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The Special Education Primer

August 31, 2010
By Jayne Matthews
Baltimore Times Columnist

The Education Matters Special Education Primer takes part of its name from a series of elementary textbooks used during the middle 20th century.  If you are of a certain age you may recall learning how to read from books known as “primers.” These primers had titles such as “The Way We Work and Play,” “Our New Friends” and “People and Progress.” 

Starting with three and four word sentences, primers introduced millions of Americans to the mechanics of reading, one of education’s most basic skills. Once this door to future academic achievement was opened, parents had every reason to believe their child was on the path to a full and productive life.  

If we fast forward to the year 2010, the road to the classroom success is no longer as straightforward. By some estimates, 30 percent of students struggle with an undiagnosed learning disability.  If your child has a learning disability that is not being treated it will diminish his or her academic achievement.

The Education Matters Special Education Primer is this column’s most important series. Pay close attention to these articles. The goal is to ensure every student receives an education that rises above low expectations to meet their unique academic needs. 

Beginning with the laws governing the rights of learning disabled students, the primer seeks to help parents and guardians become effective academic advocates. And, it is planned to present complex information in a way that is easily understood.   

First lesson: It is the Law. Parent should know that the idea of meeting the academic needs of children with a learning disability is not optional. Individuals from birth through age 21 with a learning disability are covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

IDEA mandates special educations services to children with disabilities throughout the nation and governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services. Infants and toddlers with disabilities— birth to two-years-old— and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth, ages three to 21 receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.

As any good student of American history knows, a federal mandate is only as good as society’s capacity and determination to make certain the law is enforced. In my experience the primary responsibility for ensuring that a learning disabled student receives services is in the hands of parents and guardians. 

This is especially true if a child has a “hidden” learning disorder such as dyslexia, rather than an outwardly profound condition like mental retardation or autism. School systems can be especially reluctant to provide services to intelligent children who struggle with reading and attention deficit issues.   

In a recent address to special educators, United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited the importance of parental involvement. “One thing is absolutely essential— and that's parent involvement. Parents of students with disabilities are some of the most determined advocates. Parents are key partners in policymaking and practice, pushing for greater access and better outcomes for their own and others' children.” 

In recognizing the significance of parental advocacy he said, “I want to applaud you for your dedication to children with disabilities— and their parents. I wish it wasn't necessary for parents to be such fierce advocates. I understand that parents are compelled to advocate because they see that their sons and daughters aren't getting the free, appropriate public education that federal law guarantees them.” 

“President Obama and I believe that every child deserves a world-class education,” said the Secretary. “When we say every child, it is not just rhetoric—we mean every child, regardless of his or her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or ability.

Lesson number one: It is the Law. School systems are required to provide special education services to meet the academic needs of learning disabled students. Laws are only as good our willingness to see them enforced.  Parents are the biggest influencers of whether or not their child receives these mandated services. 

The Wrights Law website at is an excellent resource for parents seeking guidance on special education issues. As a policy, Education Matters only directs readers to org and edu websites. However, the Wrights Law pages are so filled with free information it is must for parents. For families who do not have access to the internet, Education Matters plans to feature articles from the Wrights Law pages in the special education primer. 

Next week part II: Funding Special Education

Jayne Matthews is a higher education development analyst and an academic advocate. Your thoughts and comments are welcomed at \n This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it.

The Special Education Primer, Baltimore Times Online, August 31, 2010


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