Friday, October 28, 2016

Echoing Green

Hello, my good people, and many salaams from the Berkshires as I continue my tour of the Eastern seaboard.  I'm currently in Lenox, Massachusetts enjoying a bit of R&R (and working my bum off, of course, who are we kidding?!) after the frenzy of preparing and submitting Toa Nafasi's application for an Echoing Green Fellowship earlier in the week.

Echoing Green is an nonprofit organization that provides funding for "social innovation."  In their own words: 

Echoing Green Fellows are the innovators, instigators, pioneers, and rebels that reject the status quo and drive positive social change all over the world.  While their work, their geographies, and even their approaches may be as varied as the problems they are working to solve, their common passion and commitment form the base of this robust, active community of leaders.  Our social entrepreneurship Fellows work on six continents, on issues such as: Economic Development; Education; Environmental Sustainability; Health; Justice and Human Rights; Hunger and Poverty Alleviation; and, Racial and Gender Equality.

Echoing Green will provide more than $4.6 million in unrestricted seed-stage funding and strategic foundational support this year to emerging leaders working to bring about positive social change.  Over the past three decades, our total investment is over $40 million to more than 700 world-class leaders.

Fellows include the founders of Teach For America, City Year, One Acre Fund, and SKS Microfinance, as well the First Lady of the United States, a mayor of Providence, RI, and the director of the largest environmental law center in the U.S. 

So, with the First Lady and Teach For America as Fellow role models, you can see how we at Toa Nafasi have our work cut out for us!

Don't want to divulge much more about our application as it's early days yet and there's much more work to be done, but here's a small portion from the Short Answer round regarding my "passion" for your delectation.

Be well, folks, and another blog post next week!


I came to development work late in my professional life.  Having spent ten years in book publishing, it seemed my career track was set.  But my time as a volunteer nursery school teacher in Tanzania brought me to a different world, one in which benefits I took for granted were not even thinkable.  I am not a Toa kid.  I have always been a quick learner and a fast reader.  I have always had opportunities, educational and otherwise, at my disposal.  When I saw Tanzanian children struggling with kindergarten lessons with no support from (and in some cases actually fearing!) their teachers, I felt very lucky.  And feeling lucky motivated me to give back.  Since then, I have spent nearly ten years in Tanzania.  I have strong personal as well as professional reasons for wanting to see the Project succeed.  I believe that given the opportunity, thousands of public primary schoolchildren can do better than they currently are, or even than what's expected of them.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Bell Curve

Hi everybody, hope all is well.  We at Team Toa are still super-busy this week, so I am posting an article from the nonprofit news organization, Chalkbeat, that is devoted to coverage of our American education system.  This piece titled "When Is a Student 'Gifted' or 'Disabled'?  A New Study Shows Racial Bias Plays a Role in Deciding" is a nice coda to the article I posted in September's "Talented Tenth" blog entry,  Check it out!


Racial bias among educators may play a larger role than previously understood in deciding whether students are referred for special education or gifted programs, according to new research from NYU.

The study, the first of its kind to show a direct link between teacher bias and referrals for special services, found stark differences in how teachers classify students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds showing identical signs of disability or giftedness.

Teachers were more likely to see academic shortfalls as disabilities among white students, even when students of color demonstrated the same deficits.  They tended to see these struggles as "problems to fix," the study explains, if students were white.  And students of color were more likely be referred for special-education testing when they had emotional or behavioral issues compared with identical white peers — and were less likely to be identified as gifted.

Those findings may help inform a debate that has divided researchers: Is special education racist if students of color tend to represent a greater share of its population?  Or do problems associated with poverty that can affect cognitive development (lead exposure, for instance) mean that students of color might actually be underrepresented in special education settings?

The study, which is set to appear in the journal Social Science Research, doesn't resolve that debate.  But it does offer evidence that bias plays a role in both over- and under-classifying students for certain services.

"The issue is that racism affects all of us, and teachers are in positions of power," said Rachel Fish, the study's author and a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School.

Educators are an important focus because they are responsible for about 75 percent of all referrals for gifted or special ed programs, according to the report.  And in the vast majority of cases, the evaluation process confirms a teacher's suspicion.

Fish was able to isolate a student's race as a deciding factor by giving 70 third- and fourth-grade teachers culled from an unnamed large, northeastern city a survey that described identical behaviors, but signaled different racial identities.  Teachers were randomly assigned to read profiles of fictional male students who showed signs of academic challenges, behavioral/emotional deficits, or giftedness.  The only thing that changed was their name: Jacob, Carlos, or Demetrius.

The teachers who participated were more likely to see academic deficits in white students as "medicalized problems to fix," while black and Latino students with the same deficits were seen as ordinary.  The implication, according to the study, is that "low academic performance is normal for [students of color], and not a problem to remediate."

And in terms of behavioral challenges, black and Latino students' actions were "seen as more aggressive and problematic than misbehavior by white boys."

That could have troubling implications for equal access to appropriate education services because students who are classified as having behavioral issues tend to be treated differently.

"If you're labeled with an emotional behavior disorder, you're likely going to be excluded from the general education classroom and it's likely you'll be greatly stigmatized," Fish said in an interview.  While there isn't much conclusive research on how students' classifications affect them down the road, there is evidence that being labeled with a behavioral disorder is associated with future incarceration.

The study also found that bias helped determine whether students were considered gifted: Teachers evaluated white students' skills more favorably than their black and Latino peers.

The picture is slightly more complicated for English learners.  Teachers tended to refer a student with mild academic challenges for special education services if he was a white ELL student, as opposed to a black or Latino ELL peer.  They were more likely to perceive Latino boys as having behavioral issues if they were non-native English speakers.   But they were less likely to perceive white ELL boys as having behavior problems than their white non-ELL peers, according to the study.

Many of these problems are evident in New York City, where students of color are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, and white students often face less severe behavioral interventions.

Still, Fish acknowledges that the study has some limitations and shouldn't be overgeneralized.  Because it relies on a small group of teachers evaluating fictional students, it's hard to claim that her findings apply in real situations across the board.

But Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College who studies inclusive education, said that while previous research has shown racial disparities in gifted and special education, this study is among the first to describe one mechanism of how that sorting happens.

"We don't really have very good ways to get at implicit bias," she said.  "And this is a really, really good way."

Still, like Fish, Oyler is careful to point out that the findings don't suggest teachers should be branded as racists; there are larger institutional factors at play that enable implicit bias.

"What is wrong with our system that we continue to sort and label kids at both ends of the imagined bell curve," she asks, "and then give them different kinds of educational opportunities based on what we perceive them to be?"

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Old and Infirm

Hi guys, please check out a recent article from the Tanzania Daily News titled "Old Age and Disability Is Not a Curse."


"When I was in primary school, I used to tell our teacher that I could not see.  I would ask: 'Can you please read for me?  But the teacher would say, 'Why do you come to school then if you cannot see?'" narrated Robert Bundala, a peer researcher.

While the government has invested much in improving the education sector in the country, a report called "Hear My Voice: Old Age and Disability Is Not a Curse" of September 2016 notes a number of challenges including poor infrastructure and unfriendly learning environments for persons with disabilities.

The recently launched report by Sightsavers in partnership with ADD International, HelpAge International, and Ifakara Health Institute reveals many of society's misconceptions and beliefs around people with disabilities and the aged.

This report found out that people with disabilities and older people in Tanzania face disappointing issues such as lack of access to education and health services, sexual violence and marriage break-ups.

There is also poor treatment from family members as well as violence and discrimination towards people with albinism due to traditional beliefs and practices.

The Country Director of Sightsavers, Mr. Gosbert Katunzi, is of the view that disability and old age are issues concerning all Tanzanians and, as the report makes clear, the groups have an active duty to playing a role in all spheres of society.

Discrimination against children with disabilities and limited teacher training have also been reported as obstacles in accessing education.  The research notes that more teachers should be trained to provide quality inclusive education for children with disabilities.

Curricula in primary schools should be flexible and adapt to the needs of diverse learners so children with disabilities can benefit from quality education.  On the other hand, parents of children with disabilities should be sensitized to the importance of taking their children to school to receive education.

Limited accessibility of health services has also been cited in the report, as well as shortage of medical equipment and supplies at health facilities, and poor communication skills among healthcare providers and high costs incurred when seeking care.

A peer researcher, Elizabeth Bukwela, narrating a story of a 32-year-old participant with a hearing impairment, said: "I usually go alone to the hospital but I have been experiencing a lot of difficulties because I couldn't express myself, since healthcare providers do not understand sign language.

Another participant was quoted as saying: "I remember another sad story in which a pregnant woman who was blind had gone to give birth at a health facility.  She delivered twins but reported that she was given one baby only."

Based on those aspects, the research calls on social welfare officers to conduct frequent visits in villages to inquire and understand the needs of persons with disabilities and older persons.  It is also noted that health facility infrastructures should be made accessible to persons with disabilities and should include trainings of healthcare providers on how to interact with the disabled and older persons.

Strict measures should be put in place so that health facilities can make sure that health staff who abuse or mistreat persons with disabilities and older persons are taken to task.

Lack of employment is also pointed out as among challenges for persons with disability, thus there is a need for a call for support and guidance from local authorities and the government by way of establishing income generating activities as well as entrepreneurship skills.

Communities, on the other hand, should be supportive enough to the groups so that they can actively get involved and share their skills, life experiences, and knowledge.

Parents of children with disabilities were identified as the reason for their children's relationship difficulties and marriage breakdowns, because they were taking over the role of choosing fiancées or partners for their children.

It has been identified that females with disabilities have been frequently humiliated by being forced to live with men who were not of their choice.  Older people felt neglected by their families and communities because they were poor and had no incomes.

The report notes that persons with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities should be made aware that all matters related to marriage, family, parenthood, and relationships should be decided freely on an equal basis with others.  Women with disabilities should not be exploited, threatened, or mistreated.

It was further explained that peer influence contributed to women with disabilities being harassed in their marriages.

Measures should be taken to raise awareness on gender equality and discrimination in communities, including the need to report physical, verbal, and sexual abuse to the police.  Participants have recounted mistreatment by some parents who see their children disabilities as a burden and therefore decide to abandon them.

"I stayed at home because they said that a person with hearing impairment is like a patient, that should not be engaged in any activity," revealed one participant.  More awareness should be created to reduce stigma and discrimination of persons with disabilities and older people.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Fall Fanfare

As expected, it has been a busy Fall thus far with much fanfare expected by its finale!  (You guys know how much I loooove a good alliterative blog subject, right?!)

I have been in the States since late August, busily working on Toa matters.  Whereas in TZ I am on-the-ground and in school, in NYC I am behind-the-scenes and often working in solitude.  It is a different "hat" but one that is necessary to wear to keep this whole machine rolling on.

First order of business has been to re-order our collateral products.  This means editing and re-printing brochures, creating business cards and setting up Toa emails for key staff members, and ordering Toa tee-shirts for the expected 2017 cohort.  This year, we were fortunate to receive support from the International Association of Special Education, who helped to offset the cost of the shirts.  Asante sana, IASE!

Next on the list has been to meet with our web designer and discuss an overhaul for the Toa Nafasi website.  Last week, Carla and I sat down with Michael Schafer of Openbox 9.  He will be in charge of this undertaking, and Heidi and I are already busy collecting photos and writing copy for use on the site.

True to her title, Heidi has also been heading up our grants research, investigating options for further sources of funding and putting all the data in order.  Additionally, she has revived our social media platforms and, polepole, we are developing an online presence once again.  Asante sana, Heidi!

The U.S. Board of Directors had its first physical meeting of 2016 just last week in Washington at which we fleshed out year-end plans.  We developed a timeline of email blasts, social media touches, and of course, our actual Friendraiser event, which will be held in Washington DC on Tuesday, November 15th.

For me, personally, I am devoting some time to writing.  Toa has decided to apply for a fellowship from Echoing Green, which is "a social innovation fund that acts as a catalyst for impact."  They invest in people with ideas that suggest innovative solutions to issues like Education, Economic Development, Hunger and Poverty Alleviation, and Health.  I'm also developing a paper for the next IASE conference, to be held in Perth, Australia.  It's actually a nice change of pace to be able to step outside of the flurry of day-to-day activities and think about the larger impact Toa is making on this community, not just the children but their teachers as well.

Of course, I can't just while away my days, writing from lofty highs and intellectualizing the Project however much I want to; there's plenty of "icky" stuff to do as well.  Falling into that unfortunate – but obviously, necessary – category are: preparing the 2017 budget, hiring a U.S. accountant, and reaching out to potential new donors in the corporate world.

The budget is icky just because it requires numbers, and numbers in cells, and formulas for those cells, and, well, I'd rather be writing with the Roman alphabet from lofty highs....  Thank goodness, Heidi is now on staff for guidance and support.  Ditto the accountant – not really my thing, but as Toa expands, so too do our needs.  The outreach to new friends in corporate networks is not so much icky as scary.  I certainly believe in Toa, its mission, and its model, but it's a little nerve-wracking preparing to take meetings with executives at international investment firms.  It's a loooong way from Msaranga Primary School to Morgan Stanley!  Here's hoping I still have some of that winning book publicist charm from pre-2007!!

Back in Moshi, Hyasinta seems to be handling things ably: the teachers carry on with their work, the students continue with their lessons, and everyone is generally happy.  Gasto is working on the issues that still persist: lack of classrooms, particularly at Mnazi; Toa paperwork in Dar es Salaam; and various administrative duties specific to the Tanzanian aspects of the Project.

We are starting – at Heidi's initiative – a new enrichment program for the teachers whereby once a month, we will have some sort of professional development or life skills workshop.  Last month, Gasto and Heidi arranged for a Social Security officer to come and talk to the staff about the newly implemented benefits system.  In coming months, we are planning health seminars and round table discussions on various articles I've found and will have translated into Swahili.  We will also be featuring each teacher, in due course, on the blog and in her own words.  Hyasinta has conducted interviews with all the women and, as soon as I have time to translate, I will put them up one by one.

Finally, check out this photo that Heidi recently took of a child so intent on his studies, he forgot to stick his tongue back in his mouth!  Sometimes, school is just that interesting!!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Inclusion = Equality

Shalom from The Nation's Capital, dear readers.  I have been in town for a Jewish High Holidays - Toa Nafasi meetings - family and friends collabo this past week.  It has been an exhausting though fun-filled and productive time, but I'm looking forward to getting back to New York.

Since I'm in DC, I gotta post something from a DC rag, right?  So here's a recent entry from Valerie Strauss's blog, The Answer Sheet on The Washington Post's online edition.  It offers the compelling testimony of parents of an autistic child, and their strong desire to have her educated inclusively.  Such reasoning for inclusion versus self-contained classes for special education needs students is exactly what Toa Nafasi is all about!  Check it out!!


Parents: Why Our Second-Grader Is Not Going Back to School 

How to educate children with disabilities is one of the most difficult conversations in education.

Federal law requires that school districts provide the least restrictive environment with non-disabled peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, but there is a difference of opinion in the disability world about what that means for students with severe disabilities.  Are self-contained classes better?  Should they be in regular classrooms with supports?  How do you decide which students should be in which environment?

In this post, the mother and father of a child with autism write about why they want her in a regular classroom and believe that self-contained special education classrooms can be damaging.  This was written by Vikram Jaswal, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and Tauna Szymanski, an attorney and volunteer chair of the Arlington Inclusion Task Force. 

By Vikram K. Jaswal and Tauna M. Szymanski 

Like most children across the country, our 7-year-old should be returning to school this fall.  She is a happy kid with a thirst for knowledge.  The second-grade curriculum in our public school involves experimenting with magnets, writing stories, analyzing graphs, and learning about Susan B. Anthony's legacy.  It looks perfect for her.

But our daughter has a disability, and we learned a few weeks ago that she was not going to be allowed to be educated with the other second-graders.  Instead, for the third year in a row and like 1 million other children with disabilities in the United States, she would have to spend at least half of each day in a segregated, "self-contained" classroom with other children with disabilities — an educational practice we have come to learn is questionable at best.

When our daughter started school, we embraced this model of special education.  We thought that she would be better off in a smaller class with fewer distractions, where the instruction could be tailored to her specific needs.  We knew that she would be isolated from her peers, but we thought that it would be worth it in the long run.  We were wrong.

Over 30 years of research has shown that students with disabilities learn more and better when they are given the supports they need in regular classrooms, alongside peers who do not have disabilities.

For example, in a recent series of studies, Jennifer Kurth and Ann Mastergeorge compared autistic middle schoolers who had been educated since kindergarten in either regular or self-contained classrooms.  This placement in kindergarten was determined by zip code, not ability: Those in the regular classrooms lived in a district that did not have self-contained classrooms; all children were educated together.  Students in the two groups had similar IQ scores (none above 70), but those educated in regular classrooms scored five to nine times higher than those educated in self-contained classrooms on every measure of reading, writing, and math achievement given.

This is a dramatic difference, but the explanation is simple: opportunity and access.  The autistic students in the regular classrooms had more opportunities to learn.  They spent almost 90 percent of their time engaged in instructional activities; those in the self-contained classrooms did so just 60 percent of the time.  Most of the rest of their time was spent taking breaks.

Autistic students in the regular classrooms also had more exposure to grade-level material: The curriculum they used was aligned with the one used by the students without disabilities almost 90 percent of the time.  In contrast, the curriculum used in the self-contained classrooms was aligned just 0.1 percent of the time.  Over one-third of the instruction involved no curriculum at all.

The research on the benefits of educating disabled children in regular classrooms could not be clearer.  No study conducted since the late 1970s has shown an academic advantage for students educated in separate settings, but plenty have shown the reverse.  The research on the social benefits of including disabled children is similarly impressive: Studies show that disabled children make more friends and feel more connected to the school community when they are educated alongside non-disabled children.  There are benefits for the non-disabled peers too: Studies show they exhibit more positive attitudes about diversity and even experience increased academic engagement themselves.

In the face of all this evidence, why are so many students with disabilities like our daughter — almost 1 in 5 according to the U.S. Department of Education — still educated in separate classrooms for most or all of the school day?  Why does this discriminatory and harmful practice still exist?

One reason is that educational institutions change at a glacial pace.  Schools are driven more by historical conventions rather than the needs of students and new developments in our understanding of how best to educate them.  But it doesn't have to be this way: If hospitals treated patients today the same way they did 30 years ago despite the development of new procedures with better outcomes, they would not be allowed to operate.

A second reason is fear: Parents worry that their disabled children will not receive the kind or level of support they need in a regular classroom.  We share this concern, but given the overwhelmingly negative outcomes associated with self-contained classrooms, we do not see it as a reason to perpetuate them.  On the contrary, we see it as an opportunity for schools to innovate: Why not take advantage of the experiences and expertise of the schools and districts across the country that are successfully supporting disabled students with significant support needs in regular classrooms?  How do they do it, and how can we do it better?  The special educators we know are dedicated, caring, and creative professionals who should be allowed to put their considerable talents to work in this way.

A third reason is that many people find it hard to imagine including children who have significant support needs in a regular classroom.  How could a non-speaking autistic student, for example, or someone who has an intellectual disability be expected to "keep up" with the other students?

This objection reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what we and many other advocates for inclusive education are advocating for.  We recognize that there are differences in ability; these are evident even in regular classrooms among children who do not have documented disabilities.  Successful teachers in these classrooms already differentiate their instruction, make use of Universal Design for Learning principles, and work in teams so that they can reach and challenge students in their classroom regardless of initial ability.

Teachers in school districts across the country are already modifying and adapting the curriculum so that all students — English language learners, gifted students, culturally diverse students, students with physical, developmental, or intellectual disabilities — can learn and be challenged together, even if they learn at different levels and master the curriculum to different degrees.  In the Kurth and Mastergeorge studies described earlier, the autistic middle schoolers educated in regular classrooms did not score at the same level as most of their typically developing peers on achievement tests.  But on every measure of reading, writing and arithmetic — skills that all students should develop to the greatest extent possible — they did much better than the autistic students who had been educated in self-contained classrooms.  (Note that students in both groups had IQ scores at or below 70, which is one of the criteria for intellectual disability.)

The modern paradigm of inclusive education is one that is based in equity — one that espouses a philosophy that schools should welcome all students and that all students belong.  In this model, students with disabilities continue to receive the specialized instruction and other supports they need, but these services are delivered in the classroom they would attend if they did not have a disability.  Students who spend their first two decades in a segregated setting are not going to be prepared for a life in a world that is not segregated.  As the disability rights advocate Norman Kunc says, "There is a simple rule when it comes to segregation: No matter how good the swimming instructor is, you cannot teach someone to swim in the parking lot of the swimming pool."

Self-contained classrooms are sometimes described as steppingstones to regular classrooms, helping children learn the skills they need to be included.  The data do not back this up.  In a 2007 study by Susan Williams White and colleagues, for example, 81 percent of autistic children who attended a self-contained classroom in first grade were still in a self-contained classroom in eighth grade.  Clearly, most disabled students in self-contained classrooms are not learning whatever they need to make the transition to a regular classroom, and in the meantime, they are falling further and further behind their peers.  We know high school students with disabilities in our district who continue to be taught kindergarten-level concepts even though they have asked for more challenging material.

Some parents we know believe a self-contained classroom is the best place for their child's particular needs, and we respect that.  But in light of the well-documented benefits of inclusive education, parents who would like their children supported in regular classrooms should have that option.

Over the past two years, we have worked with many other parents to advocate for this kind of reform, sharing the research with our school district, attending hundreds of meetings, serving on district committees, and founding a grass-roots task force.  We have couched our appeals in terms of social justice and civil rights: "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."  We have pleaded for empathy: "Imagine how our daughter feels when she cannot find her yearbook picture next to the other children in her grade."  We have cited the law: "She is supposed to be educated in the least restrictive environment."  We have even pointed out that inclusive education can save the district money.  We believe in the public school system, and our advocacy efforts will continue.

But when we learned that despite our best efforts, our daughter — who recently told us that her motto is "Never underestimate me" — would once again have to spend most of her day in a segregated classroom, we decided that we could not send her back to school.  Like all children, her future depends on her education, and we cannot afford to let her fall even further behind.  This year, she will learn about magnets, Susan B. Anthony, and other second grade things elsewhere in our community.  We look forward to her return to our neighborhood school when all students are welcomed and supported in regular classrooms and can enjoy the same educational access and opportunities.