How Much?

How Much is Enough? (Maximum Feasible Benefit vs. Adequate Progress)

Another controversial, philosophical topic greatly affecting the issue of “who qualifies for what” has to do with the standard of need being applied. This comes down to two opposing viewpoints: optimal benefit vs. adequate progress.

Optimal benefit basically holds that a child deserves to receive whatever services would enable them to develop, grow, and learn to the fullest extent of their potential. For example, if a child has an above-average I.Q. and ought to be functioning several years above grade level, but isn’t due to an LD, this view would say bringing the child to grade level is not enough. He or she ought to be brought to the level they should be at by virtue of their potential. Such a child functioning “at grade level” would still be viewed as “delayed”. Most parents naturally fall into the optimal benefit camp, at least when discussing their own children. What parent doesn’t want the best for their child?

Most school officials, politicians, and even many parents (if thinking about somebody else’s child) adhere to the “adequate progress” is good enough point of view. They would argue that the optimal benefit standard is too idealistic, expensive, and even discriminatory. That if every child received the “ideal” services to bring them to their “full” potential society would be unable to afford the expense. It would break the budget of most school districts. They say if one allows an “optimal benefit” standard it creates a competition for services in which the playing field is not level. The children who actually receive the “optimal service” end up being the ones whose parents are best able to advocate for them – meaning parents who are educated and have financial resources. Children with perhaps greater needs but less resourceful parents under such a system get less. Advocates of this viewpoint believe all children should be entitled to a certain “adequate” level of service that enables them to progress, but not necessarily to the “optimal benefit”.

The problem with “adequate progress” is how to decide what’s adequate. Very often, the standard used is functioning within one (or two) “standard deviations” of grade level norms. In practical terms, this means being less than a year delayed in the first few years of elementary school, less than two years delayed in late elementary to middle school and less than 3-4 years delayed in high school. Other ways of measuring adequacy include “slow but steady progress”, or, for children who are not felt to have the potential to work up to grade level, some arbitrary determination of what their potential might be.

In practice, most of the country adheres to the adequate but not optimal standard, although loosely. In cases where parents are very forceful advocates, certain children do manage to obtain more. There was a time back in the 1980’s when Massachusetts was one of the most “optimal benefit” oriented states in the nation, although this has changed markedly in the last decade despite language in our state law which supports that concept.