Image credit: Alan Levine
One of the situations I commonly encounter in working with students with special needs and their families in the public education system is a phenomenon that I've come to refer to as "school-hopping." Sometimes, parents who do not understand why their children are struggling assume that the problem is with the school, and, very often, there is a problem at school. But, quite often, the real issue is that the school is responding poorly to a disability-related need experienced by the student, so it's not just that there is something wrong at the school, there's something wrong with how it is responding to a special need that requires unique accommodations.
Put another way, there are two problems to resolve: 1) how to address the student's unique needs in an educationally appropriate and legally compliant way, and 2) how to address the internal problems at the school that are preventing this from happening. Parents will sometimes jump from a charter school to a district-run independent study program to a home-school group to a ... you name it ... trying to find the right fit for their child.
The problem with doing that is, unless a parent knows what specifically to ask any school to do for their child, they're just rolling the dice with every school change and hoping this one will finally be the one that fits. The whole purpose of special education is to impose structure on how education is tailored to each individual student. That way, it shouldn't matter so much where they are so long as the supports and services described by the student's individualized program are being delivered in that setting.
The guidance to the school site personnel as to how to do this comes in the form of a legally enforceable document called an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is created by a team of individuals described by federal law (34 CFR Sec. 300.321) according to specific criteria, also described by federal law (34 CFR Sec. 300.324). What the IEP says it what the responsible public education agency must do for the student for whom it is written.
It doesn't matter how many times a student with special needs changes schools if the IEP that follows them is garbage. Even when a student changes to an entirely different public education agency, the incoming IEP is what informs the new school team as to how to support the newly incoming student with special needs. If the IEP does not describe appropriate supports and services, then the new school is legally obligated to implement the garbage that the IEP describes, instead.
My point, here, is that changing schools under these kinds of conditions tends to just make things worse. Every school change means at least some part of a kid's file, if not the whole thing, gets lost in transit between one public education agency and the next. Assessment reports and old IEPs disappear from the record with frequent moves and school changes, so those items aren't there to inform a records review like they normally would as part of a new assessment conducted by a new education agency.
That makes it very hard for the new school to know where to begin with a new student with special needs. The parents are hoping the new school will somehow magically fix everything but each successive new school gets put further and further at a disadvantage as to where to even begin every time a new change in schools happens and records have to be shuffled around again.
I have yet to figure out why so many people start at the end rather than the beginning when it comes to individualized student planning. Placement - that is, the type of classroom setting(s) in which a special education student receives instruction - is determined by the IEP team as the last matter of properly conducted IEP planning for very important, logical reasons. There are a whole lot of other decisions that have to be made, first, before a placement determination can be made.
IEPs start out with identifying a student's present levels of performance, which seek to answer the questions, "What can the student already do?" and "What does the student still need to be taught relative to the grade-level standards and/or developmental norms?" On the basis of the answers to those two questions, goals are written that target measurable, annual outcomes.
The goals describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen. Until you know that, you don't know what all you need to actually educate the student.
For this reason, the IEP team next determines what services are necessary to see the goals met. On the basis of the frequency, duration, and location of the services necessary to meet the goals, in combination with the student's right to experience the least amount of segregation away from the general education population as possible, educational placement is then determined.
Parents who school-hop interfere with how the federally mandated process is supposed to work, usually without realizing the harm they are doing. Until the IEP describes goals in each area of unique student learning need in meaningfully measurable ways, it doesn't matter where the student goes to school; following a bad IEP in a new, good setting will still go wrong.
That said, I've seen plenty of situations where changing schools, even moving to entirely new school districts, has saved a kid's life. The challenge, though, was to get the IEP as good as we could get it before the student changed schools so the new, receiving school had something worth implementing once the student started attending there.
And, in California, where I do most of my work, whether a special education student moves during the school year or summer break has bearing on what is enforceable in terms of a transfer IEP. This added layer of complexity, which isn't the same in all the other States, makes the timing of everything that much more imperative when it comes to changing to a different school district or charter school. Parents who school-hop in California can do even more harm than they realize because of the odd State laws about transfer IEPs.
What's often more heartbreaking are families that are school-hopping because their child has never been offered an IEP and when they've asked about it, they've been shot down by school personnel who insist that their child would never qualify. In reality, it can be the case that the school personnel are just waiting for the family to pick up and move the student, again, at which point whether or not the student needs an IEP won't be that particular school's problem, anymore. There are unfortunately those in public education who will facilitate eliminating a problem rather than solving it, even if it comes at the expense of a child.
Parents who school-hop can call unnecessary attention to themselves as easily exploited by school staffs who would rather see them move along to the next school than stick around and insist that the current school do its job. At some point, school-hopping parents have to figure out that the school-hopping isn't working and, instead, they need to stand in one spot, dig in their heels, and get a decent IEP from whatever agency is responsible right at that moment. That might mean filing a lawsuit just to get an initial assessment, but if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.
Without a legally enforceable IEP document that describes something worth enforcing, no placement can be made to work. Federal law mandates that the education rendered to a special education student be in conformity with that student's IEP (34 CFR Sec. 300.17). If the IEP is garbage, then the school is legally obligated to implement the garbage until such time as the IEP can be made more appropriate.
As a parent, your number one objective when it comes to advocating for your child with special needs is to make sure that the services and supports provided are actually appropriate to your child's needs. Just having a document that says "IEP" at the top of it doesn't magically bestow educational benefits onto anybody. The contents of the document matter and, as a parent, you need to know how to look out for language in an IEP that could undermine your child and any exclusions of language that are important to meeting your child's needs from the IEP. More harm can be done by what is left out of an IEP than what is put into it.
Once you understand why placement is the last decision that should be made by an IEP team, you can understand why changing placement when things aren't going right doesn't always make sense. Unless you've got an amazing IEP and the people at the school site just aren't implementing it as written, there's a really good chance your problem is with the plan more than the placement.
Plans of any kind fail for only one of two reasons: 1) design flaws, or 2) implementation failures. Design flaws can sometimes only be identified when you try to implement the plan and something goes wrong. If you never implement the plan according to its design, you'll never know if the design was flawed or not because you weren't following it in the first place. If the design is great, but no one is following it, what's the point?
This analysis of plan success and failure came to me by way of my training in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which, by the way, is a science, not a treatment methodology. There are a lot of ABA-based treatment programs out there, but those programs are not what actual ABA is. They are based on ABA, some with more scientific rigor than others. The actual science of ABA can be applied to anything that behaves, including animals, plants, and computers.
From the absolute, parsimonious perspective of ABA as a science, everything is based on objectively identified behaviors, only, which are framed in quantifiable terms and rendered into emotionally neutral pieces of data. Further, not only is data taken on how the individual responds to efforts at changing its behaviors, data is taken on the fidelity with which those implementing the plan are actually adhering to it.
Taking data on the fidelity of the implementation of the program design is one of the most critical pieces of the science that often gets left out of school-based ABA-type programs. It's my assumption that this is for political and/or preemptive legal defense purposes because no school district that I know of wants data taken on the degree to which their staffs are actually adhering to any part of the IEP.
That's way too much accountability on the record and way too much risk of it capturing somebody doing it wrong that could then be used to prove a denial of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in hearing by the parents and achieve an order for compensatory education to make up for the lost instruction. Even though the science is abundantly clear that ABA data collection methods, when followed according to the science, are the most accurate, reliable, and valid data collected in the public education system for special education students (Drasgow, Yell, & Robinson, 2001; Kimball, 2002; Yell & Drasgow, 2000), I have yet to see that degree of scientific rigor applied to any part of a student's IEP in the public schools, whether it's through their measurable annual goals or any behavior plans that their IEP might contain.
As parents, your primary goal has to be the quality of the IEP's design because, if it doesn't describe what your child actually needs, it doesn't matter where you try to implement it and no placement will just magically fall in love with your child and imbue them with knowledge through emotional osmosis. Hope is not a strategy. Pursuing a scientifically informed, legally compliant IEP is a strategy that gives you way more likelihood of having a meaningful say in the quality of your child's education, regardless of where they attend school.
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10883576020170020101
- 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