TRUST — Build trust for schools, students, and parents because trust is the coin of the realm!

I believe that TRUST is necessary for excellent education — trust among players — students, teachers, parents, administrators, tax payers, and others.

Excellent education means that students learn all they can to become all they can be! That is the WHY of schools; it’s where our discussion should start — with the WHY. Schools should focus on student competence every day, all the time. Yet, they often can’t and don’t. As I see it, lack of trust contributes to that.

Positive relationships between schools and families are vital. Yet, the special education law and dispute resolution don’t promote that. In fact, as I see it, they head in the opposite direction! They are costly, anxiety-​​producing, and often trust busters for all parties, with NO research proving that the mandated procedures and requirements improve student outcomes. Tragic.

What is trust? It’s a firm belief that you can rely on the strength, ability, truthfulness, honesty, of someone or something. It gives you confidence in that reliance.

The “coin of the realm” is a country’s legal currency, valued like money. Before he died at age 100, George Shultz reflected on advice he got when he first became Secretary of State — “Trust is the coin of the realm.” He carried that lesson with him for his entire life — and wrote a short and breezy book about trust and relationships to celebrate his 100th. shultz_finalfile_web-ready.pdf ( It includes this gem:

“When trust was in the room, whatever room that was — the family room, the schoolroom, the coach’s room, the office room, the government room, or the military room — good things happened.

When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen.

Everything else is details.”

And, there’s this about trust. The US is the only established democracy where the level of ‘social trust’ is falling. ‘Social trust’ means that people believe that most people can be trusted and that they’ll abide by established norms. For example, they believe that if your lost wallet is found, someone will return it to you! Our social trust used to be 50%; now it’s less than a third. Without trust, what’s left? “Why are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?” The Wall Street Journal, December 19–20, 2020.

And, as you can imagine, distrust is trust’s opposite. Here’s Francis Fukuyama’s excellent summary:

“By contrast, people who do not trust one another will end up cooperating only under a system of formal rules and regulations, which have to be negotiated, agreed to, litigated, and enforced, sometimes by coercive means. This legal apparatus, serving as a substitute for trust, entails what economists call “transaction costs.”

“Widespread distrust in a society, in other words, imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” Citation at end of this post.

“Transaction costs.” One special education statistic that remains in my head is this. Teachers have just 27% of time left to teach. The rest is taken up with writing reports, attending meetings and other bureaucratic requirements — “transaction costs.” Yet, for the WHY — we have NO evidence that these improve outcomes!

“We have a problem, Houston!” Trust is NOT in the air!

What can we do about it? This post is designed to be practical and helpful with steps you can take on Monday!

First, words matter. Use them wisely. Be honest. Avoid ‘doublespeak.’ Try not to create an ‘honesty gap!’ The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘doublespeak’ as language that can be used in more than one way and is used to deceive people. The term, ‘honesty gap’, popped up in the testing/achievement arena and refers to the gap between information parents receive and how students are actually doing. An ‘honesty gap’ and ‘doublespeak’ are trust busters. Don’t use them!

Here are some oft-used terms that I see as trust busters.

“Closing the gap.” A great goal, but what does it mean? Is it real? Concerns are raised when we lower or ‘dumb down’ standards, provide invalidating modifications, hurt advanced students who are already proficient, obsess about getting all students to college, ignoring the real world benefits of vocational and technical education and the reality that many students are unprepared for college, etc. etc. Joke: We can “close achievement gaps” by simply ending achievement! How about aiming to “narrow gaps” — which may be more realistic and honest. And, far more satisfying because it gets to the WHY of education — how about focusing on student competence as CBE (competency based education) schools are doing, making it about individual student growth, not gaps with others.

“All students can learn and meet the same challenging academic standards.” Really? What does this mean? Is it honest? Does it build trust?

We want what’s best for your child.” While that may be what you want personally, it’s not what the law requires of you, as a school employee. Your job is to provide an ‘appropriate, not a best, education. Saying that we want what’s best for your child overpromises and underdelivers — a sure trust buster.

“Parents and schools are equal partners” at Team meeting, in planning the IEP, etc. This is not so. Saying it leads to a loss of trust. See Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (US 2017). The two parties have very different roles under the law. Schools provide expertise and parents provide input that schools need to consider. Parents may have expertise about their child at home and in the community, but not about education and how the child performs at school. While the parties hopefully act as partners, calling them “equal” is confusing doublespeak. What, exactly, does it mean?

There are many other troubling terms. Which ones have you questioned and tried to avoid because they kill trust? With a moment’s thought, you’ll think of several!

In sum, the “honesty gap” and doublespeak hurt efforts to build trust and positive relationships in our schools.

On the other hand, here are two positive words that I urge school personnel to use. Describe yourself as the ‘expert’ that you are in your chosen field and as the ‘advocate’ you are for the students you serve. Own those words: expert and advocate!

Second. the language challenge is a practical dilemma. Nancy, a successful special education director, told me this story. After she retired, she filled in as the acting principal of a school in the district, where she learned the heavy toll on trust and honesty in the special ed world. As acting principal, she was able to speak honestly with parents and students — for the first time! Something that she could not do in the world of special education (lest what she said would come back to haunt her in a dispute). Think about that!

What about trust in other countries? During my pre-COVID 19 visit with a school principal in Holland, she laughed out loud when I asked if they hire lawyers to resolve disputes about services for children with disabilities. Lawyers? NO — they resolve disputes with parents, educators, and administrators.

What about here at home at meetings? Try this! Walk into an IEP Team meeting. How long does it take you to know if there’s trust among the players? What are the benchmarks? How can you tell if staff members or parents feel heard?

Third, a bit of history about due process and some special education numbers. In 1975, Congress enacted the special education law, the IDEA. It provides an individual entitlement to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities and rights for their parents. As we all know, this entitlement involves due process. I highly recommend the book, Rights Talk, to understand individual rights in the US. Citation in the back.

Numbers. In 1975, about a million students with disabilities were excluded from US schools or not appropriately served. The law targeted students with severe and profound needs — who now make up 10–20% of all students with disabilities. 80–90% of today’s students with disabilities have mild/ moderate needs. About 14% of students are covered by this law. Due to COVID-19, we expect the numbers to go up — as, by report, more parents already seek eligibility evaluations.

The pandemic also highlights an on-going challenge about students with mild and moderate needs. Can you really tell who is a student with a disability and who is ‘at risk’ or just losing ground? Often, the difference has more to do with student ZIP codes and parental advocacy than the students themselves. Gaps have widened for so many at-risk students and students with disabilities — both groups, creating a real challenge.

Amazingly (to me, at least), the law and its due process system do not mention TRUST. It’s all about rights for students and parents and responsibilities for schools. A damaging effect of this law has been the loss of trust between school and home, in spite of its best intentions. For example, teachers often practice ‘defensive’ education, lest a dispute blow up into a litigation. Parents who wish to nourish and help their children need to study the law to fight against the very teachers and schools whose mission is to educate their children! Too often, they describe their child as more disabled than she is. See, e.g., Chino Valley USD, OAH Case # 2020060369; 2020100601.

When I was a hearing officer, I heard a parent describe her teenage son in excruciating, negative detail. I finally asked her, “Do you like this child?” She looked up, stunned, and then smiled. She got it! The hearing became more honest and real.

Due process damages relationships. Let’s not forget that the very next day after testifying at a hearing, teachers have to work with the child and parents. It takes an emotional toll on parents and staff. Its incentives are wrong. Many educators quit and walk away.

The law is built on the premise that parents advocate for their child against their school and teachers; that parents and students need “protections” from schools and that parents have to fight, fight, fight. The law places a huge burden on parents: many can’t advocate effectively; savvy parents often can; poor, uneducated — often can’t. Surely, the system lacks equity.

Lost in all this is the fact that most parents are pleased with their children’s special education services and progress!

Notably, most (94–96%) hearing requests settle without a hearing or decision. The number of decisions in the US is down. (We have no numbers yet for the COVID-19 time and beyond). 2262 decisions were rendered in 2011–12, compared with 4537 in 2006–7. Though the number of decisions is small, that’s a mixed blessing. Among continuing challenges are the constant fear of litigation, settlement costs, the fact that incentives are wrong (e.g., lawyers’ fees; trusting outside, not inside ‘experts,’ etc.), and the fact that ‘professional development’ often is about dotting all I’s and crossing all t’s.

I’m sure you can think of other examples of damage to trust that today’s system creates.

Fourth, it’s time to ask whether today’s approach, even with various ADR (alternate dispute resolution) options, is still appropriate or necessary for students or parents?

Would anyone seeking to create a positive, collaborative system for teachers, parents, and students set up the adversarial, bureaucratic, and trust-killing system that we have?

In sum, the IDEA’s effect on trust, built on adversarial due process that emphasizes rights and litigation, not learning — is very concerning. We need to change it! For the long haul, I urge us to reimagine educating all students, including students with disabilities (in two distinct groups with different needs and rights) by building positive, trust-based, innovative approaches for our post — COVID-19 future. We may even question whether to continue with the current entitlement system. Here’s a starter article for this overdue conversation. Special education post-pandemic — what and how? | by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA | Dec, 2020 | Medium

Fifth, but for now, what to do on Monday!

Take steps to build trust with families — especially during and after COVID-19. A surprising silver lining of the pandemic has been that many schools report improved parent outreach and collaboration. What have you done for outreach? Have you shown that the school is doing all it can for their child? Have you engaged families in honest dialogue?

1. Catch students being good. Focus on strengths! And share with the parents!

2. Speak Plain Language without doublespeak and the ‘honesty gap’. What is plain language? | Drop the acronyms or provide a glossary. Acronyms are often disempowering — an immediate barrier to trust.

3. Be the child’s advocate! Own that word. Be the person that parents know has their child’s interest at heart. Earn their trust!

4. Be the expert that you are in your area of expertise and stay in your lane! Own that word!

5. Earn trust by doing what you said you will do. Over deliver and under promise. Not the opposite!

6. Be the district’s eyes and ears — about parental concerns. E.g., when they first bring a “friend” to a meeting or ask for the child’s student records or…Hire a hand holder — like Raye!

7. Smile — Go that extra smile.

Consistent, positive, small steps can go a long way to build trust.


Sixth, explore ADR options within today’s entitlement system.

Besides mediations, resolution meetings, and other ADR options, I’d like to introduce SpedEx — Massachusetts’

· child-centered

· voluntary

· trust-based

· free for parents and school districts

· successful dispute resolution system that develops an appropriate program for the child.

SpedEx is designed to be child-centered, result in an appropriate placement that provides a FAPE in the LRE, and trust-based! It’s success rate in developing accepted IEPs — parents and schools working together with an outside consultant (paid for by the state education department) — stands at 80–90%. That is amazing! It also likely means that the parties will continue to work together in a trusting relationship in future years. Please check it out at SpedEx (

Imagine other dispute resolution options for all students — with or without disabilities; with or without an entitlement.

· Ombudsman for all students.

· A monthly open school night to meet with the principal — no appointment needed. Like Jimmy, my son’s principal, did!

· Informal resolution options developed by students, teachers, and parents.

· Student-centered, not process-centered, approaches.

· Outcome-based, not input-driven, systems. It’s the WHY of schools and WHY we care about making them better.


We’ve acknowledged the fact that trust and distrust are problematic in the wider world.

Let’s build around the reality that trust in the special education world is a huge challenge.

On Monday, take practical steps to build and grow trust in your world.

Keep the conversation going! These are a few of my favorite books and sources….

Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville (1835, 1840).

IEP and Section 504 Team Meetings… and the Law, Miriam Kurtzig Freedman (2017).

Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, Mary Ann Glendon (1991).

Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality, Richard Thompson Ford (2011).

Special Education 2.0 — Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law, Miriam Kurtzig Freedman (2017).

Start with Why — How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek (2009)

Try Common Sense — Replacing the Failed Ideologies of the Right and Left, Philip K. Howard (2019).

Trust — The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama (1995).

shultz_finalfile_web-ready.pdf (, George Schultz (2021).

This was originally posted on Medium