How to Fight for Special Education
I have often wondered what I would do if I discovered I had a child with learning disabilities. The parents I have interviewed who have gone through this seem more patient and persistent than I am. I suspect they got that way by necessity. Now I have found a couple of books that may help parents encountering this issue for the first time.
One book came out in 2005, the other in 2008. They were sent to me by people who read my recent confessions of ignorance on this subject. They both qualify for my Better Late Than Never Book Club, a list of recommended volumes I would have reviewed when they came out if I weren’t so perpetually behind in everything I do.
They are well-written paperbacks. “Special Education: What It Is and Why We Need It,” (83 pages) by University of Virginia education professors James M. Kauffman and Daniel P. Hallahan, is the more scholarly of the two. It is good on big-picture policy and measurement issues. It deals directly with some the most provocative questions, such as “How do we know if special education is effective?” and “Who should decide whether a child needs special education?”
There is much in the book that parents will find useful. Hallahan himself has a child with multiple disabilities. But it also has academic purpose, to provide, as the authors say “a convenient summary of basic ideas that may be used as a supplement for a beginning course in special education.”
The other book, “Learning Disabilities: Understanding the Problem and Managing the Challenges,” (195 pages) by Etta Brown, a veteran special education teacher in Ohio, Iowa and California, is written expressly for families. The brief bio does not say if Brown was ever the mother of a special education student herself, but she has a remarkable ability to imagine even the smallest problem, and come up with solutions.
My favorite part comes halfway through her book. It reads like the climax of a Western novel, when the lone cowboy gets ready to face down the bad guys: “When the parent has attended all the meetings, asked all the questions, advocated to the best of their ability and the child is still not learning, it is time to take action. Purchase a three-hole punch and a three ring binder...Relevant documents and report cards [should be] stored in one place. Get a copy of everything in the child’s cumulative folder and keep it with the other documents in the three-ring binder.”
With other tools she describes in detail, the parent is ready to do battle in a hearing, or in court. That is just the beginning of Brown’s marching orders.
Are such hostile, military images appropriate? I’m afraid they are. Brown knows that special education teachers like she was before retiring do their best to help every child. But the vagueness of the regulations, the tightness of the superintendent’s budget, the limits of the deputy superintendent’s experience with learning disabilities and other unpredictable factors often put the parent at a severe disadvantage. Knowing the weak spots in the bureaucracy will give mothers and fathers a chance to squeeze as much from the law as it was intended to give them.
Although Brown is a good writer, her book necessarily becomes clogged in some places with names of laws (IDEA, Section 504, ADA), helpful groups (LD Online, SERI, NCLD) and even toxic metals (thimerosal, cadmium, lead). Nonetheless, I have never seen a book on this subject with so much practical advice. It is as if Brown were sitting at your kitchen table, sipping a mug of coffee and answering all your questions deep into the night.
Two important tips from Brown: 1. “If this has all come as a shock to the parents, and they don’t like the way things are going, they have the option of not signing the permission form” to begin special education services. "Nothing can be done until they do.”
2. “If [during one of the long meetings with educators] the parents feel overwhelmed, they may call a time-out and reschedule after a time during which they can read and gather additional information.” Brown’s book is full of such information.
Parents may want to buy two copies of “Learning Disabilities,” since their first is likely to become marked-up and dog-eared beyond recognition. Then, for a break, they can explore the Kauffman-Hallahan book.
The professors take a few steps back from the fatigue and stress of a two-hour individualized education plan meeting to help parents understand the big issues. Their book would be invaluable to communities that have gotten into political fights over special education funding. School board meetings on such topics often deteriorate into unexamined assumptions and misinformation. The Kauffman-Hallahan book clears the air.
For instance: “Special education is effective if and only if students learn more with it than they would have learned without it. However, it is very hard, if not impossible, to do scientific experiments to show this, simply because it’s not legally or ethically defensible to withhold special education from students for any amount of time just so they can become a scientific ‘control group'."
Many parents who have been fighting for their children could write books like these. But they don’t have the time. Both books will fit in a purse or a jacket pocket, ready to be pulled out when confusion thickens and nerves rub raw.
I’m not sure I could handle the situations special education parents deal with every day, but with the help of these authors, I would have a chance to get started without being knocked over, and gain time to get my balance.
Washington Post editors
| October 9, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Daniel P. Hallahan, Etta Brown, James M. Kauffman, Special education, learning disabilities
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