If you thought my column two weeks ago about a struggling fifth-grader was an indictment of the Prince George’s County school system, please read the flood of comments to my blog about that.
The issue I discussed — some teachers being unable or unwilling to help a bright child with a learning disability — is not just a problem in Prince George’s, the responses show. It is every district’s problem.
If that is not the case, then why were there so many complaints about insensitive teachers from Montgomery County, which, unlike Prince George’s, is one of the wealthiest and highest-performing districts in the country? One Montgomery mother said the staff members at her daughter’s high school forgot their promises and a psychologist’s recommendation to give the girl reminders when assignments were due. “They wouldn’t implement a plan for her because her test scores were too high,” the mother said.
Montgomery father Andrew Mitz said his son had the same condition, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as the Prince George’s student I wrote about. Montgomery schools often did well, he said, but still his son “too often faced teachers who would rather not trouble themselves with appropriate accommodations.”
This being the Washington area, some commenters squabbled over whether ADHD should be classified as a “specific learning disability” or “other health impairment” under federal regulations. One teacher with ADHD, Michelle McGee, said my calling it a disability was an insult to her. “I prefer to think of it as an impairment, like being nearsighted,” she said.
Whatever the federal designation, it is hard to see the condition as anything but disabling if it is keeping children from learning and teachers are not following procedures designed to help. The federal government has recognized this. A March 30, 2001, policy letter from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs said that although ADHD “is not one of the specified disabilities in and of itself,” children who have it “may have a disability under one or more of the specified disabilities such as Other Health Impaired.”
I am glad we got that straight. Many of the online responses and conversations I have had with experts underline the solution. If you hire good teachers and give them the information and support they need, children with disabilities will benefit.
Duane Arbogast, the chief academic officer for Prince George’s public schools, is a former elementary school principal who has often dealt with learning disabilities. Reacting to the notion of teachers unsympathetic to an ADHD child who often forgot her homework assignments, he said, “What doesn’t work is fussing at the kid.” He said various approaches can instill good habits and help a child be responsible. Just a series of pictures reminding a student of the vital steps in checking assignments can work wonders, he said.
Many readers said students and parents should be able to retrieve forgotten assignments online. That doesn’t work for families without Internet access but might have worked for the child I was writing about, so is worth exploring. The principal of Heather Hills Elementary School, which the girl attended, said her staff members followed all the rules. The fact that that didn’t work suggests rules are not as useful as good teaching.
Helping children with disabilities can help everyone. West Laurel parent Monica Gribben, whose child is gifted and disabled, gave me an example of what a resourceful educator can do. This teacher had students lay on their desks just before final bell the items they thought they needed to take home. She walked around the room and quickly spotted anyone missing any materials.
That is happening in some Prince George’s classes and other places. Why not everywhere?
For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.