May was a crazy month for this special education advocate. I was in Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings daily, once even attending three IEP meetings in three different counties in one day. Suffice it to say that I was very tired by the end of the month. While much of the month is now a blur to me, some themes emerged from all of those meetings that I thought might be worth sharing here.
First, at the end of the day, money is the basis of many disputes between parents and school districts. But money rarely, if ever, gets mentioned in IEP meetings since federal and state law prohibit school districts from making decisions about kids based on financial considerations. Kids with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education, regardless of the cost of those “appropriate” services. The truth is, however, that budgetary constraints often affect the process. It’s just a fact of life.
Second, differences in student expectations between parents and school personnel also are a source of contention. I hate to say it, but it is true: parents often have much higher expectations for their children than do teachers and administrators. I suppose that being conservative with expectations serves school teams well in that students are more likely to show progress when goals and objectives are less rigorous. Parents, however, want to push their children so that they can achieve their maximum potential. Parents also often have a better sense for their child’s capabilities and want to see their child truly challenged at school. In any event, these disparities often cause conflict and disagreement at IEP meetings.
Third, despite the mandate under federal law that schools use research-based instructional methodologies when teaching students with disabilities, some school personnel continue to resist it. A primary example of this relates to reading instruction for students with disabilities. Contrary to the assumption held by many, students with disabilities – even many students with intellectual disabilities – can learn to read. Although there are multiple research-based reading curricula available to teach reading to students with disabilities, in my experience, IEP teams often refuse to commit to using one of those programs with a particular student. They will say that they need “flexibility” and the latitude to change their teaching protocol during the school year. This more often than not, however, translates into teachers using non-research-based and less effective instructional strategies. Students should not be cheated out of having access to proven instructional methodologies.
Fourth, preparation and persistence remain the keys to IEP success for parents. A prepared parent will arrive at the IEP meeting with a clear set of objectives for the meeting. They will know what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are, what educational goals their child needs to work on during the upcoming year, and most importantly, they will know what supports and services their child needs. Moreover, they will be prepared to make the case for why those supports and services are appropriate for their child. If they are not successful during the first meeting, they will ask for a second and sometimes even a third meeting. In most situations where the parent is both prepared and persistent, they will achieve the outcome they desire for their child.
Finally, I must say that I continue, year after year, to be amazed by the strength of the families with which I work. As if it weren’t hard enough to tackle the daily grind of raising a child with a disability, having to become your child’s educational advocate adds another layer of difficulty to the experience. Yet the families I work with rise to the challenge again and again. They inspire me, and I consider myself honored to sit alongside them as they advocate for their children’s educational rights.