November 22, 2009

What passes as the "least restrictive environment" these days

This post continues Part I: Reaching for the whistle.

When a parent agrees to place his child in "special ed," a team puts together an Individual Education Plan (IEP) to prescribe a projected learning environment for him.

According to some, IEPs are the "heart of the special education system," the legal instruments that will make it easier for students to learn. IEPs can stipulate how many kids should be in all the child's new classes or whether he should be mainstreamed/included/integrated into general ed classes, get help in a resource room, or receive other kinds of services for a range of disabilities.

The DoE talks about how "more intensive services" will be provided in self-contained special ed classes. It also claims to work "to make certain that the child is provided with what he or she needs to succeed."

That last bit is, of course, poppycock. The DoE makes certain of nothing at all and in fact hires more lawyers to obfuscate, evade, convert mandates into recommendations, justify violations, and keep whistleblowing in check.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 requires that special ed students be placed in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE). According to Wikipedia, the "appropriate mix" of services will vary from child to child and from year to year as the child develops. "If the school officials have provided the maximum appropriate exposure to non-disabled students, they have fulfilled their obligation under IDEA."

A concept as vague as that has the potential of hurting all childen all the time — not just the IEP kids.

Teachers cannot split themselves into multiple people. They can only address certain skill sets at any given time. The kids who learn differently than the way the teacher is working the room at any point in the lesson — whether they're the more proficient learners or the struggling ones — are pretty much getting less direction, supervision, attention, intellectual stimulation, and specific help than the crowd he's focusing on in that moment. De facto.

Since words like "mainstreaming," "inclusion," and "integration" are being thrown around all the time, I was happy to come across this extract from a fact sheet put out by the NY Lawyers for the Public Interest in 2006, which adds some clarity to the subject:
Q: What does LRE mean for my child?

A: What all this means is that legally, under the Least Restrictive Environment requirement,a child with a disability should be allowed to attend a general education class, in his or her zoned school, and receive the services needed to make such a placement work, unless there is proof that he or she cannot receive educational benefits in that setting. If he or she cannot receive educational benefits in that setting, he or she should be educated in a context that provides access to general education students and general education curriculum to the maximum extent appropriate to the student’s individual needs.

The Least Restrictive Environment is related to, but different from, the concepts of “inclusion,” “integration,” and “mainstreaming.” “Inclusion” means that primary instruction and provision of appropriate special education services are provided in (i) an age-appropriate general education class (ii) in the student’s home school (iii) with appropriate additional supports for the student and the student’s teacher.1 Importantly, inclusion does not require a child with a disability to perform at the same level as his or her general education peers. By contrast, “mainstreaming” means that a child with a disability is educated in a general education classroom for those areas of instruction in which the child can be expected to perform at the level of nondisabled peers without needing supplementary aids and services. “Integration” means that children with disabilities and children without disabilities are educated together, though not necessarily in general education classrooms.
1This definition of inclusion comes from the New York State Education Department’s Least Restrictive Environment Implementation Policy Paper, which was updated in May 1998 [see this link]. Some people at the Department of Education may define inclusion differently, so it is important to clarify what they mean by inclusion when they are talking about options for your child.
The special education statutes do not mention “inclusion,” “mainstreaming” or “integration,” but they do require that children with disabilities be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment. “Inclusion,” “mainstreaming,” and “integration” may be the Least Restrictive Environment for some children but not for others.
It seems to me that what LRE and the Act really do is institutionalize wiggle room. Under the cover of doing what's "best" for the individual child with disabilities, administrators have the legal tool to fudge almost everything.

On top of that, LRE doesn't take into account the effect mainstreaming, inclusion and integration have on the more proficient students, and that bothers me a whole lot.

A couple of days ago, I learned that the DoE thinks of music as a "non-academic activity," on a par with lunch. I don't think most music teachers will agree with that, but it shows what kind of managers we have at Tweed.

More to the point, though there are many IEP students in my school who take their core subjects in a 15:1 class, not a single one of them go to a small class for music. That means administrators at all levels believe that every last special ed kid in high school can function in a regular ed music class regardless of his particular disabilities.

That's appalling. What is an "IEP" if not a recommendation for a single child. Some of these kids are reading, writing and comprehending at the 2nd-grade level. Their classmates in these humongous classes are writing college applications. I'm doing my best not to hurt the slower learners, but when I teach to the middle capabilities of the whole-class profile, most of the IEP kids (not to mention a certain number of others whose parents refused special ed) CANNOT DO THE WORK.
And please don't bring up differentiation. It's one thing to differentiate, it's a whole other thing to award a high school credit when a student can't do a tenth of the subject matter.

No doubt schools are designing IEPs — or altering them illegally — to cattle-herd special ed kids into large, heterogeneous classes with up to 50 on register in all grades. After all, they are fulfilling their obligation under IDEA to give IEP students exposure to the gen ed population. Be damned emotional damage to the struggling child or the delivery of content!

"Least restrictive environment" should not mean creating living hells for teachers and students by such indefensible placement policies.
These classes are not right for them, whether they have decoding problems, low IQ, attention deficit, anger management issues, or hearing deficiencies. They get frustrated, and we're hurting them.

That's indicative of a general callousness to inner city kids at the very highest levels of policy making in this city, state and country.

I'm not finished with this topic yet. In Part III, I'll be giving some specifics.

By the way, I used ARIS, just like Pissed Off. Too bad the data I'm looking at today over there is the same as it was when I started writing these posts. That makes ARIS about 3 weeks out of date. How much did it cost?


  1. Great post. You've said what I have been saying for years. It is impossible to differentiate in a class of 30 so I can't even imagine doing it in a class of 50. The bottom line is no one cares. These are "throw away kids" and no one wants to spend any money on them. The ISS AP in my school told a teaher to "make it work" when the teacher wanted a kid with a 1.5 reading level removed from mainstream English.

    But, we are wrong for bringing this up.

  2. This is a GREAT post! You forgot one important issus that troubles me. In my building the hire teachers with NO special ed background or give gen ed teachers one special ed class (as punishment or they say to save their job they have to teach in special ed!) One class of special ed does not warrant knowledge of these students disabilities.

  3. Thank you! I am a special ed teacher and the parent of special needs kiddos. Your post is so well articulated.
    LRE should mean that whatever environment works best for each kiddo is the environment they receive services. So, if my kiddo cannot maintain in his reg ed room, putting him in there is the most restrictive. So for him, self containment may be fully self contained.
    Enough of this differentiated instruction smoke and mirrors. Good teachers have always done what they can to assist their students. Poor teachers never have. Same old, same old.
    Give teachers what they need and kids will succeed at whatever level they can. It's really quite simple, huh?
    Thanks again, and I will keep watch for more from you.

  4. The term 'least restrictive' has been considerably twisted away from it's intent. It was originally coined as, what is 'least restrictive to the child's education', meaning the setting which allowed the most educational benefit to the child. It was latched onto rather misguidedly by by ARC parents to mean regular classroom setting if at all feasible. This however does not allow for the greatest progress of the child, but makes the parent feel better that their child is in class with 'regular kids'. I've been an advocate and parent of three gifted children with learning disabilities, one of who is also visually impaired. Fortunately for them, they were in elementary school before this conversion took place. Contained classes were still available for children with average and above abilities, but significant other disabilities. If not for this help early on, they would not have learned the 'how' of dealing with their learning disabilities and would not have achieved the advanced degrees they now have. One in particular is a perfect example of the right way to do things, started off in a contained class for academic subjects, and gradually they moved to more time in a regular class as they were able, then fully in a regular class with some resource, then totally mainstreamed by middle school. Kids are truly all different, with different needs at different times, but the first question on placement should be, Where will they learn the most? For kids whose abilities at the time are outside the range of a regular class, it will not be there.

  5. How interesting, I'm so glad you took the trouble to contribute. I didn't know this, since I'm not really a Spec. Ed teacher (though have had years of self-contained music classes of spec. ed for a period or two per day).
    I am really aware of what you're talking about. My mother wrote about cognitive style variables in her PhD dissertation: that you can compensate for dyslexia using a variety of brain talents (e.g., raw IQ, cognitive flexibility, a couple of others), but telltale signs of the underlying dyslexia will remain in handwriting and spelling for much longer, even for life. It opened up a whole world to me: of the vast range of learning abilities children have, all of which seem to need so much individual attention and methodology.

  6. Proof positive too many corners are being cut in special ed . . .