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.

 

5 Things Wrong With Public Education Today

Here are my thoughts and observations about what is wrong with our public education system today:

1.  Too much is spent on school administrators and not enough is spent on teachers

2.  Too much is spent on extracurricular activies, particularly sports, and not enough is spent on arts, music, home economics, and trade (auto shop, mechanics, wood shop, etc.) classes

3.  Too much time is spent on preparing students for standardized testing and not enough time is spent on teaching students how to learn independently

4.  Too much is spent on fighting expensive legal battles and not enough is spent on providing special education and related services

5.  Too much is spent on changing curriculum (for example, common core, Pearson) and not enough is spent on allowing teachers to apply their ‘on the ground’ knowledge of their students and subject matter expertise

And here is a bonus one:

BONUS:  Too much is spent on internal fortress building and not enough is spent on involving the community in our education system, such as involving parents and local businesses in the process

Just my opinion.

 

Why Common Core is Evil

Soapbox time. Many of you don’t know what Common Core is or don’t care (because you don’t have children in K-12 any longer), but I’m here to tell you the evils of Common Core throughout our society. And it’s not as obvious as you would think.
 
Common Core was established to sound good and is not based on sound teaching principles. It was started in response to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which established minimum standards for schools to meet in order to show that they were successful in teaching students. Failure to show success meant loss of federal funding for those school districts. Sounds great, right? Accountability is good, right? But here is where the wheels fell off the wagon.
 
The way states and school districts began to measure and try to exhibit success was through standardized testing. If a school district could provide data that the students were doing well on these tests, they would satisfy the NCLB requirements. So, through Common Core, they could teach what was necessary to do well on the testing. Hence the start of ‘teaching to the test’.
 
Long before there was Common Core and standardized testing, there was teaching how to learn. Kids were taught how to learn things in their own way and how to think (and I’m not talking about kids who require special education, because that is an entirely different analysis). For example, memorizing the ‘times table’ – to this day I can quickly tell you what any single digit number x any single digit number equals because of such memorization. Very few kids in school (or recent graduates for that matter) can do that.
 
Here is another example: when my youngest child was learning division in math, he asked for my help. So I began by drawing the long division symbol (you know, the right parenthesis with the horizontal line on the top). My son says, “What is that?” I said, “It’s the division symbol, for long division.” He says, “I’ve never seen that.” I asked him, “Aren’t they using this to teach you division?” and I showed him an example of how it worked. He said, “No.” I thought to myself, WHAT? How on Earth are they teaching division? Again, Common Core destroys a very basic (and for decades successful) method of teaching math.
 
“So what?” you say. Who cares? Well, I’ll tell you, beyond the fact that our kids aren’t learning how to learn.
 
Imagine now you’re at your job (or you are the business owner) and an employee doesn’t know how to make sure a customer is paying the correct amount? Or they don’t know how to do simple accounting / bookkeeping? Or whether the sale is profitable? Or how to solve a problem? Or how to speak to a customer with proper grammar? Or how to write a report? etc. etc.
 
You now have a profound negative impact of Common Core on our economy – both in a micro and a macro sense. We are graduating an entire generation of people dependent upon computers and calculators, instead of thinkers and problem-solvers. And life is not a series of standardized tests. Indeed, life is a series of unexpected tests with varying problems that require independent, critical thought to solve.
 
Common Core is evil to the core. And regardless of the good intentions of those who came up with the concept, the implementation of it is atrocious and harmful to our kids.

How Common Core is Misguided!

Since the U.S. Department of Education more or less mandated implementation of the ‘Common Core‘ education standards on a state level, I have seen numerous examples of how such suggested teaching method fails. As a small example, several states have opted out of the Common Core or backed away from some of the assessments associated with the standard.

There is a simple explanation of why Common Core is misguided: Methodology. Neither the federal or state departments of education should be concerned with teaching methods or even content. They aren’t competent to do so. It is acceptable to set minimum standards for what students should know by a certain level of education (e.g. basic algebra by graduation from high school) in order to be able to access higher learning (college) or obtain employment after high school, but it is not useful or productive to suggest how teachers should get their students to achieve those levels.

Why? There are a multiplicity of answers to the question why government should not dictate teaching methodology.

(1) Those in the teaching profession have received their degrees and certifications in teaching methodology, so we should just let teachers do what they do best – teach. They are ‘on the ground’ (so to speak) and are in the best position to know what works and what doesn’t with their students. Someone sitting in Washington DC or a state capitol has no concept of individual student needs in a classroom. Further on this point, each state – nay, each locality – will vary on what teaching method is best and bureaucracies are too inflexible to adapt to these variances.

(2) Enforcement is expensive. First, consider that virtually all textbooks and materials had to be changed or purchased anew to conform with the Common Core. Second, teachers had to learn the new methodology, so there is training expense. Third, parents and the public also needed to be informed, so there are marketing and public information resources that are expended. This is not a cheap proposition.

(3) Standardizing methodology disregards the needs of the disabled and those who learn differently. While emphasis and resources are spent on the Common Core, it is at the expense of those who truly need the support of government to ensure their access to education. For example, special education has taken a backseat to Common Core implementation and school districts are taking advantage of that by pushing back against parents who are trying to help their disabled children. The U.S. Department of Education, which as direct Congressional authority to enforce special education law, has essentially ignored the setbacks relating to education of the disabled. If resources were not dedicated to Common Core, they could be focused on enforcing special education law.

There are numerous other reasons why Common Core is an effort in futility, but as with other social experiments by government, we won’t see those effects until we have a population of young adults who aren’t able to function in the workplace or in institutions of higher learning. That is not a social experiment worth the risk.

I encourage all of you to contact your state legislators and governors and tell them to opt out of Common Core and let schools get back to the job of teaching kids rather than complying with nonsensical federal mandates.