The Endrew F. Decision Re-Defines a “Free Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) for Students with Disabilities

A Multi-Tiered Academic Instruction-to- Intervention Model to Guide Your FAPE Decisions (Part II of III)

Dear Colleagues,


On March 22nd, the Supreme Court made history by considering the depth and breadth of the “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) mandate in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for all students with disabilities (SWD).

In their unanimous decision (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 2017), the Supreme Court expanded the scope of SWD’s special education rights—building on their decision 35 years earlier in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Westchester County v. Rowley (1982).

When taken together, the Rowley decision provides districts and schools FAPE-related guidance for SWDs who are educated in the regular education classroom. The Endrew F. decision provides FAPE-related guidance when SWDs need their educational programs largely outside of the regular education classroom—typically in a special education classroom or setting.

According to an April 4th Education Week article by Christina Samuels and Mark Walsh, some of the “Key Takeaways” from the Endrew F. decision are the following:

The court rejected a (FAPE) standard adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that an IEP is adequate as long as it provides a benefit that is “merely more than de minimis.” Roberts said a student offered an IEP under that standard “can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” He also noted that the IDEA requires an educational program (that is) “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” Roberts said.

More specifically: For a child fully integrated into the regular classroom, an IEP typically should be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”

For a child not fully integrated into the regular classroom and for whom grade-level advancement is not a reasonable prospect, an IEP must be “appropriately ambitious,” providing the child the chance to “meet challenging objectives,” the court said.

The opinion rejected an argument put forth on behalf of Endrew F. that would require schools to provide students with disabilities the opportunity “to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.” Roberts said such a standard was at odds with the court’s analysis in Rowley.

Overall, the Supreme Court ruling recognized the individual nature of SWDs’ educational needs. That is, given the 13 disabilities areas covered within IDEA, different students will have different, and different intensities of, service, support, instructional, and intervention needs.

Comparing & Contrasting Amy Rowley vs. Endrew F.

The critical background points relative to the Rowley case are the following:

  • Amy Rowley was a student whose disability involved having a hearing impairment.
  • She was making “excellent progress in school”— “perform[ing] better than the average child in her (general education) class” and “advancing easily from grade to grade.” Her IEP provided her with “time each week with a special tutor and a speech therapist” and a “district propos(al) that Amy’s classroom teacher speak into a wireless transmitter and that Amy use an FM hearing aid designed to amplify her teacher’s words. . .”
  • The 1982 Supreme Court only considered “the facts of (this) case before us,” and concluded that the individualized educational program described above “satisfied the FAPE requirement”—presumably, because Amy was making progress given the services provided.
  • More specifically, the Court defined the provision of FAPE for students “receiving instruction in the regular classroom. . . (T)his would generally require an IEP ‘reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.’”
  • Beyond this case, the Supreme Court did not provide a “test” (or a series of decision rules) that could be used in future cases to determine the presence of FAPE.

In fact, as noted above, the Court acknowledged that IDEA requires states to “educate a wide spectrum of children with disabilities and that the benefits obtainable by children at one end of the spectrum will differ dramatically from those obtainable by children at the other end.”

The notable, functional differences between Amy Rowley and Endrew F. include the following:

  • Endrew has a different disability than Amy—namely, autism, and the services provided in his IEP were not addressing his significant social, emotional, and behavioral needs such that he was not making progress in the regular classroom.
  • Endrew’s IEP was not changing over time—from the District’s perspective because he was “failing to make meaningful progress toward his aims.” From the Parents’ perspective, Endrew’s lack of progress indicated that “only a thorough overhaul of the school district’s approach to Endrew’s behavioral problems could reverse th(is) trend.”
  • Endrew’s attendance at a “private school that specializes in educating children with autism” resulted in behavioral improvements and “a degree of academic progress”—based on IEPs that provided him “a behavioral intervention plan that identified Endrew’s most problematic behaviors and set out particular strategies for addressing them.”

In summary: Endrew was different than Amy because (a) his disability was largely behaviorally-related (an area not addressed in the Rowley decision); (b) he was not making educational progress in the regular classroom (with the services and supports in his IEP); and (c) he needed more specialized and intensive interventions (in a substantially different special education placement and program).

With the Endrew F. ruling in hand, districts and schools need to review the research and practice of how they are providing their multi-tiered continuum of services, supports, instruction, and intervention for different students with different disabilities and different intensities of need.

In order to do this, an evidence-based academic instruction and intervention blueprint is briefly described in this Blog message. Our next Blog will present an evidence-based social, emotional, and behavioral instruction and intervention blueprint. Using both blueprints, schools and districts can evaluate their current multi-tiered continua, those elements that they need to maintain, the gaps that exist, and what steps are needed to close those gaps.

Critically, in order to provide an appropriate, differentiated FAPE to all SWDs, schools and districts need these blueprints to help guide their IDEA-related prevention, assessment, and instruction/intervention processes.

A Multi-Tiered Model for Students with Disabilities Who are Academically Struggling

The Instructional Environment Context

Initially, it is essential that schools recognize that effective, differentiated academic instruction and intervention (for ALL students, but especially for SWDs) occurs in the context of three interdependent domains in the classroom (and historically, for students, in prior classrooms):

  • Curricular processes
  • Teacher-Instructional processes
  • Student processes

These processes exist within (what we call) the student’s Instructional Environment (see figure below).

Students Succeed Because of their Instructional Environments

From: Knoff, H.M., & Dyer, C. (2014). RTI2—Response to Instruction and Intervention: Implementing Successful Academic and Behavioral Intervention Systems. Rexford, NY: International Center for Leadership in Education. 

Expanding briefly: The Instructional Environment involves the integration of:

  • The different academic curricula being taught in a classroom, as well as their connection to state standards and benchmarks, and district scope and sequence objectives (i.e., “What needs to be learned?”);
  • The teachers (as well as support staff and interventionists) who are teaching these curricula, and how they organize and execute their classroom instruction (i.e., “Are appropriate instructional and management strategies being used?”); and
  • The students who are engaged in learning—and specifically their abilities and disabilities, their motivation to learn, master, and apply instructional material; and their response to effective instruction, sound curricula, instructional accommodations and modifications, and targeted remediation and intervention (i.e., “Is each student capable, prepared, motivated, and able to learn, and are they learning?”).

In a proactive, preventative sense, when all three Instructional Environment domains are integrated, coordinated, and working well together, all students (a) engage enthusiastically in the classroom’s curriculum and instruction; (b) learn and master the academic material presented; and (c) apply their learning to “real-world” and other applications while, progressively, becoming independent and life-long learners.

However, when students (in general and with disabilities) are not progressing (or “responding”) to what appears to be effective, differentiated classroom instruction being taught by effective and knowledgeable teachers, a systematic data-based, functional assessment, problem solving process is needed.

Required as an embedded part of the multi-tiered continuum, this process (a) analyzes the characteristics and contributions of factors within the three Instructional Environment domains relative to students’ academic successes and shortcomings; (b) identifies the specific underlying reasons, in each area, that objectively explain why different students are at-risk, underperforming, unsuccessful, unresponsive, or failing; and (c) links the assessment outcomes with strategic or intensive instruction or intervention approaches.

Significantly: Unlike the RtI and MTSS frameworks advocated by the U.S. Department of Education (through its various national Technical Assistance Centers), the data-based problem-solving process should occur as soon as a teacher or teaching-team identifies a student as not progressing (that is, in “Tier I”).

That is, students should not have to wait until they have “failed” in Tier I, and then “failed” in Tier II—in order to finally receive the individualized and multidisciplinary case review, assessment, and intervention approaches that they require. . . in Tier III.

This requires that all of the schools in a district use the same problem-solving process (although these may be differentiated at the elementary versus secondary levels), and that all staff are collaboratively trained in this process and their specific responsibilities along its continuum.

Finally: The data-based analyses across the three Instructional Environment domains will likely identify three different patterns of factors underlying different students’ academic struggles. While the patterns often overlap, these typically require three different instructional or intervention approaches.

These patterns involve students whose lack of academic success is predominantly due to past or present:

  • Curricular processes (Curricular Casualties);
  • Teacher-Instructional processes (Instructional Casualties); or
  • Student-specific processes (Student Process Casualties).

Critically—unless shown otherwise—most Curricular and Instructional Casualty students CAN learn, they just HAVE NOT had the opportunity to learn. Thus, we just have to deliver the “right” instruction (and resolve the curricular and/or instructional factors that have interfered with prior learning).

Meanwhile, Student Process casualties MAY be able to learn, but the data-based analyses need to differentiate WHY this has not occurred. For example, is it due to biologically-based or disability-related factors, to learning and skill mastery factors, to motivational or support factors, or a combination?

The important point here is that—while academically struggling students will need direct academic services, supports, and interventions regardless of the source of their problems, future Curricular or Instructional casualty students will be prevented only through direct changes in the factors in these domains that are weak or not functioning well.

Earlier Blogs have discussed a number of issues related to this discussion:

ESEA/ESSA Tells Schools and Districts: Build Your Own Multi-Tier System of Supports for Your Students’ Needs (January, 2017)

Rethinking School Improvement and Success, Staff Development and Accountability, and Students' Academic and Behavioral Proficiency (July, 2016)

The New ESEA/ESSA: Discontinuing the U.S. Department of Education’s School Turn-Around, and Multi-tiered Academic (RtI) and Behavioral (PBIS) System of Support (MTSS) Frameworks (March, 2016)

Your State’s Guide to RtI Just Doesn’t Make Sense (February, 2015)

The Positive Academic Support and Services Continuum

Returning to the Rowley and Endrew F. cases, the most important component of FAPE involves how schools define and provide “appropriate” educational opportunities to SWDs.

Given our research, practice, and field-testing across the country, we have designed a practical and successful evidence-based academic instruction-to-intervention model that organizes the services, supports, strategies, and interventions needed by SWDs to best provide them with FAPE.

The Positive Academic Supports and Services model (PASS) involves a continuum of academically-focused instructional and intervention approaches that are strategically aligned across the different intensity levels within a multi-tiered system (see figure below).

RTI2 Response to Instruction

From: Knoff, H.M., & Dyer, C. (2014). RTI2—Response to Instruction and Intervention: Implementing Successful Academic and Behavioral Intervention Systems. Rexford, NY: International Center for Leadership in Education.

The foundation to the PASS model (see the top of the figure above) is effective and differentiated classroom instruction where teachers used evidence-based curricular materials and approaches that are matched to students’ learning styles and needs. The ultimate goal is for students to learn, master, and (eventually) be able to independently apply the targeted academic content and skills. This is accomplished as teachers continuously evaluate (or progress monitor) students’ short- and long-term progress.

For at-risk, underperforming, unsuccessful, unresponsive, or failing students or Students with Disabilities, teachers use the data-based, functional assessment, problem-solving process to determine the root causes of the students’ difficulties—then linking the assessment results with instructional and/or intervention approaches at the right level of intensity.

Depending on the frequency, intensity, duration, or severity of the student challenge, the problem-solving process could be accomplished by an individual teacher, a grade-level of teachers working together, or a multi-disciplinary collaborative team of teachers and support staff.

Relative to the instructional or intervention approaches, these are organized in a loose six-area continuum briefly described below:

  • Assistive Supports involve specialized equipment, technologies, medical/physical devices, and other resources that help students, especially those with significant disabilities, to learn and function—for example, physically, behaviorally, academically, and in all areas of communication. Assistive supports can be used anywhere along the PASS continuum.
  • Remediation involves strategies that teach students specific, usually prerequisite, skills to help them master broader curricular, scope and sequence, or benchmark objectives.
  • Accommodations change conditions that support student learning—such as the classroom setting or set-up, how and where instruction is presented, the length of instruction, the length or timeframe for assignments, or how students are expected to respond to questions or complete assignments.
  • Accommodations can range from the informal ones implemented by a classroom teacher, to the formal accommodations required by and specified on a 504 Plan (named for the federal statute that covers these services).
  • Modifications involve changes in curricular content—its scope, depth, breadth, or complexity.

Remediations, accommodations, and modifications involve many different strategies that need to be matched to the specific needs of a student. They are typically are implemented in general education classrooms by general education teachers, although the teachers may need to consult with other colleagues or specialists to facilitate their effective implementation.

At times, remediation, accommodation, and modification strategies may be implemented in “pull-out,” “pull-in,” or co-taught instructional skill groups. This allows larger numbers of students with the same needs to be helped simultaneously.

Consistent with multi-tiered approaches, if target students do not respond to the strategically-chosen strategies in these three areas, or if their needs are more significant or complex, one or more of the next two PASS areas may be needed:

  • Strategic Interventions focus on changing students’ specific academic skills or strategies, their motivation, or their ability to comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate academic content and material. Strategic Interventions are typically based on multidisciplinary assessments, and they may be documented in a formal Academic Intervention Plan or Individualized Education Plan (AIP or IEP, respectively).
  • Compensatory Approaches help students to compensate for disabilities that cannot be changed or overcome (e.g., being deaf, blind, or having physical or central nervous system/neurological disabilities). Often combined with assistive supports, compensatory approaches help students to accomplish learning outcomes, even though they cannot learn or demonstrate specific skills within those outcomes.

For example, for students who will never learn to decode sounds and words due to neurological dysfunctions (e.g., dyslexic students), the compensatory use of audio or web-based instruction and (electronic) books can still help them to access information from text and become knowledgeable and literate. Both assistive supports and compensatory approaches are “positive academic supports” that typically are provided through IEPs.

Practical Points. While there is a sequential nature to the components in the PASS continuum, it is a strategic and fluid—not a lock-step—blueprint. That is, the supports and services are utilized based on students’ needs, as well as the intensity of those needs.

For example, if reliable and valid assessments indicate that a student needs immediate accommodations to be successful in the classroom, then there is no need to implement remediations or modifications to “validate” that conclusion.

Moreover, many students with complex needs will receive different supports or services on the PASS continuum simultaneously. For example, some students will need both modifications and assistive supports in order to be successful.

Thus, consistent with the Rowley and Endrew F. decisions, all PASS services, supports, strategies, and programs are strategically delivered to individual students with individually assessed needs. And while it is most advantageous to deliver needed supports and services within the general education classroom (i.e., the least restrictive environment), other instructional options could include co-teaching (e.g., by general and special education teachers in a general education classroom), pull-in services (e.g., by instructional support or special education teachers in a general education classroom), short-term pull-out services (e.g., by instructional support teachers focusing on specific academic skills and outcomes), or more intensive pull-out services (e.g., by instructional support or special education teachers).

With a conscious eye to FAPE, these staff and setting decisions are based on the intensity of students’ skill-specific needs, their response to previous instructional or intervention services and supports, and the level of instructional or intervention expertise needed.


Ultimately, the goal of the multi-tiered PASS model is to provide students with early, intensive, and successful services and supports that are identified through the problem-solving process, and implemented with integrity and needed intensity. For the more strategic and intensive strategies and interventions in the model, the assessment to intervention link, and thus, the selection and implementation of the correct approaches along the continuum help to ensure FAPE.

As an expansion of Rowley, the Endrew F. decision helps us understand some basic principles relative to the delivery of FAPE to SWDs:

  1. The Supreme Court stated, “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. Of course, this describes a general standard, not a for­mula. But whatever else can be said about it, this stand­ard is markedly more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”
  2. FAPE must be determined in the context of how a student’s disability impacts the services and supports needed in an IEP (“in light of a child’s circumstances”).
  3. SWDs are not guaranteed to make educational progress.
  4. Having considered only two cases, involving two different disabilities (of the 13 specified in IDEA), and two different intensity levels of individualized educational need, the Court does not believe it appropriate (or even possible) to identify set decision rules relative to a district’s provision of FAPE.
  5. The Court noted its “deference” to the expertise and judgement of the professionals in a school district—albeit in a partnership with the Parents—when writing an IEP, and it “vests these officials with responsibility for decisions of critical importance to the life of a disabled child.”
  6. Finally, the Court stated that IDEA’s provision of FAPE did not include “an education that aims to pro­vide a child with a disability opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.”

In Conclusion: As you “journey” toward the end of this school year, I hope that this overview of the PASS model, and its applications to the Supreme Court’s recently-clarified perspective of FAPE, has provided you with a blueprint to help you to evaluate, validate, and/or change your current district or school approaches to SWDs.

As always, I look forward to your comments. . . whether online or via e-mail (

If I can help you in any area of the school and schooling process, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students.