State Graduation Requirements vs. Special Education Law – Who Wins?

Before I answer the question in the title, let me share a true story.

I appeared before a special ed hearing officer on behalf of a child with a disability – let’s call the child Chris (changed to protect identity).  Chris has severe learning disabilities and is far behind age-equivalent peers.  Chris does not do well in English class.  Chris is forced take Spanish as a foreign language requirement.  I suggested to the hearing officer that Chris should be excused from the foreign language requirement.  The school district attorney said that can’t happen because there is a state requirement that must be fulfilled.  The hearing officer agreed and said that Chris could simply go to Spanish class and they could have parties and poke a pinata to meet the requirement. . . .

I paused, not quite sure that I heard the hearing officer correctly.  I said, “Really?” in a disgusted tone.  The fact that a hearing officer could be that ignorant, discriminatory towards children with disabilities, and racist was quite shocking to me.  But that’s not the entire point of the story.

State Graduation Requirements

Most states have mandatory requirements for graduation.  For example, in New Jersey, here is the list of subject areas and number of credits required to graduate high school:

  • Language arts literacy: 20
  • Math: 15
  • Science: 15
  • Social studies: 15
  • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy: 2.5
  • Health, safety and physical education: 3.75 per year
  • Visual and performing arts: 5
  • Career-technical education: 5
  • World languages: 5

But what if your child has a disability that limits or prohibits his/her participation in gym class? Or if your child’s disability is dyslexia or other learning disability that makes participation in foreign language class an impossible task?  What if the disability clashes with these graduation requirements?

What IDEA Says

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not directly address state graduation requirements.  However, IDEA does provide that an Individualized Education Program (IEP) must include “a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child.” 1

The IEP must also include “an explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and in the activities” 2 and “a statement of any individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on State and districtwide assessments.” 3 In other words, the school district can provide accommodations so the child can still meet standardized testing.  The last I checked, physical education and foreign language are not parts of state standardized tests.

Now we have a clash – state requirements mandate things that your child can’t do vs. IDEA says you can design an IEP to modify these requirements.  School districts must provide accommodations or modify the curriculum in an IEP so as to  “be appropriately ambitious in light of [the child’s] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” 4

Who Wins This Cage Match?

IDEA should win.  I say “should” because not all judges understand what we all learned in grade school civics class – that federal law is more powerful than state law. This is commonly referred to as the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution which reads:

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

U.S. Constitution, Article VI, Paragraph 2.  The Supremacy Clause prohibits states from interfering with the federal government’s exercise of its constitutional powers and from making or altering any laws that are exclusively entrusted to the federal government

IDEA is federal law established by Congress.  States may not make laws or rules that conflict with the federal government’s law-making powers or laws established by Congress.

Six years ago a federal appeals court addressed this problem in the context of a special education case.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wrote:

Under the doctrine of federal preemption, which is rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, state laws are invalid if they “’interfere with, or are contrary to, federal law.’” Fellner v. Tri-Union Seafoods, L.L.C., 539 F.3d 237, 242 (3rd Cir. 2008) (quoting Hillsborough Cnty. v. Automated Med. Labs., 471 U.S. 707, 712 (1985)). “There are three types of preemption: express preemption and two types of implied preemption, field preemption and conflict preemption.” Treasurer of N.J. v. U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, 684 F.3d 382, 406 (3rd Cir. 2012). Conflict preemption is found where “compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility,” Fla. Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132, 142-43 (1963), or where state law erects an “obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress,” Farina v. Nokia Inc., 625 F.3d 97, 115 (3rd Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted).

R.B. v. Mastery Charter School, 532 Fed. Appx. 136 (3rd Cir. 2013).  That Court went on to hold that the ‘Stay Put’ Rule under IDEA prevailed over Pennsylvania state truancy law.  The state law said that if a student is absent for 10 or more consecutive days, then the student can be disenrolled. 5  The Court said that because R.B. had an IEP and had initiated a complaint against Mastery Charter School, federal ‘Stay Put’ won over the state disenrollment law and the school could not disenroll R.B.

A Final Word?

This is not likely the final word on this issue.  But it is an argument that parents should make if a state law – like a graduation requirement – conflicts with the rights of a child with a disability under federal IDEA law.  That also includes other federal laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (§504).  Hopefully, federal law wins and, more importantly, the children win!


1 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(IV).

2 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(V).

3 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(VI)(aa).

4 Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988, 1000, 580 U.S. ____, 197 L. Ed. 2d 335 (2017).

5 22 Pa. Code §11.24.

Bring Back Some “Old School” Education

There is a common belief among the education community that education theory is evolving.  Ph.D.s and school administrators keep thinking up new ways to ‘improve’ our education system, for example ‘common core’ and ‘standardized testing’.  Problem with that theory is we are graduating more children from the K-12 system now who do not have the basic skill set to get a job, live on their own, or function in the post-secondary education environment.

I have a thought about that: we have abandoned some of the tried-and-true methods that worked in the 50s, 60s, and 70s for the sake of ‘experimenting’ with our children’s education.  My suggestion is to resurrect some of those ‘old school’ methodologies.  Here are some techniques that studies have proven to be effective:

1. Bring back music and the arts into our school systems as mandatory courses

Studies have repeatedly shown that music and art trigger portions of the brain that ‘core subjects’ do not and help the brain process other subjects better, for example math.

One study showed that listening to music reduces distraction when doing schoolwork.

“We seem to have two attention systems: a conscious one that enables us to direct our focus towards things we know we want to concentrate on and an unconscious one that shifts attention towards anything our senses pick up that might be significant. The unconscious one is simpler, more fundamental, and linked to emotional processing rather than higher reasoning. It also operates faster.”

“Music is a very useful tool in such situations. It provides non-invasive noise and pleasurable feelings, to effectively neutralise the unconscious attention system’s ability to distract us.”

Other studies have concluded the same, indicating that our ability to concentrate during studying is enhanced by music.

The same is true with art, but for different reasons.

“Almost as soon as motor skills are developed, children communicate through artistic expression. The arts challenge us with different points of view, compel us to empathize with “others,” and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition. Empirical evidence supports these claims: Among adults, arts participation is related to behaviors that contribute to the health of civil society, such as increased civic engagement, greater social tolerance, and reductions in other-regarding behavior. Yet, while we recognize art’s transformative impacts, its place in K-12 education has become increasingly tenuous.”

“We find that a substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes.”

2.  Return vocational training to K-12 education

An article in Forbes magazine a few years ago observed:

“Throughout most of U.S. history, American high school students were routinely taught vocational and job-ready skills along with the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.”

“[T]he focus shifted to preparing all students for college, and college prep is still the center of the U.S. high school curriculum.”

“Not everyone is good at math, biology, history and other traditional subjects that characterize college-level work. Not everyone is fascinated by Greek mythology, or enamored with Victorian literature, or enraptured by classical music. Some students are mechanical; others are artistic. Some focus best in a lecture hall or classroom; still others learn best by doing, and would thrive in the studio, workshop or shop floor.”

“The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today, and with it a wealth of career opportunities for both under-employed college grads and high school students looking for direct pathways to interesting, lucrative careers.”

The reality for most school-age children is that they will only be exposed to college-centered curriculum in public school and those who don’t have that interest will suffer.  It was exacerbated when President Obama “called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school ” during an address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.

However, it is well-established that not every kid should or can afford to go to college.  What is perhaps worse is that the drive for every child to go to college has resulted in student loan debt skyrocketing and nearly impossible to elminate due to a lack of jobs in those sectors.

“Now that the Department of Education has made this data available, it appears that, in fact, the average student loan borrower takes longer than ten years to repay his/her loans.”

“Because more than half of defaults [on student loans] occur outside the [time] window covered by current federal default statistics, overall default rates are much higher than previously thought.”

“These data suggest that whether a degree is completed, and what type of degree is completed, may be more important factors related to the increasing default rate than the amount students borrow.”

The data is pretty clear – jobs that graduates get can’t keep up with repayments of student loans.  This argues in favor of a trade education, where the student debt is likely to be much lower, but job security is much higher.

3.  Teach cursive handwriting

The benefits of learning cursive go way beyond the ability to sign checks.  Article after article touts this curriculum, but schools have abandoned it because it is the “computer age”.  That’s not an excuse.

A New York Times article from 2013 discussed how learning cursive stimulates the brain.

“Putting pen to paper stimulates the brain like nothing else, even in this age of e-mails, texts and tweets.”

“As a result, the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension and participation.”

“Regardless of the age we are in or the technological resources at one’s disposal, success is measured by thought formation, and the speed and efficiency in which it is communicated. Because of this, students need a variety of technologies, including cursive handwriting, to succeed.”

William Klemm, Ph.D., Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, offers numerous biological and psychological benefits of learning cursive.

Still another author provides 10 reasons to learn cursive, not least of which are:

  • Improved neural connections
  • Improved fine motor skills
  • Increased retention
  • Ease of learning – “Cursive is of particular value to children with learning challenges such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and difficulties with attention.”

Conclusion

While this may not cure all of our education woes, it certainly is worth trying.  We are failing our kids right now.  Why not go back to methods that worked in the past instead of experimenting with the new?  It is my opinion if we accept the basic premises that (a) not every child is cut out for college; (b) that providing alternative skill set training expands the opportunities for our kids; and (c) returning to proven-successful teaching methodologies, such as inclusion of music and the arts and teaching cursive, will improve their academic progress and cognitive abilities, then we are likely to see a brighter future for our children.

 

The Appropriate Use of Assistive Technology for Students – Antonia Guccione, MA, MS [Guest Blog Post]

Discerning how, when, and why students should access Assistive Technology to support learning involves many levels of decision making.  It all starts with the IEP, the student’s present levels of performance, his educational needs, and the impact those needs have on learning. Thank goodness there is help! The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative provides a series of tools for educators and parents. The WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide is a great place to start if you suspect that there are tools that are necessary to support a student’s learning.

For example, if a student has an issue with writing, it can seriously impact that student’s ability to function in the classroom and do grade level work. For our purposes, we will assume an upper elementary age male child and begin our assessment and decision making there.  He may not be able to express thoughts, opinions, or ideas on paper.  How will he form complete sentences and/or organized paragraphs?  How can Assistive Technology help him?

Discerning how, when, and why students should access Assistive Technology to support learning involves many levels of decision making.  It all starts with the IEP, the student’s present levels of performance, his educational needs, and the impact those needs have on learning. Thank goodness there is help! The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative provides a series of tools for educators and parents. The WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide is a great place to start if you suspect that there are tools that are necessary to support a student’s learning.

http://www.wati.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/WATI-Assessment.pdf [PDF file]

THE WATI

Enter the WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide. First, the team must agree on the impact of this issue.  While many are possible, let’s assume that the major impact for this student is his ability to do grade level work in the classroom and express his thoughts on paper in an organized paragraph.  The question becomes whether there is currently assistive technology- either devices, tools, hardware, or software that might help address this need?

Referring to the Assistive Technology Continuum, there are Low Tech, Mid Tech, and High-Tech tools to consider. Have any been tried?  Is there data to support the trials?  Possible Low-Tech tools include specialized pens, raised paper, highlighters, post -its, and slanted surfaces. Mid Tech Tools include tape recorders, spell checkers and dictionaries.  High Tech tools include word prediction software, word banks, and word processors.

Finally, would the use of these assistive technology tools support the student in performing this skill more easily in the least restrictive environment? If the answer is yes, it is time to consult with the IEP team and document this need, its impact, and interventions that might be helpful.

https://adayinourshoes.co m/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/WATI-Assessing-Students-Needs-for-Assistive-Technology.pdf [PDF file]

Based on lack of progress on IEP goals, the Committee on Special Education must consider a student’s need for assistive technology devices and/or services, as well as possible modifications and accommodations.  If a student needs such devices and/or services, the appropriate sections of the IEP must specify the:

  • nature of the assistive technology to be provided; 
  • services the student needs to use the assistive technology device; 
  • frequency, and duration of such services; 
  • location where the assistive technology devices and/or services will be provided; and 
  • whether such a device is required to be used in the student’s home or another setting in order for the student to receive a free appropriate public education.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/iepguidance/present.htm

GOALS

Goals must be written accordingly, and I recommend using the concept of a SMART Goal.  A specific goal which is measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely has a greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal.

https://east.madison.k12.wi.us/files/east/Smart%20Goals%20Information%20CC%2011_0.pdf [PDF file]

Here is an example of an objective taken directly from an AT-Resource Guide for written communication which utilizes Assistive Technology:

Goal: Jon will use an electronic graphic organizer to write an opening topic, a closing, and three supporting detail sentences to construct a five-sentence paragraph, by the end of the first semester.

Objective: Given five sentences in an electronic graphic organizer, Jon will identify and arrange the opening topic, the closing, and three supporting detail sentences to create a paragraph, by the end of the first six weeks of school.

https://www.ocali.org/up_doc/AT_Resource_Guide_6.pdf [PDF file]

IN THE IEP

Another resource which offers support to parents in understanding what Assistive Technology is and how to get it into a student’s IEP is noted below:

https://adayinourshoes.com/assistive-technology/

Once the tools have been obtained, how does one manage the Assistive Technology?  Who trains the teachers and parents? Who trains the student?  But that is a whole other discussion!

Even if the present levels of performance indicate a student who can participate in a discussion, that doesn’t mean he can write about it. A basic understanding of texts and current events is not the issue. However, ask him to summarize that information in a paragraph and the sky falls down.  On the IEP, present levels of performance are recorded, and appropriate sources of data have been discussed and administered.  These have included both formal and informal assessments, with work samples, and data charts to show progress or lack of progress over time. Are there modifications and accommodations that have been incorporated? Have these interventions resulted in significant progress or is this student still having difficulty responding to a writing prompt.

FINAL NOTES

In conclusion, Assistive Technology provides many tools to support learning and can result in a positive outcome.  It is a timely process, but one worth pursuing. Better to know what works sooner rather than later.  Assess the student’s needs, document the impact on learning, and then choose the appropriate tool to support learning in the least restrictive environment.  Keep accurate data to demonstrate progress.

If you suspect your child could benefit from assistive technology, reach out to the professionals involved in his education.  In addition, access the sites documented in this article.  I’ve only presented one need, and that is for writing. I haven’t even touched on communication, mobility, motor aspects of writing, reading, learning and studying, math, recreation, or activities of daily living, vision, hearing, and language processing. Understand that the array of Assistive Technology Tools is vast.  Following a process to obtain these tools may be involved, but it can result in access to tools that can help this child for life. 


Antonia Guccione, MA; MS

Antonia is a consultant, educator, and author with over forty years’ experience working with students of all ages, strengths, and needs.

The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

A group of smart minds in the New Jersey world of special education gathered and put together an excellent guide to assist schools, parents, and providers in helping children with dyslexia.  They recently issued “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” (PDF) which is free to download from the NJ Department of Education website. The table of contents shows that it covers everything from the definition of dyslexia to screening to various interventions and accommodations that can be made for the student. If you have a student with dyslexia, you should download your free copy here: http://www.state.nj.us/education/specialed/dyslexia/NJDyslexiaHandbook.pdf