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 Home > Doing Your Homework  > Parents, Laws and NCLB: An Interview with Suzanne Whitney by Michael Shaughnessy, (11/15/05)

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Parents, Laws and NCLB:
An Interview with Suzanne Whitney

by Michael F. Shaughnessy,

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Note: Congress has reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the statute formerly known as No Child Left Behind. The new statute, Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.


Question: Parents are increasingly being confronted with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), I.E.P.'s, ITP's, IFSP's and 504 Rules and Regulations. Is it my imagination or is the process of education becoming increasingly complex?

Answer: The more you read the easier it gets. When a parent first enters the education process it takes a while to learn the system and the jargon.

Every state has academic content standards. This is what the state has determined that every child needs to know and be able to do in each grade. For a child with a disability, unless there is an evaluation stating that a child has a significant cognitive disability and is not able to learn grade level material even with the "very best instruction" [Federal Register December 9, 2003] then the IEP team must develop a plan of specialized instruction to teach the material in the academic context standards to the child. The IEP must address functional goals as well as academic goals. An IEP must
deliver a 'free appropriate public education".

Free appropriate public education (FAPE). The term 'free appropriate public education' means special education and related services that--

(A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;

(B) meet the standards of the State educational agency;

(C) include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the State involved; and

(D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program (IEP) required under section 1414(d). (20 U.S.C. §1401 (9))

Question: Some children do not make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) for a variety of reasons - divorce of parents, illness, hospitalization, and the like. What types of options do parents have?

Answer: AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) refers to school, district, or state progress, not the progress of a child.

There are many reasons that a child may not pass the state's tests of its academic content standards in any particular year. This may be because of the disruptions that you mention.

It may be that the school's curriculum is not aligned with the state academic content standards. It may be that the teacher did not teach the state curriculum. It may be that the child has learning problems that have not been diagnosed. Or other reasons.

If parents see that their child is falling behind, and there does not seem to be a reason for it, they should write a letter to the principal and ask for a comprehensive educational evaluation of the child. This will give both the parents and the school information about the child that will help in getting him to grade level.

Question: You are the Research Editor of Wrightslaw. What exactly is Wrightslaw and how can it help parents and teachers?

Answer: Pam and Pete Wright began the Wrightslaw website and the Special Ed Advocate Newsletter in the mid 1990's. The information available on the website empowers individuals who have various roles in educating children. It provides information about research, documents, laws, and resources they need to advocate for children with disabilities.

Question: What exactly is Title I and where does it fit into the big picture?

Answer: NCLB has ten Titles, or sections of the law. When people talk about "Title I" they are referring to grants authorized in Title I of the law. All states, 90% of school districts, and 60% of schools applied for and received Title I grants. The grants provide supplemental funds that recipients must use above and beyond the basic education they already provide. The grant money is supposed to be used to close the gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers.

Question: I recently read an article in The Kentucky Enquirer on September 24th about parents being charged money to educate their gifted child. Can schools charge parents for special educational or gifted educational services?

Answer: Special education services must be provided at no cost to the family. I am not familiar with the article you mention.

Question: Are states currently fighting the Federal government about No Child Left Behind?

Answer: As far as I know, it is only Connecticut. NCLB is a grant program. If a state does not want to be bound by the terms of the grant, they do not need to apply for the grant. It will be interesting to see how the court looks at this.

Question: Do parents have the right to know if their son/daughter's teacher is "highly qualified"?

Answer: Under NCLB parents of children in Title I programs do. But parents in any school can let their school board know that they want that information available to them. It is the taxpayers and voters who have the final say in how their school district operates.

There seems to be a continual clash between those who advocate for "least restrictive environment" and those who believe a "free appropriate public education" is paramount. I hate to put you on the spot, but, what is your mind, and legally is most important.

If you look at the definition of both terms they do not conflict. The free appropriate public education is primary. It must be provided in the least restrictive environment.

Free appropriate public education. The term 'free appropriate public education' means special education and related services that--

(A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;

(B) meet the standards of the State educational agency;

(C) include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the State involved; and

(D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under section 1414(d). (20 U.S.C. §1401 (9))

Least Restrictive Environment - In General. To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of the child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplemental aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (20 U.S.C. § 1412 (a) (5) (A)) This does not mean to put every child in the regular classroom and then only provide the level of education that can be provided there. Many children need individualized instruction or therapies that must be provided one-to-one to be effective. The least restrictive environment for one-to-one instruction may not be in a classroom with everyone else watching and causing distractions. For some students the least restrictive environment is a separate classroom for part or all of the day. For some it is a separate school or hospital. There is no universal "least restrictive environment".

Question: And then, how do parents ensure that their child receives an "appropriate" education. And how do you define "appropriate" education?

Answer: Each state has academic content standards. This is the material that the state has determined that every child in that state needs to know and be able to do in each grade. Parents need to make a copy of the grade level standards for the grade their child is in, or will be going into, and bring it with them when they meet with the rest of the IEP team to write the IEP. The IEP team will design a program of "specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of the child with a disability. . . "(20 U.S.C. § 1401 (20))

Parents need to become experts on their child, his/her disability, understanding evaluations, understanding the laws, and knowing where to find experts when they need to consult one.

Question: It seems to me that education is faced with a major dilemma. We have children with speech problems, hearing and vision impairments, attention deficit disorder, asthma, diabetes, mental retardation, communication disorders and various other exceptionalities. How can we realistically expect teachers to teach such a wide variety of children with such exceptional needs?

Answer: IEP teams do everyone a disservice when they place children in an environment where the IEP goals cannot be met. A classroom teacher cannot teach anything to anyone when she needs to be all things to all people in an overcrowded classroom without support or the necessary training. School administrators need to train staff who attend IEP meetings so that they understand the options available for placement, teacher training, and supports.

Teachers who are members of IEP teams need to be realistic about what can happen in a general education classroom. They also need to know that they have the legal power to write an IEP that is appropriate for the child, the legal power to include teacher training and supports in the IEP, and the ability to make placement decisions that will result in a grade level education for the child.

Question: What about gifted children - those with I.Q.'s above 130? How can parents be assured that their kids are being challenged and are receiving an appropriate education?

Answer: I do not think they can. A lot depends on the individual school and the teacher. The parents who are most successful are involved in their schools and in parent groups in their districts.

Question: Right now, we are concerned about No Child Left Behind. After George Bush leaves office, do you think we will return to a "democratic" position or that the pendulum will swing in another direction?

Answer: Not at all. NCLB is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). This law took effect during the Johnson administration and has slowly and steadily evolved over 40 years into what we see today. Clinton's state of the union address outlined much of what is in NCLB. The law was heartily supported by both parties. If you look closely at the democratic challenges to it, they are more political smoke than challenges of any substance.

When Congress passed NCLB:

  • 31% of 4th graders were proficient in reading
  • 17% of 12th graders were proficient in math
  • 18% of 12th graders were proficient in science
  • 11% of 12th graders were proficient in history

(U.S. Department of Education)

This is a national security issue. We are not producing educated citizens. At the same time we have research telling us how children learn and what teachers need to know to be able to teach them. It is insanity to think that we do not need to drastically improve our education system.

The bottom line is that we have tried everything else already. Now we are requiring trained teachers, research-based methods of instruction, and tests to see where more improvement is needed. In any other industry these would be simply common sense measures.

Question: What is the key crucial question facing teachers, parents and the educational system today?

Answer: I have three questions. Why are teacher preparation programs not training education majors to use the research based programs that we know are effective?

Why are states not requiring training in at least one research based reading program for all elementary and special education candidates prior to certification?

Why are school districts not requiring this knowledge and training as a condition of employment?

The usual answer is that there are not enough teachers, but that skirts the issue.

Question: Where can parents get help when there is an impasse between the schools and themselves?

Answer: If the impasse involves the education of a child with a disability, and the IEP team cannot resolve this, the parents should talk to an advocate or attorney who has expertise in special education issues.

Children do not have time for their parents to muddle though the system figuring out what to do. Parents can look for an advocate or attorney at the Yellow Pages for Kids with Disabilities at

Created: 11/17/05
Revised: 06/24/07

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