I believe every policy maker who touts “personalized learning” and screams “differentiated instruction” in our schools to reach every child maximally without supporting the LEANDRO decision should sit in on some IEP meetings – the tough ones where parents and schools struggle to find what is not only appropriate for the student, but how those needs will be met.
And those policy makers should just be quiet.
Because IEP meetings can tell you what the health of the school system is and how that school system lacks needed resources.
I am a teacher and a parent of two public school students. The elder graduated in the pandemic and attends a public university. My younger is a high school freshman. He happens to have Down Syndrome. And autism.
They don’t define him. They just happen to be part of how he actualizes the world.
My wife and I knew through prenatal testing that we were having a child with Trisomy 21. It didn’t matter. He was ours and we were his. Actually, the world is his. He may grow up to be a benevolent dictator and require all people to play basketball with him. Meanwhile, he wears his jerseys and baseballs cap any chance he gets. And he likes going out to eat, especially if the chicken fingers are good.
His diagnosis for autism came just a few years ago. So we did what any parents would do: find out what resources are available to him. Then we had meetings with his teachers.
He is not a “typical” child. He has delays. Standardized test results do not show him to be standardized. He is unique – just like every other student.
This vibrant boy has an IEP (Individual Education Program) that is as thick as a 19th Century Russian novel. It is a “work in progress” that dictates how he will be delivered instruction and educational opportunities. The first item that his mother and I put on that IEP was that he would be able to navigate in this world and be as much a part of it as possible.
In short, we wanted him exposed to as many typically developing students as possible and be around students who modeled behavior and skills we wished him to develop.
But that law-binding IEP creates obstacles for most schools as they are funded now. What our son needs is more one-on-one time with a teacher. He needs a teacher assistant’s help. He needs specialized tools to help with a specialized curriculum. He needs to be accompanied to his classes as he goes back and forth between specials (which he loves) and basic classes.
We have had IEP meetings that ended without consensus. Without agreement. We have had to consult outside help. We have had to see what our rights are. And as a parent, it frustrates me. As a teacher, I have a more unique understanding. But we all want what is best for him.
Since 2010, this state has lost over 7500 teacher assistants. Veteran teachers have not been respected who are experienced with EC curriculum and practices. Underfunding of resources and a stringent over-reliance on testing have encompassed every grade and every student. Even those specials have been under attack with a class-size mandate from Raleigh.
And the very people who are making so many decisions about schools and how they operate and how they should be funded have never even been a part of the very system to have any idea of what their actions are doing.
No charter school will accept my son. No private school in the county we are in would take him. And the ESA system in this state is so badly regulated it makes one wonder why the state would not just give the school he attends the money they would have given him in an ESA so they could do what is best for him.
And his teachers know what will help him, but they are handcuffed in so many ways.
That’s why I want that policymaker in that next IEP meeting with my family and my son with those teachers so I could ask him or her, “So why can’t this happen for my kid in the very school you are supposed to fully fund?”
Then I will ask why it can’t be done for every special needs student in the state, especially those whose families are not as fortunate as mine.
Then I will record that answer and hold him / her to it. At least with my vote if not with my voice.
Simply put, tests and assessments that drive data-driven decisions many times can take away the personal link that exists between students and teachers. Solely placing students in situations that are based on numbers can impersonally label people. Add to that an anemic funding pattern that has taken place in the last decade plus.
But people truly make schools work. In those past IEP meetings, when the data were considered alongside the preferences of parents, the insight of teachers who knew him, and the willingness of administration to find every possible way to make my son successful in an environment that he knew and was comfortable in, we put aside the personal differences and made educational decisions based on the individual.
I wish that happened for all students who truly need their IEP’s. Too many times our public schools are forced to make due with limited funds for both human capital and needed resources – not just some technology that will be used to track more data and will never be replaced or updated because that’s how policy makers fund schools.
I would like to think that my son and his differently-abled self will teach a lot to the other students about how very similar we all are even if we have differences. But I know he would teach those policy makers so much more about how to better fund our schools.