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Steve Hansen: State and federal planners are out of touch with schools

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Posted: Monday, June 23, 2014 11:15 pm

So what’s wrong with centralized planning for public schools?

Nothing, except legislators who mandate these decrees are often out of touch with daily struggles of classroom teachers.

Case in point: Several years ago, I coordinated a special education program for a comprehensive high school. The services were quite elaborate, ranging from those for students with severe intellectual developmental disorders, to those for students with average abilities coupled with specific learning issues. Kids with major emotional disturbances were another part of the mix. Fourteen teachers and several classroom aides served in the program.

It was almost a full-time job just keeping up with the latest court cases, laws, regulations and procedures. But it wasn’t always that way.

Back in the mid-’70s, when these programs began with federal legislation known as Public Law 94-142, a student IEP, or Individualized Education Program, covered about two pages. When I left, it was 30 pages and growing. In order to please a variety of government overseers, most special education teachers spend 20 to 30 percent of their workweek filling out IEP paperwork and participating in mandatory meetings.

One day, I was asked to attend a conference in an area of special education created by legislation and regulation. The themes were “BIPs” (Behavioral Intervention Plans) and “FBAs” (Functional Behavioral Assessments) — a more elaborate version of the basic behavior plan.

The idea behind these mandates is that all behavioral problems in schools can be solved effectively by calling a meeting with a variety of folks who have interests in a specific student’s undesirable conduct. This committee defines the underlying cause of the problem, and formulates a plan for modification.

A four-star hotel ballroom was the site of the conference. More than 150 coordinators, administrators, school psychologists and teachers from a number of school districts attended the event. We sat at round dining tables equipped with water pitchers and white tablecloths.

It began sharply at 9 a.m. An obsessive-compulsive, middle-aged lady — wearing a nicely tailored gray suit — entered the scene and began the presentation. She had all the latest equipment and charts — including HyperStudio, of course. She started with a comment about how fortunate we were to live in California and then launched into a sleep-inducing three-hour lecture.

Some examples of common behavioral problems were discussed. But mostly, it was a lesson in procedures as to how to fill out forms for behavioral problems that will please the higher-ups — along with ever-menacing attorneys and self-appointed student advocates found in every school district.

Just before the break at 10:15 a.m., I looked around the room and noticed heads falling and eyes drooping. Age and gender made no difference. Some were doodling, while others were reading unrelated materials. Still others looked at their timepieces — hoping the noon hour would magically arrive sooner than expected.

Finally, it was 11:58 a.m.

The instructor made an announcement: “Well, I see we have two minutes until we break for lunch that has been prepared for you.” (She pointed to the long table of goodies along the east wall of the room.)

“Now, I’m going to dismiss you by tables so we all don’t run up there at once,” the dark-haired woman stated with a nervous giggle. “I’ll start with table one.”

At that moment, I got up from table 14 and headed for the “eats.”

“Sir? Sir?” as she looked me while speaking into a microphone. “I’m dismissing by tables.”

In my usual rebellious mode, I yelled back, “Write me a behavior plan!” and continued on my hunger-relieving journey.

The whole place erupted in uncontrollable laughter.

Was it because of my comment or something more serious? A guess is my unorthodox response reflected the frustration of the participants. They were all on the frontlines dealing with daily pupil deportment. They knew filling out mounds of paper was not going to solve many of their students’ behavioral issues.

From this story, you can see a problem that lies with centralized planning. Policies in far-away government offices — created by folks with six-figure salaries to please their masters — may or may not have merit in the actual world.

As well-meaning as intentions might be, often these fanciful folks just don’t seem to “get it.”

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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