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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Apples And Oranges

My wife and daughter are attending a presentation tonight at the Palace Theater in Albany. They are accompanied by several friends who are also educators. They all share an interest in the speaker, Temple Gandin, and her extraordinary experience with autism.

Grandin's website  provides the following information:

Dr. Temple Grandin—world-famous animal scientist and autism self-advocate—has been included in the 2010 TIME 100, the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world!
The list, now in its seventh year, recognizes the activism, innovation, and achievement of the world's most influential individuals.  Temple is listed as one of twenty-five "Heroes" of 2010.  The author of the article, a professor at Harvard University, writes, "What do neurologists, cattle, and McDonald's have in common?  They all owe a great deal to one woman...Temple Grandin….an extraordinary source of inspiration for autistic children, their parents—and all people."

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world. Now her fascinating life, with all its challenges and successes has been brought to the screen. HBO has produced the full-length film Temple Grandin, which premiered on Saturday, February 6th on HBO. She has been featured on NPR (National Public Radio), major television programs, such as the BBC special "The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow", ABC's Primetime Live, The Today Show, Larry King Live, 48 Hours and 20/20, and has been written about in many national publications, such as Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and New York Times..

The subject of autism has sparked the direction of this Blog entry. When I reflect on my own public school career as a learner, I cannot recall being in school with anyone who evidenced signs of autism. Similarly, I don't have any memories of people afflicted by any overt handicapping disabilities. Nor do I have any recollections of classmates with peanut allergies, aspergers, diabetes, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or any other of the myriad conditions that have since been identifies as factors impacting learners and their environment.

I am sure that my memory is not bad, and I'm sure that there were children who experienced any number of these disabilities. However, they were often excluded from attending the typical neighborhood public school and instead sent to receive educational support at some specialized school providing services via specially trained staff members. That may be true to a large extent in terms of describing exclusionary practices, though I never did hear about any child with peanut allergies until ten or twelve years ago. Childhood diabetes also appears as a concern that has recently been elevated by virtue of increasing numbers.

Until the mid 1970's, when public law 94-142 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act - amended in 1997 as the IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was introduced as federal legislation, handicapped learners lacked sufficient support in advocacy as well as instructional practices and programs. Prior to that they did not enjoy the same rights to an education offered more fortunate learners. There are many different handicapping conditions identified and acknowledged that enable learners to receive assistance attendant to their disabilities (a wide range of learning, physical and emotional disabilities).

The passage of those legislative acts allowed children with special needs to be accommodated in the least restrictive educational environment. In nearly all cases, the least restrictive environment has become the local public school. This allows children to pursue their development in the same school setting as their neighbors and peers. That also means that, with approved testing modifications, handicapped learners now engage with the same state mandated tests as every other classmate.

We are testing far more learners than ever before. We are testing children who, if they evidenced the same needs thirty years ago, would not be subjected to the high stakes assessments of today. We are testing children of limited English proficiency in speaking and writing skills because they have recently emigrated to our country. We are testing almost everyone. Not only is that okay, but it is necessary to ensure progress and monitoring of the educational development of each individual.

However, lost among the chorus of critical comments about how poorly our public schools are performing "compared to when I went to school" is the fact that schools of today are very different than the schools of people who spout such accusations. We are testing all children, not just the children who are fortunate enough to not suffer from any of the disabilities covered by federal legislation. The pool of statistics for comparison purposes is not common across vast periods of time. Much has occurred between generations of learners that makes it extremely difficult to compare achievement standards.

Additionally, beyond the comparisons of performance there is another issue in which schools suffer from the same distorted judgment. I am speaking of cost analyzes between schools of today and schools from earlier time periods. The specialized programs and materials necessary to support instruction of disabled learners and those temporarily handicapped by language barriers all bear costs not borne by schools of years ago. As a result, when people examine the cost of schools or cost per learner, they conclude that we are spending much more than the past and receiving too little in return.

I am not complaining of the inclusion of all learners in testing programs, or of the cost of specialized programs and staff (occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy...). Instead, I am complaining about people complaining about current school costs and school performance levels when using statistics that have been distorted by the introduction of mitigating efforts and expenditures since those "good old days" of comparison.

This comparison sounds like those that often form the basis of arguments among sports fans when they debate the calibre of current players and those from an earlier generation of competitors. How well would Babe Ruth hit against Roger Clemens? Could Whitey Ford strike out Alex Rodriguez" How many home runs would Mickey Mantle hit if he played today? It goes on and on in sports (Who's better Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan or LeBron James?) There is no way to truly and accurately compare different generations of athletes in the same sport due to many factors and differences separating time periods - training regimens, equipment, extensive travel, improved nutritional and medical attention, (performance enhancing drugs?) different arenas/stadiums and conditions (domed stadiums, artificial surfaces...)

On a final note, consider this - no matter how dire the present is, these days will someday in the not too distant future become the "good old days" of our misty memories - I guarantee it.

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