Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hey, Betsy DeVos: I invite you to do homework with my son with special needs

Social media is still buzzing about Tuesday's confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education. Among the many voices of dissent: special needs parents and advocates alarmed by DeVos's seeming lack of familiarity with IDEA—the Individual with Disabilities Education Act that guarantees children with disability a "free and appropriate public education" that takes place in the "least restrictive environment."

This is troubling. But it raises other concerns about DeVos's base of knowledge.

In a nutshell, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine asked DeVos whether all K-12 schools receiving government funding should have to abide by IDEA. She responded, "I think that is a matter best left to the states." Fact: IDEA is a federal law that mandates education equality for students with special needs in every state. New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan (who has a son with cerebral palsy) followed up with Devos, who admitted "I may have confused it."

Hassan also expressed concern that some voucher programs—which DeVos supports—require students with disability to give up their rights under IDEA. (A school voucher, aka an education voucher, is a certificate of government funding for a student at a school chosen by him or his parents.) "I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," Hassan said. "I do have to say I'm concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it and that you seem to support voucher schools that make students sign away their rights.... That's very troubling to me."

Senator Elizabeth Warren also grilled DeVos, this time about managing a trillion-dollar student loan bank and distributing 30 billion dollar in Pell Grants to students each year. Warren asked if she had experience running a bank or overseeing major loan programs. Nope. Then Warren asked about her personal participation in these programs, noting "I think it's important for the person who is in charge of our financial aid programs to understand what it's like for students and their families who are struggling to pay for college."  

THAT. Understand. It's vital for a Secretary of Education to grasp not just the struggles of students with financial concerns but ones of students with special needs, too. And there are a lot of them: Recent estimates reported by the CDC indicate that about one in six children school-age children (ages 3 to 17) have a developmental disability. That's 15 percent of children.


And so, Betsy DeVos, I invite you to stop by our house one early evening, when I get home from work and I am doing homework with my son, Max. He is determined, responsive and bright. He also has intellectual disability (ID). You can sit with us and see how it goes. 

Max has come a long way. He can focus well. He uses an app, SnapType, that enables me to take photos of worksheets so he can type in answers (handwriting is a challenge). His reading is improving. He has a grasp of basic math. But it does not come easy to him. Homework takes a long time to do, especially when Max is typing out his answers. 

On the nights when we do his current events assignment, we choose an article from a kids' news site (ideally, something about fireworks or Disney World). I simplify the text and explain the basic concepts. Then we go through a series of questions: What's the title of the story and the date? Is the story local, state, national or international? What is the main idea? What is your opinion? 

We do the same, more or less, for his book reports. Typically, when I ask about the main idea, Max stares at me blankly. "I don't know," he will finally say, resting his face on his hand and looking somewhat dejected. At times, there have been tears. Even when I reread pages of the book or explain the article again, he has trouble answering. 

I reassure him that it's OK. We work it through. But I feel awful that his lack of understanding bothers him. I grapple with the fact that grasping ideas and scenarios that go beyond life as he knows it is difficult for him.  

Max, like other youth with ID, learns best from repetition. He needs information repeatedly explained and hammered into his head to understand it, process it and retain it. This is so critical to Max's learning existence that when I recently checked out a high school for him, and was told that there was a longstanding no-homework policy, I knew it wasn't the right place for him. I pressed the principal on it, and the reason boiled down to this: Students are tired when they get home and homework is a burden for parents. My reaction boiled down to this: WTF?! To be sure, Max is fatigued at the end of the day. I am, too. I'm not saying every child with ID benefits from homework, but he does. Our children have diverse needs, as all children do.

I wonder just what knowledge Betsy DeVos has, if any, about this segment of students and their needs. (Or any students, for that matter.) Should she become Secretary of Education, parents and advocates will stay on her to preserve the tenets of IDEA. But we will also expect her to understand what it means—and takes— to educate a student with intellectual disability, and the challenges my son and others like him face. Without that, there can't be development, progress or innovation. Without truly knowing the population, she can't understand the potential.

Her learning curve will be steep. But the person in our country charged with spearheading the education of our children should truly know the community she serves, the entire spectrum of it. Otherwise: #fail.


  1. Terrific post, Ellen. I was horrified watching DeVos' answering on student loans and IDEA. Re the subject of homework for our kids, I agree with you 100%. Nick did his homework every day and he worked hard (a lot harder than the average kid) to complete assignments. As a result, Nick won our city's Spirit of the Capital Youth Award for Academic Perseverance in his last year of high school. He was awarded a check for $1,000 and speeches were made including by Nick who spoke using his Dynavox. The title of his address was 'My Secrets of Perseverance'. It was a great night and a real testament to all those hours of homework.

  2. I don't know DeVos and I can't begin to guess what is in her heart. That being said I would be shocked if she knew anyone with a developmental disability and understood what potential means for kids living with ID. I think she would look at my kid and say "what's the point?" During the hearing I think she had to remind herself to smile and did not seem genuine. I found her testimony horrifying.

  3. On the topic of Homework. Maybe for you and Max but not for my child espically this year. Her teacher is awful this year. Maybe other years, yes but NOT this year. She is so tired every night. Half of every day in school is spent getting lectured at, and not because of what she does but because of just a couple of students and usually just because the teacher is frusterated and doesn't want to teach. If you want Homework, make it up yourself and leave our children out of it. My child needs other activities, ones that support her other interests and she enjoys reading, not doing junk worksheets that have no purpose. All homework needs to be taken away from awful bad teachers like the one she has this year. All I pray for is a teacher next year like the ones she has had in the years past. But is simple to make your own homework that helps your own child and that is coming from a working parent too. And many nights my child is so exhausted from the crap they do in school, homework is out of the question and we just don't do it. Her teacher is so off the wall and the principal is (first year) who has an ego issue. First we need to fix our schools and get off this common core crap and lay off our childen on the amount of homework per night so they can actually particiapte in extra cricular activities. Then we need to fix our colleges and go aback to the original admissions and not make the kids do all the junk to get in like commnunity service hours and such, they already so much and can't even be kids anymore.

    1. I do not believe the point of this post was to advocate "homework for all". I do believe she was pointing out that there is a spectrum of kids and learning styles and she thinks Mrs DeVos has a narrow view of what the kids she will be serving are like. I tend to agree with the author. My personal view is that of course there are improvements that need to be made. Special needs parents in particular complain about the fight for services etc. I don't think though that overhauling the entire system and moving to a charter school/voucher program would serve special needs kids well. We are an already disadvantaged group and it will only get worse. Money will be taken out of the public school system so that the chosen ones can go to charter/religious/magnet/private schools while the kids who need the most help, (who cost more to educate due to accommodations/aides etc) will be left at the public schools that cannot refuse them. Remember that private/charter/voucher schools can pick, choose, refuse or expel anyone they like. It goes without saying that they will choose to keep the "good kids" and will forego the "bad/high needs kids". I've personally seen it happen with my own 2 sons. One of whom went to a charter school while the younger one when it was his time to begin school was forced to go to the local public school. The public schools get hit coming and going. What's needed is to focus on making the existing public schools better and to invest in programs/technology etc there so ALL kids can get a FREE and APPROPRIATE and DISCRIMINATION FREE education without having to fight tooth and nail.

  4. I agree with you except for the homework policy. Maybe for your child, but my kids do not need homework. 5th graders in our district have an hour and a half of homework a night. Reason? So they can complete a year and a half each year. The superintendent insists on this because she wants to have the highest test scores in the state. She gets those scores, but without my kids. My bright kids attend a private school where they are getting a great education, have no homework, and can spend their evenings playing sports, learning a musical instrument, participating in theatre, playing with their siblings, etc. They do NOT need more school. They need exposure to all the other wonderful things there are to learn in life. They need time to unwind. They need time to play.

  5. I found myself nodding my head. Betsy DeVos scares me as both a student who received special education services and as a future special Ed teacher. I watched the confirmation hearing getting very cranky. It was also a topic of discussion in my first ever education class last night.

  6. It makes e sad to see that she's going to get the position and yet she just has no clue. Just another testament to how easy it can apparently be to get a seat in politics in this country without proper training and background.It's a sad, sad day.


  7. Idea is to get rid of the position and department.


Thanks for sharing!

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