Saturday, October 19, 2002

Is OPS Making Kids "Special Ed" On Purpose?

Let's see. How to put this nicely?

Indications are that officials of the Omaha Public Schools are inappropriately coding students as "learning disabled" to make up for, and mask the consequences of, regular education programs that are deficient, and also because designating more students as "special ed" brings more money into school district bank accounts.

Not clear enough? OK. Let's tell it like it is:

OPS is ripping off both students and taxpayers by getting paid for academically disabling a significant percentage of the next generation.


The truth hurts. But there it is.

Spending on special ed instruction, transportation, Title I remediation and preschool programs in OPS cost $47.5 million in the 2000-01 school year, the most recent figures available on the State Education Department's financial reporting website, http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm

A little under $1 out of every $5 OPS spent that year went for special education. Beyond that, there are enormous cascading consequences of the additional staff, facilities and indirect costs of the special ed program that aren't accounted for in the special ed funding categories.

SPED spending in OPS increased from $37.4 million in the 1992-93 school year, the online annual reports show. That's a 27 percent increase in eight years. Are that many more kids coming to school with birth defects and serious health problems compared to past years? Or are there some funky definitions going on with special ed in order to latch on to the partial federal reimbursement that is offered for the educations of the children who fit under the various SPED categories, including "learning disabilities."

Meanwhile, taxpayers pay the freight for SPED and feel good about it, thinking that the more money we spend on the poor little kids in wheelchairs, the better we're serving their needs.

But the lion's share of that money isn't going for truly disabled students. Think about it: are there that many students in OPS who start off in school with medical problems that interfere with their ability to learn? You know . . . mental retardation, speech problems, physical handicaps, mental illnesses. . . .

Of course not. Most of the special-ed kids have nothing wrong with them, at least not that which is medically diagnosable in an objective sense.

Most special-ed kids are labeled "learning disabled." But they weren't born that way.

They were MADE to be disabled by the wrong curriculum and instructional methods in OPS and the federally-funded preschool programs that feed into it. I'm talking about Head Start, Title I and the whole language / whole math / child-centered education philosophy that has OPS and most other public school districts in an intellectual chokehold.

The "cure" for dyslexia is to be taught to read with phonics.

The "cure" for attention deficit disorder is good curriculum, taught in an orderly way in a disciplined classroom by a teacher who cares very much about the children, but whose training and focus is on doing what is effective, not just enjoyable, and that which will develop them academically.

The "cure" for behavior disability and oppositional defiance disorder and all the other labels within the wacky world of learning disabilities is to teach the kids how to read, write and figure correctly in the first place, and then keep offering good curriculum and instructional methods with them as they grow.

Instead, especially with regard to disadvantaged students whose homes can't compensate for deficiencies at school for lack of money, OPS is dumbing them down, limiting their future options, depressing their achievement by denying them what they need from school, and literally driving some of them crazy.

How could this have happened, especially since we've spent so much money on education in the last generation?

There are a lot of reasons, chief among them the teacher's colleges, which have ignored reality for years.

OPS is certainly not alone in ignoring the clear results of the biggest educational research study ever done. The $1 billion Project Follow Through, launched to chart the best course for President Johnson's War On Poverty programs, clearly found that traditional schooling in the early grades, K-3 or so, worked best for disadvantaged kids, and all kids.

Preschool should be just that: preparation for school in age-appropriate ways, not the social service agency, group therapy and political correctness indoctrination holding tank that Head Start has become.

What Project Follow Through found to be best for grades K-3 is an orderly classroom with the teacher clearly in charge, kids paying attention to the teacher, and explicit, systematic, orderly delivery of instruction in phonics, penmanship, recitation, math computation and lots of reps in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Instead, OPS and most other districts went the completely opposite way, making the K-3 grades a lot like the child-centered Head Start and special ed models. Expectations are pretty low. Kids are sprawled around on the floor trying to write with their pencils jammed in their fists and paper willy-nilly. For the most part in the early grades, they are reading mindless, preprogrammed "readers" keyed to the 14 new words they are expected to learn per year.

A phonics reader's vocabulary totals about 50,000 words by the end of high school. A whole language reader's vocabulary tends to be a fraction of that . . . some put it as low as 5,000 words.

A phonics reader tends to read and write with close to 100 percent accuracy. A whole language reader tends to reverse letters within words and words within sentences, skips lines of text, can't comprehend text with unfamiliar words that haven't been memorized, and gets eye strain because of faulty visual perception habits that set in for lack of phonics, to the point where, for many kids, reading becomes a chore instead of a productive pleasure.

It goes on. A traditional math student's computation skills positions the student for abstract, higher-order math operations like algebra, trigonometry and calculus because the student has mastered the basics. But that's not how they're being taught in OPS. Their curriculum is the "whole math" approach. A whole math student's computation skills in high school are too weak for even grade-school level math because those basics weren't delivered properly in the early grades. Without the logic and analytical discipline that comes from mastering the basics, and without competent reading ability in the upper grades, the student can't handle higher-order science such as biology, chemistry and physics, either.

No wonder the 59 percent of the students within OPS whose family income is under the poverty line aren't doing very well in school, despite the fact that taxpayers are pouring more and more money into them.

They're being held back to the point where they can be labeled "special ed" and OPS can qualify for additional outside tax funding, beyond state aid and property taxes.

There's nothing wrong with the kids. Look at the accomplishments of many generations of Americans who came before them but grew up with much more poverty than we have today.

More and more people are waking up to the fact that schools weren't "rewarded" for having more and more special-ed kids in past generations, and that is is why past generations didn't have anywhere near as many kids with learning problems as we do today.

They're being set up to be learning disabled.

Follow the money, and you'll see it.

If people vote "yes" on Nov. 5 and give OPS still more money and the green light to keep on doing what they're doing, it's only going to get worse.

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