I Love Public Schools but….

Bashing the US Public Education system has become so popular that it seems to be giving baseball a run for national pastime. You’ll get no argument from me if you say the system has its faults. But taken as a whole, there’s a good deal more that’s right with our public schools than there is that’s wrong with them. In my work, I often act as a sounding board for parents as they consider the educational options available to them and their children. For the families I work with, most of these options fall within the domain of special education. Our discussions are pretty far ranging but most of them conclude with me pointing parents and children towards their local public school districts. Some of my reasoning is a matter of pragmatism. School districts are not that interested in picking up the tab for placing kids in private schools. Usually, when you seek funding from your district to pay for placement in a private school, you’re in for a long, unpleasant, expensive battle. Even putting pragmatism aside, our public schools often provide an educational experience that is comparable to or better than those found at most private schools.

School systems have good reason to be stingy when it comes to funding outside placements. Recently, I looked at a database of Chapter 766 approved private schools in Massachusetts. I found 10 schools that have been frequent destinations for kids I’ve worked with. Of those schools, the yearly tuition ranged from $35,097 to $87, 048 per student, with an average of $57, 086. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the average teacher’s salary during the 2010-2011 school year was $70,340. So do the math. For many districts, funding just one student in a private school means that the district can no longer use that money to hire another teacher and, in the process, lower their average classroom size.

During that same academic year, the statewide average in Massachusetts for per pupil expenditures in the public schools was $13,361.

My support of public schools is not limited to financial considerations. My favorite thing about them is that they’re legally required to provide a free and appropriate public education to every child in their district. In Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his attorney notes that in America “Even a werewolf is entitled to legal counsel.” Well guess what… In America, that werewolf’s offspring is also entitled to a free and appropriate public education. Though the quality of the work varies tremendously from school to school, districts are required to do whatever they can to maximize the odds of success for every student. Parents have rights designed to compel  their public schools to do right by their kids – a state of affairs not often found in private schools.

Most of the battles I’ve seen taking place between parents and school systems revolve around the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process. Parents often feel that their children are entitled to more services than the district is willing to provide. Special education administrators have to balance a legal mandate to provide services to all qualifying students with the constraints of an unyielding budget. There’s never enough money to provide services to everyone who needs or wants them. One of the main functions performed by every SPED director is saying “no” to a lot of unhappy parents, which goes a long way in explaining the high turnover rates for that position. When it’s your own child who you feel is being unjustly denied the opportunity to thrive in school, it’s easy to become angry or frustrated during this process. But overall, schools are doing an admirable job of managing a demanding, underfunded, and often contentious process.

But…

There are a few aspects of special education in which our public schools are clearly falling short. I’m not talking about specific services or procedures that are being over or underemphasized. I’m thinking about mindset issues that affect the lens through which schools view our kids and families.

In my experience, the area in which our public school special education system falls short most often is in the tendency to ignore the role that a child’s experience in school has on his or her family dynamics and relationships. I’ve seen this take shape most often in battles over homework and in overall mood and behavior when kids get home from school. To this end, there’s an image that forms in my head when I think about a typical school day for many kids with learning issues. The image starts out with that kid approaching the entrance to his or her school in the morning. They pause before the door, take in one massive breath and  hold it all day. Through classes, recess, lunch, transitions, and the ride home, they don’t exhale. Only when they get home to the safety of mom or dad (usually mom), do they exhale and when it happens it’s not pretty. All the anger, frustration, sadness, self-doubt, and crankiness that have been building up at school all day come down the track like a steam train heading for that child’s family. When parents tell teachers or other school professionals about this, the reaction is often “Hmmm…he’s never like that at school.” While the school professionals don’t come out and say it, it’s hard for parents to hear that message as anything other than “You’re not doing a good job of parenting.” The truth is that their child’s emotional reactions at home are often the direct result of good parenting. Kids know that the consequences for losing it at school are much more socially and behaviorally penalizing than they are for losing it at home. They figure that home is a safe place and it’s mom and dad’s job to like them even when they’ve lost control.  On top of this, add the imperative for parents to bug their exhausted kids about homework and you find some badly frayed relationships. Schools may feel that what happens outside of their doors is somebody else’s problem but it’s hard to see how a damaged parent/child relationship is not a potentially mortal threat to that child’s school performance.

Another problem that needs to be faced is the tendency in many schools to allow a child to “crash and burn” before they are willing to provide services. I’ve seen this over and over again with elementary school kids who have problems with executive function. Many of these kids can do fairly well in the early grades when school work tends to focus on the acquisition of facts. However, around 4th or 5th grade, things  change. The kids who succeeded in 2nd or 3rd grade when they could tell the teacher the capitals of every African nation now get overwhelmed when they’re required to write 3 paragraphs about just one of them. I just spoke to one parent who described how her son’s anxiety level in the early grades increased with every open ended task he faced. As he entered 5th grade and those tasks became a regular part of the school day, he shut down. He became aggressive, tried to run away from school, fell asleep in class repeatedly and was eventually hospitalized. The school system eventually offered him an outside placement that his family accepted and he’s doing much better this year. The frustrating thing is that with a little foresight, the district could have predicted this outcome and mitigated it with much less expense to their district and anguish to this family. Certainly, it’s not always possible to predict which kids are going to react this way, but in some cases, that conclusion is impossible to miss and schools need to be proactive rather than reactive.

That child’s story brings up another problem. That is the pervasive tendency in our schools to let learning issues go unaddressed until or unless behavioral issues enter the picture. The kids who sit quietly in class and don’t bother anyone tend to fall through the cracks while the squeaky (or deafening) wheel gets the grease. This happens all the time to girls with learning issues and is one of the reasons they are so chronically underserved. When parents ask “What should I do about it?” I’m always tempted to have them instruct their daughters to start throwing stuff at teachers just to see how fast the wheels start turning. If you’re wondering, I haven’t actually said that to anyone (yet) but the temptation is always there.

In mentioning these problems, I’m not trying to be that guy who opens a conversation by saying “You know what your problem is?” and then goes on to list about a million of them. Many of our schools already have the tools necessary to provide support to the kids that need it. All I’m suggesting are a few small changes to the mindset that goes into special education and the IEP process. But these small changes could have big, long lasting effects on some of our kids’ school performance and maybe even bigger positive effects on the relationships between kids, parents, and schools. And, (particularly given this week’s Red Sox victory), baseball seems to be working out just fine as our national pastime anyway.

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