Two Educators Discuss “My Life & Times with the Madison Public Schools”

Audrey Soglin & Char Gearing respond to Marc Eisen’s recent words:

I think we have learned and the research supports that kids need a balanced literacy approach. The “whole language vs. phonics” wars should really be put to rest. It is an old fight. Kids don’t learn the same way so a variety of instructional methods should be available. It is not unusual for districts to offer both direct instruction to identified students and reading recovery to others. The problems that kids have are different so the instructional interventions should be different as well. In terms of kids in heterogeneous classrooms receiving instruction – all kids need to be taught at their level. The challenge for teachers in diverse reading and math classrooms is to figure out how to meet those very different needs. It is difficult but not impossible.
The author seems to be saying that we should be segregating our classrooms and our schools. If you look at the scores of low-income students in low income schools-where the demographics are 90% low income, 90% African American or Hispanic – the scores are generally low. It is not like segregating the kids will automatically raise the scores.

71 thoughts on “Two Educators Discuss “My Life & Times with the Madison Public Schools””

  1. The response misses the most important point in Eisen’s piece:
    “In liberal Madison, “progressive” is always good. But one of the lessons I’ve learned as a parent and as a journalist—I’m the editor of Isthmus, an alternative weekly that has taken some gimlet-eyed investigations of the local schools—is that freighting educational discussions with “progressive” and “conservative” (or similar) political trappings is neither accurate nor helpful. The political baggage becomes just one more impediment to resolving the utterly crucial issue of improving urban-school performance.”
    Just like Mari who elsewhere on SIS calls for more balanced, accurate media reporting, many of us are calling for an open dialogue, not freighted with labels or political agenda. It is simply not helpful to tell parents to ignore their children’s experience. Haughtily dismissing them as wealthy, helicopter parents who won’t tolerate a flaw in their precious offspring’s experience is an outrage. Too many are voting with their feet rather than beat their heads against the wall of political correctness and educational theory unsupported by sound research.
    Which topics are in desperate need of frank discussion? Here are a few that come to mind: Talking about school climate concerns that go to the racial divide without calling folks racists. Asking how much the district is spending on high need special ed students without being tarred as cold-hearted, puppy kicking, social darwinists. (For instance, consider the cost of educating autistic children, many whose families are drawn to Madison because of Waismann–perhaps Beth Moss would like to address that directly in her campaign).
    When Rainwater writes an op-ed that says the money is just not there, that we’ll have to content ourselves with a pretty good education, we need to ask where the money is going in a district that spends as much per pupil as this one does. This means examining all the expenditures, including sacred cows like teacher insurance coverage.
    These are tough, tough topics, but until we can speak openly and honestly, we face more flight, more failed referenda. Having grown up in Milwaukee, I do not want to live through a repeat in this city I love.

  2. Hear, hear.
    During the next month-plus of campaigning by school board, council and mayoral candidates, let’s see who’ll have the courage to acknowledge and address these issues straight-up and with a plan of action. I fear that too few will step up to the plate…there is usually not much political upside to being proactive about problems that people would prefer to avoid thinking about (until it’s too late).

  3. Thank you, Joan for your frankness. I’ve often wondered where all the money spent per pupil went, myself. Has there ever been a breakdown published? For too long, we have just accepted what our District personnel have told us without questioning. Our kids were getting a pretty good education and our schools were safe. That is all changing. It is time we start questioning! Our current City Government seems to have little or nothing to do with our schools. Ray Allen has campaigned that he would get involved with our schools. It is time for a change.

  4. By all means Joan. Every candidate should have to tell us what it’s costing the MMSD to educate their own children. Imagine that….then we’d all know whose kids were autistic, dyslexic, hearing-impaired, orthopoedically impaired etc…and while we’re at, how about we make them disclose it with little stars on their left lapel, complete with dollar amounts. Let’s see, Schwaw Vang’s could details ESL dollars for his children, and let’s not forget any minority candidates- what does it cost to educate their children? Mind you, I’m not tarring you as a cold-hearted puppy kicking social darwinist, I’m just saying that what’s good for the goose is good for the….bottom line: it DOES cost us a fortune to educate ALL kids, and we are lucky that Madisonians embrace spending that money for ALL kids, black, yellow, white, differently-abled, absofreakinglutely normal and talented/gifted.

  5. My kids have suffered because the District’s resources are concentrated on ESL and Special Ed. That is our reality. I do, however, believe that all kids have the right to their education, regardless. I think Joan is being unfairly attacked!

  6. Thanks for making my point, David.
    I know families who moved to Madison with their autistic children because of Waisman. Indeed, it sounds like Beth Moss did just that. One family honestly admits that $35K/year they used to pay out of pocket in their old school district (in another state) is covered by MMSD programming.
    This will really set you off, I’m sure, but explain to me why it is unreasonable to question whether spending upwards of $100K on one child, one who will never live independently, is justifiable in terms of an ever shrinking pie and a boatload of kids who given a decent education will live productive, independent lives. It is a legitimate question, much as you’d like to smear anyone who dares to ask it or to tear back the curtain on the source for the higher than expected number of autistic kids MMSD is faced with serving.

  7. There are plenty of school districts who spend as much or less per student as MMSD and who perform a much better job of educating kids. I know, I came from one and wish I was still there. I would have NEVER moved here two and a half years ago if I knew what a mess MMSD was/is.
    I agree with Joan 100%.

  8. Here’s an idea; a pending question for media to research and ponder:
    What is the best educational learning experience in Madison? I mean, come on … let’s just state it…Where’s the best bang for our buck?
    Is it within MMSD ranging from (to be fair I’ve heard it defined many ways) $9500 – $13,000?
    At Edgewood for actual cost (for high school)~$9700?
    At Madison Country Day for (high school) ~$12,000?
    At Eagle School (elementary – middle) for ~$8000?
    At other subsidized private elementary schools?
    At other surrounding communities?…Ahhh but for this one I want to compare apples to apples…same home value with the various mill rates….
    ….now THAT would be a story! I wonder if we would get a balanced view, with facts so each of us can develop and follow our own ideals?

  9. MMSD services mean that a family doesn’t have to spend $35,000 out of pocket? Good. That is as it should be. It is infinitely more reasonable, compassionate and affordable to disperse special education costs across an entire tax base than it is to leave one family to shoulder the costs alone. The idea that our “cheapest” students are somehow more deserving than our most vulnerable and traditionally isolated students is, frankly, nauseating. I can certainly think of many examples of communities and cultures that have abandoned, isolated or punished their most vulnerable members, but I can think of none that are spoken of with admiration. The idea that we are short of resources in this community is ridiculous. There are examples of wealth and excess everywhere. Yes, there are many impoverished families in our community, but we are not an impoverished community by any stretch of the imagination. Our schools are being stretched, but it is not by our students with disabilities: it is by an appalling lack of community values. Until we stop valuing an unnecessarily high standard of family living over the health and good of our community as a whole, there will ALWAYS be a search for a group to blame for the situation we ourselves have created and perpetuated.

  10. Joan, I certainly hope that Maya Cole doesn’t feel the same way about special education students that you do. ‘Nuf said!

  11. I don’t want to come across as cold-hearted or uncaring, but to echo what Joan said, we are spending a fortune educating kids that aren’t going to be productive members of our society. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take care of those students. We, as a society have to. There has to be a better way. My kids have been in classrooms with many highly needy kids. They have aides to change their diapers, feed them, keep them under control when they are threatening other students and teachers and basically babysit them. My kids and others are starving for attention, trying to get the education that they deserve. We always hear how there isn’t enough money to go around. The cold, hard reality is which child has the chance to grow up to make our world better? The one that can grow up to be a scientist or doctor that can possibly find a way to prevent children from being born with these condtions? Or, will it be the one that can’t communicate or participate in the activities of the classroom? We all KNOW what the answer is! Unfortunately, the child that is the answer is being told that THEY don’t matter. That their “piece of the pie” is shrinking. It is time we grew-up and faced reality. Politics is an ugly business. Ultimately we are all paying the price!

  12. Once again, thanks for proving my point, David.
    I’m not speaking for any candidate, as you well know. Nice try.
    However, if a BOE candidate supported not only your position but your methods, it would certainly inform my decision.

  13. There is always Stephen Hawking as an example. No one would claim he isn’t making a contribution despite his disabling disease. His disease did come after his education, but still.
    I worked with a mildly autistic boy who is very gifted in math. He has trouble socially, but whenever I run into him, he is bubbling over with details of his most recent activities in school. He is a delightful kid who has trouble operating in a crowded classroom. I am sure he will grow up to be someone.
    Not many months ago NYT had a heartbreaking article about what happens to the most seriously disabled kids when they age out of the school system. It is clear that not everyone goes on to have a ‘highly productive life’, however one defines that.
    It is rather difficult to sort people neatly into groups, and also to know, in advance, which group a particular child would fall into. I think this topic is something that needs to be talked about more, but not in the framework of denying children an education. What we need to focus on, is funding. If it is true that Madison is a magnet, then one can make an argument that the state or feds should be the one paying, as it becomes an undue burden on the local community. One reads of clusters that occur in small rural school districts, just by chance. They can’t pay. Extraordinary costs should be spread across society at large. Otherwise people do become angry and resentful. It is hard not to think that ‘these kids are taking away resources from my kids.’ If we don’t spread the costs more, it is hard to maintain our humanity. I know the state pays part, but not nearly enough.
    There is also the touchy question of what is a reasonable upper bound in a mainstream classroom of the percentage of special needs kids who display highly disruptive behaviors? Is it 5%, 10%, 15%? I don’t know the answer, but this is something that matters a lot. When there is one kid like that in a class, children and parents may be generally supportive and want to be kind and helpful. When there are 4 or 5, people’s compassion is stretched to the breaking point because the class doesn’t run well and children’s education suffers. This issue should be studied and a policy developed that sets a saturation point. Then if a particular school goes above that point, some of the kids could be reassigned to schools with lower percentages. If the district as a whole becomes too saturated and there isn’t anywhere to send kids, then we should look at alternatives, like paying to send kids to another nearby district, or having the most disruptive kids resegregated into special classes, or holding a lottery to determine which disruptive children get to be mainstreamed. I don’t suppose one could do this under current law, but laws can be changed, and when enough pressure develops they will.

  14. My point, Joan, is that you’re just trolling here. I know, those poor West High students aren’t getting what they need because too many local dollars go to the disabled..old, tired, troll.

  15. The other thing is this: Anyone who knows me knows that I’ll always advocate as strenuously as possible for the rights of special ed students. I’m extremely fortunate in terms of my own personal situation, with an autistic child, and my ability to spend VAST amounts of my time and resources working to ensure his success. The overwhelming majority of special needs kids in the MMSD do not have parents who can advocate for both their kids and the children of others. So, you can color the arguement however you like, but my personal beliefs about this will not be swayed. Thankfully, as Teacher L points out, the MMSD has a large number of very dedicated and talented staff who handle special needs children. In my opinion, it makes Madison and the MMSD a very special place to reside in, and anyone who can’t see that light is simply missing out.

  16. We have evolved from a society that institutionalized the academically and mentally challenged to one that is inclusive. I guess as a society we have to decide which method we want to except. We currently live in a society where mental illness is not recognized as a “insurable disease” so those of us with Bi-Polar or Psychotic family members have to rely on public help or go into debt.
    As a society we are scared of those that are different, require more care. But if you listen closely the gifted and the high need students are the same. They are not the “norm” as defined as someone and they require a different curriculum. I sometimes find it interesting these two fractions of the community fight over funds. If they were smart and motivated they would fight for funds together, as is done in several communities,as they are special in their own way and should be recognized as a group of “Special” children. I know for my varying childrens needs no one program works for all three of their needs. I work hard to make sure they get what they should, but without a “Helicopter Mom” I wonder where the other students in their class fall. It seems instead of fighting for our causes we should be fighting for all the students. Even in this blog!

  17. “This will really set you off, I’m sure, but explain to me why it is unreasonable to question whether spending upwards of $100K on one child, one who will never live independently, is justifiable in terms of an ever shrinking pie and a boatload of kids who given a decent education will live productive, independent lives.”
    “I don’t want to come across as cold-hearted or uncaring, but to echo what Joan said, we are spending a fortune educating kids that aren’t going to be productive members of our society.”
    “The cold, hard reality is which child has the chance to grow up to make our world better? The one that can grow up to be a scientist or doctor that can possibly find a way to prevent children from being born with these condtions? Or, will it be the one that can’t communicate or participate in the activities of the classroom? We all KNOW what the answer is!”
    Anyone else get a sick feeling reading the comments quoted above? It saddens me to think that there are some in our community who value one child over another based on an ability to produce certain results for society or whether one might live independently.
    I have spent many years working with young children, and I have never encountered a child with nothing to offer the greater community. I’ve also never encountered a child who does not gain something from education. Each child may learn differently, and the end result may vary, but every child deserves the opporunity of a good education. If we don’t educate our neediest children, how will we ever know their true potential?
    Some of the comments on this topic frighten and disgust me. We have come a long way from the days of locking up those with disabilities or mental illness. The sentiment expressed by Joan and others suggests a giant leap backward.
    If you aren’t sure whether or not you agree, start by imagining you are the parent of a child with autism or downs sydrome or another serious disability. Scroll up and read the three quotes again. Feel anything yet?

  18. I raised the issue of Waisman drawing autistic families to the district. Services for autistic kids are expensive, especially for those who are most disabled. Some may think that is a worthy price to pay, notably parents of autistic kids. My point was MMSD is shouldering the cost of serving families drawn here for Waisman and their care is expensive.
    Parents of special needs kids have been extraordinarily successful in their advocacy for their children–their services are mandated, often untouchable in budget debates. These parents also have successfully controlled the discussion, so that the needs of these children, whatever they may be, however much it may cost, cannot be questioned. Well, I’m going to question it and not because I wish to toss them into an empty classroom or back into institutions —that’s an utterly false dichotomy.
    David, the namecalling is tiresome.

  19. I haven’t seen any reasonable argument here that can convince me why my kids deserve an increasingly smaller cut than a kid with special needs. It seems some here take it personal when someone dare bring up the issue of funding for special needs and ESL.
    Well, I take it personal when my “normal” kids’ share of the pie gets proportionately smaller because of budget deficits but, mention cuts for kids who have special needs and then you’ve crossed the line? Are you kidding me? Why does my family have to shoulder the entire burden?
    Here’s what you’re going end up with when the dust settles, all the middle class tax payers are going to get sick and tired of these OUTRAGEOUS property taxes that buy a really poor quality education (because the message is loud and clear it’s LAST on the list of priorities) and they’re going move out of the district or send their kids to private school. Then the tax base that supports these expensive programs will be gone. How much longer is Madison going to be able to keep it a secret from prospective citizens or companies that their schools suck?

  20. Joan: families move here from Milwaukee and Chicago to escape the urban setting for a better life. Would you use your agruements for those who move to Madison for Waisman Center services on those who reside on Northport or Vera Court or Allied Drive? It costs a lot to educate poor kids too (of all races)…that’s why it’s PUBLIC school..hello?

  21. Joan,
    It is true that some families with autistic children come to Madison because of the services available at the Waisman Center. And, yes, this does translate to additional educational costs for our school district.
    I would argue, though, that the Waisman Center is also a major asset to Madison’s economy and brings significant funds into our community and add to our tax base. The Center employs 50 UW academic staff members and an additional 300 staff of its own. That’s 350 jobs our city would not have were it not for Waisman Center. The center has a $40 million dollar budget, much of which filters its way into our larger community. Some of the Waisman Center’s research actually saves public funds in Madison and Dane County (For example, the center developed a program that is alarm based and eliminates the need for full-time overnight staff in the homes of hundreds of developmentally disabled adults in Dane County. As a result, the county now pays only a small percentage of what it used to for assisting these individuals during the nighttime hours.) that would otherwise increase our tax bills. I would hate to see Waisman leave our community and take with it the economic development benefits we so willingly reap.
    Educating additional children with special needs is a small price to pay for the jobs, money, added tax base, etc. that the research at the Waisman Center brings to our community.
    You are assuming your children are getting a smaller slice of the pie than they otherwise would if MMSD did not provide quality special education services. I would argue this could well be a false assumption.
    You assume that if such services were not provided or were not so costly, your children would get more. This may not be the case. In fact, many taxpayers might not be willing to approve additional spending measures or flit as much of the bill if the district wasn’t providing quality services to all children.
    A teacher I once supervised in an early childhood program once reasoned to me that she didn’t feel it was fair that a particular child with mental health needs received extra attention and some special accomodations in the classroom. I asked why this was unfair. The teacher argued that all kids should get the same. Later, I discussed the conversation with a co-worker as I tried to figure out how to address it. Her question was, “If a child who cannot walk needs a wheelchair to get around, is it fair that all of the other children do not get one, too?”
    I ask you this: If your “normal” children require a certain level of instruction to meet their educational needs, and some other children require a different level of instruction, is it so unfair that each child receives what she needs? I guess you lose me with the argument that there would be more to go around if the school didn’t bear necessary extra expense for some chilren. It seems that cutting costs for one group of children does not necessarily mean an increase in spending for others and vice versa.

  22. My argument is based on facts, yours is based upon assumption. Your only assumption to support your argument, that taxpayers MIGHT not be willing to approve additional spending measures, is not fact. I would submit to you quite the opposite, if taxpayers knew what a shambles school financing is in they might demand their money back!!! The pie is $331 million, setting aside the deficit for a moment. If less is spent in one area more can be spent in another, you rob Peter to pay Paul, this is the essence of governmental accounting – and the reason why we are even having this discussion.

  23. In response to Lisa Subeck’s post, in which she quotes me, I am sorry if I offended anyone. I can understand how someone could misinterpret my intentions. I have said in postings elsewhere on this site, that I believe ALL children have the right to a quality education. I do however, believe that inclusion isn’t the answer. I realize that this would cost even more money, but I do believe that students can’t all be placed together in one classroom. You then have one teacher, some aides and a couple dozen kids with varying abilities ranging from extreme “special needs” to exceptionally bright kids.
    I, actually, dislike the term Special Needs. All kids have their own “special” need. It has been written on this blog about money going for TAG that those parents are fighting against the Special Needs parents. The amount of money going for the TAG program is actually decreasing. Their staffing and presence in the schools has been greatly diminished. The point that I am trying to make is that our focus and funding seems to be going mostly toward the education of ESL and Special Needs children.
    The other kids sit in their classrooms not getting the attention that they deserve, also. The parents of these “other” kids do get upset. The school climate and attitude that these parents face, myself included, is that our kids aren’t as important. One of my kids was beaten up daily, molested and had schoolwork taken away from him, so it could be given to the special needs kid, so he wouldn’t get upset. The attitude from the school was, “We have to be nice to those kids!” How about my kid? Again, I truly believe in giving ALL kids a quality education. It just isn’t happening. I know, first hand, because I am in our schools on a daily basis.

  24. The comments here have been interesting, but wholely short of data to backup the many opinions expressed.
    The call for real data, where ever it leads, is critical, and always lacking, it seems. This lack of real data, real analysis of data has always been lacking, and until the MMSD administration and Board is remade to demand and deliver high quality data and analysis, speculations will be the primary content of discussions.
    I don’t know how much Special Ed or ESL kids cost. Nor “regular” or “tag” kids. I don’t how these costs are distributed? I’m sure there is a wide variance among kids, grade, school. And, we need to determine the marginal costs of categories of kids.
    So, there was a comment some autistic kid costs $35,000. Is that typical? What is the distribution of costs, and for what services? Are the services effective?
    Only by looking at real data can any discussion truly be useful.
    For example, there will be distributions of kids based on special need, services given, services required, and there will be “outliers” and lesser extremes, and “typical” values in the middle 50% range. Is this 50% middle a wide or narrow band of kids? Looking at the upper and lower 25%, how widely distributed are the bands? What are the characteristics of the kids in these bands?
    In addition to upper and lower 1/4, look at the upper and lower 1/8, then 1/16, then 1/32. How does the overall sample median change looking at the middle 3/4, or 7/8, etc? Is it linear, non-linear? If non-linear, apply a function to linearize it, then reanalyze. Identify the characteristics of kids in each extreme percentile. Can the extremes on the high cost side be lowered, made more effective?
    Look at the data in 2 dimensions? Remove “common” data and look at the residuals. Try to understand.
    There is no automatic process that will give answers, but with work, there is just so much that can be understood. Then decisions can be better informed — or, actually, just informed.
    Personal experience is important, and is critical to explaining the data that does exist; but personal experience, which we all have, is a usually poor substitute for making general decisions on the direction the district should take.
    But, I just dream.

  25. I think that there are some really good points raised in this discussion. Obviously, in an ideal world, we would have enough money to provide fully for every student. But the sad, hard truth is that we don’t.
    Let me repeat that: We simply do not have enough money in the district to give every student the resources to meet their full needs. Period. I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise.
    So, the question of whether spending so much on so few is a perfectly legitimate one, if a hard one. I have one class with a special ed student who, when she comes to class, has two aides with her. That’s two employees basically just sitting with her and keeping her calm. I understand that she needs extra resources, but this seems a bit egregious to me. Our schools are designed to provide education, not full life care and support.
    To apply this argument to the other end of the spectrum, imagine a very gifted student. If it is so taboo to even think about not fully providing for our special ed students, why should we not appy the same logic to decide that if even one student needs a higher level of math, the district should bring in a special tutor to sit with them in math class and teach them in the back? Obviously that would be a waste of our money and taxpayer dollars, and probably would quickly go on the chopping block.
    These are hard decisions and hard things to talk about, especially in politically correct Madison. But political correctness won’t get anyone anywhere with real decisions.

  26. Larry, what makes this discussion even more difficult is that you can’t quantify, as you point out, the costs per student based on their disability OR their special abilities. Maybe, with the medically fragile child, you can lay a fixed cost, but not via a label. The spectrum is too wide. Ditto with what we affectionately call TAG kids. Someone emailed me to note that if we referred to TAG as every student who was profoundly gifted and met a criteria of 2 grade levels ahead of their peers in every subject, we would cut the number of TAG kids by 75%, based on their personal experience with high schoolers.
    And then if we took the medically fragile kids who are essentially non-functioning and cut them from MMSD services, we’d essentially be trimming both ends of the spectrum financially. Hey, at least they tried to make sense and be honest. I don’t have the answer. I’m lucky enough that my autistic son is very high functioning and not medically fragile, and I wouldn’t classify his brother as 2 grades ahead in every subject. Their sister I would classify as 2 grades ahead. It’s a tough arguement to have because WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHO GETS WHAT? To a lot of engaged parents, their kids are TAG kids!

  27. Re Special Ed and ELL, the MMSD is required to pick up additional costs that once were and should be born as well by the local, state and federal governments. The unfunded mandates are in the millions of dollars, which has meant over time that more money from the classrooms has needed to go towards Special Ed and ELL, which has been confounded by the revenue caps and the changes in the makeup of our student population.
    There’s only so much money in the pie. The people’s budget shows us how that pie is divided in a succinct manner. There are board members who say this is a statement of what the school district needs, at a minimum, to fulfill its legal and educational obligations in each of the areas highlighted in the budget.
    I think there is plenty of data around. It’s how you use the data to tell a story. It’s also about how connections are made how one decision affects another option/decision. I’d like to see more of the latter connections made.

  28. Barb is correct MMSD is required to pick up these costs and provide the education for ESL/ELL and Special ED. The problem, of course, is that the rest of the kids are being neglected. As I’ve said, my concern is the attitude that the other kids aren’t important. I’ve only felt this at the elementary level. Middle and High School have been completely different. Thank you to the student for commenting. It is important to hear the students’ perspectives, too.

  29. I agree that no point can be argued effectively without data to back it up. I also realize that some of these programs are state and federal mandates that are not reimbursed by either. I’d like to know how much MMSD provides over and above the mandates. The metro area from which I came had a unique approach. All of the districts in the metro area collaborated on what is called the “Special School District”. It had it’s own tax levy, was it’s own taxing district and everyone who paid property taxes was assessed in addition to their own local school district. It was it’s own separate school where the staff was specifically trained for the special needs of the kids. All parents had a choice of keeping their special needs child mainstreamed and those who had high-functioning children often did. Most parents, though, sent their kids to the Special School District. The parents who sent their kids there who I talked to felt their child’s needs were better served than in a traditional classroom. I’m sure they had other reasons but I can’t speak for them. It’s time MMSD started thinking innovatively because the road ahead is riddled with land mines. Every year it’s the same story and the same whittling away of programs, services etc. They aren’t thinking in terms of the future – they are living in the current crisis. I’m frustrated by their lack of transparency and honesty. Why aren’t they talking about alternative approaches instead of keeping on the same path to destruction?

  30. I reject the notion that all students should receive similar, or even roughly similar levels of educational services. There are many so-called “normal” kids who receive inordinate levels of input simply by causing trouble in classrooms and frequenting vice-principals’ offices. Endeavoring to equalize service levels can be a very slippery slope, which is why the notion of privatizing education scares me. Recent years have seen this country lose its grasp on greatness in so many realms; that we still try so hard to educate all children (albeit imperfectly) remains one of the few things I think is truly great about America.
    Nonetheless, regrettably, I think there is merit to the argument that the special education program draws some resources away from the level of education provided all other kids in this district. I dislike pointing fingers at the state school finance system – it is too easy a target. But on this one, I think that is precisely where the blame lies. Arguably the central problem with Wisconsin’s school finance structure is not that there is insufficient funds available; it is the allocation of those funds. In particular, the funding of programs for students with special needs – special education, ELL, low income – is inadequate. Were these programs funded closer to the levels appropriate to the various students’ needs, one could not validly make the complaint that’s been made here the past few days. And total funding for Madison would be higher than it is today because we have a higher than average proportion of these students.
    A small problem with all this, of course. If the state fixed the funding formula so these programs received a more appropriate level of funding, they would necessarily have to lower funding levels for all the “normal” kids. This probably would not go down very well in those districts with a below average proportion of kids in these categories. But I would argue that would be a more appropriate way to handle school funding in Wisconsin, if we were to hold total spending constant.

  31. Lisa, I appreciate your comments. Of course what we run up against is how our schools are funded, as Peter discusses. These economic benefits you describe flowing from Waisman do little to alter the local property tax burden, the source for most of our school monies. (And I wouldn’t assume all these folks working at Waisman live in the MMSD property tax area. But assume they do. Say the average tax bill is $5K times 50 employees= 250K. Not all that goes to the schools, say, $200K. A handful of additional autistic kids drawn to Madison exceed that value.)
    Sticking with the funding theme, state aids calculated on a per pupil basis are affected when folks vote with their feet. Awhile back, someone did the calculation on how many families have left West, around 300 if I recall. That’s not an insignificant number. Why that’s happening is what I’ve been trying to discuss, the example of the high cost of educating autistic children, especially those arriving in Madison because of Waisman, just being one piece of that larger discussion.
    I raise these issues because however much I wish we did it differently, this is the fiscal situation we find ourselves in. And there are parents out there, like Ann, who are frustrated by the impacts budget cuts are making in their children’s educational experience and also angry that their children don’t seem to matter as much in the eyes of some, notably some advocating for their special needs children.
    I believe in public education. My kids are in college. Why I stay involved is because the vibrancy of our community depends on the health of its schools. I’d say we’re entering risky times. There is the perception, real or imagined, that our schools serve the neediest first, everyone else on what’s left. Indeed, some of the comments here confirm that view. Support for our schools will flag if that truly is the operating principle. That we can’t discuss this dispassionately only exacerbates the problem.
    All parents are entitled to advocate for their children and to expect that the school indeed cares about their educational success. However, it does seem the special ed parents have set themselves above the rest, reminiscent of an old adage, After me, you come first.
    Scarce resources and their fair allocation is what’s at stake. Whom our schools serve and how is integral to that debate.
    And David, sigh, no one is talking about putting special ed kids in a school closet or shoving them into an institution. In fact, what’s on the table is who the district is serving, all kids or a few, and the decisions individual families are making for their children, say, for an example that might have some resonance with you, whether to send their TAG students away to boarding school.

  32. Mr. Jorgenson’s presentation to the board about special ed., video of which was posted here yesterday (Thanks, Jim) is really worth looking at as it relates to this discussion, in case anyone hasn’t seen it.
    I am no specialist at budget reading, but reading the budget on MMSD website, it looks to me like the TAG total is about $709,000. This includes 7 FTE plus $60,000 for tutoring and transportation. Oh, yes. There is $8,000 for training in differentiation as well. ESL/Special Ed. gets $73,000,000. Pretty comical to cast TAG parents as fighting Special Ed for dollars. I would call it a virtual shut-out if that’s the way one looks at things.
    That $60,000 is for providing tutors for young children who are exceptionally advanced in math, and transporting children to schools where they can get more advanced instruction. That bit of money doesn’t go very far. My son received a special tutor in math last year for 3rd grade, together with another younger child. However, this year he ‘aged-out.’ That service is only available through 3rd grade. When I mentioned that I knew of a 5th grader at another school receiving tutoring, I was told that, yes, this option used to be available through 5th grade, but funding had been cut and this other child was enrolled at that earlier time and grandfathered in. They did offer to send my son to middle school for math this year, but deemed him not quite ready for algebra. My personal feeling about CMP is that one ought to spend one’s time and money running as fast and far away from it as possible, not towards it, so we declined the kind offer. Now he spends his math time sprawled on the hallway floor with a couple of other advanced kids, working independently.
    Joan, I really admire you for staying involved with these issues when you no longer have your own children’s welfare to directly motivate you day-in and day-out. I’m not sure I’d be able to do it myself.

  33. Sometimes life imitates art, Joan. Always amazing to me how a single comment, made in the privacy of a friend to friend conversation, ends up as fodder on some internet blogspot. The truth is yes, my father offered to pay my oldest son’s way to Exeter or Williston/Northhampton in order for him to become “more broadened”. I mentioned that to a mutual friend of ours, but I also mentioned that my wife and I were against that. We want (and need) the lad to be here, not on the east coast. So it doesn’t resonate with me, particularly, except that apparently, things get lost in translation and school politics trump personal confidence.
    Back to the topic, and either yourself or Laurie Frost might know the answer, is there any legal basis for a truly talented and gifted student to be eligible for an IEP? I ask because I can envision a situation where this could be extremely beneficial for a student, much as it has been for my autistic son (who is likely a TAG candidate for at least one subject area in 9th grade).

  34. One of the most ironic aspects of this discussion is that the spending on ESL/Special Education means that one classroom teacher is not trying meet all needs independently. Cuts in those areas are nearly as devastating to the students not eligible for the services as to those who are. As the parent of children not eligible for either special education or ESL services, I know that their needs are best served when the needs of the students around them are being met too. If I want a teacher to have time to provide my children with instruction, then I know that children who are less independent than mine have to have the support they need. In the absence of that support, the classroom cannot run well.

  35. Teacher L
    What you say sounds great in theory, but consider the example given by student above:
    “I have one class with a special ed student who, when she comes to class, has two aides with her. That’s two employees basically just sitting with her and keeping her calm. I understand that she needs extra resources, but this seems a bit egregious to me. Our schools are designed to provide education, not full life care and support.”
    So at a cost approximating another full-time teacher, one student is managed in a classroom so the other 23 students have a shot at the head teacher’s time. But they’re healthy so that’s fair, ignoring that we can no longer afford strings, have had to cut back on cleaning, employ old computers and on and on. I’m not talking about TAG programming which appears to get 1% of the amount allocated to special ed fund. This is all the other kids sitting in that classroom.
    Again, in a perfect world, with funding other than the current property tax system model and special ed mandates, what you say might make sense. But that’s not where we’re at.

  36. “I wouldn’t assume all these folks working at Waisman live in the MMSD property tax area.”
    “A handful of additional autistic kids drawn to Madison exceed that value.”
    Do you have the addresses of all children served by the Waisman Center? Given that it’s, you know, pretty centrally located, and within (relatively) easy commute of neighboring communities, might one also assume that (some) families of autistic children drawn to the area because of the center live outside MMSD?

  37. We’re way off the original post. But, the Federal Gov’t. and the State of WI have scaled way back on their commitment to Special Ed and ESL, leaving local communities to pick up the slack. I’m not sure, but I think about $40 million of the $73 million or so MMSD spends on Special Ed and ELL comes out of the general operating fund.
    I believe we have an obligation to educate all our children and as Peter G said, “…that we still try so hard to educate all children (albeit imperfectly) remains one of the few things I think is truly great about America.”
    Yes, it’s the funding caps, yes, it’s changing demographics which is putting greater strains on our resources – but, what are we going to do about it locally while the state tries to get its act together. I don’t believe it’s special ed vs. TAG vs. “normal” or whatever. It’s a much bigger issue.

  38. Is part of the problem/dilemma that too many students (be it in in MMSD or elsewhere) are identified as needing special education services? I’m not talking about profoundly developmentally disabled children, or even autistic children, or those who legitimately need services for things like hearing or sight disabilities. Special education is a pretty broad category — and there is lots of special education money flowing into school districts from state and federal coffers (regardless of whether one thinks it’s enough). Most special education determinations are made by those in the special education field, and only those with extraordinary rose-colored glasses don’t think there is a relationship between student enrollment in special education, funding, and job positions.
    When do children become identified as needing special education services? How long do they remain identified as needing these services? Do special education services for children have an end-point — that is, are they assessed as not needing the services anymore?

  39. David,
    The only situation where a “TAG” student would have an IEP is the instance of “twice exceptionality,” as it is often called. An example would be a child with an autism spectrum disorder who is also very advanced in, say, math.
    The “TAG” equivalent of an IEP is called an InSTEP (Individualized Student Education Plan, or something pretty close to that). InSTEP’s are one of the District’s best kept secrets … by which I mean it is almost unheard of for a classroom teacher or principal to even mention the InSTEP process to a parent, much less explain it fully or refer their student for one.
    Sadly, in my experience, that’s the way it’s been since our oldest (now a high school junior) entered kindergarten. It has always seemed to me that almost no parents whose children might need an InSTEP in one or more content areas (that’s how they’re done, in the individual content areas) ever hear about them. Of course, the result is that only students whose parents somehow do find out about them — and then successfully advocate to have their child evaluated — actually get them. The result is that the number of students with InSTEP’s in the District is fairly small. I believe the small numbers are used to justify reductions in services, when in fact, the District is making sure to keep the numbers small by severely restricting the flow of information. BTW, InSTEP’s don’t necessarily follow a student from one grade to the next, much less from one school to another.
    As the TAG staff and budget have shrunk over the years, a new classroom-based evaluation process has been put in place as a sort of “pre-InSTEP” step. It’s called the Classroom Action Summary (CAS). One strength of the CAS process is that it can identify advanced students in addition to the one who was actually referred for evaluation. Of course, the CAS process is also a fairly well-kept secret, rarely mentioned to families whose children need them. Then again, there isn’t nearly the staff needed to do all of the CAS’s and InSTEP’s that are probably actually needed in our district.
    Speaking of legal matters, as I have mentioned before on this blog, the MMSD has been out of legal compliance with the State statutes regarding gifted education since 1990. Unfortunately for the thousands of gifted students in need of services across the State, the DPI simply did not have a gifted ed consultant from sometime in the early 1990’s until about a year ago. That means Wisconsin’s 426 school districts were pretty much doing whatever they wanted with their “high end” students (and with their TAG staff and budgets) because no one was checking in on them and doing the (DPI-required!) compliance audits.
    But wait, it gets worse. When a parent (who also happens to be an attorney) filed a complaint with the DPI requesting that they actually do the audits that they, themselves require, the upshot was that DPI was allowed to get away with doing away with their own audit requirement!
    In any event, earlier this year, the same parent was successful in getting a judicial ruling that requires the DPI to establish identification criteria for use by all Wisconsin school districts. DPI is in the process of developing those criteria. I’m pretty sure there will be an opportunity for public comment and input, at some point down the road.
    BTW, the new DPI Gifted Education Consultant — Chrys Mursky — as well as the lawyer-parent who’s taken all of the legal action against the DPI — Todd Palmer — will be MUAE’s guest speakers at our April 18 meeting. They will be joined by UW-Whitewater Professor Pam Clinkenbeard, a nationally recognized expert in the field. And FYI, the last DPI gifted consultant — way back in the early 1990’s — was our own District TAG Coordinator Welda Simousek.
    For more information on all of this, take a look at the DPI website, the MMSD website and the MUAE website.
    For those who might be interested, I would also like to recommend a couple of recent publications on identifying and nurturing academic giftedness in students of poverty, “Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty,” by Paul Slocumb and Ruby Payne and the proceedings of the National Association for Gifted Children’s (NAGC) recent conference on the same topic, entitled “Overlooked Gems: A National Perspective on Low-Income Promising Learners.”
    See a previous post for more information:
    FYI, the talent development project that was started at Mendota ES last year was put on hold this year. Not sure why.

  40. A few years ago, the Supt. made a presentation to the School Board re special education, and its demographics. There was discussion among the board members re. the criteria for a student needing special education vs. other student services. Board members were asking about the large percentage of minority students who were in special education relative to the student body. The suggestion came up that perhaps students were “categorized” as special education in order to access a different bucket of money.
    At the time, the Supt. said the district was changing its screening approach to better target service to needs and thereby saving money and getting more appropriate services to students. I don’t know if the recent Special Education presentation to the School Board updated this information or not. Special education covers a broad range of needs – that’s the purpose of the IEP, to identify the needs and appropriate services for a child.

  41. David,
    Years ago (back in the 80’s) I heard a special education professor talk, that when the people advocating for Special Ed regulations at the federal level had asked the TAG people to join forces. The TAG group wanted to go at it themselves because they didn’t want to be “stereotyped”. As you know, the Special Ed group was very organized and successful (now know as the PL94-142). Well, you can see where the TAG group sat. In some states, they do link gifted into the special education spectrum, (I think it is at least 2 deviations from average on the IQ charts in either direction), are covered under special education in those states. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is not one of those states.

  42. Missing from this discussion and similar discussions is any recognition of what a special ed student misses by not being in a special ed classroom or pull outs, in particular a specialized teacher, using specialized curriculum to meet the student’s special needs. A regular ed classroom teacher just isn’t trained and doesn’t have the time to handle the needs of special ed children in a classroom.
    To illustrate with an analogy, putting special ed kids in a regular ed classroom is like sending all patients to family practice physicians and eliminating specialty care. The medical profession wouldn’t do it, but the education profession has.

  43. Thank you, Ed. You make a very important point, I think, and with a very easy-to-understand analogy.
    Over the years, I have known families with “special education” kids who want very different things for their children, educationally speaking, ranging from full inclusion in a regular classroom to the specialized teachers and classrooms Ed describes. I’ve often wondered what makes the difference and what variables differentiate between the different families. (SES seems like one, though I am sure that has a complex explanation.) It seems students with special education needs are no more all alike than are students who are academically talented … or any other group of students, for that matter. What a surprise! There is no such thing as “homogeneity”!
    As our Superintendent has said, once you have two students in a classroom, you have heterogeneity. Art is absolutely right on that one. Thus the real question is HOW MUCH heterogeneity is good, for the students … and for the teachers. In this age of “extreme sports” and “extreme pizza” and “extreme everything,” I’m not so sure that the “extreme heterogeneity” advocated by some folks is good for anyone. Of course, let’s not forget that our high schools do have special education departments, each with a full range of classes, many of which can be used to meet high school graduation requirements.
    Edukation4U, on the one hand, you’re right, in some states, gifted education is included as part of special education. (Wisconsin is not one of them, as you say.) On the other, I’m fairly certain that even in those states where gifted education is included as part of special education, gifted students do not necessarily benefit from the special education mandates and dollars. They are treated as a special case of special education, if you will.
    There’s a lot of information about what’s going on in each state at the NAGC website:

  44. I thought I brought that up in an earlier post when I mentioned the district where my family was previous to MMSD – at least that’s what I was trying to say (it’s hard to complete thoughts for posting when at work sometimes). I think the district could realize significant savings if the special ed students could be consolidated into classrooms that have teachers who were specifically trained for those purposes. Where is the flaw in this thinking, particularly at is juncture, when there is a $10 mil budget shortfall?

  45. Ed’s question “what [does] a special ed student [miss] by not being in a special ed classroom or pull outs.”
    I cannot respond for Spec Ed kids, but I can from the view of my daughter who was pulled out for a wholely ineffective ESL program at Leopold.
    Being pulled out made her feel stupid. She never said anything at the time to us. but now as a senior, 12 years later, we had a recent talk; the tears were real, and pain still fresh.
    Though she is on the honor roll again at West, she, and we as parents, still struggle with the emotional damage.

  46. Ann: In the MMSD, we have evolved our special ed philosophy to what is known as the inclusionary model, where special ed students are placed in the least restrictive environment. Some special ed students are educated in a separate classroom, but many are not. If we followed your lead and decided where we placed special ed students based on our budgetary shortfalls, it wouldn’t be inclusion, it would be exclusion.
    We don’t exclude a certain population of students to save money. I mean, we could, but then we’d also have to exclude TAG kids and underperforming minority kids to realize savings as well, if you actually think this type of exclusion saves money. Come to think of it, we could exclude entire schools from the MMSD;)

  47. In the special ed presentation, Mr. Jorgenson showed several graphs of the change in special ed #’s and %ages over the years. A few years ago, when we were at about 15%, 80% of all referrals ended up with an IEP. At that point some procedures were changed in the screening process which resulted in lowering the diagnosed rate to something like 2/3rds. If we had continued along the trajectory we were on at that time, our special ed numbers would be about 21-22% now. They are at 17% or so. The difference, he said, would be about $10,000,000 per year today, so we’re saving buckets of money due to these changes. These #’s are approximate from bad memory. You can view presentation for more exact, but that’s the general idea.
    He also presented #’s on how many students are included fully and partially. The inclusion #’s are quite high, much higher than most other districts. He was saying how proud everyone can be that the district is doing so well on this. I wonder if MMSD has a reputation for this that is much of a draw as something like Waisman.
    Most TAG kids would love to be ‘excluded’, but the district doesn’t want to allow ability grouping any more and is trying to do away with it as much as possible. Of course it’s more cost effective. In fact, given the TAG budget, it’s pretty much the only way these kids would have any chance of being served at all.

  48. To add to David’s most recent post, the Least Restrictive Environment is not only a tenet of inclusive education, it is a key component of IDEA (Federal Special Education Law).

  49. This entire thread has been so depressing, and it’s pretty obvious that no one is going to change their opinion anytime soon. So….bottom line is this:
    Special education students are entitled, by law, to an education in the least restrictive environment. The outcomes for self-contained education programs in special education (and ESL) have not been promising, which has meant that for many students, self-contained instruction is not the least restrictive environment.
    I don’t know what the situation was with one student and two aides, but that would be very unusual. Most special education students are as “underserved” as regular education students. I say underserved, because no one is entitled to the cadillac education that every parent wants for their child, EACH child is simply entitled to an “appropriate one” (the language of the law is “a free, appropriate, public education”).
    For the record….
    Plenty of classroom behavior comes from students who are not eligible for special education services.
    Plenty of students who are struggling academically are not eligible for special education services.
    Trying to exclude students, even if it were not a repugnant idea, is illegal.

  50. Someone very knowledgeable about special education told me the other day that of the ten million dollars that will need to be cut this time around, four million could/will come from special ed. Does anyone know anything about that? Given mandates, how could this be?

  51. Special Ed has been hit hard over the last few budget cycles – resulting in larger case loads, more clustering (higher percentages of kids with IEPS in fewer classrooms), less specialized support (district PSTs) and more.

  52. I don’t know how consolidating spec ed services would be exclusionary. It seems that ANY changes made to spec ed, even if they make sense, are met with resistance and that attitude is not conducive to solving the current budgetary crisis. ALL programs with respect to MMSD should be reexamined in the current financial environment. Let me be clear, it is not my intention to deny an education and services to any of the MMSD population and implying that I do doesn’t make it so.

  53. Last I heard (and maybe a Board member can give better details), Special Ed and Student Services was being asked to trim between $2m and 4.5m from their budget.
    Ann, pulling kids who can function in a regular classroom into a special ed classroom IS exclusion. Alas, some kids need to be pulled, and as Teacher L points out, some are not even special ed kids.
    Personally, I’d prefer to see a school closed than see the entire system (TAG, Special Ed, Sports, Arts, etc.) gutted…but then that’s a whole other ballgame.

  54. I’m not talking about making a one-size-fits-all policy with regard to a consolidation of services. I’m talking about fiscal waste for the most part. I know a substitute teacher who was called in one day to take a special ed child to his gym class. I don’t remember where it was, maybe the Y, but they rode the bus to the destination, the child received an hour of instruction and they rode the bus back to the school. Why isn’t there a gym class for these students at the school? When I was volunteering in the library at a high school I saw one aid and two spec ed students sit at a table in the library for a couple of class periods for an entire year on a weekly basis. There were no books opened, no educational discussion taking place – sometimes they slept! I’m sure the inefficiencies could be applied across the board, not to pick on special ed, and that’s what I’m talking about, not methodically dismantling the programs. The point is, this budgetary crisis may not go away any time soon so instead of whittling away at things I think programs and processes should be reexamined for more efficiencies and cost savings and possibly some other sources of revenues. I am not hearing discussion like this.

  55. David, fyi, last Monday admin reported on the effect of the gov’s budget, which included increases, I believe, in dollars for special ed that would lower the total cut required. I don’t know how that will effect cuts from special ed you mention. My understanding of the governor’s budget recommendations is the effect on the district’s budget would be to reduce the amount necessary to be cut.
    I don’t support gutting programs, rather doing some longer-term planning in areas such as sports and arts to see what can be done using multiple sources of funding, thereby possibly relieving some of the stress on the revenue cap portion of the budget. I also strongly support consolidating or more efficient use of space to cut down on non-classroom and program cuts as well as cuts to services for ALL students.

  56. David–
    I can’t believe you’d sink this low. You have posted over at the Isthmus forum a quote from this site, something I wrote, to which you appended as part of that quote something I never wrote, nor did I ever see any other person write on this site.
    Here’s the inflammatory slander you put up:
    “The cold, hard reality is which child has the chance to grow up to make our world better? The one that can grow up to be a scientist or doctor that can possibly find a way to prevent children from being born with these condtions? Or, will it be the one that can’t communicate or participate in the activities of the classroom? We all KNOW what the answer is!”
    Shame on you.

  57. I never attributed it to you Joan. I attributed it to this thread, as a result of Marc Eisen’s piece. Big Difference. I think more folks in our community should be involved in this discussion. Free speech and all. Had I only posted YOUR words, I’ve have attributed them to you, but I posted multiple posters’ words. As Ed is fond of saying, this is a public blog and cross-posting to other places is completely allowable. Now, for all we know, most Madisonians agree with you on this subject!
    I repeat: NOWHERE DID I SAY THE NAME JOAN KNOEBEL! You can stand by your own statements Joan.

  58. I also posted to the daily page forum a corrected text so that no one would mis-interpret Joan’s words. I had inadvertently added some other comments from this thread that were not Joans. My humble apologies!
    FYI, I had cut/pasted much of this thread to a text editor and printed the comments to show some of our special educators exactly what folks think about special ed funding, TAG, etc. When I grabbed the text, I failed to delineate whom wrote what, hence my error.

  59. I do stand by my OWN statements, David.
    I no longer expect you to be fair, but I at least expect you to be accurate. Accumulating posts here, amalgamations without elipses to indicate content and different authors, is wrong.
    You personify what Eisen was writing about in the article that prompted this discussion and again, if you were fair over at Isthmus, you would have provided the entire title of his piece:
    “My Life and Times With the Madison Public Schools
    Up close, the author finds that politics obscure key educational issues”

  60. This is Madison at its typical best…arguing all sorts of points and minutia, and failing to see where the common ground might be. It would be amusing, except for the fact that people take these arguments seriously, and real lives hang in the balance.
    There are limits to everything. That is a rotten thing to come up against, but it is the way it is. Appealing to a person’s conflicted feelings about the world not being fair is sort of a red herring. We try to provide everything to even the most totally disabled among us, no matter what the cost. Still, what about our neighbor who is wrongly accused, but still suffers from it? What about the immigrant who doesn’t have the chance to show what he or she could do on a level playing field? Why for example is it ok to lock up mental patients and deny them what they wish to do because their impairments present us with dilemmas we cannot easily resolve without confining them?
    We have hard decisions to make here, folks, and I don’t think it is wise to reject out of hand the thoughts of those who ask hard questions, and sincerely wonder how it will all work out, given the level and quantity of problems we all face. We cannot make it a level playing field, no matter how much we would like to do so. Let’s all try to get along, and realize that our thoughts on an issue this serious are awfully limited. There is no right answer, but a lot of sifting and searching ahead if we sincerely wish to get anywhere.

  61. I posted the comment, “the cold hard..” that Joan and David are talking about. I’ve been supportive of much of what Joan has posted and am sorry that fingers have been pointed. (My posting and hers got mixed-up?) I am not a vicious person and I have posted on this site that I believe ALL children have a right to be educated. What I am trying to say is that I’ve seen more and more of our resources going to Special Ed, while the rest of the students are getting little or nothing. I know of many elementary kids, whose parents feel that their kids are being neglected and not valued. I do want the kids in Special Ed to receive their education, too. I feel that our methods need to change. I don’t pretend to know what the answers are and I realize that we have government mandates. I have many close friends, whose children are receiving Special Ed services. All children have the right to achieve their full potential. In our current system, it just isn’t happening.

  62. Ann,
    The reason that a student would be riding the city bus and going to the Y is because as students age, appropriate instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities begins to take place in community settings. One of the hallmarks of cognitive disabilities is difficulty generalizing skills between settings. Therefore, instruction really needs to take place in a setting the student will use beyond highschool in order to be meaningful. Many students need classes to prepare them for the post-highschool experience of college. Students with cognitive disabilities need preparation for the post-highschool experience of community living outside of school settings. The difficulty with transfer-generalization, by the way, is the same reason that self-contained classes work poorly for these students.
    As to the students in the library….First, sometimes students with multiple disabilities do fall asleep at school. This may be due to frequent petit mal seizures, it may be due to sheer physical exhaustion. I’m sure that no one would prefer that the adult force the student to stay awake if they needed 20 minutes of sleep before continuing with with the day’s activities. I obviously have no idea what the students were supposed to be getting from the time they were in the library, but to those who are accustomed to looking at instruction only from a regular education perspective, it is sometimes easy to miss what is going on. Communication goals, for instance, might involve working with a student to develop a consistent way to communicate a preference between two choices. This might be done with magazine pictures, and therefore can be done in the more pleasant setting of a school library, rather than in some other isolated location. It is also possible that you were watching the result of resource squeezes in special education. Although community based instruction is the most valuable, students have to rotate opportunities in the community due to staffing and budget issues (yes, there are staffing and budget issues). When not able to be engaged in meaningful instruction, students sometimes ARE doing something that is not particularly meaningful. In fact, I would argue that it is much more likely that a student with a cognitive disability will spend a big part of the day waiting for meaningful instruction than it is that a typically developing student will. More money is spent on special education students (as individuals) than on regular education students. This is true. Some have an adult with them 100% of the time. Also true. I suspect, however, that few children without disabilities would trade lives or school experiences with a student with a significant disability–even with all the adult attention they would get. In fact, I think most students would find it absolutely stifling to have to live their lives under such close scrutiny. Developing some life skills and the ability to function in an integrated community is the only hope our students with significant disabilities have. I believe that an appropriate education for any student is one that tries to prepare them for adult life–college bound or not.

  63. I believe that we as a community (parents, taxpayers, citizens) should strive to do everything we can for each of our 24,342 students. Madison does a great deal financially, exhibited by the MMSD’s growing $331M+ budget. This budget spends more per student ($13,598) than similar large districts around Wisconsin, not to mention much of the United States. MMSD per student spending has increased an average of 5.25% annually since the late 1980’s.
    Maintaining Madison’s remarkable financial and volunteer support for young people requires confidence in the School Board and Administration’s priorities and decision making.
    ### A look at the rhetoric and current reality is useful:
    # Do we put the 24,342 students first, when a school board majority agrees not to negotiate over 17% of the district’s revenue cap budget (health care costs)?
    Continuation of this unwillingness to substantively address health care costs does not bode well for future, necessary referendums. This formerly secret issue is a powerful retort to those who claim we now have a “transparent $331M+ budget”.
    # Administrators, School Board members and candidates all publicly advocate a challenging academic environment for our students. Yet, the Administration has pushed a one size fits all curriculum approach:
    Laurie Frost:
    Let’s Really Talk About Our High Schools:
    Bruce King’s report on West High School’s English 9
    # I’ve spoken with several school board members (and candidates) about growing the use of virtual learning tools and community resources as a means of providing expanded AND lower cost learning opportunities to our students. Essentially, this approach would, in theory, free up staff resources to support the students who most need that attention.
    However and unfortunately, the Administration has moved to block student access to non-mmsd courses:
    Video here:
    Virtual learning will inevitably be a growing part of many student’s education. The MMSD is not an island.
    # Laurie Frost posted a number of questions recently regarding mandatory grouping and drop out rates.
    Having said all that, there has been some progress. The April 3, 2007 election will determine whether we continue to move forward or step back in time.

  64. I don’t now and never will buy into the notion that there isn’t a more cost effective way to accomplish the same goals.

  65. Fascinating conversation….
    So much of this talk is about money – how much of the pie goes to different types of kids. But it looks to me like we’re going about this backwards: Let’s throw money at this to make it better, rather than defining “better” and then finding ways to make the money match that.
    What does the ideal classroom look like in terms of providing the best learning experience for each kid in there? I can see some benefits of mainstreaming. I can see some benefits of segregating by ability or discipline issues. I know there are studies galore that fervently back up each concept as the “ideal” method. So can we find a happy medium?
    From my own experience and that of my elementary-age children, I think that mainstreaming is more valuable in elementary school, and having remedial/average/honors classes are more important once you hit high school (to prepare kids for the different tracks in life they choose to take: technical school, university, straight into work force, whatever). In elementary and middle school, in order to keep kids on track for learning, it would seem wise to pull kids out for certain subjects if they require either remedial or more challenging work.
    But that’s just my opinion. If we try to strike a compromise between the mainstreaming vs. non-mainstreaming factions, what would THAT ideal classroom look like? Do we mainstream everyone for certain aspects of the day and then segregate for various special needs (be they TAG, ESL, discipline; recognizing that some kids may need extra help, either remedial or more challenging, in math but not in English, etc.)? What types of tools does this classroom have? What type of training does this classroom’s teacher (and support teachers) have?
    Once we look at the ideal situation, then we need to figure out how much that costs – how many teachers we need, how many aides, etc. Then we, little by little, in a very methodical way, figure out how to trim back from the ideal to match our actual budget. In other words, if the ideal elementary classroom in our scenario has one teacher and one aide for 20 kids, but budget numbers require us to have one teacher and one aide for 25 kids, does that mean we’ll need to increase the budget for differentiation training so the teacher is better able to handle a larger mix? If the ideal elementary classroom has 5 computers available for kids at a time, but our budget allows for 5 computers for the whole school at a time, what are they missing out on with those computers that we can teach in another way, and what will that (and the training for that) cost?
    Does our district already take advantage of opportunities to get free or subsidized items for schools (free computers from Macintosh, grants for ESL or TAG or discipline issues, or whatever the case may be)?
    I wholeheartedly agree that, if an inordinate amount of MMSD’s budget goes toward teacher/staff benefits, then it’s time for the administration and the school board to get a backbone and go to the bargaining table. People in every other industry out there are seeing their companies pay less for (or offer fewer) benefits; there’s no reason educators shouldn’t be in the same boat as everyone else there. Does that stink, and do I wish we could pay teachers and staff the moon and give them top-of-the-line benefits, from health and dental to life insurance and free snow plowing for their driveways? Yes. But are reduced benefit packages for most people a fact of life? Yes.
    We HAVE to find a way to make the most of what dollars we do have. But I really believe we need to take a better, closer look FIRST at the ideal way to spend money, then work our way backwards – methodically and intelligently – to figure out how to provide the best education we can for as many people as we can with the money we DO have.

  66. As Gregg Mulry posted, we are in a difficult situation. There truly are no easy answers and this situation is, I’m afraid, going to get worse before it gets better. We had better find a way to work out some equitable compromises. Due to our ever increasing student population of ESL and Special Needs. our funds are going to get even tighter.
    Government funding and regulations exacerbate the situation, even more. It is difficult for all of us. It was stated by Teacher L that students with cognitive disabilities spend a bigger part of their day waiting for meaningful instruction, than a typically developing student does. I would strongly disagree with that, but I do strongly believe that neither students’ needs are being met. Saying that few children without disabilities would trade lives, was an unnecessary remark. Of course they wouldn’t. Just as parents of children without disabilities wouldn’t trade their children for ones that do! We all want what is best for our own kids and hopefully for all children. Teachers, parents of ESL/ Special Needs and our District need to realize how the “other” kids and their parents are feeling.
    Many of us truly feel neglected and see our piece of the ( budget ) pie shrinking. TAG receives a much smaller percent of the budget. Too many kids are in classrooms unchallenged. I know school staff have a tough job. I’ve seen, first hand, that the “other” kids are on their own. They are too frequently in classrooms with a list of things to get done that day written on the board with little or no actual instruction. I’ve heard too often from teachers that there are things they would like to do for my child and others, but don’t have time! It was written in someone else’s post, that there are many disruptions during the day by bad kids and that was as disruptive to the classroom. That is certainly true. The behavior of kids, especially in the upper grades, is unbelievable. However in the lower grades the teacher can send the kids to the office and in the upper grades there are alternative learning centers in each school. We are in a no win situation, but for the sake of our kids and our community, we’d better reach some equitable compromises.

  67. Concerned parent, I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but you might offend people when you say things like ‘bad kids.’ You need to get with the lingo, use of which may even change your actual view of reality. It’s ‘children who are exhibiting inappropriate behaviors’ or ‘children who are making less than advisable behavior choices,’ etc. It takes awhile to get the hang of it. I know it did for me, and until I did, I was probably upsetting people more than Joe Biden. I might still annoy people, but not for that reason, at least not as often as in the past. One needs to constantly examine one’s choice of words, otherwise one will be immediately dismissed as a bigot knownothing.
    The thinking is something like this- if you label someone as ‘bad’, then you’ve put them into a box and closed the door to postive behavior changes. But if you target the behavior, while allowing that the human being inside is basically decent, if misguided, it is easier to facilitate desired changes.
    This is something many of us struggle with. I need to constantly examine my own feelings. Last year, when my daughter was the prolonged target of prank phone calls by a group of male classmates, my natural reaction throughout was that these were basically good kids who had made a bad choice and gotten carried away. I didn’t want to report it to police, which was what the school recommended, and in my interactions with the involved children and parents, I always expressed that I continued to like the boys and believed they were good kids who just had made a mistake. But then I got to thinking, what if the boys had been poor, Hispanic, black? Would I have reacted the same way? I know the answer and I am not proud. In fact, one of the boys WAS a poor kid/less than sterling student and I had been inclined to believe that he had initiated the calls, although I didn’t have any real facts to back up this idea.
    Again, I don’t mean to criticize you, only to draw your attention to this. I used to mock PC speech, but although I continue to think it is frequently over-the-top, it is true that there are often good reasons to try to modify speech patterns.

  68. I did not mean to offend anyone by the use of the term “bad kids.” It actually is painstaking trying to express opinions on this site and having to so carefully choose some of your words. There typically will always be someone offended by what a person posts. That is why there are so many comments on this site! I do realize that it is a matter of poor or bad choices being made, not that the child is bad! Those who don’t agree with my ideas can chose to dismiss me as a knownothing, but I am far from a bigot! When my child or anyone else, for that matter has a conflict with another, I Do Not think about the color of their skin or their ethnic background! I do not need to chose my words to change my perception of reality. I don’t mean to criticize, either.

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