Sunday, February 6, 2011

Call me perplexed


Last month, I received a description of the STEM Program from the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services, as a courtesy for my information.   The description contains a number of disturbing statements, and my friend and I have determined that they all boil down to the need to know the learner and the learning. 

I've pulled out the five most concerning statements from the description.

1. “The teacher will not do the student’s critical and creative thinking for him.” 

Well, holy cow.  Who asked her to?  Highly abled students with Asperger’s are able to think for themselves; parents consider placement in this program because of the (typically untapped) high cognitive abilities of their children.  The point is that when properly understood and supported, the natural cognitive abilities of highly abled students with Asperger’s are developed to their full potential.

2. "If a student is unable to meet the rigor of all components of the curriculum and the program structure, then the student should reconsider his schedule and take alternative science and math courses." 

My understanding as a parent is that part of the purpose of the STEM program is to take highly abled learners (identified during the application process) and teach them the workforce skills that they will need in their careers.  The statement implies that all students already possess the skills that they need and therefore the skills will not be taught.  Children are not made with a cookie cutter.  Even within the subgroup of nondisabled highly abled learners, skill sets will vary.  It is unclear:  Will the skills be taught, or are students expected to be perfect at everything before they get there?  Definitely looking for clarification on this point.

There is an additional point to the above:  Alternative science and math courses in middle school don’t exist.  There are no honors science or honors social studies courses.  There is honors reading, which STEM students may take or not, as matches their abilities.  While honors math also exists, it just doesn't engage students the way that the integrated approach in STEM does.  STEM attracts our children like a magnet.
3. “Culminating projects require each student to put forth maximum effort to accomplish a team project.  If a student cannot engage effectively in teamwork, then the student would be unable to participate in an essential component of the STEM program."

First, I have to make a clarification:  Culminating projects are only a part of teamwork, and teamwork is only a part of STEM. 

However, that is not really the main problem.  The main problem is that this statement implies that students with disabilities do not put forth maximum effort to accomplish a team project.  It also implies that their nondisabled peers do.  The implied message is staggering:  Having a disability means that a student doesn't try on group projects.

Not only does the very next sentence not relate logically -- that effort is the determining factor in effective engagement in teamwork -- but it doesn't allow for the fact that effort is personal regardless of having a disability.  No one puts in maximum effort all the time; it's not possible.  Additionally, part of developing teamwork is learning to work with others of varying skills, strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities. 

High cognitive abilities do not automatically pair with high social skills, 2e or not.  Positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are often filled by people with Asperger’s, people who have the cognitive abilities and interest base in such careers.  Adults who have not had appropriate interventions growing up have varying degrees of success socially and interpersonally in their jobs and may not advance in their jobs or possibly even keep their jobs.  But it’s not hopeless.  With direct instruction, students with Asperger’s can learn appropriate social routines for group work. Training our students with Asperger’s now, while young, will ensure increased positive outcomes in college and the work world (making them “college and career ready”).

4. “When approving their children for participation in STEM, parents of disabled and nondisabled children need to be aware of STEM’s rigor requirement for independent thinking, requirement to engage effectively in teamwork, work within specific timelines, and the intensity of the assignments,”  

While I don't agree with most of the description, logically, for parents to make the recommended determination about the appropriateness of the STEM Program, this program description needs to be public knowledge.  Currently, it is not.  Small parts of it can be found in the STEM brochure, but that's all I've been able to find.

I asked the Executive Director of Special Education about the source of the description, and she responded that the description was her "own summaries of the STEM program based on information received from personnel involved with STEM."  This just leaves me shocked.  I knew that many administrators were unaware of the needs of twice-exceptional students, but I had not realized the degree to which such students were misunderstood.  And to be misunderstood to this level by the very person who oversees both sides of their education is just plain disturbing.

A major problem identified here is the inconsistency between the implication of the statement and the assurance my friend and I each received separately from administration in the special education department:  Our children will be supported in STEM.  In practice, that support has been only limited, and it hasn't been until well into this school year that the separate assertiveness of my friend and myself has gotten more of the supports implemented for our children.  It appears that only relentless determination of individual parents will get 2e/Asperger's students what they need from special education.

But there's more about this statement.  Prior to their entrance into the STEM program, students with Asperger’s may not have had their need for academic rigor met.  Their skills may have been left untapped, and their success may be difficult to predict.  This is absolutely our situation.  My son had never been in a situation like STEM -- appropriate rigor, interesting content, cool tools, academic peers, defined group roles -- and no one on his elementary school team thought he should go into STEM.  We ourselves had our own concerns, but we knew that this placement was the best possible match of what was available in the school system, and we had to try.  If highly abled students with Asperger’s are not given the opportunity to try, they cannot reach their potential.  (As proven by the personal experience of my son, when we expect more, we get more.  When we deny them the STEM opportunity, we expect less, and we get less.)

5. “Having a disability does not preclude a student from meeting with success in STEM, but neither does it guarantee that the student will meet with success." 

This statement from the description of the STEM Program provided to me totally flabbergasted me.  It took me quite a little while to think of a coherent response.  This statement reinforces the idea that not only are administrators unaware of the needs of 2e students, but they also misunderstand them.  My hope is that what my friend and I have done in responding to the description of the STEM Program has helped to address the thought processes behind this statement, and we asked the general education administrators who heard what we said to take our input back to the STEM personnel who may have such misconceptions about twice exceptional children.

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If the skills (other than high cognitive abilities) contained in the description are being taught (and not expected to be demonstrated without being taught), the ideals of the STEM Program are not incompatible for students with Asperger's who have high cognitive abilities or for other students who have high cognitive abilities and a typical continuum of development of other skills; however, they may need differentiated instruction or explicit instruction for success.  (I have to note, though, that the needs of middle school students with Asperger's would be significantly reduced if these skills were appropriately addressed at the elementary school level.)

I am definitely unclear as to whether developing the extra skills is part of the curriculum or if the skills are a prerequisite.  If STEM is for students who already possess the skills, a huge opportunity is being missed to develop a variety of highly abled learners, including students with Asperger's, to their full potential.

I believe it is unrealistic to think all highly abled learners possess social and EF skills to the extent described.  If students are to have these skills fully developed prior to their participation in STEM, then the program excludes bright students who may need the teaching of the skills in order to develop them.

All of this makes me ask the Executive Director of Special Education and even the Superintendent of our school system these questions:
  • How do you reconcile this description with the laws related to accelerated program accessibility?
  • How do you explain to your partners in the community who are looking to the STEM Programs to “home grow” the next generation of scientists and engineers that you will not help train this group of people who typically have natural talents in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to be career ready?
  • How do you appropriately test for anything other than academics for all applicants?
  • How do you incorporate those skills into the application process?
  • Critical:  If not STEM, how do you program for students with Asperger's who have high cognitive abilities?
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So what did my friend and I do to combat this complete misunderstanding of twice-exceptional students with Asperger's and how to appropriately program for them?  Our best hope was to address the questions and concerns contained in the STEM description through respectful, collaborative meetings with the appropriate staff and administrators.  To that end, we met with the Executive Director of Special Education and Student Services, two special education supervisors, one of the county's two autism specialists, the Supervisor of Instruction for Gifted and Talented Programs, and the Director of Secondary Schools.  We followed up by submitting our talking points from that meeting to the Superintendent of Schools.

We're now in a holding pattern for having submitted our recommendations "homework" and for refuting the STEM Program description.  As the various administrators consider our input, my friend and I have to think about our next steps.  We'll meet again to brainstorm what those might be.  In the meantime, I have to decide how to proceed with the fact that I was on the receiving end of an unprofessional letter -- unprofessional and inappropriate in both content and tone -- yet another example in a long string of such incidents.  How much is too much?

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