My daughter just started middle school, and she's having a lot of trouble keeping up. She was never a straight-A student, but now her grades are dropping, she doesn't turn in her homework, and she doesn't seem to really understand what she's being taught. Shouldn't her teachers be doing something?
In an ideal world, yes -- but of course, that's not where we're living. Your school district has a legal obligation to identify children that might need special education and evaluate their situation. But if the district doesn't do its job, you can give it a little push. Send a letter to the school principal. Briefly explain the problems your child is having and ask the school to evaluate whether your child is eligible for special education.
Only children with disabilities, as defined by a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), are entitled to special education. Common sense suggests that your daughter might be struggling with a learning disability. These days kids face more homework and testing than ever before, and this pressure really starts to build in middle school -- so that's often when some learning disabilities first become apparent. Fortunately, there are lots of great teaching methods and special services out there that can really help children with learning disabilities succeed. The trick is to make sure your daughter gets access to them.
Under IDEA, the district must provide disabled children with an appropriate education -- one that gives them the special help they need to succeed in school. Once you start the ball rolling by sending your letter, the school will test your child to determine whether she has a disability. If the tests show that she does, you and the school will meet to come up with an individual education program (an IEP) for your child, including the special help or services she needs to make sense of her school work.
For comprehensive guidance on special education and the IEP process read The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by attorney Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).
Or, if your child has a learning disability (as opposed to another type of disability), read Nolo's IEP Guide: Learning Disabilities, in which Lawrence Siegel tailors his discussion of special education and IEPs specifically for the parents of children with learning disabilities.