Posts tagged ‘Special education’

Part II: How the NYC DOE gets teachers to work for free (or cheap)

My previous post shared some of the frustrations the Department of Education puts us through to get services for students in need. Now it’s time to expose how the DOE unconscionably rips off the special ed teachers and related service professionals who actually provide these services on the front. I pointed you to this NBC report, but that only tells half the story: it only addresses the payments that were delayed, not those that were altogether denied, and it makes no mention of the obstacle course the DOE puts us through to get any payment at all – not to mention the payments that disappear altogether.

There are two stories here: The DOE’s internal problems of inefficiency, incompetence, and unfairness which cause ignorable inconveniences to ignorable little people like me, and their major mix-up this year that turned the entire population of independent SETSS providers on its ear. SETSS stands for Special Education Teacher Support Services, and independent contractors provide these services to students who do not receive them directly from DOE employees, usually because they attend a non-public school by choice. Since special education services are the school district’s responsibility regardless of school placement, the DOE is supposed to reimburse the providers for our work.

Our contract isn’t great, but there isn’t any room for negotiation. Because it’s up to the parents to find an independent provider for their children, the DOE simply doesn’t care if you don’t want to work on their terms. Let the parents go crazy trying to find someone who will sign on to it. Among the terms of the service:

  • You’re only paid for time when the student’s body is actually there with you. Spent 30 minutes traveling to his house only to wait for 15 minutes at the door until you realize nobody’s home and they forgot to tell you? Tough. What other professional would accept this? Every therapist I’ve ever visited requires 24-hour notice of cancellation in order to cancel the bill as well. Even an hour would be enough for me to save my travel and waiting time, and possibly even squeeze in a different client. How about the kid who got suspended and needed a week’s worth of home-based curriculum coordinated with all his teachers and communicated to him at home? Hours at my desk and on the phone. No body in school, no money.
  • You’re required to tend to all of the child’s special education needs, including attending IEP meetings, collaborating with general ed teachers, etc. Again, no pay for this time. We’re not even talking prep time, but actual in-person meetings mandated by the DOE about the student’s services. But you only get paid for “direct” teaching time.
  • Provide make-up sessions only during the same week, but not on the same day as a regular session. Most students are mandated to receive services 5 days a week, so there isn’t any day that isn’t the same as a regular session. So, that student for whom you killed an hour because they were absent with no prior notice? Forget about getting that hour back. No matter how much school work he missed during his absence, which will be harder for him to make up due to his special needs, you get your same one period a day to catch him up. If he was absent for a week, that’s a week’s worth of income you’ll just never see.

Well, it’s their game, so we play by their rules. I sign on the dotted line agreeing to the above terms (among others). I mail my signature in to the CSE (Committee on Special Education – the ones in charge of these forms) and, if all goes well, I get back an approval letter. Theoretically, I shouldn’t work with the student until I get the approval, but that could take a month – a month in which they’re supposed to get services, not slip ever farther behind their general ed peers. So I just sort of count on the approval coming. The approval letter says that at the end of each month, I should send an invoice together with a copy of the approval letter and expect payment within 6 weeks.

  • Question: Can’t they just keep a database of which services they approve? Why do I need to make copies of your own approval letter to send back to you over and over again every month? *cue moans of dying trees*

Here’s where the fun starts. So far, it’s all been logical: I sign to their rules, do what they said, complete the invoices, copy the approval letter, and wait for the check in the mail. Instead of a check in the amount I’ve billed, here are some examples of what I (and others) received instead:

  • A check for 75% of the amount I billed. No explanation for the difference.
  • The exact same papers I sent in, stamped “Received,” with a note saying I haven’t sent them (I sent back the EXACT same set of papers again, just swapping the to and from addresses and re-paying the postage. This time they found nothing missing. *shrug*)
  • A message saying that my handwritten invoices are invalid because one date was corrected with white out
  • A message saying that my handwritten invoices are invalid because from now on all invoices must be typed
  • And finally, this year’s new zinger: A letter saying that I can’t bill for services until I sign into a series of websites with exactly the same information, and then communicate with a bunch of people to say I did so.

I oppose overlong blog posts on principle, so since my word count is again approaching 1,000, I’ll save the autopsy for the next post. Spoiler: I will never recover the missing 25% of that paycheck, but that didn’t bring me to tears as the rest of the frustration did. It only gets better.


February 6, 2013 at 10:18 pm 1 comment

How New York is destroying Special Ed

Bureaucracy is typically a nightmare, but the NYC Department of Education takes it to a whole new stratum, preventing students with special needs from accessing vital services and then nickel-and-diming the providers of such services. This year, they proudly graduated to a new level of insanity, creating widespread headache epidemics throughout the city. (Note: I speak from the perspective of an independent contractor providing SETSS to students in non-public schools.)

It is January, just about halfway through the school year that began five months ago. Three of the eligible students in my class are only beginning their special education services now. Three kids waited five months. Besides slipping dangerously far behind in their academic work, the one whose counseling was delayed already earned a suspension and was almost expelled. This is a sincere student who is interested and willing to work with a school counselor on his impulsiveness. What’s the holdup? Some of it was simply lack of communication. In an ideal world, when the IEP team decides to mandate services for a child, they should automatically and immediately present the parents with the necessary forms to make the services happen. Instead, the DOE tends to rest on its laurels until the parent comes knocking:

Parent: You said my kid was supposed to get SETSS. Why isn’t it happening? The school says they never got the approval letter.
CSE: Let’s see… it seems you never sent in the Mumble Jumble Crumble form.
Parent: What form?
CSE: You have to send in the MJC form. We don’t have your MJC.
Parent: I never heard of any MJC! What’s an MJC?
CSE: Oh fine, we’ll send you one. Fill it in and send it back, then we can send you the approval.

This is if the parent is lucky enough to reach a person on the first try. Often you’ll be told “they’ll call you back” to hold you off for another week or two until you decide to call them. And what they don’t tell you is that you’d better keep a copy of your form because you will probably have to send it again after they lose it.

So that’s a communication problem. Remember that, because it happens to the teachers later in this post, too. There’s also an efficiency problem. The DOE buildings must be heated by a paper furnace; it’s the only way to explain why they require reams of paperwork and yet often don’t seem to have the document du jour. Like this parent, who knew from experience to request the MJC or whatever form her kid needed:

Parent: My child is supposed to be getting SETSS, as per his IEP. Please send our MJC.
Parent: We still haven’t received our MJC….
CSE: Your child’s services were discontinued.
Parent: What! He still has a learning disorder. He is still failing in general ed. And his current IEP, signed by your representative, says his services should continue!
CSE: His file says his case was closed.
Parent: WHY?
CSE: It says “lack of parental involvement.”
Parent: What does that mean? I was just at his IEP meeting three months ago. You have my dated signature on his IEP, which says that he should get services through June 2013.
CSE: You need to prove it.

Even though their own people had signed that IEP a few months earlier, and they presumably retained a copy for their records, the mother had to take a day off of work to march hers to HQ and argue for her involvement. Then they had to start again with the MJC. Thank goodness for involved parents or these kids would never get anywhere.

Another one got the forms through without a hitch. But the approval form was missing the specified number of sessions. They won’t honor that. So the parents sent it back and, unbelievably, they actually received it back again without undue delay! This time the kid’s name was misspelled. Of course if there’s any mismatch on any records, it’s as if it never happened. So it had to go back AGAIN. Why did they even re-type the kid’s name? They only had to enter a single digit onto the existing form!

So, that’s why I am still starting with new students in December and January. One year I let a kid into the program without the approval in hand, under the assumption that since his IEP said he was supposed to get services as of the first day of school, that meant the approval would come. It didn’t. Probably lack of parental involvement (the parents were fine, but most people don’t realize you have to be a battering ram to get anywhere in the DOE. They were lovely, un-pushy people.) I never saw a dime for all the work I did with that student before realizing that the forms wouldn’t show up. I, along with most other slightly-jaded providers, no longer see students on credit – or at least, I limit the amount I will see on credit at a given time (sometimes they’ll honor the IEP retroactively, but now I know not to count on it). I really feel for the kids, and for the general ed teachers who have to deal with them alone, but I have to pay my rent.

Another student began acting out and losing focus in class. The mother wanted him to see the school counselor because she felt it was likely a response to his father having recently become seriously ill. The DOE denied the services because he had passed the state tests (taken before the father’s illness) so he obviously didn’t need any educational help. At the risk of sounding unsophisticated: D’oh.

There, we have now solved half of the DOE’s budget deficit by avoiding approving (and hence paying for) special services for the most vulnerable students. In my next post, I will elaborate on how the DOE resolves the rest of its budget woes by avoiding paying even for services already approved and provided. Stay tuned, the fun is only beginning!

February 1, 2013 at 2:02 am 2 comments

The Ikea Epiphany

The day we brought Billy home was a deeply spiritual experience.

For the uninitiated, Billy is a bookcase.

We tenderly unboxed the pile of planks, and a leaflet fluttered out. There was not a single word in the book, yet I was able to read it fluently and derive great education and entertainment from it.

Don’t be sad. Get a happy friend with a pencil.


Small person, don’t climb Billy!

I had to exercise a few good comprehension skills, such as paying attention to items in sequence, but I didn’t have to go through any torturous processes of rereading, dictionary consulting, and re-rereading with alternative meanings. Never did I lose track of the point by the time I reached the end of a convoluted sentence. Wait, that’s because there were no sentences. Either way, it certainly exercised a different part of the brain than we’re used to.

If I was ever unsure or even mistaken in my understanding of the diagrams, nothing was lost. In case I missed the part where it said 

I was still covered because the square peg wouldn’t fit into the round hole even if  I did try it. You could force it with a power drill or something, but if you knew that everything was meant to work out then you just re-read, looked over your pieces, and tried again.

By the time Billy looked like the picture at the top of the post (I didn’t time it. Must have been under an hour, I think) I was only slightly sweaty but felt like this:

We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely ...

While I stood around admiring Billy and feeling accomplished, I thought, I wish my students could build all their own classroom furniture out of IKEA. Imagine the empowerment and ownership they would feel! And school furniture is bleeping expensive; what you lose in durability in some IKEA items you could probably make up for easily enough with the price difference, especially when you factor in that you’ve also gotten a neat extracurricular activity – not exactly wood shop, but certainly, say, life skills? Team building?

Having realized that my school is already furnished (though I still ponder pitching IKEA assembly as an extracurricular activity option when opportunities do arise for furniture replacement), my next thought was Can we get the IKEA people to write create instructions for tests and learning activities? I know it’s not for everyone; I’ve heard many people rant in frustration after meeting their Billies or Ørkdrüngs or whatever, but maybe those left-brainers could use the exercise anyway. My non-readers, poor readers, and interesting thinkers could certainly use the break. My understanding is that IKEA made a conscious decision to invest heaps of  energy into designing components that fit together and instructions that could be understood by anyone so they would be spared construction costs and customer service hassles in the long run. Assuming that they’re not looking to change careers anytime soon, it’s left to me – us – to apply these principles to our instructional design.

I can see this concept going great places. For starters, note that everything in the manuals is very simplified, language is kept to a minimum, and perhaps most importantly, each step shows what NOT to do in addition to the desired action. (disclaimer: Of course students should do plenty of reading and learn to follow written directions. However: 1. Not all students are capable of doing so – e.g. the young and/or the language/reading impaired, this post is dedicated in large part to them; 2. Sometimes getting clear, foolproof directions across is a greater priority than having a linguistically rich experience)

I wonder if I can market this to the formal test makers; we spent ages just reading directions the other week. Or, even better, the people who package science experiment kits. Me and that cute little Swedish guy with the pencil behind his ear, we’re going places!

May 8, 2012 at 4:05 am 1 comment

Friday Finds: CEC SmartBrief

About a year after graduation, I felt like I was drying up.

For about six years, I had been immersed in a constantly-updated world of theory and research. I regularly interacted with others of my ilk who were also occupied full-time in improving their teaching practices through trial and information-gathering. I happily considered myself well-informed and felt mighty intelligent.

And then it was history. Out in the field, my education did serve me well, and I frequently referred to ideas I had read about during my college years. But one day I woke up and realized that the world was moving on without me, unless I would keep pace.

So I headed over to the CEC website, intending to join the preeminent organization for special educators, thus renewing my professional self-image and subscribing to their acclaimed journal, Teaching Exceptional Children. I left the website without a membership.


Because instead I signed up for the CEC SmartBrief. Now, I should probably still aspire to full membership one day. But for now, this service delivers relevant headlines to my email inbox daily – and free of charge. The articles it links to come from a wide range of sources, including both popular mainstream media as well as more focused, professional education publications. They cover the gamut of topics of interest to special educators, from technology to research to teaching ideas to politics. Each link is summarized in the email so you can easily decide which might be worth your time.

The one gripe I have is that it’s not quite selective enough. Some may like that they get so many articles to choose from, but I find the daily influx somewhat overwhelming. There is no option to choose specific areas of interest, and many topics recur frequently to the point of feeling redundant. But overall, it is definitely worth subscribing. I never receive any spammy promotional stuff from them, just the news briefs. And you can’t beat the price.

Sign up here.

January 6, 2012 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

Friday Finds: Overcoming Dyslexia

This one is getting a little old, but remains one of my all-time favorites. It is a must-read for all teachers and for parents of struggling students. Also recommended for the general public.

Dyslexia (a specific brand of reading difficulty) is one of the most important and misunderstood conditions in special education. In this book, Sally Shaywitz, M.D., covers  everything you want to know about it – and she does it concisely in plain English. Overcoming Dyslexia is an easy, interesting read even if you have never thought about dyslexia before. It’s written for real people and includes illustrative stories and visual aids.

The book is very thorough and solidly research-based. Published in 2005, it’s missing the latest research, and I hope they revise it soon to incorporate the latest finds. However, there have been no contradictory findings that I am aware of – only new insights that would add to the previous understanding, without invalidating it. Shaywitz, a noted expert in the field, explains the neurological mechanisms involved in reading and what goes wrong when reading isn’t working out. On a practical level, she describes proven ways to identify and remediate dyslexia.

What I like best about this book, besides its easy readability, is that Shaywitz addresses the broad picture, not just the diagnosis and clinical treatment of dyslexia. She discusses how to find the right school and plan an intervention program, how to minimize the emotional fallout of having a learning disorder, and what parents can do by-the-way to improve their child’s reading.

Apropos to its content and target audience, the book also comes in an audio format.

November 11, 2011 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s SEIT?

It seems like we all know someone who is, does, has, gets, or wants SEIT (pronounced “see-it”). You may even know that stands for “Special Education Itinerant Teacher.” But what is that supposed to mean, anyway?

According to the dictionary, “itinerant” means “traveling.” A SEIT is a teacher who doesn’t have his or her own class, and probably even bounces around to different schools, homes, or other sites each day, working with students wherever they are for a period or two (occasionally more) at a time. The details below, as usual, pertain especially to NYC – other districts may differ in the particulars.

Who gets a SEIT?

Typically, a SEIT is recommended for students ages 3-5 who have special needs but are not placed in a full-time special education program with a full-time special ed teacher. The service would be listed on their IFSP or IEP (another Wednesday Whatsit, perhaps?)

Who can be a SEIT? How do I become one?

Pretty much any state-certified special education teacher can be a SEIT. If the student has an especially specialized need (such as ABA – coming soon to a Wednesday near you!), preference may (and should) be given to someone with training, expertise, and/or experience in that area. If you are a certified teacher interested in working as a SEIT, cases are usually managed by special education agencies that help coordinate service plans, providers, and schedules. Contact local child development centers, and scan the ads that target parents to see who’s helping them get services. Don’t put all your eggs in this basket, though, because supply exceeds demand for SEIT at this time.

What does a SEIT do?

The SEIT’s job is to address the student’s special needs, so the specific activities will vary accordingly. The ideal is to help the student integrate into the regular class, but sometimes the SEIT needs to take the student aside and work with him or her individually. The SEIT can also guide the lead classroom teacher and/or the child’s parent[s] by showing them how to help the child when the SEIT isn’t there, or by setting up plans and programs to be continued between SEIT sessions. SEIT goals are typically educational in nature, but the SEIT also supports the child’s social and behavioral development.

So is a SEIT like a shadow?

This question sounds random after the above explanation, but I hear it all the time, so I’ll answer it here: No. A shadow is not  a certified teacher and usually doesn’t have any special training relevant to students with special needs. Although they can sometimes be helpful in this regard, it is generally not the shadow’s job to take care of students’ educational needs. Though a SEIT may stay with a student in their regular class and encourage the student to engage in class activities independently, s/he is not just sitting there, though it might appear so to a casual observer. If s/he is, in fact, just sitting there, then something’s wrong – but I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion too hastily. Moving a child towards integration is a very delicate balance and there may be more going on that you don’t realize.

November 10, 2011 at 4:01 am Leave a comment


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