Assessments for Exceptional Students - with Leigh Austin, Director of Exceptional Learning in Orange County, Florida Public Schools

In this episode, we're joined by Leigh Austin, the Director of Exceptional Learning in Orange County, Florida. We discuss assessments for students across the learning spectrum, how teachers and educators can make career jumps, and so much more. Enjoy!

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The Transcript can be found below

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[00:00:00] Antonio: When we talk about play-based learning, it's easy to get lost in the details of what is required of you think. What about assessments gifted students, students with special needs? How about the long term? Will they be prepared for college? Hi, my name is Antonio Santiago, and you're listening to, That's Child's Play, the podcast for teachers and parents who want to hear about all things play-based learning.

In this episode, we are going to talk about these intrusive thoughts and more with Leigh Austin, who works for Orange County Public Schools as the director for exceptional student education. This is gonna be a good one, folks. So without further ado, let's get into it. Doing this podcast, I've got to talk to a lot of interesting people, today's guest is no exception.

She's a former teacher and currently the director for exceptional Student Education for all of the public schools in Orange County, Florida, which includes Orlando. Exceptional student education covers students on both ends of the learning spectrum, like students with special needs and students with higher levels of learning abilities.

Leigh met our entire team at a conference almost everything she told us. Had us enthralled because she's had a pretty interesting life that has led up to where she is now. One of the first things she told us was that even though she wanted to start off as a teacher, a series of events led her to becoming a producer for Disney programs like Mickey Mouse Club, which if you're familiar, turned out some pop culture icons.

We still know today, like Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling.


[00:01:57] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: Britney Spears. Justin Timberlake. , all those cute little kids, they were all like 10 years old (music break) and you could tell they had massive talent.

Next thing I know, Disney called again and now they had a cool gig in Los Angeles that was for an interactive division that they were opening up and they needed somebody to produce basically animated storybooks for little kids that went along with the movies. So I produced one for Pocahontas, then I produced one for a hunchback of Notre Dame.

[00:02:22] Antonio: Eventually Leigh would move on to education for a massive pay cut, but hours that were much better to spend with her family. She became a multimedia developer to support students who needed more than just textbooks. And this role helped inform and develop her current philosophy on education and assessment as a whole. 

[00:02:46] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: I knew ultimately that kids had concepts that needed to be visualized, that it wasn't gonna get in a paper pencil.

They weren't gonna hear it, they weren't gonna see it. They had to actually be part of it, so that led me into this path of education and I stayed in it, kept moving around and ultimately became a director for exceptional student education. It is a combination of students who are gifted and students that have disabilities in my role as director, I've been a director for 12 years and I've varied on what I've done. So I've been in charge of curriculum for them all. I've been in charge of speech and occupational therapy and physical therapy, and now I'm in charge.

Of the transition, so all the way from the beginning of their time. So three year olds come to us to determine whether or not they have a disability all the way through 18 to 22 year olds that have disabilities that need to learn job skills. I developed a school that is for kids in that category, and they typically are kids with autism or down.

And they're not really ready for the work world. 

[00:03:49] Antonio: Leigh's got big responsibilities and has been really successful at it. She's partnered with companies like Siemens, Burlington, which is no longer the coat factory, by the way. Uh, Ritz Carlton, nursing homes, hospitals, and other companies to place students with disabilities and help them get a sense of independence. And self-sufficiency. 

essentially working with these students, providing them with an education and then giving them career and job coaching afterwards. 

[00:04:18] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: Ultimately, parents are like amazed at what their kids can do. Seriously when the graduation, they're in tears. They're like, oh my God, I never thought our child would be able to do this. 

[00:04:29] Antonio: At this point, I really had to commend her on the work she was doing. And how fulfilling it must be to see such tangible effects from your career

[00:04:38] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: The difference between me working in, say, the film industry and Disney was, I loved what I was doing. It was a blast, to be honest with you. Way more fun than education. But I didn't get that sense of me doing something that was meaningful and relevant.

[00:04:52] Antonio: Some might be wondering, what's the point of this story being on a podcast about play-based learning. Uh, beyond it, just being a really cool career trajectory for a teacher. And that's that her philosophy on teaching? Slowly changed and is now being spread to other teachers because get this. She's also a university professor that trains the next generation of educators. 

And she teaches that we don't need to rely on teacher led instruction and hard facts to educate children. 

[00:05:25] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: that textbook shouldn't be what drives your instruction, and that's what drives the instruction oftentimes here. So much so that we used to actually buy scripted instructional materials as if the teacher didn't know how to teach it. We've moved away from scripted instruction in our district.

In our district, when we evaluate teachers, the kids better be doing most of the talking, Which means you gotta set up. You need to structure it so that they're doing the most. Talking in the room, small groups, projects, critical thinking questions, open-ended, Socratic, whatever you're doing.

It needs to be the kids are doing the most of the talking. And then universal Design for learning, So that's a concept that's been around for quite a while. It came still in a wanna say Cambridge area and it was still in a concept of universal design for buildings. If you have a wheelchair, there's a ramp, right?

But now it was, okay. Let me consider how your brain learns. So some neurology type dude really studied the brain through a lot of scans and basically what they're saying is almost going back to their old learning style. Are you a visual learner? Are you an auditory learner. Are you a kinesthetic learner?

That sort of thing. But there's five categories for that. And essentially it so makes sense. It's let's teach you how you learn best and then let's monitor your progress on how you can show me what you know, as opposed to the paper pencil test. And what's clear to me is it's really hard for teachers to do because we've done a lot of PD and we got some shining stars, So the vast majority in one way or another don't embrace it.

[00:07:01] Antonio: Here Lee said that she didn't want to generalize why teachers aren't embracing a tried and true method of assessment, but. Naturally i did some pushing


[00:07:14] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: I really thinking that the old adage is you teach how you were taught. And so the longer you are in the profession the more likely you were taught by somebody standing in the front of the room who didn't even circulate around the room, right?

And they may even had their back to you a lot of the time because they were writing stuff on something, aboard or whiteboard or, overhead projector and not looking up at you. But then I also think teachers get in a comfort zone. and as soon as you get tenure, you don't have a lot of motivation to change.

[00:07:46] Antonio: So how can we encourage teachers to teach? In more brave. Ways. To switch up their styles in ways that work with children. 


[00:07:57] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: Teachers should get paid a lot more than they get. But I don't think it should be incentivized on the backs of the kids and how well they do. That's, to me, the weak link. I don't think you should measure their effectiveness based on that.

And I know that's counterintuitive because if they were quote unquote good, these kids would improve. But the fact of the matter is there's so many variables on learning, and some of it has to do what's going on in the. , which we have no influence on, no influence on parental involvement.

Parents may love their kids and yet not have enough time or maybe not even have the cognitive capacity to help them. They come from all over in Florida. It's not like we just have Floridians in Florida. 

It's 162 languages spoken in our school district alone. So the cultures and the norms, right? And then you take a kid with a disability, some cultures just wanna hide them, and not get them support, I just think there's a variety of reasons on why teachers don't embrace the universal design for learning.

I teach graduate courses and the bottom line is teachers have to own that they are responsible for the kids. And when I say they don't mean they don't believe that. I just mean they're responsible for their learning to the point where they have to change their methods in order to do this.

[00:09:12] Antonio: And onto the nitty gritty of the whole assessment issue. 

[00:09:17] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: There's multiple ways for them to be able to engage in the content and to be able to show me what they know. I'm also a firm believer, which goes against the grain of public education, but I'm a firm believer on the proficiency model. I don't care how long it takes you to learn it, I just want you to learn it.

I don't need a grade every nine weeks to reflect whether you're getting it or not getting. , what I really care about is what progress are you making towards getting it? And for kids with disability, that is critical because these kids are gonna take a year or more in order to master some content.

And if you're gonna put a stake in the sand and follow the guidelines for the state standards, you're gonna say they all fail. They don't fail. They're making progress towards these goals. And that's to me the key. 

[00:10:04] Antonio: Her way of instruction reminds me a lot of the culture shock that I got when making the transition from a public university in the United States. To a public university in Finland. In the U S there was almost a feeling of a lack of trust between professors and students, and this idea that everything hinges on exams and papers within a given time period. 

And Finland. I was genuinely surprised that for my program, at least deadlines were more suggestions and the professors were so willing to have an iterative approach to papers and exams. It encouraged us to really engage with what we're learning and this is how Lee conducts her graduate courses in the U S as well. While she does enforce deadlines, it's not the same way you think. 

[00:10:53] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: They're always panicked about it, but I continue to reinforce them that I don't really care. I'll send it back to you. If you wanna modify it and change it, I'll regrade it. The whole point is you learn from your mistakes. And so if you didn't understand it and you go back and change it, guess what?

She could really stick with. You you know, There was this thing that came out with George Bush when he was president with No Child Left Behind, and it sounded great. It really did. It was like, thank God. Okay. On the outset I thought, oh, finally people are gonna monitor these kids on the fringe and see how they're doing.

I loved it. However, it had a backlash effect, which was, all the teacher's assessments are tied to how well those students are doing.. and then the backlash reached in even further because it didn't allow for any interventions. It wasn't like they said no, but assessments had a deadline. You were gonna take that state test at a certain time.

So the woman who was part of that, no child left behind with the assessment piece. Years later, she came back and she said, oh, how I regret that. Okay. And the reason she regretted it, . It wasn't about teaching for the test. And that's what happened was because if you're gonna tell a teacher they're gonna get a pay raise, you're gonna be sure you're gonna teach all those standards.

 And not just be sure you teach them, but in a certain order and a certain rate. And that's the problem. Kids learn at different rates. And so marching to that beat meant you were actually leaving kids behind , even though you weren't supposed to, you did leave 'em behind because you felt the pressure of keeping the pace with those standards and that chart and that scope and sequence.

[00:12:25] Antonio: If, you know, you know, like any child. Uh, who grew up. 

After no child left behind. 

It's distinctively memorable that 90% of it is learning how to take the test and. 10% is memorizing the content on the test. There's some useful skills that we do learn in order to pass these tests, like how to cross out answers. That absolutely could not be correct. But are we crossing out those answers because we know the material or because that's how you take a multiple choice test

[00:12:57] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: low level thinking. Hello. Oh, and then the worst thing happened was then Florida said, whoa, they're all low level thinking questions and our kids aren't thinking critically, so we're gonna change the test.

They changed it and with not even like a ramp up period, right? It was just like there was this whole group of kids that had to suddenly. Present themselves on standardized tests in a way that they hadn't been taught for the last, I don't know how many years prior. And now they actually have to do that.

And so really what it did is it created this huge bubble of kids that really didn't look like they were doing very well, because they didn't know how to respond to critical thinking questions and problem solving, because they hadn't been motivated to do that. Because when you're teaching the test, and we even had sample tests with sample items and sample passages, That we would use.

So it just reinforced this logic of no. It was a tiny little bit. Oh, there's two passages and you have to come up with an inference. But very few. Most of it was real low level thinking, but here, for us, in order to be inventors, in order for us to stay at a high socioeconomic level we have to have these kids thinking like this. 

[00:14:05] Antonio: And just for reference Lee knows that critical thinking skills are for everyone, regardless of their ability to learn or their intention to go to a university. In fact, we should reframe how we think about vocational schools to children going through the education system

[00:14:20] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: Everybody doesn't go to college and who's gonna fix the plumbing and who's gonna build the house and who's gonna repair the car and who's gonna, just the list goes on. A lot of those trades are making more than the people who have college degrees. Was at a conference a couple weeks ago, and it was for school board superintendents and school board members, this one guy was the superintendent of the school district, and he said, it's really all about marketing. And he said we couldn't get parents to put their kids in a vocational technical class, and it was safer, airplane mechanics, right? So we said, we just re rebranded it as air and space. and then there's a line waiting out the door to get in and he was like, and then he said the other thing he felt was wrong was college and career.

That was became a mantra. I don't know when it came out, but it was collagen career readiness, right? So you're either ready for a career or you're ready for college, and he's hello, what's the whole point of going to college? It's career. So it's career readiness. So stop the stigma of let me go ahead and send you on a track for people who are somehow quote, not college material. And we got a lot of kids with autism. We're not college material and they're really brilliant 

[00:15:25] Antonio: In the United States school systems, many counties and states have adopted the language of something along the lines of paths you can take. For instance, there's tech prep or technical preparation. Which focuses on trade courses, for instance, mechanics. And career or college prep courses where you take courses that help you with your general education courses in college. Naturally choosing which path to take is a lot of responsibility being given to 14 or 15 year olds starting high school and one that can really peg someone into a hole.

[00:16:02] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: And so I'm adopting that in our county. motivate, our vocational ed group, which is career and technical education. I'm trying to motivate them to just shift a career, the good news is we have leadership. The superintendent has her doctorate in special education. We both went through the same program, so she knows me and trusts me. Yeah. And then the lady in charge of career tech ed, she was a full-time special ed teacher in a self-contained classroom.

[00:16:29] Antonio: Now in Florida, there's currently an administration that let's just say is not super supportive of public schools. And there's a concerted effort to shift funding from public schools. To private schools and institutions under the guise of school choice, which is, arguably a net negative for the greater society and greater education system there? 

[00:16:52] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: Public education in the United States is definitely under attack. it's super, super hard to get people to wanna work in it. 

 in our school district, you have to have a college degree to teach free school. Not all school districts require that. And definitely private does not require, . And I'm not saying that you can't be a good teacher without a college degree, but there is some stuff you learned that is actually really valuable and you won't know and it will take you experience.

You'll have to have failed in your attempts in order to learn from your experiences that you might have learned by taking the classes, so from that standpoint, I just I feel sad prepared. Think that it's better for them to send their kids to a place where they don't have certified teachers.

But you can't control a parent, obviously, they're gonna do what they think is best for their child. , but they come back. That's the problem for us. They come back and then there's gaps because they didn't get what they needed.

And particularly if a kid has a disability, you can't have big gaps in related speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy. 

[00:17:53] Antonio: Great part to barge in, by the way to say that Lee is currently working with Kide Science to get us into orange county public schools and into the hands of the exceptional teachers there. 

And it's to tackle issues like this because we know that Kide Science covers areas like social, emotional learning, critical thinking, et cetera, while hitting the. Needs. Students have 

[00:18:19] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: You can have big gaps for some of these. and these kids will, sometimes will, parents will hang out at a private school only to find out that for two years they didn't get any therapy.

Y ou lose these windows of opportunity, particularly in the little kids. You lose the opportunity. 

[00:18:33] Antonio: Lee you're on that higher level. So you probably know a lot about this, but can you tell me how. 

You evaluate that a homeschool student is on track. 

Especially on the fringes with gifted children and. Children with differing abilities

[00:18:49] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: It's whatever assessments they want to use, there's nothing that they're told to use.

But they have to have some documentation they send in and some evidence of the student's work that's on grade level. So it's always interesting, like I just got an email.

Somebody came from homeschool and and they have a disability and they're a senior and are they allowed to graduate because they didn't take the state required test? Can they waive that test? And you're allowed to waive the test once you fail at one time. But in this instance, the kid never. So we're delving into that one to try and get a feel for it.

I have come to realize that leadership and education is really all about problem solving. That's really what it's all about. Good leadership and good focus and vision to keep people going, but then as you start to implement, it's just, that's a problem.

Fix it, that's a problem because it, you just have to nonstop be creative. 

[00:19:39] Antonio: And finally the cherry on top. 

I asked Lee, what is one thing that she wishes she knew before getting into the world of education? 

[00:19:48] Leigh Austin, Orlando County Public Schools: I wish I knew is that you have to be flexible and you have to be willing to change. And if you're not, it's not the profession for you . And you really have to have a passion because it's not gonna be easy. And you may find yourself in a situation where you really don't get along with your boss and don't agree with their idea what should take place in your classroom.

And so also being flexible on looking for the next opportunity. I don't have to stay in this place that I don't like working. There's many opportunities in education and the classroom is only one of them 

[00:20:23] Antonio: I want to sincerely thank Leigh for coming onto the podcast. It was hands down. So entertaining. And just fun to talk to her. I think we had an hour 30 minute long conversation that flew by. And I want to thank you dear listeners for supporting the show that's it for today's episode. If you could please give this podcast a like a follow, a review or whatever you can do wherever you're listening to this podcast. 

It helps the show a lot and helps us spread the message of children being the main agents in their learning. Thanks so much for listening to that's. Child's play. And I'll see you next time. I hope



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