Monday, September 20, 2010

Does fear of litigation make educators act like this?

I just need to share a recent conversation.

I just found out that, although I signed an IEP authorizing a Non-Public School, they have not been providing services because the contract has not yet been board-approved.

Our School-Board meets twice a month: once for report outs, and once for actionable business - like approving contracts. There are also legal deadlines to get items on the agenda due to laws regarding public meetings. Therefore, it can sometimes take 6 weeks before you can get a contract reviewed by the Board.

Here was my conversation:

Eric:        Is there anything that you need in addition to the IEP to authorize her going to school while we wait for the contract and ISA? We have always honored our IEPs, but I want to make sure we provide this kid FAPE!

(FAPE = Free & Appropriate Public Education. The legal entitlement to services under special education.)

NPS:      No, it needs to be the Contract and ISA per Ed Code. In case, you know, someone comes and asks why we are serving this kid, we can get in trouble, per Ed Code, if we do not have the contract and ISA.

Eric:        I don't think I am understanding… It is your intention to deny FAPE, the foundation of special education law, so that you can comply with the billing portion of the Ed Code?

NPS:      Yes.

Eric:        I was never expecting to hear that. I have no idea how to respond. I will need to go and talk to my chain-of-command and figure this one out. Bye.

Full disclosure: I think there was more behind the scenes than the stated issue.

However, I do find the disturbing trend in the litigious world of special education.
As silly as this conversation seems in writing, I am amazed at how many similarly-themed conversations like this that educators have.

The paranoia of legal action forces people to lose sight of the forest because they are so focused on the trees.
Procedures, compliance, check-boxes, and lists stop being the means to educate the child, and become the ends in of themselves.  Not that I ever saw a checklist teach a child a new skill.

Those of us that have had to defend ourselves on the witness stand can attest that attorneys may drill us on procedural details, but, ultimately, we are judged on whether or not we provided a plan reasonably calculated to provide an educational benefit in the Least Restrictive Environment possible.

Based on this, I would like to issue two challenges:

To educators:
Follow the rules, but do not blindly follow them.
Understand why the rules exist, and how you can use them to educate the child.
If you do not see the connection, find out!

To parents and advocates:
Understand that the threat of litigation may provide a short-term gain, but it has a long-term consequence.
In the disability chat-rooms, the prevailing theme is, "You need to fight to get anything done!"
Even if you have been burned in the past, please try to treat every new school year as a fresh collaboration.
You want the IEP to be about your child, not the lawyers and advocates.
I guarantee you, if a lawyer or advocate are in the room, that is where the staff's attention will be.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Public educators need to learn marketing and public speaking.

Two things recently happened in the same week.

#1 – I was in an IEP with a mother that was convinced that a (non-therapeutic) private school was THE solution to her son’s problems.
She was also convinced that a local, computerized math tutoring franchise was EXACTLY what her son needed.
I  think that she may have given less weight to the UCLA Neuropsychologist’s assessment than the “To Whom It May Concern” letter (If you want my opinion on those, see this post) from the franchise owner… who may not have any educational or math training whatsoever.

How did she get so convinced?
I think that it has to do with the tri-fold brochures that they created.
A tri-fold brochure, with the right WordArt, can turn an above-average teacher into an Expert Consultant!

#2 – I was asked to do a high-stakes presentation for a district, and a good friend recommended that I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.
It was such an eye-opener!
(Thanks again!)

As we worked on my presentation, it clicked.

I remembered observing a student in a hoity-toity NonPublic School in an affluent part of Los Angeles.

The teacher was good.
Good, not great.
Without hesitation, I can name a dozen teachers in my district that do a better job.

So why did the parents get a lawyer to try to force us to have this placement?
Mostly, it had to do with bad experience.
Knowing this family’s experience with a previous district, their bias is understandable.
I cannot guarantee that they will never have another bad experience again.

(Feel free to debate the merits of teacher’s unions, the impossibility of firing bad teachers with tenure, or the L.A. Times publishing of L.A. teachers’ test-scores in the comments!)

However, I do not believe that this is the full-story.

I attended several IEPs with this teacher.
Let’s compare and contrast how she presents in an IEP compared to a better, public-school teacher.
Let’s give them the same scenario, a student that has met 50% of last year’s reading goals.

Private school teacher:
Wow! What a year it has been! Things were rough when little Johnny first came here. But you know what? We aimed for the stars, and we managed to get the moon. We made some lofty goals, and he got half-way there! Now, we still have some work to do, but I think that this is the most progress that he has made in a while. And, (if you legally pressure the district to pay for this ridiculously expensive school at tax-payer expense – implied not spoken), we will ride this wave of momentum even farther! It has been such a pleasure. I hope that I get to see him again next year!

Better public-school teacher (paraphrased more-or-less):
Wow! What a year it has been! Johnnie has only made half of his goals. Because I anticipate everyone blaming me for not fully meeting the goals, I am going to point out all of the things that prevented him from meeting the goals that are not my fault. Of course, this will offend you because it will sound like I am blaming you, the parent, or sound like I dislike Johnny. I hate IEPs. Did you know that regular education teachers make the same amount of money without having to deal with IEPs or advocates?

Aside: I sometimes exaggerate or engage in sarcasm.

Based on objective evidence, these kids are doing exactly the same!

Who would not be more attracted to the first teacher’s classroom?

Again, this is a much more complicated and loaded issue.

To quote Garr Reynolds, “It is not the only thing, but it is one thing!”

I see this when I do workshops for parents.
In the beginning, I was shocked by the amount of parents sounding surprised that a school district employee:
A)    Sounded like he cared.
B)    Knew what he was talking about.
They expressed honest surprise!

In IEP meetings, in contrast, I am viewed as the guy that may or may-not give them what they ask.
They love or hate me, rarely anything in-between, based on what I offer.

What was the difference?
Not the facts or objective data.
This pains me to admit because I am the data-driven problem-solving guy.
It is presentation and style.
Demeanor and affect.

It takes a certain personality to become a special educator or any service professional.
That personality is usually very different than the personality of a salesperson or start-up entrepreneur.
However, we sell products everyday.
We sell our expertise.
We sell our ability to meet a child's needs.
We sell one plan over another as providing educational benefit in the Least Restrictive Environment.
If you sell, you should have those skills.

Some good resources:
Many of these appear to focus solely on graphic design, but they really give good advice on the whole package.

Not only is it a good skill-set to acquire, it is fun to break-out of the mold and try something different!

Eric Boyd's blog-post, a business perspective on the presentation.
In addition to his two books, Garr Reynold's has a great blog.

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design has a book and a blog.

Last, but not least, examples of the world's best speakers at TED.

 I would LOVE some more references and resource to share!