The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a potentially landmark case which asks the court to decide the educational benefits that public schools are required to provide to students with disabilities. University of Illinois special education professor James Shriner spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the case and state and federal regulations on special education.
The federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, guarantees children with disabilities a “free and appropriate public education,” but that’s pretty vague. What level of education and support services are schools mandated to provide to students with disabilities?
IDEA appropriates federal money for schools to provide educational opportunities for children with disabilities who qualify for services under the act. Each state that wants to use the federal money has its own regulations but is required to provide education for students with disabilities that at least meets the federal standard of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
The Endrew F. lawsuit was filed by a family in Colorado who has a son with an autism spectrum disorder and severe behavioral issues. The reason the case is being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is partially because schools are being held to different standards depending on which U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals their state is in.
The 3rd Circuit – which includes Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania – and the 6th Circuit – which encompasses Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee – established more rigorous FAPE standards that require schools to provide “significant learning and educational benefit.”
However, most other judicial circuits – such as the 7th Circuit, which encompasses Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin; and the 10th Circuit, which includes Colorado – apply a lesser standard, “more than mere trivial educational benefit,” in determining if a student received an appropriate education.
How do officials determine what constitutes “mere trivial benefit” versus “significant benefit?”
That’s what they’re arguing in the Endrew F. case. A student’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, specifies the child’s learning goals for each school year. If a student makes progress on one goal out of five, does that constitute “some benefit?” Conversely, if the targets are set so low that almost any progress allows the student to meet his learning goals, is that “significant benefit?”
In the Endrew F. case, the child started to show escalating behaviors, including hitting others and banging his head, which interfered with his academic progress. The parents contend that the school did not address their son’s need for behavioral and academic interventions, and didn’t write a meaningful IEP for him – apparently just copying most of the goals on his IEP from year to year without collecting data to make appropriate plans.
That’s the heart of IDEA: Schools must assess each child’s needs and strengths and write an IEP with ambitious goals that, given the child’s characteristics, will improve his performance in one school year.
Even in a state like Illinois, where the legal mandate sets the bar for an appropriate education for students with disabilities pretty low, 99 percent of the teachers are doing much more than the minimum required by law. They’re writing well-thought-out IEPs that address students’ priority academic and behavioral needs and are working hard to help their students achieve a great deal each school year.
Do you expect the Endrew F. case to result in more clearly defined federal regulations for the education of children with disabilities?
Yes and no. The Supreme Court will probably fine-tune the federal standard to indicate that students with disabilities ought to be given the same, meaningful opportunities as their nondisabled peers, to the extent that’s possible.
The U.S. Department of Education, which supports the parents in the Endrew F. case, stated that IEPs should be written so they offer a program aimed at significant educational improvement and access to the general curriculum in light of the child’s circumstances.
What the Supreme Court won’t do is require schools to show that every student achieves a predetermined amount of progress to confirm they’ve gotten an educational benefit. Because IDEA requires individualized student goals, what is significant or meaningful progress for one student will be different from that for another student.
If you don’t have data about the student’s performance, you shouldn’t be working on an IEP for them. Without the data, you’re just making wild guesses about what meaningful progress might be. It’s terrible, negligent practice to do that.
As part of your research, you’ve been involved in creating tools to help educators write meaningful IEPs. Tell me about that.
Our IEP Quality Project is a web-based tutorial and decision-making support system and information resource for all public school and special education professionals in Illinois. The tutorial focuses on creating quality IEPs for students who will participate in Illinois’ general state achievement testing. It guides educators in planning instruction and prioritizing goals for each student in relation to their needs and the state learning standards.
The tutorial is being used by nearly 4,000 educators in all 102 Illinois counties.