Parents have a need to observe in their child's classroom especially when issues arise in school. Observations of candidate programs are crucial to making informed decisions on placement. It also can be important that private therapist or evaluators observe current and potential classrooms. Schools have, in my experience, thrown up a variety of obstacles to impede or prevent these observations. The one that appears to be in vogue at the moment is that the classroom observation would "violate the confidentiality of the other children in the classroom." When pressed for the underlying State or Federal law or even local school policy that they believe supports this claim, I have yet to see anything other than administrators posturing and pounding the table. This position usually unravels when it is pointed out that there is no confidentiality concerns when parents visit to assist in a room, read a book to the classroom or present on career day.
While the law is not entirely clear on this issue, the U.S. Department of Education, in Letter to Mamas [Download OSEP Letter to Mamas.doc] equivocally supports the right of parents and their evaluators to observe:
"The determination of who has access to classrooms may be addressed by State and/or local policy. However, we encourage school district personnel and parents to work together in ways that meet the needs of both the parents and the school, including providing opportunities for parents to observe their children's classrooms and proposed placement options. In addition, there may be circumstances in which access may need to be provided. For example, if parents invoke their right to an independent educational evaluation of their child, and the evaluation requires observing the child in the educational placement, the evaluator may need to be provided access to the placement."
The first line of inquiry when the school denies or obstructs
observations is to request the "State and/or local policy" that they
claim supports its position. More often than not, such policy does not
exist or the policy is fairly minimal requiring advance notice and an
appointment--certainly reasonable regulation in any school setting. It
should not come as a big surprise when the principal or other
administrator insists on coming along for the observation "to answer
questions" which usually translates to "I want to make sure no one
says or does anything which could be harmful to the school's
interests." When scheduling observations it is important to be explicit
that it needs to be a "typical day" with children present. I have had
districts schedule observations on days when a field trip was long ago
set, during recess, special assemblies, or celebrations.
In my opinion and based on review of a few cases, schools would be hard pressed to defend a blanket policy of no observations. However, parents can not expect to observe at will and with such frequency or periods of time that actually or arguably create a disruption in the room. Make the most of the time and opportunities presented. The key is to use a written checklist of what information the expert or parent is seeking. A client of mine has very graciously permitted me to share her checklist that she and I created. [Download Questions for Classroom Observation.doc]. While this checklist was intended for a classroom of children with LD needs, it can easily be adapted to other classroom settings. Write up the data collected immediately after the observation, and document any particularly noteworthy comments or events. Do not take no for answer when it comes to observations, expect stinginess with information, and be reasonable and efficient in the frequency and times for observations during a "typical day."
Pete Wright from wrightslaw.com has some additional insights on classroom observations that are certainly worthwhile.