Student Well-Being Opinion

U.S. Supreme Court Defends Vulnerable Students

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 02, 2017 5 min read
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Neil M. Gorsuch’s nomination and hearing have reignited thoughts about the impartiality of judges. Debates, and votes, will be based on whether one believes a judge can simply decide and rule based on the facts of a case or whether they are inherently conservative or liberal in their interpretation of the law. Some hold fears and others are elated that Gorsuch will tip the court toward conservative decisions. By Supreme Court standards, he is young and will hold his seat for decades. Ironically, last week, one of Mr. Gorsuch’s decisions was unanimously overturned by the very Supreme Court upon which he will likely sit. Either he is more conservative than those already on the court, or we have witnessed the capacity of the current justices to put a case and the law above mindset. And, it was an education case.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of disabled students by overturning a federal Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit’s, Judge Gorsuch’s court. The New York Times reported that the lower court decision interpreted IDEA as requiring disabled students to receive a program that provides minimum progress (de minimis). The Supreme Court’s decision raised the bar:

“It cannot be the case that the Act typically aims for grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for those who cannot,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for a unanimous court.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” he wrote. “The IDEA demands more. It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Disabled Students Deserve High Expectations

Across the nation, there exist schools and districts that fail to offer some of their disabled students “an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The reading of a child’s circumstances may limit the expectations held by the child, by parents and by school personnel. This decision reminds us that existing views of students’ capacities and abilities that set limits must be questioned. In concert with other legislation, questioning these perceived limitations allowed us to systematically move children with disabled students from institutions into general education classes, from receiving minimal curriculum with low expectations to graduating from high school with their age peers. In this and other cases, schools have been pushed by legislation and the courts to not settle for only minimal educational progress for their disabled students, but to set higher standards and offer a richer and broader paths to success.

The Supreme Court decision reminds us that jurists may have conservative or liberal bents, but can, and, in this case did, interpret the law sans their conservative or liberal beliefs. Their conservative or liberal beliefs did not cast a shadow on their ability to see clearly. It also reminds us that there are still schools and districts that hold minimalistic beliefs about what their responsibility is to their most vulnerable students.

Learning Differences - How Much Do We Really Know?

The truth is there is much we still don’t know about brain functioning and about emotional processing. We attempt to stay on the cutting edge about children who manifest Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism, Asperger’s and the long list of other conditions that can interfere with learning in a traditional learning environment. At some point, with the help of legislation pushing us, these students with different needs and challenges were brought from the shadows into learning environments with their age peers. Laws defined roles and Individual Educational Plans (IEP’s) defined our local work. Yet, there remains a set of beliefs that allow for limitations to be set for these special children. The Supreme Court has nudged the door again.

Technology is one asset that can help dismantle the limitations. Nonverbal students who previously were sent to ‘special schools’ are far more able to participate in regular classrooms once a device like an iPad is placed in their hands and they are free to communicate through their fingers. In those moments where the right teacher, school, and support staff meet up with the right child, students exceed expectations. But, then again, isn’t that the formula for most children to succeed? The Supreme Court decision reminds us that adults set limits and settle for the minimum.

Explore Mindset

It is almost impossible to discuss expectations without thinking of the work of Carol Dweck. Mindset is key and plays a role in our work with children and each other. If you have not yet read her work, or would benefit from a 10 minute video...here she speaks about mindset.

The Supreme Court has, in effect, confronted what Carol Dweck calls ‘the tyranny of now’. We are at a choice point: remain in the current practice or create opportunities and new expectations by opening our own minds. In Chief Justice Roberts words: “The IDEA demands more. It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

Will Your Program Result in More Success?

How much progress can a child make? How much can we do to support that progress? What is our responsibility to make that progress happen this year? We must examine whether the progress of a child as it is can be accepted or if it is limited because of the educational program being provided. Who in our school is searching for models where programs are offering students opportunities and getting results that surpass those seen in your environment. The news of this unanimous Supreme Court decision can serve as a motivator. It is an opportunity for children, but only if adults take up the challenge.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by skeeze courtesy of Pixabayl

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.