Photo: Graur Codrin (click photo to link)

Monday, May 30, 2011


I've been a special educator for what seems like all of my life. I retired from the classroom to go back to school for a PhD, because I believed that I could make a difference in the field. I feel less like this now, than when I originally started writing this entry in 2008.  

In the present world of policy, I'm afraid "choice"--for schools, for birth, for social security investment, for health plans, for privatization, for vouchers, for the kind of research that "guides" the purchase of textbooks, for curriculum aligned to "what is on the test"--that kind of "choice" is no choice at all.

I am often relieved to be out of the classroom, but at the same time I feel as if I should warn future teachers about these unnatural "choices" that will guide their practices for years to come.

What I have concluded

NOTE: This was written before the 2008 elections and never published.  I re-read my thoughts and decided that they're still worth publishing.

I am trying to stay very upbeat about this election.

I have come to the conclusion that Sen. McCain doesn't know the difference between autism and Down Syndrome based on his remarks about Gov. Palin's role in his (imagined) future presidency, where he appears to have decided that it doesn't matter. I assume that he is past educating, based on his age, but I remain open-minded and would encourage Madeline and George Will to call on him, and set him straight about this misapprehension.

I also can see how there could be a plank in Sen. Obama's platform that addresses the funding of research for autism, but neglects to pay any attention to other disabilities, although I'd encourage him to extend his friendships to include families of children with a broader range of (dis)abilities.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Comments to the Michigan State Board of Education Forum, Ann Arbor, 5/26/2011

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


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Journey into Dyslexia", Standardized Education, and the Need for "Shop Class"

I'm watching this scene on HBO right now -- Steven J. Walker who manufactures wood pellets (to fuel a special type of woodstove) is telling the story of his painful experience as a kid with dyslexia, except for high school shop class and a great shop teacher. He breaks into sobbing tears as he tells how the school district discontinued shop classes and sold off all the equipment, which ultimately leads to his starting the pellet business. Well, tech ed has come a long way, but the emotional attachment that this man conveys is the one constant.
The documentary is "Journey into Dyslexia", now showing on HBO. It's a collage of authoritative, narrative and personal perspectives on learning disabilities involving reading. One of the talking heads is Guinevere Eden, a neuro-scientist whose studies of brain imaging confirm differences in how people with dyslexia process the written word.  Another is David Connor, a disability studies scholar, who discusses inclusive education as a civil right, and suggests that although others may conceive of dyslexia as "disability" he prefers to consider it a natural part of human variance. Still another is Jonathan Mooney, who engages the rebel in me as he rails at the dismissive attitudes of the many unsympathetic adults with whom he dealt while in school. The overall theme of the documentary is that this kind of human variance (dyslexia) leads to such positive phenomena as entrepreneurial risk-taking, creativity, toughness and perseverance and other great things. But, I notice that the people with dyslexia featured in this documentary also talk about how painful it was to grow up with dyslexia. I know from my own experiences (as a teacher and a mother) that many kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities are not nearly so resilient. I think I should probably re-watch this film and seriously consider its narrative, and counter-narratives.
When my son entered high school (he has language-based learning disabilities), he and his one best friend, a boy with autism, ended up at two different schools. He was crushed. The deal I made with him was that if he could successfully make it through a year at the big high school (a huge adjustment in itself), I'd entertain the idea of his "dual-enrollment" the following year at the big high school he had to go to and the small alternative high school where his friend attended. Dual enrollment meant that he would use his lunch hour to take a bus from one school to the other.  It meant that he had to take care of responsibilities at each school while he was there.  And, it meant that he would have to manage his obligations at each school with limited support from teachers. As an incentive for toughing the year out, we went through the course catalog for the big high school and picked some CTE classes that were in areas of his interests. So he happily took Computer Assisted Design (CAD), TV production, Know Your Auto, and Intro to Electronics.  For his freshman year, he only took three of the four core academics to make room for the CTE courses.  That year, he passed all his classes, and discovered that he had become a leader and self-directed learner in CAD. (The last time I recalled having teachers make favorable remarks about his school accomplishments was when his third grade teacher told me that he was the "go-to" artist for drawing sharks and jellyfish during their unit on oceans. Kids with all manners of learning disabilities often experience a huge praise deficit. Rick Lavoie's video-talks give a great deal of insight about this.)

The following year, even though his 9th grade science teacher recommended he take Intro to Biology (scornfully called "Science for Dummies" by my special education colleagues), we suggested that he be allowed to take "Foundations of Science" at the alternative school, instead. This interdisciplinary, experiential science course had kids "doing science" and reporting out on their findings, using a variety of technologies, and much more tantalizing than "Science for Dummies". He also took courses in Film Studies at the alternative school and, the following year, transferred out of the district and into a technical middle college at our local community college. He achieved a high school diploma, an Associate's degree, and tech certification in digital media production at the middle college, and finished a B.A. in the field at a neighboring university. He now works part-time as a camera-person for a community television station, and is building a solid resume of his experience.

Career and Technical Education saves lives. There is no doubt in my mind that this is true.

Unfortunately, in this age of standardization, core curriculum, and a push to make all children "college ready", CTE has taken real hits.  Here in Michigan, the enrollment reports for CTE courses have been on a downward trend since 2003 (the data only goes through 2007, currently). People in the field report that each year, there are fewer enrollments, and fewer programs in the high schools.  And they attribute the decline to a devaluation of skilled labor--the kinds of skills that are taught in CTE programs.  The other day, on the companion blog to the public radio program "on Being" was a post "The Work We Value, The Intelligence We Ignore: Is the Work that Made America Great Valued Any Longer? It features the comments of Mike Rowe, the creator and host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.  In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Rowe said: "I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce." It's not that we don't need the skilled trades, it's that we have so devalued them in the rush to make all children "college-ready", that kids who would benefit from learning their academic content through hands-on, authentic work experiences are no longer able to carve out time in their schedules to take these courses.

On the MAISA website, there are samples of what districts have done to make math courses more accessible, and there are samples of courses and curriculum crosswalks that show how academic content can be embedded in CTE with resulting student success. I've focused on the math, since this field has been dominated by a very rigid and didactic structure--the sequence of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 seems to be unshakable--not so much because they are "naturally" sequential and dependent on each other, but because of some sort of religious adherence to this being the "one right way" to teach mathematics.

Derrick Fries, Ph.D., a professor at Eastern Michigan University, has collected data that shows a strong association between poor student performance in 8th grade math and those likely to fail to complete Algebra 2.  Since a Michigan diploma is contingent on completion of a semester of Algebra 2, this means that we can predict which students are at high risk of dropping out, or failing to attain a diploma.  If we can alter these outcomes by offering more tangible, work-related courses with the core academic content embedded, we can improve graduation rates.  If Mike Rowe is correct, we also are filling a gap in the labor pool by creating a new generation of skilled laborers.

We know that young people who fail to complete high school are more than likely to face lives of poverty.  We also know that the dropout rates for students with disabilities are disproportionately higher than for the general population. And, we also know that many students with a variety of disabilities flourish in classes where they are able to learn by doing.  CTE classes are prime examples of learning by doing.

I repeat, Career and Technical Education saves lives.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I am "on the back burner"

To my public educator friends and their allies:

For many years, I have been an active and passionate supporter of a variety of social justice causes.  I support public education, and believe that every child should have an opportunity to learn from a skilled and caring faculty.  I believe that the public funding of health care should be one of the social obligations of an advanced society such as ours. I think that every child should be a valued child, and should have access to nutritious food, a safe environment, and universal preschool.  My e-mail is filled with requests for money, support of causes, and calls to action of all kinds.  Usually, I am happy to receive these requests.  In my more idle moments, I'm even happy to read through all the responses to calls for action.  But, for now, I am putting myself "on the back burner".  I am overwhelmed. I can't respond, don't want to tweet (yet), and I just don't have enough psychological space for all of this. I know, I could just delete. These days I feel a little like "I have no mouth and I must scream".  Bear with me.

Right now, my days are spent with my daughter who is recovering from a c-section and a sudden failure of her immune system--a chronic and permanently cycling condition.  My beautiful little grandson, and his older brother and sister will be leaving Michigan as soon as he is old enough to travel. His mother and father are going through the process (an antiseptic term, if ever there was one) of foreclosure and bankruptcy, the result of a cascade of events:  the devaluation of career and tech ed in high schools and continued undermining of full time teaching at community colleges (my son-in-law, a dedicated auto mechanics instructor, has become part of the "working poor"--working two jobs, but not making enough to support his family), unexpected and catastrophic health expenses (and health insurance that failed to cover them), and the economic collapse in Michigan.

Public education has been a huge part of my adult life.  I attended a public high school, and three public universities.  My children also attended public schools.  I hope that my grandchildren will also attend public schools, where they will be part of a rich and diverse group of children, learning to appreciate each other for the valuable contributions that they make to each others' lives.  I hope that my grandchildren will make friends based on the "content of their character", not the color of their skins, or the languages that their families speak at home.  I hope that my grandchildren will have teachers like all of you, who know that children are placed in your charge to help make the world a kinder and more compassionate place in which to live, where people pitch in to help and share with each other, even when resources may be limited.  I hope that my grandchildren learn that voting, and active participation in a representative democracy is a serious, but rewarding responsibility because it ensures that our elected officials will keep all of us in their heads and hearts.

These days I read my e-mail to get basic news or to take care of business.  I scroll through Facebook and comment on the best and the worst.  I occasionally look at the RSS feeds I used to have time to read.  I write from the depths of my heart, on issues about which I can be passionate when I have time, or when I just can't stay silent. And, I edge forward on writing my dissertation, which seems increasingly irrelevant in a world where teacher education holds so little value.

So, keep sending the calls, but leave me out of the responses.  I'll respond when I can, and trust that the rest of you will carry the burden when I can't.  That's what sharing and cooperation is all about...and I know you know how to share and cooperate.

Kathleen Kosobud
On the Back Burner--

Monday, May 09, 2011

I Want Elizabeth Warren!!

An open letter to my representatives in Congress:

I want Elizabeth Warren appointed as the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the bureau fully funded and functioning as an independent agency.

As the mother of an adult child who became another statistic in the mortgage meltdown after she suffered a medical crisis that gutted any financial reserves she and her husband had, I am tired of being polite about the devastation that young middle class families are facing here in Michigan and elsewhere.

I don't ever want to see this happen again, and I trust Elizabeth Warren to lead an agency that will protect the public, and hold financial institutions accountable for their dealings.

In the past I wrote to you, asking that you reach out to young people in Michigan with help and guidance, as they struggled with job losses compounded by mortgage problems. Your staff responded with sympathy and rhetoric, but very little in the way of help. I voted for you, so my last hope is that you'll stand up now by empowering Elizabeth Warren to head an agency that can prevent this from happening in the future.

I have come to terms with the inevitability of my daughter and her husband facing foreclosure and bankruptcy, with three children under the age of five.

Now I ask you, my elected representatives, to take action and acknowledge the pain that families have had to face, although they did little to cause the financial crisis.

Please do the right thing by supporting the funding of the independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Elizabeth Warren's appointment as its head.