Do 48 Million Students Need IEPs?: If typical students are so far behind, should they be classified as special education students?

From newsletter:

This week, a 9th grade math teacher confided in me that his students were seriously behind. “I had many of my ninth graders two years ago, when I taught 7th grade. A lot of them have forgotten stuff that they knew two years ago. I say to them, ‘come on! You knew that!’” He said that he could quit his job tomorrow and become a full time tutor, because there is such high demand for after-school help. 

In my state, students learned on Zoom classrooms for 18 months. All the early studiesshow that remote education was ineffective — we know that kids who spent more time learning remotely suffered worse losses than kids who went back to school quickly — but we don’t know the specifics for our state and localities yet. And learning still isn’t back up to speed yet, because kids are struggling to focus and are overwhelmed. Administrators are coping with substitute teacher shortagesmissing students, and never ending crises. Teachers are swamped by the massive needs in their classrooms

If my friend, the math teacher, is right, and kids are really two years behind academically, what should we about it? We could ignore the problem, expect that parents will pay for tutors, and hope for the best. We could heavily invest in one-on-one tutoring to bring everyone back up to speed. Perhaps, we should we classify them as special education students. 

What if every kid, who doesn’t meet standards on state exams, was given an IEP and was considered a special ed kid until they rebound? If they aren’t reading or doing math on grade level, aren’t they technically special education students? Would this classification help them? As a parent in the special education trenches I know that classification comes with pros and cons. 

An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is 40-page contract between the student, the parent, and the school with information about all the students’ diagnosis and limitations, and detailed plans about how to help the student reach certain goals. For new parents, a laundry list of your child’s short coming is painful business, but after a few years, you get numb to it. These goals are reviewed once a year, at the very minimum, in meetings that can last up to three hours. In general, parents want the schools to do more. Schools want to do less, because everything extra costs money. It’s seldom an easy process. 

Often those meetings and documents are pointless, because if the teachers do not have enough resources or training or support, then they simply can’t do much for your kid. I think most parents just give up after a while, when theory and legal rights hit the wall of reality. 

However, there is one power of IEPs and the special education classification that remains strong, especially when public education stops working. Special education parents can tell school administrators, “since you can’t provide my child with the right educational and therapeutical environment, then you have to send her to a private school that is aimed at kids like her. And here’s my big lawyer who is going to make that happen. And you have to pay the tuition. K. Bye. Thanks.” 

Forcing a public school to pay private school tuition is a big power. Sometimes just the threat of using that power is enough to get the school district to give a student extra counseling or tutoring — anything to keep those litigious parents happy. So, perhaps just the threat of turning typical students into special education students would be enough for schools to provide extra help to students who have suffered the worst learning loss. 

If we don’t deal with the very expensive and complicated educational problems that have arisen since March 2020, then we’re going to be dealing with long-term issues with an under-educated workforce, empty college classrooms, and a host of social ills. I would rather deal with these problems now, but that’s just me.

11 thoughts on “Do 48 Million Students Need IEPs?: If typical students are so far behind, should they be classified as special education students?

  1. I suspect that this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, Laura.
    But, honestly, the *last* thing kids with real special education issues need is a flood of kids who have no issues apart from poor teaching, swamping the few resources which *are* dedicated to them.

    The real issue with these kids isn’t that they’ve got intrinsic barriers to learning, they just haven’t been taught anything over the last 18 months.

    A far better solution would be to repeat educational years (I know, there are logistical issues here too – where does the extra classroom space come from, extra teachers, social stigma, etc., etc.)

    But I think these are overcomeable.

    If classroom space is an issue for the next couple of years, then delay the incoming 5 year-olds (year 1, for us in NZ) – keep them in ECE for another year. Yes, there are financial considerations – suggest that the State pay the ECE tuition for these kids.

    That helps with the teacher situation, as well. Though not enough. Big classes – with little one-to-one relationship with teachers is going to make the educational situation worse. Hiring lots of teacher aides (assuming you can get them – not sure what the job market is like in the US) – takes some of the classroom/behaviour management load off the teacher, and lets her (it mostly is her) get on with the job.

    Run all of the kids through standard educational tests. Any who aren’t at grade level, are going to repeat that grade.
    To overcome the social stigma, you could set up blended grade classes (they do this a lot here in NZ, in the primary schools). Call it a Grade 3/4 class. Mostly kids who are repeating Grade 3, but can also add in some advanced Grade 2s who are ready to move up a grade. At the end of the year, the whole cohort just becomes Grade 4, next year. [If you have some kids ready for Grade 5, which is where they should be, by age, then you can advance those few kids]

    None of this is going to help the high-school kids who’ve basically given up on school. Suggest pathways into apprenticeships, supported by community college make-up classes (really covering literacy and numeracy, as well as whatever technical knowledge is required for their trade).
    Community college could also basically offer repeats of the final 2 years of high-school – some teens may be more willing to try college rather than school.
    Again, I think the State should cover the first 2 years of tuition costs at the Community college – since it’s making up for no ‘free’ teaching during Covid.

    Of course, all of this requires political will to achieve. Don’t expect to see any of it happening….


  2. Manpower is going to be a huge issue.

    Lord knows they’re having enough trouble just staffing schools 5 days a week.

    “A proposal from the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) to Portland Public Schools (PPS) asks the district to convert one day per week at district high schools to an asynchronous day, which means students would stay home and complete school work but wouldn’t have any in-person classes or instruction.”

    That was from an article less than a week ago.

    My current suggestion is optional small group summer school, as it’s unlikely that there will be enough trained people available to do tutoring during the 2021-2022 school year.


  3. From Laura’s twitter (kinda sorta on topic):

    “Ethan Crumbly should have been institutionalized. Like the Parkland shooter, he was telling everyone that he was have disturbing thoughts and needed help. Even if the parents and school hadn’t dropped the ball, it would have been tough to get him a bed in a safe place.”

    That’s right.

    I’d go further to say that when the school said that he needed to go straight into counseling or not be allowed back on school campus, unless the school had an emergency counselor referral, that was the same as an indefinite suspension. And that’s to say nothing of the financial issues involved in paying for counseling if you can find a counselor. In my experience, quite a few psychologists have exited the insurance system and are cash only. The last time I was looking for a specialist psychologist, I was quoted a 4-6 month wait list.

    Plus, Michigan is in the middle of yet another big COVID surge–78 new cases per 100k per day and 0.96 deaths per 100k per day. It’s not an ideal time to be looking for in-patient adolescent mental health care.

    The Crumbley parents may have done everything wrong–but even if they had been much better parents, the infrastructure isn’t there for doing everything right.


  4. I also imagine some tongue in cheek since IEPs for every student (or even everyone performing before grade level) with their legal implications isn’t going to happen. I also find the litigiousness it entails (often for the benefit of the parents with the resources to hire counsel, prepay for services, . . . ) is not a solution that improves education for most. I do think the threat of litigation for private payment might get services for a few (and, I think if a parent needs to use that method to get services their child needs I would never question the decision). But, I don’t think it makes the system better.

    In the districts that do provide services (I can’t speak to the big urban districts like DC, NYC, LA), private school placements are rare (in one smaller district I’ve heard of, measured in the single digits over years).


  5. I do want to see extended services for students who are behind. Free community college would be an excellent idea, even if it is another two years of high school. For students with IEPs who are owed extended school until they are 21, we should recognize that 2020-21 didn’t happen and maybe 2021-22 and give them more years. Other kids should be have offered for free, summer school, an extra year of high school, to repeat a grade, . . . .

    I don’t think that “unfinished learning” for 2 years can be caught up (if, in some district, students are 2 years behind in math — the stats don’t show that large a gap, and maybe months can be caught up, but not years).

    I think the years will wash out — I don’t love it, but it’s become increasingly common for kids with resources to take gap years, five years to finish college, post-bach years, . . . . But, the kids without the same resources need those those educational services to be free. I would also like to see more businesses develop internships with job opportunities like the TMobile plan I saw in collaboration with our community colleges. If they really need workers, those should be valuable investments.


  6. I think it’s going to take a variety of approaches. In Ontario we managed a “double cohort” when we went from grade 13 to finishing in grade 12, so we know we can adjust for one year. I’d be in favour of a redo for everyone that individuals can test/show good grades to get out of. I’m also hugely in favour of catch-up summer schools. At my workplace we’re running an informal reading catch up club for our little ones.

    For my own kids, I think my high schooler is able to make up some of it although math is a bit of a weak area – for his particular anticipated field of study at university I think it will be a wash. For my 5th grader, he does have time but this year is struggling. Part of me thinks we should test in math/reading/english/french and then just reassign kids to grades based on their results for next fall – assuming we’re good to go at that point. Ontario is cruising for a February shutdown if vaccination doesn’t protect well against Omicron.


  7. Laura’s tweet link on incomplete learning cites a problem with the solutions we’re suggesting here — parents don’t want extended school days, holding kids back, summer school, because they want to go back to the days before the pandemic. I think some of that reluctance is wishful thinking but some a realization that remediation will be hard on their children and themselves.


    1. Which is why ‘repeat the grade’ works (you can camouflage it with combined grades, etc – for social reasons). But it doesn’t mean extended school days (which kids both resent, and frequently are too strung-out from a full day in school to benefit from), and summer school (which parents may be on board with – depending on holiday plans – but kids sure arent).
      Both solutions feel to the kids like punishing them for something which is outside their control.

      Whereas repeating a grade – especially if the majority of your peer group are also repeating – is a pretty painless (from the kids/parents perspective) solution.

      I also think its easier to staff for, than summer school, extended school days or tutoring. Just means another teacher doing a regular school day/year.

      Staffing is a whole ‘nother issue….. But it’s an issue for everything – apart from just pretending the whole issue isn’t there…


    2. “Whereas repeating a grade – especially if the majority of your peer group are also repeating – is a pretty painless (from the kids/parents perspective) solution. ”

      I agree, except that the rub is “especially if the majority of your peer group are also repeating”. The Poitico article said that there was very low uptake, of 4% or less, in the US South where it was offered. I can imagine other countries, with “leave-taking” exams of various sort (like you’ve referred to in NZ) there might be better uptake. It does seem like more families should see at as “red-shirting”, where their kid just gets a better chance, but I think isn’t happening yet.

      Also, I do wonder how much sports leagues (with their own rules) play into concerns in the US. I’ve heard a fair amount of chatter around the college students who didn’t get to play and the HS students who didn’t get the recruitment efforts (and in my world, that’s for the elite schools, not for the high power sports colleges or professional sports).


  8. ” The Poitico article said that there was very low uptake, of 4% or less, in the US South where it was offered.”

    An awful lot depends on the *way* it was offered, and the language around it.

    I think it should be automatic, unless you test out. Not opt in/out.

    Agree that sports teams are a big issue – even here in NZ – where the winter sports season was just about trashed (they got started, but none of the finals were played, as so much of the country was in lockdown).

    Anecdotal evidence, here, of parents of kids in the final 2 years of high school, insisting that their kid repeat the year (regardless of academics) so they can participate in the school sports – which are the gateway to the professional leagues.

    Most of those kids actually need to repeat for academics in any case – but that’s not the driver….


    1. “I think it should be automatic, unless you test out.”

      I think this could work in countries where there is already high stakes testing, but is almost guaranteed to fail in the US. The only version that could work is an opt in format. I do agree that language around the opt in, to characterize it as opportunity and a service, would be important (but, as a service, it is actually an increased demand on the school system, so, will they message properly?)


Comments are closed.