Raising the Bar for Students with Disabilities: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

The Supreme Court ruling in the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case is now raising the bar for special education for the first time in decades. The unanimous decision, issued in favor of Endrew on March 22, clearly establishes that “a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year, can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

The ruling came after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on behalf of Endrew F., a child with an autism spectrum disorder and an attention deficit/hyperactive disorder, who received annual Individualized Education Programs in the Douglas County School District in Colorado. According to the case, Endrew’s school never effectively addressed his behavioral issues and as a result, he made little to no progress from year to year. In fifth grade, his parents withdrew him from the school in Douglas County and enrolled him in a private school. They immediately developed a behavioral intervention plan and Endrew has since made significant progress.

This case is important to schools and individuals who serve students with disabilities because it addresses a very grey area in the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The act offers states federal funding to assist in educating children with disabilities. Along with that funding, states must comply with statutory requirements that obligate them to provide every child a “free appropriate public education.” Until now, that level of education was interpreted by a 1982, Board of Education v. Rowley case, in which the Supreme Court determined that free appropriate education meant states only had to provide “some educational benefit” to students with disabilities who meet grade-level expectations.

Today, that thought process has changed. The Supreme Court’s ruling is sending a message that it is necessary for schools across the country to help students progress, no matter their challenges. Quality instruction and intervention is the expectation for students with disabilities and therefore, we cannot ignore or dismiss the need for IEPs and interventions to be reasonably calculated to ensure children make progress in light of their circumstances or disabilities.

Over time, we’ve seen that students with disabilities can and do learn with quality programming. With the right support, they can also make progress throughout their educational career and integrate into society by acquiring jobs and living meaningful adult lives. One of the growing expectations to accomplish this in special education is the need to utilize evidence-based practices. Endrew was placed at a school that utilized Applied Behavior Analysis as the basis of its intervention practice. ABA is a well-established evidence-based practice in education. For students to have the greatest opportunity to succeed, their educational plan or program must be proven effective. Rethink is committed to all children and educators having access to the professional development tools and resources necessary to deliver effective interventions. The intervention strategies contained within Rethink are both highly effective and evidence-based. Like the program that Endrew attended, ABA is the foundation of Rethink.

Endrew prevailed in this case because he made significantly more progress in his alternative school after regressing in the previous public school he attended. This progress was demonstrated through his behavioral intervention plan and through his private school’s ability to track his progress with quality data collection and analysis tools. As a result of this case, schools must now be prepared to demonstrate that every student is making more than de minimis progress. Progress monitoring, although required by IDEA, is an aspect of special education service delivery that teachers are often not able to implement with a high degree of fidelity. Rethink supports teachers to develop, implement and monitor instructional programs. It also helps them to feel confident monitoring progress in instruction to ensure that children are not just learning, but growing in their abilities to meet their educational goals. Educators can also use Rethink to monitor progress and adapt their intervention plans and strategies to confirm students are making more than de minimis progress to meet the Supreme Court’s expectations. While more support is still necessary for schools to serve students with special needs adequately, this ruling is certainly a step in the right direction. With hope, education will rise to the challenge and R

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