A recent Education Week Curriculum Matters blog post, “Meet the Moms Pushing for a Reading Overhaul in Their District,” is an important reminder of the challenges that can arise when parents and school staff do not agree on reading methodology for students with special needs. While the law allows schools to choose methodology for students receiving special education and related services in reading and other curricular areas, conflicts over curriculum choices can be expensive to litigate and can undermine parent-staff relationships. How do you minimize the risk of curriculum wars over reading methodology?

The Education Week post describes the advocacy efforts of three parents seeking phonics and phonemic awareness curriculum for their dyslexic students. The article highlights an issue of which our clients are all too aware: Parents with a wealth of time and resources are doing their own research regarding reading curriculum and demanding that schools use specific approaches with their students.

The law allows schools to use any educational methodology that allows a student with a disability to receive FAPE, unless the student’s IEP requires use of a particular methodology. Allowing teachers the ability to choose the curriculum or other methodology for a student makes sense in most cases, since it allows maximum flexibility to meet the child’s needs. And there is no requirement that a school chose the “best” methodology for the student. Of course, there should be a robust and open discussion with parents about the types of methodologies that might be useful, but the final decision rests with the school or district. As the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals explained in the 1988 case Lachman v. Illinois State Board of Education, “parents, no matter how well-motivated, do not have a right . . . to compel a school district to provide a specific program or employ a specific methodology in providing for the education of their . . . child.”

Nonetheless, conflicts over curriculum choices and methodology are quite common and can be expensive to fight in a due process hearing or court of law. Such conflicts can often unnecessarily undermine the relationship between the school staff and the family, who in most cases (as the parents in the Education Week blog recognized) have the same goal in mind—what is best for the student. For these reasons, we recommend a number of steps a school can take to mitigate the risk of costly battles over reading curriculum with special needs students:

  1. Consider and have available a variety of curricula. In most cases, offering only one methodology is an invitation for a legal challenge.
  2. Do not predetermine what methodology will be used. Denying a parent’s request to use a particular program or methodology without consideration could be a violation of the IDEA.
  3. Train teachers on more than one approach. One of the main complaints of the parents in the Education Week article was that teacher training was too narrow to meet the students’ needs. Taking steps to educate teachers on a variety of methods can prevent this complaint.
  4. Monitor data regarding student progress to evaluate the efficacy of a program for a particular student. If a program isn’t working, reevaluate.

Taking these steps will provide you with a good legal defense to claims that a particular approach does not work for a student.