How Parents Can Help Promote the Application of Peer-Reviewed Research to Special Education

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Special education is heavily regulated to protect the rights of eligible students to individualized educational planning, but complying with the regulations is easier said than done. The operational design of most public schools is over 150 years old and based on the mass production mentality of a factory, having been created during the Industrial Revolution. By contrast, the applicable special education laws were first passed in the 1970s, accounting for only the last 1/3rd of the current American public education system’s history.

Trying to implement the individualized educational planning called for by special education law in an environment created for the purpose of mass instruction is like trying to build a custom piece of furniture on a moving assembly line. In the early days of special education, this meant removing students from the general education setting to special education classes, effectively choosing to build a custom piece of furniture in a specialized workshop rather than on the pre-existing assembly line.

The problem, however, is that pieces of furniture do not have civil rights. It’s one thing to segregate inanimate objects according to how they are constructed. It’s another thing to segregate human beings according to whether they need changes in how they are instructed due to disability.

Because special education students have legal protections against being segregated out of the general education setting simply for having a disability, integrating individualized educational planning into a mass instruction environment becomes that much more complicated for special education students who are educated with their general education peers for all or part of their school days. The complexities of individualizing educational programs for each student are seemingly infinite, given all of the relevant disability-specific considerations plus all of the ecological factors involved in each instructional setting.

However, science – specifically research conducted by educational psychologists and their colleagues – has been attempting to keep up with the demands created by various types of unique student needs, including disabilities of all kinds. While it all hasn’t been figured out for every situation by any stretch of the imagination, there is still a wealth of information from education research that never makes its way into the classroom, much less into individual IEPs.

That’s a problem because Title 34, Code of the Federal Regulations, Section 300.320(a)(4) mandates the application of peer-reviewed research to the design and delivery of special education on an individualized basis, unless it’s not practicable to do so. No one has yet defined what “practicable” actually means, so it’s still up for debate.

The history of how all this science ended up being codified within the implementing regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has been summarized in our last blog post, “The Fundamental Flow of IEP Creation,” so I won’t repeat it here. You can review the impact of PARC v. Pennsylvania in that post to inform references to it, here.

The point is that the applicable science has always been written into any serious redress to the educational needs of students with disabilities after having been deprived educational benefits by the public school system. In PARC v. Pennsylvania, a psychologist with extensive experience working with children with intellectual disabilities and an attorney committed to representing the interests of children with intellectual disabilities were jointly appointed by the federal court to serve as special masters to oversee the implementation of appropriate interventions to students with intellectual disabilities in Pennsylvania’s public schools as part of the settlement that was negotiated between the parties. The settlement included federal court oversight by way of the court-appointed special masters.

The historical foundations of the requirements for measurable annual goals in IEPs pursuant to 34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(2) and the application of the peer-reviewed research to the delivery of special education as mentioned previously can be traced directly back to PARC v. Pennsylvania. There has never been a time when the law did not expect the delivery of special education to be informed by anything other than evidence-based practices developed from the peer-reviewed research.

From the moment the first laws were created to provide special education to all eligible children in the United States, science was built into its design. Federal Supreme Court case law has established that Congress expected procedural compliance with the IDEA to all but guarantee compliance with the substantive requirements of the law when it authored and passed what is now the IDEA. Specifically, the case law states, “…the Act’s emphasis on procedural safeguards demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with prescribed procedures will in most cases assure much, if not all, of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP.” (Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982))

Congress intended for the applicable science to guide the special education process for a number of good reasons. First, using science means using what everybody can agree actually works under a given set of unique circumstances, to the degree such is known. There is evidence – proof – that under the explicit conditions that were tested, a particular method of intervention works or doesn’t.

Because every special education student presents as a highly unique individual such that their learning needs do not conform to conventional instruction, they require highly individualized instruction that is tailored to each of them, respectively. There is no one-size-fits-all method of intervention proven to work in special education contexts. What is proven to work is writing up a unique program of instruction for each individual student. That is the evidence-based applicable science, that is the bottom line requirement of the applicable federal law, and this has been known and federally regulated since 1975.

This, therefore, begs the question as to why so much of special education is based on subjective opinions, ballpark estimations (often underestimations), and fad theories about learning rather than science. There’s been a lot of research into why the research isn’t being promulgated for use in public education and politics has a lot to do with it.

Applying the research means upgrading facilities, retraining teachers and their support staffs, buying new materials, and paying for more specialists. Further, it’s often necessary to purchase all of the research materials necessary to inform any kind of evidence-based program design and hire someone who knows how to translate the research into a data-driven educational program. For highly paid top agency administrators who get compensated on the basis of how much money they don’t spend rather than how many students they do get educated, applying the research means spending money, and that’s no way to get a raise in that kind of institutional culture.

Another concern of many public education agencies is accountability. When using evidence-based practices in the delivery of special education, one can’t ignore the body of research that supports that the data collection and analysis methods used in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) are the most reliable methods of data collection and analysis used in any special education context (Drasgow, Yell, & Robinson, 2001; Kimball, 2002; Yell & Drasgow, 2000). The problem for some education agencies is that valid data collection means all their missteps will be captured by the data. If they aren’t actually implementing the IEP as written, the data will reflect that, exposing the agency to legal consequences.

People often mistake ABA for a treatment for autism, but this is not the case. It is true that behavioral interventions using ABA can be effective at addressing behavioral challenges with students who have autism, as well as any other human beings with behavioral challenges, but it can also be used as an instructional methodology and as a tool to determine if learning has occurred and, if so, how much. That is, it is excellent at measuring progress towards a clearly defined outcome, such as a measurable annual IEP goal.

The Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) data collection methods used in ABA naturally lend themselves to measuring progress towards IEP goals. This is how it works: a stimulus (Antecedent) is presented to which the student responds with a specific Behavior, which immediately results in an outcome (Consequence) that either increases the likelihood of of the behavior happening again (reinforcement) or it doesn’t (absence of reinforcement or punishment).

Most people in special education are at least familiar somewhat with using this approach to dealing with inappropriate behaviors. You don’t want to deliver a reinforcing consequence when an inappropriate behavior occurs. Instead, you want to reinforce a more appropriate replacement behavior that still meets the student’s needs; the behavior was happening for a reason and you can’t leave its function unaddressed or a new behavior will just develop around it. Treat the cause, not the symptom.

You only resort to punishing the undesired behavior when reinforcing the desired behavior is not sufficient at extinguishing the undesired behavior. Presenting reinforcement for doing what is expected and withholding reinforcement for doing what is not expected is usually a pretty powerful strategy for positive behavioral interventions.

When using ABC data collection and analysis on the fly during instruction, your thought process is a little different. When you’re looking at whether a student is learning from the instruction you are providing, especially when working with students who have significant impairments that limit their expressive communication skills, sometimes it’s the raise of an eyebrow, the turn of a head towards you with eye contact, or the smile or grin that tells you whether or not you’re getting through. There is still an Antecedent (the delivery of your instruction and/or check for understanding), a learning Behavior (the student’s response to your instruction and/or check for understanding, whether verbal or not), and a Consequence (praise for learning or encouragement for trying) that increases the likelihood that the student will remain engaged and continue to participate in the instruction.

When using ABA-based data collection methods to measure for IEP goals, so long as the goals are written as math word problems based purely on observable learning behaviors, it’s pretty straight forward. Take for example this goal, which is purely made up for illustrative purposes: “By [due date], when given 10 calculation problems using multiplication of double digit numbers per trial, [Student] will calculate the 10 problems with at least 80% accuracy per trial in at least 9 of 10 consecutive trails within a semester, as measured by work samples.”

This is easy. There are 10 problems per trial. The student needs to get at least 8 out of 10 problems right per trial (measure of accuracy) in at least 9 out of 10 consecutive trials (measure of consistency) within a semester (measure of time) in order to meet the goal. Nothing is left to guesswork. Everything is represented by an increment of measure.

What ruins a goal out of the gate is basing any part of it on internal thoughts and feelings experienced by the student. Never start a goal with language like, “… when feeling anxious or angry …” or “… when presented with a non-preferred task …” You can’t trigger the onset of measurement based on something you can’t observe. You only know what the student is thinking or feeling once they express it in some way.

There is no way to get in front of the student’s expression of their thoughts or feelings to prompt their behavior in an appropriate direction because there is no way to know what the student is thinking or feeling before they act. Other people’s thoughts and feelings, including those of special education students, cannot be observed or known by other people. No credential in special education imbues special education personnel with clairvoyance. By the time you know what the student is thinking or feeling, it’s too late to influence how they act on those thoughts or feelings; you only know because they’ve already acted.

The same goes for preference. Preference cannot be observed and it can vary from day to day, or even moment to moment, for a lot of special education students. What is preferred at one time will often not be preferred at others. Eventually it is possible to have a good idea of what is not preferred by a student, but then confirmation bias can enter the picture and you see what you expect to see, not realizing you’re prompting it according to your preconceived expectations.

What makes more sense is to write goals that do not target what are referred to in ABA as “private events,” but rather to expected behaviors. For example, a common behavior targeted in the IEPs of students with challenging behaviors is work refusal, which is to say non-compliance with task demands. A teacher will assign a task and, if the student is non-compliant, they will either passively sit there and just not perform the task; do something else passive instead, like doodle or read a book; engage in distracting or disruptive behavior, like play on their phone or talk to their neighbors; or engage in outburst behaviors, possibly accompanied by leaving the room (eloping).

It’s usually pretty easy to figure out if there is a pattern to the types of tasks assigned and when non-compliance occurs such that preference can seem easy to identify. But, trying to rely on that for the purpose of measurement is like trying build a house on shifting sands because someone’s preferences can change so quickly.

The language that I see most commonly used in goals that work around the issue of private events reads more or less like this: “By [due date], when assigned a task, [Student] will either initiate the task, ask for help, or request a 2-minute break within 60 seconds of the task being assigned in at least 8 of 10 consecutive opportunities as measured by data collection.”

This makes things easy. Regardless of whether the student has a personal preference or not for the task being assigned, they will either start the task, ask for help with the task, or take a short break and get it together before they come back to the task.

Some students have processing speed delays that interfere with their ability to get started right away. They need extra time to process the instructions so they understand what you want them to do. Sometimes that extra little break is all they need to get there independently. It just takes them a little longer to think it through and make sense of what you want from them before they know what to do and can start. Other students get emotionally overwhelmed and just need to go get a grip before they tackle the expectations being placed on them. Yet others take longer to stop one activity and transition to another one. That short little break can buy them the time they need to process the mental shift of set and orient themselves to the new demands being placed on them. Other times, students just don’t understand the expectation being placed on them and need clarification.

In any event, if there’s a problem, the goal provides a solution; otherwise, the student just needs to perform the task as assigned. Further, the language of this example goal can be modified for a student to provide for alternative acceptable responses and/or a different response time.

With respect to measurability, there is no guessing about what anybody is thinking or feeling in a goal formatted this way. Measurement is triggered by the delivery of a task demand (the assigned task) and is based on whether any of the described acceptable outcomes occur within 60 seconds. All of the elements of the goal are measurable.

Further, a goal written this way follows the ABC format of ABA. First an Antecedent is presented (the task demand), then one of three acceptable Behaviors (task initiation, request for help, request for break) occurs, then an appropriate Consequence (completion of the task, delivery of help, or receipt of a short break) is immediately forthcoming. Everything that needs to be measured can be observed. The observable criteria are easily represented in increments of measure. It’s black-and-white without making any assumptions about a student’s thoughts, feelings, or preferences.

So, having said all of this, how does this get us to the point of the article, which is how parents can successfully advocate for the application of the peer-reviewed research to the design and implementation of their children’s IEPs? Well, first, I needed to be clear as to what I mean by applying the peer-reviewed research, hence everything I just got through explaining.

Parents first need to understand what they are asking for and how it impacts the design and implementation of their child’s IEP. Further, any professionals reading this for the purpose of further developing their skill set may not have all the background information necessary to make sense of all of this, either.

A foundation first had to be laid. Having now done that, parents need to keep the information I’ve just shared in mind when participating in IEP meetings and reviewing IEP documents for appropriateness.

If you live in a consent state like California, I usually suggest signing only for attendance at the meeting and taking the document home for review before signing agreement to any of it. In California and other states, you can give partial consent to an IEP and the education agency has to implement the consented-to portions without delay while the non-consented-to portions remain subject to IEP team discussion and negotiation.

Anything that can’t be resolved via the IEP process must go to due process for resolution, whether you are in a consent state or not. Just because you are not in a consent state doesn’t mean that an education agency won’t change the language of an IEP at your request. An IEP meeting would likely be called to discuss your concerns and, if you back them up with facts and logic, the education agency isn’t going to have a good reason to say, “No.” Not everyone is outlandishly unreasonable in special education; there are some definite bad apples, but they don’t account for the entire barrel. Due process is your only resort if your efforts to resolve things at the IEP level are not met with success and your child is increasingly compromised because of the unresolved matters.

If you are unfortunate enough to have to rely on due process to see things resolved, the fact that your denied requests were supported by facts and logic will only help your case once you get in front of a hearing officer. Understanding the underlying arguments of what makes something legitimately measurable and the federal requirement that special education be delivered according to what science has already proven works makes you a far more informed IEP participant than at least some of the other people at the table.

As a parent, the more you can support your requests and arguments with peer-reviewed research, the better. Once you frame your requests according to the proven science and make it as black-and-white as possible, you eliminate all kinds of silly arguments. This means not only asking for goals that are truly measurable, though that goes a long way towards solving and preventing a lot of problems, but also understanding the nature of your child’s disability(ies) and what the research says can be done to teach to learners with such needs.

Gathering the necessary research data to inform a request for a particular assessment, service, curriculum, methodology, technology, or placement requires accessing the peer-reviewed literature and understanding what it means. A lot of it is really dry and technical, as well as expensive. This isn’t a burden parents should have to take on, but if it’s one that they can take on, it will only help them become better advocates for their children. Google Scholar can be a good place to start.

In truth, it should be education agency personnel doing this research, but if parents want to see the science applied, they may have to push for it, themselves. Parents can also submit published research articles to their local education agencies that appear to apply to their children’s educational needs and request that the approaches used on those articles be used as part of their children’s special education programs, including being written into their children’s IEPs. If the local education agency declines to honor any request, 34 CFR Sec. 300.503 obligates it to provide Prior Written Notice (PWN) explaining why to the parents.

Conversely, if the education agency proposes a particular approach and the parents are unsure about it, the parents can request an explanation of the peer-reviewed research that underpins the education agency’s offer. Either it honors the request or it provides PWN explaining why it won’t. If it’s the latter, it better be one heck of a good explanation or it will only reveal that the education agency has no research-based explanation for its recommended course of action, giving the parents a good reason to dispute it.

If what you are asking for as the parent is backed up by facts, logic, legitimate measurement, and credible research that all directly apply to your child, and the education agency still says, “No,” then you will either end up with no PWN because the agency doesn’t want to put the denial in writing, which violates the law and only makes your case stronger in hearing, or you will end up with a PWN full of malarkey that won’t stand up in due process. If what you are asking for makes total sense and the education agency won’t do it or something else equally or more appropriate, the education agency will have some explaining to do in hearing.

So long as what you are asking for is necessary for your child to receive an appropriately ambitious amount of educational benefits (meaning as close to grade level or developmental norms as possible), there’s not a lot of good reasons for a public education agency to turn down your request. It’s illegal for the public education system to use fiscal considerations to determine what should be in a special education student’s IEP.

Just be sure to submit all of your requests for changes to your child’s IEP in writing. It is the education agency’s receipt of your written request for changes that triggers the PWN requirement. In the instance of requesting assessments, many states allow for a public education agency to decline to conduct assessments for special education purposes upon parent request, but the agency must provide PWN when doing so. For more information on special education assessments, see our previous post, “The Basics of Special Education Assessments.”

If it doesn’t decline a parent’s written request for assessment, the education agency must provide the parent with an assessment plan to sign that authorizes the agency to conduct the requested assessments. State law regulates the provision of assessment plans; in California, local education agencies have 15 calendar days to get an assessment plan to the parent, regardless of who made the referral for assessment. Submitting the request for assessment in writing is not only important for triggering the PWN requirement if the request is declined, it’s also important in establishing when a state-mandated timeline starts counting down.

You as a parent can encourage the application of science in special education by insisting upon it. If you live in California or another consent state, you can use your authority to withhold your consent to anything that looks sketchy in an IEP being given to you for your signature. You can consent to instruction in the areas targeted by IEP goals but not to using the language of the goals for the purpose of measuring progress if they aren’t actually written in a measurable way. You can consent to everything in an IEP except a change in placement. If you can’t resolve all of the issues you have with an IEP this way, those left unresolved become due process issues.

Even if you are not in a consent state, you can still make the record in writing that you disagree with the sketchy portions of your child’s IEP, explain why using math and science, and request appropriate changes. The local education agency will likely call an IEP meeting and change those things it’s willing to change and give you PWN on those things it is not willing to change. The things left unresolved at that point are due process issues.

Understanding how to use math and science to solve everyday problems is a solid skill to have, but not everybody has it. It’s a skill necessary to developing a sound IEP for any special education student. Parent education can be provided as a related service under a student’s IEP if the purpose of the parent education is to help the parents understand their child’s disability and/or to help them be equal participants of the IEP team. There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents asking to be trained on how to write measurable annual goals and the IEP process in general as part of parent training as a related service under their child’s IEP. Parent training is specifically named as one of many possible related services that can be provided to a student with an IEP by 34 CFR Secs. 300.34(a) and 300.34(c)(8)(i)).

If you’re distrustful of the quality of instruction you might get from parent training through your child’s IEP, you may have to result to self-education by reading everything you can find about your child’s disability, as much of the peer-reviewed research about instructing learners with the types of needs your child has as you can digest, and simplified reports of the research findings in trusted publications from credible sources. You may need to periodically consult with experts for hire, but what you invest in informing yourself you may save many times over by preventing yourself from getting duped.

The bottom line is that parents can protect their children’s right to evidence-based special education planning and implementation the more they understand how to use measurement and evidence in the planning and implementation processes. By knowing what to look for, they know what request when they don’t see it. Informed parents can monitor the situation for education agency compliance.

In those areas where parents have not yet mastered the knowledge necessary to know whether an approach is appropriate for their child or not, they are encouraged to ask questions like, “Can you explain to me how this fits my child?” and “How can we measure whether this works in a meaningful way?” By shifting the burden back onto the education agency to explain how and why its recommendations are supported by the peer-reviewed research and written in an appropriately measurable manner, parents rightly shift the burden of applying the science to the appropriate party.

Parents are not, and should not, be required to become experts in order to participate in the IEP process. But, for the sake of protecting their children’s educational and civil rights, and their own rights to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process, it behooves parents to become as knowledgeable as possible. It’s more difficult to get tricked or misled the more you know, and the more dry and technical you can keep things, the less hysterical drama you’re likely to experience in dealing with your local education agency.

References:

  • Drasgow, E., Yell, M.L., & Robinson, T.R. (2001). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate IEPs. Remedial and Special Education 22(6), 359-373. doi: 10.1177/074193250102200606
  • Kimball, J. (2002). Behavior-analytic instruction for children with autism: Philosophy matters. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(2), 66-75. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10883576020170020101
  • Yell, M. & Drasgow, E. (2000). Litigating a free appropriate public education: The Lovaas hearings and cases. The Journal of Special Education, 33(4), 205-214. doi: 10.1177/002246690003300403

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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