Sunday, June 5, 2011

Public Comment to the Michigan Board of Education forum in Ann Arbor

To: Members,  Michigan State Board of Education
Date:  May 26, 2011                                 

My name is Kathleen Kosobud.  I am a “temporarily retired” special educator working on my dissertation. My research focus is on family-school collaboration in special education. I am one of the first 87 teachers in the country to have achieved the status of National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT-EA/Generalist, 1993).  I am also the immediate past president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Michigan (LDA), an all-volunteer organization; and I am finishing my service as LDA’s representative on MDE’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC).  I am here to speak from my experiences as a teacher, parent, and advocate about righting the course for students with disabilities as they are challenged to meet the High School Content Expectations or “huskies” (HSCEs) of the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC).

I read the SBE’s recommendations to Governor Snyder: “Education Improvement and Reform Priorities” and heartily endorse your performance focus regarding graduation, and the ability of graduates to “obtain post-secondary credentials that ensure they are well-equipped with skills for work, self-support, starting a business, and contributing to the common good”. This year marks the first graduating class affected by the changes in curriculum requirements through the Michigan Merit Curriculum.  Although the initial legislation was passed in 2006, with additional legislation supporting the development of “Personal Curricula” (PCs) for students with disabilities passed in 2007, it seems that districts across the state are still unprepared or unwilling to implement PCs for students whose identified disabilities interfere with successful completion of the MMC, without such modification.  During the past year I have fielded calls from parents who have encountered varying forms of resistance to their requests for PC plans for their high schoolers.

One parent called me after school personnel at her son’s 9th grade special education planning meeting (IEP), told him that he would not be getting a diploma.  Stunned by this pronouncement, his comment was, “Then why am I bothering to go to school?”

Another parent called me when her daughter, a senior with mathematics learning disabilities, flunked her first semester of Algebra II.  Although this parent had requested a Personal Curriculum for her daughter since her freshman year, the district said that she had to fail courses in order to warrant consideration for a Personal Curriculum. So, until her senior year, she was left to struggle through all of the curriculum requirements at her high school, without PC modifications and lagging in credit. Since she also was having difficulty with the mathematics HSCEs of chemistry, the district suggested that she drop Band (the one course in which she was experiencing success), in order to take a team-taught class in chemistry, and repeat the Algebra II course that she failed.  Finally, because she was going to be short of credits for graduation at the end of the year, the district would not allow her to walk with her graduating class--students with whom she had attended school for all 12 years of her time in this rural district.

A third parent called after a district told her that they “didn’t do” PCs. Period. This troubles me on a number of levels.

First, students with high-incidence disabilities have always had the potential for gainful employment and full participation in the adult world, with appropriate accommodation for their disabilities.  The reluctance of districts to respond affirmatively to requests for Personal Curricula is punitive, and mean-spirited.  Loss of access to a diploma represents, for students with disabilities, lifelong diminishment of opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics[1] in April of this year, people with less than a high school education experienced a seasonally adjusted 14.6% unemployment rate nationally.  High school graduates for the same time period experienced a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 9.7%.  This is nearly a 5% difference.  Further, for men with disabilities, ages 16 to 64 years old, the unemployment rate was 16.1%, compared to a 9.2% unemployment rate for those without disabilities[2]  Women in the same age range were unemployed at 15.2% with disabilities and 7.8% without.  We don’t need to “help” our students with disabilities add to these sorry statistical outcomes.

Second, denial of the opportunity to complete high school with the support of a PC reinforces the abundantly-felt lack of self-worth that students with disabilities often acquire as part of their school experiences.  From the time that they begin to show achievement differences, students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied, excluded and devalued.  Denial of opportunity to complete high school with a diploma is, in effect, an institutional validation of everything that students with disabilities have internalized since the early years of their schooling.  Without hope, we see a rise in risky behavior, alienation, and ultimately the justification needed for dropping out.

Third, the failure of districts to appreciate that people ultimately contribute to society in a variety of ways has led to a decrease in the wealth of options for students to be successful in completing “as much as is practicable” of the Michigan Merit Curriculum, in alignment with their talents, interests and career goals.  Many Michigan districts are experiencing, for example, a decrease in enrollment in Career and Technical Education courses, even though there could be many opportunities for the embedding of practical mathematics and sciences in these courses, in fulfillment of the MMC.  Like many of you, I depend on skilled technicians when I need home improvements or repairs. It is a short-sighted form of budget-consciousness that comes out of districts interpreting the MMC as a series of “one size fits all” classes.

I don’t think that the Michigan Board of Education had any intention of increasing the stratification of students by recommending the MMC.  In fact, two years ago, while I was still president of LDA of Michigan, we printed and distributed buttons like the one I’m wearing that reads:  “Rigor, Relevance, Relationships…and ACCESS!”   I adhere to the notion of “assuming competence” in all individuals and so I see the MMC as an opportunity for districts to collaboratively create classes and programs that allow for maximum learning diversity.

Button Design, LDA MI Conference 2009

We have many resources in place to offer technical assistance and support through Michigan's Integrated Improvement Initiatives (MI3)[3] for this work. We can make school a much better environment for students with disabilities, from the time they are identified through the time that they successfully complete high school with the appropriate supports, services, accommodations, and modifications. Districts across the state are using the MMC to develop courses that have the capacity to engage a variety of learners through multiple representations of content, differentiation in the ways that students interact with the content, and opportunities for students to demonstrate their mastery of content in a variety of ways.  These need to be widely shared, and easily accessed by those districts that have fewer resources to devote to the task of curriculum development. Finally, we need to remember that the workforce that will bring Michigan out of its economic slump depends on having diverse enough skills that the collapse of a single industry will not bring us to our knees.

Michigan’s Board of Education has laid the groundwork through the policies that it has crafted to make a more equitable and attainable future. In the words of the late Ronald Edmonds, my former Pioneer High School history teacher (1978 speech):

“We can whenever, and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need, in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Thank you.

About N Kathleen Kosobud:  Kathleen is a member of the Network of Michigan Educators, a group of 500 or so recognized educators in Michigan who are available to state policy-makers for their expert opinions on policies affecting education and children, through the “Ask the Network” program started by Jean Shane at the MDE.  Kathleen blogs for LDA of Michigan at, and for her own amusement at  She was one of the contributors to the revamping of the teacher education program at Michigan State University’s School of Education through a project to infuse inclusive content into all teacher education courses for the preparation of new teachers, under the guidance of Susan J. Peters, Ph.D. After achieving National Board Certification as an Early Adolescence/Generalist as a teacher of middle school mathematics in a special education resource classroom, she served as a teacher-in-residence for Assessment Development at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.  She is the parent of two adult children with learning disabilities, and identifies as a person with learning disabilities, herself.  You can reach her by e-mail.

[1] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A4: Employment Status of the civilian population 25 years and over by educational attainment, accessed 5/25/11

[2] US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Table A-6. Employment status of the civilian population by sex, age, and disability status, not seasonally adjusted,, accessed 5/25/11


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