Opinion
Education Opinion

Best and Better

By Hanne Denney — January 24, 2008 3 min read

I’ve been working with middle school students for five months now. We’re at the end of the second quarter. It is evaluation time. As a classroom teacher I assess student academic progress and assign a grade. This is done with my co-teacher. We look at scores on tests and quizzes, award points for homework turned in, and measure class participation. Standard procedure for every teacher.

As a special educator, I also prepare quarterly reports that measure progress on IEP goals and objectives. This is not as concrete a process. Although an IEP is written with goals that are supposed to be measurable, it is a challenge to measure exactly how much a child’s comprehension in reading has improved, or whether or not they are using appropriate writing and revision strategies 100% of the time. It is best practice to base my assessment on teacher reports (for all classes where that skill is used), review student work samples,conduct observations in class, and talk to both parents and students. Best practice is not always actual practice. I admit it. I’m doing my best, but my best isn’t always best practice.

What we’re really trying to do is determine whether or not our services as special educators are making a difference. Is the child improving his academic abilities? Can he read faster and more naturally, understand what he reads, and write a reflective analysis effectively? Can she perform algebraic functions and complete homework as assigned? Academic goals are tracked through the appropriate classes. But what about social-emotional goals?

Southern Middle School, like many schools today, has students identified as having an emotional disturbance as the handicapping condition. These students’ goals may include appropriate social interaction, coping with stress, controlling anger. The progress the student makes on these goals is much harder to measure.

With a math goal I talk to the math teacher. With a reading goal, I check with all the content teachers. With a social-emotional goal, I need to measure progress in all the child’s classes. Physical Education class is a challenge for ED kids. It’s a larger class, often in open space, with people moving around. A lot can happen. Foreign language classes can be a source of frustration for students who don’t cope well with frustration. I also need to check in with the counselors, and the administrators. Hallways and cafeterias can be tough for our ED students. To measure progress on social-emotional goals, I also should find out if the student is subject to disciplinary actions. And of course, I review the student’s progress with the school psychologist, who has a whole different perspective on what’s going on with this kid.

All of this information is summarized in several sentences, and mailed to the parent. If I can report progress being made, then the IEP continues. If the student is not making satisfactory progress on their goals, and I report that, then I need to begin the IEP review process. In that process we’ll try to identify why a student is not successful, and what supports we can implement for him.

The question I ask myself at the end of each quarter is this: If a child is not successful, shouldn’t I have known it before now? Can we afford to wait a full quarter to find out a student needs more help? Again, best practice tells me that I should be aware of my students’ needs and progress at all times. Again, best practice is not always what happens. So in the quarterly review progress, I also review my own progress as a case manager. Am I successful?

We tell students all the time, “Do your best”. But what we’re not telling them often enough is this: “If your best is not good enough, you must make it better.”

I’m still a young teacher, only three and a half years into this career. I’ve only been a department chair for special education for six months. When I get frustrated, and tired, I tell myself, “I’m doing my best.” But now I am admitting that my best is not good enough. So my goal is to “make it better”. I can’t measure my success unless I set goals for myself. To set goals, I need to have an objective. My objective is to have more frequent contact with the students on my caseload, and to develop good portfolios of their work so I can measure progress more accurately. I have nine weeks to do it. One quarter. I’m giving myself nine weeks to meet my goal of becoming a better case manager.

I’m doing my best. I need to make my best better.

The opinions expressed in In the Middle are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.