Parents & Schools Disagree
by Ruth Heitin, Ph.D., Educational Consultant
often tell my clients that if my own parents were alive, they would
never understand what I do for a living.
I am an independent educational consultant, and as a private professional
I work for parents in seeking appropriate educational services for
their children. Far more often than I prefer, I disagree with the
schools - something my parents and their generation saw as heresy.
For the past ten years, I have worked with hundreds of families of
students with special needs. Every time I think I have seen the most
egregious case of educational unenlightenment, another case comes
along that is even more disturbing.
As a former teacher, I fully understand the challenges that teachers
face. In my opinion, teaching is one of the toughest and most important
jobs of all. I have also sat on the other side of the school conference
table as a parent. Now, as an educational consultant, I am able to
see both viewpoints. And, what I have learned over the past ten years
is that while both parents and schools want what is best for children,
their constraints and their perspectives will always differ.
What is important to know is that when parents and schools disagree,
the ways that they resolve their disagreements depend upon the issues.
Federal laws and regulations provide a framework for addressing the
needs of special education students. When a child is not suspected
of or diagnosed with a disability, the local school district has the
right to govern its own programs. Dealing with general education requires
politics, dealing with special education requires knowledge of the
The following are some of the ways in which parents and schools disagree
when a child is suspected of a disability with suggestions as to how
to address these.
Does the student have an educationally-related disability?
Does the child's disability have an impact on his/her educational
Does the child require special education services?
Are the special education services effective?
the student have an educationally-related disability?
my experience, it is a parent's natural inclination to believe that
all is right with his/her child. For parents to get to the point of
believing that their child could have some kind of problem, they have
to have done some serious reflection and data gathering on their own.
Once a parent comes to the point of concern that a disability exists,
it is incumbent upon the school professionals to take those parents'
concerns very seriously.
However, it is also the natural inclination for schools to seek some
outside explanation for a child's problems. Often they indulge in
believing that the nature of the problem is a simple matter within
the parents' control.
The only way to determine if a disability exists with a child is through
comprehensive evaluation. The first step in this process is for the
parents and school professional to meet to discuss the child in a
meeting of professionals called a Child Study Committee or the like,
depending upon the school district.
often offer first to try a variety of interventions before doing evaluation,
which is tantamount to a trial-and-error method of addressing a child's
problems. Why would we try to address a problem without understanding
it first? The role of this committee is to ask only if, based on the
information available through their normal procedures, there is justification
for further evaluation of the child. The school cannot ask parents
to gather more information for them first nor can the school make
a determination of eligibility for special education at that time;
that is the role of another committee.
If the school does agree to do the evaluation, it is important for
parents to understand the limitations of any school system in their
One of the reasons that I left the school system was to have the opportunity
to assess children in the way that I knew was necessary. School employees
have little control over the time and the materials at their disposal
in order to do evaluations. No matter how good a school professional
is at evaluation, it is unlikely that he/she can perform the job as
well as someone who is equally qualified in private practice. Private
assessments are expensive because of the time that they require, but
parents should know that the investment is, in my opinion, generally
a wise one.
It is also important for parents to know that whoever does the evaluation
is the one who will take the lead in determining the child's needs.
The school personnel who do this are too often the same ones who will
have to serve the child in their already-too-busy schedules. Having
a private evaluator assess the child allows independent determination
of the child's issues and needs without any bureaucratic constraints.
Of course, if the school system does the evaluation, and the parents
question the results or the methods, they can seek an Independent
Educational Evaluation at the school's expense. The down side of this
is that it makes an already-protracted evaluation period even longer,
requiring months before a child's needs can be appropriately understood
Once evaluation is completed the determination can be made as to whether
or not a child has a disability. Federal law does not specify the
criteria for determining disabilities, that is left to the local school
district. And, in my experience, the many local school districts in
our area all have different criteria for determining eligibility for
I have spent the past ten years helping parents in the eligibility
process, and I can relate hundreds of horror stories about the process.
For example, schools have found children not to be learning disabled
based on the fact that they demonstrate no processing deficits, but
the school has not effectively assessed the processing skills. This
is tantamount to saying that a child does not have strep throat, despite
all the symptoms, when one has not done a culture. Naturally, I believe
that having an educational consultant assist you through the eligibility
process for special education is a wise decision.
When the determination is made as to whether a disability exists,
it is appropriate to look at this through all appropriate definitions.
For school children, two laws address special needs - The Individuals
with Disability Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation
Act of 1973.
While both federal acts allow provision of special education services,
practicality has dictated otherwise. IDEA has federal money attached
to it, giving schools some reimbursement for serving special needs
children, while Section 504 does not. Any child who is eligible for
services under IDEA automatically is eligible under Section 504, but
not the reverse. Primarily in practice today, the difference is that
those who require special education services are eligible under IDEA
while those who require only classroom accommodations rather are eligible
under Section 504.
A key point in eligibility is whether the disability has an impact
on educational performance and how. For example, some students with
asthma are able to control it well while others require special accommodations
when it comes to exercise and stress. Only in the latter case would
it be necessary to identify the child as disabled educationally.
An important note here is that identifying disabilities in young children
presents special challenges that the schools are often unable to manage.
Traditional achievement testing is insensitive with young children
for a very good reason. Since achievement is the product of what a
child has been taught and how much he/she has learned from that, and
since formal instruction is limited in young children, it is very
difficult to identify underachievement. In testing young children,
information processing testing in areas such as phonemic awareness
and rapid naming, for examples, must be relied upon to identify learning
disabilities. Schools frequently fail to test these areas and instead
rely upon the ineffective traditional test measures in measuring learning
When schools come to the conclusion that a child does not have a disability,
they often justify their conclusion by espousing that they do not
want to label the child. This presumes that labeling a child is a
stigma or a negative factor in some way.
Schools never admit that they are being advised to limit the numbers
of students being eligible, but I believe they are. What they fail
to see too often is that if one is going to err, it is better to give
services than not and miss valuable educational opportunities that
cannot be regained.
the child's disability have an impact on his/her educational
is often a contentious area of disagreement between parents and schools.
There is no federal definition of educational impact. Nationally,
court cases continue to address the question of educational impact
of a disability.
In my experience, schools will readily admit educational impact if
a student's grades are failing or if the child's disability presents
a challenge to them. However, in cases where a child's disability
affects them in less conspicuous ways, as is often the case with homework
difficulties, schools too often deny any educational impact. However,
as long as schools demand homework, they cannot ignore the parents'
reports about how the disability affects homework time.
Similarly, when the educational impact is emotionally-related, or
even medically-related, schools tend to deny what they cannot see.
Parents need to document the impact of the disability as well as they
can to offer undeniable evidence.
Keep charts of the time spent on homework or the number of headaches
a child experiences. Document the help that the child requires in
doing homework. It is harder to ignore data than narrative.
the child require special education services?
question presents a difficult dilemma for the school system. The recent
trend to educate all children in the general education classroom has
too frequently resulted, in my opinion, in a watered-down system of
offering specialized support for children.
Teachers and administrators too often seem to feel that if they admit
that a child needs specialized instruction they are admitting their
own failure. While it is certainly advantageous for some children
to remain in the general education classroom for support, for others
it denies them the opportunity for small group and specialized instruction
that they need.
Historically, we have always known that children with special needs
require specialized instruction, and the earlier the better. Recent
research in learning disabilities, however, has articulated this even
Children with reading disabilities respond best to systematic, intensive,
and specialized instruction. The window of opportunity for best results
is to begin such programming before the child reaches his/her ninth
birthday. After that, the prognosis for ameliorating the reading disability
becomes less optimistic.
the special education services effective?
1997, when IDEA was reauthorized, an important change was implemented
in which schools were required to evaluate special education students'
progress as often as they did the progress of general education students.
IDEA has long required that progress be evaluated in observable and
I cannot begin to count the number of times that a student's progress
is merely observed rather than measured in any way. Independent assessment,
school standardized testing, state assessment measures and observational
charts are all means of evaluating and measuring progress.
My advice to parents who think that their children are not making
sufficient progress: Don't stop in your efforts to improve your child's
Failure to make appropriate progress has devastating and cumulative
This year's teacher will not be around to see the implications over
time, but parents certainly will be.
Dr. Ruth Heitin
Ruth Heitin is a Special Education Consultant serving students with special needs and their parents – evaluating students, consulting with families and schools, and serving as an expert witness in legal proceedings. Dr. Heitin has served as an expert witness in mediations, court trials and more than 40 due process hearings.
Dr. Heitin’s doctoral degree is in Special Education Administration. She has been certified as a general education teacher, special education teacher and elementary school principal.
Ruth has been a speaker with Pete Wright in Wrightslaw training - All About IEPs. She is also a contributor to the Wrightslaw newsletter, the Special Ed Advocate, as well as authoring articles in other educational publications.
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