School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the tag “IDEA”


This past week we learned of yet another serious allegation of abuse of a child with special needs. The incident involved two staff members, and purportedly occurred at an elementary school in Marysville, Washington.

Meg Coyle and Jake Whittenberg of King 5 News report that the seven-year-old child in question has multiple challenges, including ADHD, autism and fetal alcohol syndrome. The energetic second-grader is the adopted daughter of Angi Wilson. The child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help address her various needs.

Ms. Wilson claims staff members at the school placed her daughter alone in a small storage closet for two hours as a consequence for misbehaving (the door was removed, with a piece of plywood serving as a barricade). Ms. Wilson also claims her daughter at other times has been dragged by the collar, pinched, hit and had her hair pulled – all by staff members.

School administrators placed the staff members on immediate paid leave while investigating the matter. Time-out rooms are allowed under district policy, but only if regulations are followed. In a surprising twist, the District has refused to allow reporters to see the closet.

I’ve written previously about the devastation suffered by families of children with disabilities when those children are abused by their teachers. In some cases, parents who suspected mistreatment but couldn’t prove it placed a hidden microphone on their child, only to discover horrible episodes of abuse of their child.

Children with special needs can be particularly vulnerable to abuse, given that many cannot speak or communicate effectively. These students often are placed in self-contained classrooms away from their peers, who could serve as witnesses to misconduct. Moreover, when students do manage to speak up, their claims are at times met with skepticism. For example, some parents at the Marysville school refused to consider even the possibility that teachers might be abusing children; they instead blamed the child. Said one parent: “I think it’s the kids themselves playing around and put themselves there (in the closet).”

All this translates into the painful reality of special education classrooms that have small groups of disabled students who cannot describe to their parents what they see going on with their classmates or what they are experiencing themselves. And while the overwhelming majority of teachers are doing remarkable work with challenging students in these classrooms and beyond, it only takes a few ugly episodes to shatter the bonds of trust with parents. Every parent of a child with special needs who reads a story like this inevitably wonders: “What if my child is being abused? How would I know? What can I do to prevent it?”

A law recently passed by the Washington state legislature and awaiting signature by the governor would require that parents be notified when a child with an IEP is placed in a time-out room or is otherwise restrained. This is a good start, but more is needed.

It’s time for school districts to place security cameras in self-contained special education classrooms. The Texas Senate passed a bill this month mandating cameras in special education classrooms after hearing “heartbreaking” testimony from parents describing episodes of abuse. Video technology is now widely available. These cameras provide an extra set of eyes and ears for our most vulnerable students, and can also protect teachers against false claims of abuse. If we can place cameras on school buses, in crowded high school hallways, at doggie daycares and inside ATM machines, we can and should place them in self-contained classrooms.

Beth T. Sigall

April 27, 2013


It’s October. Do you know where your child’s IEP is?

The beginning of October is an important checkpoint for parents of children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). By the time October arrives, your child’s school and teachers have had a month, sometimes more, to get to know your child and to understand how your child functions in the school environment. If your child has an IEP, this also means your school should have that IEP up and running. And as a parent you need to make sure that’s happening.

How? The best place to start is the actual IEP. Parents should go back and conduct a quick review of it. Here are the three main parts to the IEP parents should review as part of this “quick check” exercise:

Annual Goals & Short Term Objectives: these are the academic and functional goals that allow your child to make progress in the general education curriculum. Parents can start by going over the goals with their child. Parents also can review completed work sent home, and ask the teacher(s) for time to review the completed work file at school.  Teachers generally either keep a file of completed and/or ongoing work at school, or send it home on a regular basis. Many school districts now offer parent access to online grading so that student work completion and grades can be monitored at home. This is a terrific resource for parents. No matter which method you choose, it’s critical for parents to monitor completed work, and that includes work on IEP goals.

Overall, it’s important for parents to not wait until report card time or IEP progress report updates before doing a quick check on how things are going, as those more formal reports are issued infrequently (usually two or three times per year). IEPs are a complicated machine with many moving parts. For them to work and work well they need to be monitored and checked on a regular basis. As is the case with practically every machine, regular inspection and maintenance is more effective than waiting for a complete breakdown.

Program Accommodations/Modifications and Support for School Personnel – The accommodations/modifications portion of the IEP arguably is the most important. These are the specific tools students with disabilities need to help them make progress in school. Typically they cover areas related to the presentation of materials, timing/scheduling of classwork/homework, and the setting and format of instruction.

There is a wealth of information available describing the types of accommodations and modifications used to help students with disabilities learn and thrive in school. Commonly-used ones include preferential classroom seating (e.g., near the teacher’s desk), copies of lecture notes sent home, visual breakdown of tasks, extended time on tests/assignments, advance notice of schedule changes, and assistance from classroom aide as needed.

To ensure accommodations and modifications are being implemented, parents again can ask their child, their teacher, or review/observe completed work. In my years of representing parents in the special education process, the accommodations/modifications piece frequently is overlooked or misunderstood. At times responsibility for implementation is murky, which can result in accommodations falling off or not being implemented properly or consistently.

Service Matrix – This is the part of the IEP that details the level, frequency and duration of services the child receives, who is responsible for providing the service, and the location for delivery of it. For example, a student who has reading goals might receive instruction from a special education or reading teacher 30 minutes per day, four times per week, in a resource room. Again, now that we have reached October, it is vital for parents to check to make sure those specific services are being delivered as described in the service matrix. Other types of services commonly seen in IEPs include speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral support.

All of the above checks can be accomplished through (an always polite and brief) email to teachers, review of work sent home and possibly a quick visit to school to look at the completed work file. Building in these regular “well-checks” help parents become proactive partners in the IEP process. Most importantly, developing the habit of regular check-ins can help decrease the stress and frustration that often is associated with managing your child’s IEP.

Beth T. Sigall

October 3, 2012


In Rating Your Team Teacher, Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles provide a useful primer on best practices in team teaching. Boles is the director of Learning and Teaching Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Boles and Troen co-authored The Power of Teacher Teams (Corwin Press, 2011).

After 15 years of studying and observing classrooms across the U.S., the authors identified common barriers to successful implementation of team teaching. Here are some of the more significant barriers:

  • Absence of skills and support structures that would “allow them to orchestrate significant pedagogical and curriculum changes”
  • Building administrators who are not trained to supervise team teaching, and don’t have the time to guide teachers through it
  • Teams aren’t trained in the basic skills of team work, such as time management, goal setting, and conflict resolution

The authors describe a school culture that prefers affable exchange over constructive criticism as a major impediment to team teaching.

Since teachers are a congenial bunch, caring very much that everyone gets along, they tend to avoid conflicts and dismiss or ignore alternative ways of doing things.

Boles and Troen’s research reveal that in teaching, as in life, conflict is a necessary ingredient for progress; we can’t get better if we don’t know what needs improvement.

The culture of teacher of autonomy is offered as another barrier to team teaching’s effectiveness. Boles and Troen frequently observed that when one teacher asserts a leadership role by suggesting a new approach to a colleague, the “automatic response” is often “Who are you to tell me what to do?” The result? “Teacher teams often fail to make headway in improving teaching and learning because they fall into predictable pitfalls, such as poor use of common planning time, failure to pursue expert advice, a focus on issues that are peripheral to learning, absence of clear goals, or lack of team accountability for the success of all their students.”

How can team teaching be improved? Boles and Troen devised “Five Conditions” that should be in place to encourage productive use of team teaching.

  • Well-defined task focus that is centered on improving student learning, not crisis management
  • Leadership from all team members, regardless of veteran or novice status, recognizing that all teachers bring certain strengths to the table
  • A collaborative climate that recognizes the need for legitimate criticism, and sees the value of it
  • A level of personal accountability that holds members accountable for their performance, for the team’s success and for the success of all its students
  • Structures and processes that allow the team to measure whether its goals are being met

My Take – Successful team teaching looks and sounds a lot like special education. The lynchpin of special education is the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – a yearly plan developed by everyone working with the student, including the parent. It sets forth annual goals, describes how these goals will be measured and achieved, and in what settings. If the student does not make progress, the team revisits the plan, and looks to data and related information to determine what should be adjusted so that the child can make progress. These changes can include any number of remedies, e.g., more pull out instructional time, extra support in the classroom, new placement, etc. At the center of all this decision making is an IEP team composed of teachers, therapists and the child’s parent, all acting as equal partners, and all with vital roles to play. Thus special education, when done correctly, has always required the type of conditions Boles and Troen’s describe in their team teaching analysis. It’s a robust process that relies on constant examination of whether a student is making meaningful progress, and if not, why not.

Beth T. Sigall

December 28, 2011

Different path but same destination (part 3/final)

Over thirty five years ago Republicans and Democrats came together in support of the “simple yet profound” belief that students with disabilities are entitled to an education alongside their non-disabled peers. In passing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress recognized that the public school system was not meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Prior to this, children with disabilities were turned away routinely from their public schools. Indeed, in 1975, more than one million students with disabilities were not allowed to attend public school.

Fast forward to today – millions of students with disabilities now receive a public education. In this respect, IDEA helped dramatically shift the paradigm of how we think about educating students with disabilities.

But, as explored in two previous posts, what happens to students with disabilities after they exit school? Are they ready for employment in the real world? And is the real world ready to employ them? The answers to these questions have substantial implications, given that an estimated 2.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. reported disabilities in 2008 (as described by Toddi Gutner in “How to tap talented students with disabilities”).

Some big-time companies are stepping up to help address this pressing need. And as is so often the case, parents continue to lead the way, primarily through the formation of non-profit groups that provide training, networking and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Here are some inspiring examples.


Lime Connect – launched in 2006, this program recruits students with “hidden” disabilities, such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia from top universities, including Princeton, Duke, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. Lime Connect helps these students land internships and ultimately careers at major corporations, such as Google, Target, PepsiCo, Apple, Cisco, McKinsey & Company and others, according to Toddi Gunter with Reuters. Students gain both networking experience as well as connections to other students with hidden disabilities; the connections to similarly situated students is one of the more popular features of the program, writes Gutner.

Unlike some job-training programs for students with disabilities, Lime Connect’s selection process is highly competitive; last year, 125 students applied for 20 fellowship slots. Once chosen, interns do not receive special treatment from their respective companies. According to Lime CEO Susan Lang, “they compete with everyone else. All they’re getting is the connection.” Many land jobs with their companies once the internship ends.  And these companies appreciate the unique qualities these capable students bring to the table. 

When these companies get exposed to our exceptionally talented men and women who have already climbed a mountain and overcome something in their short lives to be successful, they want them on their team

Tom Wilson, former head of global talent sourcing/recruiting at Merrill Lynch and Lime Connect board chairman.


Aspiritech – Founded in 2007 by two parents whose adult son with Asperger’s Syndrome had just been fired from his part-time job bagging groceries despite having a four-year college degree, Aspiritech is a non-profit with a mission to “provide a path for high-functioning individuals on the Autism Spectrum to realize their potential through gainful employment.” Based in Chicago, Aspiritech provides a path to employment by aligning “the unique talents of the autism community,” such as attention to detail and technical aptitude, with the needs of the business community. They provide software testing services to companies.


Specialisterne stands as one of the most-recognized global efforts at employing people with disabilities. Its stated goal is to create one-million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges “through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” Founded in Denmark by parents of a child with autism, (father) Thorkil Sonne mortgaged the family home to cover the start-up costs. Specialisterne trains people with disabilities like autism to do IT work, such as software testing. Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe writes that Microsoft pays “top dollar” for IT work done by Specialisterne“because the quality is superior.” The company recently was recognized as a “good practices” organization for its compliance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Specialisterne now has a U.S. presence in Minnesota.

How can state legislatures help? Massachusetts is considering a bill to revise licensure requirements for special education teachers, allowing them to seek certification in “transitional services.” According to Scott O’Connell of GateHouse News Service, advances in educating students with special needs have “boosted chances at finding employment” but without appropriate transitional support at school “those skills go to waste.” According to O’Connell, some students then “simply go on to receive state services” instead of working.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep Tom Sannicandro, seeks to improve the quality of transitional services offered at the high school level. “Right now they’re not adequately prepared for that transition,” says Sannicandro. “A lot of times there’s a drop-off.” Like IDEA over thirty-five years ago, this bill also has attracted bipartisan support among legislators.

Beth T. Sigall

December 12, 2011

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