Making Special Education Actually Work
USDOE Preserves the IDEA

USDOE Preserves the IDEA

May 1, 2020


It’s now official: There will be no waivers of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during any time of sheltering-in-place and resultant school closures. Thanks to the efforts of many people, most notably the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA), a national non-profit professional and volunteer organization of advocates and attorneys, working with the United States Department of Education, (USDOE), Secretary Betsy De Vos determined that no part of the IDEA should be waived at this time.


This is important because it’s no secret that most students, just in general, are going to regress in their learning because of the sudden school closures, putting them behind relative to the grade-level standards. Special education students are even more vulnerable to regression, but only special education students have a legal right to assert demands for compensatory education to make up for regression.


This suddenly creates inequity in favor of the special education students with respect to compensatory education, when is an unexpected turnabout. It's usually the other way around that the general education students have advantages over the special education students. What was originally meant to level the playing field for kids with special needs has now become an unfair advantage over the general education students with no enforceable right to compensatory education. That's something that needs to be addressed and rectified.


The degree to which a court may reduce the amount of compensatory education due to a special education student in light of the need for sheltering in place remains to be seen. In my lay opinion, there is an obvious need for some leniency. None of this was within any public education agency’s control and its commendable how so many educators stepped up their game during this crisis and continue to give us their best.


There is no way I could possibly diminish from that. It moves me in my heart and gives me faith that we can all somehow pull it together for all of our students, regardless of how each of them learns, if we all just collectively put forth the effort.


There is also the matter of the “snapshot rule.” In special education litigation, it is commonly known among attorneys and paralegals that an IEP cannot be judged with the benefit of hindsight. It has to be judged according to what was known or should have been known during the time at issue. This requires the trier of fact to look at the period at issue as a “snapshot” of what was known or should have been known during that time.


Given the unprecedented unique nature of the sudden school closures, and the pre-existing lack of a contingency plan in the event of something like it, what was known or should have been known by public school officials will require an unprecedented degree of scrutiny. This is because unforgivable errors are being, and will continue to be, hidden among the forgivable ones, and a few bad apples are already seeking to exploit the situation to get away with things for which they would otherwise normally be more likely to get caught.


So, how the law will be applied to the facts in the months and years to come ahead is something only time will tell. Given how conservative our Supreme Court has become, there is still cause for concern as to how the law will be enforced. The innovations that are happening around the country in response to campus closures are inspiring and shaping our understanding of what is realistically practicable.


This is important because the federal regulations require the public schools to deliver special education according to the peer-reviewed science to the degree that it is practicable to do so. Those who are innovating in public education, right now, are establishing the education community’s professional standards with respect to practicability in many regards.


In the effort to determine what was reasonable, given what was known or should have been known in light of the evidence, the innovations being reported around the country by clever educators should have shown up in the research of any educator searching the internet for solutions. This goes to what should have been known.


I am the last person to advocate for litigation unless there is just no other way to resolve the problem. I’m thinking about these things from a preventative standpoint, considering the consequences of what will happen if IEP teams don’t work together to figure things out, now. I am trying to think ahead and consider what can be done to prevent worst-case scenarios.


My motivation is envisioning what the worst-case scenarios would look like. That prompts me to consider what would have to go wrong to arrive at those outcomes, then backwards-chain the process to basically reverse engineer it and come up with preventative strategies that will hopefully steer things in a better direction. So, I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, here.


I am happy to celebrate the champions in all of this, but we still have a lot of work to do. Everything we do right now to prevent regression will be heartache we spare everyone in the near future when school starts back up, again, in the Fall. I want to encourage everyone impacted by school closures to do everything they can to prevent educational regression in their students.


The generational Cohort Effect of this pandemic will be something that affects our species for generations to come. How history remembers our responses to these sudden changes in our world depends on our collective decisions in the present.


We're going to have children who have lived in trauma for one reason or another throughout this period who will be re-entering our school system in need of supports that they would have not otherwise needed. Our kids already in the special education system are going to have more demanding needs upon their return. The more wisdom we can exercise today, the less regret we will have tomorrow.

What About Kids with FAPE Claims that Pre-Date Quarantine?

What About Kids with FAPE Claims that Pre-Date Quarantine?

April 6, 2020



As much as special education in general is all up in the air in most quarantined school districts, with unlawful conduct being perpetrated by school officials who have never believed in the IDEA seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of its obligations while still collecting federal special education dollars, there is a subpopulation within special education that is even more affected by this than others. That subpopulation is made up of the students whose educational and civil rights were already being violated by their local education agencies (LEAs) prior to the quarantine.


There is huge debate going on right now about Betsy DeVos, the Trump Administration's appointed Secretary of Education, and the waiver power she does and does not have under the law to exempt school districts from delivering a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. Congress has now asked her to testify as to what parts of the IDEA she thinks needs to be waived and we don't know how it will vote on the matter.


More and more comes out on this topic each day. The Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA), the national nonprofit professional organization that advocates and, where necessary, litigates on a national level on topics like these has published its own policy statement about the current situation, which can be found on the COPAA website.


Currently, there are no waivers of the IDEA in place. The only exemption right now is that LEAs that are not providing distance learning options to their general education students don't have to provide education to their special education students, either. Until there are actual Congressionally approved waivers, nothing has changed with respect to implementing the IDEA for those special education students served by LEAs that are currently providing distance learning to their general education students.


Nonetheless, I have four families with students in one particular school district that is currently providing distance learning to its general education students and something half-baked in terms of online options for its special education students. All four of these families received generic Prior Written Notices (PWNs) over this last weekend advising that it's impossible to implement IEPs under the current circumstances, even though it very often is possible and the administrator sending these things out has a decades-long history of throwing money at lawyers to defend her decisions instead of actual services for students. Three of those families already have due process cases filed or about to be filed.


Just like everything in special education, PWNs are supposed to be individualized to each student, but she sent the same PWN to the families of everybody in her district in special education, telling them all that implementing their IEPs under the circumstances is impossible with no examination of each student's unique, individual situations. She may have finally dug herself into a hole that she can't get back out of.


This administrator made unilateral decisions on behalf of her district outside of the IEP process during a time when the IDEA has not been waived in any kind of way, in part or in whole. It's a systemic violation of the law memorialized in writing on district letterhead to the family of every special education student in her district. She may have well just created a class action lawsuit against her employer.


Children with disabilities from low-income, single parent, immigrant, and non-white households were already getting the short end of the stick when it comes to special education. Being white and affluent doesn't necessarily protect you, but it does increase your odds of avoiding at least some FAPE violations.


That said, the aforementioned administrator sending out PWNs that break the law on her employer's behalf worked most of her career for an affluent school district where the only way to get a decent IEP was to sue the crap out of her district. Her department would play to the egos of affluent parents and tell them special education was a welfare service and they would be better off privately paying for services, thereby collecting federal IDEA dollars without actually having to spend them on services.


Now she's working for a district in an economically depressed community with a largely Latino population and is preying on low-income, non-English speaking, families of color. Maybe she thinks they aren't going to stand up to her taking advantage of the pandemic to bring in IDEA dollars without having to deliver on IDEA obligations. She's wrong.


I already had cases that were pending due process on my caseload when this pandemic hit. The students involved in those cases were already being under-served, if served at all, and now they're sitting at home with even more nothing. One student's parent has an elderly parent in a nursing home she can't visit and is working from home (or at least trying to) while her adult autistic child who is still eligible for special education has one meltdown after another because of the sudden disruption in routine and her inability to go out and do anything (trips into the community were being used as reinforcers as part of her behavior program, as well as community-based instructional opportunities, before all of this hit).


This parent is understandably furious. All that she's gotten so far from her daughter's teachers is a useless Google classroom link that takes her to a page full of nothing to do with her daughter's IEP goals. And, while her daughter's IEP makes clear that she requires "highly trained staff" to meet her goals, all she's got right now is her frustrated mom and useless downloaded worksheets that her mother doesn't know how to teach to her and she doesn't know how to complete. There is no support from the teaching staffs to help this parent engage her daughter in the distance learning option, such as it is, that they've been given.


This student is from the same district mentioned above that is sending unlawful F-You letters on PWN forms to its special education families. I have three other students in this district, two of them already with litigation pending for violations that occurred before the quarantine. They were already being denied a FAPE before quarantine, and they sure as hell aren't getting a FAPE now.


I've already written about the impact of the quarantine on special education before to some extent, but I want to hammer a particular point once again: Many special education students are at risk of significant regression, which is the loss of previously learned knowledge and skills, during lengthy breaks from instruction. These students are eligible for Extended School Year (ESY) services for this very reason; summer breaks, and sometimes winter breaks, are just too long for them to go without services or they have to make up for lost ground once they return to school, which makes them unavailable for learning anything new.


The impact of the current situation on these students in particular stands to compound an already egregious denial of FAPE. If they were already being denied a FAPE before this all happened, additional regression on top of that will create deficits that will never be overcome.


As of right now, no IDEA waivers have been permitted. Congress is waiting for Mrs. DeVos to tell it what waivers she wants to push through in response to the pandemic and mass quarantines. There is significant fear that the waivers Mrs. DeVos will request will include exemptions from implementing all or part of the IDEA.


The consequences to students if Mrs. DeVos is successful in getting IDEA waivers are obvious. What is not quite so obvious is what becomes of federal special education dollars to school districts if she manages to get any or all of the IDEA waived. While some school districts may be ready to embrace reduced duty and accountability, do they realize that IDEA dollars are tied to complying with the law? Does Mrs. DeVos intend to use IDEA waivers to not only reduce accountability for the public schools, but to also reduce their special education funding? How many school districts are willing to walk away from special education dollars in order to get out of having to implement IEPs?


Parents of children with disabilities, their extended families, their friends, and any taxpayers who otherwise get it need to act on this right now. You need to reach out to your representatives in Congress to tell them that any IDEA waivers are unacceptable. There is a way to deliver a FAPE to most special education students right now; it just takes cleverness and ingenuity, things most government agencies are not particularly known for. Clever problem-solving is generally unaccepted in institutions built on political corruption.


So, here's your call to action: Contact your Congressional representatives and tell them that no IDEA waivers are acceptable or necessary. Look up your Senators here, and your Representatives here. You can also use our easy-to-use form letter generator or sign our online petition. If you are listening to this as a podcast rather than reading it as a blog, you can find the links in the text-only portion of this post.


It shouldn't be necessary to have to fight to keep civil and educational rights in place for our nation's children, but it is. Many LEAs are pushing compulsory education laws by threatening families with truancy proceedings if they don't participate in distance learning options, but then are looking for any and all excuses to not actually deliver a real education, particularly to their special education students.


These distance learning options are all about keeping those Average Daily Attendance dollars coming in, I assure you. LEAs can't live without that money and its based on attendance, which is why they are threatening to criminally prosecute parents who don't implement their half-assed distance learning options for truancy. But, to actually deliver a real education in exchange for those dollars seems too much to ask, and it's a thousand times worse for students with special needs.


It may quickly become the case that the only way for families of special education students to protect themselves against unjustified truancy charges, which are tried by local superior court judges who know nothing about how special education is actually supposed to be delivered, is to file for due process and make the record that the education being offered to those special education students during quarantine is inappropriate to their needs and they are unable to access learning as a result.


Parents should not feel forced to make their kids do something that will not help or just make things worse out of fear of being criminally prosecuted for truancy if they don't. The sad reality, however, is that so long as they log or call in every day to whatever distance learning platform has been made available to them, even if their kids aren't learning anything, they will not be prosecuted for truancy because those logs will be used as proof of attendance so schools can get their Average Daily Attendance dollars. That still does nothing to ensure their receipt of a FAPE, though.


Now is the time to reach out to advocates and attorneys if your child with special education needs isn't getting appropriate instruction and related services while sheltering in place. You can find people to help you by searching online for “special education advocates near me” and “special education attorneys near me.”


Just be careful of the con artists out there, though. There are lawyers who will claim to represent families but then cut backroom deals with the attorneys representing the LEAs in which they convince the family to sign settlement agreements that short-changes their kids and eliminates their claims against the LEAs. There are also lay advocates who mean well, but don't know the applicable science or law.


You should be leery of lawyers who have been in practice for years but have no litigation history. If they could actually litigate, they'd do it. But, if they can't, they'll get a few thousands dollars in fees for selling out their clients via backroom deals cut with school district lawyers and administrators. There are sleazy people on both sides, so parents do have to be choosy about who represents them.


Your state should have some kind of online database of due process decisions that you can search by an attorney's name. If no due process decisions come up with that attorney's name, and they've been in practice for years, that's a red flag. If you search the decisions by attorney name and the results produce only cases that the attorney has lost, that's another kind of red flag.


The good lawyers' caseloads already get impacted by this time of the school year, but this situation just takes it to a whole different level, so parents should find someone fast if they think they even might need the help. One source that helps parents find advocates and attorneys is COPAA. It has guidelines to parents for choosing a special education attorney and/or advocate, as well as a searchable directory of COPAA members by location.


You will note that I am not listed. I am not a COPAA member and with good reason. As much as I appreciate what COPAA does on a national level, particularly with respect to its amicus briefs, it has no membership options for paralegals. This isn't about bashing COPAA because there are things about it that I genuinely love, but there's also things about it that I find wholly unacceptable.


I'm speaking to my truth, not disparaging an organization that I am, here, deliberately telling parents they should check out as a valuable resource. My issues with COPAA are mine, but I'm sharing them here for the benefit of those who search the database I've referred them to, don't find me on it, and wonder why.


If I go to the COPAA conferences, I can only attend the workshops for parents and other advocates, where I spend the whole time either biting my tongue or correcting the presenters because they're disseminating misinformation, and I never learn anything I didn't already know. I'm not allowed to attend any of the attorney sessions, even though I totally could use the MCLEs for my paralegal status.


I can't even subscribe to the COPAA listserv for attorneys, even when it contains information that would benefit my supervising attorneys for me to have access to it. My supervising attorneys are not even allowed to share it with me, even if it pertains to a task they are delegating to me. Until COPAA makes a space for me and people who work in the profession as I do, I can't justify the expense of a COPAA membership or its conferences.


Besides, when I've gone to the conferences, I've walked through the tables and booths between sessions and, every year, there sits a table set up by a non-public school that broke one of my student's arms during an unlawful restraint several years ago. When this issue was raised with COPAA the first time I saw this bunch at a conference, they ignored my supervising attorney on that case and continued to take money from these child abusers for the table space each year after that. I'm not okay with that.


Given the poor instruction options available to me at the COPAA conferences, the presence of known child abusers at the conferences, and the overwhelming evidence I've observed that far too many people only attend it so they can drink to excess and cheat on their spouses for a week, I don't find the COPAA conferences worth the thousands of dollars in fees, hotel and travel costs, and lost billable time to be worth it. Plus, they hold it in the middle of the busiest time of the school year, which makes no sense at all. I've always got way too much work happening when the conferences are held to attend, anyway.


So, while I don't have a high opinion of the COPAA conferences, I have a very high opinion of the brilliant legal minds that write COPAA's amicus briefs and I've agreed with every one of them I've ever read 100%. Nothing is perfect and COPAA is a good resource for many. The actual work COPAA does, aside from its annual conferences, is stellar and I can look past the conferences for the sake of the bigger picture, which is legally protecting children with disabilities from educational and civil rights violations.


COPAA has taken on the U.S. Department of Education with bold, accurate words in legal proceedings that make my heart want to burst with pride in our profession. That's what matters to me about what COPAA does. That is, in my opinion, the most important thing COPAA does.


If you are looking for an attorney or advocate, the COPAA membership directory can be a good resource for many parents. Just know that there are a lot of other professionals out there who are really good at their jobs who are not members, there are members who aren't that good at their jobs, and there a non-members who haven't signed up because they're crooked and don't want to get caught by those of us who are doing this work for the right reasons. Like everything else in life, it's a mixed bag.


Being on the COPAA membership directory doesn't automatically mean someone is good and not being on it doesn't mean someone is bad. It's just a list of people who work in this field and pay membership fees to COPAA, but it's the only national directory of advocates and attorneys that I know of and it's foolish to not regard it as a valuable resource. Just take it for what it is and don't think that hiring a COPAA member automatically means you don't have to put much thought into it.


As I stated before, the membership directory page includes links to COPAA's guidelines for finding a qualified attorney or advocate, which is pretty sound advice. Regardless of whether an advocate or attorney is a COPAA member or not, COPAA's guidance as to how to vet attorneys and advocates is still good.


If you are the parent of a child with special needs who is not receiving a FAPE while in quarantine and your LEA is providing alternative learning options to its general education students, as of the time of this writing, there are no waivers of any part of the IDEA and it is still fully in force. This isn't about kicking your LEA while it's down; this is about protecting your child from being kicked by his/her LEA while your child is down. LEAs have millions apiece of taxpayer dollars intended to pay for the education of our children and that damn sure better be what it's spent on, regardless of the situation.


Students who were already being denied a FAPE before the pandemic are now further compromised. How this is going to play out in litigation remains to be seen. If the rule of law is followed, there are no exceptions to providing a FAPE right now. Any FAPE violations that were already going on before quarantine have not been made better by it and families in those situations very likely need to consult with a qualified special education attorney sooner rather than later, if they haven't already.


This is a difficult time for everyone, but the true measure of a society's health is how well it takes care of its most vulnerable members during times of crisis. While some fascist LEA administrators may see this as an opportunity to finally carry out their bigoted agendas and terminate special education like they've been wanting to since 1975, those of us who still prefer democracy to fascism have to stand up and enforce the laws that have been part of the fabric of our country for the last 45 years.


As soon as one civil rights law falls, all the rest of them fall, the tenuous thread that our democracy is holding onto right now will snap, and we will find ourselves suddenly living in a real oligarchic regime. The moment it becomes okay to violate the civil and educational rights of children with disabilities, it will become okay to violate everyone else's rights, too. Every protected class – women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income families, single-parent households, etc. – will lose rights one by one thereafter until no one has freedom anymore, except the wealthy oligarchs.


While I am focused on the individual needs of the children and families involved, I can't help but appreciate the over-arching ramifications for democracy at large. We protect everyone's rights, or we protect no one's. True democracy means everyone is equal, including special education students.


And, regardless of whether IDEA waivers get approved, no one is contemplating waivers of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the IDEA is no longer enforceable, those laws still are and Betsy DeVos has no control over them. So, if she manages to get IDEA waivers passed by Congress, families will still have recourse under 504 and the ADA, which can have harsher ramifications than the IDEA on LEAs.


The IDEA diminishes “equal access to education” but expects no expense to be spared in the pursuit of that watered down version of equal access; the ADA says “equal access” must be 100% equal, unless it creates an undue burden on the responsible party, which it has to prove. We've not had civil rights litigation under 504 or the ADA since either of them passed that sets a precedent for what we're dealing with right now, but I can promise you that what special education students are getting at home during quarantine doesn't come close to equal access to education as that being given to their non-disabled peers.


These are uncharted waters and only time will tell how this is going to play out, but it's up to those of us who do this work and the families we serve to do everything we can to protect our children with special needs. Please contact your Senators and Representatives, tell them that no IDEA waivers should be granted, and let's all keep the pressure on until we have an answer. In the meantime, nothing has changed and the law is still enforceable, so we need to enforce it.


While many courts have moved to a work-from-home model (I recently watched a federal court trial in which Google was accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban that allowed me to see into the homes of three federal court judges and the Plaintiffs' attorney), some state special education hearing offices have closed down, ceased operations except to issue continuances and stays, and are accruing a backlog during quarantine that is going to explode with new cases from all the FAPE claims arising from school district misconduct currently going on. Parents may need to use this time to find an attorney, start organizing their evidence, and file to preserve their timelines, even if they aren't going to get in front of a judge right away.


For families that were already facing due process before the quarantine, if their states are operating their complaints and due process hearings according to a work-from-home model, which Texas is doing, then there should be some kind of mitigation in place to prevent that huge of a backlog. If three federal court judges on a panel can hold a trial to determine if Google was complicit in the Taliban's use of its technologies to engage in acts of terrorism from their homes, special education due process cases can be tried the same way.


If you have a due process case that was pending before the quarantine, then you've likely already been communicating with your attorney about what is going on. If you haven't, yet, do it now. You need your attorney looking into what due process mechanisms remain intact in your state and what the procedures currently are. Any competent attorney will have already done this, but may be so overwhelmed by the sudden explosion of casework that is starting to happen that they haven't had a chance to talk with you about it, yet. Don't overwhelm them by stalker dialing ever 5 minutes, but do reach out and make an appointment to discuss how all of this impacts your case.


There is never a good time to participate in litigation. For most parents, "litigation" and "good time" generally don't go together. But, this is definitely a worse time to be pursuing due process in a system that was already glutted with cases. The sooner you act, the better.

How Parents Can Help Promote the Application of Peer-Reviewed Research to Special Education

How Parents Can Help Promote the Application of Peer-Reviewed Research to Special Education

December 31, 2019
Image credit: Elco van Staveren


Special education is heavily regulated to protect the rights of eligible students to individualized educational planning, but complying with the regulations is easier said than done. The operational design of most public schools is over 150 years old and based on the mass production mentality of a factory, having been created during the Industrial Revolution. By contrast, the applicable special education laws were first passed in the 1970s, accounting for only the last 1/3rd of the current American public education system's history.


Trying to implement the individualized educational planning called for by special education law in an environment created for the purpose of mass instruction is like trying to build a custom piece of furniture on a moving assembly line. In the early days of special education, this meant removing students from the general education setting to special education classes, effectively choosing to build a custom piece of furniture in a specialized workshop rather than on the pre-existing assembly line.


The problem, however, is that pieces of furniture do not have civil rights. It's one thing to segregate inanimate objects according to how they are constructed. It's another thing to segregate human beings according to whether they need changes in how they are instructed due to disability.


Because special education students have legal protections against being segregated out of the general education setting simply for having a disability, integrating individualized educational planning into a mass instruction environment becomes that much more complicated for special education students who are educated with their general education peers for all or part of their school days. The complexities of individualizing educational programs for each student are seemingly infinite, given all of the relevant disability-specific considerations plus all of the ecological factors involved in each instructional setting.


However, science - specifically research conducted by educational psychologists and their colleagues - has been attempting to keep up with the demands created by various types of unique student needs, including disabilities of all kinds. While it all hasn't been figured out for every situation by any stretch of the imagination, there is still a wealth of information from education research that never makes its way into the classroom, much less into individual IEPs.


That's a problem because Title 34, Code of the Federal Regulations, Section 300.320(a)(4) mandates the application of peer-reviewed research to the design and delivery of special education on an individualized basis, unless it's not practicable to do so. No one has yet defined what "practicable" actually means, so it's still up for debate.


The history of how all this science ended up being codified within the implementing regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has been summarized in our last blog post, "The Fundamental Flow of IEP Creation," so I won't repeat it here. You can review the impact of PARC v. Pennsylvania in that post to inform references to it, here.


The point is that the applicable science has always been written into any serious redress to the educational needs of students with disabilities after having been deprived educational benefits by the public school system. In PARC v. Pennsylvania, a psychologist with extensive experience working with children with intellectual disabilities and an attorney committed to representing the interests of children with intellectual disabilities were jointly appointed by the federal court to serve as special masters to oversee the implementation of appropriate interventions to students with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania's public schools as part of the settlement that was negotiated between the parties. The settlement included federal court oversight by way of the court-appointed special masters.


The historical foundations of the requirements for measurable annual goals in IEPs pursuant to 34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(2) and the application of the peer-reviewed research to the delivery of special education as mentioned previously can be traced directly back to PARC v. Pennsylvania. There has never been a time when the law did not expect the delivery of special education to be informed by anything other than evidence-based practices developed from the peer-reviewed research.


From the moment the first laws were created to provide special education to all eligible children in the United States, science was built into its design. Federal Supreme Court case law has established that Congress expected procedural compliance with the IDEA to all but guarantee compliance with the substantive requirements of the law when it authored and passed what is now the IDEA. Specifically, the case law states, "...the Act's emphasis on procedural safeguards demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with prescribed procedures will in most cases assure much, if not all, of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP." (Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982))


Congress intended for the applicable science to guide the special education process for a number of good reasons. First, using science means using what everybody can agree actually works under a given set of unique circumstances, to the degree such is known. There is evidence - proof - that under the explicit conditions that were tested, a particular method of intervention works or doesn't.


Because every special education student presents as a highly unique individual such that their learning needs do not conform to conventional instruction, they require highly individualized instruction that is tailored to each of them, respectively. There is no one-size-fits-all method of intervention proven to work in special education contexts. What is proven to work is writing up a unique program of instruction for each individual student. That is the evidence-based applicable science, that is the bottom line requirement of the applicable federal law, and this has been known and federally regulated since 1975.


This, therefore, begs the question as to why so much of special education is based on subjective opinions, ballpark estimations (often underestimations), and fad theories about learning rather than science. There's been a lot of research into why the research isn't being promulgated for use in public education and politics has a lot to do with it.


Applying the research means upgrading facilities, retraining teachers and their support staffs, buying new materials, and paying for more specialists. Further, it's often necessary to purchase all of the research materials necessary to inform any kind of evidence-based program design and hire someone who knows how to translate the research into a data-driven educational program. For highly paid top agency administrators who get compensated on the basis of how much money they don't spend rather than how many students they do get educated, applying the research means spending money, and that's no way to get a raise in that kind of institutional culture.


Another concern of many public education agencies is accountability. When using evidence-based practices in the delivery of special education, one can't ignore the body of research that supports that the data collection and analysis methods used in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) are the most reliable methods of data collection and analysis used in any special education context (Drasgow, Yell, & Robinson, 2001; Kimball, 2002; Yell & Drasgow, 2000). The problem for some education agencies is that valid data collection means all their missteps will be captured by the data. If they aren't actually implementing the IEP as written, the data will reflect that, exposing the agency to legal consequences.


People often mistake ABA for a treatment for autism, but this is not the case. It is true that behavioral interventions using ABA can be effective at addressing behavioral challenges with students who have autism, as well as any other human beings with behavioral challenges, but it can also be used as an instructional methodology and as a tool to determine if learning has occurred and, if so, how much. That is, it is excellent at measuring progress towards a clearly defined outcome, such as a measurable annual IEP goal.


The Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) data collection methods used in ABA naturally lend themselves to measuring progress towards IEP goals. This is how it works: a stimulus (Antecedent) is presented to which the student responds with a specific Behavior, which immediately results in an outcome (Consequence) that either increases the likelihood of of the behavior happening again (reinforcement) or it doesn't (absence of reinforcement or punishment).


Most people in special education are at least familiar somewhat with using this approach to dealing with inappropriate behaviors. You don't want to deliver a reinforcing consequence when an inappropriate behavior occurs. Instead, you want to reinforce a more appropriate replacement behavior that still meets the student's needs; the behavior was happening for a reason and you can't leave its function unaddressed or a new behavior will just develop around it. Treat the cause, not the symptom.


You only resort to punishing the undesired behavior when reinforcing the desired behavior is not sufficient at extinguishing the undesired behavior. Presenting reinforcement for doing what is expected and withholding reinforcement for doing what is not expected is usually a pretty powerful strategy for positive behavioral interventions.


When using ABC data collection and analysis on the fly during instruction, your thought process is a little different. When you're looking at whether a student is learning from the instruction you are providing, especially when working with students who have significant impairments that limit their expressive communication skills, sometimes it's the raise of an eyebrow, the turn of a head towards you with eye contact, or the smile or grin that tells you whether or not you're getting through. There is still an Antecedent (the delivery of your instruction and/or check for understanding), a learning Behavior (the student's response to your instruction and/or check for understanding, whether verbal or not), and a Consequence (praise for learning or encouragement for trying) that increases the likelihood that the student will remain engaged and continue to participate in the instruction.


When using ABA-based data collection methods to measure for IEP goals, so long as the goals are written as math word problems based purely on observable learning behaviors, it's pretty straight forward. Take for example this goal, which is purely made up for illustrative purposes: "By [due date], when given 10 calculation problems using multiplication of double digit numbers per trial, [Student] will calculate the 10 problems with at least 80% accuracy per trial in at least 9 of 10 consecutive trails within a semester, as measured by work samples."


This is easy. There are 10 problems per trial. The student needs to get at least 8 out of 10 problems right per trial (measure of accuracy) in at least 9 out of 10 consecutive trials (measure of consistency) within a semester (measure of time) in order to meet the goal. Nothing is left to guesswork. Everything is represented by an increment of measure.


What ruins a goal out of the gate is basing any part of it on internal thoughts and feelings experienced by the student. Never start a goal with language like, "... when feeling anxious or angry ..." or "... when presented with a non-preferred task ..." You can't trigger the onset of measurement based on something you can't observe. You only know what the student is thinking or feeling once they express it in some way.


There is no way to get in front of the student's expression of their thoughts or feelings to prompt their behavior in an appropriate direction because there is no way to know what the student is thinking or feeling before they act. Other people's thoughts and feelings, including those of special education students, cannot be observed or known by other people. No credential in special education imbues special education personnel with clairvoyance. By the time you know what the student is thinking or feeling, it's too late to influence how they act on those thoughts or feelings; you only know because they've already acted.


The same goes for preference. Preference cannot be observed and it can vary from day to day, or even moment to moment, for a lot of special education students. What is preferred at one time will often not be preferred at others. Eventually it is possible to have a good idea of what is not preferred by a student, but then confirmation bias can enter the picture and you see what you expect to see, not realizing you're prompting it according to your preconceived expectations.


What makes more sense is to write goals that do not target what are referred to in ABA as "private events," but rather to expected behaviors. For example, a common behavior targeted in the IEPs of students with challenging behaviors is work refusal, which is to say non-compliance with task demands. A teacher will assign a task and, if the student is non-compliant, they will either passively sit there and just not perform the task; do something else passive instead, like doodle or read a book; engage in distracting or disruptive behavior, like play on their phone or talk to their neighbors; or engage in outburst behaviors, possibly accompanied by leaving the room (eloping).


It's usually pretty easy to figure out if there is a pattern to the types of tasks assigned and when non-compliance occurs such that preference can seem easy to identify. But, trying to rely on that for the purpose of measurement is like trying build a house on shifting sands because someone's preferences can change so quickly.


The language that I see most commonly used in goals that work around the issue of private events reads more or less like this: "By [due date], when assigned a task, [Student] will either initiate the task, ask for help, or request a 2-minute break within 60 seconds of the task being assigned in at least 8 of 10 consecutive opportunities as measured by data collection."


This makes things easy. Regardless of whether the student has a personal preference or not for the task being assigned, they will either start the task, ask for help with the task, or take a short break and get it together before they come back to the task.


Some students have processing speed delays that interfere with their ability to get started right away. They need extra time to process the instructions so they understand what you want them to do. Sometimes that extra little break is all they need to get there independently. It just takes them a little longer to think it through and make sense of what you want from them before they know what to do and can start. Other students get emotionally overwhelmed and just need to go get a grip before they tackle the expectations being placed on them. Yet others take longer to stop one activity and transition to another one. That short little break can buy them the time they need to process the mental shift of set and orient themselves to the new demands being placed on them. Other times, students just don't understand the expectation being placed on them and need clarification.


In any event, if there's a problem, the goal provides a solution; otherwise, the student just needs to perform the task as assigned. Further, the language of this example goal can be modified for a student to provide for alternative acceptable responses and/or a different response time.


With respect to measurability, there is no guessing about what anybody is thinking or feeling in a goal formatted this way. Measurement is triggered by the delivery of a task demand (the assigned task) and is based on whether any of the described acceptable outcomes occur within 60 seconds. All of the elements of the goal are measurable.


Further, a goal written this way follows the ABC format of ABA. First an Antecedent is presented (the task demand), then one of three acceptable Behaviors (task initiation, request for help, request for break) occurs, then an appropriate Consequence (completion of the task, delivery of help, or receipt of a short break) is immediately forthcoming. Everything that needs to be measured can be observed. The observable criteria are easily represented in increments of measure. It's black-and-white without making any assumptions about a student's thoughts, feelings, or preferences.


So, having said all of this, how does this get us to the point of the article, which is how parents can successfully advocate for the application of the peer-reviewed research to the design and implementation of their children's IEPs? Well, first, I needed to be clear as to what I mean by applying the peer-reviewed research, hence everything I just got through explaining.


Parents first need to understand what they are asking for and how it impacts the design and implementation of their child's IEP. Further, any professionals reading this for the purpose of further developing their skill set may not have all the background information necessary to make sense of all of this, either.


A foundation first had to be laid. Having now done that, parents need to keep the information I've just shared in mind when participating in IEP meetings and reviewing IEP documents for appropriateness.


If you live in a consent state like California, I usually suggest signing only for attendance at the meeting and taking the document home for review before signing agreement to any of it. In California and other states, you can give partial consent to an IEP and the education agency has to implement the consented-to portions without delay while the non-consented-to portions remain subject to IEP team discussion and negotiation.


Anything that can't be resolved via the IEP process must go to due process for resolution, whether you are in a consent state or not. Just because you are not in a consent state doesn't mean that an education agency won't change the language of an IEP at your request. An IEP meeting would likely be called to discuss your concerns and, if you back them up with facts and logic, the education agency isn't going to have a good reason to say, "No." Not everyone is outlandishly unreasonable in special education; there are some definite bad apples, but they don't account for the entire barrel. Due process is your only resort if your efforts to resolve things at the IEP level are not met with success and your child is increasingly compromised because of the unresolved matters.


If you are unfortunate enough to have to rely on due process to see things resolved, the fact that your denied requests were supported by facts and logic will only help your case once you get in front of a hearing officer. Understanding the underlying arguments of what makes something legitimately measurable and the federal requirement that special education be delivered according to what science has already proven works makes you a far more informed IEP participant than at least some of the other people at the table.


As a parent, the more you can support your requests and arguments with peer-reviewed research, the better. Once you frame your requests according to the proven science and make it as black-and-white as possible, you eliminate all kinds of silly arguments. This means not only asking for goals that are truly measurable, though that goes a long way towards solving and preventing a lot of problems, but also understanding the nature of your child's disability(ies) and what the research says can be done to teach to learners with such needs.


Gathering the necessary research data to inform a request for a particular assessment, service, curriculum, methodology, technology, or placement requires accessing the peer-reviewed literature and understanding what it means. A lot of it is really dry and technical, as well as expensive. This isn't a burden parents should have to take on, but if it's one that they can take on, it will only help them become better advocates for their children. Google Scholar can be a good place to start.


In truth, it should be education agency personnel doing this research, but if parents want to see the science applied, they may have to push for it, themselves. Parents can also submit published research articles to their local education agencies that appear to apply to their children's educational needs and request that the approaches used on those articles be used as part of their children's special education programs, including being written into their children's IEPs. If the local education agency declines to honor any request, 34 CFR Sec. 300.503 obligates it to provide Prior Written Notice (PWN) explaining why to the parents.


Conversely, if the education agency proposes a particular approach and the parents are unsure about it, the parents can request an explanation of the peer-reviewed research that underpins the education agency's offer. Either it honors the request or it provides PWN explaining why it won't. If it's the latter, it better be one heck of a good explanation or it will only reveal that the education agency has no research-based explanation for its recommended course of action, giving the parents a good reason to dispute it.


If what you are asking for as the parent is backed up by facts, logic, legitimate measurement, and credible research that all directly apply to your child, and the education agency still says, "No," then you will either end up with no PWN because the agency doesn't want to put the denial in writing, which violates the law and only makes your case stronger in hearing, or you will end up with a PWN full of malarkey that won't stand up in due process. If what you are asking for makes total sense and the education agency won't do it or something else equally or more appropriate, the education agency will have some explaining to do in hearing.


So long as what you are asking for is necessary for your child to receive an appropriately ambitious amount of educational benefits (meaning as close to grade level or developmental norms as possible), there's not a lot of good reasons for a public education agency to turn down your request. It's illegal for the public education system to use fiscal considerations to determine what should be in a special education student's IEP.


Just be sure to submit all of your requests for changes to your child's IEP in writing. It is the education agency's receipt of your written request for changes that triggers the PWN requirement. In the instance of requesting assessments, many states allow for a public education agency to decline to conduct assessments for special education purposes upon parent request, but the agency must provide PWN when doing so. For more information on special education assessments, see our previous post, "The Basics of Special Education Assessments."


If it doesn't decline a parent's written request for assessment, the education agency must provide the parent with an assessment plan to sign that authorizes the agency to conduct the requested assessments. State law regulates the provision of assessment plans; in California, local education agencies have 15 calendar days to get an assessment plan to the parent, regardless of who made the referral for assessment. Submitting the request for assessment in writing is not only important for triggering the PWN requirement if the request is declined, it's also important in establishing when a state-mandated timeline starts counting down.


You as a parent can encourage the application of science in special education by insisting upon it. If you live in California or another consent state, you can use your authority to withhold your consent to anything that looks sketchy in an IEP being given to you for your signature. You can consent to instruction in the areas targeted by IEP goals but not to using the language of the goals for the purpose of measuring progress if they aren't actually written in a measurable way. You can consent to everything in an IEP except a change in placement. If you can't resolve all of the issues you have with an IEP this way, those left unresolved become due process issues.


Even if you are not in a consent state, you can still make the record in writing that you disagree with the sketchy portions of your child's IEP, explain why using math and science, and request appropriate changes. The local education agency will likely call an IEP meeting and change those things it's willing to change and give you PWN on those things it is not willing to change. The things left unresolved at that point are due process issues.


Understanding how to use math and science to solve everyday problems is a solid skill to have, but not everybody has it. It's a skill necessary to developing a sound IEP for any special education student. Parent education can be provided as a related service under a student's IEP if the purpose of the parent education is to help the parents understand their child's disability and/or to help them be equal participants of the IEP team. There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents asking to be trained on how to write measurable annual goals and the IEP process in general as part of parent training as a related service under their child's IEP. Parent training is specifically named as one of many possible related services that can be provided to a student with an IEP by 34 CFR Secs. 300.34(a) and 300.34(c)(8)(i)).


If you're distrustful of the quality of instruction you might get from parent training through your child's IEP, you may have to result to self-education by reading everything you can find about your child's disability, as much of the peer-reviewed research about instructing learners with the types of needs your child has as you can digest, and simplified reports of the research findings in trusted publications from credible sources. You may need to periodically consult with experts for hire, but what you invest in informing yourself you may save many times over by preventing yourself from getting duped.


The bottom line is that parents can protect their children's right to evidence-based special education planning and implementation the more they understand how to use measurement and evidence in the planning and implementation processes. By knowing what to look for, they know what request when they don't see it. Informed parents can monitor the situation for education agency compliance.


In those areas where parents have not yet mastered the knowledge necessary to know whether an approach is appropriate for their child or not, they are encouraged to ask questions like, "Can you explain to me how this fits my child?" and "How can we measure whether this works in a meaningful way?" By shifting the burden back onto the education agency to explain how and why its recommendations are supported by the peer-reviewed research and written in an appropriately measurable manner, parents rightly shift the burden of applying the science to the appropriate party.


Parents are not, and should not, be required to become experts in order to participate in the IEP process. But, for the sake of protecting their children's educational and civil rights, and their own rights to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process, it behooves parents to become as knowledgeable as possible. It's more difficult to get tricked or misled the more you know, and the more dry and technical you can keep things, the less hysterical drama you're likely to experience in dealing with your local education agency.




  • Drasgow, E., Yell, M.L., & Robinson, T.R. (2001). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate IEPs. Remedial and Special Education 22(6), 359-373. doi: 10.1177/074193250102200606
  • Kimball, J. (2002). Behavior-analytic instruction for children with autism: Philosophy matters. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(2), 66-75.
  • Yell, M. & Drasgow, E. (2000). Litigating a free appropriate public education: The Lovaas hearings and cases. The Journal of Special Education, 33(4), 205-214. doi: 10.1177/002246690003300403


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