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IDEA and Expectations Part II – The Importance and Promise of High Expectations

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Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible… 20 U.S.C. §1400 (c)(5)(A)

In our book, we describe how important it is for both parents and schools to have high expectations for children in special education. Without high expectations from all involved, the education process fails the child. The following is Part II of our article on IDEA and Expectations, “The Importance and Promise of High Expectations.” Click here to read Part I: The Problem of Low Expectations

Can You Solve Everyone’s Problems?

Writing Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work was a way for us to translate our experience in special education into a guide for other parents going through the same process. We were firmly convinced that by conveying the lessons we learned, together with a survey of special education from the perspective of a fellow parent, we could help other parents attain the appropriate education for their children that is mandated by state and federal law.

In theory, our goal made sense. We had information that other parents could use and that we had needed when we started our journey through special education. We could point out the pitfalls in the process, such as the “business plan” of many school districts that places budget priorities ahead of a child’s needs and dares parents to endure due process just to attain the education that is their child’s right. We offered many tips and techniques, most costing little or no money, that would help parents keep schools from shortchanging their children’s education, recognize conflicts of interest with school employees, and learn to create effective IEP goals.

Despite our intentions, there was always the nagging feeling that no matter how much information we provided and no matter how clearly we organized and presented that information, it wasn’t enough. The reality is that we couldn’t do more than provide a general outline of the issues that parents face and the solutions that they might need. The problems with special education are too diverse, and too many families face issues with their school districts that are specifically unique to them. So, how could a book like ours really help the very people for whom we wrote our book?

Then Why Try?

The answer came from a source with many more years of experience and with a history of a much greater involvement in special education than we had. As our manuscript reached completion, we followed up on a dream we had of approaching a person whose work we had admired for many years to write the foreword. This was Bob Crabtree, coauthor of the first comprehensive special education law in the country, Massachusetts’ Chapter 766, which served as the model for the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He graciously agreed to review a manuscript from two strangers and unknown authors asking for a favor. Happily, he liked what he read and agreed to write a foreword that detailed the history of Chapter 766, related it to the civil rights movement, and warned readers of the political forces that were constantly seeking to undermine IDEA’s mandate. We were delighted to have such an important contribution to our book.

In subsequent conversations about the still unfulfilled promise of special education, Crabtree expressed what he saw as the true value of our book. Even though we could not provide explicit solutions to meet every parent’s needs, we could educate families about how special education should work and warn them about how it too often failed to work. These parents, Crabtree explained, would begin to expect more from their schools and the political process that ultimately influenced school policy. The goal was to create a critical mass of informed parents.

So, What Is The Promise?

Individuals, or even small groups, do not possess enough power to change a large bureaucracy like special education that is mostly concerned with a limited budget and self-preservation. But collectively, a rising tide of expectations among parents, reinforced by positive examples of success and a better understanding of the rights of children with disabilities, will create irresistible pressure on local school districts and politicians to pay more than lip service to the law’s mandate. In short, the more parents who have high expectations, the more schools and politicians will act toward actually fulfilling the promise of special education.

The opposite of this, of course, is ignorance and passive acceptance of what the school system offers, even when the school is in clear violation of the letter and intent of the law. An even worse situation is created when poorly informed parents with unfocused anger confront their special education liaisons and service providers about issues over which these school employees have little or no control. We have seen this many times, and it almost always creates a feeling of hopelessness for the parents, active resistance from the schools, and possibly even retaliation for the child.

So no, we don’t have the answers to every situation or the solution to every problem faced by parents in the special education system. We do know, however, that every effort to improve parents’ understanding of the special education process, alert parents to the hidden agenda of the schools and the political forces behind public education, and explain the purpose of the laws providing an appropriate education for children with disabilities, will improve the outcome for all of society.

I’m asking all of us to redouble our efforts and redouble our supports. High expectations must be the norm, not the exception.
— Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2010

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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IDEA and Expectations Part I – The Problem of Low Expectations

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The implementation [of IDEA] has been impeded by low expectations… Low expectations lead to poor outcomes in special education. Schools need to prepare children with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living.
20 U.S. C. §1400 (c)(4) and (d)

In our book, we describe how important it is for both parents and schools to have high expectations for children in special education. Without high expectations from all involved, the education process fails the child. In Part I of “IDEA and Expectations,” we discuss the problems created by having low expectations for children in special education.

Do Students On IEPs Need a Reduced Curriculum?

In Chapter 9, we relate the story of a conversation we had with our district’s director of special education concerning our son’s lack of progress with writing assignments in Middle School. She tried to reassure us by proposing the following solution: when he got to high school the next year, she would simply have our son’s IEP state that he didn’t need to write more than one paragraph for any of his writing assignments. Then, when he went to college, she continued, he could choose a major that didn’t require any writing. Finally, once he graduated from college, he could work at a job that didn’t require writing. In other words, her solution was for us to lower our expectations and for the school to make the curriculum less demanding rather than help him learn to write effectively.

Another time, during a 6th grade Team meeting, we discussed our son’s interest in taking Latin in 7th grade. One of the senior teachers on the Team actively discouraged this, essentially telling us that she didn’t think our son could keep up with the other students in the class who were not on IEPs.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, IDEA gave us the right to require the school to make the Latin class work for him through accommodations to suit his learning style, so we reluctantly agreed not to include Latin in his 7th grade curriculum.

Later, after we placed our son in a private special education school, we discovered that the problem was not his ability to keep up with the curriculum, but the learning environment. In his new school he learned to write involved and analytical papers for his English classes. He was encouraged to study Latin and excelled in it. In college he majored in a combination of English literature and classical languages, disciplines that require a great amount of writing as well as critical thinking.

Of course we are proud of these accomplishments, but the important point is how the low expectations of the public school could have prevented him from ever having these opportunities. We had to take the initiative and change his placement to a school that had expectations that matched our own and was prepared to teach to these higher expectations.

Do Schools Expect Enough of Students?

Our experience with low expectations is unfortunately not an isolated one. It appears in schools nationwide. In one particularly egregious example, a school in California taught “life skills” to students in special education by having them dig through the school’s trash dumpsters to recover recyclables that other students had thrown away.1 When confronted by angry parents, the district’s superintendent claimed that this was the “standard curriculum” for students in special education.2 As one parent replied to this assertion “the message you’re sending is you’re training them to be homeless.”3

Unfortunately, lowered expectations are typically less blatant and harder to spot than this. In 2010, the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher4 found that most teachers (86%) believe high expectations for all students has a major impact on achievement, but only 36% of these same teachers say that all of their students have the ability to succeed. These low expectations are not lost on the students, as only about half of the students in the same survey felt that their teachers wanted them to succeed and almost as many felt that students in their school were promoted to the next grade level without being ready. It’s not surprising that the report concludes that “while educators express a strong belief in the importance of high expectations and high standards for all students, those standards and expectations fall short in practice for many students.”

The MetLife survey hints at how damaging low expectations can be for any child, much less one who is already struggling with learning disabilities. We have seen how lowered expectations on the part of the school become part of a student’s self image, which in turn affects their willingness to learn and succeed in later life.

Do Schools Hide the Truth About Their Low Expectations?

A recent blog in the Huffington Post: “Closing the Low-Expectations Loophole for Students with Disabilities,”5 describes how since 2007, the U.S. Department of Education has permitted school districts to measure students with disabilities using “substantially less challenging assessments.” The article points out that this practice “encourages inappropriate referrals to special education, paints an inaccurate picture of school performance, and, worst of all, reinforces stereotypes that students with disabilities cannot succeed in school.”

As an example of this practice, the authors examined the Houston Independent School District and found that over half the students who were measured using these assessments were students who were “diagnosed with `learning disabilities’ such as dyslexia rather than students who had the sorts of significant cognitive impairments that might impede them from completing a standard assessment.” Even worse, the authors found that “African-American students with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to be assessed on these low-rigor tests than were similar Caucasian or Latino students.”

In another example, the authors describe a 2012 study of students in California in which nearly 50% of students with disabilities statewide (in some districts the figure reached 76%) took the California Modified Assessment, a significantly modified and less challenging test. The authors point out that “the use of these assessments far exceed the intended use, provide inaccurate pictures of school performance as well as inappropriately low expectations for poor and minority students.”

The article concludes that lowering expectations and using assessment methods that hide actual student performance does nothing to improve academic achievement. It does, however, make the schools look better on standardized tests than they would have otherwise.

An Appropriate Education Begins With Your Expectations

One of the most important messages we give parents is that if they don’t advocate for their child, no one else will. Expectations for your child’s future are where your advocacy begins. In Part II of “IDEA and Expectations” we discuss the promise of high expectations.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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1. http://www.pe.com/articles/school-748490-students-program.html (accessed 11/18/2014)
2. http://www.pe.com/articles/school-698782-education-recycling.html (accessed 11/18/2014)
3.http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2014/08/18/special-needs-students-speak-out-after-being-made-to-dig-through-trash-for-recyclables/ (accessed 11/18/2014)
4.https://www.metlife.com/about/press-room/us-press-releases/2010/index.html?compID=20652 (accessed 11/18/2014)
5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/todd-grindal/closing-the-lowexpectatio_b_3883527.html (accessed 11/18/2014)