Adult Quality of Life is the Goal for All Students

By Patricia Wright, PhD, MPH

Standards based educational reform has been moving through the public-school system for decades. There is a strong belief that there are basic academic skills that should be demonstrated by all students and that teacher effectiveness and student achievement can be better assessed if there is a set of standards to guide all educators. However, some students, those described by the federal government as having significant cognitive disabilities, may not be able to achieve these academic standards even with high quality instruction. For these students with significant cognitive disabilities, alternate achievement standards have been adopted in multiple states. These alternate standards are designed for a very small proportion, one percent, of the school-aged population.

IDEA, the guiding legislation for special education, indicates that students with disabilities should have access to the general education curriculum and that they should be educated with their typically developing peers for the greatest extent possible. Students with significant cognitive disabilities are educated primarily in self-contained classroom settings without the benefits of frequent interaction with typically developing peers. There is a call to action for this to change; that ideally all students would be educated in a single educational context. One of the reasons for this call to action is that students enrolled in these segregated settings are not achieving long-term quality of life outcomes such as employment and independent living.

With effective instruction, students with significant cognitive disabilities can learn and make progress. Although it may not be reasonable to assume that students with the most significant disabilities achieve the same outcomes as those without disabilities, it is important that the educational system convey high expectations for all students. When an alternate system is created, it can lead to a sense of hierarchy; that one system (standards for 99% of the student population) is above another (standards for 1% of the student population). There are countless examples of adult success. Whatever the educational environment, there must be an expectation that all students exit high school and enter adulthood as meaningful contributors to society.

Raising the Bar for Students with Disabilities: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

The Supreme Court ruling in the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case is now raising the bar for special education for the first time in decades. The unanimous decision, issued in favor of Endrew on March 22, clearly establishes that “a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year, can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

The ruling came after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on behalf of Endrew F., a child with an autism spectrum disorder and an attention deficit/hyperactive disorder, who received annual Individualized Education Programs in the Douglas County School District in Colorado. According to the case, Endrew’s school never effectively addressed his behavioral issues and as a result, he made little to no progress from year to year. In fifth grade, his parents withdrew him from the school in Douglas County and enrolled him in a private school. They immediately developed a behavioral intervention plan and Endrew has since made significant progress.

This case is important to schools and individuals who serve students with disabilities because it addresses a very grey area in the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The act offers states federal funding to assist in educating children with disabilities. Along with that funding, states must comply with statutory requirements that obligate them to provide every child a “free appropriate public education.” Until now, that level of education was interpreted by a 1982, Board of Education v. Rowley case, in which the Supreme Court determined that free appropriate education meant states only had to provide “some educational benefit” to students with disabilities who meet grade-level expectations.

Today, that thought process has changed. The Supreme Court’s ruling is sending a message that it is necessary for schools across the country to help students progress, no matter their challenges. Quality instruction and intervention is the expectation for students with disabilities and therefore, we cannot ignore or dismiss the need for IEPs and interventions to be reasonably calculated to ensure children make progress in light of their circumstances or disabilities.

Over time, we’ve seen that students with disabilities can and do learn with quality programming. With the right support, they can also make progress throughout their educational career and integrate into society by acquiring jobs and living meaningful adult lives. One of the growing expectations to accomplish this in special education is the need to utilize evidence-based practices. Endrew was placed at a school that utilized Applied Behavior Analysis as the basis of its intervention practice. ABA is a well-established evidence-based practice in education. For students to have the greatest opportunity to succeed, their educational plan or program must be proven effective. Rethink is committed to all children and educators having access to the professional development tools and resources necessary to deliver effective interventions. The intervention strategies contained within Rethink are both highly effective and evidence-based. Like the program that Endrew attended, ABA is the foundation of Rethink.

Endrew prevailed in this case because he made significantly more progress in his alternative school after regressing in the previous public school he attended. This progress was demonstrated through his behavioral intervention plan and through his private school’s ability to track his progress with quality data collection and analysis tools. As a result of this case, schools must now be prepared to demonstrate that every student is making more than de minimis progress. Progress monitoring, although required by IDEA, is an aspect of special education service delivery that teachers are often not able to implement with a high degree of fidelity. Rethink supports teachers to develop, implement and monitor instructional programs. It also helps them to feel confident monitoring progress in instruction to ensure that children are not just learning, but growing in their abilities to meet their educational goals. Educators can also use Rethink to monitor progress and adapt their intervention plans and strategies to confirm students are making more than de minimis progress to meet the Supreme Court’s expectations. While more support is still necessary for schools to serve students with special needs adequately, this ruling is certainly a step in the right direction.