Commentary: Court ruling a win for special-ed students

By Kirk Smothers

Last Wednesday was a great day for special-education students in the United States. Our frequently divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Endrew F. v Douglas County School District that public schools are required to provide free and appropriate educational placements, which lead to more than de minimis (meaning trivial or minimal) student progress.

Instead, the court advised that the "educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of circumstances."

The distinction between de minimis progress and appropriately ambitious progress is an important one. According to Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion, school programs based on a standard of de minimis progress have led to situations in which students "can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all."

Endrew F. has autism, but his case applies to a much broader population of students who have a wide variety of disabilities. The decision will also affect students with learning disabilities and related conditions, including dyslexia, math disorders, and ADHD.

To be diagnosed with a learning disability, a student must first be identified by a qualified psychoeducational evaluator as being of average to superior intelligence. In short, they are smart kids, but there is some aspect of their neurocognitive makeup that makes particular tasks harder for them than for their peers, such as reading, memorization, verbal expression, or other functions.

In many schools, these students are taught by teachers who have their best interests at heart, but who lack the training or understanding to support them. These teachers do not know how to enable a student's abilities and intelligence to shine in spite of their individual challenges.

Students with learning disabilities are too frequently written off as being incapable of real learning and, therefore, expectations of them are unnecessarily low. Too often, school districts consign students with learning differences to placements that fall far short in meeting their needs. Such students and their parents are routinely told that they are not "college material."

Those of us who work in schools dedicated to serving students who learn differently, however, know that students with learning disabilities are bright, motivated, and capable of excellent academic work and postsecondary success. When students with learning disabilities study in elementary and secondary schools that foster positive self-esteem, build self-awareness of their learning strengths and struggles, and provide appropriate challenges, many go on to complete two- and four-year college degrees.

Low expectations lead to low outcomes, while high expectations with appropriate support are far more likely to help students to meet their full potential.

American education has a long way to go to establish systems in which all students will thrive. A moment of unity in our often divided court has given our public school systems powerful impetus to take steps toward providing a free and appropriate education that truly meets the needs of all students.

Kirk Smothers is head of school at Delaware Valley Friends School ( in Paoli.