Getting FAPE: Asking the Right Questions

In a recent conversation, a parent asked us a question that was hard to answer. Her son’s school was changing his grades after they had been posted on the school’s website, raising them in an apparent effort to make it appear that he was making more effective progress than he actually was. She wanted to know what to do about it. The brief conversation didn’t leave enough time to find out all the details, and aside from recommending that she file a complaint with her state’s department of education, we really had no answer for her. This wasn’t very helpful, as complaints like this usually take a long time to investigate, and rarely, in our experience, do they result in more than a metaphoric slap on the wrist for the school district. In fact, the mother told us that the previous year she had filed a similar complaint and the school had been found out of compliance, yet the school had not changed its behavior.

A Problem, or Only a Symptom of the Problem?

After the conversation, it finally hit us why the question didn’t have an obvious answer. The grade changing tactic by the school was only a symptom of the problem. The actual problem was that the school wasn’t providing an appropriate education. Changing grades was simply an admission that the school couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide that education. Getting the school to stop changing the grades, even if it had been willing to do so, would by itself do nothing to improve the child’s education.

This highlights a situation that we have seen occur many times in other families and even experienced ourselves. If you don’t define a problem correctly and ask the right questions, you can’t know how to fix it.

When We Didn’t Ask the Right Questions

In elementary school, when our son wasn’t learning to read with his peers, we were told by the school’s reading specialist that he needed a tutoring methodology called Orton-Gillingham. This was, in fact, the proper researched-based approach for our son, and we agreed to it. What we missed was that his IEP limited the amount of time he was tutored in the Orton-Gillingham method so that he wasn’t able to make effective progress learning to read. As a result, each grading period he fell further behind the other students in his class in all subjects that required reading and felt increasingly frustrated.

Our problem was that we were only paying attention to the Orton-Gillingham instruction, and missed connecting it to the fact that it wasn’t being given often enough. This is a common mistake that parents make when approving their child’s IEPs, and is one reason we recommend that IEP goals include service delivery information in the text of the goal itself and not just in the service delivery grid.

To compound the problem, while our son was struggling to learn to read we investigated a private school near us that specialized in teaching the Orton-Gillingham method as an integral part of their overall curriculum. Reassured by the public school, however, that our son was getting the “same” instruction provided by the expensive private school, we felt satisfied and didn’t ask any further questions. Only later did we realize that the problem wasn’t the type of instruction our son was receiving, but how much of it he was being given. Had we been asking the right questions about frequency and duration, we would have either focused on getting him additional tutoring or placing him at the private school that was better prepared to provide the amount of service that he needed.

So What Was the Right Question?

Getting back to the mother’s question, her frustration came from believing that the problem was the school’s changing her son’s grades, not the fact that this was simply evidence that the school wasn’t providing FAPE. Her question should have been “What can the school do to give my son an appropriate education?” The answer could then be defined as either getting the school to provide a more appropriate curriculum and teachers who were properly trained to understand her son’s needs, or an out-of-district placement at a school better prepared to teach him.

If such a solution couldn’t be negotiated informally, then the mother could have used the grade manipulation as evidence in a mediation or a due process hearing. Of course, pursuing a due process remedy is not a simple task and has no certain outcome, but the evidence was strong (she had screen shots of the “before” and “after” grades from the school’s website). In short, she had caught the school trying to hide a lack of effective progress, an apparent violation of IDEA. But focusing on the violation without addressing the underlying cause wasn’t going to improve the educational outcome.

The Lesson to Learn

The lesson is that to solve a problem, you first have to define it properly and ask the right questions. This is true in almost every situation, but it is especially important for parents in special education where the emotional aspects of their child’s situation can misdirect parents into focusing on the symptoms and not the root problems.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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