Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Mar 02
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by Doug Goldberg

I set out to write a post on "what a good IEP looks like" at the request of the brilliant Larry Ferlazzo when the great KIPP debate (one and two) burst out. But as in any "real" learning, I'm glad I was interrupted, because I learned a great deal during that conversation, and that conversation altered what I am writing now.

The "Individualized Education Program [Plan]," is the central "paperwork" component of American "Special Education" - and, in other forms, not uncommon in other nations. Unfortunately, it is typically (almost always) a deficit-model statement, listing all that is "wrong" with the student - like a medical triage report that forgets to report that, say, your blood pressure is just fine - followed by a prescription list which ignores all side effects.

So I want to begin here with a comment my friend "Homer-The-Brave" wrote regarding KIPP schools:

"Anonymous says: "[Poor children of color are] several years behind their whiter peers and several times more likely to drop out of school. So they need extra work on some stuff that wealthier whiter people take for granted, such as, oh, learning to read."

The very idea of 'behind'-ness is what's under attack here, A. When you standardize what it means to be an educated child, you create a line in the sand that defines some kids as 'ahead' and some kids as 'behind.' As anyone with a learning disability knows, these sorts of lines are increasingly arbitrary the more you examine them. They shut you out for all manner of reason. They create a situation where those who are 'ahead' get a free bonus happy career, and those who are 'behind' get either the short stick or the sanctimony. Or both.

If I had been in a class that demanded I make eye contact at all times, I would have become a discipline problem, because I am autistic. There is no room for me in a 'SLANT' classroom. So the teacher would then be allowed to humiliate me for non-compliance, or send me off to 'special ed.' Either way, it's amply demonstrated that I'm valueless to the class or the school.

Such an application of 'SLANT' philosophy immediately turns me into someone who is 'behind,' even though I come from a wealthy, white, upper middle class background.

Defining some people as 'behind' is what allows the school to abuse them in this way, and really that's what it is."

"Homer" is one of the smartest people I know, and one of the most acute observers of the world. Yet I have no doubt that those facts were not "front and centre" on any IEP written for him. So let me make this the number one idea behind a "good IEP": Start by describing all the things the student is good at. Because, as I said in the "Twitter-portion" of the great KIPP debate - (a) "I have never met a kid who couldn't do a million amazing things," and (b) "Start telling me what kids can do, not what they can't."

This actually becomes easier if you use the WATI Assessment Forms before the meeting. The WATI Student Information Guides (all free downloads) ask you about student abilities in each "area" - the essential first step. But a good IEP goes beyond that. What are the student's interests? What is the best time of the day for the student? What drives this student to succeed? At what?

Without this kind of listing, your IEP will fail because you will not be able to leverage student strengths to overcome the things which cause them trouble. The IEP Guidelines start with, "The child's present levels of academic and functional performance." That should be a major bit of writing, not a list of test scores.

Now, I have read a lot of IEPs from a lot of schools over the years, and to be blunt, most are terrible. Most are so minimally constructed as to be meaningless, filled with what I refer to - ironically - as "universal accommodations" that show quite specifically, that this "plan" is not individualized at all.

Favourite example? An IEP for a high school student born without a right leg offered her "extra time on tests."

So, yes, I see "extra time on tests" a lot. I often ask, "Why would an ADHD kid want to spend more time sitting there with this test?" and similar questions that seem to bother many school administrators.

But let's step back and go to Wikipedia for the basics:

"The IDEA 2004 requires that an IEP must be written according to the needs of each student who meets eligibility guidelines under the IDEA and state regulations, and it must include the following:

* The child's present levels of academic and functional performance
* Measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals
* How the child's progress toward meeting the annual goals are to be measured and reported to the parents
* Special education services, related services, and supplementary aids to be provided to the child
* Schedule of services to be provided, including when the services are to begin, the frequency, duration and location for the provision of services
* Program modifications or supports provided to school personnel on behalf of the child
* Least Restrictive Environment data which includes calculations of the amount of time student will spend in regular education settings verses time spent in special education settings each day
* Explanation of any time the child will not participate along with nondisabled children
* Accommodations to be provided during state and district assessments that are necessary to the measuring child's academic and functional performance

Additionally, when the student is 16 years old, a statement of post-secondary goals and a plan for providing what the student needs to make a successful transition is required. This transition plan can be created at an earlier age if desired, but must be in place by the age of 16."

A good IEP takes both short and long views of each of these issues, and includes a continuous feedback loop to allow the student and the school faculty to see how things are going.

Short and long? Yes. The goal can not be to "get the student through this class" or "get the student through this year." The goal has to be that plus "how are we helping the student with lifespan skills and knowledge." Keeping this in mind prevents the IEP from becoming "easy" for either student or teacher. Yes, it might be "easier" for both right now to have the teacher read tests to the student or scribe papers for the student, but that is just building a culture of dependence which will hurt the student in the long run. So we need better plans.

Feedback loop? If you are not tracking how solutions are working, in every class, at least weekly (create a Google Form, it makes it easy)... "The Issue is - We're trying this - This is what's happening -" you are being completely irresponsible. It's kind of like a doctor prescribing medicine and never checking to see if the patient is getting better (I know, plenty of doctors do just that, but... we're educators, we need to be better...). So collect continuous data, and write into the IEP that you will collect continuous data from staff and student. And write into the IEP that you will change the plan to reflect the experiences and changing needs which you are tracking.

If you do not do this, you end up with what I see a lot. "We tried this last September and it didn't work." "What did you try instead?" "Nothing." That equals - "We just threw away a year of this kid's life."

The Least Restrictive Environment

You can not possible describe "the least restrictive environment" unless you begin by describing "the environment."

And a student's school environment encompasses their entire day, from when they leave their home, until they return, plus, if there is homework, that extends until that homework is complete (you claim homework is "part of school," right?).

Why? Lots of reasons. I have seen "ADHD" and "ASD/Asperger's" kids completely demolished by the process of awakening, getting to school, getting through crowded corridors. I have seen kids with "emotional issues" crushed by the bus ride, the cafeteria, the gym locker room. If your AAC using student cannot communicate on the bus, that's a problem. If your LD student cannot efficiently read or write at home, that's a problem.

So start by analyzing the school environment (WATI free download), but then go further, including: What opportunities are available to non-disabled students - clubs, sports, arts, music, physical education, socializing? You cannot claim "least restrictive environment" if you deny students the right to participate in these things because they are spending mandatory "extra time" on tasks or in resource rooms, or even, doing homework.

"Least restrictive environment" and "Explanation of any time the child will not participate along with nondisabled children" also requires consideration of every technology which might help a student participate alongside "nondisabled" peers. If your IEP does not give the student a computer or mobile device to type with or dictate to, and thus the student can not write alongside their peers, they are "not participating" and I want you to write an explanation of that. If that student's IEP does not give them a computer or mobile device which reads to them and thus they must read a different book, or have fewer choices, or go to a separate room, they are "not participating" and I want you to write an explanation of that. If that student's IEP does not give them an appropriately sophisticated AAC device which allows them to communicate in "real time," they are "not participating" and I want you to write an explanation of that. If that student's IEP does not include technologies and strategies to be in the band or on a team or a member of a club or the ability to sit with friends during lunch, they are "not participating" and I want you to write an explanation of that.

And remember, "technology" is everything. The chair, the desk, the lighting, and the school itself. And technological solutions can not be restricted by other "educational" policies - such as a "cellphone ban" or a prohibition against iPods or mp3 players.


I've been in schools where accommodations only happened on "high-stakes assessments" and I've been in schools where accommodations happened everywhere but "high-stakes assessments." Either/both are ridiculous. Students need to learn to use their solutions every day, and they need to use those solutions to demonstrate their capabilities. Don't take a student's Speech Recognition system away from them just "when it counts." And don't expect a student who hasn't gotten very comfortable with Text-To-Speech to use it on an exam. The IEP must specify how assessments will be supported and prepared for. Note: Consider creating an "Exam Profile" on the student's laptop, so that all their TTS and Speech Recognition and other comfort/capability settings remain but access to other information can be limited.

One more thing: Does your IEP include the student's assessment of their own strengths, needs, issues, desires? If it does not, it can not possibly be a "good IEP." The IEP is not a tool for the school's convenience. It is a plan designed to help the student become the most successful, most independent human that student can possibly be. And if does not begin with the student speaking for him or herself, it will fail to do that.

This article was originally published on SpeEdchange

Ira David Socol is an educational consultant and advocate, and a researcher and instructor in the College of Education at Michigan State University. He works with schools and school districts/divisions/LEAs who are seeking the rethink the total educational environment in which their students learn.

Beginning with a view from Special Education, and a focus on traditionally unsuccessful groups in education, Socol pursues questions of education reform from historical and Universal Design perspectives.

He is the author of a novel, The Drool Room, and a microfiction collection, A Certain Place of Dreams.

Ira David Socol

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One Response to “What a good IEP looks like”

  1. Excellent article. I learned a lot. Realizing my son’s IEP needs more work but I’m so proud how far we have come. It is always going to be a work in progress steeled by vigilance.

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