The IEP is the foundation for providing FAPE in the LRE (free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment). The very basic premise of special education is quite simple: students with disabilities may need to have parts of their education more intentionally planned than other students who do not have disabilities. That’s it, special education in a nut shell! The IEP, together with the evaluation process, is the tool that was created to identify a student’s specific educational needs, plan an appropriate program, and track progress being made. Simple enough, you might say! Complications to this seemly simple concept have plagued educators and politicians alike. Questions and concerns about what needs to be written in the IEP, what steps need to be followed, and how to word things became much more important that the actual IEP itself! Legal and regulatory requirements have piled up and all too often, the IEP as an intentional planning tool was lost.
The IEP has become a required document that many people (professionals and parents alike) continue to view as just one more hoop to jump through, a hoop that gets in the way of providing educational services for students. IEPs take time to write, have complicated requirements that need specific wording, are multiple pages long and are not well understood. Add to that, the fact that funding, and sometimes, job evaluations, has been tied to appropriately written IEP; it is no wonder IEPs have lost their purpose.
In the past several years people have lamented the need to create an IEP that is a “living document” -- one that has meaning and is flexible enough to change with student needs. They usually refer to this wistfully, and then state something like: “but, everyone knows the IEP is really about compliance, so I just get it over with and then get back to teaching!” Many people see no real value in the IEP except as documentation of compliance with laws. Yet, many people know it could be different, more valuable, but are not sure how. The changes that come with IDEiA 2004 may help slightly in making the IEP a valuable tool when planning for specific students. However, what is really needed is to return to the original purpose for the IEP – planning for education that meets the needs of students with disabilities.
How do we do this? Start by asking some simple questions:
1) What do we expect all students to do in class? (general ed)
2) What does this particular student need to learn in order to do what is expected of all children? (we use assessment data and task analysis to really get specific about what this student needs to learn), (goals)
3)how does this student learn best? what will be the best way to teach him/her? and finally, (specially designed instruction, accommodations, etc)
4) how will we know he/she is learning it? what will we count or time to find out if we are making progress? (data collection)
That is an IEP taken down to the very concept of individualized education- it takes a little change in the way we think, but it really isn't that difficult. Try it!