Braille Monitor                                                    January 2008

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A Radical Approach to the Evaluation of Education for the Blind

by Matt Maurer

Professor Matt MaurerFrom President Maurer: A few years ago my brother, Dr. Matt Maurer, a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, sent a proposal to the National Federation of the Blind that he be supported in an effort to study education for blind children in the United States. The board of directors of the National Federation of the Blind reviewed the proposal and approved it. He was given a stipend and travel expenses to examine education for blind children. Our then director of education, Mark Riccobono, worked with Professor Maurer during the year that he did his review.

At the 2006 NFB convention Professor Maurer made a presentation about his findings. That presentation seemed to me to express an opinion that education for blind students was better than I thought it was. I thought I heard him say that there was good education for the blind everywhere. I was amazed by this sentiment, and although I love my brother, I wondered if he would be able to make it out of the convention hall without having his eyes scratched out. In the summer of 2007 Professor Maurer submitted a report of his findings to me. When I read the conclusion of the report, I thought it once again expressed the view that education for blind students is better than I think it is.
I expressed disagreement and dissatisfaction with these findings to my brother. We have had much conversation and correspondence since that expression of dissatisfaction.

Professor Maurer has now created a document in response to my objections. I think it is worth reviewing, and I present it here. I still think that my brother believes that education for blind children is better than I believe it to be. Nevertheless, I understand that he holds the view that good exists in education for the blind and that emphasizing this good will improve education for blind children much faster than emphasizing what is negative. Whether I agree with this point of view or not, I recommend reading Professor Maurer’s comments. I have edited them to some degree because he was writing in response to a document that I drafted. I think his thoughts should stand on their own, and I have tried to restate what he said with accuracy.

Both Maurers can say without reservation that there are some things about which we agree wholeheartedly. We believe that top-quality education for blind children is essential. We also believe that the field has much room for improvement. We understand that the Braille literacy rate is extremely low, we understand that the quality of some of the educational experiences for blind children is not equivalent to the quality of education for sighted children, and we have observed that expectations in certain educational programs do not reflect the quality we would hope to be achieved. We also recognize that valuable and innovative efforts are being made in certain places and that these should be supported and recognized. Here is what Professor Matt Maurer wrote:

It was my clearly stated intention from the start to investigate excellent practice in the field of education for the blind. I contended that investigation of the negative aspects of the field had been done and that a focus on the positive had greater potential to produce positive results. I said to school administrators that I was genuine when I said I would be examining excellence. When speaking with each person who gave me access to the students, I made this promise in frank terms, such as, “I will not come into your school and sucker-punch you, telling you I am examining excellence and then looking for the negative.”

My brother [NFB President Marc Maurer] thought that he heard me say that there is excellent education for blind students everywhere. What I actually said was quite different. When speaking to the 2006 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, I said that, when I looked for excellence, I found it everywhere I looked.

There is some important history to share about my becoming involved with this research. As I was preparing to do my research, I heard some quick criticisms from school-based people. This was particularly interesting to me because at the time I had contacts at only the Indiana school, so all those concerns were coming through the grapevine. The field of education of students who are blind is small, and the grapevine is active. The gist of what I heard from two separate sources was that, although I stated that I was intending to examine excellence, what I was really intending was yet another scathing exposé of the negative. A friend at the Indiana school told me of a conversation with someone at another school. His contact expressed the rumor, and my friend countered it, saying he was sure I was not that kind of person. His contact replied that, even if I did not exactly look at the negative, at a minimum I would create a list of “good places” and thus label all others as negative.

As you might imagine, I found these rumors very upsetting, and I immediately started to take action to quell this groundswell of misinformation. I feared that it would completely block my access to information. Who would invite me to their school if they thought I was intending to air all their dirty laundry? I asked those who were hearing those ideas to counter them as they could. Of particular importance was the communication of the superintendent of the Indiana school, Jim Durst. As a respected member of that establishment, he contacted several key members and gave them a this-guy-is-genuine message. I was then invited to the COSB (Council of Schools for the Blind) meeting in Louisville, where I reiterated the message that I was indeed looking at excellent practice. I told the superintendents at that meeting that I would stick to the positive and that I would not publish the locations of the schools I visited. As it turns out, those were sometimes difficult promises to keep, but they were honorable and worthy promises.

In the early stages of this work I also heard a few criticisms from NFB people. The general tenor of these criticisms was that all I intended to do was to placate or congratulate educators, in essence to say nice things about educators. While I think it would be wonderful to say nice things about educators, being one myself, what I really intended to do was to say true things about educators with respect to excellent practice. Further, to suggest that the promise was that I would “not express negative opinions about their work” is to suggest that I might subvert the truth. That was not my intent, and it is not consistent with my life’s work. While I may get the truth wrong from time to time, I am a staunch believer in stating the truth as I see it. I am also a believer in exploring the truth from many angles. Consistent with that belief, during the time I was exploring school practices, I also spent time at the National Center for the Blind and at all three NFB training centers. I wish I could say that I had had the insight to come up with this plan on my own, but the truth is I was following the suggestion of several NFB members whom I respected, including my brother.

Once at the training centers I again bowed to the wisdom of others and, with great trepidation, donned the sleepshades and did the program. I must report that the time I spent at each of these centers was an experience that knocked some of the arrogance out of me and greatly informed the context of the work that I was doing.

I would like to expand what I said about education at the 2006 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. My brother told me that some members in attendance thought they heard me say, “There is good education for the blind everywhere.” My message was a bit different. Here is what I actually said:

 

So, when I looked for excellence in the education of blind youth, what did I find? I am happy to report to this body that I found it. Not every teacher was excellent, but many were. No system was flawless, but each had elements of excellence. I found excellent practices in residential schools, in public school programs, and in itinerant programs. What this tells me is that it is possible for a child to get an excellent education through any of these delivery systems. I want to be clear that I am not saying every child is getting an excellent education, just that any of our current models can deliver an excellent education.

The key idea, and one I admit could have been more clearly and forcefully stated, is that, “If you look for excellence, you can find it.” I believe this message to be both true and helpful. It reinforces the good work that some educators are doing. It also gives parents hope. If parents are in a position to look for good educational opportunities for their children, but not all parents are in that situation, those opportunities can be found. Good teachers, good educators, and good programs are out there.

I believe that all schools can improve, and I believe the most significant area of improvement is in their philosophy about blindness. I further believe that the only place they can expect to get what they need in that arena is through the NFB. I stated that view at the 2006 convention. The text from my speech, which I hope was delivered verbatim, but which may have been ad-libbed a bit, is:

So, if a clear picture of the true capacity of the blind is the most important component of helping good teachers become great, how might we change that? How can we improve the situation? I believe the only way is through an association with the NFB. There is no other place or organization in this country that can better illustrate the true capacity of the blind than the NFB. If we want dramatic improvements in the educational system, it falls to us. Components of the answer are in the Jernigan Institute and the educational efforts there. The three training centers are clearly powerful examples that must become part of the solution. But above all I believe it is important that the state organizations, meaning you out there—the successful blind—become more involved. And to do that, we need to be mindful of our relationship with our state’s educators.

 

While Dr. Marc Maurer suggests that I state in my report that good education for the blind can be found everywhere, I reiterate that what I actually state is that, if you look for it, you can find it. When I looked for excellence in places where I was likely to find it, I did. I looked carefully, informed with as much data as I could muster, much of it gathered from members of the NFB. When I looked in this way, I found excellence in every place I looked.

I will agree that the ideas in the report are consistently positive. That is merely the result of my resolve to maintain a focus on excellent practice and to avoid the distraction of expounding on the negatives of the field. It would have been easy to take a negative path. Given the amount of time I spent in various educational programs, acknowledging the level of access I was allowed, I could easily write much about the negative. That was not what I had agreed to do. My report, to the best of my ability, sticks to the point of looking at excellence.

My last thought is about future programs that I have discussed with President Maurer. I have suggested a national program that is politically neutral. What I mean by that phrase is that the program would not be formally affiliated with the NFB or any other organization, most notably the ACB. While there is some suggestion from my brother that this idea illustrates my weak beliefs in the philosophy of the NFB, that is most certainly not the case. Instead it illustrates how seriously I take the charge of an educator. I believe it is of critical importance that educators provide their students with unbiased information and allow them to make decisions. It is our duty to guide those decisions but not to usurp them. We have all seen this done badly, particularly in the education of children who are blind. A word that is often used by Federationists to describe educators is “custodial.” Many educators strive to give students their opinions rather than to allow students to form their own. We know the severe damage this can do to developing minds. I do not wish to compound these problems any further. If a student wishes to ask my personal opinion on the subject, I will share that freely. I am a member of the NFB, and I believe deeply in the central values and beliefs of the organization.

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