Alexa Posny Interview - Part VI

My recent interview with Dr. Alexa Posny, the new Assistant Secretary of Education for OSERS (the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services) covered a lot of ground. This is the sixth in a series of occasional posts concerning the interview over the next few weeks. "JG" indicates that I am speaking. "AP" indicates that Secretary Posny is speaking.

In this post, Dr. Posny discusses the importance of early childhood education and the impact of poverty upon education:

JG: Let me skip - - I'm going to come back to reauthorization, if we have time, but I wanted to at least get to one thing that I'm pretty sure that you care a lot about and I have to, again, as a good hearing officer, disclose that I have a bootleg copy of your NASDSE presentation.

AP: Oh, okay.

JG: So I'm going to confess that up front to let you know how I found some of this out. But I know that early childhood education is important to you.

AP: Oh, absolutely.

JG: Could you just, first of all, just talk a little bit about - - tell me some of your thinking. How that plays into your current job? And what we can do. What schools can do. What parents can do.

AP: Oh, I just - - to me, I think that that was the biggest thing that wasn't part of no child left behind. And I really, honestly think that we are not going to make the differences that we want to see, if we don't start at birth. And if you saw what it is in there, there is the study by Hart and Risley that I have used over and over and over again and I don't care of the child is disabled, disadvantaged, whatever it is, if the child is hearing one-third the number of words as kids who are more advantaged, it's impossible to learn to read words that they've never heard. And they start so far behind that eventually, most of these disadvantaged kids end up in special education and I honestly don't think they are. And that's where I'm thinking we're doing a disservice. And this where - - that's why I think it's so critically important when we talk about early intervening services and response to intervention, both of those, if we can intervene as early as possible with some of these kids, I know that we will not be identifying anywhere near the number of learning disabled kids just because they can't read and it's only because they didn't have the language and literacy skills from birth. And if we did that and we caught them as soon or prevented or intervened as early as possible, the money we do have for special ed could be spent on those kids who really and truly are. There would be more money that could be spent working with those kids who truly are. That's why I am so passionate about early learning. It absolutely makes all the difference in the world, and even for students with disabilities. I'm glad we have Part C and that we have 619. Without that, I hate to think of how far behind - - but still think about our really and truly learning disabled kids. We can't find them early enough. You know, we still, you know, because what - - the behaviors. I mean, a lot of kids don't reverse letters or a lot of kids are just having trouble, but why can't we provide it for every child then who needs it? And if we could, I think we would prevent a lot of this. I do.

JG: Okay. It's interesting. What sort of things would happen in that early intervention? What sort of things do schools do when they get to the children early and they haven't identified them as special ed but have identified them as needing some help.

AP: Some help - - well, it's based usually upon poverty and a few other things. One of the things - - what I'm really passionate about is that I think every infant and toddler should have access to early learning, regardless. Makes no difference to help them excel or to help those that are so far behind. What do they need to do? They need to provide the developmentally appropriate practices. It doesn't mean we're providing them an academic program, but the biggest one is language, reading to the kids, expanding their vocabulary, helping them understand, helping them see the connection. It's just being exposed. Our kids who are so disadvantaged live in homes that have no books, no print materials, no nothing. They don't even know - - you know, I worked with the Chicago Public Schools and these kids in kindergarten would walk in the door and would have no idea that print words even go from the left to the right. I mean, that's how far behind they are and that's why it makes it so difficult. I worked with the BIA schools and it's the same kind of issues. So, it's just being exposed. Its' really just changing society and just knowing. It doesn't mean everyone would be required to go. It's just providing access and letting - - catching these kids up long before they walk in the school door.

JG: That study you mentioned, I think I have some of the numbers here somewhere, the Hart and Risley study - -

AP: It's the Hart and Risley study, yes.

JG: But in terms of the children from professional families hearing something like 2,153 words per hour.

AP: Yes.

JG: Children from working class families hearing 1,251 words per hour.

AP: Yes.

JG: And children from poor families hearing 616 words per hour.

AP: Yes.

JG: And again, I think that's what you were just referring to.

AP: It is.

JG: But those kids from the poor families, what I've heard schools say, I guess, is that they have become the social services agencies of last resort. People expect us to fix poverty now, in addition to everything else. Can we ever really fix education without fixing poverty first or is the horse and the cart situation?

AP: I always say we have to go hand in hand. And there's a part of me saying, do we have to fix everything? Well, if we're the only game in town, then my answer is absolutely yes, you know, especially when you're talking about rural areas.

JG: Right.

AP: The school is the center of that town. If the school disappears, the town dries up. And I can speak eloquently to that about Kansas because that's what's happening. But this is a societal issue. It absolutely is. Now, my original background is sociology and psychology, so I absolutely understand how we really need to change our society. One of the programs that I think is one of the best is Parents As Teachers. We're helping parents be better parents. The one thing we don't teach in school is how to be a good parent. So, if we can help parents become better parents, then their kids will, and we're beginning to change society and we need to begin to have more programs like that that will help in terms of the next generation. And we need to work with our kids in school to say, there are other opportunities out there. Just because you live in the urban poor, does not mean you need to have to stay here in the urban poor.

JG: Right.

AP: So, it's all of those and I absolutely believe that we need to work on this more as a society. I do.

JG: Can the schools help the other segments of society to come along in that? Is there a role for the schools in terms of being the leader?

AP: Sure. Well, often they're the catalyst. I mean, you know, to get people on board, to say, you know, when you look at those schools that really and truly have turned around, it became a community. You know, the whole community had to rally around because you have to change the parents' vision of what was possible about the school. A lot of the schools require that if you want you child - - especially some of the magnet schools and some of the other charter schools - - part of what they require is the parent must play an active role and must be in that school as well. It begins to change and that's great. We mean business. I think one of the best, you know, especially in terms of early learning, is when we get the businesses to understand that if you support and put money into this, we will begin to change what you see. So, I just think schools can be the catalyst and to say, look, we're not going to change this unless we all work together.

JG: I think part of the problem is we put up walls. First of all, there's the special ed, general ed wall, which is obviously a big one that a problem.

AP: Well, I want to tear that one down.

JG: Okay. Well, good, and I think many people are with you, particular people in special ed, but people in general that seem to be buying into that. Now, would you agree with that?

AP: I absolutely agree. I'm hearing it more and more. I mean, my ideal would be is whether we could reauthorize ESEA and IDEA together. I just don't think we're there yet. But absolutely, we need a system of education and we have some students who will always have - - be a student with a disability, but my key thing is this, why do we have to label a child to provide him or her with whatever he or she needs whenever he or she needs it?

JG: Right.

AP: We have to label them disabled. We have to label them disadvantaged. There are kids who are disenfranchised, disengaged. Who cares?

JG: Right.

AP: Let's give him or her whatever he or she needs.

JG: And it would be a lot easier if there weren't all those walls.

AP: That's exactly right and if we didn't have the labels.

JG: Yeah. I think I understand why they're there but at the same time, they're frustrating sometimes.

AP: Well, it was the only way we could get it to begin with. I mean, we had to target the funding and stipulate that it had to be used for this because we didn't know what to do. You know, I always talk about 1975. We segregated kids with disabilities, but that was okay at that point in time. That was all we knew and it took us up until the '90s to know that no, we can include and we should include, but we're going to always need the full continuum. That will always be necessary.

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