How Endrew F. v Douglas County School District (2017) Changes IEPs: A Look at IDEA for General Education Teachers

How Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) Changes IEPs: A Look at IDEA for General Education Teachers

Most general education teachers receive training on education law in their credential programs, where they learn about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), student Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and teacher responsibilities for working with students with special needs. However, authors Michael A. Couvillon et al. argue that education law is an area in which teachers should receive ongoing training provided by school districts: “Special education law is one area of information that should be included in staff development activities of public school teaching and administrators; unfortunately, it is frequently overlooked” (1).

In their paper, “Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) and special education law: What teachers and administrators need to know,” Couvillon et al. review the basic requirements set forth in IDEA and explain how the recent Supreme Court case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) changes our understanding of student IEPs.

The authors argue that it is essential for teachers and administrators to understand the requirements of IDEA and education law, not only so that teachers can best support learning for all students, but also because most education-based lawsuits against school districts involve special education services.

“Even though special education students comprise approximately 10% of the public-school population of students, special education accounts for the vast majority of all education-related litigation” (1).

Couvillon et al. note that most special education litigation is connected to one or more of the following areas:

  • failure to follow legal procedures
  • failure to create an appropriate IEP
  • failure to implement a student’s IEP

If teachers and administrators are fully aware of the legal requirements of IDEA, they are less likely to make errors.

The Take-Away

  • IDEA is the most important education law for students with disabilities.
  • IDEA has three main components:
    • (1) FAPE: School districts are legally required to provide students with a free and appropriate public education.
      • Special education services must be provided by public funds and overseen by public entities (2).
      • Education for special needs students must meet state standards and adhere to students’ IEPs.
    • (2) LRE: Special needs students are legally entitled to learn in the least restrictive environment. This means that special needs students have the right to be educated “to the maximum extent appropriate with students who do not have disabilities” (3).
    • (3) IEPs: Students with special needs are entitled to individualized education programs, IEPs.

In 1982, following the case Board of Education v. Rowley, the Supreme Court developed a two-part test to help courts determine whether school districts were adhering to FAPE (3).

  • Question 1: “Had the school district complied with the procedures set forth in the law?”
  • Question 2: “Was the IEP reasonably calculated to enable a student to receive educational benefit?

Couvillon et al. explain that since 1982, the meaning of the term educational benefit has been somewhat vague. However, the 2017 Supreme Court case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District has now more narrowly defined educational benefit.

“It is especially important for administrators and teachers to understand the ruling in Endrew because this decision will greatly affect special education programs” (4).

The central question for the Endrew case is the following: What is the level of educational benefit that must be provided by school districts for students with disabilities in order to guarantee that those students have FAPE (a free and appropriate public education)?

The outcome of the case is that, per Endrew v. Douglas County School District, schools must develop for each student with disabilities an IEP that makes it possible for that student to make educational progress in a given amount of time (4): “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in high of the child’s circumstances” (4).

Progress is the key word here. Because IEPs must be able to demonstrate that students are placed in learning environments where they can make educational progress, the language of the IEP needs to state measurable goals. Couvillon et al. recommend that IEP teams use the SMART approach to goal setting, where S=specific, M=measurable, A=attainable, R=relevant, and T=time-bound (7).

Importantly, after student goals and needed services are established in the IEP, it is essential that teachers implement that IEP as it is written. Moreover, teachers may need to collect and share data about the progress a given special needs student is making in class, relating to the goals established in the IEP.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s Endrew’s standard emphasizing student progress make data collection and analysis particularly critical” (7).

Other IDEA Reminders:

  • The student’s parents must be included in the IEP development process.
  • A student’s goals and needed services must not be set before the IEP meeting: “Predetermination is an IEP error that can lead to the denial of a FAPE, and therefore a violation of IDEA” (6). A draft of goals is acceptable, as long as it is working document that can be altered during the IEP meeting.

“At least one general education teacher must be present for a student’s IEP meeting.”

  • After the IEP meeting, all of the student’s teachers must be notified of the student’s program and have a “clear understanding” of how they are to implement the IEP (8).
  • A student’s class placement must be decided after the IEP is developed.
  • IDEA requires that schools educate students with disabilities with the general student body as much as possible. Couvillon et al. explain that, “before students with disabilities are placed in more restrictive settings, efforts must be made to maintain a student in less restrictive settings with the use of supplementary aids and services” (8).

Couvillon et al.emphasize that understanding special education law is essential for teachers and administrators alike and that ongoing training is necessary, since education law evolves over time. They recommend that school districts offer professional development given by experts in special education law, for it is “crucial that the information be accurate” (9).

“Whereas good pedagogy should remain the focus of teaching, additional aspects of education also require more attention and understanding, including special education law” (10).

*Disclaimer: The information provided here is not legal advice. This is intended as general information only.*


Paper Title:  Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) and special education law: What teachers and administrators need to know

Authors: Michael A. Couvillon (Drake University, Iowa), Mitchell L. Yell (University of South Carolina), and Antonis Katsiyannis (Clemson University, South Carolina)

Full Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1045988X.2018.1456400

Published: Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, May 2018, pages 1-11


Photograph: Thanks to Claire Anderson on Unsplash

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