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Friday, March 31, 2017

DeVos Says the Real Problem in Education is the Federal Government

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
March 14, 2017

The structure the Every Student Succeeds Act creates for supporting, monitoring, and improving public schools is, in the collective, incoherent. The Every Student Succeeds Act is the popular title of the most recent re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, however, stands apart from its predecessors. All prior versions have been premised on improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged students by promoting equality in inputs, equality in outputs, or both.

The Every Student Succeeds Act proceeds as though we can improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students without equality in inputs or outputs. This would be quite a novel, if not incoherent, thesis.

In a lecture last week, I remarked that the more forgiving thesis I might ascribe to the Act is that if the federal government would get out of the way of states states would devise their own new theories by which to achieve equality or would simply achieve input and/or output equality of their own volition. Yesterday, Betsy DeVos confirmed my speculation was correct.

At the annual legislative conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 68 big-city school system, DeVos remarked “When Washington gets out of your way, you should be able to unleash new and creative thinking to set children up for success.”

I knew it.

Washington was the problem and the Every Student Succeeds Act has cured it.
  • States did not really need the couple hundred billion dollars that the federal government gave to states during the recession to keep their education budgets from falling off a cliff and teachers being wholesale dismissed.
  • It was really the federal government that made states cut education by 20 or so percent once they exhausted federal stimulus funds.
  • It was really the federal government that forced some states to slash taxes rather than fund education.
  • It was really the federal government that has insisted that over half of the states continue to fund education at levels below the pre-recession years, even though their tax revenues exceed pre-recession levels.
  • It was really the federal government that insisted that states spend more money in schools that do not serve low-income students than in those that do. 

If only President Obama had appointed Betsy Devos eight years ago, we could have avoided this mess.

Or maybe the flawed logic of the Every Student Succeeds Act and Betsy DeVos are just window dressing for the fact that many no longer believe equality is possible or a virtue worth pursuing.

This is an idea that would likely cause many educators and families to revolt, just as they did in opposition to DeVos, which is why the window dressing is necessary.

For more on the federal role in education and the Every Student Succeeds Act, see HERE.

Are High School Students with Disabilities Prepared for Life After School?

From the Education Week Blog
"On Special Education"

By Christina Samuels
March 28, 2017

A new, two-volume report exploring the experiences of students with disabilities was released today, and there's enough information here to keep special educators reading for a long time. 

The reports compile information from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012, which is explored the characteristics and experiences of a representative sample of nearly 13,000 students, most of who have individualized education programs.

The students, ages 13 to 21, and their families were surveyed in 2012 and 2013. Mathematica Policy Research and the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota led the investigation.

Volume 1 of the report compares students with disabilities to their typically developing peers. Among the findings:

  • Youth with an IEP are more likely than their peers to be socioeconomically disadvantaged and to face problems with health, communication, and completing typical tasks independently. However, a deeper dive into the numbers is instructive: Students with intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances are more socioeconomically disadvantaged and are more likely to attend a lower-performing school than youth with an IEP overall. For youth with autism or a speech and language impairment, it's the opposite: Those students tend to be more financially well-off and to attend higher-performing schools than their peers with IEPs overall.
  • Good news: The vast majority of youth with and without an IEP feel positive about school. Bad news: those with an IEP experience bullying and suspension at higher rates, and are less engaged in school and social activities.
  • A worrisome finding: youth with an IEP are more likely than other youth to struggle academically, yet less likely to receive some forms of school-based support. Half of students with IEPs report having trouble with their classes. However, 72% report getting help before or after school or during the summer, compared to 78% of their typically developing peers. Students with disabilities said that 73% of youth with disabilities were guided by school staff on course selection, compared to 82 percent of students who do not have an IEP.

Volume 2 of the report compares students across disability categories. Among the interesting findings in this section:
  • Five groups—youth with autism, deaf-blindness, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, and orthopedic impairments—appear to be at higher risk than all youth with an IEP for challenges making successful transitions from high school.
  • Useful information: there are seven characteristics in the study that are linked to post-high school success: performing the acts of daily living well; getting together with friends weekly; participating in a school sport or club; avoiding suspension; taking a college entrance or placement exam; having recent paid work experience; and having parents who expect the student to live independently.
  • Youth with intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities are less likely than their peers with disabilities to have six of those seven experiences. (However, students with intellectual or multiple disabilities are more likely to have never been suspended.)
  • Youth with emotional disturbances are the most likely disability group to be suspended, expelled, arrested, and bullied. Sixty-five percent have been suspended and 19 percent expelled, compared to 29% and 8%, respectively, of all students with an IEP. 

The research offers a snapshot of student experiences; it does not come with policy prescriptions. But these findings suggest that schools and parents face a lot of challenges in raising expectations for students with disabilities.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Microbial Transplant May Treat Gut, Social Problems

From Spectrum News

By Nicholette Zeliadt
March 22, 2017

Replacing the microbes that inhabit the gut eases digestive troubles and social difficulties in children with autism, suggests a pilot study (1).

About half of children with autism have gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and constipation. Some children with autism have fewer types of gut microbes than their typical peers (2). And an oral dose of the microbe Bacteroides fragilis improves gut function and eases autism-like repetitive behavior in mice.

The new study tested the idea that transplanting microbes may ease some autism features. The study included just 18 children and lacked a control group of untreated children with autism. Still, the findings hint that the regimen is safe and effective for children with autism.

“Modifying the gut microbiota shows a lot of promise as a future therapy,” says lead investigator Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University.

The treatment is not a home remedy: The researchers screened fecal matter for harmful pathogens before extracting microbes for the transplant.

“This excellent work advances the emerging concept that gut bacteria impact behavioral and gastrointestinal outcomes” in people with autism, says Sarkis Mazmanian, professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who was not involved in the study.

Transplant Test

The participants, aged 7 to 16 years, all have autism and gut problems. They took an antibiotic once a day for 14 days to wipe out their gut microbes. They then fasted for 12 to 24 hours while taking a laxative to flush out their intestines.

The researchers then transplanted a large dose of gut microbes from people screened for infections, gut problems and neurological conditions.

Half the children drank the microbes in a beverage such as juice or chocolate milk three times a day for two days. The other half received the treatment once through the rectum. All of the children drank low daily doses of the microbes for another seven to eight weeks. They also took a drug that suppresses stomach acid to help the microbes survive their trip through the stomach and into the intestines. The treatment lasted 10 weeks.

The researchers evaluated the children’s gut problems and autism features before, during and after the treatment, and again eight weeks later. They also periodically collected stool samples from the children and compared the mix of microbes to that of 20 untreated typical children.

The treatment decreased the occurrence and severity of abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea and constipation by 82 percent on average. Of the 18 children, 16 improved, and remained better eight weeks after treatment.

The treatment also improved children’s scores by 22 percent on a test used to diagnose autism and assess its severity. The children’s social skills improved on a different test. These improvements lasted at least until the end of the study.

The transplant increased microbial diversity in the children’s stool. The microbial gut populations of the 16 children who improved looked similar to those of controls at the end of treatment and for two months afterward.

However, with so many components to the therapy, it’s impossible to know whether the microbe transplant itself — as opposed to, say, the antibiotic — is sparking the improvements, says Mark Corkins, professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, who was not involved in the study.

Krajmalnik-Brown and her colleagues are planning a multisite trial in which participants would be randomly assigned to receive a treatment or a placebo. Such a trial would allow the researchers to control for some of the variables they encountered in the pilot study.

  1. Kang D.W. et al. Microbiome 5, 10 (2017) PubMed
  2. Kang D.W. et al. PLOS One 8, e68322 (2013) PubMed

Top 10 Best Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities

From College Magazine

By Marianna Sorensen
March 16, 2016

Does your school care about your ADHD? As it turns out, it might not. While 86 percent of colleges enroll students with learning disabilities, only 24 percent of them say they can actually help those students “to a major extent.” I may be bad at math, but I’m pretty sure those numbers are off. Some colleges and universities have set out to set those numbers straight.

These 10 colleges are leading the charge.


Marist College in New York offers a program that helps students academically, but also teaches them how to advocate for themselves and their disabilities. They provide students with a learning disability specialist who gives guidance on college life and all those awkward social changes that come with freshman year.

Students even get to join in on events that raise awareness about disabilities, including this year’s developmental basketball clinic, a fundraiser for the center. If you make real waves in raising awareness, you get a certificate and a luncheon in your honor. They’re not messing around at Marist.


UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities sets out to ensure that students with disabilities have the “same access to programs, opportunities and activities as all others.” Taking a holistic approach to disabilities tutoring, CSD offers a wide range of subjects, from study skills to networking to how to best use technology for studying. The entire world could use a course in that last one. It might have helped that time I had to retake that Harry Potter Sporcle quiz three times until I got Hermione, but still didn’t know what mitosis was for my bio quiz the next day.


Lynn University in Florida recognizes that learning disabilities are not elastic waistbands: one size does not fit all. They base their mission on the fact that all students have their own strengths and weaknesses, and their program works to help students discover those for themselves. They give students independence early on. Keep in mind that of 67 percent of students who pursue a degree after high school, only 24 percent of them disclose their disability with the university.

Self-advocacy and independence is the first step towards success in the world outside school, and Lynn University totally gets it. They offer one-on-one tutoring, coaching and a testing center. Although “testing center” sounds like a personal hell, it’s actually paradise for students who need help with tests. Instead of cherubs and harps they just get… readers or scribes. Still good though.


Northeastern’s applications and interviews make its Learning Disabilities Program a bit more selective than most. But the lucky 45 students who make it through the gauntlet gain access to incredible resources: biweekly meetings with an LDP specialist to help with academic struggles like test-taking strategies and time management. They offer support with life skills like setting reasonable goals and monitoring student’s progress. The specialist even works with the student on maintaining motivation and moving past those challenges. With your very own cheerleader and coach on your side, success is inevitable.


Transitioning from high school to college is tough: We all remember that awkward first week in the Big Leagues when you have to get up five minutes into your first class after realizing you’re in the wrong room. To help avoid that nightmare, American University offers its Learning Services Program to smooth out the change for freshmen with learning disabilities. These services include an upperclassman LSP mentor for the social side of things. Rounding out the academic side, LSP mentors hold weekly meetings with a writing mentor and assistive technology and students even have a specialized writing class.

“The program is designed for first-year students who have language-based learning disabilities and is designed to give these students the extra support they need,” said Deborah Demille-Wagman, Director of Academic and Disability Support. But after the year’s over, they don’t just throw them to the sophomoric wolves; the Academic Support and Access Center steps in for upperclassmen with learning accommodations, offering a study skills workshop and ASAC counselors.

On top of that, they help students tame the scariest beast of all: connecting with employers and internships. “American University is committed to supporting a diverse student population, including those with disabilities,” said Demille-Wagman.


The University of Iowa offers the Realizing Educational and Career Hopes program–or REACH–to assist in everything from campus life to academics to career advice. REACH specializes in helping students who are coming from special education. “REACH fulfills the special needs of special people,” said Dr. Pamela Ries, Director of the program.

And she understands how unique students’ experiences can be. “We help students become as independent as they can become, which means different things for different students.” Their students in the REACH program all live in the same dorm–where traditional students live as well–and receive extra support for trained RAs.

Students in the REACH program are also provided with opportunities to complete internships in the community, and a “same-age peer” that can help introduce them into groups on campus. Students even create a portfolio of work about their transition into college. It’s no wonder they call it REACH–students can actually reach their goals.


With a student to faculty ration of only 11:1, no student goes without an individual support system tailored to his or her learning style. Those with language-based learning disabilities can turn to Curry’s Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) for courses in skills that’ll help them in their other classes. These can range from identifying what learning strategies work for them, to more complex skills like how to communicate better and strengthen relationships with those around them.

Students in the program meet with their own learning specialist, one of the professors, for 2.5 hours each week. “These faculty members devote careers to the research, theory, and practice of supporting students with learning disabilities and attention deficit,” said Laura Vanderberg, Director of PAL. The program also offers workshops and online programs.

The program works on strategies for learning, but to also knows when strategies will actually help, or when other methods need to be used, Vanderberg said. PAL also offers a summer program for entering freshmen that includes trips to areas around Boston. You get to learn more and explore.


The University of Arizona has the widely acclaimed Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques center. They provide support across the spectrum, from tutors to top-of-the-line technology to in-house psychological counseling. They also provide a Strategic Learning Specialist who creates a learning plan for each student individually.

Part of what makes the SALT center so impressive is their expansive set-up. Their Life and ADHD counseling can help students who aren’t even in the area. Their coaches work with students all over the country and even the world via phone and email. “We give direct support to the enhancement of learning. Our mission is above and beyond requirements,” said Rudy Molina Jr., Director of the SALT center. “We built a culture of acceptance and we have many years behind us.”

Life coaches–academic ones as well–work with college students on skills like keeping a balanced diet and studying at optimal hours. They help high school students work on building maturity, which proves that these people aren’t just education professionals–they actually care about their students.


Beacon College in Florida’s attentiveness to students’ needs creates an environment particularly accommodating for students with learning disabilities. You’ll never find a class larger than 15 people, and the administration provides one-on-one coaching and printed lecture notes. Students live on campus and participate in community bonding activities, but they are also assigned life coaches to provide support on more than just academic matters.

“Beacon College belongs on the list because the school is the first accredited higher education institution to award bachelor’s degrees exclusively to students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders, and not only provides built-in support to backstop students’ effort to achieve their scholastic goals, but also, in this age of increasing accountability, delivers results,” said Darryl Owens, Beacon’s Director of Communications.

“According the U.S. Department of Education, 83 percent of Beacon students graduate and 83 percent earn jobs or pursue post-graduate work. Difficult to argue with those outcomes,” Owens said.


The founders of Vermont’s Landmark College designed their institution specifically for students with learning disabilities. One of Landmark’s catchphrases is “We learn differently.” Administrators recognize this, so professors teach differently. One small example is the act of passing out squeeze balls before class to help students focus.

“Landmark College holds a unique space in the arena of postsecondary education. You feel it the minute you set foot on campus,” said Manju Banerjee, Vice President and Director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. “Really, what makes this place different are the relationships between people that create a space where students once again discover what it means to want to learn.”

This is an environment where the stigma of learning disabilities is severely lessened: 40 percent of learning-disabled students successfully complete post-secondary programs, and 80 percent of students graduating from Landmark’s two-year program go on to get a bachelor’s degree. Keep up the incredible impact, Landmark.

Landmark College in Putney, Vermont is the college of choice for students who learn differently. Who are they? Join your hosts Scout and Gordon on a quick video tour of campus, with insight from Landmark students about what it's really like to learn differently.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education

From The Atlantic

By Laura McKenna
March 23, 2017

Advocates for students with disabilities argue the decision could help millions of children.

In a stunning 8-0 decision in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a higher standard of education for children with disabilities.

Advocates and parents say the case dramatically expands the rights of special-education students in the United States, creates a nationwide standard for special education, and empowers parents as they advocate for their children in schools. But critics say the decision will not have any impact on schools, arguing that the vast majority already provide a good education for those kids.

As I explained in January, the parents of Endrew F. removed him from his local public school, where he made little progress, and placed him in a private school, where they said he made “significant” academic and social improvement.

In 2012, Drew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to recover the cost of tuition at the school, which is now about $70,000 per year. The lower courts ruled on behalf of the school district on the grounds that the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure handicapped kids have access to public education—not to guarantee any particular level of education once inside. But the parents appealed, with the case eventually landing at the Supreme Court.

The case revolved around a central question: Must schools provide a meaningful education in which children show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as typical children, or can they provide an education that results in just some improvement?

On Wednesday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated in the court opinion that a child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

“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,” Roberts wrote. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.” ’ ”

As the opinion was handed down, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, was at the Senate for his confirmation hearings. The Senate committee handling the confirmation asked Judge Gorsuch why he ruled in similar cases in the lower courts that an education agency need only provide educational benefits for the child in question that are “merely ... more than de minimis.” Gorsuch told the committee that his decision in those cases was bound by circuit precedent.


Advocates for children with disabilities say this case will help millions of students. For the 2013-14 school year, 6.5 million studentsor 13 percent of the public-school population—received an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The court’s decision increases the education expectations for children with disabilities and requires schools to consider each child’s individual strengths and weaknesses when writing an IEP; schools can no longer provide a “one-size-fits-all” IEP, Gary Mayerson, a civil-rights lawyer in New York City and a board member of Autism Speaks, explained in an interview.

“Clearly this is the most monumental IDEA case decided by the high court in over 30 years,” he said.

“The time of the decision couldn’t be better,” Mayerson said. “IEP season is underway in full force. Every school will now have the opportunity and time to comply with the new standard of care.” The impact of this case will be felt by students immediately.

As a long-time advocate for children with special needs, Mayerson is very pleased by this decision. “We have been fighting and advocating for these standards for years,” he said. “It is gratifying that the court understands disabilities today better than they did 30 years ago. It is heartening to see the decision be unanimous, particularly in these partisan times.”

“I'm thrilled, because I think it really empowers parents.”

Mimi Corcoran, the president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), agrees. “Today is a good day for children with disabilities. NCLD applauds this decision and will work with parents and educators to make it a reality,” she said in a statement.

“I’m excited about this decision,” Lindsay Jones, a vice president with the NCLD said. “The impact will be positive.” Jones said that the decision was thoughtful, and acknowledged that most special-education students attend regular public schools and aren’t in private settings. “The court clearly states that special-education children shouldn’t just be in the room. They must advance appropriately,” she said.

Parents of special-needs children are ecstatic about this decision, according to Amanda Morin, a parent of two children with IEPs and a contributor for the parent website Morin said, “I’m thrilled, because I think it really empowers parents to feel confident when they go in the door [of an IEP meeting]. They can say that the law says that this program must be tailored so my child makes progress.”

A number of education groups, including The Council of the Great City Schools, the School Superintendents Association (AASA), and the National School Boards Association, supported the Douglas County School District in this case, however, saying that the standard for special education did not require change, because the system was already working for kids.

Despite the ASSA’s opposition to the case, Sasha Pudelski, a lobbyist for the professional association, said that the decision will not have a big impact on district practices. The court decision was actually quite moderate, she said. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that a special-education student should have a “substantially equal” standard of education as those of typical children.

Instead, the justices focused on the idea that children with disabilities should receive an education that shows progress in light of their disabilities. Pudelski said that schools are already doing that. “It is not going to be groundbreaking for districts,” she said. “It’s a flexible standard that defers to the expertise of the schools.”

While Pudelski does not foresee this decision leading to significant change at the local level, she noted that the escalating costs of educating children with disabilities puts a lot of pressure on schools, especially given past and proposed cuts to education funding. If this decision does, in fact, lead to additional, expensive services, she said, “it would be a recipe for disaster.”

How this decision will play out on the school level, given the rising costs of special education and diminishing support from the federal government, is anyone’s guess. But, for now, those concerns are not dampening the celebrations of parents and special-needs advocates this week.

Trump's Budget Blueprint Pinches Pennies for Education

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Anya Kamenetz
March 16, 2017

President Trump released a proposed 2018 budget that calls for a $9 billion, or 13.5%, cut for the U.S. Department of Education.

The document released today is only an initial sketch — a proposal, really — one that must compete with Congress's own ideas. It indicates how Trump plans to make good on his pledge to dramatically reduce parts of the federal government while increasing military spending.

And, it provides some direction on how the administration plans to promote school choice, the president's signature education issue.

As we've noted before, federal education spending provides a small fraction of the resources spent on public schools and colleges in the U.S.

For example, the Education Department's entire budget for 2017 was $69.4 billion. Meanwhile, the budget for the New York City public schools — the nation's largest district — was $29.2 billion, of which $1.7 billion came from the federal government.

Still, the blueprint gives the clearest indication to date of where schools and colleges fall on the priority list for this administration, and its plans for education policy going forward. Here's our breakdown.


  • A $168 million increase for charter schools, currently funded at over $300 million annually.
  • $250 million for an unspecified "new private school choice program," which may be vouchers. The budget proposal states that total school choice funding will eventually reach the level Trump mentioned in the campaign: $20 billion. (Tax credit scholarships, another potential vehicle to fund private school choice, would be implemented through tax reform, and are not mentioned in this budget plan).
  • A $1 billion increase for Title I, which provides funding to high-poverty schools. This increase would be dedicated to promoting and increasing school choice.

  • The $2.25 billion Supporting Effective Instruction program, also known as Title II, Part A. This grant program for states was designated to better recruit, support and train educators, particularly for high-need schools.
  • The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, which provides $732 million in need-based aid for college students.

  • $193 million from TRIO and GEARUP, programs that help prepare low-income, first-generation and disabled students for college, starting in middle school.

For the Pell Grant, the federal government's main income-based college aid program, the proposal calls for "level funding." But, that "level" technically includes "a cancellation of $3.9 billion from unobligated carryover funding." So, while Pell Grant funding would not go down, that $3.9 billion would not be available.

Pell spending has actually been on a downward trend since 2010-2011, but it had been expected to rise following a series of Obama administration changes to make it easier for families to apply for the grant.


The proposal "eliminates or reduces" a list of programs without giving further details, including: "Striving Readers, Teacher Quality Partnership, Impact Aid Support Payments for Federal Property, and International Education programs."

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

How Do Acute and Chronic Stress Impact the Development of Self-Regulation?

From the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute

By D. W. Murray and A. Hamoudi
January, 2017

Stress has been linked to long term physical health and numerous indicators of well-being, and there is increasing evidence that stress experienced in childhood and adolescence may lead to physiological changes in the brain and to disruptions in development.

However, much of the data suggesting these connections are based on associations rather than on causal evidence from experiments.

There are also many unanswered questions related to the relationship between stress and self-regulation, particularly with regard to the impact of social adversity during sensitive developmental periods, the variability in stress responsiveness across individuals, and the possibility for reversing negative effects.

Read the full paper here: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (PDF; 4 pages).

  • Murray, D. W., & Hamoudi, A. (2017). How do acute and chronic stress impact the development of self-regulation? (OPRE Report 2016-83). Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Supreme Court Rejects Education Minimum Applied by Gorsuch

From The New York Times

By Richard Perez-Pena
March 22, 2017

Schools may not settle for minimal educational progress by disabled students, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, rejecting a standard that some lower courts have applied, and that the nominee to join the high court, Neil M. Gorsuch, has been criticized for using.

The justices said Wednesday that schools should not be satisfied with
minimal educational progress for students with disabilities.

The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act requires “free appropriate public education” for all children. In multiple cases, the federal Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, has held that the law demands little “more than de minimis” — merely a program intended for a student to show some annual gains.

“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.”

In a 2008 ruling, Judge Gorsuch, who sits on the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, applied the “de minimis” standard in rejecting a parents’ claim that a school’s provisions for their autistic child were inadequate.

Since Judge Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court by President Trump, some Democrats have cited that and other opinions as evidence that the judge hews to an extreme conservative philosophy.

At about the same time that Chief Justice Roberts was announcing the decision on Wednesday, Judge Gorsuch was questioned about the issue in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In the hearing, the judge noted, as he did in the 2008 ruling, that he had simply adhered to precedent, following a standard the appeals court had set in a 1996 ruling — which, in turn, cited rulings in other courts — and its understanding of a 1982 Supreme Court decision.

The Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday acknowledged that both the federal law, enacted in 1975 and amended a few times since then, and the 1982 ruling interpreting it, are vague about what schools must do. That is by design, the court said, because what is appropriate differs widely from one child to another.

“The de minimis standard was outrageous and really meant that schools could do nothing and get away with it, so of course we’re pleased that the court soundly rejected that,” said Curtis L. Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. “But we would have preferred a clearer standard. The vagueness puts a burden on the family to try to show that their particular child needs a certain program to succeed.”

Nicole Jorwic, director of rights policy for the Arc, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual disabilities, said a review of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions related to people with disabilities “reveals an exceptionally narrow view of the protections offered by federal disability rights laws.”

She said the Arc supported Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling, but had not taken an official stance on whether Mr. Gorsuch should be confirmed.

“We would hope that in his future rulings, Judge Gorsuch would see that the purpose of IDEA is to help students with disabilities achieve more meaningful progress that can ultimately lead to their success and full life in their communities,” she said.

The case decided on Wednesday, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, concerns an autistic boy in Colorado, whose progress in school had stalled, in part because of his severe behavioral problems.

“Endrew would scream in class, climb over furniture and other students, and occasionally run away from school,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “He was afflicted by severe fears of commonplace things like flies, spills, and public restrooms.”

According to the parents, he needed a drastically different approach in school, but the district offered more of what was not working. So they put him in a private school specializing in educating autistic children, where his behavior and academic performance improved markedly.

The parents demanded reimbursement from the district for the cost of private school, arguing that the public schools had failed to meet the federal mandate. The Supreme Court did not directly address the question of reimbursement, but sent the case back to the lower courts for consideration.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Excess Brain Fluid May Forecast Autism in Babies

From Spectrum News

BY Nicholette Zeliadt
March 6, 2017

Some infants who are later diagnosed with autism have too much fluid between the brain and skull, according to a study published today in Biological Psychiatry (1). The extent of the fluid accumulation at 6 months of age can predict whether a child will be diagnosed with autism at age 2.

Blank space: An infant with autism (right) has more fluid between the brain
and the skull than does a typically developing baby at the same age (left).

The findings point to a possible biomarker that could help doctors detect autism early.

The study “identifies a potential subgroup of autistic individuals with a common biological marker,” says lead investigator Joseph Piven, Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Clinicians typically diagnose children with autism around age 4, after observing difficulties in social interactions, along with restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. But signs of autism are likely to be present in the brain much earlier.

In support of this idea, a 2013 study of 55 children in California suggested that 6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism tend to have excess fluid surrounding the brain. This cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) transports compounds involved in brain growth and, as it circulates, removes waste that could otherwise alter brain development.

The study focused on ‘baby sibs’ — infant siblings of children with autism. Baby sibs are roughly 20 times more likely to have autism than are children in the general population.

In the new study, Piven’s team confirmed the 2013 result using brain scans from more than 300 children at four sites.

“There are virtually no early markers of autism that have been independently validated or replicated in two different studies like this,” says David Amaral, director of research at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, who led the 2013 study.

Clinicians will need more evidence before they use fluid accumulation to diagnose or screen for autism, however. For one thing, it is unclear whether the excess fluid appears in children with autism who have no family history of the condition. What’s more, only some children with autism show this tendency.

Still, the fluid might be one part of an arsenal of biomarkers for the condition. “A study like this is a critical step in moving the field forward and to ultimately be able to come up with reliable biological methods for diagnosing autism,” says Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the work.

Fluid Finding

Following the 2013 study, Amaral looked for a large group of children with a family history of autism. He collaborated with Piven and other researchers conducting the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS), which has magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans and other data from hundreds of children, starting in infancy.

Piven’s team looked at 221 baby sibs and 122 children who have no family history of autism or related conditions. The children all had brain scans at 6 months of age; more than half in each group also had scans at 1 and 2 years old. At all three time points, the researchers assessed the children’s motor, language and visual skills.

The IBIS study had tested all the children for autism at age 2 and diagnosed 47 baby sibs with the condition. Clinicians also diagnosed three children from the control group with autism, but then excluded them from the analyses.

The researchers developed an automated method to quantify CSF. They trained a computer to recognize the space between the brain and the skull, and tested the program on scans from the 2013 study. This method yielded results highly similar to those from the 2013 study.

Babies later diagnosed with autism had about 18 percent more fluid outside the brain at 6 months than those without autism, after controlling for brain size, age, sex and clinical site. The excess fluid remained evident at 1 and 2 years of age.

“It’s not easy to do a longitudinal study in children and collect hundreds of images,” says Andrew Michael, director of the Neuroimaging Analytics Laboratory at the Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Michael was not involved in the new work, but led a study last year that found excess CSF in people with autism ranging in age from 7 to 64 years (2).

Predictive Program

Piven’s team entered the 6-month fluid measures from the baby sibs into a machine-learning algorithm to predict which infants would later be diagnosed with autism.

The algorithm honed its own predictive abilities by analyzing data from all but nine of the baby sibs to predict the diagnosis of the remaining infants, and repeating the process 25 times. Ultimately, the computer forecast autism with 69 percent accuracy.

The researchers then applied the algorithm to the 33 baby sibs from the 2013 study. They correctly identified autism for 80 percent of the baby sibs with autism, but incorrectly flagged 33 percent.

The team then looked for features that set apart the subset of children with autism who have excess CSF. They split the group in half based on the severity of autism features. The half with more severe features have significantly more fluid at all ages than the other children in the study. The researchers also found that too much fluid at 6 months tracks with poor motor skills.

Problems with fluid circulation could underlie the fluid accumulation and, with it, a buildup of molecules that alter brain development, Amaral says. But his findings don’t reveal whether the fluid contributes to autism or is a consequence of the condition.

Either way, he says, doctors should not view excess fluid around the brain as benign. “It really may be an indication of increased risk for a neurodevelopmental disorder,” he says.

Amaral says he would like to determine whether excess CSF is specific to autism, or might also signal increased risk for other conditions.

  1. Shen M.D. et al. Biol. Psychiatry Epub ahead of print (2017) Abstract
  2. Katuwal G.J. et al. Front. Neurosci. 10, 439 (2016) PubMed