Tom's Blog -- January 2008

Dumb Things Even Good Schools Do

Today is January 22, 2008.  I have been thinking about what to write about this month and having a hard time choosing.  It's not that I can't think of things worth writing about. It is because I have too many possible topics to write on.   I thought of raising some specific issues about problems I have found in schools and programs naming names.   However, I thought it might be better to hold off in that area until we have a completed section on guidelines that serve as criteria against which we measure schools and treatment centers.  I also want to be able to demonstrate that there are good facilities out there before I start identifying problem situations. Actually the schools described below are good facilities.  Unfortunately, one thing they are good at is making themselves look bad.

At this time, I am in the middle of trying to resolve disputes between parents and schools. In each case, my observation is that the schools and programs are doing a good job with the student involved, but have behaved in a way that reasonably undermines the confidence in the schools and programs. 

I'm not ready to name names, but let me tell you three stories about School 1, School 2, and School 3.  Note I have taken a few liberties with the facts here, with schools not named, in order to make the point somewhat concisely, and to better conceal identities of the students.  All three are good schools that have done some really dumb things that undermine the confidence of the families and thereby have jeopardized the progress of the students (while doing the hard parts of their jobs well).

School 1 directly states on its web site that students are provided with special help up to one-to-one tutoring, based on an assessment that in turn depends upon handling of school work during the first two weeks testing, and prior history.  However in a meeting  on campus between the mother, the school's special education specialist, and the educational consultant, the education specialist asserted that assessments were based only on performance in the classroom without regard to past history and prior psychological evaluations.  He also said that the school does not offer special help except to students who advocate for themselves (except in a rare where the situation is very extreme and a teacher requests the help).

When I saw the Individual Plan, it said that special help would be offered "upon student request."  Some time later, the executive director offered to either exempt the student from a math graduation requirement or to offer some version of special help at an extra charge (Executive Director and I recall differently the exact service for which there would be a charge, but there was a proposal to help and charge extra for it).

Checking into what is going on here, I don't think the student was denied help that was needed and I do think that the history and prior psychological evaluation were considered properly in developing the individual plan.  I still haven't figured out what the executive director was thinking when he talked about extra charges.

Right now my project is to try to repair trust on the part of the mother.  I really suspect the young lady is getting care and education at least adequately and possibly even with great excellence, but can you blame the mother for losing trust?  I won't go into my sense of why I think the situation at the school  is not as bad as it appears, but this school needs to consider how it communicates. 

The mother of a student at School 2 was not able to get a clear transcript evaluation that included what else was needed for graduation from the school. The mother requested the school's assistance with transferring the student's certification for accommodations on SAT and ACT tests, but the education director seemed not to understand that the application for certification for accommodations needed to be submitted months before registering for the tests themselves.  Then the school dropped his French class without consulting parents. 

When parents began to bombard the school with questions about this, the education people in the school totally cut off communication, while -- while the parents were paying close to $10,000 per month to the school. (The school says "totally cut off communication" is an exageration, but that is how parents perceived it.)  In addition, the parents were getting inconsistent reports from the rest of the school.  There was also a parent bulletin board with very little being posted.  Tomorrow I have a conference call with the parents and school officials to try to rebuild confidence in the school.  While the conduct of the education department has no place in any school public or private, I think the therapeutic section of the school is doing an excellent job, and not to rebuild the confidence of the parents would cause a terrible setback for the student.  But I certainly understand why the parents don't have confidence. 

School 3 is a school for kids with relatively mild emotional and behavioral issues.  I approached them with a student with an eating disorder in remission. Several schools/programs with a more intense clinical program (including school 2) experessed caution at best and some turned her down.   But school 3 accepted her with surprising ease.  After that the parents expressed numerous concerns that the admission director had made promises that were not kept, although they did feel good about the work of the therapist with their daughter.

When staff clearly became stretched by students with unexpected behavioral challenges, I surveyed other consultants.  Five consultants, all who responded to me, told me stories that were incompatible with careful screening and conservative promotion.  One consultant says, "Ms. X, the director of admission told me, 'If you think she's right for us, we'll accept her.'" (without asking other questions)  Another reported referring students that he thought were  too behaviorally difficult for this setting and getting them admitted, having been honest about level of likely acting out.  None of the five were generalizing from their own experience prior to our discussion, but all five had a story to tell consistent with over-selling and under-screening. (This took place in late 2007)

In this case,  my problem is a bit tougher than with schools 1 and 2. In this case I think the school might not be screening appropriately. I can't prove it, but I can't see any other way to explain the data.  If they are not screening carefully, why are they not, unless to increase enrollment?  That raises the suspicion that they might employ other means of inflating enrollment, such as promising more than they can deliver.  I have not heard such promises.  My client family alleges this.  After the reports from other consultants, I can't rule it out, either.  At the same time, I agree with the parents that their daughter is getting good treatment.  It just isn't clear to what degree they were overpromised, if at all.  

I see tremendous results from many special schools and treatment centers.  However, these days that the industry is under attack, schools might do well to stop acting downright stupidly in a manner that results in undermining parent confidence in otherwise good treatment and feeds ammunition to the people who want to shut down the industry.  

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Postscript 1:  Three days later.  All three schools described above have taken steps to remedy their part of the situation. 

Postscript 2:  February 7, 2008.  School 2 appears to have bent over backwards to accommodate these parents at the top management level.  However today, while the executive director and clinical director are away at a conference, the parents emailed a teacher with a very simple question about curriculum.  The teacher simply passed the question to a supervisor who said she did not know the answer to the question -- a question any competent teacher should know about his/her course -- and bucked to a higher level supervisor who will not be available until next week. I'm not sure whether this seems more like the Three Stooges or the Keystone Kops.   This is a truly superior clinical facility about to lose its reputation due to gross incompetence in its education section.  Meanwhile, school 3 appears to be going the extra mile to deliver on its commitments, including some commitments they now appear to realize they ought not to have made. 

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Feedback  1

Not by email but verbally from a person who works for me:  "Aren't you likely to frighten parents with these stories?  Should you really be telling this?"

My response:

Perhaps it will frighten some.  Our job is to tell the truth. Not everyone wants to hear it.  The schools and treatment centers we deal with are not perfect and we want our clients to know that.  Hopefully what we post here will motivate improvements.  My guess is that these schools will not be making these specific mistakes in the future.  There is a reality here that schools that are good at certain things often let the routine things that almost everyone is good at slip away, while they concentrate on their signature strong points. 

I have not created this website or this blog to mislead people into thinking that if you hire me or another consultant, all your troubles will magically disappear.  We can guide you through a difficult situation.  We usually can't make it other than difficult. 

In the situations described, we have stayed with the client as they have run into unexpected problems.  It is a rare coincidence that three situations of this kind would emerge at the same time.  But parents looking at schools need to be aware that too often, the schools do the hard stuff well and make silly mistakes in what should be routine.  That is a fact of life.

If we want to be self serving, we can point out that with a good consultant, you have an advocate when these things happen.   The fact that when schools do something like these vignettes describe, this website is likely to inform the world, and schools have an incentive to avoid that.  But the best consultant can't guarantee that they won't ever happen.

 Tom Croke, January 23, 2008

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