Monthly Archives: August 2015

How TOP TEACHERS are prepared

Primed to teach
How the top teaching colleges prepare students for today’s classrooms

Hiring and retaining talented teachers can be a challenge in any district. But finding recent teaching college graduates who are ready to excel in the classroom their very first year can be even more difficult.

This leaves administrators continuing to question whether college teaching programs are adequately preparing each new generation of educators.

A successful prep program should be rigorous and purposeful, and get student-teachers into actual classrooms earlier rather than later, says Hamlet Hernandez, superintendent of Branford Public Schools in Connecticut and member of the District Administration Leadership Institute.

“Early and consistent classroom experience allows teacher students to see the role of management, routines and rituals in practice, and cannot be accomplished in a two-week field experience,” he says.

New teachers have historically struggled to manage their classrooms, says Hernandez. “Prep programs do not emphasize behavior management—the practice of recognizing how to mitigate different behaviors for different age groups.”

New teachers must be to able to precisely assess students’ ability to learn. They must also understand that students come to the classroom with different abilities, says Hernandez. “It is important for new teachers to know how to differentiate teaching practices, such as providing highly visual cues and clues for ELL students,” he says.

The colleges that produce successful teachers require early and frequent clinical work, integrate technology and set high standards for admission and grading.

Setting clear standards

Teachers-in-training must complete a preparation program during their undergraduate or post-grad master’s studies. States have different requirements for the level of education that must be completed; most require a student teaching experience and passage of a certification test.

Montclair State University in New Jersey produces effective teachers because its standards are clearly defined, says Susan Taylor, director of the Newark-Montclair Urban Teacher Residency. Taylor’s program pairs Montclair State teaching students with Newark Public Schools mentor teachers and classrooms.

Two views on the state of teacher prep programs

Some education experts have called for a massive overhaul of teaching colleges, claiming institutions are graduating students not ready for the classroom.

Yet others insist the colleges are doing a fine job, and that leaders from K12 schools and higher ed institutions simply need to collaborate more closely on how teachers should be prepared. Here are two opposing views:

Roderick Lucero, vice president for member engagement and support, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education

  • Teacher prep programs are doing a good job, and K12 schools should reject the notion that they and higher ed institutions are separate businesses.
  • Teachers cannot graduate in May, start teaching in August and be “classroom ready.” Instead, they are ready to continue learning. Years of classroom experience will help a teacher be a better instructor.
  • Reform is not needed, and the critics who are making headlines are not typically in the colleges or schools seeing what is really going on.

Kate Walsh, president, National Council on Teacher Quality

  • Many education instructors are focused not on how well they’re preparing student-teachers but on research and publishing so they can get ahead in their own higher ed careers.
  • Teachers arrive in classrooms not knowing what to do because they have been encouraged to develop their own teaching philosophies—but not trained in proven teaching methods.
  • 97 percent of prep programs claim classroom management is taught. However, this instruction is limited to the notion that if teachers provide quality lessons, behavior won’t be a problem.

The university’s “Portrait of a Teacher” standards list 12 pieces of knowledge, skills and dispositions every graduate must develop. Included in the portrait is creating learning experiences that promote critical thinking and problem-solving; appreciating diversity among students and colleagues; and possessing strong literacy and communication skills.

When student-teachers practice job interviews or write essays, they must be guided by “Portrait” principles such as demonstrating expert knowledge of the discipline they will teach and promoting communication in the classroom.

The standards have made Montclair State’s student-teachers popular with local districts. Over the past five years, more than 100 of the student-teachers have been hired and retained by a local district, says Jennifer Robinson, director of the university’s Center Of Pedagogy.

Administrators get to know the candidates during their student teaching assignments and therefore have insight into their performance that cannot be gained when a random teacher comes in seeking a job.

“The student-teaching experience is like a 14-week job interview with highly effective candidates for the schools,” Robinson says.

The program at Western Governors University in Utah meets or exceeds every state’s standards for teacher prep to ensure all graduates are qualified to teach in any district in the nation.

The curriculum is competency-based, meaning graduates must demonstrate they have mastered each standard before they advance. Instead of earning credit hours and grades for a specific course taken during a set period of time, students take an assessment when they feel they have mastered a certain skill.

“If a student takes tests and does homework and gets a B in a specific course, what that represents is ambiguous,” says Phil Schmidt, dean of the Teachers College. “But at WGU, students demonstrate in a concrete way that they can lead a class.”

The Missouri Department of Education also sets clear standards. To ensure graduates are ready for the classroom, representatives from the Department of Education observe and grade students during their student-teaching on four highly critical standards: content knowledge, differentiating instruction, using data to inform instruction and classroom management.

“So all teacher colleges in Missouri know they must instill these skills in their students before student-teaching,” says Paul Katnik, Missouri’s assistant commissioner for education quality.

Prioritizing tech teaching

Just because today’s teaching students are digital natives does not mean they know how to use technology in the classroom, says Christina O’Connor, co-director of the Teachers Academy at University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“The current teacher prep students don’t have the benefit of observation because when they were students, teachers did not use technology as an instructional tool the way they do today,” O’Connor says.

University faculty integrate technology in teaching courses so students can observe how to use it in their future classrooms. Simulation software, for example, allows student-teachers to interact with virtual students and exercise the classroom management skills they are taught in their theory classes, such as quieting a noisy room.

Quality of teacher colleges

  • Arizona State University: #1 for special education(undergraduate)
  • Dallas Baptist University, Texas: #1 for elementary education (undergraduate)
  • Western Governors University, Utah: #1 for secondary education (undergraduate)
  • Montclair State University, New Jersey: #4 for secondary education (graduate)

Source: National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review, 2014

“The level of disruption and types of misbehavior, such as a student pestering a peer, can be adjusted so the teacher students can practice all types of scenarios they may not see in their clinical experiences,” says O’Connor.

Student-teachers also observe their fellow student-teachers and veteran teachers on live streams from real Greensboro-area classrooms. “The class can have a discussion on what the educator is doing correctly or can improve on, and their commentary can be attached to the video so the observed educator can reflect on their own practices, too,” says O’Connor.

Meaningful clinical experience

At Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College, students fully immerse themselves in a K12 classroom during their senior year. “Instead of following the ASU calendar, our seniors follow their clinical district’s calendar,” says Cory Cooper, interim director for teacher preparation. “They arrive at their school two weeks early to prepare.”

In this model, the mentor teacher and student-teacher are considered co-teachers from the first day, says Cooper. They conduct parent-teacher conferences together and grade papers as a team. “When the student-teachers begin their first full-time teaching job, they are more like second-year teachers who know how to manage a classroom and use data,” Cooper adds.

To ensure positive experiences for student-teachers, a full-time supervisor from Arizona State visits each host school. The supervisor observes in the classroom to determine where student-teachers are struggling so the mentor can focus on building certain skills. The supervisors also offer professional development to mentors so they can effectively coach student-teachers to improve classroom management or content delivery skills, says Cooper.

Such methods appear to be working. Over 87 percent of Arizona State’s graduates remain in the teaching profession after three years, which is 7 percent higher than the national average, says Cooper.

Accept only the best

Only the best students from high school should be accepted into teaching programs, says Neil Duggar, dean of Dorothy M. Bush College of Education at Dallas Baptist University.

“The requirements for entry into our program exceed Texas standards and those of most other teacher prep programs to ensure we are getting top-performing students,” Duggar says.

Applicants to the College of Education must have a minimum 3.0 GPA, whereas the state requires only a 2.5 for teaching colleges.

Student-teachers prove themselves capable educators before entering a classroom for their clinical experience. “In addition to passing both Texas teaching certification tests, teacher students must teach a sample lesson to a panel of veteran teachers,” says Duggar. “If they are favorably scored, then they can begin their clinical teaching.”

Additionally, while Texas requires that student-teachers observe classrooms virtually for 30 hours prior to clinical teaching, Dallas Baptist students must watch for 220 hours.

Don’t be afraid of ‘training’

One of the biggest issues with teacher prep programs today is the overall fear of the word “training,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“In the 1970s, it was decided that ‘training’ was a word that undervalued the complexity of education,” Walsh says.

It was feared that “training” would give teachers preconceptions about what students need. Training could create teachers who, rather than reflecting on the appropriate response, were more liable to pull a predetermined reaction from a set “bag of tricks” when, for example, a student spoke out of turn, says Walsh.

Yet for specific challenges, such as reaching growing populations of ELL and minority students, Walsh concludes, teachers need training in proven practices to provide meaningful praise and to establish rules and routines.

Kylie Lacey is associate editor. 

Stipends for STEM Advisers

Stipends for STEM Advisers

Science competitions and research opportunities can pave the path toward STEM degrees and careers. But low-income students often face barriers to participation, including lack of support.

The nonprofit Society for Science & the Public (SSP), which runs the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and Intel Science Talent Search, has launched a pilot program to address that gap.

Armed with a $100,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, SSP aims to recruit nine teachers, counselors, and scientists who can serve as coaches and advocates for between 30 and 50 low-income students in grades 6 to 11. The advisers – nine in total – would receive stipends of $3,000 to coach groups of “exceptionally promising” students in how to apply for and participate in science contests, reports The Journal.

Schools in the pilot program are located in Conyers, Ga., Durham, N.C., and Evanston, Ill. Participating organizations include Environmentors, Project SEED, Stanford RISE and Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science.

Minecraft and Your Future!

How Minecraft and Duct Tape Wallets Prepare Our Kids for Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet

Regular headshot 1432657383Zach Klein
May 26, 2015

When I was 11 I loved designing web pages and playing Sim City. Adults in my life didn’t recognize these skills as valuable, so neither did I. Actually, I began to feel guilty for using my computer so much. In high school I stopped making web pages altogether to focus on sports. It wasn’t until college, when strapped to pay my tuition, that I picked it back up and started making sites for small businesses. I graduated and teamed up with a few others who shared my interest for these emerging skills and moved to New York City to work on the Internet for a living. Three years later, in 2007, we sold our company, Vimeo, to a publicly-traded conglomerate. That skill I first developed quietly by myself, that went unnoticed by my parents and teachers, proved to be extraordinarily valuable to the economy just ten years later and the focus of many ambitious people today.

So, now I’m building DIY, the online community I wish I had when I was young. We already have 400,000 members who use DIY’s website and app to discover hundreds of new skills and dozen of challenges for each to try. They keep a portfolio and share pictures and videos of their progress, and by doing so they attract other makers who share their interests and offer feedback. The skills we promote range from classics like Chemistry and Writing, to creativity like Illustration and Special Effects, to adventure like Cartography and Sailing, to emerging technology like Web Development and Rapid Prototyping. We create most of our skill curriculum in collaboration with our members. Recently the community decided to make Roleplayer an official skill; It’s a fascinating passion that involves collaboratively authoring stories in real time.

My objective with this wide-ranging set of skills, and involving the community so closely in their development, is to give kids the chance to practice whatever makes them passionate now and feel encouraged –– even if they’re obsessed with making stuff exclusively with duct tape. It’s crucial that kids learn how to be passionate for the rest of their lives. To start, they must first learn what it feels like to be simultaneously challenged and confident. It’s my instinct that we should not try to introduce these experiences through skills we value as much as look for opportunities to develop them, as well as creativity and literacy, in the skills they already love.

It’s difficult to predict which skills will be valuable in the future, and even more challenging to see the connection between our children’s interests and these skills. Nothing illustrates this better than Minecraft, a popular game that might be best described as virtual LEGOs. Calling it a game belies the transformation it has sparked: An entire generation is learning how to create 3D models using a computer. Now, I wonder, what sort of businesses, communication, entertainment or art will be possible? Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet. I bet today’s kids will eventually explore outcomes and create jobs only made possible by the influence of Minecraft in their lives. Why take any chances and build your dream house with blueprints alone? The Minecraft kid could easily make a realistic 3D model of one for you to walk through before you build. That’s why DIY treats Minecraft as a tool, not a game, and encourages our members to use it to pursue art, architecture and community-building.

Whether it’s Minecraft or duct tape wallets, the childhood passions that seem like fads, if not totally unproductive, can alternatively be seen as mediums for experiencing the virtuous cycle of curiosity: discovering, trying, failing and growing. At DIY, we’ve created a way for kids to explore hundreds of skills and to understand the ways in which they can be creative through them. Often, the skills are unconventional, and almost always the results are surprising. I don’t think it’s important that kids use the skills they learn on DIY for the rest of their lives. What’s important is that kids develop the muscle to be fearless learners so that they are never stuck with the skills they have. Only this will prepare them for a world where change is accelerating and depending on a single skill to provide a lifetime career is becoming impossible.

This article is in our guide:
How to Build Your Makerspace


Senior Raiyan Nasim beams as the panel judging his portfolio defense at Los Angeles High School of the Arts gives him a passing grade.

Should high school students have to ‘defend’ their diploma like a Ph.D?

California’s new way of ranking school performance could open the door to portfolio assessments

Seniors at Los Angeles High School of the Arts work on their graduation portfolios in Isabel Morales’s social studies class.

Seniors at Los Angeles High School of the Arts work on their graduation portfolios in Isabel Morales’s social studies class. LOS ANGELES — Looking smart in a blue button-down shirt, Jorge Magana, 18, zipped through a PowerPoint presentation with the confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO.

Seated in front of Magana in a classroom at Los Angeles High School of the Arts was a panel of three judges: the school’s assistant principal, a school coordinator, and a former student. The occasion was his senior defense. Magana was trying to convince the panel that he was ready to graduate.

He had 45 minutes to present a portfolio of three “artifacts,” one academic, one artistic, and one of his own choosing. The panel grilled him: Can you describe your research process? Which obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? How will the skills you learned help with your future plans?

Portfolio assessments like this one, which look a lot like doctoral dissertation defenses, are on the rise in California. The practice, touted by educators nationwide as a proven path to college success, has largely been squeezed out by standardized tests, the quicker, less-costly measure of student performance. But the state’s reliance on test scores to rank school performance is about to change, and educators see an opportunity.

Since 1999, California has primarily tied school rankings to test scores, using the Academic Performance Index (API). Since its repeal in July 2013, the three-digit ranking has been undergoing revision. On the new API, which will debut in the 2015-2016 school year, test scores will account for only 60 percent of a school’s ranking. The other 40 percent will factor in graduation data and “proof of readiness for college and career.” Portfolio assessment can supply this data. The tricky part is convincing skeptics that these assessments are reliable.

Zaira Gutierrez puts the finishing touches on her graduation portfolio in Isabel Morales’s 12th grade social studies class at Los Angeles High School of the Arts.

Zaira Gutierrez puts the finishing touches on her graduation portfolio in Isabel Morales’s 12th grade social studies class at Los Angeles High School of the Arts. 

Magana’s presentation seemed to come off smoothly. He started with the personal statement he wrote for AP English about his father’s alcoholism and its effect on his family. Then he presented a model of a set for the play “Electricidad” that he built for Advanced Scenic Design class. He finished with a policy memo he wrote for AP Government on the high cost of rehab.

But when the panel asked him specific questions, Magana stalled.

“What policies already exist to help those who can’t afford rehab?” asked Cathy Kwan, the high school coordinator who is developing the portfolio model. She schedules the defenses, recruits panel members, and trains teachers.

Magana fell silent and looked off to the side. He had just argued in the memo that the price tag for alcohol rehab is prohibitive for minimum wage earners and that there should be policies in place to ensure alcoholics can get the help they need free of charge.

“I did research that,” he said. “But I can’t remember.”

Magana stepped outside the classroom while the panel evaluated his performance. The judges agreed his presentation skills were solid: he made eye contact, he knew how to hold the audience’s attention, and he was organized. But he failed to demonstrate content knowledge and sound research skills. Assistant principal Matthew Hein pointed out a “classic bad research move,” Magana’s admission that he “dismissed research that didn’t fit his opinion.”

The verdict: Magana would have to rewrite the policy memo and defend his work again.

This is only the second year Los Angeles High School of the Arts has required its seniors to do portfolio defenses. The seriousness of the process and the amount of work it takes hasn’t yet sunk in. “Students didn’t really take the defenses seriously enough,” says Kwan reflecting on this year’s presentations. “They thought we were just going to let them pass. They’d say to me, ‘I got this.’ And I’d tell them, ‘No, you don’t. You have to practice.’”

Making Portfolio Assessments Reliable

Cathy Kwan (middle) discusses a senior’s portfolio defense with assistant principal Matthew Hein (left) and Otoniel Ceballos, a recent graduate of Los Angeles High School of the Arts.

Cathy Kwan (middle) discusses a senior’s portfolio defense with assistant principal Matthew Hein (left) and Otoniel Ceballos, a recent graduate of Los Angeles High School of the Arts. 

Kwan is struggling with the difficulty facing any educator hoping to use the portfolio model: defining a standard approach to evaluation. Harvard education professor Daniel Koretz knows this difficulty firsthand. He studied the portfolio models of Kentucky and Vermont in the 1990s, when those states were trying to replace standardized tests with portfolio assessments. The criteria for what makes a good portfolio, Koretz found, can vary widely from school to school, making comparisons difficult.

“The standardized assessment is standardized precisely so that there is nothing extraneous that differs between kids or between schools,” he says.

This problem has sent educators in California searching for an objectivity not usually associated with portfolio assessment.

A recent report from Stanford University professors Soung Bae and Linda Darling-Hammond promotes graduation portfolios as one measure of how well schools prepare students for college. The authors recommend that the state allow schools to use “well-designed” portfolios, comprised of work from each of five different subject areas to include research essays, art work and other sophisticated projects that can’t be captured on a test in place of traditional exit exams.

“There’s an openness in the legislature [to consider] what would be more indicative of college and career readiness than sitting down and filling in a multiple-choice Scantron,” says Darling-Hammond. “Some say U.S. kids are the most tested and the least examined in the world. We have a lot of tests, but we don’t have high-quality examinations of thinking and performance.”

Aiming to test the digital portfolio as a way of producing reliable data, Stanford’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) has teamed up with ConnectEd, a Berkeley-based organization that promotes a mix of academic and career-centered school programs called “linked learning.”

Senior Raiyan Nasim beams as the panel judging his portfolio defense at Los Angeles High School of the Arts gives him a passing grade.

Senior Raiyan Nasim beams as the panel judging his portfolio defense at Los Angeles High School of the Arts gives him a passing grade. 

The resulting online tool, ConnectEd Studios, tries to take the subjectivity out of evaluating portfolios. Students can earn digital badges for completing performance tasks. A student writing an argumentative essay, for example, can upload the essay to the site, where his teacher can evaluate the writing according to a scoring rubric with criteria for grading. A series of dots represents the progress of the essay: red dot (ungraded), purple dot (not proficient), and green dot (proficient). When the essay is deemed proficient, the student earns a badge.

“We see these badges as data nuggets,” says Dave Yanofsky, director of strategic communications for ConnectEd. “If done right, digital badges give you both the qualitative and quantitative component. It’s not just that the student turned in the work and got a pat on the back. These badges show that students turned in work that is up to the level of quality we established.”

The development of reliable portfolio assessments could have huge implications for how we judge school effectiveness, not just in California but nationwide. Yanofsky estimates that 20 school districts, including Houston and Philadelphia, have expressed interest in working with ConnectEd to build their portfolio programs.

The expectation is that an online platform like ConnectEd Studios would create a secure place for students to share videos, audio files, photos, writing samples, digital badges, resumes, and letters of recommendation, showcasing their qualifications for universities and potential employers.

“Students can sell themselves short,” says Nadia Schafer, a digital specialist with Philadelphia Academies, a nonprofit that works with area high schools to provide students with career training and college preparation. “But the portfolio shows them all that they’ve accomplished. A portfolio tells their stories so much better than just a resume ever could.”

Related: Can we really prepare kids for both college and career?

Jorge Magana poses with his mother after earning a diploma from Los Angeles High School of the Arts. He failed his portfolio defense, but passed it on a second try.

Jorge Magana poses with his mother after earning a diploma from Los Angeles High School of the Arts. He failed his portfolio defense, but passed it on a second try. 

For now, the goal at the Los Angeles Unified school district is to make the portfolio defense a graduation requirement. Ten high schools are piloting the initiative, and there are plans to get more schools on board next school year.

“Students have improved immensely since we first started,” says Kwan. “But it still wouldn’t be fair to hold them back based on the defense. We haven’t yet learned how to prepare kids adequately to do this.”

Half of the Los Angeles Unified schools testing portfolio defenses have partnered with Envision Schools, a network of three small charter high schools in the San Francisco area that has systematized the portfolio model over the past 13 years and can provide step-by-step instructions on how to build a portfolio program. L.A. teachers traveled to San Francisco to watch the Envision students’ defend their portfolios and to get training on how to critique them. Envision has shared videos of model defenses and scoring rubrics that L.A. teachers can revise to suit their schools’ specific needs.

Can Portfolios Make the Grade?

At first, many teachers at Los Angeles High School of the Arts thought the defense was an unnecessary torture. Then, they actually witnessed a defense.

“When you see your students reflect on what they’ve learned, and see how that learning has affected them, it’s hard to say this isn’t a good idea,” says Isabel Morales, a 12th grade social studies teacher. “Watching the defenses taught me how much my lessons count, how crucial it is for me to provide a transformative learning experience for my students.”

Morales says students can simply “go through the motions” in class, taking in information without really retaining it. But portfolio defenses force them to explain what they’ve learned, and to apply it in different ways; for instance, Magana tackled the issue of alcoholism as a statement on policy and in a personal statement. Since the portfolio program started, Morales has discovered that the best preparation for a portfolio defense is for students to share their work and reflections on what they learned in the process, something she didn’t always make time to do.

Realizations like this one are the most important outcomes of the defenses, according to Tom Skjervheim, associate director at ConnectEd. In fact, when Skjervheim views a defense, he finds himself evaluating the teacher more than the student. “The portfolio defenses shed a light for teachers on what they should be doing in professional development,” he says. “They allow teachers to think about how they might tighten up their practices and get the results they want from students.”

According to a survey of students at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, 90 percent of students who passed and 68 percent of students who failed said the portfolio defense was a “worthwhile experience.” Magana, who passed his second defense a week later, says he’s learned from his mistakes and won’t repeat them at the University of California Riverside, where he’ll major in computer science this fall.

“I’m worried that in college I won’t have anyone there to push me,” Magana says. “But I have this experience to refer back to. I will remember this. I won’t allow myself to fail again.”

Kwan is already planning ways to make the experience more worthwhile next year, including training teachers to revamp their lessons. She thinks teachers need to tell kids up front what they’re going to learn and why they’re learning it. “This isn’t as common as you might think,” says Kwan. “Kids often don’t know why they do assignments.”

Students will also get more opportunities to practice their presentations before the big day. Groups of four will be assigned a mentor teacher who will critique their portfolios and presentations. Eleventh graders will assist during senior defenses, by switching slides or serving as panelists, gaining a sense of what will be expected of them the next year. Tenth graders will participate in mini-defenses in front of their classes.

While Kwan is intent on perfecting the process, she worries that portfolio assessment could become rote in pursuit of data. The Envision Schools have the defenses “down to a science,” she says. Students start to sound robotic when they’re all saying the same things, she adds.

Success, for Kwan, depends on a continuous evaluation of the process, not on routine. What counts as a real demonstration of learning?

“Many visitors are impressed that students are speaking in front of an audience,” Kwan says. “They don’t notice that the presentation is disorganized or that the students are having trouble answering the judges’ questions. It’s not good enough that students face a difficult task. They have to go up there and have substance. Just because you show up to an interview doesn’t mean you get the job.”

Of the 92 seniors who defended their portfolios this year, 33 failed. Like Magana, they were scheduled to redo their presentations.

But, in the end, all students passed and nabbed diplomas.

“They worked their tushes off,” says Kwan. “Not one of them gave up.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools

ADHD Classroom Accommodations: Guide to Getting Special Services

Eight steps for meeting your child’s educational needs with ADHD accommodations at school.

Helping ADHD children learn through exploration and experience.
ADDitude Magazine

Be an advocate, not an adversary.

The process of securing academic accommodations for your child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) can be confusing — and intimidating. Follow these eight steps to take the hassle out of establishing an IEP or 504 Plan…

1. Get an Accurate Evaluation

Write a letter requesting an evaluation to see if your ADHD child might benefit from academic accommodations.

Address it to the chairperson of the Committee on Special Education Services – aka the Director of Special Education Services. (It’s often a waste of time to send the letter to the child’s teachers, guidance counselor, or principal.)

Should the school decline your request, or if you’re dissatisfied with the evaluation’s findings, arrange for a private ADHD evaluation. (In some circumstances, the school may have to pay for the outside assessment.)

TIP: Send your letter by certified mail or hand-deliver it and keep a dated proof of receipt for your records.

2. Meet With the Evaluation Team

A school-sponsored evaluation is conducted by a multidisciplinary team — including special-education teachers, the school psychologist, and other professionals. As part of the process, they’ll want to meet with you to learn more about how your ADHD child functions in school.

Team members will review your child’s academic records, conduct a behavioral assessment, and observe her in the classroom. Following the assessment, you will discuss the results with the evaluation team and together you will decide whether your child needs special-education services to address how ADHD impacts her ability to learn.

TIP: Bring copies of your child’s report cards, standardized test results, and medical records, as well as a log of your communications with the school and other professionals to the meeting. (See our checklist of academic records that every parent should keep!)

3. Decide Which Laws Are Applicable

Two federal laws provide for free, public special education services: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act.

IDEA covers kids with very specific conditions, including mental retardation, emotional disturbances, hearing impairments, and speech and language difficulties. Kids may qualify for coverage if they frequently have one of these problems in addition to attention deficit. Some qualify under another IDEA category: Other Health Impairments. If your child’s ADHD is so severe that he’s unable to learn in a regular classroom, he may qualify.

Section 504 covers ADHD kids who don’t qualify for special-ed services under IDEA, but who need extra help in the classroom. The law prohibits schools from discriminating against students because of physical and mental impairments. Just as the school must provide ramps for kids in wheelchairs, it must make modifications (such as preferential seating, extra time on tests, or help with note taking) for kids with brain-based learning barriers.

FYI: If the team decides your child doesn’t need special ed, you’re entitled to appeal your case in a “due-process” hearing – a legal proceeding that often requires legal representation for the family, testimony from independent experts, and a review of meeting transcripts, test scores, and other documents.

4. Develop a Plan

If your child qualifies under IDEA, you should meet with the team to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which specifies your child’s educational goals and how those goals will be met in the ‘least restrictive environment’ – which generally refers to a regular classroom.

Parents must be assertive. Make sure the IEP spells out exactly how the school will help your child meet his goals, which should be specific, measurable, and achievable.

Include time limits: “By month three, James will reduce his interruptions from 10 per day to 2 per day.” The IEP should explain exactly how James will be taught to stop interrupting. Unless the strategies are specified, there’s no way to enforce them.

If your child qualifies under Section 504, a school representative will help you and your child’s teacher compile a 504 Plan, or a written list of accommodations that must be followed at all times. Unlike an IEP, there are no legal requirements about what should be included in a 504 Plan, and the school isn’t required to involve the child’s parents in the process (although many schools do).

TIP: Learn more about writing and implementing an IEP – including required provisions and the evaluation-team composition – on the federal Education Department’s web site.

5. Insist on a Customized Plan

The school may try to tailor your child’s IEP around its existing programs, even though IDEA requires schools to customize the plan based on the child’s needs.

If you’re not satisfied with the IEP, don’t agree to it.

The school may offer something more, or you can request a due-process hearing. If you prevail, the school district may have to pay for your child’s education in another school that offers the needed services – even if it’s a private school.

TIP: For specific accommodation ideas, check ADDitude’s free Printable: Classroom Accommodations for School Children with ADHD.

6. Monitor Your Child’s Progress

By law, the educational team must meet annually to review your child’s IEP. Many school districts schedule the annual meeting in the spring, so that team members can review current strategies and your child’s progress, and set goals for the coming year.

You can request a meeting whenever you think one is needed – like the beginning of each school year. Your child’s progress during the summer, or the demands of the new grade, may necessitate plan changes.

If your child receives special services under a Section 504 Plan, the school is not required to hold an annual review or to involve parents in meetings. However, you may still request a meeting at any time, and many schools invite parents to participate in the process.

7. Create a Paper Trail

As you secure services for your child, put all requests, concerns, and thank-you’s in writing — and keep copies on file. A note asking the teacher for your child’s test scores can be valuable if you later have to document that the request went unmet.

After each IEP meeting and conference with school staff, summarize the main points in a letter to participants. This establishes a written record of what was said.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision underscored the importance of good record-keeping. The Court ruled that, in a due-process hearing, the legal burden of proving that a plan fails to meet a child’s needs falls on the parents. It’s more important than ever to document your child’s difficulties, to be assertive about receiving progress reports, and to push for changes to the IEP as the need arises.

8. Seek Support

If at any point you reach an impasse with school authorities – or if you just want an expert to accompany you to meetings – contact an educational advocate or attorney. Many offer free or low-cost consultation.

To find one in your area, look online at: