Category Archives: Presuming Competence

Supreme Court Renders Decision in Special Education Case

The current eight-member Supreme Court has handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Endrew F. v Douglas County (Colorado) School District.  The decision vacated the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling.  The Tenth Circuit had decided in favor of the school district,  ruling that “the child received some educational benefit while in the District’s care and that is enough to satisfy the District’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education.”

As the case was argued before the Supreme Court, that standard of “some educational benefit” was a central issue.  Had the district in fact done enough to provide Endrew the legally-mandated free and appropriate public education (FAPE)?  If not, the parents would be able to recoup the cost of tuition for the private school Endrew began attending.

The Supreme Court’s opinion establishes that merely providing “some educational benefit” for a student does not meet the district’s obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

My thoughts…

  • How on earth did every lower court rule in favor of the school district?  This fact shows me that we still face a great number of people, in and out of the education world, who believe “every kid deserves a good education… well, but not THOSE kids.  They can’t handle it.”
  • Even in ruling for the student in this case, the Court left plenty of indication that it’s perfectly acceptable to settle for a lesser level of achievement for students who have a disability solely on that basis.  This is flat wrong.  If the student’s label were one of race, religion, or socio-economic status, there would be outrage about low expectations for the student.  Presence of a disability should be no different.
  • In its opinion, the Court holds that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  That last phrase will be taken as permission to greatly reduce expectations for students with disabilities, but doing so violates the first part of the statement.  Defining “appropriate” progress is the core of any IEP meeting for any student with a disability.  But, wholly discarding the state’s regular academic standards is not required for developing an IEP.  In fact, the IEP should outline the steps that will be taken to permit the student to reach those standards, not what the student will do instead of them.
  • Even the NEA filed an amicus brief in support of the student, against the district.  Bravo, NEA.  In a case where many typically-vocal proponents of high-quality public education have remained strangely silent, the NEA stood for the student over the system.  I appreciate the political volatility of speaking up in this case (either speaking against a public school district, or speaking in favor of low academic expectations), but silence cannot improve this struggle.
  • The Supreme Court’s opinion in Rowley was that students with disabilities must be offered educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities,” and that standard has not been changed.

The conclusion of the opinion of the Court states, “At that point, a reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”  And because the Court didn’t (and shouldn’t) define appropriate progress, it is imperative that every parent and every educator strongly advocate for appropriate progress towards the same standard every student is expected to achieve, and not a barely-more-than-minimum substitute.

The Power of Stories to Share Hope

On March 1, 2017, I saw a whole lot of awesome.

My daughter, Amelia, was invited to attend a private “Launch Party” for a brand new booklet, published by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s (CCHMC) Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (DDBP).  The booklet is titled “Sharing Hope: The Stories of our Patients and Families”, and it will be distributed free of charge to families of individuals who are referred to DDBP for various reasons.  The booklet contains brief articles written by individuals who have previously been referred to DDBP, and their family members.

[Download the booklet, PDF (6MB)]

sharing-hope-amelia
Amelia’s page in “Sharing Hope”.  By the way, that stone wall behind her is Chateau LaRoche, the Loveland Castle!

Amelia’s story is one of 26 articles featured in the booklet.  The article is a summation of the contents of my “Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know” Ignite-style presentation.

I had an opportunity to meet some of the other honored guests there, and I feel very privileged to have met such wonderful people!  Reading some of their stories after meeting them just makes it even more powerful to me.  Families of people like Lily, Vineet, Patrick, Andrew, and so many more, have willingly told their stories with the intent of conveying encouragement and hope to others who are just learning what a diagnosis of “autism” or “down syndrome” or “spina bifida” will mean for their lives.

The impact of a powerful network of caring professionals is what keeps CCHMC near the very top of U.S. News & World Report’s list of best children’s hospitals.  But, there is something extra to be gained from hearing the experiences of others at a time when most families find themselves starting a journey nobody they know has gone through.

Alongside the best medical treatment available, there is something soothing about a voice that can tell you honestly, “I know how you feel.”  That’s something no medicine can provide.  And, it has a lot to do with why these families chose to own their story and tell it, rather than try to hide the diagnosis that, quite honestly, changed their lives forever.

Amelia’s diagnosis is a challenge, but it is not a shame.  She rises to meet that challenge every day.  That message of love, belief, and hope is conveyed throughout the pages of this booklet, and I am proud to be dad to such an inspiring young lady.

 

US Supreme Court hears special education case

On Wednesday, January 10, 2017, the US Supreme Court took up the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County (Colorado) School District. At issue in the case is, “What level of service satisfies IDEA, other education law, and legal precedent?”

A text transcript of the arguments put before the court is available from the website of the US Supreme Court.

Endrew F. has autism.  During his fourth grade year in the Douglas County School District, his academic achievement was slipping, and his behaviors became more and more detrimental to his educational progress.  The family and the district went through many of the typical hoops that families and districts are familiar with in writing (and re-writing) an IEP for Endrew.  Endrew’s family were not satisfied that he was receiving appropriate services under IDEA, and eventually took the step of withdrawing him from Douglas County and enrolling him, at their own expense, in a private school.  The family then sued the district for the cost of the private program, stating that the school failed to provide an adequate system of academic and behavioral support for Endrew.  The district countered that they met all the legal requirements and that Endrew was making enough progress to show that the district was in fact providing an adequate education.

In the last step before the US Supreme Court, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of the school district, stating that if there was any educational benefit at all in what the school provided, they had met their legal obligation.

Here are my thoughts after reading through the transcript and doing some background research:

  1. Words are unfathomably important.  Words like “appropriate”, “significant”, “meaningful”, and “some” come up a lot in these arguments, and in the previous case law.  Each of them is designed to give the due process system its place in examining what is reasonable in a particular circumstance.  This fuzziness may be frustrating in some instances, but it is the very thing that allows individuals the freedom to pursue what is best for a particular child and not be shackled to a particular strategy by a statute.
  2. In reading some parts of the transcript, some of the statements made by the attorneys and the justices seemed to indicate that they have a belief that some kids cannot be expected to achieve grade-level content because they have a disability.  At times, it felt like there was a presumption that “performing at grade level” is the equivalent of “performing at the same level as everyone else”.  This is untrue on its face, and I believe any classroom educator could tell you so.  However, these were not classroom educators in the courtroom (except for one Stanford University law professor).  If this case revolved around a student who was being denied a level of service due to their gender or race, I have little doubt that the arguments put forth by the attorney for the school district would be labeled as horrifically bigoted.  But, because this was a child with autism, it felt at times that there was an inherent acceptance that this child could not possibly be expected to achieve at an academic level expected of every other fourth grader.  Sad.
  3. I’m sure I have a deeper interest in this subject than some, due to the fact that I currently have a kindergartner who has been diagnosed with Autism.  This case could significantly influence the educational environment she finds herself in for the rest of her school life.  To that end, I want better for her than to have to learn in a school district that stands on “we did what we had to do by law, and that’s enough”.

I’m no scholar on the US Supreme Court, but the tone and direction of the questions and discussion as delivered in the transcript gives me good reason to think that the US Supreme Court will rule that there is a responsibility on the part of public schools to provide more than just a “little better than nothing” (or, as the Court puts it, “barely more than de minimis“) education.

The latest reauthorization of  ESEA is titled the “Every Student Succeeds Act”.  The US Supreme Court is about to rule whether we really mean “every student.”

 

 

 

The Power of Positive Feedback

Musician Marty Stuart tells this story about a famous fellow Mississippian:

Marty Stuart.“Now there was a young man from DeSoto County, Mississippi, who found himself a mentor in one Dr. Robert Khayat, who at the time was a professor of law at the University of Mississippi.  One of Dr. Khayat’s greatest gifts is recognizing and unlocking the greatness in people.  In this particular student, he saw a gifted writer.  And it all started with a law exam.  The student was given four hypothetical situations.  The assignment to the young lawyer-to-be was to analyze the situations, identify the legal issues, and then elaborate.  Out of the four questions, the young man wrote three great answers.  But on the fourth question, he wrote his best answer, but it had nothing to do with the original question.  Doctor Khayat graded the paper, and in red he wrote, ‘You missed all the issues, but you write great fiction,’ and gave it a B-plus.  Here’s the verdict: the good Dr. Khayat went on to become the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and the student who made the B-plus on the examination paper, well, he framed it and hung it on the wall in the room where he continues to write book after book to this day.  His name is John Grisham, the author of over twenty books. Every one of them is a multi-million seller, now printed in over 30 languages.  And it all started  with the right words of encouragement from a great mentor.”

Every day, we have oodles of opportunities to shine a light on people’s strengths, even in the shadow of their shortcomings.  The kind word invested today can pay off in great rewards later.  Be the bright spot in someone’s day today.

“When Adaptive Technology and Powerful Messages Collide”

“I attended my first IEP meeting when I was nineteen,” begins Jordyn Zimmerman’s keynote address at the 2016 Building Learning Communities conference in Boston, MA.  It was a pivotal moment in her education, and her life.

Jordyn is an amazing young woman.  She has plans to become a teacher, and I can safely say I dream about my kids having teachers like her.  Sadly, the system did not always provide the support and resources to make that dream seem possible.  Jordyn’s address includes five crucial mindsets for anyone who wants education to be world-changing.

  1. Students want to learn
  2. Don’t assume how your students feel or what they think.
  3. Have high expectations for all students.
  4. Always be kind.
  5. Please know, in one way or another, you will be part of your students’ lives forever.

Watch Jordyn’s keynote (Big thanks to @BrianJMull for Periscoping the talk for me!):

Follow Jordyn on Twitter.

Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know

Ohio’s State Professional Development Grant (SPDG) provides resources for select districts to participate in important work around changing outcomes and improving achievement for diverse learners.

I was honored to be asked to speak at a state-level meeting of SPDG district representatives at the Battelle for Kids “Connect for Success” conference.

My presentation was titled “Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know”.  Big thanks to my friend Patti Porto for getting video of the presentation for me!

The slides are available at goo.gl/8YisM1.

Teaching Left-handed Kids

Some students in today’s educational system are left-handed.  These students have unique educational needs compared to their typical peers.  Common academic activities such as handwriting, drawing, and using scissors require varying levels of modification to accommodate the needs of individuals who are left-handed. Even playtime activities like baseball or golf require alternative or modified equipment to allow students who are left-handed to participate more fully.

Teachers may find it frustrating at first to deal with the unique needs of students who are left-handed.  The constant need to modify assignments can take up a significant amount of the teacher’s valuable time that could be spent in assisting other students. Also, teacher preparation programs do relatively little to familiarize new teachers with the unique needs of this small but important part of the population. These factors contribute to a lack of success for students who are left-handed in typical classrooms.

To maximize efficiency and effective use of limited resources, all students who are left-handed should be educated in a separate educational environment. Students who are left-handed should be provided with a teacher who has specialized credentials in working just with these students. The opportunity for the students to spend most of their time alongside similar individuals will build a greater sense of camaraderie and community. This will also benefit the classroom teachers who will no longer have to spend their time modifying work for students who are left-handed. And, it will benefit the typical students who have previously faced distraction from their studies due to having students who are left-handed in their classroom doing things differently, needing extra assistance, or working in separate groups from typical students.

To enhance these students’ sense of belonging to the school community, we will begin the steps necessary to put together resources to provide activities like sports teams and cheerleading squads for students who are left-handed. We are very excited to announce our first planned event will be a prom, next Spring, only for students who are left-handed!

We are committed to increasing our efforts in early identification of students who are left-handed. Early identification of students who are left-handed will help us provide necessary services that will help increase success of students who are left-handed in a specialized functional curriculum, to give them the best chance of adapting to life after school in a workplace and world dominated by right-handed individuals.

Okay, does all that stuff above seem really stupid?  Yes?  Good.  Now, take out the phrase “Students who are left-handed” and replace it with “students who have Autism” or “Downs Syndrome”or “students who are deaf” or “blind” or any other label we place on students. Why would we think that removing those people from the presence of their peers in classrooms is any more helpful, or any less discriminatory, then doing so with students who are left-handed, or green eyed, or of a particular race?

Just include.