by Justin Youngs, Esq.
Under the IDEA and California Education Code, an IEP must include “a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable” that will be provided to a child with special needs. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(iv); Cal. Ed. Code § 56345(a)(4). In commenting on this requirement, the U.S. Department of Education (“USDOE”) has explained that “school districts, and school personnel must…select and use methods that research has shown to be effective, to the extent that methods based on peer-reviewed research are available.” 71 Fed. Reg. 4665 (August 14, 2006).
Additionally, while school districts have discretion in selecting educational methodologies, and the IDEA does not mandate that districts employ a particular methodology, federal law does require that the proposed method meet the student’s unique needs so that he or she can make meaningful educational progress. In other words, a chosen methodology must provide a student with a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). These principles taken together provide that the services and interventions offered to a special education student must be research-based (to the extent available) and must meet a child’s unique special education needs.
How does this issue arise during the IEP process?
Practically speaking, issues regarding research-based interventions arise most frequently when a district is providing a specific service, or utilizing a particular instructional methodology, that is not resulting in educational progress. The district might insist that a particular service or methodology is research-based and effective, and that even if substantial academic progress isn’t being made, the student is still making progress towards their goals. Alternatively, the district may argue that even if the parent disagrees with a methodology or service, the district has the ultimate discretion in selecting a method or service. When faced with these positions, what should parents do?
While the district may be correct that a service or methodology is peer-reviewed, or that they have the ultimate discretion in selecting a methodology, the IDEA still mandates that the methodology selected address the unique needs of a student. Therefore, parents should focus on how the methodology or service at issue is tailored to their child’s needs. For example, while a highly reputable (and expensive) reading program used by the district may be effective for some students, it may not be effective for other children with special needs. Similarly, while the district has authority to select a reading intervention to provide to students, the program selected must provide your child with a FAPE, and districts must ensure that parents play a significant role in developing their child’s IEP.
How do you know if a methodology is based on “peer-reviewed research”?
According to the USDOE, there is no single definition of “peer-reviewed research.” However, the USDOE did explain that peer-reviewed research is “research that is reviewed by qualified and independent reviewers to ensure that the quality of the information meets the standards of the field before the research is published.” Fortunately, there are several free tools parents can utilize to learn whether a particular methodology is peer-reviewed.
Perhaps the most comprehensive database is the What Works Clearinghouse operated by the USDOE. This database allows parents and educators to browse various methodologies for formal research conducted regarding effectiveness. Other online tools include the National Center on Intensive Intervention’s Academic Intervention Tools Chart, the National Center for Special Education Research, and the Education Resources Information Center.
If you believe that a methodology or service is better suited for your child, make a written request for this service to the school district or IEP team. Once you make the request, the school district must consider your request and provide you with written notice of its decision. Specifically, this notice must contain several details:
- A description of the action proposed or refused by the district,
- An explanation of why the district proposes or refuses to take the action,
- A description of each evaluation procedure, assessment, record, or report used by the district as the basis for its decision,
- A description of other options the IEP team considered, and reasons why those options were rejected, and
- A description of other factors that are relevant to the district’s decision. 34 C.F.R. §300.503(b).
Do not be alarmed when the district takes a strong position in support of its choice of a service or methodology for your child. The law provides various tools for parents to use in addressing disagreements over methodology. Utilize these tools to push back against services or methods that are not effective for your child. Ultimately, you hold the power to disagree with an IEP offer, and to request the services and interventions that meet your child’s unique needs.
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