Evaluating the Efficacy of the LRE

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I attended an IEP meeting recently that really brought home for me the complex nuances of determining what placement, or blend of placement options, represents the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”) for an individual student with an IEP. Not only are there the academic factors, there are the social/emotional factors of a particular configuration of services and placement to consider as well.

But, it goes beyond that. A truly honest evaluation of LRE also looks at the culture of the school, if not the entire school district, where the placement is to occur. What constitutes the LRE for a child according to best practices is not necessarily what’s realistically achievable in a school district that does not consistently apply best practices throughout its general education settings.

Many times, for example, a full inclusion program doesn’t fail because the child was unable to respond to appropriate pushed-in support in the general education setting. Full inclusion often fails because of weaknesses in how a school district has set up its general education programs in the first place, into which students with IEPs – who have all kinds of legal rights and protections that the general education students don’t have – then?try to integrate. The failure can be just as much because the general education setting is inappropriate for the general education students, much less a student with special needs.

Personally, I think every child should receive an individualized education. You shouldn’t have to have something “wrong” with you to be taught in a manner most consistent with how you are most likely to experience educational success.

However, our public education system was developed 100 years ago during the Industrial Revolution and emulates the assembly line. Trying to achieve individualization in a setting configured for mass production is an exercise in futility. Full inclusion, therefore, can fail because the effort to individualize for a fully included special education student in the general education setting runs counter to the mass production mentality of general ed.

So, what can happen is that parents will successfully advocate, they think, for full inclusion – or at least increased mainstreaming opportunities – only for the whole thing to go horribly awry once implemented. Afterwards, smug school district personnel will sit in IEP meetings throwing I-told-you-so’s into the parents’ faces, as though it was an outrageous mistake to push for full inclusion and?the parents should have known better.

In this example, this is not an accurate reflection of what the student could have achieved in an appropriate fully included program; this is a reflection of the general education environment being 100 years out of date and operating in a manner inconsistent with best practices. It also smacks of a deliberate effort on the part of the “educators” to undermine the student’s success in order to win an argument, which, unfortunately, does happen.

The flip side of this issue is a decision by the IEP team to place a student in a more restrictive setting for seemingly legitimate reasons only for the placement to turn into a warehousing facility that renders no more educational benefit to the student than what he/she received in general ed. The only function served by the placement is to unburden the general education teacher who had no idea what to do with the floundering student.

Done properly, each gradation of restrictiveness serves a legitimate purpose. It’s called the “continuum of placement” for a reason. The idea is that what represents the LRE for a given student depends on a myriad of learning needs unique to that child?that have to be satisfied by balancing the right to not be automatically segregated on the basis of handicapping condition with the right to receive meaningful educational benefit from the instruction.

For many kids with IEPs, the LRE is mostly general education placement with some pull-out for specialized academic instruction in key core areas and/or therapeutic intervention (such as speech-language services, OT, counseling, etc.). In theory, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal. In reality, it can be an emotional powder keg for parents and educators.

Parents can become too emotionally invested in either sheltering their children too much and keeping them in a far too restrictive environment to protect them from the inappropriate conduct of others or swinging to the opposite extreme and pushing for full inclusion when it’s just not going to support their child’s needs because they’re hung up on labels.

In the latter scenario, sometimes one or both parents are more worried about being judged for having a kid in special ed than whether their child is benefiting from the instruction. It’s been my experience – and I’m being really, really general here, so please don’t send me hate email if this doesn’t apply to you – that fathers have a harder time accepting a special education placement than mothers. I suspect, though it would be interesting to see peer-reviewed research on this, that this is socialized behavior based on cultural norms, but that’s a whole different conversation for a future post.

Then there are a jillion situations between the extremes of over-protection and throwing kids to the wolves where legitimate parent concerns become muddled with misinformed fears and anxieties over “what-ifs” as well as social and cultural perceptions of what special education is and isn’t and what it means to be the parent of a child in special education. Another contributor is a parent’s own locus of control – the degree to which the parent has the sense that life is something that?just?happens to people (external locus of control) or that life is something that people actively shape and direct for themselves (internal locus of control).

So, suffice it to say that determining what represents the LRE for an individual child is often a difficult thing to do well even in the most ideal circumstances. To try and figure it out in the midst of internal school district politics, entrenched cultures at specific school sites, the cronyism inherent in any school situation that promotes teachers banding together for right or wrong whenever questioned by parents about anything, … well, you can imagine if you already don’t know first hand. It’s next to impossible.

So, as a parent, what do you do? It’s our position here at KPS4Parents that the real solution here goes back to rendering a data-driven special education program regardless of the placement so the IEP team can make fact-based decisions about what constitutes the LRE for an individual child.

The District wants to place the kid in a more restrictive setting? What data supports this recommendation? What data will be taken once the placement is changed to determine if it’s working or not?

Using Response to Intervention (“RtI”) methodologies in the implementation of special education is best practices. This means taking data on all of the areas of need being targeted in a child’s IEP. If placement is changed to address a unique student need, then data should be taken on the factors of that need to inform the placement change as well as to determine the efficacy of the placement change as a strategic intervention.

There should also be fidelity checking built into the IEP and there’s an absolute dearth of fidelity checking in IEP development practices, nationwide. Fidelity checking is a system of checks and balances that helps everyone make sure that a child’s IEP is being implemented as written. That way, if the child isn’t benefiting from his/her education, as part of the examination as to why, whether or not the IEP is actually being implemented as intended by the IEP team can be ruled out if the fidelity checks show that it has been followed as written.

Fidelity checking is particularly important with IEP content that targets behavior modification. This is even more important if the proposed change in placement is being made due to behavioral concerns.

Getting school districts to employ best practices with data collection can be exceptionally difficult. For one, they don’t want to document their mistakes in the event that a dispute arises that ends up going to hearing. As a preemptive legal defense strategy, no data means no evidence. Understand that this is a huge contributing factor in school districts’ objections to data-driven programming.

The other objection commonly heard from school districts about doing data-driven programming is that it creates additional personnel costs and/or over-burdens staff with data collection and analysis tasks that they don’t have time to deal with. The fact that it’s difficult is unfortunate, but it shouldn’t be your kid’s problem.

We already know teaching kids with exceptional needs is hard; that’s why people get specialized advanced degrees and credentials to do it. To then put these people in the field and say, “Well, we know you trained and signed up to do this really hard work, but we’re not going to expect you to actually do it because it’s, you know, really hard,” is outrageous.

Staffing issues like this go back to how our public schools are antiquated in design and accommodating the design rather than amending the design to fit the present needs of society is a typical government response but is nonetheless wholly inappropriate and should not be acceptable to any parent.?Forfeiting a child’s educational and civil rights to accommodate the convenience of a cumbersome dinosaur of an entrenched bureaucracy is not the right answer to anything.

Developing a proper system of data collection to inform placement decisions and engage in fidelity checking is not an easy thing to do, but there are plenty of research-based methodologies that can be used and any educator who understands best practices and desires to help improve the public education system rather than subsist off of it should be able to help create something appropriate for a given child. That said, I think examples may be in order here because I suspect, for many of you, all of this sounds like a foreign language. So, I’m going to invent an imaginary student and situation then use him to illustrate my points, here.

Our hypothetical student – let’s call him Stan – is in 4th grade and has fallen significantly behind his classmates in reading comprehension. This impacts him globally because, by the 4th grade, students are no longer learning to read; they’re reading to learn. Reading is now a tool they must use to independently acquire new information across all subject areas. A reading comprehension problem is a train wreck at this point in his educational career.

Efforts have been made to use accommodations and different teaching strategies in his general education 4th grade class, but they aren’t working. There are 34 other kids in the class, one teacher, and no aide.

Stan is already on an IEP for learning disabilities and the reading comprehension issue doesn’t come as a surprise as he’s always been below grade level in this area, but now it’s really kicking his butt because of how reading is meant to be used starting in 4th grade as a learning vehicle, which Stan can’t do. At this point, if Stan doesn’t learn how to overcome the reading comprehension issue, he’s pretty much hosed academically all the way around.

The District recommends pulling Stan out of his general education language arts program and giving him more specialized academic instruction in reading skills in a resource class. There are only eight other students in the resource class during that time and there is not only the resource teacher, who is specifically trained to help kids with these kinds of needs, but also an aide who helps the resource teacher provide more individualized support to the students in the resource class.

Here’s the part where the rubber meets the road, though: Stan’s IEP goals need to target all of the areas of need regarding reading comprehension that this change in placement is meant to address. This isn’t just a strategy for parents to use to increase accountability on the part of the school district; it is a procedural requirement under the law. Services are driven by goals.

If a service, such as resource specialist services, is provided to a student, it’s with an intended outcome in mind. IEP goals describe the outcomes intended by special education intervention.

First you have to describe what you want to make happen and then you figure out what services are needed in order to make it all come together. You don’t pick a service and then say, “Okay, how can I use this to help?” (though this happens all the time).

So, when the school district rep tells Stan’s parents about this idea to give him extra support in resource to help him stay on top of his work that depends on intact reading comprehension skills as well as help him actually increase his reading comprehension abilities, right there you have some intended outcomes described. Write goals to these outcomes and make sure that how progress towards the goals is measured requires data to be collected; then you’ve got a system to measure whether the placement change is working or not.

The measure of success of the placement is Stan’s progress towards the goals that were written for the needs that drove the placement change in the first place. Possible goals – and, again, this is all hypothetical so please don’t copy and paste these into an email to your kid’s teacher insisting that these goals be added to your kid’s IEP unless they truly apply and the IEP team has had a chance to talk about them – may include:

  • 1st Possible Baseline & Goal:
    • Baseline: ?Stan is falling behind in his classroom assignments that involve reading for knowledge. This is impacting him in all core subjects. At this time, he has completed only 3 out of the 20 assignments made this school year so far that require analysis of written material and none of them received passing marks due to incorrect answers and questions that were not answered. When asked, Stan indicates that he doesn’t understand what he’s reading and can’t find the information to complete the assignments. Stan’s passage comprehension score on the WJ-III administered last year placed him at the 12th percentile.
    • Annual Goal: When given general education assignments involving independent reading and analysis of written material, with resource specialist support, Stan will master the content as demonstrated by passing grades recorded in teachers’ grade books and work samples on at least 80% of the work assigned.
  • 2nd Possible Baseline & Goal:
    • Baseline: Stan’s reading comprehension as measured on the passage comprehension subtest of the WJ-III last year fell at the 12th percentile.?Anecdotally, he reports struggling with reading comprehension, particularly in assignments that require him to draw information from written passages to produce work. Pre-intervention baseline data indicates that Stan can read a beginning second grade passage of 3-5 paragraphs and verbally answer at least 4 of 5 comprehension questions accurately.
    • Annual Goal: When given a written passage of 3-5 paragraphs written at the mid-third grade level, Stan will accurately verbally answer at least 4 of 5 comprehension questions about the passage, one passage per trial in 5 consecutive trials as measured by data collection.

Under no circumstances should you ever, as a parent, consent to an IEP goal that is measured via “observation.” Observation is the passive act of looking at something. It is not a method of measurement. Measurement means taking down numerical information – counting something, timing how long something takes, scoring something according to a rubric, etc.

If there aren’t actual numbers being written down somewhere, something is wrong. Nothing infuriates me more than a goal that targets 80% accuracy and I get into the IEP meeting where the teacher or therapist says, “Oh, I’d say he’s at about a 75%” without any data to support such an assertion. And, when you ask how they know, it comes out that they are estimating based on their memory and haven’t measured a thing. It’s a shameful, unprofessional practice that passes as standard operating procedure in way too many school districts.

So, now we have an example with respect to using IEP goals to measure the efficacy of a placement. With respect to fidelity checking, this often again comes back to the goals. Notice in my example above that the first possible goal states it will be measured by both teacher grade book records and work samples. This is to keep people honest. It’s way too tempting and easy for a teacher to write down a grade that will keep parents off his/her back than to do true data collection and analysis.

Even if the teacher isn’t looking to cut corners, the school district may be worried that the goal is not being met and then the placement recommendation won’t look like it was really the help they promised it would be. If that’s the case, the district may actually pressure the teacher to engage in “modified grades” so that the grade book doesn’t really tell the true story. Using work samples keeps things real; they speak for themselves.

Other systems of checking for fidelity include actual procedures such as case managers checking to make sure that aides are taking data correctly and timely, monthly implementation team meetings with parents to discuss progress towards the goals and any bumps in the road that have been encountered, or automated data tracking (like Goalbook) kept in real time where parents can log in and see progress as it occurs.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. All of this kind of planning is, like any other part of an IEP, individualized to the student, so the best I can do here is give examples to help explain the concepts and hope you can generalize the concepts to your child’s unique situation. If you have suggestions to add to my examples, by all means, please post them below as a comment.

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