Tag Archives: special education

Is the School Following Your Child’s IEP?

The Individual Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. It is a legal contract between the school district and parents that defines what specialized instruction, accommodations, and modifications are necessary for a child to receive the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. Since each child in special education has unique needs, by definition the IEP must be individualized based on what objective testing reveals about a child’s disabilities and capabilities.

A new study, published in February of this year (2018) in the journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis has uncovered disturbing trends in the way that schools create and implement IEPs that appear to violate special education law. This study, titled (with typical academic brevity), “The Dynamic Interaction Between Institutional Pressures and Activity: An Examination of the Implementation of IEPs in Secondary Inclusive Settings,” states that its purpose is to “illuminate a dynamic interaction between institutional pressures and the activity of providing students with a special education.”

The study identified different approaches that two schools took in creating and implementing IEPs that circumvent the intention of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While this study was undertaken with the goal of influencing the anticipated congressional revision and reauthorization of IDEA and not as an indictment of special education in general, you may want to consider its implications for how your school implements your child’s IEP.

Two Ways to Ignore the Law

In one school, the study discovered that the IEPs for 10th and 11th grade students were written around the school’s existing curriculum for general education. The school would then follow the students’ IEPs, but without acknowledging that the services were simply based on getting the students to pass their general education courses and standardized tests. As a result, the students in special education did not receive the educational services and supports that their disability required. The study cites “institutional pressures” (no doubt including the school budget) as the reason, something the study’s authors point out is not the purpose of an IEP, much less special education.

The second school in the study wrote IEPs for each student that were individualized, but then mostly ignored them. Instead, the school relied on additional staff in the general education classroom as a way to provide more support for the special education students. In addition, these students attended a daily special education “study hall,” where they received more support. While the students in the second school had greater access to the special education curriculum than the first school, it was without the benefit of a program “designed to meet their unique needs,” the purpose of special education. [20 USC § 1400 (d)(1)(A)]

What Can We Learn From This?

It is important to remember that this study had a small sample size and is just the first of several planned studies with the goal of encouraging debate among educators and legislators on how to update special education law. Among future studies, the authors hope to focus on how to improve the creation and implementation of IEPs for special education students included in the general education classroom.

Still, we can extrapolate from this study that even after more than forty years of special education law and practice, there is a lot of uncertainty, and perhaps reluctance, on the part of schools to provide an appropriate education for students with disabilities. This is something that parents must understand and be prepared to deal with.

What You Can Do

Making sure schools are following the law is a responsibility that should not have to be left to parents. Still, the reality is that in addition to parenting a child with disabilities, you also have the job of being a watchdog over the school’s implementation of your child’s education.

Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

  1. Make sure that all services, accommodations, and modifications are clearly defined in the IEP. See our blog article: The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal for some tips.
  2. Create a special education “paper trail” by organizing all the paperwork and other communications with the school that relate to your child’s education. Include samples of your child’s work to illustrate any problems or successes. If you suspect problems, you can use your paper trail to provide evidence of your concerns.
  3. Start a parent journal that, among other things, records your impressions of how your child’s IEP is being implemented.
  4. Arrange a meeting with your child’s teacher to make sure the teacher has a copy of the IEP. Go over any sections that the teacher is responsible for implementing and make sure that you both understand them. Discuss possible ways that you can communicate with each other regarding issues or concerns that may come up. Note that teacher meetings are easier to arrange in elementary school than middle or high school.
  5. IDEA gives schools the ultimate authority over the content and implementation of the IEP.
  6. Contact your state’s Parent Training and Information center (PTI), which is a federally mandated organization to provide parents support and information on how to make the most of their child’s education. The staff at the center should be able to advise you on your rights under IDEA and suggest a course of action.
  7. Make sure this person is fully independent and does not have any conflicts of interest that may prevent this person fully supporting you and your child.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Conflicts of Interest in Special Education: Part 2 – Outside Professionals

Parents are frequently unaware of possible conflicts of interest in special education. As we wrote in our previous blog article on conflicts of interest for school personnel, you must always try to be aware of the subtle, but real possibility that a school employee may act in the best interest of the school district first and put your child’s needs second.

But conflicts of interest are not limited to school personnel. Conflicts can also occur with the outside professionals you hire to perform evaluations, make recommendations for services, or advocate for your child. This sort of conflict is less understandable than with school employees, which is why you have to select outside professionals carefully.

What Sort of Conflicts Occur for Outside Professionals?

Conflicts of interest for professionals outside the school district occur when they have personal, professional, or financial ties to school administrators and employees. The fact that you are paying for a professional’s time does not always guarantee objective or appropriate advice or services.

Here are a few examples of the potential conflicts that a professional may have:

  • The professional might regularly get referrals from the school district for evaluations or services, such as counseling or occupational therapy. This person might not want to jeopardize future income from referrals by recommending that the district provide expensive services even when they are needed.
  • The professional may have developed relationships with certain teachers or administrators in the past. These relationships could influence how a professional writes an evaluation report or advocates for your child.
  • The professional might have a child in the same district, or even the same school, as your child. If that is the case, this person may not advocate strongly for your child out of fear that there might be consequences for their child.
  • We have even personally encountered a situation in which an outside professional was (unknown to us) seeking employment in our school district at the same time she was performing an evaluation of our son. This situation is unethical and casts a cloud over the professional’s objectivity.

Even if these kinds of conflicts seem unlikely, they do exist, which is why you need to carefully screen any outside professional you are considering.

How to Find the Right Professional

The first step in considering an outside professional is to determine what personal, financial, or professional ties this person might have with your school district. Establish that this person considers you and your child as their client. Ask direct and specific questions, because you need to know this information.

Questions you should ask include:

  • Does the professional receive any money, directly or indirectly, from your school district?
  • Does the professional expect to get future referrals from the district for their business?
  • Does the professional have children or other relatives in your school district?
  • Will the professional attend Team meetings and advocate for your child?
  • If the school has referred you to the professional or offers to pay for the professional’s services, ask if this person regards you and your child as their client and not the school.
  • If necessary, will the professional testify at a mediation or a hearing on behalf of your child?

The answers to these questions will reveal potential conflicts of interest. The last question in particular is a crucial one if you think you might have to go through mediation or a due process hearing to obtain an appropriate education for your child. If you are comfortable with the answers to your questions, then there is a good chance that the professional will be working in the best interests of your child and not be conflicted by other interests.

What You Can Do

Your goal is to be an educated consumer of the services that professionals offer when evaluating children and making recommendations for accommodations and proper educational placement. To help you achieve this, we recommend the following:

  • Review the code of ethics for any professionals you are considering. Organizations for lawyers, psychologists, and psychiatrists, for example, all require ethical behavior from their members, especially when it comes to acting in the best interests of their clients. Check to make sure that your outside professional is a member of an organization with such a code.
  • Check the license status of anyone you are considering. A professional who is licensed by the state has met higher standards than someone who is unlicensed. Most states have a Division of Professional Licensure website where you can search for an individual’s license status.
  • If your school offers to provide the services of an outside professional at no cost to you, consider such an offer carefully. This usually means that the organization offering this service (for example, counseling for parents and children), has a contract with the school and receives payment directly from the school. Their employees might be restrained in their recommendations so as to not lose this contract. If this makes you uncomfortable, consider using an organization that is financially independent from your school district.

As you can see, it requires time and effort to find a professional who is truly independent and has the freedom to write objective evaluation reports and advocate for appropriate services. But all this effort will be worth it to secure an appropriate education for your child.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Texas Update… Not So Great

This summer, we wrote about how the state of Texas placed a secret (and illegal) “cap” on how many of its students could receive special education services (Gatekeeping: Texas Style). We described how the Texas Education Agency (TEA) decided in 2004 to place an 8.5 percent limit on the number of students they would allow to receive special education services in the state. This limit had no scientific basis and was against the legal mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Based on a national average of 13 percent of the student population being eligible for special education, this effectively denied almost 250,000 students in Texas an appropriate education over the 13 years that this policy was in effect. In May of 2017, after the practice came to light, the Texas state legislature banned it.

Now we have an update. According to the Houston Chronicle, whose outstanding series of investigative articles, “Denied, How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education” revealed the existence of this travesty, the number of students receiving special education services for the 2016-17 school year increased by approximately 14,000 compared to the previous school year. While the Chronicle describes this as “noteworthy,” it still only amounts to 8.9 percent of the Texas school population, an increase of just 0.4 percent. It’s hard to imagine that the parents of the over 143,000 students in Texas who should be receiving special education services, but are still being denied, consider this a “noteworthy” improvement.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Gatekeeping: Texas Style

In a continuation of our series on special education gatekeeping (Withholding Needed Services and Response to Intervention), we have an amazing story to tell about how the state of Texas kept a quarter of a million children with disabilities from receiving an appropriate education. This story actually deserves its own category, as Texas has gone far beyond the more prosaic gatekeeping tactics we have written about in the past.

What Texas did was to place an arbitrary limit on the number of students for whom the state would provide special education services. Without any legal or other rational basis, a small group of unelected bureaucrats decided to cap the number of students it would enroll in special education at 8.5 percent of the total student population. This was despite the fact that the national average of students with qualifying disabilities is 13 percent. Given the total number of students in Texas schools since the cap was initiated, this amounts to approximately 250,000 students that the state prevented from receiving the special education services that they needed and to which they were entitled.

State Mandated Reductions in Special Education

In a blistering series of articles published in the Houston Chronicle, investigative reporter Brian M. Rosenthal details how the Texas Education Agency (TEA), working virtually in secret, decided that it would limit the number of students with disabilities it would serve under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a clear violation of the law, which states that services should be given based on need, and not on any other criteria.

Although the enrollment limit was couched in the language of a “suggestion,” local special education directors knew what was expected of them. School districts that enrolled more students in special education than the prescribed 8.5 percent were subject to a variety of penalties that ranged from reprimands and fines to having the district taken over and run by state regulators. One director quoted in the article, flatly stated, “TEA required us to do this, there was no wiggle room.

How it Happened

The story begins in 2004, when four members of the TEA decided to place an 8.5 percent benchmark on the number of students who could receive special education services in the state. At the time, special education enrollment in Texas was 12.1 percent of the total student population, close to the national average of 13 percent. One of the four TEA members actually admitted under questioning that the 8.5 percent figure was not supported either by law or any research.

In addition, the TEA did not consult the federal government, the Texas legislature, or even the State Board of Education in reaching its decision. It also never publicly announced or explained its decision. In fact, when asked by some school staff members, the TEA falsely told them that limiting special education enrollment was “federally mandated.” For most school districts, this policy meant purging the rolls of students already on IEPs and discouraging new students from entering special education.

The subterfuge had a very self-serving motive. The Chronicle article estimates that reducing the enrollment in special education saved the state “billions” of dollars. Unfortunately, the collateral damage was that hundreds of thousands of students who should have been eligible were denied special education services.

Texas Tactics

The tactics Texas schools used to enforce the 8.5 percent mandate are used in many other states to prevent eligible students from entering special education or receiving appropriate services. This is why parents need to be aware of the laws that protect their children from any school district that might try to use these tactics to avoid its obligation to provide an appropriate education.

In this and subsequent blog articles, we will review the gatekeeping tactics that the Houston Chronicle uncovered, beginning with the tactic of discouraging parents from seeking evaluations to determine special education eligibility. In later articles we will describe some of the other tactics used by Texas schools.

What Federal and Texas Laws Say

Under 20 U.S.C. § 1414 “Evaluations, Eligibility Determinations, Individualized Education Programs, and Educational Placements,” IDEA states that parents can request an evaluation in all areas of suspected disability to determine whether a child qualifies for special education. Parents can make this request at any time and the school must honor the request without placing any conditions on it.

The only requirement is that the request must be made in writing. Once the school receives a signed consent form from the parents, under federal law it has 60 days to perform all requested evaluations (Texas law specifies 45 school days). All evaluations are to be performed at no cost to the parents. The specific federal statute is: 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(B). Texas special education law does not alter this requirement.

What Schools Told Parents Instead

Instead of following either state or federal law, the Chronicle reported that different Texas school districts told parents that:

  • they would have to pay for evaluations
  • there was a long waiting list
  • students could not be evaluated more than once every two years
  • there had to be at least three meetings with teachers before the school can perform an evaluation, or as a variation, a special committee must decide that an evaluation is warranted
  • a student’s IQ was too high for special education
  • dyslexia only qualified for section 504 services and not special education
  • there could be no referral to special education until the student tries Response to Intervention first
  • a private school would be better able to teach their child. (While this last point may be true, if a public school is unable to provide an appropriate education under IDEA, then the school district must pay for the outside placement.)

This is Why You Need to Know Your Rights

All these “tactics” used by Texas schools are contrary to the laws governing special education. Yet, most parents interviewed by the Houston Chronicle were unaware of the law’s requirements, and accepted the school’s explanations without question. This meant that their child never got evaluated for special education eligibility, or they endured long delays while their child fell further and further behind in academic and social skills. This is a tragic situation that can have long-lasting consequences. We wrote our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work so that you can separate fact from fiction and to help you get your child the appropriate education he or she deserves.


In May of 2017, the Texas state legislature passed a bill banning the practice of placing a cap on special education enrollment. This was 13 years after the Texas Education Agency began the practice.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Writing a Strong Vision Statement

The vision statement is one of the most important and overlooked parts of the IEP. This statement isn’t a required part of the IEP in the federal law IDEA, but it is required by many states. It’s important because it serves as a guide for developing special education services and goals that will help a student throughout the remaining school years, and ultimately, life after graduation.

What is a Vision Statement?

The vision statement is a collaborative description of what you and the rest of the IEP Team hope your child will be doing in the next one to five years. This description is a guide, not just for the current school year, but also for upcoming years, through graduation and beyond.

When everyone on the Team understands your child’s aspirations, they can write better goals to help achieve them. Many parents don’t understand the significance of this and write brief statements, such as they hope their son or daughter will graduate from high school. Even worse, school personnel might write the vision statement without input from the student or parents. But planning for your child’s future is critical and should start early. Don’t wait until high school to write a vision statement for your child.

How to Write a Vision Statement

Putting serious thought into what you want your child to achieve in the next one to five years is a valuable exercise, because it encourages thinking about the future. Many parents of children with special needs find it hard to think about the future since they are so focused on the present. Looking ahead to the next five years can seem impossible if you’re just trying to get through the week.

Yet, long-range planning is important for parents, because school personnel are primarily focused on short-term goals for the current school year. You are in the best position to consider long-range goals, since you know your child best and are the ones with the long-term commitment. Ask yourself: what are your future plans and goals for your child? What do you see your child accomplishing in the next five years?

If it is appropriate, have an older child discuss with you how he or she sees the future. Consider such things as community experiences, economic independence, acquiring a driver’s license, learning to take public transportation, living independently, further education, or job training. This information will help the Team understand your child’s interests and preferences.

Avoid Vague Vision Statements

Since a vision statement affects many aspects of the IEP, you want your input to be as specific as possible. To help your Team see the whole picture clearly, avoid vague statements such as these we have seen in actual IEPs:

The Team sees [student] having a smooth transition to high school. They would like her to gain the skills necessary to move on to college.

The Team hopes that [student] will successfully complete his goals and make progress both socially and academically.

These statements might sound good, but need specific descriptions of aspirations that are pertinent to your child. This is true even in elementary school, when your child is beginning to develop academic and social skills.

Write a Detailed Vision Statement

A vision statement can be longer than one or two sentences. Once you have a rough draft, be sure to discuss it with other Team members to create the final statement. It is important to have them give their input, because they may have ideas that you might not have considered. Keep in mind that a vision statement is a collaborative effort.

The following example illustrates how details can provide useful guidance for writing goals:

For grade three, we expect [student] to be reading and writing at grade level as measured by testing in the spring. We expect that he will receive the necessary support and specialized instruction to do this. We want him to achieve his potential academically so that he is at grade level every year through elementary school, with objective testing data to back this up.

A vision statement like this focuses your child’s IEP on results as confirmed by testing data, not just teacher observations or wishful thinking. This is an example of how your expectations, combined with an understanding of what the school should do, can improve your child’s chances of getting an appropriate education. You can read more about the importance of objective data for making educational decisions in our article: Levels of Performance and Your Child’s IEP.

How You Can Create Effective Vision Statements

  1. Begin thinking about your child’s future at an early age. You may only be considering the future one year at a time at this point, but even that is important. Realize that the vision statement will need to be updated each year as your child changes and reaches goals.
  2. The vision statement should inform schools of your expectations. Be sure to brainstorm with your Team about appropriate goals for your child and be realistic.
  3. Use independent testing, if possible, to confirm what your child is capable of. Don’t just rely on school testing for information.
  4. If your older child is ready, be sure to have a discussion with him or her about dreams and aspirations. It is important for parents and children to have dreams for the future and talk about what a child is most interested in. Have an older child write his or her own vision statement, if possible.
  5. The vision statement is closely linked to postgraduate transition planning. Be sure to include information about possible college, vocational school, employment, and independent living by the ninth grade IEP.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Advocating over the Long Haul: Handling Stress and Staying in the Game

We are honored to present a guest blog by attorney “Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.” The following is a transcript of his remarks to the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) annual special education advocacy conference. The occasion was his acceptance of the Diane Lipton Award for Outstanding Advocacy. The title of his presentation was: “Advocating over the Long Haul: Handling Stress and Staying in the Game.”

I am so pleased to have this award from COPAA. I have loved watching this very special organization grow into a robust resource for families whose children struggle in school, and their advocates and attorneys.

COPAA stands tall, manifesting the great power that can be exercised through organizing people with widely varying interests around a common mission at a national level.

COPAA educates and trains in special education law, fights to sustain and advance those rights, and speaks truth to power both directly at all levels of government, and indirectly through COPAA’s many trainees, as they assist parents in the clinches of Team meetings, negotiations with school districts and due process hearings.

Every state should have a comparable local organization – as Massachusetts does in its Federation for Children with Special Needs, the Mass. Advocates for Children, the Disability Law Center and others – but having COPAA so powerfully active at the national level provides an indispensable resource that greatly enhances the effectiveness of state organizations.

As for me, beginning with my position with the Massachusetts Legislature’s education committee in the early 70’s and right on through my years of practice as a special education attorney, I have been incredibly lucky in my work. There are not a lot of practice areas like special ed law where an attorney can wrestle with such interesting, worthwhile legal and substantive issues and know that the stakes are among the highest that can be imagined – the chance for a child who has intellectual, emotional or physical challenges to grow as far as she can toward her full potential.

We are entrusted by our clients with the future of their children; they let us into the most intimate recesses of their lives in order to carry out our work; and the trust is a sacred one. More, through our contacts with some of best of the professionals who evaluate and treat our clients, and through the research we must do to understand our clients’ needs, our work offers us the opportunity to learn about a vast array of critical factors that affect human learning and growth.

The work is highly stressful, given the stakes and the complexities, – you might have noticed! – and yet with healthy management of our stress we can become excellent helping hands to the clients we serve.

About that stress: If I may be indulged as an old warhorse now – and one, by the way, who would be with you in person were it not for having had my chest opened three weeks ago for a heart bypass [[I’m fine, by the way, and making an excellent recovery]] – I’d like to offer a few thoughts about how one might carry out the work of an advocate over the long haul, without burning out.

At this conference and through other means, I know you are all honing your advocacy skills and learning as much as you can about how to navigate special education’s crazy quilt of rules and substance. I want to address something a little different here – to describe a few basic elements of my own history that I think have enabled me to keep on keepin’ on for, now, more than 40 years in the work.

Never stop learning. Learn to listen. Protect your heart: cultivate calmness under stress. Be connected.

First, dig into every possible resource to keep educating yourself, and never stop learning. The disabilities that can undermine progress in school are widely various, and each one carries its own questions, history, and, typically, many competing schools of thought about how best to assist the child.

You are best armed – and most at ease in this work – if you are fully informed about the disabilities you encounter, the competing options for treating or addressing those disabilities, and the ways in which any particular disability has been viewed and treated by hearing officers and courts.

We’re strongest when we know what we’re dealing with … 

Are there any shortcuts? Not really, but one that I always recommend and would make required reading if I could, no matter where you may be in your advocacy career, is the book, Far From the Tree, in which Andrew Solomon writes eloquently and deeply about a number of common and not so common challenges that people experience, separating them from their families or their wider communities.

Other examples of must reading: We all know of the huge increase in the numbers of children struggling with spectrum disorders and the battles over how effectively to meet those children’s needs. A book that I think is indispensable for understanding Autism is Donvan and Zucker’s In a Different Key.

And third on my list: Carson and Judith Graves’s book, Parents Have the Powera cleanly written resource to help parents help themselves in the process – a way to make our own jobs easier. (Disclosure: the Graves’s book includes a foreword that I wrote for them, canvassing some of the history of advocacy and the current sharp challenges to the system of rights we work with.)

Second, a corollary: learn to truly listen without interjecting or being deafened by your assumptions – what you think you know. Listen deeply to both the verbal and the nonverbal communications of your clients, of your colleagues and of those on the other sides of the cases you handle. When we think we know it all, we sometimes miss that one singular fact or strategic opening that may turn a case in a new direction.

Third, you all have great hearts – you would not be in this business if you did not – so nurture and protect that heart! The two inevitable enemies of a healthy heart are uncontrollable stress and bad physical and nutritional habits. Take care of yourselves!

Know that one of the great heart-stressors in our work can be the attitudes and actions of hostile school personnel. How should we deal with them? We all encounter school people who act badly – with disdain, with implacable coldness and bureaucratic arrogance, even, sometimes, with flat-out bigotry toward persons with disabilities. But understand that if you react and are driven by rage, you hurt only yourself and your client.

We all have to figure out how to turn anger into compassion: otherwise we become our own enemy and, in many cases, our anger distracts us and blinds us to a raft of possible strategies that might actually help our clients. Try to avoid demonizing those who wish to thwart our mission: do everything you can to get behind the curtain and understand what drives the school folk that are blocking you.

They are, believe it or not, fully human, and somewhere in there you can almost always find an opening. At the very least this entails always – always! – treating school personnel with the utmost respect and kindness, even if – in fact even more so –they treat you and your clients with apparent malevolence. (This applies not only to our particular advocacy work, but is a caution for our whole political/cultural lives at least, it seems, for the next four years.)

As for the physical, please take care of that heart with exercise and mindful eating, and also cultivate an interest that has little or nothing to do with your special ed work, be it in music, drama, book clubs, yoga, whatever – feed the interests that give you joy outside of your work to sustain yourselves and the work that you do.

I know whereof I speak. My own attention to physical exercise, to music and to friends has literally saved my life and has made my ongoing recovery from open heart surgery a much easier road than it might have been. It’s never too late to start!

And, finally, please don’t work in isolation. Create, nurture and sustain a working cadre of fellow advocates and experts. This work is too demanding to carry it all on your own shoulders. Find and cultivate colleagues with whom you can toss around issues and strategies and provide mutual support.

And, more, with those colleagues, keep an eye always on political and legislative developments that might advance or undermine special education and disability rights, and be willing to make calls and write letters to legislators to let your voices be heard.

Thank you again for this award. It’s a good feeling to be recognized by my colleagues in the field for work that has so enriched my life and enabled me, with my colleagues at Kotin, Crabtree and Strong, to help children and families live better lives.

The Tragedy of an Inappropriate Education

Education is the foundation of a productive and fulfilling life. Education teaches us to read, think, process, and analyze information. When taught these skills, individuals can grow and develop into contributing members of society. We can all agree that this is the goal of an appropriate education.

But when is an education “appropriate,” and who decides what is appropriate? For many children without disabilities, a general education curriculum is appropriate. For children with disabilities, deciding what constitutes an appropriate education is a critical question. School districts and families grapple with this question all the time.

The Goal of Special Education

The federal law that defines special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), lists 14 qualifying disabilities that entitle a child to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Once deemed eligible under IDEA, the law states that the child’s education must be “designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.” [20 U.S.C. § 1400 (d)(1)(B)] In other words, the law is outcome based with a focus on the future life of the student as a functioning member of society.

This goal, however, is frequently thwarted by school districts that, for various reasons, do not always have a child’s education as their primary goal. We warn parents in our articles and lectures that parents and schools have different perspectives. Most parents are focused on their child’s future (“Will my child be able to go to college?” or “Can my adult child live independently from me?”), while schools are focused on budget costs and the current year’s IEP goals. Unless parents understand these different perspectives, they can lead to misunderstanding and frustration for the parents and an inappropriate education for the child.

FAPE is More Than Academic

The elementary school years are foundational. Students must first learn to read so they can read to learn. When the basic skills of education are not learned in a timely matter, a gap grows between the students who have these skills and those who don’t. For students who lag behind, there is a social and emotional toll, not just an academic one. Self-esteem can plummet, and depression and anxiety can set in.

IDEA, as clarified by court decisions, requires schools to address these social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that a student is making effective progress. Many state laws are even more specific in this regard. Massachusetts, for example, requires that a student have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development.” [603 CMR § 28.02(17)] The law is clear, an appropriate education means more than simply academic success.

School Tactics to Deny FAPE

Sadly, we have seen too many school districts focus on their budget more than their obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education. IDEA does not permit teachers and administrators to consider cost as a reason for denying a student needed services. So instead, these schools rely on diversionary tactics, such as minimizing parent concerns, not including parents in decisions, withholding information, delaying or offering less expensive and inadequate services (such as Response to Intervention) to keep their costs down.

Schools also know that when parents are exhausted and struggling for answers, and the school gives them progress reports with statements like the ones we have seen: “It has been a pleasure working with this enthusiastic and engaging youngster,” and “She is a polite and hard-working adolescent,” these positive sounding but ultimately meaningless reassurances are what the parents focus on rather than the reality of their child’s struggle.

As a last resort, some schools just refuse to provide needed services and essentially dare parents to file for a hearing with their state’s department of education, knowing that only a small percentage of parents will actually do so.

These tactics are successful when parents are unaware of their legal rights and accept them without question.

When School Tactics Fail, Fight the Parents

For the parents who do know their legal rights, sometimes their only option is to hire a lawyer to force a non-compliant school district to follow the state and federal laws. Then the district might be willing to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight those parents rather than put the money into providing the services that a child is entitled to. In our book we document how one school district in Pennsylvania spent $329,084 defending itself against what was ultimately a $10,000 judgement.

And the Results…

Time passes. Each school year goes quickly. Suddenly a child is a teenager, facing the prospect of life beyond high school without the supports of special education. Since the school’s obligation to a student ends once that student accepts a high school diploma, some schools try to finish their obligation as quickly as possible, even if that student is not ready to graduate.

This approach ignores IDEA’s requirement of preparing a student “for further education, employment and independent living.” We experienced this tactic first hand in addition to reading multiple hearing decisions where schools have tried to force a student to graduate without adequate preparation.

Then What?

Research by the National Center on Educational Outcomes indicates that 80 to 85 percent of students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve the same state academic standards as their non-disabled peers. Yet, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study, only 7.6 percent of these students attend a four-year college compared to almost 30 percent of their peers without disabilities. Likewise, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the unemployment rate for young adults with disabilities is twice that of the general population.

The Dropout-to-Prison Pipeline… and Worse

In 2016, The Houston Chronicle ran a series of articles by investigative reporter Brian Rosenthal on special education in Texas. He reported that officials from the Texas Education Agency, without any data to support their decision, dramatically reduced the percentage of students in the state’s special education programs in an apparent attempt to reduce costs. The series concluded that thousands of vulnerable students with qualifying disabilities were denied special education services.

So what happens to these students who are denied an appropriate education? For those whose parents do not have the ability to home school or pay for expensive private schools, they languish in general education classrooms without the proper help. When these students fall behind, they often experience depression and exhibit behavior problems. From there, it is a short distance to suspensions and expulsions. According to the Chronicle, “Some [students] have even entered the criminal justice system or otherwise required intensive adult services that cost far more than special education.”

“What we’re looking at with these kids who don’t get services… is continued demoralization,” says David Anderson of the Child Mind Institute. This leads these students “to give up and become part of the `dropout-to-prison pipeline.'” Even worse, a member of the Texas Behavioral Health Advisory Committee acknowledges that “students have killed themselves because nobody was willing to pay attention.”

The personal cost of of living an unfulfilled and unproductive life is dire.

Write Your Congressman!

When Congress passed the first special education law in 1975, it authorized the Federal Government to pay for 40% of all special education costs. Unfortunately, Congress has never funded more than 20% of those costs and often less. This means that local communities must cover the rest. Property taxes rise and residents react, resulting in a backlash against students with disabilities. We have read many complaints over the years written by parents who feel that education is some sort of zero-sum game in which students in special education receive privileges that take opportunities away from their children in general education.

This point of view is shortsighted and misguided, however. If special education costs seem high, compare them to the cost of not providing an appropriate education. An adult who is not able to function productively requires disability insurance, food assistance, and Medicaid, among other costs, for the remainder of his or her adult life. If those who advocate for lower taxes and smaller government won’t acknowledge society’s moral and ethical obligation to its most vulnerable members, then they should at least consider the monetary cost.

Instead of complaining about the students in special education, all parents should write their legislative leaders to request proper funding for IDEA as Congress originally intended. Society has an obligation to educate children of all abilities. When schools don’t provide an appropriate education, the outcome can be tragic, and we collectively suffer in the long run.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Avoid “Feel Good” Goals

In examining hundreds of IEP goals, we have noticed that too many just describe hoped-for outcomes and not measurable results. These goals tend to be vague statements of what the IEP Team would like the student to be rather than define a path toward a specific accomplishment. We call these “feel good” goals because they describe achievements that we all want for our children, but they don’t provide guidance as to how the child is going to get there.

Vague Goals vs. Specific Goals

Vague goals, like “[Student] will increase his homework production,” “demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom,” or “increase her study skill techniques,” don’t indicate how the goal will be measured (if it can be measured at all), who will assist the student in achieving the goal, or how anyone will even know if the goal has been reached.

Even though these goals may sound good, at the end of the year there will be no concrete evidence to indicate if they have been accomplished. There may even be the temptation to think that the goal has been partially or even fully met, when in fact the opposite might be true.

Goals Gone Wrong

The following are actual goals we have found in IEPs. Only the student’s name has been removed, replaced by [student], and in a few cases bad grammar has been corrected. Otherwise, they are verbatim.

[Student] will become more consistent in completing his required academic work.

[Student] will continue to maintain her independence in the high school setting.

[Student] will demonstrate skills in relaxing to reduce body and mental tension. (One of the benchmarks says that the student will “use sensory diet techniques for achieving body and thought relaxation.”)

[Student] will consistently exhibit responsible behavior in the areas of classroom participation and assignment completion.

[Student] will work to improve the thoroughness of his daily preparation.

While it is easy to see unintended humor in many of these goals, it is worth noting that in just about every case these statements describe what parents and students want from their special education experience. Instead of being goals, however, these statements only project the results of successfully achieving a goal. We have seen these kind of feel good statements appear in far too many IEPs masquerading as goals.

Unmeasurable “Progress”

Without providing any direction, it is almost impossible to determine when, or even if, these feel good goals can ever be achieved in a realistic fashion. The result is that they sometimes end up repeating year after year without any end in sight. This can lead to a lack of motivation, both on the part of the student, who doesn’t have any identifiable path to follow, and school personnel, who don’t have any way to measure progress.

One of our son’s goals for written language repeated word for word in every IEP from 3rd through 7th grades. We routinely got reports that he was making “tremendous progress,” “excellent progress,” or “outstanding progress” toward achieving this goal (these phrases seemed to appear in rotation), yet we never questioned the goal. In hindsight, we now see that this goal was too vague and unmeasurable to be achieved. In short, it was nothing but a feel good goal.

What Makes a Goal Measurable?

The opposite of a feel good goal is one that has the following characteristics:*

  1. It contains a method for measuring whether the goal has been achieved.
  2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.
  3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure the progress of a goal using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.
  4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time, such as in a quarterly report.

Many of the IEP goals we have seen provide little of this information. Most are impossibly vague, contain no standards by which anyone could determine if the goal was ever achieved, and perversely, often place the responsibility for achieving the goal completely on the student.

What You Can Do

Remember that the IEP is created by a Team that includes you, the parent. Your voice is an important part in any discussion about your child’s goals. Use your voice by assisting the Team in developing goals that are measurable, time-limited, and specific about who is responsible for seeing that the goals are met.

  • Make sure that the current performance level for each goal accurately describes what your child is capable of doing. It should include the most recent testing data (including independent evaluation results) in that skill area, especially the grade level equivalent for your child’s current performance.
  • Have each goal specify valid ways of measuring your child’s progress. Include details for teachers and other service providers to notice and record in their observations.
  • Make sure that all goals are appropriately coordinated with the service delivery grid. The grid should allow ample time for every service. Also notice what type of professional will provide the service. If no one or just “sped staff” is listed, ask for more detail about that person’s role and qualifications. Pay attention to the location, start, and end dates of the service.
  • Have the information in the service delivery grid written into the description of the goal. The grid often appears pages after the goal in the IEP where it can be overlooked by both you and the service providers. The duplication serves to remind everyone that the most important part of a goal is achieving it.

Your participation in the IEP process is critical to ensure that all your child’s goals are realistic, measurable, and come with adequate services to achieve them. This is your child’s right in getting the appropriate education that the law guarantees.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* These four characteristics are adapted from Barbara Batemen’s and Cynthia Herr’s excellent book: Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives.

Have a Business Relationship With Your Team, Not an Emotional One

craggy-clouds-8-textYou should always strive to treat IEP meetings as if they were business negotiations, not a friendly get together or a hostile confrontation. In an earlier article we wrote about the etiquette of dealing with your Team members. One caution we wrote about in particular, that parents should always maintain a courteous demeanor toward their Team even if that courtesy was not reciprocated, seemed to cause controversy among some parent groups on the Internet. Many wrote complaining that we were being too easy on teachers and that they felt entitled to vent their frustration at Team meetings when they thought necessary services were being denied.

Team Members Are Not Your Friends or Your Enemies

Displaying common courtesy, however, should not prevent you from critically questioning the Team’s decisions regarding your child’s education and examining your child’s IEP as if it were any other business or legal document before you sign off on it. In fact, your child’s IEP is a legal document.

This was something that we did not understand during our early years in special education. We felt so grateful for the help we were told our son was getting, that we regarded our school Team members as friends rather than as professionals. We would give Team members home baked bread for the holidays and send thank you notes each year at the end of the school term.

In one particularly egregious example of being overly familiar, we began our fifth grade IEP review with the announcement: “It’s so great to see you all at this meeting. It feels like a family reunion.” This created a warm and fuzzy beginning to the meeting, but it also signaled to the Team that we were trusting and not going to critically question their decisions. The result of our complacency was that our son went into the sixth grade without adequate supports and had a disastrous year. This was the result of what we have come to call “blind trust,” and it is something that we warn parents against.

The Problem with Blind Trust

Our experience is an example of what can happen with blind trust. We had not questioned the school staff because we assumed they always made decisions in our son’s best interest. We were wrong. Over the next difficult year we were fortunate to find Pete and Pam Wright’s excellent book, From Emotions to Advocacy. Reading it made us aware of the reality of special education in the public schools: budget constraints, a school culture that places a premium on job security over the needs of students, and invisible Team members who make decisions outside of the Team meetings. This book was a major wakeup call.

We then hired an advocate who discovered many procedural violations in our son’s educational history. Of course we were angry and upset. We focused our frustration and energy, however, on learning about the state and federal special education laws and understanding the rights they gave us. We learned to regard our Team members in a more business-like manner as we worked to collaborate with them about our son’s educational needs. We also focused on the details of school documents with a new understanding. We always remained polite with our Team, but we were no longer overly friendly.

As our advocate helped us focus on our rights, we realized that this knowledge is power, so we put our energy into strategy and negotiation, and steered away from having an adversarial relationship. Finally, we learned that for many school districts, special education is a calculated business, something we write about in the Introduction of our book.

A New Awareness

One of our discoveries was that we learned that Team members are, first and foremost, school employees. Their bosses, the people who write their annual reviews and decide on the school budgets, regard special education as a business expense, even though the law is clear that services must be provided on the basis of need and not cost. Your Team members may be fond of you and your child, but they know that services cost money and they must act in accordance with the district’s budget. Parents are at a disadvantage when they don’t realize this agenda, which is never mentioned in Team meetings. The natural emotional ties parents feel toward their child makes it difficult to see that the Team decisions are ultimately business and not educational decisions.

What Parents Can Do

As hard as it may be, you need to understand the school’s business approach to special education. Here are some suggestions we have to help:

  • Learn to express your emotions outside of a Team meeting or in school correspondence. Realize that you can be firm and take a stand, but keep a cool head. Being polite with your Team members does not mean that you have to accept inappropriate behavior from them.
  • Study the federal law and your state’s law for special education. Understand your legal rights. You may be surprised at the rights the laws give you and your child, and even more surprised that school personnel generally do not know these laws as well as they should.
  • Realize that school districts regard special education as a business with budget constraints and a legal transaction for school personnel. Focus on advocacy and negotiation as you try to collaborate with your team.

Knowledge is power.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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After the Diagnosis, Then What?

sunset-2-textParents who realize their child is struggling, who suspect something is amiss, will seek out the advice of a pediatrician, a psychologist, or perhaps another professional. At first, parents don’t want to notice that their child isn’t perfect. They may suppress their feelings, but eventually, if their child is not achieving the usual milestones, some professional they know may suggest testing. That person may diagnose a disability, which leads to the question: “Now what?”

Varied and Complex Reactions

Receiving a diagnosis of a learning disability or a developmental delay can be devastating and surprising news. Some parents deny that there is a problem and will not accept the diagnosis. Other embrace the diagnosis and research everything about it. Some will share it with other parents and some won’t.

The reasons for these varied reactions can be complex.

For some parents, a diagnosis of a disability brings out fear and shame. They refuse to let their school know about the diagnosis, believing that there is a stigma to having a child in special education. Fearing the label “disabled,” they refuse to explore the option of special education services, hoping their child will get by without additional help.

For other parents, a diagnosis brings a sense of relief. Once they understand what is behind their child’s issues, they can begin to plot a course of action to help their child more forward.

Grief, Disappointment, and Acceptance

For most parents, there is an initial grieving process. Their beliefs about their child may be challenged. What if their child won’t be able to go to college and achieve in a similar fashion to themselves? What if the diagnosis means a new way of life and a change of plans and expectations?

Grief and disappointment are common reactions.

Some parents even feel anger toward the professional who made the diagnosis. Others blame each other for being the cause of the disability. Fatigue sets in as parents struggle to understand what professionals are telling them.

Receiving a diagnosis for a child is a hard experience, but accepting the diagnosis can eventually lead to a positive outcome for your child.

Working Through the Confusion

Because there are a variety of diagnoses that a child can receive, the process becomes confusing. Parents hear terminology that they have never heard before and feel even more confused. People they have never met before will be delivering complicated news about their child. Many parents wonder if they can trust the opinion of a stranger who doesn’t know their child the way they do. Fortunately, there are things that parents can do to help them work through the confusion and put them on the road to becoming an advocate for their child’s education.

What You Can Do

  • Locate a Parent Training and Information Center: Each state in the United States has a federally funded Parent Training and Information Center. These centers can advise you of resources in your area. Go to The Yellow Pages for Kids at the Wrightslaw website to find a center near you.
  • Ask for a Referral to Special Education: Contact the special education department in your child’s school district to request assessments in all the areas in which you suspect a disability. As long as your request is in writing, schools must comply with your request within a specific timeline set by your state’s department of education.
  • Build a Team of Independent Professionals: Seek out independent experts who can do a comprehensive and objective assessment of your child’s special needs. Relying only on school testing can lead to a narrow view of your child, sometimes with important information missing.
  • Understand the Terminology: Parents will hear many new terms for different disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Cerebral Palsy, Tourette’s Syndrome, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Be sure to ask the professional who gives you the diagnosis to be clear and explain the term so you can understand it.
  • Locate Parent Support Groups: Seek out groups of parents who have children with disabilities. Other parents can be a great source of trusted information. Find local groups of national organizations that are pertinent to your child’s disability, such as such as CHADD or the Autism Society.
  • Do What You Can in the Moment: We have discovered that mindful living is especially helpful when you have a child with special needs. It is pointless to project many years into the future and worry about your child’s well-being then. It is easier and healthier to focus on what you can do today, this week, or this month to help your child.
  • Remember That You Are Not Alone: Thousands of parents have children who get a diagnosis of special needs every year. Consider family members, friends, neighbors, and clergy as sources of support. If you belong to a faith community, ask if there is a special needs ministry. Many churches have them to create accepting communities for children and teens with special needs.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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