First Person

How my school is bringing teachers together to improve students’ IEPs

When I first wrote about special education at my school last week, I said I would describe what my colleagues and I are doing to try to make special education services better at my school, without any presumption that what we’re doing is definitive, exemplary, or even right.

Now I want to get into specifics. To start, I’ll focus on the information-gathering that happens before we develop a student’s individualized education program, or the document that identifies goals for students with special needs and lays out the support they must get to reach those goals. The IEP is typically drafted by a special education teacher assigned to a student’s case (unless the case is an initial, triennial, or reevaluation, in which case it will be drafted by the school psychologist), who then meets with the parent and modifies it with his or her input.

While gathering as much information as possible before writing an IEP seems like common sense and best practice, and many schools go through this process in some form, I have encountered IEPs seemingly written with little direct knowledge of the child.

That problem could arise because case managers have too little knowledge or training to complete the IEP process adequately. But more often, in my experience, the issue is that the traditional method of information gathering is burdensome and unlikely to yield useful results — so at my school, we have worked to revamp that process.

The conventional way of getting information for IEPs is to solicit “teacher reports” about students’ needs and performance, generally by placing a long, complicated form in teacher’s mailboxes. The teacher checks boxes, fills in academic data from tests, grades, and scribbles in anecdotes from his or her classroom, then resubmits the form to the IEP teacher, school assessment team, or whoever is ultimately responsible for drafting the student’s IEP.

As the special education coordinator, I am responsible for ensuring that an IEP accurately depicts a student’s current performance. Unfortunately, the information provided in a teacher report tends to be thin, not necessarily due to any fault on the teacher’s part, but because of the length and tediousness of the report. But teachers might not fill out the forms in a timely manner, and each teacher completing a report is working in isolation, so it is difficult to get a comprehensive picture of a student’s skills.

In addition, schools face the challenge of meeting compliance dates for a large caseload of students with only limited resources. If IEPs are not written by certain dates, the school’s special education compliance tally — which affects a principal’s rating — will fall. This bureaucratic constraint can have the effect of making teachers’ primary focus the completion of administrative tasks, rather than the creation of a high-quality and accurate IEP.

At first, in an effort to solve some of these problems, I took the simple step of digitizing the process. I created a Google form that dropped teacher information directly into a spreadsheet. While this made the process of gathering information more efficient, and hopefully less time-consuming for teachers, I continued to find the information often so generic as to be unusable. Sometimes, two teachers gave conflicting accounts of the same student and I needed to follow up with them individually.

I took this issue to my eighth-grade team last year, and they generously volunteered to put aside time on a weekly basis for us to discuss students with upcoming IEP meetings.  At first, we structured these meetings as interviews. I asked questions and recorded notes on the same teacher report form that I used to sent out individually to each teacher.

Because we were all at the same table discussing the student, I learned more about students than I would have from reading teachers’ written reports, and the information was more relevant to students’ IEPs.

However, these conversations tended to veer into general anecdotal impressions of behavior in the classroom, rather than provide insight into specific academic challenges students faced.

To make the process more concrete, we began pairing our discussion with an examination of samples of the student’s work. This grounded our conversation in more concrete academic observations, while allowing us to corroborate that information with our anecdotes and observations.

My colleagues and I continue to fine-tune the protocol, which we call our Student Work Analysis Protocol. The process now includes an initial survey of any pieces of assessment data available, such as state test scores over time, psycho-educational evaluations, social histories, reading assessment scores, benchmarks, attendance data, and so on.

We then compare any patterns and trends in the data with our observations of the child in each of our classrooms and content areas. Next, we examine samples of the student’s work. From these observations, we generate goals targeted at student challenges and align those goals to the Common Core standards. Finally, we attempt to generate a team-wide strategy to support the student across each of our classrooms.

This protocol has been implemented in all grade level teams in my school, and because I am present as the district representative at each meeting, I can attest to the positive effect this protocol has had on the quality of our conversations with parents at students’ IEP meetings.

Now, we’re able to share with parents information that has been developed by a core team of the content area teachers who work with their children. The increased accuracy of our collective investigation lends itself to more productive conversations about concrete goals and strategies that will better meet the student’s needs.

While this process is far from perfect (I’ll speak more about why in a future post), it has improved the quality of the IEPs that we develop for our students. You can view the protocol here, and a copy of the Google template here that our team completes for each child during the process of the protocol.

I would love to hear about how educators across the city develop IEPs and get feedback from teachers and parents on how I can make this process more effective at my school. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.