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ResourcesForTeachingMathToBlindKids 20 Nov 2005 - 04:02 CarolynJohnston

SusanJ sent us a note about her braille work -- she's a great resource for information about teaching math to blind kids. I've been curious about braille for a couple of years, since I noticed that I could not feel the differences among braille letters; my fingers were simply too insensitive.

I'm kind of picking up the stuff on how blind kids learn math in bits and pieces. I'm a software developer so spend most of my time working on to-be free (open source) software which will turn the kids' braille math back into print math automatically. Right now, they typically have to get an aide or their itinerant vision teacher to do it for them which really causes a delay in communicating with their mainstream teacher.

One way they teach blind kids to make graphs is with a board where you can stick in pins and connect with rubber bands (or something similar) so they literally create a graph rather like you would make with craft materials. I've read that this approach has often turned out to be beneficial for the sighted kids in the class.

I, like most sighted people, read braille with my eyes, not fingers. (There are braille fonts.) Several years ago Nova reported on an experiment where they blindfolded a young sighted woman for a week. Absolutely no light. She could start feeling the braille cells after a few days. Apparently the visual cortex starts to aid the tactile sense when it isn't getting any visual input.

One's sense of touch is much more sensitive when you are moving your fingers, not holding them still. Beginning braille readers first learn to skim their fingers over a line of braille with all but one of the braille cells identical and with the initial goal to simply spot the different cell.

I asked her how she got involved in the open source project, and developed her interest in braille (she is retired from Los Alamos National Labs).

The short version of how I got interested in braille is that it had been a hobby of my father's and I happened to ask him about it in the spring of 2001. My website was originally a Father's Day present for him. There's more about his braille work here.

Braille cells are simply human-readable binary numbers so they appeal to the computational scientist in me.

It seems to be almost universally agreed in the braille community that Susan Osterhaus of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired is the most knowledgeable math teacher for blind kids. She's got lots of great resources here. BTW, she is extraordinarily busy so I wouldn't expect much direct interaction from her.

Check out her project's website, Dotless Braille.

One last tidbit

From Susan's letter, something more to ponder:

BTW, even when I was teaching high school chemistry (1963-1966 and subbing in 1969) and remedial college chemistry (1977), it was obvious that the lack of math skills was the students' biggest impediment to learning chemistry.

SpecialEdAndNCLB 21 Dec 2005 - 14:15 CarolynJohnston

I've been wondering how we're going to deal with the fact that the goal of NCLB -- 100% competence in reading and math by 2014 -- is impossible. Public schools can't possibly make the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014, or by any other time either. Somewhere before 2014, and I would bet it will be around 2008, schools will start failing in droves.

In quality assurance, even the top performers shoot for 'six-sigma quality', meaning they are shooting for 99.999999% compliance with quality standards -- not quite 100%. It's been clear for a while that something's got to give, and it's also been clear that the something is likely to be the standards set for compliance with NCLB.

That 100% requirement is the fatal flaw in what I think is otherwise some pretty good legislation.

If absolutely everyone has to get over the bar, the bar will have to be set very low. Another alternative is to set the bar at special heights for special students (and then, of course, you can define your low performers as special students).

Here's an excerpt from an article from yesterday's Washington Post. Look for a lot more of this in the next few years. I'd rather see them set realistic targets, and then aim high.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings outlined new testing rules for disabled students yesterday, formalizing an initiative that has already helped more than 100 public schools in Maryland and Virginia meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind law.

In a speech at Guilford Elementary in Columbia, which she cited as a model for special education, Spellings fleshed out a plan she first proposed last spring. The plan builds on existing rules that allow alternative testing for the most severely disabled students, a change that raised the scores of up to 1 percent of all students tested in a public school system or state.

Now, the Bush administration will allow modified tests for another group of special-ed students who have significant learning disabilities, emotional disorders or other impairments. That's likely to drive up scores for an additional 2 percent of students tested, state and federal officials said.

As a result, up to 3 percent of all students tested in reading and mathematics under the federal law soon may be scored as proficient through alternative or modified assessments, even though they are academically below grade level.

IfTheStudentHasntLearned 23 Dec 2005 - 22:16 CatherineJohnson



From Catherine:

Our new pretend-shirt specifically says "If the student hasn't learned, the school hasn't taught," not 'the teacher hasn't taught'.

No more thoughtless (and unintended) teacher-bashing.

Seriously. I'm the last person to want to make teachers feel blamed and bashed, seeing as how half my relatives have been or are currently teachers. I'm sure I'll be one again at some point, too.

The problem is that, when you talk about schools, it's the teachers who are visible. They're in the trenches, so they get the blame. (I realize I'm not telling teachers anything they don't know.) I know better than that, but I've been sounding like I don't.

Time for a course correction.

From Carolyn:

Hey, my entire family on my mother's side were also teachers, every man and woman Jack of them. I've been a teacher too; so has Catherine.

My observation is that policy flows downhill in a school, and the buck stops with the teachers. They get the responsibility, but not the authority; policy changes really have to start with upper management.

We're here to put the pressure on upper management, and support the teachers in doing what they know how to do.

RenaissanceLearningAndAcceleratedMath 13 Feb 2006 - 23:57 CatherineJohnson

ok, I am now officially too sick to carry on. (head cold; bad one)

I'll drop in these links, and come back later:

  • STAR Math 12-minute assessment program (part of Accelerated Math)

This sounds like a good idea, especially seeing as how a parent invented it. I almost always like teaching systems and ideas parents come up with.

Does anyone have experience with Accelerated Math?

The 'wiki' page is excellent — seems to be written by a teacher actually using the program.

can formative assessment be done by software?

Offhand, it strikes me that formative assessment is the area of math ed most compatible with software & programming...

A couple of teacher comments:

"I am thoroughly convinced that Accelerated Math can do things for students in math that are almost impossible to accomplish otherwise. The instant feedback and the emphasis on mastery ensure that students do not just coast through the program without truly learning the material. While the teacher (or someone) still has to do much of the teaching, students can be much more independent much of the time, and can cruise quickly through objectives that come easily to them. I have never made it through the end of the math book with any of my classes - I'm lucky to get past the halfway point with some of them. But with AM, motivated students can master EVERY SINGLE objective for the grade level library they work through, eliminating the gaps I see in the math skills of most of my students."

"The true power of AM is its ability to collect data about each student and to report that information to the teacher so he/she can act upon it. AM will notify a teacher whether a student is struggling in any given topic. It is then the teacher's job to act accordingly. The teacher may re-teach a lesson to the whole class, assign a peer-tutor to a struggling student, or to meet with the struggling student himself/herself. AM notifies the teacher of a struggling student much faster than the teacher ever could have figured it out if left to his/her own devices. I could continue singing the praises of this wonderful teaching tool, but I fear I've gone on long enough."

One last thing: Joanne Cobasko, of SOCMM, had a horrific experience with a software math-teaching program her school used with her son. I'll get her story posted at some point. The school wouldn't let her son advance, because the software, which was broken (IIRC, the headphones may have been defective...?) said he wasn't ready.

Apparently they put Hal in charge of math.

update: Joanne Cobasko on SuccessMaker:

Fairfax County, VA Evaluation of SuccessMaker Computer Curriculum Corporation (CCC) SuccessMaker Program Final Evaluation Report (pdf file)

From page 5 of the pdf file above under the heading Findings then sub heading of Student Achievement comes the following:

"For the most part, no significant differences were found between the performance of students at the CCC [SuccessMaker] program and comparison schools on the Stanford 9 mathematics tests. In all three years of the evaluation, students at both groups of schools demonstrated significant growth over the course of the year, and not many differences were found in terms of the rate of growth. Student gains from fall to spring on the Stanford 9 showed modest correlations with the gains made on SuccessMaker's own assessments, but did not show direct correlations with time spent on the system. In several instances....Students who spent under 20 hours on the program outperformed those who spent more than 20 hours on the program..." [bold emphasis is mine]

To put these findings in plain language there were only SMALL correlations with actual standardized test outcomes and the SuccessMaker reports teachers print out which show glowing results in student achievement. The students who spent the least amount of time on the SuccessMaker program scored better on standardized tests.

To further illustrate the lack of effectiveness of this program, Aspen Elementary has been using SuccessMaker since December of 2003 and their API scores have not shown ANY improvement. 2003 and 2004 API reports on the CA SBE web site (posted before 2004-2005 adjustments took place, show a 5 point drop from 879 down to 875, then a one point increase to 876) California Department of Education Academic Performance Index (API) Report

Why on earth is the administration requesting that the district finance this ineffective intervention? It is expensive and shows little in the way of results.

The IES has indicated there is NO VALID RESEARCH to show this program is effective: What Works Clearinghouse.

The district is further crippling CVUSD math education by using this program as it's sole intervention for students who are struggling with math.

If all students are required to spend 20min twice a week in the computer lab on this program you must add in the time necessary to line up and walk to and from the computer lab. There is probably 1.5 hours per week taken out of classroom instruction time to accommodate this intervention. THESE ISSUES MUST BE ADDRESSED BEFORE APPROVING GENERAL FUNDING FOR SUCCESSMAKER At the very least the district needs to perform a scientific evaluation of standardized test scores from the CVUSD schools that have been using SuccessMaker and the ones that have not. A teacher survey of their perception regarding outcomes will NOT be sufficient. The board members have a responsibility to protect taxpayers by insisting on a cost benefit analysis of this intervention.

Scarce funding would be better spent on tutors for after school Math and Reading programs staffed with human instructors, not computers.

-- CatherineJohnson - 11 Feb 2006

ParentBillOfRights 02 Apr 2006 - 01:11 CatherineJohnson

I've been reading articles about George Mason, who refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights:

Mason was among those who opposed adopting the draft constitution because it had no language to protect individual rights. They failed at first. But the Declaration of Rights Mason had written into Virginia's constitution 11 years earlier became the model for the Bill of Rights that was adopted in 1791 as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. It became Americans' guarantee of free speech, free association, religious liberty and all our other fundamental freedoms.

Final Four's Founding Father
USA Today

Naturally, that got me to thinking...maybe parents and students at Irvington Middle School need a bill of rights.

That seemed like such a good idea that I figured somebody else must have beat me to it.

So I started Googling things like "student bill of rights"; "student bill of rights" "middle school"; "parent bill of rights"; "parent bill of rights" "middle school"....

One thing led to another, and I landed on this document: Bill of Parent Rights and Responsibilities, New York City Department of Education, January 2005 (pdf file). (It's posted on this webpage as well.)

This document has been prepared by:

Jemina Bernard, Executive Director
Office of Parent Engagement
New York City Department of Education

Office of Parent Engagement, I thought!

How does New York City get an Office of Parent Engagement and we don't?

Not that I want to pay for a whole new Office of Parent Engagement (although Ed has decided the Irvington School District needs an ombudsman).

I started flipping through pages.....and I realized that some of this sounds like the rights my disabled children actually do have.

Then it occurred to me: I need to be looking at the specific language used in special education.

Meanwhile, this isn't a bad place to start:


Parents have the right to be given every available opportunity for meaningful participation in their child’s education.

Parents have the right to:

1. be treated with courtesy and respect by all school personnel, and to be accorded all rights without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, alienage, citizenship status, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or economic status.

2. participate in communication with teachers and other school staff and share concerns regarding their child’s academic, social and behavioral progress.

3. visit their child’s school to meet with his or her teacher and principal at mutually agreeable times.

4. participate in meaningful parent-teacher conferences to discuss their child’s progress in school.

5. be informed of their child’s academic and behavioral progress in school.

6. be encouraged to participate and receive assistance in participating effectively in governance and educational decision-making through the School Leadership Team at their child’s school.

7. be accompanied by a friend, advisor, or interpreter at hearings, conferences, interviews and other meetings concerning their child, in accordance with established procedures.

8. be provided, if they are hearing impaired, with an interpreter at any meeting or activity which they attend which is specific to the academic and or disciplinary aspects of their child’s educational program, provided a written request is made prior to the meeting or activity; if an interpreter is unavailable, other reasonable accommodations shall be made.

9. have school staff make every reasonable attempt to ensure that parents receive important notices from the school, such as notices concerning parent-teacher conferences, open school week, parent association notices, etc.

10. be a member of the parent or parent-teacher association of his or her child's school without regard to the payment of dues.



Parents have the right to follow appropriate procedures to pursue complaints or appeal decisions affecting their child.

Parents have the right to:

1. appeal any entry in their child’s records on the grounds that it is inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of their child’s privacy rights and request that such records be amended, in accordance with Chancellor’s Regulation A-820.

2. follow applicable procedures for filing complaints or appealing decisions which they believe violate their own or their child’s rights.

What I don't see here is the right to have one's complaint and appeals resolved within a specified period of time, or ever.

parent rights in 1970

I'm just starting to look into this area.

Here's a page that mentions a Parent Bill of Rights in Philadelphia in 1974.

As well, the state of Texas has a law governing parent rights. Haven't read yet, but I like this section:

Access to Teaching Materials

(a) A parent is entitled to:

(1) review all teaching materials, textbooks, and other teaching aids used in the classroom of the parent's child; and

(2) review each test administered to the parent's child after the test is administered.

(b) A school district shall make teaching materials and tests readily available for review by parents. The district may specify reasonable hours for review.

(c) A student's parent is entitled to request that the school district or open-enrollment charter school the student attends allow the student to take home any textbook used by the student. Subject to the availability of a textbook, the district or school shall honor the request. A student who takes home a textbook must return the textbook to school at the beginning of the next school day if requested to do so by the student's teacher. In this subsection, "textbook" has the meaning assigned by Section 31.002.

You have to love the fact that somebody actually had to write a law requiring the school to let kids take the textbooks home.

oh - wait!

They didn't even get that far.

The school has to let students take textbooks home subject to availability.

yeah, well, I can see that.

Our 7th grade Spanish class doesn't have enough books to go around.

So if everyone wanted to take a textbook home to study, they'd be in trouble.

-- CatherineJohnson - 02 Apr 2006