Defining “Appropriate Education”

Ever since Congress passed the original law requiring public schools to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPEto students with disabilities in 1975, everyone involved in the special education system has struggled with the definition of “appropriate.” This includes teachers, parents, advocates, attorneys and the court system. The problem, of course, is that the word appropriate defies precise definition. On one hand, the law does not require public schools to provide children with disabilities the best possible education, even though parents should always advocate for that. On the other hand, if a child fails to make any progress and merely gets a de minimis education, that is clearly not appropriate and therefore violates the law. The challenge has been in that huge grey area in between. Some have said the the child is not entitled to a Cadillac type of education, but only a Chevrolet. I like to add that the Chevrolet must have 4 wheels and be in sound operating condition.

Fortunately, earlier this year, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court offered updated clarification on this issue and rejected the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals definition of appropriate. The 10th Circuit had ruled that public school merely needed to provide, “merely more than de minimis” education to children with disabilities, but in the case known as Endrew F., the Supreme Court stated that,

a school must offer an IEP [individualized education program] that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

While this case, especially in light of its unanimous nature in an often divided Supreme Court, is very important, earlier this week, something even more important happened when the U.S. Department of Education issued a Q&A on the Endrew F. decision. This Q&A is very important because:

  • Many advocates feared that Secretary DeVos would eviscerate enforcement of the special education law known as the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act);
  • Public reaction was strong and many were troubled with the U.S. Department of Education rescinded 72 pieces of policy guidance in October; and
  • Most important, as set forth below, the Q&A fully supports both the substance and rationale of the Endrew F. decision and thus the U.S. Dept. of Education appears prepared to enforce the IDEA according to this landmark decision.


Due to the importance of both the Endrew F. decision and the administration’s interpretation of it, everyone involved in the education of children with disabilities should be aware of the following key points emphasized by the Q&A:

  • Public schools must offer an IEP that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” to all students with disabilities, including those performing at grade level and those unable to perform at grade level.
  • “[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…The IDEA demands more.”
  • Each child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances, and every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
  • In determining whether an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, the IEP Team should consider the child’s previous rate of academic growth, whether the child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency, and any behaviors interfering with the child’s progress.
  • The IEP Team, which must include the child’s parents, must give “careful consideration to the child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.”
  • The IEP must include annual goals that aim to improve educational results and functional performance for each child with a disability. This inherently includes a meaningful opportunity for the child to meet challenging objectives.
  • Annual IEP goals for children with the most significant cognitive disabilities should be appropriately ambitious and “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The Q&A concludes by stating that,

IEP Teams must implement policies, procedures, and practices relating to: (1) identifying present levels of academic achievement and functional performance; (2) the setting of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals; and; (3) how a child’s progress toward meeting annual goals will be measured and reported, so that the Endrew F. standard is met for each individual child with a disability.

In sum, with both a typically divided Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Education which advocates feared would take special education backwards, making strong statements in favor of a meaningful definition of appropriate education, parents and advocates now have important tools to insist that children with disabilities receive the kind of education that will allow them to make meaningful progress every year.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


The Greatest War: Empathy vs. Selfishness

Without diminishing the horrific civil war in Syria or the many other violent conflicts around the world, I believe that the greatest war is being fought between those with empathy and those who are selfish. In our own country we see it playing out on many fronts:

  • Health Care: do we empathize with those who cannot afford it or selfishly insist that healthcare is solely a personal responsibility?
  • Homelessness: do we look the ever increasing number of homeless people in the eye and reach out a helping hand, or do we look away and encourage our policymakers to criminalize homelessness so we do not have to see it as we walk down our streets?
  • Education: do we take real steps to improve public education for our most marginalized students to close the achievement gap, or do we siphon public funds to private schools which largely benefit those who can already afford to send their children to such schools?
  • Civil Rights: do we acknowledge and remedy the real discrimination suffered by people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups or do we undo the progress made by over 50 years of civil rights legislation by failing to enforce those laws?
  • Income inequality: do we build an economy that allows everyone to enjoy the basic necessities of life, including food, housing and health care, or do we continue down an accelerating path of haves and have nots?

I have long theorized that most of these problems could be solved if more people empathized with those who struggle with one or more of these challenges. Yet, a recent study showed that an decreasing percentage of college students have empathy for others by dismissing their attachment to others.


While this presents a challenge for the future in a world that appears increasingly selfish, the good news is that there are methods to increase empathy and many people are working to implement these methods. Roman Krznaric wrote: Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it a few years ago. In it, he suggests the following methods for increasing empathy.

  1. Stop and listen-Research shows that in employee-employer disputes, if both sides agree to simply repeat what the other side just said before they start speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.
  2. Ask a stranger (such as a restaurant worker) how their life is going-Barriers to empathy are stereotypes and prejudices we have about others, often due to unconscious judgements based on appearance or accent.  A good way to increase empathy for those whom you do not know is to have a genuine conversation with a stranger at least once a week. Since most of us interact with restaurant and other retail workers who are strangers to us, this is an easy place to start.
  3. Expand your horizons through books and films-As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While we cannot do this in a literal manner, Krznaric has established an Empathy Library to provide resources to those interested in teaching and expanding empathy.
  4. Bring empathy instruction into our schools-The word’s most effective program, Roots of Empathy, began in Canada and is spreading worldwide: over half a million children have done it.  The teacher is a baby who visits a class group regularly over a year. The children sit around the baby and discuss questions: What’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? It’s a stepping stone to developing their empathic imaginations. It works by increasing empathy levels, boosting cooperation, reducing school yard bullying and even increasing general academic achievement.

Some may consider this naive, as it is also the case that studies demonstrate that those in power, both in the workplace and by income, tend to be more selfish. One way to combat the ingrained selfishness of the rich and powerful is to demonstrate to them that over the long run, empathy for others will improve everyone’s lives, including their own. For example:

  • improving education for all will provide better workers to improve the economy for all;
  • expanding access to health care for everyone reduces the need for hospitals to provide free high cost charity care in their emergency rooms driving the cost of medical care up for everyone as someone has to pay for this care;
  • providing affordable housing and supportive services for the homeless does a better job of removing the visible scourge of homelessness from our streets over the long term than jail terms when we criminalize homelessness;
  • protecting the civil rights of marginalized groups and individuals helps those people feel welcome in our communities and less likely to commit acts of desperation;
  • reducing income inequality decreases the resentment of those in poverty against the wealthy and generates a healthier overall economy for all.

Increasing empathy starts at the individual level, so I encourage my readers to start today. Find a stranger, open a conversation, and increase your empathy. You will feel better for it and one step at a time, empathy can win the war over selfishness.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.



Which Children are Left Behind?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently released the annual school report cards for all Wisconsin public school districts and individual schools.  DPI’s press release proclaimed that,

Most schools and school districts meet or exceed expectations on annual report cards.

While that is certainly good news, if we care about our most vulnerable students, it is worth examining whether they are meeting or exceeding expectations.  When these report cards first came out a couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece on the performance of Madison East High School, where my son is now a senior.  I kept it short, because the report cards were new, and those were their first release, but given my penchant for insisting on school district accountability for the education of their students, it is worth examining how well the Madison Metropolitan School District  (MMSD) succeeded in educating its most vulnerable students during the 2013-14 school year.

While overall DPI considered that MMSD “meets expectations,” a closer examination of vulnerable student populations suggests that many MMSD students are not receiving an education which will prepare them adequately for adulthood.


  • Statewide advanced or proficient=37.6%
  • MMSD district-wide advanced or proficient=37.8%
  • MMSD Black students: only 12.9% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 58.2% minimal performance
  • MMSD Hispanic students: only 15.6% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 52.2% minimal performance
  • MMSD students with disabilities: only 14.5% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 65.4% minimal performance
  • MMSD economically disadvantaged students: only 13.5% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 55.9% minimal performance
  • MMSD limited English proficiency students: only 12.9% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 54.7% minimal performance


  • Statewide advanced or proficient=50.2%
  • MMSD district-wide advanced or proficient=45.5%
  • MMSD Black students: only 16.8% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 47.6% minimal performance
  • MMSD Hispanic students: only 23% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 32.4% minimal performance
  • MMSD students with disabilities: only 19% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 55.6% minimal performance
  • MMSD economically disadvantaged students: only 19.9% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 39.8% minimal performance
  • MMSD limited English proficiency students: only 23.5% advanced or proficient, and a disturbing 32.3% minimal performance


  • MMSD’s district-wide graduation rate=77.3% (up 2.7% from prior year)
  • MMSD black student graduation rate=59% (up 4% from prior year)
  • MMSD Hispanic student graduation rate=68.8% (up 5.6% from prior year)
  • MMSD students with disabilities graduation rate=44.9% (down 1.3% from prior year)
  • MMSD economically disadvantaged students graduation rate=56.2% (up .8% from prior year)
  • MMSD limited English proficiency students graduation rate=59% (down 3% from prior year)

In sum, while some MMSD students are showing improvements in their reading and math, as well as graduation, too many vulnerable students are either falling ever further behind.  Both the school district and the citizenry must demand more than incremental improvement and certainly no further slippage in performance from our school district.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Replicate this: The Kalamazoo Promise Works

The sound and fury of school reform proponents is deafening as they decry public school failures and urge privatization, charters and high stakes testing.  Equally furious public school supporters seek to cast blame for public school failures on the twin devils of inadequate school funding and student poverty.  Remarkably, neither camp spends a lot of time focusing on innovative programs with proven success and encouraging successful replication.

While successful systems change requires genuine root cause analysis of the problems which require change, real change is far easier and more likely to succeed when a successful model exists which is worthy of replication.  When it comes to increasing high school graduation rates, improving grades, and lowering behavior problems, the Kalamazoo Promise is a program which succeeds in all these measures, and clearly deserves emulation nationwide.

The Kalamazoo Promise started 8 years ago, and has nearly 4000 eligible students. Through sufficient donations, it promises to provide public college scholarships to Kalamazoo High School graduates, with at least a 2.0 grade point average, so unlike many other scholarship programs, it is not designed to serve only academically oriented students.  Of course, students must perform well enough in high school to gain entry into a Michigan college or university, which encourages students who want to obtain the Promise scholarships to work harder.  However, scholarships are available to every Michigan public post-secondary institution from local community colleges to flagship institutions such as the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, thereby fitting the needs of any student who seeks a post-secondary education.

The scholarships provide 65% of public college tuition and mandatory fees for Kalamazoo students who enrolled in high school in 9th grade, sliding up to 100% for those who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) from Kindergarten through 12th grade.  This feature has actually served to increase public school enrollment in Kalamazoo, stemming what had been an 18 year trend of declining enrollment and white flight.  Between 80-90% of KPS graduates have been eligible for college scholarships and between 82-85% have received scholarships ranging from $5,000-55,000.


This chart also reveals that KPS is a mid-size urban school district with significant poverty (13.6% in the 2000 census), and a racially diverse make-up, which makes it all the more appropriate for replication in the myriad of other similar districts throughout the country. This enrollment rise reflects both new students coming into KPS because of the Promise as well as fewer students leaving (through drop out or moving) than prior to the Promise.

In addition to the clear benefit from enrollment rising in KPS, a recent study shows important academic and behavioral results from the Promise:

  • Increased credits obtained by KPS high school students;
  • Increased grades earned by all KPS students with a more dramatic increase for African-American students; and a
  • Decrease in days of suspension for all students, with a more dramatic decrease for African-American students.


The researchers appropriately deem these results striking and further find that:

The decrease in the number of days spent in suspension might have shifted past some “tipping point” beyond which more presence in the classroom leads to higher grades, while leaving the white students less affected.

With results like these, school advocates of all stripes should push private foundations as well as state and federal governments to put their energy and funding into replicating the Kalamazoo Promise nationwide.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


Time to Reform State Taxes–Pt. 1: Sales Tax Exemptions

With the constant fiscal crisis in Washington, all eyes have been focused on federal taxes.  Unfortunately, that has taken attention away from very serious inequities in our state system of taxation.  Since I am most familiar Wisconsin taxes, I will focus on how Wisconsin needs to reform its system of taxation in order to treat its citizens fairly and fund the services its citizens need most.  As so much reform is needed, I will divide this topic into 3 separate blog posts: Sales Tax Exemptions; Reforming Property Taxes; & Income Tax rates.

It is important to look at Sales Tax exemptions first, since revenue from Sales Taxes represents the largest single source of Wisconsin’s revenue, by far.  The latest data shows that Sales Tax collections represented over 47% of Wisconsin’s revenue. Given Wisconsin’s heavy reliance on the Sales Tax, it is worth examining whether Wisconsin numerous special interest Sales Tax exemptions represent sound policy.

By law, every two years, the Wisconsin Dept. of Revenue must produce a Tax Exemption Device Summary.  While many tax exemptions, such as food and medicine, represent sound public policy, it is worth considering whether the following tax exemptions are worth maintaining at such great cost.

  • Newspapers, periodicals and shopper guides: $18.2 million
  • Caskets and burial vaults, and funeral services: $15.8 million
  • Tractors & Farm Machinery: $35.5 million
  • Personal Property and Supplies Used in Farming: $187.6 million
  • Fuel & Electricity Used in Farming: $28.9 million
  • Veterinary Services and Medicine: $28.4 million
  • Semen for Livestock Breeding: $3.4 million
  • Machinery & Equipment Used in Manufacturing: $190.8 million
  • Fuel & Electricity Used in Manufacturing: $87 million
  • Catalogs & Catalog Envelopes: $2.4 million
  • Trucks, tractors, busses and other vehicles sold to common carriers: $28.6 million
  • Motion Picture and TV Film and Advertising Materials: $15 million
  • Labor Input into Construction: $459 million
  • Trade-Ins and Lemon Law Refunds: $94.5 million
  • Beauty, Barber, Nail and other personal care services: $26 million
  • Dues Paid to Business Associations and Fraternal Organizations: $13.2 million
  • Health Clubs: $17.1 million
  • Legal Services: $114.5 million
  • Architectural, Engineering, Testing Laboratory and Surveying Services: $98.1 million
  • Accounting Services: $51.3 million
  • Business computer services: $148 million
  • Management, Consulting and Technical Services: $84.1 million
  • Scientific Research and Development Services: $35.8 million
  • Advertising: $64.6 million
  • Investigation and Security Services: $15.6 million
  • Commissions to Real Estate Brokers: $27.9 million
  • Repair of Real Property: $42.9 million
  • Janitorial Services: $24.5 million
  • Disinfecting and Exterminating: $3 million
  • Sewerage Services: $29 million

TOTAL VALUE OF THESE EXEMPTIONS=$1.99 billion, or significantly more than the $1.6 billion cut to public education in the current budget.

Please note that these are not all of Wisconsin’s Sales Tax exemptions, just those that I believe are worth a second look, especially when one considers that Wisconsin cut $1.6 billion out of its current public education budget.  While there may be merit to some of these sales tax exemptions, remember that it does not matter what your personal or business income is, the tax exemption exists for rich and poor alike, since sales taxes are regressive flat taxes.  Sadly, ever since the Reagan tax revolution, legislators of both parties are reluctant to take a serious look at the long history of special interest tax exemptions.

This list should cause Wisconsin citizens, legislators and the Governor to pause and consider whether it is in the public interest to exempt bull semen, hair extensions, health club dues, and yes, attorneys, architects and accounting fees paid largely by the wealthy from the category of taxes which funds virtually half of all Wisconsin government services.  I further suspect that a similar list exists in most States which also merits debate and examination. The time for that examination is NOW.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.