"The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: How to Assess the Implementation in High School"
College Writing 2, Dr. Tom McNamara
President George H. W. Bush signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act into law on October 30, 1990. The act guaranteed the access to a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities. This act required all public schools to annually create and implement an Individual Education Program for each student with a disability. The program details the student’s (behavioral, emotional, and academic) goals, progress, and learning environment. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the student to learn in the least restrictive environment, which is the maximum amount of time immersed into a classroom with their general education peers.
Each year, the student’s parents, the special education teacher, a general education teacher, a Local Educational Agency Representative, any evaluation personnel, and any people with specific knowledge regarding the student come together to establish the Individual Education Program. The student once turning 14 ½ years old is also invited to participate in their Individual Education Program meeting as part of the transitioning process which is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. At the IEP meeting, the student alongside the other team members focus on the student’s plan for their future outside of high school and how to best prepare the student for their future. (Illinois State Board of Education, 2020)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act drastically changed how schools approached educating students with disabilities. Since 1990, there have been many education acts that amended or changed parts of the original act like The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 which attempted to increase accountability among school personnel to implement the act. (Kurth et. al, 2014) However, the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act set the foundation for the modern approach to special education.
In this essay, I will examine the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Specifically, I will use a case study of Community High School District 218’s special education program in the southwest suburbs of Chicago (Blue Island, Oak Lawn, and Palos Heights) to assess the implementation of the act. My assessment relies upon the state evaluation of the school district’s implementation of the act and an interview with a highly experienced teacher inside the program. Based on my evaluation, I propose that school districts be assessed on their ability to create curriculum that meets the IEP goals of students with disabilities rather than being solely assessed on their ability to implement the least restrictive environment.
Research Question: How does the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act create a successful learning environment that prepares students with disabilities in Community High School District 218 for their future?
Background and Literature Review
The difficulty of measuring the least restrictive environment
In the United States of America, the least restrictive environment, created by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, serves less as a measurable requirement, but rather as a philosophy subjective to school district personnel’s interpretation (Sumbera et. al, 2014). Beginning in 2004, due to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, each state established a goal regarding the creation and implementation of the least restrictive environment for their students with IEPs.
When reviewing the goals established, the lack of priority placed on implementing the least restrictive environment became evident. Most states made modest goals in lessening the number of students placed in the most restrictive environments in their public schools. Twelve states made a goal of decreasing the most restrictive environment group of learners by less than one percent (Kurth et. al, 2014). The initial lack of ambitious goal making communicates the measurement of the environment of student placement as not a priority.
After eight years of tracking the implementation of the least restrictive environment, substantial measurable growth had not been achieved. In 2012, there had been only a nationwide drop of .44% of students in the most restrictive environment. This means the national average of students in the most restrictive environment dropped only from 3.66% of students in 2004 to 3.22% in 2012. The initial goal for reducing students in the most restrictive environment was a drop of .82%, and the percentage only decreased by .01% (Kurth et. al, 2014). As evident through the lack of meeting modest goals, the implementation of the least restrictive environment as a measurable goal lacks effectiveness.
Principal Interpretation of IDEA
The lack of effectiveness of creating national progress towards preventing the most restrictive environment can source from differing interpretations of what the least restrictive environment means in a specific school environment according to Learning Education Agency Representatives. In order to ensure a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities, a Learning Education Agency Representative is required to attend each student’s IEP meeting. As well as other positions, school principals can serve as the administrative representative of the local education agency. From understanding the principal’s power as a Learning Education Agency Representative, people can understand the power they obtain in determining to what extent a school will provide an inclusive environment as shown in the least restrictive environment requirement.
Through research investigating the quotes from 263 principals and vice-principals throughout the United States of America regarding their attitudes towards guaranteeing a free appropriate public education, people learn how an administrative official approaches their role as the Learning Education Agency Representative. The research concludes that the school principals and vice-principals need more training regarding leadership and special education. Also, the research revealed that the school administrative officials think more often about the general function of the school rather than evaluating the “internal forces” which include school leadership and existing paradigms which are essential to creating the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities (Sumbera et. al, 2014). From the contrast between the Learning Education Agency Representatives’ established purpose and actual priorities of the representatives, the least restrictive environment can be seen as an educational philosophy meaning different things to different people. Since the requirement means different things to different people, the measurement of the least restrictive environment has less significance in guaranteeing a purposeful education for students with disabilities.
The Implementation of IDEA within Community High School District 218
Illinois State Report Card
The Illinois State Report Card reports information regarding a school district’s implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the least restrictive environment. The Illinois Board of Education compares the statewide average amount of students sent to a separate facility to receive their free appropriate public education to the amount in a specific school or district. There are four different categorizations of students with Individual Education Programs. The first categorization is for students spending greater or equal to 80% of their day immersed into classes with their general education peers. The second group spends 40%-79% of their time with their general education peers, while the third group spends less than 40% of their day there. The last group is placed in the most restrictive environment which is in a separate facility.
While Community High School District 218 sends less students than the state average to a separate facility, they allegedly have a weak immersion and mainstreaming focus. As shown in the bar graph, students within Community High School District 218 with IEPs are more commonly placed within a separate learning environment for 40% or less of their day when compared to the state average. From the data presented, students with IEPs within Community High School District 218 are placed substantially less in the 80% or more of the day range than the state average. However, Community High School District 218 places more students with IEPs in class with their regular education peers for 40%-79% of the day when compared to the state average (Illinois State Board of Education, 2020).
I interviewed Ms. Kelsey Clifford, special education teacher in Community High School District 218 at Shepard High School, regarding the special education learning environment in the specific district. Ms. Clifford earned her Bachelor of Arts in Special Education from Eastern Illinois University and earned her Master’s Degree as a reading specialist from Olivet Nazarene University. She works as the self-contained social-emotional facilitator within the special education program. Her knowledge regarding Community High School District 218’s special education department is substantial due to her 11 ½ year work experience within the district and 7-year work experience in her current position. All of her students have a primary emotional disability and are in ninth grade to twelfth grade.
During our interview, Ms. Clifford discussed how District 218 structures their special education program. Out of the three high schools (Eisenhower High School, Richards High School, and Shepard High School), Shepard High School “houses” the special education program for all students with any learning disability outside of a specific learning disability. This means students with autism, cognitive disability, or any severe disability attend school at Shepard High School. In the case where students need to attend a separate school which would mean the most restrictive environment for students with disabilities, Community High School District 218 has the Summit – Delta School where students do not have any interaction with their general education peers. Ms. Clifford noted that placement within Summit – Delta School was the next step for her students if they needed a more restrictive environment. While other districts would send their students outside of the district for these services, Community High School District 218 has their own in-district school for their students.
When discussing the least restrictive environment with Ms. Clifford, she emphasized the importance of least restricting learning placements for developing social skills for her students. Ms. Clifford explained her students “see appropriate modeling of behavior from their [general education] peers” and the least restrictive environment creates that opportunity. While in those classes, “it’s a good time for them to see how their same age peers are acting” even for something as small as how to get the teacher’s attention. Ms. Clifford emphasized her desire to place them in general education classes that enforce the least restrictive environment. Different curriculums allow for this inclusive environment to occur such as Power PE, EMPOWER (Educational Mentoring Partnership Opportunity with Exceptional Rewards), and TOWER Art. These different curriculums provide elective classes for special needs students to learn with their general education peers.
After discussing the least restrictive environment with Ms. Clifford, we discussed how Community High School District 218 addresses “transitioning” as required in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As required by law, students with an IEP upon turning 14 ½ years old are invited to attend their IEP meetings and discuss their plans for their future. Due to the emphasis on the student’s future, Ms. Clifford regarded the transition plan as “the most critical part of the IEP”. The transition plan includes selecting general education elective classes that “are based off of their relative strengths for them [and] future employment ideas for them.” The opportunity to have these general education classes focused on transitional services for a student with a disability is partly because of Community High School District 218 having “plenty of T.A.’s (Teaching Assistants) available so all of our students are supported” in the general education elective classes. The elective transitionary classes in Community High School District 218 continue the importance of the least restrictive environment.
The benefits of these classes are essential to Ms. Kelsey Clifford’s ultimate goal for her students which is “for them to be independent and employable” which is not something covered by gradebook standards. Rather than focusing primarily on academic knowledge, the primary focus for Ms. Clifford lies in the IEP goals created for her students. Furthermore, Ms. Clifford argues that measuring IEP goals and objectives that are tracked every quarter of the school year is “the best measure of success”. Growing to meet these goals and celebrating that growth with her students serves as Ms. Clifford’s favorite part of her job.
The requirement of transitioning as required in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act continues for “non-diploma seeking students” inside Community High School District 218 up until the day they turn twenty-two years old. For these students, the district provides ATP (Adult Transition Program). Ms. Clifford recognized ATP as “the best part of District 218” because of the skills developed inside the building. In the building, students learn independent living skills like developing on site vocational skills through High 5 Apparel company, working at Walgreens and Marshalls, exploring the Oak Lawn community, working on transportation and mobility training, and personal development and independent living skills (CHSD 218, 2019). When elaborating on the unique services created from the Adult Transition Program hosted in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Ms. Clifford noted how parents with special needs children purposely live inside Community High School District 218 because of the services available for their student until they turn twenty-two.
As Ms. Clifford discussed, the placement of students with disabilities inside general education classrooms serves as an essential part of her students’ days because of the skills developed inside the classes. However, the implementation of the least restrictive environment as shown in the Illinois State Report Card and the tracking of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 would suggest that the district fails to create the proposed environment. While conducting research, I observed a disconnect between the data driven tracking of the least restrictive environment and the curriculum and experiences of an experienced special education teacher within the district. As my research shows, the data attempting to track the enforcement of the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities in Community High School District 218 proposes a false conclusion that the district fails to promote inclusion.
While my research only focuses on the learning environments for students with disabilities within the district, the disconnect between the data tracked by the state as evident in the Illinois State Report Card (Illinois State Board of Education, 2020) and the national evaluation (Kurth et. al, 2014) offers a justified concern about the methods in which students are evaluated. Nicole Chung (2020), an American writer, editor, and mother of a student with an Individual Education Program, recently wrote a piece in The New York Times entitled “My Child Has a Disability. What Will Her Education Be Like This Year?”. In the article, Chung discusses the importance of maintaining the focus on IEP goals even though her daughter learns remotely due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Chung discusses the detailed process of developing IEP goals for a student including all the members who attend those meetings. As seen through the establishment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Ms. Kelsey Clifford’s statements, and Chung’s current situation, the goals established by Individual Education Programs for students with disabilities accurately create a method of measuring and tracking growth. While I recognize that measuring how many IEP goals are met by a school in a year would break confidentiality, my research urges people to recognize the individuality in growth, especially of students with disabilities.
Purpose of policy: Illinois SB2281 would allow students turning the age of twenty-two during the academic school year to finish the academic year inside the adult transition program. This would allow for these students to continue the school year rather than having to leave the program the day prior to their twenty-second birthday. An Individual Education Program would be created and implemented for the student aged twenty-two years. (Illinois General Assembly, 2019)
Going further than Illinois SB2281, I propose that the Illinois Board of Education be required to report on the Illinois State Report Card the specific curriculum used in a district to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For Community High School District 218, the Illinois State Report Card would list Power PE, EMPOWER (Educational Mentoring Partnership Opportunity with Exceptional Rewards), and TOWER Art because this curricula creates an inclusive environment that works on IEP goals. The proposed legislation also requires listing the transitional services for students with disabilities after high school. In Community High School District 218, the Illinois State Report Card would highlight the services at their Adult Transition Program. This would include the onsite and offsite vocational skills training, transportation and mobility training, and personal and independent living skills.
Rationale: Special needs students should, exactly like their general education peers, have the opportunity to complete their access to a free appropriate public education with their class at the end of the school year. The method of terminating access to a free appropriate public education on a student’s twenty-second birthday during the school year directly contradicts the traditional method of determining a student’s grade placement in schools by grouping and moving students to the next grade together. While continuing the sense of community among peers, the permitting of students to complete their academic school year while twenty-two years old allows the student to continue to develop and achieve social and behavioral IEP goals which prepare students for independent living.
In regards to my proposition of mandating the Illinois State Board of Education to list Individuals with Disabilities Education Act enforcing curriculum to a school or district’s Illinois State Report Card, the justification sources from what makes a school successful for students with disabilities. The current method of tracking a school or district’s implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is only observing the percentage of time students with IEPs spend inside a regular education classroom. While this method only attempts to evaluate one aspect of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the proposed addition to the Illinois State Report Card would better assess a school or school district’s ability to create an environment where a student with a disability can grow. The Illinois State Report Card should fairly evaluate a school’s success for every student, and by neglecting to mention important curriculums that foster growth, the Illinois Board of Education fails to portray the success of a school.
The current method of evaluation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would deem Community High School District 218 as providing an inadequate educational setting for students with disabilities. However, I discovered that the school district actually creates exceptional educational settings for students with disabilities through interviewing an experienced special education teacher who works inside the district. The disconnect between the state’s evaluation of the district (Illinois State Board of Education, 2020) and the reality of the students’ learning opportunities reveal major issues concerning the current methods of evaluation. From my research, I endorse a current piece of legislation in the Illinois General Assembly, and I propose a necessary change in state assessments of school districts.
Community High School District 218 exceeds their goal of preparing students with special needs for their future by offering an Adult Transition Program. While required to provide transition services, the unique curriculum that develops essential skills for students aged 18-22 exceed requirements from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Due to the many opportunities provided for students with special needs inside Community High School District 218, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act paints only a partial picture into how an effective school educates their special needs students. These services for students with disabilities should be showcased on the district’s Illinois State Report Card since it more accurately portrays the learning environments of students with IEPs inside the district.
As well as amending the methods of evaluation, the transition services for special needs students can be improved by simply allowing these students to finish their final academic school year. By enacting SB2281, the Illinois General Assembly sends the message to special education students that their transition into adulthood is supported. By failing to enact the bill, the state sends the message that transitioning services lack importance. Ending a process that started when the student was only 14 ½ years old suddenly and abruptly leaves students, parents, and faculty feeling underappreciated for the growth that should be celebrated. Since Community High School District 218 provides services that prepare their special education students for their adult lives, the state of Illinois should allow the transition to occur on the school district’s terms by enacting SB2281.