What Is An “Appropriate” Education?

By Matt Saleh, PhD, JD


By law, students in special education are entitled to a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE) • For more than three decades legal scholars have been arguing about the definition of “appropriate” as it applies to students with LD • A case before the Supreme Court may finally bring clarity to the issue • Here’s a primer for where we stand today, along with strategies for parents to ensure that their school district complies with the law

2.8.8-Appropriate-EducationUnder the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

But what exactly is an “appropriate” education? There is no simple answer, but the guidelines below will help you navigate this often confusing terrain.

Defining “Appropriateness” 

Many parents are unaware of the working definition of appropriateness, and are surprised by what seems like “low-balling” by their school district when it comes to services offered to their child with LD.

The most famous and lasting definition of FAPE illustrates why districts and parents often begin the IEP process so far apart. Based on a 1982 court case, the definition states that school districts must provide an educational plan that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive some educational benefits,” including individually designed specialized instruction and related services. This interpretation of the law holds that “appropriate” education does not mean the “best possible” education or the education that “maximizes the child’s educational potential.”

To many parents, these definitions are counter-intuitive: how can an “appropriate” education not seek to maximize a child’s inherent potential?

Isn’t the goal of education to maximize every student’s potential?

Progress Toward Grade-Level Achievement

In recent years, courts have adopted more demanding definitions of “appropriateness.” These courts have held that the term entails “access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children.” This has been interpreted to mean that children are entitled to the educational services that best approximate grade-level standards for educational achievement. In other words, while the law does not require services that necessarily maximize a student’s potential, it does require services, accommodations, and modifications that give the student the greatest chance of progressing towards grade-level performance based on state and local standards.

Realizing the Benefits of Instruction

Building on this understanding, courts have held that the support services, modifications, and accommodations a child receives must be sufficient for the child to benefit from the instruction they are receiving. The school district must provide all supplemental services necessary for the student to progress towards grade-level, wherever the expectation of grade-level achievement is reasonable.

The “benefiting from instruction” requirement can be useful for parents, because a district may be providing instruction that seems to meet FAPE requirements, but is not offering the student the requisite services, accommodations, or modifications that would allow the student to fully benefit from that instruction. For instance, a child may receive special education reading instruction, but not with the intensity, frequency, or methodology that allows him to benefit from that instruction.

College- and Career-Readiness

Finally, the IDEA specifically emphasizes the relationship between FAPE, post-secondary education, independent living, and future employment. While a school district may argue that particular services are not necessary to enable a child to progress toward grade-level, those same services may still be necessary for future academic and employment planning.

An education that fails to provide a child with social, academic, and other tools needed for college- and career-readiness does not constitute FAPE.

Applying FAPE principles
To ensure that your district is in compliance with the current FAPE standards take the following steps:
  1. Familiarize yourself with the range of supplemental services, accommodations, and modifications available under the IDEA.
  2. Evaluate your child’s placement, realizing there is a continuum available ranging from general education to resource room, to self-contained classroom, to services and placement outside of the public school setting
  3. When participating in educational planning for your child, you should be able to cite specific services, accommodations, modifications, etc. and the manner in which they connect to FAPE. Review available services and ask yourself, “How will this service, accommodation, or modification help my child progress toward grade-level?” “How will it help him become college- and career-ready?”
  4. Confirm that the staff delivering the services is trained and qualified to do so, and that appropriate services are in place for the student to fully benefit from the instruction he is receiving.

 Matt C. Saleh is a Research Associate at the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University.

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