NOT COMMUNICATING WITH PARENTS
ABOUT SPECIAL EDUCATION LEGAL RIGHTS
Rights Notices that are not easily readable do not comply
with the law, and they do not meet its intent to provide clear
information to parents.
parents and schools are to be partners in the education of
children with disabilities, clear communication is essential.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) –
the federal law mandating special education for all eligible
students with disabilities – gives parents the rights
informed of schools’ proposed actions with regard
to their children,
full partners in decision-making teams, and
legal action if they oppose the school’s proposals
for their child.
IDEA, schools are required to advise parents of their rights
in a way that is easy to understand. Parents not only have
the right and duty to participate in special education decisions,
they can and should provide information about their child
that no one else can provide. The decision to provide special
services and the choice of services provided can be crucial
to a child’s future.
the recent release of IDEA 2004 final federal regulations,
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings promised that the new
regulations “strengthen parents’ involvement in
their children’s education.” Yet a recent study
finds that states currently are not doing a good job at articulating
the rights and responsibilities essential to strong parent
Finds Most States Fail to Communicate Parent Rights
IDEA requires schools to tell parents about their rights under
the law – referred to as “procedural safeguards
notice” – in “understandable language,”
most are falling short of this requirement, says a study reported
in the research journal Exceptional Children. The study, conducted
at Pennsylvania State University by Julie Fitzgerald and Marley
Watkins, examined Procedural Safeguards Notices (also called
Parents’ Rights Notices) from 49 states and the District
of Columbia. (Ohio was already rewriting its Parents’
Rights Notice, so it was not included in the study.)
of our goals was to help specify some of the characteristics
of understandable writing that states can use in rewriting
their Parents’ Rights Notices,” says Julie Fitzgerald,
one of the study’s authors. After looking over the federal
IDEA regulations, the researchers wanted to help define the
requirement to provide understandable information by giving
more specific advice on how to meet that requirement.
of the types of information included in Parents Rights Notices
were studied - Prior Written Notice, Educational Records,
Prior Written Notice tells parents that they have a right
to be notified if their school district proposes or refuses
to initiate or change the identification, evaluation or
educational placement of their child or the provision of
a free, appropriate, public education – referred to
as FAPE - to their child.
Records sections explain that parents have a right to see
all of their child’s educational records. Parents
have the right to have a copy of their child’s educational
records and to have the records explained to them by the
school staff. If they disagree with the records, they may
ask for changes to them.
Mediation sections tell parents about a process that is
available to them free of charge if they do not agree with
decisions made by the school. Mediation is one of several
courses of action that parents can take to legally enforce
Features Make Procedural Safeguards Notices Understandable
states’ notices were examined for features that would
make them understandable to parents, as listed below:
readability no higher than the 7th or 8th grade level .
(Measures used in this study were the New Dale-Chall Readability
Formula and the Flesch Formula.)
length. (Most states’ notices were 18 pages or fewer.)
use of acronyms (e.g., using IDEA to stand for The Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act).
or Table of Contents.
of terms and acronyms.
of samples and examples.
size of at least 12 points (e.g., this print is 8 point,
this print is 12 point).
of text headings or a question and answer format. This helps
to organize the information and separate topics.
of tables and figures. Tables and figures are a concise
way to show a lot of data or to depict trends.
of pictures and illustrations. Pictures and illustrations
show information in another way and help to break up the
text and make it more interesting.
Results were Dismal
results of the study were dismal. The study not only found
that states’ notices were not easily understandable;
they were less understandable than notices of 20 years ago.
readability level of most states’ notices was much higher
than the recommended 7th to 8th grade level. Readability scores
ranged from upper elementary school to a college graduate
level, and more than one-half were at a college reading level.
Reducing the reading level of a document is not an easy proposition,
especially where legal or technical terms must be used. But
even those states that kept the readability score to a 7th
or 8th grade level, such as Connecticut and Wisconsin, used
acronyms and a small print size, and did not use other features
to organize the text or make it more interesting.
guidelines for reading levels are well known, the use of other
features depends on the judgment of the writer. The notice
should be short enough to be read in a reasonable time, and
yet adding features to make it more inviting and clear can
take more space. For example, if a writer can clearly give
all of the necessary information in five pages using a question
and answer format, is a Table of Contents really needed? Common
sense would tell us, though, that a notice of 10 pages or
more should have a Table of Contents. While other tables,
pictures, and illustrations can make the content clear, they
also take up space and must be carefully chosen to add to
the clarity of the message.
addition, many of the other features that make a document
more interesting and understandable also take more space:
larger type, examples, samples, and a glossary all contribute
to length, which must be limited if the document is to be
short enough for parents to want to read it.
states did not use the identified features to make their notices
more easily understandable. This chart
shows a rating of the ten features for each state.
Should Make Sure that Parents Understand
study’s authors pointed out that even when the documents
are clear and easily readable, it is important for educators
to take the traits of the readers into account to help ensure
that they really do understand the information. This might
mean taking extra time to explain the information and answer
any questions that parents may have. If parents have low reading
skills, for example, school personnel may need to read the
document aloud. Finally, school personnel should assess the
parents’ understanding and knowledge of their rights
to ensure that the parents’ consent is truly “informed
staff may also want to think about other means of giving the
information to parents. For example, they may develop a video
or CD for parents to watch. IDEA 2004 lets state and local
educational agencies provide Parents’ Rights Notices
by e-mail. As well as giving parents print or e-mail notices,
schools may also post the notices on their web sites. This
would allow them to offer links to more detailed explanations
and related information. In writing their notices, the schools
need to recognize the wide variety among people with whom
they are trying to communicate.
notes, “Schools need to make it a more personalized
process, to take into account parents’ backgrounds,
educational levels, and even their motivation to read these
documents—school staff need to decide how to provide
this information in a way that is understood by the individuals
Will Be Rewriting Their Notices
2004 calls for some new content in Procedural Safeguards Notices.
The study’s publication is timely, as states will need
to rewrite their Parents Rights Notices to conform to the
new IDEA 2004 regulations. These regulations can be used as
a roadmap for parent participation in the educational decision-making
process. The readability of the notices is especially important,
since IDEA requires that Parents’ Rights statements
be written in “an easily understandable manner”
and “written in language understandable to the general
public.” Parents’ Rights Notices that are not
easily readable do not comply with the law, and they do not
meet its intent to provide clear information to parents.
points out, “It is up to the schools to reach out to
parents-to provide understandable documents, to invite them
to meet and ask questions, even to hold workshops or training
sessions to inform parents. It is the schools’ responsibility
to provide parents with the information they need.”
US Department of Education has just released a model Procedural
Safeguards Notice. Written at a 12th grade readability level,
it spans 47 pages and incorporates few of the features identified
in the study as helpful in making information easy to understand.
This and other model forms are available at http://idea.ed.gov/static/modelForms.
to Advocates & Parents
Rights Notice may have been written by your local school district
or by your state educational agency. If you do not believe
it is easily understandable by ALL THE PARENTS in your school
district, let the district or state administrator know. It
will also be helpful if you point out specific features of
the notice that can be improved—for example,
the type is too small,
there are too many large words or long sentences,
there is too much technical jargon,
technical terms or acronyms are not defined and included
in a glossary,
it contains too many acronyms to easily remember,
it is not well organized,
it does not use headings or questions-and-answers to separate
it does not provide samples or examples, pictures or illustrations,
it does not include a Table of Contents or index, or if
it is just too long.
advises, “Parents should take a look at the document,
and if they have any problems understanding it, ask to meet
with a member of the school’s special education staff,
psychologist or administrator to go over it and answer questions.”
she points out that there are lots of helpful websites that
provide information to parents—a search on “parents’
rights in special education” will yield these sites.
Some sites provide descriptions of IDEA’s special education
processes and define what the terms mean.
all, be sure that you understand your rights. If you have
any questions, ask school staff until you completely understand
the answers. For more information about parents’ rights
and Parents Rights Notices, contact your state’s Parent
Training and Information Center and see the Parent
Guide to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA 2004) available from the National Center for Learning
to Check Readability Levels
Reading levels and text difficulty levels using the
Flesch scale can be automatically measured by using
the spell checker in Microsoft WordTM. Click “tools”
on the main menu, “options” on the drop
down menu, the “spelling & grammar”
tab, and under “grammar,” check the box
marked “readability statistics.” When
you finish running the spell checker on your document,
will show the readability statistics. It will show
a Flesch Reading Ease score and a Flesch-Kincaid
Level score. Reading Ease scores range up to 100.
The higher the score, the easier it is to understand
document. WordTM recommends a score of 60-70 for
most documents. Like the researchers who studied
Rights Notices, Microsoft recommends a Flesch-Kincaid
Grade Level score of 7th to 8th Grade.
in Action issue reports on
Parentsí Rights in Special Education: The Readability
of Procedural Safeguards, by Julie L. Fitzgerald and
Marley W. Watkins, 2006, Exceptional Children, 72, pp.497-510.
Copyright 2006, The Council for