• October 31, 2014 09:38 AM What’s Different, What’s New in Final Gainful Employment Rule

    The Department of Education finally released its final gainful employment rule this morning. This is a high-profile attempt to address concerns about the quality of career education programs, particularly those offered by private, for-profit institutions. This version is the fourth major version of the text we’ve seen, after a proposed version back in March, as well as a proposed and final version that came out during a prior effort that was finalized in 2011 only to be struck down by a court. And while much of the rule looks the same as what we’ve seen all the way back to the first proposed version back in July 2010, there are still some changes.

    Changed: One measure only

    This final version rests on only one accountability measure: a ratio of the amount of debt graduates from a postsecondary program took on compared to their earnings. This debt-to-earnings rate, or DTE, has been in every version of the rule seen so far. And just as in those prior versions the DTE will be calculated two ways: an annual measure that compares debt to the overall earnings, and a discretionary measure that compares debt to earnings after subtracting 150 percent of the poverty line for a single person (about $17,000).

    The single measure is surprising because the version of the rule released in March also included a second indicator that looked at the percentage of student loan borrowers that defaulted on their loans within three years of leaving school. This was the same as an existing cohort default rate measure institutions must address, only applied at the program level as well. This measure had value in that it included all students who borrowed for a program, whereas the debt-to-earnings rate only looks at graduates. This matters, since we know dropouts account for about 63 percent of student loan defaulters.

    But the second measure has been the downfall of the rule in the past. The threshold on a student loan repayment rate included in the 2011 version of the rule was struck down by a judge as being insufficiently justified, leading the whole accountability part of the rule to be vacated. And Administration officials admitted to the New York Times that concerns about this rule’s legal prospects led them to drop the program cohort default rate.

    Same: DTE thresholds

    What did not change in this rule is the thresholds used on the debt-to-earnings rates. A program will still fail if its annual DTE exceeds 30 percent and its discretionary DTE exceeds 12 percent. These are the same failing levels included in the March rule as well as the 2011 final rule. But this version and the one in March are tougher than the 2011 final version in that it defines passing the DTE measures as being below 8 percent on the annual DTE or 20 percent on the discretionary one. Programs that fall in between passing and failing are in a “zone” status.

    Same: Time to ineligibility

    The consequences of failing or being in the zone are also the same as they were in the March version of the rule. Failing twice in a three-year period or spending four straight years in the zone will result in eligibility loss. The 2011 version of the rule had required a program to fail three times in a four-year period to lose eligibility and had no zone concept.

    New: Interest rates for DTE

    One of the biggest changes within the DTE calculation is the interest rate used to calculate annual debt payments. The March version of the rule would have used a six-year average of the Unsubsidized Stafford Loan. This version adjusts the rate based upon the type of program and whether it is undergraduate or graduate. Undergraduate certificates and associate degrees will use a three-year average of the Unsubsidized Stafford rate for undergraduates; bachelor’s degrees will use six years. Similarly, graduate certificates and master’s degrees will use a three-year average at the graduate Unsubsidized Stafford loan rate, while doctoral programs will use six years.

    Same: Most other parts of the DTE calculation

    Aside from the interest rates, little else in the DTE calculation is different from what we saw in March. Programs can still cap their debt at the lesser of the amount students take out or what the school charges for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and necessary equipment. It will also only look at programs that have at least 30 students who completed the program and received some form of federal student aid over either two or four years. And earnings will still be measured either three and four or six and seven years after graduation (add two extra years for smaller programs where four cohorts of data are used). The time period used to estimate how long students will repay their loans is also the same–10 years for associate and certificate programs; 15 for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and 20 year’s for doctoral and first professional degrees. The debt figures also still include federal loans, private loans the college knows about, and institutional credit extended to students.The debt figures will also drop the highest loan amount remaining for each student for which the Social Security Administration cannot obtain earnings information (e.g. if there are four non-matches, the four highest debts get excluded).

    New: Longer transition period

    One complaint from institutions about the rule was that they would not have enough time to adjust results and avoid failure. The March draft addressed this issue by including a transition period in which a program could replace the debt part of the DTE with newer figures for recent graduates for up to four years. The final version lengthens that time period substantially, allowing a one-year program to use a transition period for five years; a program between one and two years can use it for six years; and a program longer than two  years can have seven years in the transition period.

    New: Elimination of mitigating circumstances appeal

    The March version of the rule contained a mitigating circumstances appeal in which a college could seek to avoid penalties on its DTE by showing that less than 50 percent of all its program graduates borrowed for their education. This allowed an institution where a relatively small percentage of its graduates received federal aid to avoid being judged. That provision is gone.

    Same: Debt attribution

    One issue that sometimes comes up is what to do with debt for a student that completes multiple programs at the same institution. As in the prior rule the Department will attribute all undergraduate debt to the highest undergraduate program someone completed. So someone who finishes a certificate and associate degree will have all their debt counted in the latter. A similar breakdown will be done for graduate programs. Someone who completes undergraduate and graduate programs will have their debt split and counted once in the undergraduate side and once in the graduate side.

    New: What happens if no DTE calculated

    The regulations contain a new provision for what happens if a program has a DTE rate one year but not the next. In this situation it will remain in whatever status it was in the prior year. So a program that fails in year one, has no rates in year two will stay as a failing program. But if a program has no rates calculated for four years then it will have its status reset. What’s not clear about this is whether a program that fails in year one, has no rates in year two, and passes in year three will be considered to be a failing and ineligible program or not. UPDATE: In reading the full text what this means is that a program that failed in year one and has no rates in year two is treated as if they are still a program with one failure. So that means they still have to give student warnings but don’t lose eligibility.

    Same: Disclosures for programs about to lose eligibility

    Just as before, the only consequence for programs that fail or are in the zone is that the year before they might lose eligibility (after one failure or three years in the zone) they have to provide a warning disclosure to both enrolled and prospective students. The biggest difference is that e-mailed warnings must get some kind of electronic or written acknowledgement from the student that they got the message.

    New: Disclosing determinations about meeting licensure requirements

    Just as in the March version, institutions will have to note on their disclosure templates whether the program does or does not satisfy the requirements for licensure or certification in any state within their metropolitan area. But now it will have to also provide two other pieces of information: (1) whether it satisfies the same requirements for any other state in which it has made a determination as to whether it does or does not meet the requirements or (2) a statement indicating which states it has not made determinations about satisfying requirements in. This change will both capture more states where the institution has to note if the program meets requirements and at least warn students in places where the institution didn’t check that it cannot guarantee that it meets the requirements.

    New: State authorization matters for certification

    The final rule continues a requirement that was added for the March version that the heads of institutions will have to certify by the end of 2015 that all of their gainful employment programs are accredited, have programmatic accreditation if its required by their home state government or a federal entity, and if it meets the prerequisites for certification and/or licensure in the home state. But there is a slight change. The March version required institutions to certify that all programs met those same requirements for any other state within their metropolitan area (e.g. Missouri and Kansas for Kansas City). The requirement drops the metropolitan area requirement but says that the certification must also be made for any state where the institution needs state authorization to operate. It is unclear whether this is a stronger or weaker adjustment.

    Same: Data on completers and dropouts

    Though the only remaining accountability measure is the debt-to-earnings rate, institutions will still have to report data on all their students getting federal student aid. That’s because the Department is reserving the ability to still calculate default rates, earnings information, repayment rates, completion information, and a host of other data points on students who completed and withdrew. So dropouts are gone from the formal accountability system but still in the disclosure piece.

    New: Fewer program levels

    While the gainful employment rule has already separated out programs based upon their type and level (e.g. an associate degree in medical assisting is different from a certificate in medical assisting), the March version would have allowed for greater disaggregation. More specifically, it would have reported certificates of different lengths as separate programs. This would have allowed a college that offers a nine-month and 18-month certificate in the same field to have them show up as different programs. The Department moved away from this format in the final rule and is now treating all programs at the same level and type as one program. Colleges will, however, have to publish different disclosure templates based upon programs of different length.

    New: Clarified poverty year

    A small change, but the Department clarified that the poverty level used for calculating the discretionary debt-to-earnings rate will be for the calendar year following the year from which earnings data are obtained. In English, this means that if they pull data from Year X to calculate earnings, they will use poverty data from Year X+1. This is because the poverty levels for Year X+1 are established using data from Year X.

    New: Mean and median earnings data will be reported

    The final rule does not change the practice of using the higher of the mean or median earnings information, but the Department will now start indicating which one it used and reporting both figures. This will be a nice improvement to creating directly comparable figures.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • October 31, 2014 09:35 AM Gainful Employment and the Federal Ability to Sanction Colleges

    The U.S. Department of Education’s second attempt at “gainful employment” regulations, which apply to the majority of vocationally-oriented programs at for-profit colleges and certain nondegree programs at public and private nonprofit colleges, was released to the public this morning. The Department’s first effort in 2010 was struck down by a federal judge after the for-profit sector challenged a loan repayment rate metric on account of it requiring additional student data collection that would be illegal under current federal law.

    The 2014 measure was widely expected to contain two components: a debt-to-earning s ratio that required program completers to have annual loan debt be less than 8% of total income or 20% of “discretionary income” above 150% of the poverty line, and a cohort default rate measure that required fewer than 30% of program borrowers (regardless of completion status) to default on federal loans in less than three years. As excellent articles on the newly released measure in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed this morning detail, the cohort default rate measure was unexpectedly dropped from the final regulation. This change in rules, Inside Higher Ed reports, would reduce the number of affected programs from 1,900 to 1,400 and the number of affected students from about one million to 840,000.

    There will be a number of analyses of the exact details of gainful employment over the coming days (I highly recommend anything written by Ben Miller at the New America Foundation), but I want to briefly discuss on what the changes to the gainful employment rule mean for other federal accountability policies. Just over a month ago, the Department of Education released cohort default rate data, but they tweaked a calculation at the last minute that had the effect of allowing more colleges to get under the 30% default rate threshold at least once in three years to avoid sanctions.

    The last-minute changes to both gainful employment and cohort default rate accountability measures highlight the political difficulty of the current sanctioning system, which is on an all-or-nothing basis. When the only funding lever the federal government uses is so crude, colleges have a strong incentive to lobby against rules that could effectively shut them down. It is long past time for the Department of Education to consider sliding sanctions against colleges with less-than-desirable outcomes if the goal is to eventually cut off financial aid to the poorest performing institutions.

    Finally, the successful lobbying efforts of different sectors of higher education make it appear less likely that the Obama Administration’s still-forthcoming Postsecondary Institution Ratings System (PIRS) will be able to tie financial aid to college ratings. This measure still requires Congressional approval, but the Department of Education’s willingness to propose sanctions has been substantially weakened over the last month. It remains to be seen if the Department of Education under the current administration will propose how PIRS will be tied to aid before the clock runs out on the Obama presidency.

    [Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

  • October 30, 2014 04:00 PM How States Stopped Funding Higher Education

    The Great Recession was pretty terrible for higher education. In state after state legislatures cut funding for public colleges. The economy has recovered, but the damage is permanent, particularly for poor students.

    According to this piece at Inside Higher Ed:

    A new report from the Center for American Progress details — on a state-by-state basis — the extent to which recession-driven reductions in public college financing since 2008 have sent tuitions soaring, and how disproportionately low- and middle-income students and the institutions that serve them have been affected.
    Between 2008 and 2012, 29 of the 50 states decreased their direct funding of public colleges and universities, with seven of them dropping by more than 20 percent in constant dollars. (Three states increased their spending by more than 20 percent.)
    Because public college enrollments grew significantly during this period, the state funding per student dropped more significantly, with declines of more than 20 percent in 20 states and dips of between 5 and 20 percent in 18 others, as seen in the map below.

    What happens with these funding declines is that colleges hike tuition and reduce scholarships, forcing students to pay more and more to get a college education.

    But the higher costs aren’t spread out evenly. According to the report, in states that reduced spending, “low-income students pay 18 percent more than the national average at community colleges and 14 percent more than average at public universities.” It’s worse to be poor college student in some states than in others.

    An additional problem is that even restoring the funding, which many states are doing now, won’t immediately help low income students. The report argues that legislatures would restore funding to flagship universities and pay for research and infrastructure first. Providing more money to help the poor is unlikely to be a priority.

    It’s worth pointing out that this trend has been going on for much, much longer than the last recession. Colleges have been getting less money from the state for decades before the 2008 recession. And college tuition has been souring beyond the rate of inflation since the 1950s.

    Read the report here.

  • October 30, 2014 09:00 AM The Two Sides of TFA: An Internal Memo Shows the Teacher Group’s Defensiveness Over a Story About How it Changed in the Face of Criticism

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, The Hechinger Report published a story about a group of idealistic young Teach For America recruits who arrived in Seattle hoping to start jobs teaching in some of the city’s most struggling schools. Many of them remained unemployed, however, because Seattle didn’t really need more teachers. In fact, the district had an oversupply: “13,800 teachers had applied for just 352 full- and part-time positions,” Alexandra Hootnick reported in her piece, which also appeared in The Nation.

    The story examined the nonprofit teacher training organization’s rapid expansion - funded in part by public tax dollars - during a time of teacher layoffs. After the article appeared, TFA published a point-by-point rebuttal on its own site. (There were no factual errors or corrections in Hootnick’s article, which was edited by multiple editors at Hechinger and The Nation in addition to undergoing a full fact check.)

    How much TFA didn’t like the story - and the lengths to which the organization went to push back against it - is now evident in an internal memo obtained by The Nation and published on its site with an accompanying article.

    In the memo, TFA details its efforts to respond to the story since it first heard Hootnick was inquiring about the organization’s expansion efforts from a Department of Education official, who let the nonprofit know she had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for public documents.

    “To get in front of her article, with Peter Cunningham’s counsel, we worked with Kwame Griffith to publish a Pass the Chalk piece on our commitment to improving how we tailor growth in which he proactively addressed many of the criticisms we anticipated would be (and were) included in the article,” the memo reads.

    The document also notes that TFA’s communications team “drafted two traditional letters to the editor on behalf of Seattle Executive Director Lindsay Hill and alumnus Kenneth Maldonado who was featured in the article.” And it suggests that in future, the organization attempt to “cultivate stronger relationships with outlets like The Nation, Slate, Atlantic, etc.”

    TFA’s defensiveness and concern about coverage that could hurt its public image is perhaps understandable given the fraught and fractured nature of the current education reform debate, which has only grown more heated in recent years. The urgency is great - children’s lives and the future of the country are at stake. Yet fevered battles over the Common Core standards, efforts to weaken or end teacher tenure and the spread of charter schools leave less room for productive conversations about how to improve schools as different sides try to earn points and get ahead of their enemies.

    Still, compromises and cooler conversations about how adversaries might find common ground are also happening, often behind the scenes or at the district or even school level. In Texas, for example, a traditional public school is not only sharing a building but also sharing teachers with a charter and trying to learn from the charters’ successes. In Pittsburgh, the teachers union has worked with district leaders to create new teacher evaluations that are less about punishing low performing teachers and more about helping them improve.

    TFA, which has long starred in its own mini education reform debate over its model of sending bright young college grads into the nation’s toughest classrooms for a two-year commitment, has occasionally been another case in point. As Hootnick notes in her article, TFA has often responded by making changes when faced with pushback in the communities it serves. For example, she wrote, “with pressure ramping up, TFA recently announced a pilot initiative to begin training 2,000 recruits during their senior year of college — a year of preparation versus a five-week crash course — as well as extending classroom support to teachers after their two-year commitment ends. Last year, the organization’s co-CEOs pledged to ‘tailor our scale to the needs of each individual community.’”

    And in Mississippi, as Hechinger Report writer Jackie Mader noted in a recent article, the organization has worked on recruiting natives of the state to combat concerns about carpet-bagging and encouraged its members to devote themselves to deeper, longer lasting change in the local schools.

    Here at The Hechinger Report, you’ll often find us exposing problems in education and examining missteps by groups trying to address those problems. But at the same time, we’re always on the look out for stories of people coming together to find solutions and examples of districts and advocates who have learned from mistakes and made mid-course corrections. We can learn from both kinds of stories, but the latter may perhaps be more valuable for the educators and advocates out there trying to move the needle in American schools.

    And as any good teacher might tell you, while it’s not easy to throw out a carefully crafted plan even when things are going awry in the classroom, it’s usually worth it in the end to put kids in front of ego.

    Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report.

    Case Study: TFA Responding to Bad PR

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • October 29, 2014 02:00 PM What Happens If You Just Pay Teachers a Hell of a Lot of Money?

    One of the reform ideas proposed by education advocates—though not, admittedly, one of them that’s seen much implementation in policy—has been just paying teachers really well. Maybe if we paid teachers like small business executives they’d perform a lot better.

    Well the Equity Project (TEP) Charter School actually tried this. The results are pretty interesting.


    TEP is located in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and enrolls mostly low-income, Hispanic students. It also pays teachers $125,000 a year, much higher than the salary available to other New York City teachers. And it turns out this was pretty effective. According to an evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research:

    By the end of the 2012-2013 school year, TEP’s impacts on student achievement were consistently positive across grades and subjects, with especially large effects in math. Using benchmarks for average annual learning gains, the research team found that, compared to similar students in comparable New York City public schools, students who attended TEP for four years had test score gains equal to an additional 1.6 years of school in math, an additional
 0.4 years of school in English language arts, and an additional 0.6 years of school in science. TEP’s cumulative effect on student achievement over four years is about 78% of the Hispanic-white achievement gap in math, 17% in English language arts, and 25% percent in science.

    A lot of this, no doubt, has to do with the selection method. The students may have been picked by lottery, but the teachers sure weren’t. If you pay teachers $125,000 a year you can select really, really good teachers. And like the KIPP schools or Teach for America or something they’ll be willing to work really, really hard, and sacrifice their own health and personal lives to make sure their students achieve.

    That’s a great thing, but is it scalable? Well no, it isn’t. Even if the extra money directly causes higher education achievement, this is an incredibly inefficient way to improve education.

    We can’t pay every teacher $125,000 a year because we just don’t have the money to pay public employees like that. American already spends more money on education than any other developed country and has lower achievement. There’s no way we can use this method to do anything meaningful about public education.

  • October 28, 2014 03:00 PM Education Doesn’t Matter in the 2014 Election

    Despite the fact that education issues matter a great deal in policy discussions lately, and despite the fact that, as a reader of this blog, you’re probably pretty interested in education reform, it turns out politicians mostly don’t care.

    An article in the Washington Post explains that candidates for election mostly aren’t saying much about education. This shouldn’t really surprise us, however. According to the piece:

    A systematic analysis of campaign Web sites for the 139 major party candidates for governor or U.S. senator (there is no Democrat running for the Kansas Senate seat) shows that most hopefuls have little to say on any of these pressing questions.
    Topics familiar to education reformers seem foreign to sitting and aspiring governors. Only three Republican gubernatorial candidates mention teacher tenure reform on their Web sites, while not a single Democratic candidate does. Just three out of 35 Democratic candidates mention the bipartisan cause of charter schools; perhaps even more surprising is that barely one-third of the Republicans do. In fact, just four Republicans gubernatorial candidates suggest that money should follow students to the school of their choice. Even on bread-and-butter topics, discussion is sparse: Only one gubernatorial candidate in 10 mentions community colleges, while just three out of 70 mention that they should be helping more students to graduate from high school.

    The Senate races look pretty much the same. While some 81 percent of Americans apparently said education was an “extremely important” for the president and Congress to address, according to a poll cited in the article, candidates are mostly ignoring Common Core Standards in math and English, pre-K expansion, teacher tenure, and the cost of college.


    Why is this? Well, that’s perhaps because while Americans might say education is theoretically “extremely important,” most people really aren’t all that concerned with Common Core Standards or teacher tenure. Only policy wonks care about these things.

    Actually education issues don’t matter in any election cycle.

    Back in he 2012 election College Board put a whole bunch of empty school desks on the National Mall as part of its Don’t Forget About Ed campaign to try to get Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk about education reform more. Remember that?

    Well no, probably not. That’s because it didn’t really end up mattering that much.

    One of the reasons for this is probably that, while there’s a lot of disagreement about education, there’s not much partisan disagreement. Both libertarians and teachers unions hate the Common Core (and standardized tests in general), for instance but the Democratic and Republican party establishments don’t care that much about the issue.

    Both parties are vaguely concerned with the cost of higher education, but aren’t planning to do anything dramatic to stop it. Both parties think our education achievement is too low and want to institute more accountability in our schools.

    Very few candidates discuss education on their websites because it’s not really going to matter. It’s not likely to get most people to vote for one candidate over another.

    Americans might believe education is “extremely important” but they don’t think it’s “extremely urgent.” That’s why it rarely matters when they go out to vote.

  • October 27, 2014 11:38 PM Summarizing the Research on Dual Language Learners

    It’s impossible to have a conversation about dual language learners in the United States without being drawn into questions about their “difference,” and just how much it should be taken into account at school. For years, English-only advocates have argued that these differences should be ignored or erased, that we need to educate DLLs much as we educate monolingual English students — with English instruction. Others have suggested that we should treat the instruction of DLLs differently, but hold them to the same academic expectations as monolinguals. Still others argue that we should both treat DLLs’ classroom experiences differently and tailor our academic expectations to their different developmental trajectories.

    At the end of the day, your mileage on any of these lenses for thinking about DLLs will probably vary according to your ideological commitments on language and American diversity. But research efforts are also advancing our knowledge of just how different DLLs’ linguistic and academic paths are. Whatever your preconceived notions, this research should inform the policies that govern DLLs’ educational experiences. The most recent edition of Early Childhood Research Quarterly (ECRQ) has several useful reviews of recent research on dual language learners.

    I. In “The language and literacy development of young dual language learners: A critical review,” Temple University’s Carol Scheffner Hammer and her co-authors explore what we know about how DLLs learn to speak and read in both their home languages and in English. They surveyed nearly 200 studies on DLLs’ development and tried to condense the results into a summary of the field’s knowledge.

    For instance, they found that the studies showed considerable variability between different groups of DLLs. That is, “[c]hildren vary with regard to their country of origin, the languages spoken, their experiences (both exposure and usage) with their two languages and their [socioeconomic status], among other characteristics.” This is an insight both critical and confounding. It’s relatively intuitive that the linguistic development of a Welsh-English DLL will be different from a Spanish-English DLL, and that — for instance — these differences might be relevant to how we approach early instruction to support each student’s phonological awareness in the early years.

    So far, so good. But that intuition also presents pedagogical and political challenges. If DLLs’ developmental paths vary considerably within that student population, that makes it more difficult for teachers to tailor instruction to suit their needs, and for advocates to coalesce around a policy agenda that would better support them.

    The researchers also found clear, growing evidence that “DLLs have two separate language systems very early in life.” That is, they build parallel language systems to support communication in both their first and second languages. There is some evidence (which I cite in my recent paper on state reclassification policies for DLLs) that development in one language can support the development of a second language. Furthermore, the development of DLLs’ bilingualism appears to depend somewhat on when they begin the process of learning each language.

    II. A second ECRQ article, “Effects of early education programs and practices on the development and learning of dual language learners: A review of the literature,” synthesized 25 studies on dual language learners under the age of five. The University of North Carolina’s Virginia Buysse and co-authors explored the research on whether early education programs are particularly helpful for improving the linguistic and academic trajectories of DLLs.

    The relatively small group of studies made it difficult to draw strong conclusions, but there were still some helpful patterns in the research. For instance, while the researchers were unable to find sufficient evidence to comment on the details of various early education program models (such as various approaches to language instruction like dual- or English-immersion programs), they did find “some evidence to suggest that DLLs may benefit from widely available early educational programs” like Head Start.

    There were several small studies suggesting that “incorporating the home language into curriculum and instruction in early childhood” can be particularly good for DLLs, but the research is lacking to make this a consensus position. Indeed, Buysse and her co-authors found an odd pattern in the research that might contribute to the relative dearth of comprehensive information: Studies on the effects of English language early education programs for DLLs rarely measured how these programs affect DLLs’ home languages. By contrast, studies on the effects of programs that used both English and DLLs’ home languages generally include “measures in both English and the home language.” This asymmetry in research design means that we have less information than we might otherwise have on which early education programs work best for DLLs and that comparisons between research on these programs are more difficult.

    The biggest finding of this article was clear: The community of researchers working on DLLs has yet to come to firm conclusions on some of the most controversial questions in their field.

    It should go without saying that these two articles are extremely critical work in an era where literacy benchmarks are increasingly important. For instance, some states have set sharp rules linking third-grade English literacy to promotion to fourth grade. And this comes at a time in which most states are trying to raise their academic standards across the board. While the American education system could certainly do with higher expectations, this research suggests that these efforts need to carefully incorporate the specific needs of dual language learners.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • October 27, 2014 09:29 AM Three Lessons From the Science of How to Teach Writing

    AP Stock Photo

    What’s the best way to teach writing? The experts have many answers — and they often contradict each other.

    In contrast to the thousands of studies on effective methods for teaching reading and mathematics, there are relatively few rigorous studies on writing instruction. That’s partly because it’s time-consuming and expensive to assess writing quality in a way that can be quantitatively measured. Commonly, researchers come up with an eight-point scale. They write descriptions and sample essays to show what each score involves. Then they train teams of graders to score properly and consistently. But writing quality is ultimately a subjective judgment. What you consider to be well-written, I might not.

    Steve Graham, a professor of education at Arizona State University, has made a career out of monitoring research studies on teaching writing, to figure out which methods actually work.  For a forthcoming article*, Graham and two colleagues, Karen Harris  of ASU and Tanya Santangelo of Arcadia University, looked at approximately 250 of the most prominent studies on how to teach writing to students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

    Graham’s review of the research doesn’t resolve the age-old debate of whether students learn writing best naturally —  just by doing it — or through explicit writing instruction.

    But there are effective practices where the research is unequivocal. Distressingly, many teachers aren’t using them. “We have confirmation of things we know that work, but are not applied in the classroom,” said Graham.

    Here are three:

    1. Spend more time writing

    To teach kids to write well, you need to ask them to write a lot. You’re not going to become a great basketball player unless you play a lot of basketball. The evidence is strong that this is true for writing too. Five studies of exceptional literacy teachers found that great teachers ask their students to write frequently. In nine separate experiments with students, 15 additional minutes of writing time a day in grades two through eight produced better writing. Seventy-eight percent of studies testing the impact of extra writing found that student’s writing quality improved.

    Several studies found unexpected bonuses from extra writing time. Not only did writing quality improve, so did reading comprehension. Another cluster of studies proved that writing improves a students’ mastery of the subject; the act of writing helps you learn. (Another reason for teachers to refrain from spoon-feeding printed notes to students.)

    However, surveys of U.S. teachers reveal that after third grade, very little time is spent writing in classrooms. In fourth through sixth grade, on average, 20-25 minutes a day is spent on writing, according to Graham. Writing assignments rarely extend beyond a page; sometimes they’re not more than a paragraph. This is what teachers self-report, and if anything they’re probably overstating how much writing they’re asking of students.

    In a 2011 survey of classroom writing instruction, “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools,” published in English Journal, Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer at SUNY Albany found that U.S. students were expected to write only a total of 1.6 pages of extended prose for English a week, and another 2.1 pages for all their other subjects combined. Applebee and Langer also observed classrooms across the four core subjects (English, science, math and social science/history) and found that, on average, only 7.7 percent of classroom time was devoted to writing a paragraph or more. Applebee and Langer called that “distressingly low.”

    Why so little writing? Graham hypothesizes that many English language arts teachers are more passionate about literature than teaching writing. But in surveys teachers often say they don’t assign more writing because they don’t have the time to read and provide feedback on frequent long assignments. I can sympathize with a high school English teacher who has 37 kids in her class.

    One could argue that fewer high quality writing assignments might be better than a bunch of low quality ones. But again, the teacher surveys and classroom observations reveal that students are more commonly asked to write summaries. “We don’t see a high level of writing activities that involve analysis and interpretation,” said Graham. “We’re not seeing development of skills you need for college and the workplace.”

    Common Core may change things, as the standards ask for more writing and analysis, not just in English class but also in the social sciences, hard sciences and math.

    It’s unclear what the ideal amount of time for writing is. Graham, who wrote a teachers’ guide of evidence-based techniques for teaching writing for the What Works Clearinghouse unit of the Department of Education, recommends one hour a day. He admits he doesn’t have research to substantiate that number. But he may be onto something: When Poland increased its language arts classes to more than four hours a week for each student, its scores on international tests began to soar.   

    2. Write on a computer

    In 83 percent of 30 studies on the use of word processing software, students’ writing quality improved when they wrote their papers on a computer instead of writing by hand. The impact was largest for middle school students, but younger students benefited, too. The theory is that students feel more free to edit their sentences because it’s so easy to delete, add and move text on a computer. The more editing, the better the final essay.

    I was concerned about how these experiments were constructed. Could graders have been more biased toward these word-processor essays because typed fonts are more legible than hand-written ones? In most cases, the hand-written essays were retyped first before the graders scored them. So graders had no idea which essays had been drafted by computer and which by hand, and still the word-processor essays were rated higher.

    It’s also possible that the spell checkers and grammar checkers that are sometimes bundled with word processing software enable students to submit cleaner drafts, which are perceived to be of higher quality.

    Some educators feel passionately about the importance of writing by hand, convinced that the act of writing neurologically imprints stronger memories. And there’s some early evidence that note taking might be more effective by hand. But if your goal is writing quality and not memorization, it seems the evidence points to word processing, especially  beginning in middle school.

    Another benefit for educators who believe that students should write not just for teachers: computerized text files are easier to share with classmates, providing more opportunity for a real audience and feedback.

    Despite this evidence,teacher observations and surveys reveal that teachers have been slow to adopt this basic technology.  In Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer’s observations, students used word processing software in only 5.1 percent of the classes. Separate 2008 and 2010 surveys by Graham show that “too many schools still use pencil and paper as the primary or only writing medium,” he wrote.

    3. Grammar instruction doesn’t work

    Traditional grammar instruction isn’t effective. Period. Six studies with children in grades three to seven showed that writing quality actually deteriorated when kids were taught grammar. That is, graders scored the essays of students who’d been taught traditional grammar lower than those of students who had not received the lessons.

    Three studies did show that teaching kids how to combine two simple sentences into a single complex sentence was beneficial. (As a writer, I find that baffling as I am always trying to shorten my sentences! That makes me question the judgment of the essay graders.)

    But traditional grammar — diagramming sentences or teaching grammar rules — didn’t help. Graham suspects that’s because grammar lessons often feel disconnected from actual writing. Graham found one study that showed great improvement in student writing quality when teachers modeled correct usage, showing how to use grammar rules in sentences that students were drafting. But not many experimental studies are looking at effective procedures for teaching grammar.

    In this case, classroom practice isn’t totally at odds with the research. Grammar instruction has declined in U.S. classrooms over the last 40 years. But that might be because there isn’t much writing instruction going on at all.

    * “Research-Based Practices and the Common Core: Meta-Analysis and Meta Synthesis,” (in press for The Elementary School Journal)

    Related stories:

    With new standards, can schools find room for creative writing?

    Education Nation: Revived support for grammar instruction

    Robo-readers aren’t as good as human readers — they’re better

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • October 26, 2014 10:00 PM Pipeline to Prison: How the Juvenile Justice System Fails Special Education Students

    Caledonia Miss. — Toney Jennings was illiterate when he was arrested at age 16. In the six months he spent at the Lowndes County Jail in Eastern Mississippi, he says he played basketball, watched TV and “basically just stayed to myself.”

    A special education student, Jennings qualified for extra help in school. Those services should have carried over to the justice system, but Jennings said he never even attended class while in jail. Now 20, he is still unable to read or write.

    Each year, thousands of Mississippi teens cycle through the justice system, where experts say the quality of education is often low. Incarcerated juveniles have the same educational rights as those outside - five hours of instruction a day that meet their learning needs, including special education. The state does not currently track how many of those juvenile offenders are entitled to extra education services, but according to a 2010 federal survey, 30 percent of youth in custody of the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed learning disability - six times the amount in the general population. Following several lawsuits, Mississippi has worked to improve the quality of education for all students in the system, with some successes.

    Toney Jennings couldn’t read or write when he was arrested at 16. Now 20 and still illiterate, he is dependent on his grandma, Cornelia Glenn. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    Toney Jennings couldn’t read or write when he was arrested at 16. Now 20 and still illiterate, he is dependent on his grandma, Cornelia Glenn. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    Still, many of the kids who need help the most, like Toney, aren’t getting it, experts say. These students tend already to be academically behind, and encounters with the justice system early on only increase the likelihood that they’ll drop out of school or end up incarcerated as adults.

    “Every day they’re not getting a real education, then that’s a day that we’ve lost,” Sue Burrell, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center said. “The kids that are in juvenile justice cannot afford to lose those days.”

    Related stories: For special education students, diplomas, jobs increasingly elusive

    Once arrested, male and female juveniles in Mississippi first go to detention centers to await trial. They can also be sentenced to these facilities for short periods of time. For longer stays - of several weeks or months - youth go to the Oakley Development Center, 30 minutes west of Jackson. All facilities are expected to provide classes on site with certified teachers.

    The Mississippi Department of Education has budgeted $1 million in state funds per year for educating juveniles in 15 detention centers. In the 2011-12 school year, Mississippi spent an additional $844,000 in federal money educating more than 1,000 minors in juvenile and adult longer-term correction facilities, according to federal data.

    Although centers may monitor the number of special education students that pass through their doors, no state department has collected or analyzed that information. When reporters from The Hechinger Report asked the Mississippi Department of Education and the Office of Public Safety about the number of special education students in detention centers in the state, both agencies said that they believed the other entity was tracking those statistics. The Department of Education said it will track those numbers in the future.

    To comply with the federal law that requires extra educational services for any student diagnosed with a disability, a school will create a legal document known as an Individual Education Program (IEP). This might include one-on-one time with a teacher or additional time to complete assignments. A student’s right to an IEP extends to juvenile justice and adult correction facilities. But experts around the country say that the legally mandated services these students need are rarely provided once they enter the criminal justice system.

    “Kids with special needs are not being served well,” David Domenici, director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, said. “My take is a lot of facilities don’t thoughtfully look at the IEP.”

    Lawsuits bring change

    Jennings, now 20, was raised by his grandmother, Cornelia Glenn, in Caledonia, Mississippi, who said he rarely got in trouble as a child. He loved fishing and dreamed of playing football professionally. He was diagnosed at age 8 with a learning disability and by the time he was in high school, he was placed in a classroom of only special education students for “behavioral issues” that weren’t part of his diagnosis, according to his IEP.

    Aware of how far behind he was, Glenn agreed to send him to an alternative school that was recommended by school officials who said the smaller class sizes could help him academically.

    The Oakley Youth Development Center holds youth convicted of crimes for up to 20 weeks. At any given time, a third of the students there will qualify for special education services. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    The Oakley Youth Development Center holds youth convicted of crimes for up to 20 weeks. At any given time, a third of the students there will qualify for special education services. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    In 2010, Jennings was arrested on a charge of statutory rape. He was convicted as an adult and first sentenced to Lowndes County Jail. Lauderdale County Sheriff William Sollie, who oversees the jail, said that as a primary short-term holding facility, it does not provide education to inmates. For the few who are sentenced to long-term stays, GED classes are offered. Jennings did not take them.

    After several months at Lowndes, Jennings was sent to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. At the time, the prison, a privately-run facility an hour northeast of Jackson, was the only place for youths age 13 to 22 who had been tried as adults. Although the facility did have a school, a 2010 lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleged that, among other things, fewer than half of the 1,200 inmates there attended classes.

    Jennings, who is currently out of prison on appeal, unemployed and living with his grandmother, said he took GED classes at Walnut Grove, but did not get the extra help he needed. Before going to prison, he read at a kindergartener’s level, according to his IEP. His math skills were that of a first grader. But he’d been making progress at the alternative school, where teachers gave him more individual help.

    “If he hadn’t gone to prison, I think he’d be reading by now,” Glenn said. “He would have learned more. [Now] he’ll always be dependent.”

    As a result of the lawsuit, a new private company took control of the jail and Walnut Grove was converted into an adult facility. Current Walnut Grove warden Lepher Jenkins said he could not speak to the specifics of Jennings’ case because he was not in charge at the time. But he said that Walnut Grove has always placed an emphasis on education and that any learning disabilities should be identified as soon as youth are admitted, and addressed in class.

    Now that Walnut Grove serves adults, minors who are convicted as adults will go to the two-year-old Youthful Offenders Unit at the Central Mississippi Correction Facility. The unit’s school, which was accredited in May, teaches all core subjects and offers vocational programs in lawn care, barbering and custodial services. The Mississippi Department of Corrections denied a request to visit the school.

    The Walnut Grove lawsuit was one of many brought against Mississippi facilities. Legal action by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups about general conditions and abuse have also forced the closure of two detention centers, where teens go for shorter stays immediately after being arrested, and one youth development center, where those who are sentenced go for longer periods.

    The one remaining juvenile correction facility in the state only recently got out of legal trouble. In 2003, the Oakley Youth Development Center was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating youth’s civil rights with “staff violence and abusive institutional practices, unreasonable use of isolation and restraints, and inadequate medical, mental health and educational services.” In 2005, Oakley entered into an agreement to carry out reforms. The facility’s school was accredited in 2012 and this fall, the lawsuit was dismissed.

    Related stories: Can the hundreds of education experts who flocked to Mississippi improve life for the state’s black boys?

    At first glance, Shirlinda Robinson’s second period English class at Oakley looks like a typical classroom, save for the guards that occasionally peer through the window. The room is decorated with posters detailing the parts of speech and giving tips on how to write a “satisfying paragraph.” On a Tuesday morning in September, Robinson walked her students, six high school-aged boys, through the standards they would be expected to meet during her next unit, like being able to analyze the theme of a passage. The students readily volunteered answers to questions and took notes.

    Several students in Robinson’s class have IEPs. At Oakley, at any given time nearly a third of students qualify for special education. The majority of teachers are dual certified in special education, which makes it easier for them to directly address students’ needs. A special education coordinator keeps track of students’ IEPs and ensures they’re getting the services required, even if it means contracting with outside therapists or psychologists.

    Robinson said for many of her students Oakley is the first time they’ve regularly attended school in years. Several students said they enjoyed the classes more than at their former school, and many also said that they were learning more.

    That was not true, however, of the detention centers where they stayed while awaiting sentencing. General and special education students at Oakley who were interviewed by The Hechinger Report said they learned little while in those facilities. One student said he was given easy worksheets. Another said that his classes abruptly stopped when a teacher quit. He said it didn’t matter, though. His classes usually devolved into fights. Several students said they spent their school hours on computers, taking classes online but also surfing the web to play games or check fantasy football scores.

    “It wasn’t really school,” one said.

    A 2006 report found that education for all students at juvenile detention centers in Mississippi varied greatly. Two centers, in Jones and Lauderdale Counties, provided no academic instruction, and one relied only on volunteer tutors. (The Lauderdale County center has since closed.) Just five out of 17 centers provided the legally required five hours of instruction per day with a certified teacher.

    A subsequent law mandated that state-employed monitors, of which there are currently three, visit each detention center four times a year and make public reports about conditions at each center. According to those reports, education is now provided at all centers but one, and 12 of the 15 have a certified special education teacher. But even proponents of the original legislation say that the monitors’ reports have been superficial.

    Head of the monitoring unit, Donald Beard, said criticism of the reports is likely deserved, but that there are legal limits on what they can include. Complaints and other issues investigated by the monitoring unit are confidential. “I probably did not put a lot of effort into it,” he said. “Nobody ever read that stuff.”

    Although the Department of Public Safety monitors the centers, school districts are directly responsible for providing education. Mississippi Department of Education spokesperson Jean Cook said that the department supports the districts, adding that those “that don’t provide quality educational services are subject to sanctions.”

    While teachers may have the right credentials to teach special education students, it doesn’t necessarily mean students are being taught well, said Jody Owens, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “What you continue to hear is that people are qualified special education teachers, but we just don’t feel the services are being provided,” he said. “You go into a classroom and you’ll see a computer that looks like it hasn’t been used or see students who tell you they play games all day.”

    Related stories: Do ‘zero tolerance’ school discipline policies go too far?

    In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Jackson’s Henley-Young Detention Center, which can hold youths for up to 89 days. The suit, which alleged that youth were verbally abused by staff and regularly isolated in cells for up to 23 hours a day, came just two years after the monitoring unit called Henley-Young “a facility that can be a model for other centers not only in Mississippi but the entire Southeast.”

    Following the suit, a federal judge appointed juvenile justice expert Leonard Dixon to make public recommendations on how to improve the center. Dixon has repeatedly called for an outside evaluation of the school, but it has not happened.

    “The center doesn’t have the trained staff or money to adequately deal with mental health issues or teach special education students,” Dixon said. “They’re not prepared. That’s as plain as I can put it.”

    Henley-Young did not return requests for comment.

    Shirlinda Robinson, an English teacher at Oakley Youth Development Center, walks through new standards with her second period class. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    Shirlinda Robinson, an English teacher at Oakley Youth Development Center, walks through new standards with her second period class. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    At Rankin County Juvenile Detention Center, which experts consider a model detention center, teachers make an effort to meet students’ individual education plans, which about half of the youths have.

    But it can be difficult. Teens continually cycle through the facility, and some stay just a week or two. An inmate’s previous school is supposed to send over the student’s information and work immediately, but it can take several days, or longer, to collect documents from the more than 30 districts that send kids to Rankin County’s facility. And even then, the center often doesn’t have the same textbooks or workbooks, meaning students may fall behind peers in their regular school.

    The center’s three teachers use an assessment that students take within 24 hours of arriving to tailor their lessons to their ability levels. Like Jennings, some might be on a kindergarten level, while others will be able to handle high school work. Teachers cater to the majority by teaching lessons at or close to a fifth-grade level, but also spending one-on-one time going over lessons sent from the students’ home schools.

    “We get kids in every day. Every single day is different,” said Meggan Freeny, a special education teacher at Rankin. “We can’t guarantee that what we do in the classroom today is going to work tomorrow.”

    “What you continue to hear is that people are qualified special education teachers, but we just don’t feel the services are being provided.” – Jody Owens, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center

    Freeny, works with the schools that the youth attended in order to access their IEPs and start following them immediately at Rankin. For instance, if the plan requires a student to be in a regular classroom for 80 percent of the day, Freeny will pull them out and work individually the other 20 percent.

    The center has also invested in non-academic programs, like a reward-based behavior incentive program, where students can earn the right to work in the center’s greenhouse or a chance to play musical instruments. Every school day wraps up with an hour of character education. On a recent afternoon the girl’s classroom was writing “I am” poems, while the boy’s room discussed positive influences. One boy said that his mom “always taught him to do right” and that she was disappointed he’d been arrested.

    “How are you going to fix that?” his teacher, Daniel Wilburn, asked.

    “Don’t come back,” he answered.

    “That’s the part of the day I look forward to the most is trying to mold these kids,” Wilburn said. “We’re not going to save them all but if we can save a few, it’s worth it.”

    This story was produced in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, the only national news outlet reporting the juvenile justice issue daily. Read more about efforts to improve education in Mississippi.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • October 26, 2014 09:53 PM Pipeline to Prison: Special Education Too Often Leads to Jail for Thousands of American Children

    GRENADA, Miss.— Cody Beck was 12-years -old when he was handcuffed in front of several classmates and put in the back of a police car outside of Grenada Middle School. Cody had lost his temper in an argument with another student, and hit several teachers when they tried to intervene. He was taken to the local youth court, and then sent to a mental health facility two hours away from his home. Twelve days later, the sixth-grader was released from the facility and charged with three counts of assault.

    Officials at his school determined the incident was a result of Cody’s disability. As a child, Cody was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He had been given an Individual Education Program, or IEP, a legal document that details the resources, accommodations, and classes that a special education student should receive to help manage his or her disability. But despite there being a medical reason for his behavior, Cody was not allowed to return to school. He was called to youth court three times in the four months after the incident happened, and was out of school for nearly half that time as he waited to start at a special private school.

    Cody is one of thousands of children caught up in the juvenile justice system each year. At least one in three of those arrested has a disability, ranging from emotional disability like bipolar disorder to learning disabilities like dyslexia, and some researchers estimate the figure may be as high as 70 percent. Across the country, students with emotional disabilities are three times more likely to be arrested before leaving high school than the general population.

    Cody Beck reads a book that was assigned by his teacher at Grenada Middle School. Since April, Cody has been on a “homebound” program due to behavior, where he does his work at home and meets with a teacher for four hours each week for instruction. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    Cody Beck reads a book that was assigned by his teacher at Grenada Middle School. Since April, Cody has been on a “homebound” program due to behavior, where he does his work at home and meets with a teacher for four hours each week for instruction. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    When the special education system fails youth and they end up in jail, many stay there for years or decades. The vast majority of adults in American prisons have a disability, according to a 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. Data hasn’t been updated since, but experts attribute the high percentage of individuals with disabilities in the nation’s bloated prison population - which has grown 700 percent since 1970 - in part to deep problems in the education of children with special needs.

    In Mississippi and across the country, the path to prison often starts very early for kids who struggle to manage behavioral or emotional disabilities in low-performing schools that lack mental health care, highly qualified special education teachers, and appropriately trained staff. Federal law requires schools to provide an education for kids with disabilities in an environment as close to a regular classroom as possible. But often, special needs students receive an inferior education, fall behind, and end up with few options for college or career. For youth with disabilities who end up in jail, education can be minimal, and at times, non-existent, even though federal law requires that they receive an education until age 21.

    “A lot of times, it’s a major setback,” said Elissa Johnson, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She added that some transgressions are serious, and it’s behavior that needs to be addressed, “But when you’re dealing with students with disabilities, youth court referrals are harmful.”

    Experts say that students with emotional disabilities can be impulsive, inattentive, or aggressive, behavior that gets them in trouble. “When we’re talking about emotional or behavioral disabilities, we’re really talking about kids with serious mental health needs,” said Reece Peterson, a professor of special education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

    Learning disabilities can also land special needs children in trouble more often than their peers. “Kids with learning disabilities that are not properly remediated in a school setting start to dislike school, or act up at school, or do things to distract from the fact that they’re not doing well,” said Diane Smith Howard, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network.

    More than 14,600 youth were involved with Mississippi’s juvenile justice system in 2012, but it’s unknown how many were in special education since the state does not track that information. (According to a Mississippi Department of Education (DOE) official, both the DOE and the Public Safety Office believed the other department was responsible. The official said that the DOE will begin to collect that data this year.)

    Although numbers fluctuate as students move in and out of the system, some federal data show that kids with disabilities are overrepresented in the state’s detention facilities. In 2011, 13 percent of students in the state’s public school system qualified for special education. But at the Oakley Youth Development Center, about 27 percent of students had disabilities, according to a federal Office of Civil Rights survey. Officials at the Rankin County Detention Center say that 50 percent of the children they’ve had this year qualify for special education.

    Related: Mississippi finally funds statewide pre-K — but only for six percent of its youngest learners

    Many of these kids enter the justice system shortchanged by schools and far behind their non-disabled peers. In the 2012-13 school year, only 13 percent of eighth-grade students with disabilities scored proficient or above on the state’s language arts exam, compared to 58 percent of non-disabled students. According to a previous Clarion-Ledger review of data, during the 2011-2012 school year, less than a quarter of special education students in Mississippi received a regular diploma, far lower than the national average of 64 percent in 2011.

    “Young people who generally end up in trouble were not prepared from the beginning educationally,” said Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office. A 2013 report by the Minneapolis-based PACER Center, a parent training center, warned that one of the biggest reasons students end up in the corrections system is “school failure.”

    Many kids across Mississippi also lack access to pre-kindergarten, meaning they may start behind academically, socially, and emotionally, and can miss a critical time period to identify disabilities and begin treatment. Only about 17 percent of children under 5 in Mississippi receive a screening for developmental or behavioral problems, compared to the national average of about 31 percent.

    “Early education and nurturing is absolutely critical,” said Fitzgerald. “Children whose needs are met at an early age are able to go to school ready to learn…They’re much less likely to be discipline problems in the classroom.”

    First step — suspension

    To an outsider, Cody seems like any other 14-year-old boy. He’s soft-spoken around strangers and spends his free time playing with his baby sister, hunting with his dad, and building things outside in the family’s wood shop in their modest rural home near Grenada Lake. He aspires to be an underwater welder, like his father. But from a young age, Cody has struggled to manage his anger. He has outbursts when he argues with others, especially with other children. If he is touched while angry, he tries to get away, even if that means hitting someone else. His parents say he especially tends to clash with “bullies,” which can spiral into heated fights.

    In his 2013-14 IEP, it was recommended that Cody receive individual instruction, be placed in a small class with other students with emotional disabilities, and daily therapy sessions. His teachers set short-term goals for Cody, such as “develop the ability to identify impulsive thoughts and consequences” and “develop the ability to identify and express feelings of anger and distress in socially acceptable ways.” In his IEP, his teachers also detailed his academic abilities: he was reading nearly at grade level, but his math and writing skills were several grades behind. They wrote that Cody “tries to do his best work and desires to learn.”

    Alfonso Franklin, a project manager for the Mississippi Center For Justice, talks to a young man in his Youth in Transition program. Franklin’s program aims to keep youth out of jail by keeping them in school and providing jobs and mentors. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    Alfonso Franklin, a project manager for the Mississippi Center For Justice, talks to a young man in his Youth in Transition program. Franklin’s program aims to keep youth out of jail by keeping them in school and providing jobs and mentors. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

    Robert Beck, Cody’s father, said he also explained to Cody’s teachers what he found to work best in calming Cody down, like speaking in a calm voice and refraining from making physical contact.

    Still, from a young age, Cody was suspended for behavioral incidents and missed more than a dozen days of school in the months leading up to his arrest. When asked about the fighting, Cody said he loses his temper when other kids tease him, or when he hears “people talking about my parents, telling me I’m stupid.”

    For many students with disabilities, suspensions are often the entry point in the pipeline to the criminal justice system. Statewide, more than 8,000 students with disabilities received an out of school suspension, and nearly half of those received more than one in the 2011-12 school year, according to estimates by the federal Office of Civil Rights.

    “Many of those kids get in further trouble out of school,” said Reece Peterson, “and they end up in the juvenile justice system.”

    Related: For special education students, diplomas, jobs increasingly elusive

    Several special education students who have been arrested said in interviews that their trouble with the law was preceded by frequent suspensions for fighting or “talking back.” One 16-year-old special education student at Oakley Youth Development Center, a long-term center for incarcerated youth, said in the past, “loud noises and childish people” would set him off. A 15-year-old student at Oakley who qualifies for special education said that she was incarcerated after assaulting a police officer. She had already been suspended from school numerous times for things like “playing in the hall” during class or talking back to teachers.

    What would have happened to Cody Beck in a different state?

    Like Cody Beck, thousands of special education students in Mississippi lose valuable time in school through suspensions, expulsions and arrests each year. According to federal data, more than 8,000 special education students in Mississippi received an out-of-school suspension in the 2011-2012 school year- about 14 percent of all special education students in the state. Experts say a suspension can lead to bigger trouble for students later on, including time in jail. By comparison, just 5 percent of Utah’s students with special needs were given an out-of-school suspension, one of the lowest rates in the country.

    Keeping all students in school is a priority, said Utah Department of Education director of special education Glenna Gallo. Although she couldn’t speak directly to a student in Cody’s situation, she said that Utah educators are taught to prevent disruptive behavior from leading to arrest. “We have quite of a few of our staff trained in crisis de-escalation,” she said, adding that teachers and administrators are given strategies for calming down students with behavioral disabilities without touching them.

    The Utah Department of Education has provided administrators with workshops in crisis intervention strategies, which includes referring special education students to mental health services instead of suspending them. Sending a student to a private treatment program, as in Cody’s case in Mississippi, would only be a last resort. “Utah generally keeps their students within the school community,” Gallo said.

    – Sarah Butrymowicz

    School discipline policies often do not take into account students with disabilities. They may, for example, include zero tolerance policies not only for serious behavior, but also for disrespect or noncompliance. Experts say this can lead schools to disproportionately suspend special education students, whose actions may be manifestations of their disability.

    A 2013 report by several nonprofits found that some Mississippi school discipline policies include vague or subjective language, like expulsion for “any action which is deemed disorderly conduct or misconduct.” In Caledonia, Mississippi, several parents interviewed said that deputies who work in the nearby Lowndes County School District respond in extreme ways, such as pulling out a Taser gun when kids, including those with behavioral or emotional disabilities, act out in school. (Officials from the district said that no Taser guns have been used on children at school, but police officers on the campuses do carry them. The district’s security guards do not.)

    Not enough teachers, not enough counseling

    One of the main reasons special needs children are jailed more often than their peers is because teachers aren’t trained in how to manage kids who are insubordinate or disruptive, according to the 2013 report by the PACER Center. For years, Mississippi has experienced a shortage of highly qualified special education teachers, especially in the lowest-performing schools. (Nearly one-third of Mississippi’s districts are considered “critical needs” districts by the state.)

    Reece Peterson says discipline needs to move to a more “teaching-based” approach so that students explicitly learn correct behavior. “If [a student] has a disability that has characteristics of being aggressive and acting out, we can’t simply punish him for that,” Peterson said. “We would want to provide some sort of service or intervention for it.”

    But these resources are lacking in Mississippi. During the 2011-12 school year, only about half the children ages 2 to 17 who have problems that require counseling received mental health care, compared to more than 60 percent nationwide. Paul Bowen, administrator of the Rankin County Youth Court, said he sees many youth who have untreated mental health problems. The detention facility provides counseling while the youth are incarcerated, but few continue once they get home. “Many of these children would respond positively,” Bowen said. “But they’re dependent on adults to get them there and many families can’t afford those services.”

    Related: Back to school, but without books and basics in Mississippi

    There have been some efforts to find solutions. In 2013, administrators at the Rankin County Detention Center rolled out a new behavior management program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, which aims to teach and reward positive behaviors, rather than focusing on punishment and negative behaviors. Paul Bowen said that since the program launched, the detention center has seen a 65 percent decrease in incidents related to behavior. Some states, like Minnesota, have rolled out this program in all schools.

    In the absence of school-based efforts and resources, a handful of nonprofits have launched programs to keep the most at-risk students out of the justice system. In the Delta town of Ruleville, Alfonso Franklin, a project manager at the Mississippi Center for Justice, runs a program aimed at helping boys transition out of the system, or keeping them out from the start. He frequently tracks down students who are absent from school, checks in with their teachers, and organizes speakers to talk about the impact of getting arrested. “I’m trying to be proactive,” Franklin said, adding that there are few recreational activities or resources in rural Mississippi. “Everything we talk to them about is about not becoming a victim to the system.”

    Related: Can the hundreds of education experts who flocked to Mississippi improve life for the state’s black boys?

    Efforts like these are critical, experts say, since preventing an arrest in the first place is much easier than helping kids stay out of jail once they’ve spent time there. Dennis Daniels, superintendent of the Oakley Youth Development Center, said that Oakley sees so many students with disabilities because communities and schools tend to “deal with the behavior before they deal with the disorder.”

    “There’s nobody dealing with their disabilities,” Daniels said. “If you don’t get them help in the community, they get locked up.”

    No way back

    After an arrest, families say they often encounter districts that are reluctant to let those children return to school, or schools that are ill-equipped to handle them. “The school district might say ‘I’m uncomfortable with you returning to school, we’re going to put you in an alternative program,” said Smith Howard.

    After an arrest, many students lose valuable learning time and fall even further behind, while others become a frequent fixture in youth courts and a patchwork system of detention centers, youth jails, and alternative schools for education. A 2006 study found that for all students, a first-time arrest during high school nearly doubles the odds of that student dropping out, while a court appearance nearly quadruples the odds of dropout.

    After his arrest, Cody’s team of special education teachers and school officials decided to send him to the Millcreek Day Treatment center, a privately run facility in the northwest Mississippi town of Batesville, which is accredited by the state of Mississippi as a “special non-public school.” There, Cody’s parents say he was mixed with “a lot of problem kids and the school work wasn’t challenging.” Cody said he was frequently given worksheets and word searches. One of his assignments as a seventh-grade student was to read and complete a 68-page packet called “How I Learned to Control My Temper,” which is written at a low-elementary level and tells the story of a boy who learns different ways to handle his temper. It includes several pages of activities, like drawing pictures, and playing tic-tac-toe.

    Megan Williams, a therapist at Millcreek that the school provided for comment, said that although she can’t speak about any former or current students, she guesses the packet was “not from the teacher, but from the therapist.” (At Millcreek, Cody had daily access to a special education teacher and a therapist.) Regarding the classwork, Williams said that “each classroom is different,” and she was not able to speak about the academic program at the facility.

    In dozens of daily reports sent home by Millcreek, Cody’s behavior seemed to improve, although there were still a few behavioral incidents that resulted in time out of school. For several stretches of time, he received perfect or near perfect scores for “respecting others,” “following directions,” and his individual goal to “stay positive.” On several reports, teachers commented that Cody “did all class work” and “ignored negativity.”

    After an incident last October, however, Millcreek referred Cody to a behavioral treatment center in Tennessee. When he was released, his father and stepmother asked the school district to move Cody to back to the public school, where they wanted him to receive more challenging work. Instead, school officials offered to put him on a “homebound program” where he would complete work sent home every day, and spend two hours twice a week working with a teacher at a regular school. In the future, they said, he could possibly transition back to the regular school.

    “When we’re talking about emotional or behavioral disabilities, we’re really talking about kids with serious mental health needs,” Reece Peterson, a professor of special education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

    Officials at Grenada Middle School said they couldn’t discuss individual students. Bea Colbert, director of special education for the Grenada School District, said that the decision to put a child on a homebound program “depends on the individual circumstances.” The amount of time a child spends homebound also varies by child, Colbert said, but could be based on how well the child has been working with the academic teacher, “how much time [in school] they’re able to tolerate,” or how well the child is doing in counseling sessions. “Our ultimate goal for every child is to be in their least restrictive environment and to earn a traditional diploma,” Colbert said. “But for some children, that may not be a realistic goal.”

    Cody’s parents said they were torn, since they knew he may not be ready to handle a large class, but they didn’t want him to be isolated. In April this year, they agreed to keep him at home, but they said his education now consists of him spending most of his days alone, teaching himself the material that is sent home from school. When teachers at Grenada Middle School wanted to move him on to eighth grade this year, his parents argued that he has missed too much school, and has not learned enough, to move on. This year, Cody is repeating seventh grade.

    “What they’re doing now is not providing him with an education,” said Bobbi Jo Beck, Cody’s stepmother. She said she fears that if he doesn’t learn how to interact with others and control his temper, future incidents could lead to more arrests and jail time, which is something she sees frequently at her job as a nurse at a county jail. “It scares me,” Bobbi Jo said. “I don’t want that to happen to him.”

    This story was produced in partnership with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, the only national news outlet reporting the juvenile justice issue daily. Read more about efforts to improve education in Mississippi.

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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