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Evaluating States on What Matters for Students in Special Education

Monday, June 30th, 2014

Last year the Department of Education (DOE) changed the way it evaluated how well states meet the needs of students with learning and other disabilities. The old measure focused on compliance with the myriad rules set forth by the DOE (e.g. whether students were tested for special education in a timely manner); the new framework focuses on how well students in special education are being educated—the heart of the matter.

Based on the new “results-driven accountability” standards, far fewer states are adequately serving students with disabilities. According to a report in Education Week,

Last year, 39 states were deemed as meeting department requirements under the compliance-focused evaluation framework.…This year, when rated under the new evaluation framework, only 15 states  fell into the “meets requirements” category, based on data collected for the 2012-13 school year, the department said. An additional 32 states were categorized as “needs assistance.” Three states—California, Delaware, and Texas—plus the District of Columbia fell into the “needs intervention” category. 

Changing the Focus

The new measures were implemented because the DOE was not seeing meaningful academic progress under the old standards, explained Melody Musgrove, director of the office of special education programs. “Even though we have been improving in terms of compliance, because that’s what we’ve been focusing on, we were not seeing that same type of improvement across reading, and math, and graduation rates, and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities.”

According to Education Week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told members of the press that, “Evaluating states on the academic performance of students with disabilities—rather than focusing on how states comply with deadlines and paperwork—is an important shift away from ‘complacency.’”

Smart Kids Plays Role in Disability Empowerment Campaign

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

We are very pleased to participate in Mediaplanet’s Disability Empowerment campaign, launched on Friday, June 20th to raise awareness about overcoming obstacles faced by those with a disability. Smart Kids is being featured in this digital campaign alongside industry associations and public figures such as Daymond John, Henry Winkler, and others who share their personal experiences, triumphs and awareness efforts.

We invite you to view the article contributed to this campaign by our Executive Director, Jane Ross – including a sneak peek at images from the animated short, 10 Million Kids to be released at the end of the summer – at

The campaign was distributed through the Washington Post on June 20th and is published online at To read the full campaign, click here:


Changes to the ACT

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

No sooner did the makers of the SAT announce planned changes to their college aptitude test, than ACT Inc. chimed in with changes of their own to the popular ACT college-entrance exam.

According to Education Week’s College Bound blog, plans are under way to offer several new features designed to provide students with insights to enhance their learning. Included in the upgrades, currently planned for spring of 2015, are the following features:

  • A revised optional writing test that will give students more detailed feedback through four sub-scores (ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use).
  • Indicators of career readiness, which will show “students where they need to improve on specific skills sought by employers.”
  • An indicator designed to help students understand their ability to comprehend complex text.
  • A STEM score that will combine their math and science performance.

While ACT recognizes that these changes are not radical, they are hoping “to provide more meaningful insights to students to help inform instruction,” said ACT executive Paul Weeks.

For information on which test may be more appropriate for your college-bound student with LD, see SAT v. ACT: What Are the Differences.

Opinion: Community Colleges Must Change to Meet the Needs of Students with LD

Monday, June 9th, 2014

By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED         

With the average annual cost of private and public colleges nearing $41,000 and $18,500 respectively, community college, witha price tag of around $10,500 per year, is an alluring bargain. For parents of teens with LD, the ability to provide continued supervision and emotional support as their teens adjust to a more challenging environment adds to the appeal. For those parents community college seems to be a “low-cost”and “low-risk option,” which helps explain why 71% of all public school students with LD attend two-year colleges. In theory, community college appears to be an ideal choice. But looks are deceiving.

As both the parent of a son with LD and ADHD and a professional who worked at a community college, I say with conviction that parents who enroll their teens with learning disabilities in community college do so with a false sense of security.

Beneath the Surface

Yes, community colleges have a disability services office. Yes, they provide accommodations to students who present documentation. Yes, they have a tutoring center for college students-at-large. Yet, with all these seeming “safety nets”how does one explain why my community college—a state-of-the-art facility with cutting-edge technology and a claim to be “dedicated to fostering the growth of all we serve”—has a graduation rate of “14% in 150% of normal time?” Why does the average 3-year graduation rate for community colleges hover in the low 20% range, with many far below that?

It is true that many apathetic students, jobless and with poor high-school records, enroll in community college as a holding tank, simply biding their time until they figure out what they want to do. Their aimlessness contributes to the high failure rate. However, among the vast number of students with LD who are otherwise capable and choose to be in college, community college fails them. Let me provide some anecdotal evidence.

When I was first hired in 1993 as the part-time sole Learning Specialist at the local community college, fewer students with disabilities were choosing to disclose. As a result, I was able to see self-selected freshmen three times per week for individual hourly appointments. They came of their own volition because they were determined. I kept a file on each student, enabling us to pick up where we left off and track progress. Back then, I was able to get students through their developmental and introductory courses.

For years, I witnessed tentative students, with weak skills upon entering, gradually morph into confident, independent learners. Just as important, they learned how to navigate the college system successfully. I had a sense of accomplishment when I saw my students attain associate degrees, and I attended graduations with pride. Moreover, most of these graduates transferred to 4-year colleges, some with partial scholarships! Students who succeed in community college are proven entities and considered good financial risks by transfer institutions, and the sky is the limit in terms of transfer possibilities and dollars offered.

Meaningful Support

What transpired during these student appointments? Depending upon their needs, I taught students how to use a monthly/weekly academic planner to manage time for homework, tests, long-term assignments, and personal responsibilities; how to read and interpret a college textbook; active study techniques that thwart boredom and promote long-term memory; note-taking and test-taking strategies; self-advocacy skills, etc.

My opinions regarding my students’ needs were influenced by the support my son was receiving simultaneously as a student enrolled in Northeastern University’s special program for students with learning disabilities. I saw how the services he received lead to his metamorphosis, and it became very clear what I wanted for my students.

An additional element I saw as critical to my students’ success was personalized academic advising. Since I was the one most familiar with their strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles, I felt strongly about advising them myself. Although each student, upon admission, received an academic advisor in the ironically-named Student Success Center, my students had particular needs about which these advisors knew nothing. I requested they see me instead.

I hand-picked classes based on each student’s learning style, the professor’s teaching style and reputation for dealing with students who learned differently, as well as the time of day that was optimal for the student.

Just as Northeastern did for my son, I made sure my students’ credit loads weren’t overwhelming, allowing them to experience success, gain confidence, and be enthusiastic about continuing. I balanced schedules with both challenging and less-challenging classes, always trying to insert a “hook”(a course of high interest) that would make them want to return.

I taught students the principle of taking easier classes on Tuesday/Thursday (90-minute classes) versus more difficult ones on Monday/Wednesday/Friday (60 minutes in length). Educational theory says that short, frequent exposures are more effective for learning difficult material.

I emphasized the importance of students knowing their academic status in all classes at any particular time in the semester by asking their professors. I wanted no surprises. I advised them when withdrawing from a class was a wise option, and I discouraged them from taking difficult classes during the short 5-week summer sessions. I helped match their interests and strengths to potential careers, so they could visualize the possibilities.

Finally, but not of least importance, I was their personal cheerleader. Whenever they hit that inevitable bump in the road common to all students, I lifted their spirits by reminding them of their strengths and how far they had come. I said if they did not leave my office feeling better than when they walked in, I had not done my job well enough.

Creeping Culture of Failure

By the year 2000, I saw the start of significant change. The number of students presenting documentation to our office was increasing rapidly, as was the demand for my services. I could no longer see students three times per week and worried that I would no longer establish that personal connection.

By 2006, I could see students just once in three weeks, yet the college continued to keep me as a part-time employee. Accordingly, I began to see a pattern of increased failure which I reported to the higher-ups. I told them my students were falling through the cracks for lack of support. I offered to look for a grant to provide our office with personnel trained to supplement my services. For whatever reason, my boss prohibited me from exploring that option—exasperating, in light of the fact that the college seemed to have programs in place for other “at risk”populations. Was not the mission of a community college to serve all learners?

The college took tuition from these students yet refused to provide support services to help them succeed. Not only did parents lose their money, students lost their self-esteem. Sadly, both arrived at the erroneous conclusion that “college was not a possibility.” In many cases, parents and students were left with loan debt and nothing to show for their investment—in effect leaving them worse off than had they never even tried.

Misguided Priorities

As for my frustration, I gave it one more shot by appealing to the most important concern of many colleges—their bottom line. My arguments suggesting that greater support would result in retaining more full-time students, and even attract others from nearby counties fell on deaf ears.

I was mystified, and that is when I resigned. This was do-able, yet the college expressed no interest. Through the administrative grapevine, I learned that the community college preferred to be seen as “elite”rather than a college catering to the needs of students with LD. I was replaced by a full-time person—not a Learning Specialist—who was responsible for devoting half of his hours to helping with administrative duties, effectively reducing the help for our students.

I imagine misconceptions still exist, even among educated community college administrators, regarding students with learning differences—that they simply are not capable, so why throw money at them. On the surface, it seems incongruous that the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution that attracts the world’s best and brightest, has eight people on staff to serve students with LD, while our community college, teeming with students with disabilities, has but two.

Until community colleges become similarly enlightened, they will remain a waste of taxpayer dollars and a major pitfall that many unsuspecting LD students and their parents would be well advised to avoid.

Joan M. Azarva runs Conquer College with LD, a website for parents of college-bound students with learning differences. She also has a private practice in the Philadelphia suburbs that focuses on helping students make the successful transition from high school to college.

Related Smart Kids Link


Early School Start Times Are Not Good for Students

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Early school start times are hazardous to your child’s health. That’s the conclusion of sleep expert Paul Kelly, Ph.D., who recently joined policy analyst Clark Lee, J.D., in publishing a report calling for later school start times—particularly for schools that serve adolescents.

Using two decades of research to bolster their argument, Kelly and Lee claim:

  • Research shows adolescents, driven to later wake/sleep times by their biological clocks, lose as much as an average of 2.7 hours of sleep on school days.
  • There is virtually unanimous agreement in the research community that later start times in adolescent education would produce a positive change in adolescent learning, health and safety.
  • Few, if any, educational interventions are so strongly supported by research evidence from so many different disciplines and experts in the field.

Citing multiple studies, Kelly and Clark make a strong case for the deleterious effect inadequate sleep has on adolescents and young adults including impaired learning. “A 2013 study found that subjects restricted to six hours or less per night produced cognitive performance deficits equivalent to up to two nights of total sleep deprivation.” For students struggling with learning issues not enough sleep may increase their daily challenges.

In addition to poorer learning outcomes, not enough sleep is associated with increased risk of accidents and injuries, obesity, depression, and sleep disorders. Adolescents (and adults) who are sleep-deprived are more likely to indulge in “risky behaviors to control sleep including the use of sleep medications and depressants such as alcohol at night and stimulants during the day (including coffee and other highly caffeinated drinks and smoking).”

Recognizing the difficulties in changing community norms, the authors nonetheless challenge the powers that be to find ways to amend their policies:

Despite the substantial body of evidence from scientific, medical and education research supporting later school starts, almost all adolescent education in the United States currently has early start times. This leaves states, school districts and other responsible bodies in the untenable position of defending a current practice that has been demonstrated to be detrimental to student learning, health and safety. It seems prudent for these parties to demonstrate a greater awareness of the issues, engage with other stakeholders and consider some of the options for reasonable and appropriate changes.

For more details, see Later School Start Times in Adolescence: Time for Change by Paul Kelley and Clark Lee, in Education Commission of the States.


Ways to Thank Your Child’s Teacher

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Just because Teacher Appreciation Week is over, doesn’t mean you (and your child) have to wait another year to express your appreciation to the professionals who work with your child day in and day out.

In an article in BusinessWire, Dr. Eve Breier, chair of the University of Phoenix College of Education, notes that “Parents can certainly appreciate their children’s teachers by reinforcing academic and behavioral expectations at home.” But, adds Breier, “Learning how to support teachers year-round is the best form of recognition.” To do that she offers the following suggestions:

  1. Send a thank-you note. Write a letter and encourage your child to write one too.
  2. Tweet for teacher! Use social media to thank your child’s teacher publicly and highlight what they have done throughout the year.
  3. Give the gift of reading. Buy a book to add to the classroom library that is reflective of the teacher and the impact he or she has on students.
  4. Help them get organized. Parents and students can offer their time to help teachers reorganize materials and supplies that have come undone throughout the year.
  5. Create a visual. Have your child draw or paint a poster or collage with words that describe the teacher and mention fun and successful activities from the past year.

Getting Involved Throughout the Year

  1. Volunteer in class. If you are unable to volunteer in the class, be sure to have regular communication with your child’s teacher.
  2. Get civic. Become involved in the PTA, serve as classroom parent and advocate for other parents to become involved. Work with your child’s teacher to create a Professional Learning Community (PLC) among parents who meet regularly to discuss key topics, including curriculum and Common Core State Standards.
  3. Chaperone a field trip. This is a great way to assist the teacher while enjoying a unique educational experience alongside your child.
  4. Be engaged. Many teachers and schools post lesson plans and school activities online and provide opportunities for parents to be involved in classroom and school discussions.
  5. Ask! Simply ask the teacher how you can contribute to the class in the most supportive way possible.



Wide Disparities in Graduation Rates Remain for Students in Special Education

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Graduation rates are steadily increasing, but for students with disabilities the gap remains large.

According to data released by the Institute of Education Sciences, 80% of students graduated high school in 2012, representing an “historic” high, and a slight improvement over 79% for the prior year.

This latest overall 4-year graduation rate reflects slight improvements among most segments of the student population measured: minorities, students in special education, disadvantaged students, and English Language learners.

Gap for Special Education Students

The gap, however, remains wide between those students and their white and Asian peers. For example, the on-time graduation rate for students in special education was 61%—an increase from 59% the previous year. By contrast, the rate for white students was 86%, and for Asian students it was 88%.

Although the trend is positive, these numbers show that there is still a great deal more work to be done to ensure that all students, including those with learning disabilities, graduate on time.


TV Time Linked to Sleep in Children

Monday, May 12th, 2014

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and teens get 10 hours of sleep per night. If your child is not getting at least that much sleep, you might consider less TV time.

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, a study of “more than 1,800 children from ages 6 months to nearly 8 years old found a small but consistent association between increased television viewing and shorter sleep duration.”

The research was a long-term study that analyzed annual parent-reported data from the time the children were 6 months old through age 7. The factors looked at were the daily amount of time children watched TV, whether they slept in a room with a TV, and the average amount of sleep they got. Consistent with other short-term studies, this research team from Mass General Hospital for Children and Harvard School of Public Health found that more TV was associated with less sleep:

Each additional hour of television viewing was associated with seven fewer minutes of sleep a night, with the effects appearing to be stronger in boys than in girls. Racial and ethnic minority children were much more likely to sleep in a room where a television was present, and among those children, the presence of a bedroom television reduced average sleep by around 30 minutes a night.

Good Sleep Habits

In addition to monitoring TV time, the National Institutes of Health provides these strategies to ensure that your child gets enough sleep:

  • Have a set bedtime and a bedtime routine. Don’t use the child’s bedroom for timeouts or punishment.
  • Try to keep the same sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends. Limit the difference to no more than about an hour.
  • Use the hour before bed for quiet time. Avoid strenuous exercise and bright artificial light, such as from a TV or computer screen.
  • Avoid heavy and/or large meals within a couple of hours of bedtime. (Having a light snack is okay.)
  • Spend time outside every day (when possible) and be physically active.
  • Keep the bedroom quiet, cool, and dark (a dim night light is fine, if needed).

Arne Duncan’s Big To-Do List

Monday, May 5th, 2014

With time running out for the Obama Administration, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a long list of items he still hopes to address before the changing of the guard in 2017.

In a wide-ranging interview with Education Week, Duncan laid out his priorities. Among the top items are helping states transition to higher standards, introducing teacher evaluations tied to test scores, expanding preschool, and overhauling regulations that govern teacher-prep programs. “A lot of change in a short amount of time—none of it easy,” says the Secretary.

Conspicuous by its absence was any mention by Duncan of plans to address inequities, an issue that has become a flashpoint for civil rights and education policy advocates who are frustrated with this administration’s lack of focus in this area.

When asked about that, Duncan admitted, “I don’t think we’ve done enough.” He did, however, defend the administration’s position on closing opportunity gaps by noting that equity was fundamental to many of the Department of Education’s initiatives, citing several examples including the release of Civil Rights data, the expansion of Pell Grant recipients, a significant decrease in the dropout rate for Hispanic and black students, and the administration’s efforts to expand pre-K education.

Concluding the interview, Duncan admitted that much of what he has set out to do won’t be realized until long after his tenure at the DOE is over:

Four years in, if you look across the country at which states are moving the fastest, disproportionately it’s Race to the Top states. The real test for me isn’t now, but four or five years from now. And if the progress stops when the money stops then we would have failed. But if we’ve built something that’s sustainable and that has fundamentally transformed the opportunity structure in these states, then that’s a really, really big deal.

As always, history will be the judge.


Parental Involvement: Not What It’s Stacked Up to Be

Monday, April 28th, 2014

If there is an educational principle that nearly everyone agrees on it is the benefits of parental involvement to the academic success of children. New research, however, is challenging that fundamental pillar of educational policy.

According to sociologists Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, “most forms of parental involvement…do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.”


Stunning Results

Writing in The Opinion Pages of The New York Times, Robinson and Harris present the surprising results of their extensive study that looked at data spanning three decades and included a variety of demographic factors.

The notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up. After comparing the average achievement of children whose parents regularly engage in each form of parental involvement to that of their counterparts whose parents do not, we found that most forms of parental involvement yielded no benefit to children’s test scores or grades, regardless of racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic standing.

In fact, there were more instances in which children had higher levels of achievement when their parents were less involved than there were among those whose parents were more involved. Even more counterintuitively: When involvement does seem to matter, the consequences for children’s achievement are more often negative than positive.

Homework Help

Surely, all those hours of sitting across the dining room table helping your child with homework has a positive impact. Not so, according to the evidence:

When we examined whether regular help with homework had a positive impact on children’s academic performance, we were quite startled by what we found. Regardless of a family’s social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child’s grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Most parents appear to be ineffective at helping their children with homework. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.

Do these new findings mean parents have no role in promoting positive educational outcomes for their children? Absolutely not say the researchers, but the areas where involvement seems to pay off are few and between. They include “expecting your child to go to college, discussing activities children engage in at school, and requesting a particular teacher.”

In essence, the optimal role for parents is to “set the stage, and then leave it.”


A Double Blow to Commonly Held Beliefs

Perhaps the most surprising finding of this study is that it challenges the widely held view that parental involvement (or lack thereof) explains the achievement gap between races and classes: As the researchers note, “Our findings suggest that the idea that parental involvement will address one of the most salient and intractable issues in education, racial and ethnic achievement gaps, is not supported by the evidence. This is because our analyses show that most parental behavior has no benefit on academic performance.”

They also found that the underlying notion behind the prevailing sentiment—that parents of some races and ethnicities were less involved than others in their children’s education was patently wrong: When examining the frequency of parental involvement by race and ethnicity (black, Hispanic, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Pacific Islander versus white, Chinese, Korean, and Indian) the research found “that parents [in the first group] tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents in the second group.”

To learn more, see Parental Involvement Is Overrated; Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and Harris, a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Duke, are the authors of “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education.”