“General education students with IEPs” — an unwise oxymoron

A term I heard, new to me, during COVID upended my view about special education: “General education students with IEPs.” Really? Who are these students? Do you know any?

Labeling students as disabled because they struggle is wrong, especially if our goal is to educate them better. Such mislabeling has even been called abusive! Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Learners and How WE Can Fight It: Hettleman, Kalman R.: 9781635766394: Amazon.com: Books

Instead of plugging these students into an ill-fitting 45+ year old legal system — the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted in 1975 — and further bloating it with mind-numbing procedures, huge costs, amid decidedly mixed results — and now burdened by COVID compensatory services claims — we need a new way to think about and work with struggling students — especially post COVID. For true student success, we need a new “normal” by focus, focus, focus, with passion and commitment, on educating them in general education through high quality teaching and learning opportunities.

Far better to engage an army of excellent teachers than to continue to engage an army of bureaucrats and lawyers, as we have since 1975. Especially as, sitting right next to these students in our classrooms are “general ed students without IEPs,” many of whom are equally behind, equally hurt by COVID, equally at risk. The group without IEPs often includes at-risk students, immigrants, tuned out students, students in poverty, students lacking effective technology at home, non-English speakers, and others.

Can you tell the difference between these two groups? Probably not, especially as disability labels for students with “mild or moderate needs” are imprecise and may reflect parental advocacy and certain ZIP codes more than actual student needs.

Who are “general education students with IEPs?” Undoubtedly, they are among students with mild and moderate needs who make up 80–90% of today’s students with disabilities with IEPs. Other countries, like Singapore, Finland, and others, don’t label struggling students this way; instead, they focus on educating all students through early and targeted interventions. As do many successful US school districts.

Meanwhile back to our law. Notably, this skewing of percentages was not planned by the IDEA, which was enacted for students with severe and profound needs — who now make up just 10–20% of today’s students with IEPs. Let’s be clear. “General education students with IEPs” do NOT include these 10–20% of students. For them, the special education system should proceed as is. Indeed, many schools expended enormous funding and effort to bring those students back early during the pandemic to meet their needs.

Let’s focus instead on the many other students for whom, tragically, legal constrictions often impede great education, highlighted by the current crisis.

Within that legal framework, we hear that special needs students suffered during the pandemic. They did. No doubt. Many parents are suing their schools for “compensatory services” to make up for lost services. See NPR’s report, Families Fight Schools For The Special Education COVID Shut Down : NPR. Notably, the NPR report highlighted the 10–20% of students with severe and profound needs. Whether claims settle or go to due process hearings, they challenge schools. To meet that challenge, California set aside $100 million to help resolve these disputes. How California plans to deter costly special education disputes | EdSource.

In fairness, stop and think for a moment. Isn’t it also true and very real that, besides students with IEPs, many others fell behind during COVID. What about them? Sadly, as I see it, instead of a rational response to a public education crisis, we revert to the comfort (?) of the old law that ill-fits today’s reality. Couldn’t we better spend that $100 million?

For compensatory services claims for students with IEPs who missed therapies, placements, meetings, etc., we have an army of lawyers. These cases are easy to win. After all, our federal Department of Education refused to waive any requirements for schools due to COVID back in 2020. The students’ IEPs were NOT fully implemented. The Feds told us they had to be. Case closed. Next!

Billy is entitled to 50 hours of speech therapy, a private school, or whatever he missed. Schools, ordered to pay, will deplete their budgets. Note California’s $100 million pot to alleviate this burden.

But are we being smart or wise? Are these wins good for students or for public schools? Phyllis Wolfram, Executive Director of CASE (Council of Administrators of Special Education), warned that if schools pay out all that is owed through compensatory services, we may break the system of public education.

Ironically, providing compensatory services may further exacerbate the struggles of many general education students without IEPs. It may lead more parents to seek IDEA eligibility for their children — further bloating the special education entitlement with more “general education students with IEPs”. That’s the nature of an entitlement — those who have it, get. Those who don’t are on their own and may try to get in on the deal.

What shall we do instead? Focus on learning, more than labeling. See, e. g., excellent education in communities that implement a competency-based system (CBS) and work to meet all students’ needs with timely intervention — whether the students are struggling, advanced, or in between (About CBS / About CBS (westminsterpublicschools.org) ). Notably, Westminster’s motto is: “Services before labels.” Right on!

See also programs that focus on hiring excellent teachers to build learning from the very beginning, so that students may not need any labeling. See, e.g., Harvard Education Publishing Group (hepg.org). And see the many communities where, surprisingly, harmony grew during COVID — and no compensatory services are claimed! These districts improved communication between home and school — building trust — through person to person, human connection, as they worked with students. Schools Up Communications Game During Pandemic (govtech.com)

In sum, the push for compensatory services happens seemingly automatically, by law, and since it’s an entitlement, dare we ask if there’s any science or rationality behind it?

Speaking of science — do we have evidence that an additional 50 hours of speech therapy, a year late, will help Billy? Is it the best use of scarce public resources? Does it make sense — or are we just filling a “right” — like automatons. Next!

Speaking of equity, fairness, wisdom, inclusion, and our public schools — Do we have any explanation to give to that student who has no IEP — of the reason we don’t focus on him?

We don’t. And we don’t.

If COVID didn’t shake us to our core, what will? Sure, 50 hours of therapy will be compensated. Public schools will pay. As “the only game in town”, more parents may seek IDEA “protection” for their children, further depleting general education programs and budgets. Advocates may rejoice. But is it good for America?

It is not. It’s time to change our path. Or, are we doomed to keep grasping that 45+year old system that ill-fits today’s challenges — because change is hard and powerful interests stand in the way? I hope not!

Let’s, at least, change the conversation and stop labeling general education students; let’s do something different for all students — with or without IEPs, as CBS and other effective programs already do.

It’s time to pivot toward all students who need good teaching, more than they need labeling, procedures, or rights. Far better than “compensatory services” for the few is real education for the many, especially those who fell behind during COVID. If we don’t pivot, that needy child without an IEP may learn less and less, more parents may lose trust in our public schools, and learning losses may lead to further watered-down standards. None of this is equity, reasonable, inclusive, equitable, or wise.

We’re overdue for a new “normal.” The question is: will we answer the COVID alarm and opportunity? The time for choosing is now.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman is an attorney, reformer, and author. Her latest book is Special Education 2.0. And, check out her pandemic medicine bottle art!