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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Glossary of Terms to Help Parents Navigate the (Special) Educational System

From LinkedIn

By Jonathan Gottlieb
July 2, 2018

Navigating the ins and outs of the education system can be challenging — words and acronyms are casually tossed around and most people are unfamiliar with their meaning when they first enter the world of special education.

This post is meant to serve as a reference of the most commonly used phrases in special education law. I hope it provides some context and helps shed some light on the meaning and origins of these terms.


FAPE stands for free appropriate public education, and it is a description of the program that should be provided to every student with a learning disability. In other words, FAPE describes a unique and specially tailored educational program that local educational agencies are required to provide at public expense.

Guaranteeing FAPE to all students is one of the pillars of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Currently the IDEA covers every state and entitles every student with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education.


Under the law, the free and appropriate public education guaranteed to students with disabilities also needs to be provided in the least restrictive environment, or LRE.

Whenever possible, a school district should prioritize a program where the student with disabilities can have the maximum allowable exposure to children in a mainstream educational environment that still enables the child to get an appropriate education.

This concept originally came about as a response to disability advocacy movements and the ways in which people with disabilities were treated in the past — they were warehoused, institutionalized, and entirely excluded from public educational programs.

One of the fundamental tenets of special education law is to provide students with disabilities the least restrictive environment with the most possible exposure to children without disabilities.


The IDEA refers to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IDEA is a comprehensive, overarching federal law, with a suite of different components.

Fundamentally, all the states that adopt this federal law accept federal education dollars in return for the following additional responsibilities:
  • to identify, locate, and evaluate children with learning disabilities;
  • to provide a free and appropriate education for all children with disabilities in their public school systems; and,
  • to provide that education in the least restrictive environment.

The IDEA also mandates that states set up a dispute resolution system for parents who don't believe their child is getting a free and appropriate education, or who don't believe they are receiving everything they are entitled to under the IDEA.

Note: the name of the IDEA has changed many times since its first debut as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act in 1974. Since a 2004 amendment, its official name is the IDEIA (Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act), but most still refer to it as the IDEA.


DPC stands for Due Process Complaint (Also known as an IHR, or Impartial Hearing Request). Filing a DPC is one way a parent can engage with the IDEA’s dispute resolution system and vindicate their children’s rights. Once filed, the complaint brings the parents’ complaint in front of an impartial hearing officer, an administrative law judge.

The judge typically has experience within the field of special education, and more specifically, special education law. Often times the defendant in these cases is the local educational agency, i.e. the school district or a particular school.


IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. An IEP is an educational guide created by the child’s parent along with a group of educators and school administrators that know the child, detailing what educational setting and supports will enable the child to make appropriate progress. At the same time, it is also a legal document that entitles the student to the protections guaranteed under the IDEA.

If an IEP is done well, the document should tell any teacher, even a teacher who has never met a child with disabilities, exactly what the child needs to progress in their current educational setting.

An IEP describes:

  • a child's present levels of performance - think of it as a snapshot of the child's performance in their current educational program;
  • the child’s management needs, or what behavioral supports she might need;
  • goals for the following school year; and,
  • articulable criteria of how to measure those goals.

An IEP finishes up with a recommendation on the best-suited program to teach the child, and which placement the child will need, as described within the continuum of services available.

Continuum of Services

The continuum of services denotes all the different types of educational placements a child could participate in within an educational construct. Services can be described on a spectrum from least restrictive, with the most exposure to mainstream education children, to most restrictive.

On the least restrictive side is a mainstream classroom, increasing in restrictiveness from ICT to 12:1, 6:1, private special education schools, and hospital settings.

ICT Classroom

Traveling up one rung on a ladder of restrictiveness from a mainstream classroom, you find an ICT classroom or an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom. This is a classroom where there is a roughly equal percentage of mainstream children and children with IEPs (although no more than 12 children with IEPs are allowed in a typical ICT classroom). The classroom is staffed by both a special education teacher and a general education teacher.


Moving up another rung on the ladder of restrictiveness, a 12:1 or 12:1:1 classroom can be found, which is a class with a ratio of 12 students to either one teacher, or 12 students to one teacher and one paraprofessional. More restrictive environments help children with higher needs.

If the child needs even more supervision and close support, she can be placed in a 6:1 class, or a 6:1:1 class, which is six children to one adult, or six children to two adults in the classroom respectively.

Moving up even higher on the ladder comes 1:1 instruction, or a placement with intensive one-on-one teacher supervision and guidance for each child. Full-time 1:1 instruction is generally not available in public school settings, and would require that a child attend a private special education school.

Additionally, in the event that a child has severe medical needs, she may need to be educated within a hospital setting, through home instruction, or by being home schooled.


The DOE or the Department of Education is the governmental agency that handles every aspect of New York City education. The DOE does not have any power outside of the five boroughs of New York City; beyond the City, educational matters are managed county by county and school district by school district. Every school district within New York City is under the aegis of the New York City Department of Education (DOE).

The DOE deals with IEP meetings, student disciplinary action, and outside providers if the child is receiving services through the Department of Education. Should the DOE determine they do not have a proper placement for a child with disabilities within their continuum of services, or among the different placements they can offer, the DOE can defer the child to CBST.


The CBST or Central Based Support Team is an organization that places children into a state-approved, non-public school if the DOE is unable to meet their needs.

State-Approved, Non-Public School

A state-approved, non-public school is a private school that has an agreement with the Department of Education. This type of school typically focuses on children with special education profiles. For example, often they are schools that specialize in autism or speech and language disorders.

These schools contract with the New York City Department of Education and are able to offer a certain number of seats to children with disabilities. In return, the Department of Education covers the cost of the student’s enrollment and tuition.

Having clarity and context around these terms should help with understanding and navigating the educational system. 

Jonathan Gottlieb, Esq. is a partner in the special education law firm Gottlieb & Gottlieb, LLP in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

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