Ep. 263: Big Ideas – “A Kite in a Hurricane No More” with Lance Izumi

August 17, 2021

In this episode we hear from Lance Izumi about the book he wrote with co-author and subject of the book, Mia Giordano. The book chronicles Mia’s experiences trying to navigate in school with learning disabilities and how she found the best fit for her through educational choice.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Idea series. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Lance Izumi, the Senior Director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He’s the author of a recent book titled A Kite In A Hurricane No More: The Journey of One Young Woman Who Overcame Learning Disabilities through Science and Educational Choice, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Lance, welcome back to the podcast.

Lance Izumi: It’s so great to be back on the show with you, Jason. Thank you so much for having me on again.

Jason Bedrick: Our pleasure. It’s a very interesting book. I guess I should start with this question. Who is Mia, and why do you think it’s so important that people working in education and education policy hear about her story?

Lance Izumi: Well, Mia is a incredible young woman. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and she grew up with severe learning disabilities and many children across this country have severe learning disabilities, and unfortunately in many cases they don’t get the types of services and the types of remedial help that they need in order to improve themselves and they end up having to be in a one size fits all type of environment, either in a regular classroom or even with the services they do get, it’s usually a one size fits all that doesn’t really meet their specific individual needs.

And what’s interesting about Mia is that she had these severe learning disabilities that really stemmed from brain issues that she had, brain weaknesses, if you may say so. So therefore, she couldn’t read, she couldn’t write, she couldn’t really do math. She had a terrible stutter, so she couldn’t speak well. So she had all of these different problems and she was not having success in conventional schools, both public and private. And so her mother decided to homeschool her, took her out, and it was through homeschooling that she was able to finally get the type of individual services that she needed through a innovative Canadian program that was not available in any of the conventional schools, that was able to meet her needs. So this book is the story about Mia and her journey through life, the challenges she faced, how educational choice in all its various manifestations came together to help her to overcome the challenges she faced. And it then tells a bigger story really of why we need this type of choice available, not just for Mia as an individual, but for all children in America.

Jason Bedrick: It’s a very interesting book. I’ve never seen a book that’s written quite in this style, where as you note in the beginning, there are three different threads that sort of run throughout. You’ve got several chapters that are actually written by Mia herself. So from the outset, if somebody else were telling the story, you might not know how it’s going to end. The way she is writing so beautifully and poignantly about her own struggles, you can tell, okay, well, there is success at the end. I don’t know how she gets there, but there’s success at the end.

But along the way, you’ve got two other different types of chapters. You’ve got some chapters that are about the brain science and then some chapters that are about the lessons for education policy. And then they sort of all come together, especially toward the end. Before we get into the brain science and education policy, let’s go back to Mia. Is her experience typical for children who have special needs?

Lance Izumi: Well, it’s hard to say that somebody is typical because in special needs, it’s such a broad category. You have people who have all kinds of different special needs, like people on the autism spectrum, people who may have attention deficit disorder, those sorts of things. Mia’s problems, I think, however are indicative of certainly a number or a range of people who are out there that have problems based upon the fact that they have had brain issues and this all and we can go get into the brain science in a bit, but her problems stem from the fact that there were parts of her brain that were weaker than other parts, and those weaknesses stemmed from sleep apnea, a health condition that she had when she was a very young child. Many people who have heard of sleep apnea, who know that you may stop breathing while you’re sleeping, and so therefore for a brief time, you may not have oxygen going into your brain because you stopped breathing.

What people don’t realize is that, especially for younger children, that sleep apnea can result in brain damage. And so because of the sleep apnea that Mia had, she sustained some brain damage, which then affected her learning in very substantial ways. And so the fact that Mia had this brain damage and the fact that there are so many kids out there who unbeknownst to them also have brain issues, from various reasons not just sleep apnea, but for various reasons they have brain issues, that’s why this innovative program that I talk about in this book that came from Canada called the Arrowsmith Program, which addresses these brain weaknesses, has wide applicability, not just for somebody like Mia but for many kids, not just in the United States, but across the world. You see this Arrowsmith Program, which was developed in Canada, but now in places like the United States, Switzerland, Thailand, Malaysia, all sorts of countries, and which shows that there are kids who have suffered from these brain-related issues that can be helped by this type of program.

Jason Bedrick: I guess I should rephrase my question. You’re right, typical is not the right word, and obviously, different students, different special needs, different schools, they’re going to have different experiences. What I’m trying to get at is this, Mia really struggled in school. And I would say the school also, schools, plural, really struggled to help Mia. Sometimes they did a better job than other times. Very often you had teachers who loved her and love their job and were really doing the best that they could for her, but still were not successful. And so it took several different tries and, you know, experimenting with different programs, like you mentioned, the Arrowsmith Program, developed by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, until they found something that worked for her.

So this could be just the story of, well, most kids who have special needs are served very well by the school they’re assigned to, and then every now and then you’ve got this rare exception, and that’s the Mia. So is Mia the rare exception or is it the case that there are a lot of students with special needs who just don’t find that they’re the right fit at their local assigned school?

Lance Izumi: No, actually I think there are a lot of kids out there like Mia, even people who may not have the exact same problems that Mia had, but there are a lot of kids out there who have special needs, but who are not served by the one size fits all type of special education services offered by regular conventional schools in the public schools or even in the private schools.

And one of the problems I think that you see, and I talk about this in the book, is that so many of the types of strategies that are used in conventional schools, these one size fits all strategies, rely upon what’s called compensating strategies where, okay, you have a weakness, but in order to compensate for that weakness, you try to make whatever you’re strong at compensate for that weak part.

So, if you may have a problem, let’s say understanding what people are saying, an auditory problem, maybe you might try and read somebody’s lips because that compensating strategy to overcome your auditory problems. Well, it might do that, but on the other hand, it never gets to the real problem that you’re suffering from is the fact that whatever you hear is not processing in your brain. And so you don’t end up at the end of all of this as a whole person.

You end up with a person who has weaknesses, but has just compensated in some way to address those weaknesses. And I think that what happens with a lot of kids like Mia and others is that they still don’t feel like they’re a whole person like all their other classmates, because they’re having to do things much differently in order to somehow get by, and that separates them from all their other classmates and they know that they’re different.

And so one of the great things about this Arrowsmith Program is because it focuses on strengthening the weak parts of your brain to be as strong as the rest of your brain, you end up with a strong whole, and therefore what you see in Mia at the end of her journey is that she is just as capable, smart, and has the same ability to succeed in life as any classmate that she ever had in any of her conventional schools. And so that is a very different type of person that you’ll see at the end of that journey than somebody who had gone through compensating strategies.

Jason Bedrick: Mia describes how at one point, I think it was when she was in maybe second grade, she would be very confused by some things that the teacher was teaching. Other kids were picking it up right away. She would ask a question, the teacher would give her a response. She didn’t understand. She would ask the question again. And the teacher would sort of sigh and just repeat the exact same response, which didn’t work the first time. Mia would ask again and then the whole class would groan. Everybody else, “Oh, Mia is slowing us down. Oh, Mia doesn’t understand.” And of course that was incredibly embarrassing for her. It was very frustrating for her. Why is it that when there are these very successful programs like Arrowsmith, there are still schools that don’t follow those guidelines, that aren’t implementing these programs that have proven their success? There seems to be some sort of a disconnect between the brain science and the schools.

Lance Izumi: No, there absolutely is a disconnect, Jason, and that’s one of the very sad things about public school system and the impact that deficiency defect has on kids. One of the people that I interviewed for this book is a woman named Claire Goss. And she’s a long time education psychologist, worked for a school district in the San Francisco area for many, many years, and I asked her about this very question, is that why is it that when you have a very effective, science-based program, like the Arrowsmith Program, that has been shown to be effective in not just kids like Mia, but in studies conducted by universities around the world, why is it that this type of program is not being used more widely in the United States?

And she says that, well, the reason has nothing really to do with the fact that it’s successful and that it’s effective, it really has to do with the fact that not only do we have this one size fits all system in place right now that uses these compensating strategies, but all of the scaffolding for that one size fits all is in place as well. So you have the training for the teachers, all geared to that one size fits all. You have the funding for the program for this one size fits all, all coming in to only fund that type of program. And so you don’t have the ability, you don’t have the door that you can open to introduce a successful program like the Arrowsmith Program, despite the fact that you have incredible success stories like Mia, because the machinery of the public education system has been erected so that it only supports a single paradigm and all others, regardless of their successfulness are not permitted.

Which is why we need school choice because if you have a program like Arrowsmith which is successful for Mia and so many kids like her, you have to have that ability to be able to access that type of program and it’s only through choice, and in the case of Mia, it was through homeschooling and her parents being able to access this program while she was homeschooled.

Jason Bedrick: So should parents of students with special needs who aren’t getting their needs met in a public school, just give up and search elsewhere? Or is there something that they can do to change the public school system?

Lance Izumi: Well, I think, certainly like any problem with the public school systems, I mean, I think it’s important for parents who want to advocate for a change, they should. I mean, we should try as best as we can. I mean, you and I, Jason have had done that as well, to try and advocate for change within the public school system when we see defects, which are many, in that system. But the other thing, though, is that I think that what parents should do is that they should realize that the odds of the public school system changing in a very fundamental way to allow in a program, let’s say, such as the Arrowsmith Program and make that a part of the public school system is going to be pretty low. Because of the fact, as I mentioned, all the machinery around the current one size fits all paradigm is in place right now and so it’s very difficult to change all of that. I mean, how are you going to change all the training in the teacher credentialing colleges and professional development courses, et cetera.

And so what I think would be more effective for parents is really to try and advocate for school choice options. And one of the things that I talk about in the concluding chapter of the book is that you look around the country to see where are schools that offer the Arrowsmith Program really located, and they’re located in places like Florida, which have a very robust school choice system, where they have things like the Gardiner Scholarship program, which parents can use to pay for therapies and special needs services for their children. So therefore what you’ve seen is private schools in the state of Florida, which accept Gardiner Scholarship, they have actually implemented the Arrowsmith Program within their school agenda. And so therefore, parents of these special needs kids in places like Florida can access that.

I think what’s sad is that in California, where Mia and her mom used the Arrowsmith Program, that the one small learning center that offered the Arrowsmith Program is now closed. So you actually cannot get the Arrowsmith Program in California, even though I wrote this book about a student who actually used it in California for a time because there’s no center or school that does offer it right now. And it’s because of the unfortunate incentives that have been created in the system.

Jason Bedrick: You actually, you cite Eliza Shapiro who was writing for Politico, I think she also writes for the New York Times, about this New York city autism school. It was a charter school and she said, quote, “It could only exist as a charter outside of the bureaucratic strictures of traditional public schools where teachers are free to adapt to a child’s specific needs in real time.” So to expect, I think, you hear this a lot, “Well, just fix the system you’re in.” Well, for many of these parents, I mean, they don’t have the power, and their kids don’t have the time. They only have third grade once, hopefully, and they can’t expect to change the trajectory of the Titanic with a rudder that is meant for a fishing ship. Parents cannot be expected to do that.

So, it’s one thing to say that education reformers should do what they can to improve every system, public, private, charter, et cetera, but in the meantime, these kids often need an escape hatch. They need something fast, and the charters and the privates are much more nimble and much more responsive to parents’ needs. Although as you point out, that doesn’t mean that they’re a panacea, either. Even among the charters and the private schools, not every school is going to be the right fit. We saw that in Mia’s case, she had to try a few different programs. It turns out there were no charter or private schools that really met her needs and she had to turn to homeschooling, which is why it’s so important that you’ve got the Gardiner Program, which is an education savings account in Florida, similar to what we have here in Arizona, and, now, after this incredible year, we’ve got 10 different states that have education savings accounts programs that really empower parents to truly customize their child’s education.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the Gardiner program in Florida. Have you seen an increase in the number of options that are available for families of children with special needs since the introduction of the program?

Lance Izumi: Well, I think that one of the things that you see is the increase in the number of people who are accessing the programs. I believe that Governor DeSantis has actually increased the size of the program and so you have more people who are accessing it in Florida. I think that one of the things that makes the Gardiner program such an attractive program is the fact that it does address special needs kids. And so when you’re making the case for broader school choice, I mean, certainly the kids who you want to have it, at least in my view, I mean, it should be universal. We should have as many options for all kids as possible, but when you’re trying to make that case to a skeptical public or lawmakers, it’s often easy to point to certain student populations that really do need something, and as you said, need it fast, they need that escape hatch really fast, or else they’re going to truly, truly suffer. And certainly special needs kids are that type of population.

And I think it is easier therefore, to make the case for school choice when you’re using as an example, special needs kids, because you just look at Mia’s story and the fact that she had so many problems that she had to deal with and that the trajectory of her life was going to be so horrific, really. I mean, can you imagine growing up as a person to become an adult who cannot read, cannot do math, cannot really speak very well, what kind of life does that person going to have in the future? And so I think that when you look at kids like Mia, you look at the kids at that New York City autism charter school that you referenced that I mentioned in my book, when you think about who started that school, it was two parents who looked around all through New York, and if you think about any place that should have great services within the public system that would meet the needs of a broad range of kids, you think it would be in New York City, but yet in New York City, those two parents couldn’t find a public school that would meet the needs of their autistic kids.

And so therefore they were able to use the charter law in order to start the New York City Autism Charter School. And it’s become so popular that they’ve started another campus in New York City.

Jason Bedrick: When I was reading about that, I was thinking about here in Phoenix, there is a school for children who are blind called The Foundation for Blind Children. It was founded by Marc Ashton, who had a son who was blind, and didn’t like the options that were available. There was a state run school down in Tucson that does not have a great rate of success in terms of placing children into colleges and jobs. And so he started a school. They actually spend much less per pupil than the state school does, but they have incredible success rate. Every child, and again, these are all children who are blind, before they graduate they climb a mountain just to show they really can accomplish anything.

I don’t know if you know this, but there was a study that was just recently released by my colleague, Marty Lueken here at EdChoice and Michelle Lofton, on the Gardiner program. One of the interesting things that they found was that the longer the student remained in the program, the more they were using the ESA funds to customize their education. In other words, the percentage of the funds dedicated to private school tuition decreased over time, and the amount that were spent on all these other sorts of things, tutoring, textbooks, online curriculum, special needs therapy, all that increased. And of course it was also a much higher level of customization in rural areas than in urban areas.

So we are seeing that these programs, as people get used to them and they get more familiar with them, they start to experiment more, they start to branch out, they hear things, that something’s working for somebody else, they start moving over there. What lessons do you think policy makers should take from your book, from Mia’s story, but also from the brain science and the sections on education policy, what are the top line results here that policymakers should take away?

Lance Izumi: No, I think that one of the things, and you mentioned it with regard to EdChoice’s new study about the Gardiner Scholarship, is the fact that parents are very good at customizing their education for their kids, because they’re the ones who know their kids the most. And I think what you find is that, and the reason why you see over time greater customization of learning services for people’s children the longer they’re in the Gardiner program, for example, is because people begin to understand what it is that their kids respond to well. And so at first, when parents may use a Gardiner Scholarship, they basically just want to do the same thing only in a different setting, so they want to have regular school, only run by private people, so you go to a private school.

But then once they find out what starts working with their kid, and they have more control over the funding, that they then start to realize, “Hey, actually I think that this would work better for my child, and maybe I need to add this in or change this within their learning program.” And I think that’s the thing that you see in homeschooling, especially, is that homeschoolers at first, many of them basically want to do public school at home to start off with, because that’s what they’re familiar with, and it’s only after a while when they’re doing trial and error that they find, “Hey, actually that doesn’t work as well. I need to try and use this curriculum or this different type of method, this type of pedagogy, and these work better for my child.”

And I think that that’s why you see in Mia’s case how fortunate they were to find this Arrowsmith Program. Because again, not only is it not available in any conventional school, public or private, that they were able to then use it, customize it, to Mia’s own needs. I mean, she had an agenda where she would do Arrowsmith half the day, then do her kind of her regular core studies the other half of the day, and that worked for her. And so they were able to combine that so that she would be able to prosper academically. And, I think, let me just say one thing about the brain science, and why it’s so important that we understand this, is that, the brain is ever changing. It’s this neuroplasticity to where the brain is not a static organ, it keeps changing. And so what this Arrowsmith Program shows is that by doing certain exercises, you can change certain parts of the brain. Mia, for example, to be able to better write, she couldn’t write letters, so she had to do tracing exercises. In order to be able to have better executive functions she had to do these clock exercises where she had to read hands on a clock, not just a two handed clock, but a 10 handed clock that will go from seconds up to centuries.

And so, these types of innovative programs which are available and which parents can use to customize their education to their child, are so important for parents to have this wide broad choice. And if my recommendation to policy makers is to understand that what the end goal should be to allow parents to have this very customized education that fits the needs of their individual child, and so how are we going to do that? And I think that policymakers should have that as their goal is that we should always be trying to figure out how are we going to allow parents that opportunity to make those customizing decisions to better improve the learning for my individual child?

Jason Bedrick: Well, if the human brain can change and improve and use its strong areas to compensate for its weak areas, maybe we can see the education system that we have do the same. Lance, thank you so much for joining. Again, our guest today has been Lance Izumi. He is the Senior Director for the Center of Education at the Pacific Research Institute. His book is titled A Kite In A Hurricane No More: The Journey of One Young Woman who Overcame Learning Disabilities through Science and Educational Choice. Lance, thanks again for joining us.

Lance Izumi: Thank you very much, Jason. And on behalf of my co-author, Mia Giordano, whose story was told in this book, I want to say thank you as well.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.