School reform

Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology of Education program at New York University (NYU). She was a graduate assistant at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at NYU under the leadership of Dr. Pedro Noguera. She now works at the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality in Special Education at the center. Before joining the Metro center, she worked for the AmeriCorps Vista project in Phoenix, Arizona, coordinating and developing ESL programs for recent immigrant parents in the Phoenix school system. She holds a BA in economics and is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She also holds a MST in Special Education from Pace University in New York City and taught middle school special education for several years in Washington Heights NYC. Her research interests are centered on the intersection between the impact of federal disability legislation and the persistence of racial and ethnic disproportionality. More specifically she is interested in understanding the complexities associated with a policy’s origins, its intent and mediation in practice as it responds to local context, especially when a disparate impact is identified.

It was a typical school day in my research and I was observing an in school suspension room when an African American boy, about seventeen years old, entered and immediately sat at a desk and began writing. The teacher in the room appeared to know him well and asked him what he was working on. The boy said he was writing about what he would say if he became valedictorian. The teacher, seemingly intrigued, asked him to explain his thoughts. “I want to go to college. I mean I only have three options: college, jail or the army.  It’s true, you can ask anyone. These are our only options. You would be surprised by how many kids would say the same. This school is nasty like that.” 

Upon closer inspection of the student’s assignment the teacher realized he was working on an essay for the online credit recovery program designed for suspended students. With the realization the teacher said, “You better get that work done because people are calling the online program a criminal program!” The boy quickly responded with, “I’m not a criminal.” The teacher continued, “Well, people think the program is harboring criminals.” “I ain’t no criminal!” the boy interrupted.  He then returned to his assignment visibly distraught.

Why did he only see three options for himself and his peers: college, jail or the army? And why was he defending himself against the perception that he was a potential criminal? More broadly, what messages are we intentionally or unintentionally telling students about their worth in school and how do these messages intersect with school discipline structures? Read more

Liz King is Legislative Director for Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa).  She has worked in this office since 2005, prior to which she taught middle school in Philadelphia with Teach For America for two years.  In her current role she coordinates the Congressman’s legislative agenda and advises him on education, health and social policy.  She is passionately committed to improving access and outcomes in education and to ensuring that all students’ potential is realized.  She is especially excited about the changing American demographics and the potential to bring new thinking and new thinkers to old problems.  Believing that there should always be a strong link between practice and policy, Liz volunteers as a one-on-one tutor and as a classroom volunteer.  She holds a BA in Government and Religion from Wesleyan University and an MS in Elementary Education from St. Joseph’s University.

In 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law, it became official policy of the United States government that all students attending public schools (with the exception of students with the most significant disAbilities) meet grade level standards by the year 2014.  For the first time, the basic expectation most parents of middle class, White, typically abled children have of their neighborhood school now applied to all classrooms, schools and districts without adjusting for race, income, first language, or IEP.  I believe that this is the most important step towards real equity for all students at the federal level since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case desegregated schools in 1954. Read more


Lisa Tolentino is a doctoral student pursuing a Media Arts and Sciences PhD through the School of Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) at Arizona State University. She works in the Embodied and Mediated Learning Group, working closely with high school special education teachers, designers, artists and researchers to develop digitally mediated environments to support social interaction, exploration, community and creativity in learning for students with autism.

I believe the key to activating the lives of students with disabilities is not about changing who they are; rather, it is in changing how we listen to them. So let’s begin with a short listening exercise. If you are at our near a kitchen, perform the following steps before reading the blog. If not, feel free to skip ahead.

An Exercise in Listening: 5 steps in 15 minutes.

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Beth FerriBeth Ferri, associate professor in teaching and leadership programs, is the coordinator of the Doctoral Program in Special Education. She teaches courses in adapting instruction for diverse learners as well as graduate seminars in Disability Studies, including a course on Race and Disability and a course on Gender, Disability and Sexuality. Her research interests focus on inclusive education, disability studies, and narrative inquiry. In her 2006 book, Reading Resistance: Discourses of Exclusion in Desegregation and Inclusion Debates (Peter Lang), she and coauthor David J. Connor explore how the entanglement of race and disability worked to create and maintain new mechanisms of exclusion after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.

As any educator will tell you, the pendulum of reform rarely stays in one place very long. There is always something new: new ideas, new theories, and new paradigms. Certainly my own field of special education has been at the epicenter of many educational reforms (i.e. inclusion, positive behavior support, phonemic-awareness). Yet, given this penchant for reform, how is it that the more education changes, the more it seems to remain the same?

One reason for pendulum swings, at least in terms of special education practice, is that the foundational assumptions of the field remain deeply entrenched. The idea that students come in two types, one “special” and one “regular,” for instance, remains an unstated assumption across a range of reforms. We know, of course, that students share a range of abilities, motivations, interests, identities, and backgrounds—all of which cannot be reduced to a simple binary. Yet, because we have yet to challenge this core assumption, we continue to assume that students who are deemed “special” or disabled are different in fundamental and essential ways from their non-disabled peers. Read more