Almost 50 years ago, the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142, 1975) established a federal mandate for public schools to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all children with disabilities (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973). Prior to 1975, students with disabilities were either excluded from public schools entirely or provided with inadequate services (United States Department of Education [USED], 2020). The current iteration of the law is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004). In the 48 years since the initial legislation was authorized, the provision of specialized educational services designed to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities has steadily moved towards more inclusive practices providing access to the general education curriculum.
Today, it has been established that the default placement for students with disabilities is in the general education classroom with their nondisabled peers (USED, 2011). School leaders are responsible for creating conditions that provide students with disabilities access to the general education setting and curriculum where they are expected to make meaningful progress. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the document used to establish goals and monitor progress for each student eligible for special education under IDEA. Meaningful progress is now measured against the Endrew Standard (Endrew, F. v. Douglas County School District, 2017). This new standard has raised expectations for schools serving students with disabilities. In this landmark Supreme Court decision, the justices unanimously determined that schools must “set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement” (Endrew F., 2017, p. 11) and “offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress” (p. 16).
Prior to the Endrew Standard, school divisions were guided by the Rowley Standard which only required schools to provide services resulting in minimal student progress (Rowley, 1982). Under Endrew, schools are required to develop and implement IEPs that are designed to close skill gaps and result in appropriately ambitious progress for each student with a disability. While a student’s unique strengths and needs are still expected to drive decision making, it is no longer acceptable to hold low expectations for students served under IDEA.
It is important for school leaders to understand that “inclusion goes beyond physical presence or access to general education settings” (Virginia Department of Education [VDOE], 2019, p.8). Placing students in general education classrooms does not automatically satisfy the requirement that schools provide unique, individualized instruction that is progress monitored and collaboratively adjusted based on the strengths and needs of each student (USED, 2017). Students with disabilities should have appropriately challenging IEP goals designed to close specific skill gaps. Inclusive school leaders establish expectations and practices ensuring that students with disabilities have access to, and make progress in, the general education curriculum.
Students with disabilities do not experience full access to the general education curriculum when their underlying skill gaps go unaddressed. It is a mistake to think that exposure to the general education curriculum will help students achieve grade level standards without an intense focus on individualized goals and interventions. “Only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished” (Fuchs, 2016). A productive momentum is created when teachers make meaningful connections between access and progress monitoring of specific skills. Access sets the stage for skill progress and skill progress improves access.
School leaders can create productive conditions by employing the 22 High Leverage Practices (HLPs) for Students with Disabilities developed by the CEEDAR Center and the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). HLPs in the areas of assessment, behavior, and instruction can be accomplished by utilizing the Data-Based Individualization (DBI) method. The DBI method was developed by the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII) and the PROGRESS Center to provide well-targeted SDI to students with disabilities. The DBI problem-solving process helps teachers apply the scientific method to teaching and learning by using student response data to intensify interventions. School leaders can share available DBI resources with their teachers, and follow-up with any training needs identified, in order to enhance access and improve progress for students with disabilities.
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, RE-1, U.S. 580 (2017). https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf
Fuchs, L. (2016, February). What should educators consider when thinking about access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities? [Video]. National Center on Intensive Intervention Ask the Expert. https://intensiveintervention.org/resource/what-should-educators-consider-when-thinking-about-access-general-education-curriculum
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §1400 (2004). https://sites.ed.gov/idea/
Hendrick Hudson District Board of Education. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/458/176/
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (1973). https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html
United States Department of Education. (2011). Questions and answers on least restrictive environment (LRE) requirements of the IDEA. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. https://www.azed.gov/sites/default/files/2016/12/LRE%20Requirements.pdf?id=5862a2e3aadebe14786bb59f
United States Department of Education. (2017). Questions and answers (Q&A) on U. S. Supreme Court case decision Endrew F. v. Douglas county school district re-1. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/questions-and-answers-qa-on-u-s-supreme-court-case-decision-endrew-f-v-douglas-county-school-district-re-1/
Virginia Department of Education. (2019). K-12 inclusive practices guide. Department of Special Education and Student Services, Office of Special Education Instruction. https://www.doe.virginia.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/33463/638052335244270000