Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When Is An Accommodation a "Crutch?"

QUESTION:  Is it appropriate to use a scribe for high stakes testing for kids with dyslexia and kids on the autism spectrem who cannot concentrate well?
Here are my thoughts on accommodations on school work and on tests, in general:
What does the assignment or test purport to measure? Accommodations are intended to "level the playing field" for kids with disabilities. If an accommodation changes the fundamental purpose of what the testing is intended to reveal, it is no longer an accommodation. It is a crutch and does not serve the purpose of preparing the child for "further education, employment, and independent living."
A child may need a scribe because of muscle weakness or fatigue that interferes with the actual act of writing. In that case, a scribe is an appropriate accommodation. However, it is not appropriate for a school to provide a scribe to a child who is unable to write properly because of a lack of instruction to remediate dyslexia or other learning disability. That child needs specialized reading, spelling, and writing instruction. The scribe, in that example is not an accommodation but a crutch.
An "accommodation" that expects less of a student than for students without disabilities is not an "accommodation." For example, when a teacher assigns first grade work to a fourth grade student as an "accommodation" has lowered the bar for that student. As long as the "accommodation" is temporary, and the teacher is also providing specialized instruction, that might be appropriate. 
But it is not appropriate to assign a scribe for a student who cannot perform at grade level on the writing portion of a test because the test score will be reduced due to spelling or reading errors. The scribe is simply covering up an area that requires more special instruction. The student may score at grade level, but the student is not really doing the work; the scribe is doing the work. This gives students and parents a false sense of complacency, each believing the student is performing better then s/he really is.
I am much more an advocate for technology than accommodations. Technology follows the student throughout his/her life. Does the student really want a scribe following him/her throughout further education, employment, and independent living? (Is living really independent if the student needs a scribe as an adult?)
Can the student do the written part of the test on a computer without spell or grammer check? That tests what the student can or cannot do. That type of information actually helps a student, because then we KNOW the student needs specialized instruction.
We continue to have kids "graduating" from high school (with dyslexia and other learning disabilities), with normal or above normal IQs, who cannot read, write, or do math. This is mainly because schools are happy to provide "accommodations" and loath to provide specialized instruction to students with disabilities. While it may seem "kinder" to students to give them copious accommodations, unless they learn to read, write, and do math at a functional level, we have not really done them any favors.
The intent should be to provide accommodations for kids with a normal IQ and a learning disability to get them by while they are being taught to read, write, and do math. Once that is accomplished, then they will no longer need accommodations.
As for students on the autism spectrum, I would ask, what is the purpose of providing a scribe? How would a scribe assist a student with autism? Isn't there some other means of allowing the student to provide proof of mastery of the skill being tested? How does providing a scribe prepare the student with autism for "further education, employment, and independent living?"
There's got to be a better way than continually lowering the bar on a test to such a level that anyone could pass as long as they have aposable thumb.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The William & Mary Law Clinic's Institute of Special Education Advocacy

Well, it is over until next July. The first class of the W&M ISEA graduated yesterday, benefiting from the teaching of the best experts in the United States, Pete and Pam Wright, Mark Kamleiter, Jim Comstock-Galagan, Harry Gewanter, Kayla Bower, Bill Hurd, Tom Coe, Joy Turner, Bill Reichardt, and Lori Kornek. If you don't know who these folks are, you are missing several essential tools in your special education advocacy toolbox. The W&M ISEA is held at the W&M Law School Campus in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Especially interesting was being able to hear the school attorney's perspective of Jason Ballum of Smith Reed, who was expectedly unflappable in the midst of this group of advocates who did not fear questioning him about how to better advocate with school districts. I thank Jason for being willing to help the W&M ISEA participants learn how to be more professional in their advocacy efforts. I explained to Jason that now, perhaps, he better understands how parents feel when they walk into the IEP room filled with school staff.

Congratulations to all of this year's graduates. I enjoyed meeting you and teaching you some of the finer points of preparing for IEP meetings. I look forward to networking with you all in the future and sharing advocacy tips. Go forth into the world, teach others, and advocate professionally.

Next year's ISEA is set for the week of July 23, 2012 and will include an advanced track for parent attorneys held simultaneously with the advocate track. This will be a great way to network with parent attorneys and learn what they expect from advocates.

Watch the Wrightslaw website for further details and when registration comes online, do not wait. The 2011 session sold out within two weeks and the ISEA's popularity is expected to increase and slots are limited.

Monday, July 18, 2011

New: Special Education Lay Advocate Training

August 9-12, 2011: Williamsburg, VA - The William & Mary Law Institute of Special Education Advocacy is a four-day training program in special education advocacy hosted by the William & Mary School of Law, and co-sponsored by the PELE Special Education Advocacy Clinic, Wrightslaw, and The Oklahoma Disability Law Center. Attendance is limited to 20. Attendees will be selected by an application process. Click here for the application. Cost: $495. Pat is delighted to be a member of the faculty for this training.

Pat will be training on Friday on the topics of Preparing Parents for Meetings and Client Management.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Robert Crabtree: Do's and Don'ts for Teacher-Advocates (Part Two)

Massachusetts attorney, Bob Crabtree has written another great article for the newsletter of Massachusetts' Parent Information and Training Program, the Federation for Children with Special Needs. In the FCSN's newsletter, Newsline, Bob continued his great article on how Teacher-Advocates can act in the best interest of their students yet protect their important positions. You can access this article at: You can subscribe to the e-version of this excellent newsletter by clicking here.

Here is a summary of Bob's hints in his latest article:

1. Always maintain a professional demeanor.
2. Know your student.
4. Teach by the book!
5. Communicate directly and honestly.
6. Team up with similarly minded professionals.
7. When working with administrators assume a common goal.
8. Be understanding about anxious parents.

Be sure to read the entire article. Bob gives much more information than this short summary I have provided.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Special Education "Labels" Should Mean Little to Parents

Another parent has emailed me with a common concern. She wants the school to assign her child a different "label" (i.e., eligibility category). May parents and school folks are confused about the reason that schools use "labels". It is a common misconception that the "label" drives the services and/or the placement (i.e., the program into which the school places the child).

IDEA specifically says that a child does not have to have any type of "label" in order to receive services.

We answer this question over and over in our Wrightslaw Seminars.

Further, I cannot say it any better than Pete and Pam Wright say it in their blog:

"The law is clear that if a child has a disability, and the disability adversely affects educational performance, then the child is entitled to services under IDEA 2004 and entitled to an IEP.

The law also says that child does not even need to have a label to be eligible for those services." Wrightslaw Blog, 8-19-2010.

A school is required to use labels in order to report to the state and federal government and for it to receive its funding for students eligible under state and federal special education standards. That's all.

The Commentary also addresses this in several places: " ... each child's educational placement must be determined on a individual case-by-case basis depending on each child's unique educational needs and circumstances, rather than by the child's category of disability, and must be based on the child's IEP. FR 46586,

In all cases, placement decisions must be individually determined on the basis of each child's abilities and needs and each child's IEP, and not solely on factors such as category of disability, severity of disability, availability of special education and related services, configuration of the service delivery system, availability of space, or administrative convenience. FR 46588

Services must meet the child's needs and cannot be determined by the child's eligibility category. FR 46655

The Act does not require children to be identified with a particular disability category for purposes of the delivery of special education and related services. In other words, while the Act requires the the Department collect aggregate data on children's disabilities, it does not require that particular children be labeled with particular disabilities for purposes of service deliver, since a child's entitlement under the Act is to FAPE and not to a particular disability label. FR 46737

The U.S. Department of Education and IDEA make it clear. Schools must not use labels to limit a child to specific services, programs or placements. If your school tells you different, it is confused about the requirements.

You may access the Commentary here:

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Delphi and Alinkski Techniques

Have you attended an IEP  meeting lately where it seemed like there was a hidden agenda and you weren't told what it was? You must read up on the Delphi and Alinski Techniques and learn how to diffuse them. This technique is being used frequently to achieve consensus at IEP meetings and at community meetings that are used to set school board policy. If you do not understand how these are used to achieve "consensus" - i.e. make everyone agree on a hidden agenda - you may not fully understand why IEP meetings do not go the way you intend them to go.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wrightslaw Seminar in Cincinnati on Saturday

I will be attending the Wrightslaw Seminar this Saturday. If you are there, please be sure to look me up and say, "Hello." If you have not planned to attend, I believe there are still openings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guest Column in Lafayette Journal & Courier

My guest column, titled, "The Blame Game" was printed in this morning's Lafayette (IN) Journal and Courier. The full, text is below, complete with research links which were largly omitted from the column.

Why do children continue to fail in school despite being repeatedly tested? According to schools, children fail because they do not want to learn or their parents do not care. Typical school culture is to first, blame the child, and then blame the parent.

Dr. Galen Alessi, Psychology Professor at Western Michigan University researched this phenomenon by asking 5,000 school psychologists why children have learning and behavior problems. Not one psychologist mentioned inappropriate curriculum, ineffective teaching, or ineffective school management practices as a factor for student failure. Psychologists blamed parent and home factors 10-20 percent of the time and child factors 100 percent of the time.

Common sense tells us that it cannot always be the fault of the parent and the student.

Most five-year-olds are excited about starting school. We need to find out why that excitement wanes and dies.

Schools always treat parents as outsiders in educational decision-making. It’s okay for parents make copies, file records, and raise funds, but a parent who offers methodology suggestions is labeled a “helicopter” parent at best, a “nutcase” at worst and told to leave this to the experts.

We never hear about parents who spend hours helping their child or who pay expensive tutors, only to see their child fail. Nor do we hear about parents who go to school unsuccessfully begging for help for their child.

Some parents never learn they have a right to have the school test their child for conditions that interfere with learning. Children placed in special education programs may spend their entire school career there without learning to read. They were either identified too late, after the window of opportunity had closed, or, they received “accommodations,” not appropriate reading instruction. Instead of learning to read, their assignments and tests were read to them. They are unprepared for further education, employment, and independent living.

According to the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR), schools can identify children with reading disorders in preschool or kindergarten. Serious reading difficulties are preventable with the right kind of intensive instruction provided early in a child’s development. That window of opportunity closes early. After first grade, a student can still improve. However, those who do not receive early powerful interventions will always perform poorly on phonemic decoding, reading fluency, and spelling. They will never be able to close the gap.

Alessi, Galen. (1988) Diagnosis Diagnosed: A Systemic Reaction. Professional School Psychology, 3: 145-151

Torgesen, J.K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C.A., Rose, E., Lindamood, P., Conway, T. , & Garvin, C. (1999). Preventing reading failure in young children with phonological processing disabilities: Group and individual responses to instruction. Journal of Educational Psycholog, 91, 579-593.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Great Advocate Is Gone

It is with sadness I must report that the special education community has lost a great advocate. Dee Alpert, New York, New York, passed away suddenly yesterday. I will miss her to-the-point posts on the COPAA (Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, List Serve. The entire special education community will miss her wonderful advocacy efforts. Dee was publisher of the Special Education Muckraker.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Legal Advice for Teachers Who Advocate

I frequently receive emails from teachers who want to advocate for their special needs students, but are reluctant to do so. They fear retaliation and for their jobs. Robert K. Crabtree provides excellent advice for these teachers here: