster” leaders, and a concurrent disinvestment in actual classroom teachers, as well as an apparent total disinterest in how people on the ground are experiencing their policies, they seem likely to completely botch it all – at tremendous cost to the kids involved.  
Below are comments from first a Brooklyn teacher, and then Lisa Donlan, a parent leader and head of the Community Education Council in District 1:
Teacher: I was furious when I read the NY Times article.  How clueless can this reporter AND the "Public Advocate" be?  For the past three years, I have taught in an ICT [inclusion] class as the regular general education teacher.  I have NEVER received any of this so-called training for the upcoming "special education reform".  From conversations with teachers in many schools, most have NO idea what these "reforms" even mean, much less the "training" to work with IEP students with less or no services. ..
Lisa Donlan: The main issue lies in the role of the Children First Networks (CFNs), the invisible virtual "support" networks that have replaced the old district offices.
These CFNs serve 25-30 schools looped together by accidents of history, at this point, often spread across 4-5 boroughs, and include all kinds of schools- ES/MS/HS's, varying demographics and pedagogical approaches. I may be wrong but there seems to be no rational rhyme or reason for the groupings of schools in CFNs that then fall under 5 "clusters'. That being said, each layer means lots of staffers at the Network and Cluster level.  These staff members include roughly four people who are "accountable" for the special ed reform policy training, support, communication and operations- generally two  special ed specialists and two instructional specialists.
 My guess is that those staffers have themselves been recently "trained" as late as this spring/summer and that they have "arranged" for "trainers" to work with some of the schools staffs under their purview throughout the spring, summer and even fall (or later).   By all reports the trainers used so far have been outside consultants who basically know the Tweed- based PowerPoint/rhetoric, but do not "know" the issues and operations the schools face.
In typical "kick-the- anthill" style the DoE has rolled out these reforms to 1750 schools teaching more than a million kids with some 75-80K teachers without any data, training or supports in place.  In the late spring my District Leadership Team held a training on the reforms and we had great difficulty finding any CFN-based staffers to participate in the training. Out of the 8 different CFNs operating in our small district, only two employees (out of 16-32 theoretically qualified and accountable CFN employees) agreed to support our efforts.  
All they were able to do was recite the Powerpoint talking points- they had not worked with schools in Phase I to understand the problems the reform will create or to provide solutions to the issues schools are facing now, such as:
·         Schools are working from budget projections based on estimations of enrollment and the new Fair Student Funding paradigm that provides less funding for ICT [inclusion with two teachers] and self-contained classrooms and more for SETTS related services ( pushing "inclusion" via important dollars as carrots), so they do not know exactly what resources they have to schedule and manage to address their students’ needs;
·         This problem of matching resources to needs is exacerbated by the shortage of service providers in the DoE system: many students do not get their services because there is no one to provide the service- especially speech therapy, apparently,  due to DoE bureaucratic knots, it seems;
·         Enrollment is still a moving target ( which is why budgets are projection based) so schools do not know which students they will serve and what services and configurations their IEPs [Individualized Learning Plans] will require, w/ no CSE [Committee on Special Education] to work directly with the schools there is no heads up to help administrators plan for these;
·         As class sizes rise to the contractual maximums ( and above) across the city , how can a school/ an individual teacher  adequately provide a RTI [Response to Intervention] and differentiated instruction? These reforms posit greater flexibility which necessitates more room, fewer pupils per teacher, more support services and therapies, all of which are made impossible by the administration's centrally-driven practices of imposed budget cuts, overcrowding and reduction in support personnel in schools;
·         Students, no matter their needs, cannot be directed to a different school where the students IEP requirements can be met. Each school must meet the needs of the students that arrive on their rosters, regardless of the capacity of the school to provide those services. If a student requires a 12:1:1 in K but the school has only a 12:1:1 from 3-5 th grade, the school must provide services to the student, which will mean rewriting the IEP to fit the capacity of the school, even if down the street there is a school w/ a seat open in a K level 12:1:1 (which will go unfunded, as a result).
These reforms will lead to a number of dangerous and potentially harmful unintended consequences to our students and schools but there seems to be no safeguards or even monitoring ability built into the system.  This is true of all of the top-down centrally-mandated "reform' policies that get kicked down to the schools to implement as they can and as they see fit, each according to its own capacity and interpretation (and CFN, supposedly).  This seems odd to me, since the whole idea behind Mayoral control was supposed to be even-handed centrally-monitored rationally-designed standardized budgets and services to combat the unfair and inequitable district system of the past.
With the destruction of districts (then Regions, then Boroughs) what we have lost is the ability to monitor and watchdog the process in a community, and of course a place for parents and others to go to call attention to and ask for remedies for the problems these policy changes create.
 When the policies enacted fail to meet their stated goals and there is no loop back system for improvement; you cannot help but wonder if the policy was designed to accomplish something other than its stated goal. The stated goals (accountability, equity, the voice for the voiceless, the civil rights issue of our times, fair student funding, centralized control, decentralized empowerment of schools and principals, integrated charter schools, increased inclusion) seem to be mere slogans that serve to buy off the advocates who would push back and impact, delay or stop these reforms, since they are the ones who know better.
But if the policy makers know how to scratch us just where it itches, we end up going along with the policy, so great is our desire for the stated outcome.  We then spend our time doing the monitoring and adjustments any good policy requires, while the deformers rush off to the next reform.   While we fight to try to peek in and tweak and complain, the next destructive tsunami has already been unleashed before we can raise our heads and collectively name the issues and devise solutions (which should be the job of our centralized accountable education department, but oddly is not since there is no capacity for this).
The "unintended" consequences of the often-contradictory policies stack up in our schools and communities and there are fewer and fewer people to untangle the complex causes that lead to the problems and concerns we can see.
The next Mayor had better have some good ideas of how to put Humpty back together again, starting with transparent data (and not the cooked books we get from this DoE) and methods devoid of a political agenda to diagnose the core issues at hand. I am not sure how any of these cats can get walked back into the house at this point, but am dying to hear form the hopefuls how they plan to do it. Declaring "mission accomplished" before the actual battle ain't gonna do it!

[Here is more analysis from Lisa of ’the recommendations of the new report.)
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