Beyond Compliance: What if the IEP Is Not Enough?
Teachers and districts work tirelessly to juggle heroic demands: teach curricula, promote character, address student diverse needs, stay cutting-edge, support thinking, personalize learning, and then ... satisfy compliance. All this causes teachers and district leaders to spend long, complicated hours crafting and writing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). But does all of this work amount to anything meaningful beyond checking off boxes?
With advancements in cognitive and learning sciences, we know more about special needs and neurodiversity than ever before. We now have a deeper understanding of learner variability, different kinds of minds, and the actual benefits of those differences. Stigma is being reduced and barriers to out-of-the-box teaching and learning are being broken down. Light is being shined on what people with all kinds of brains and abilities can accomplish, and thankfully inclusive education policy is finally making traction in today’s classrooms across the United States.
This also, however, shines light on an elephant in the room. A big problem that many are aware of, few are talking about, and even fewer feel they can do anything about: the IEP.
Is the IEP Relevant to Everyday Classroom Instruction?
For most stakeholders, the answer is no. The IEP does not translate to the work being done in the classroom that drives outcomes.
Teachers report the IEP is only ‘moderately’ helpful. Out of over 100 educators surveyed by Education Modified, 79% of them reported that it was not relevant to their teaching.
Teachers from this same group also commented directly to their experience with the IEP, saying, “It is not specific enough to get at the nuances of each child's particular strengths and needs,” “The IEP is not user friendly,” and “It is extremely hard to understand unless you have a lot of training.”
Parents report that the IEP is confusing and vague. In a 2013 study by Virginia M. Zeitlin and Svjetlana Curcic conducted with parents of students with disabilities, two-thirds thought that the IEP was “not parent-friendly,” “overwhelming,” “legalistic,” and “meaningless”. Parents reported frustrations that the IEP as a product reminded them of a complicated medical record “filled with jargon,” or a “never-ending legal contract that was only a necessary evil, not a helpful document.”
All successful relationships require mutual trust and respect, yet the IEP does not set up a realistic foundation for this, since it is only used as a compliance tool and widens the gap of understanding and empathy. The same study by Zeitlin and Curcic also revealed that parents were suspicious of a document that determines the education of their children, and for some, it was hard to even recognize their children in these documents.
An individualized education plan that obscures the individual? Hmmm…
Bringing the IEP to Life
The two overarching problems that have impeded progress in special education include:
- Access—All teachers do not have access to the research, resources, or tools they need to effectively implement the IEP.
- Workflow—Special education compliance, as it exists, lives primarily outside of a teacher’s daily workflow. Current writing and implementation of the IEP is not ergonomic and is outdated.
Let’s dive into the first challenge of access.
Broad Access is Essential
Making sure everyone has access to the resources, tools, and support they need to implement the IEP is absolutely essential. Even after an IEP is completed and read by all, common questions remain:
- Where do I find this student’s accommodations?
- How do I implement them?
- What is Autism?
- Where can I learn about Autism?
- How do I know what other teachers have tried that have been successful for this student?
If we want general educators to be active participants in an IEP meeting, we need to give them what they need to do so. If we want teachers to modify a lesson for a child with Dyslexia, that teacher needs access to research-based strategies for Dyslexia.
The same goes for Autism Spectrum Disorder. If we want to include a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a general education classroom, it would help if that teacher knew what Autism Spectrum Disorder was first, right? It would be even better if that teacher knew what strategies have worked for that particular child in the past.
And don’t think you have to create the needed resources on your own. There is a growing collection of high-quality resources available online. School leaders just need to make this content and research accessible to teachers.
Embedded Within Workflow Tools Teachers Use Everyday
But access isn’t enough. Integration and interoperability are crucial for implementation of IEP’s and strategies in K–12 classrooms.
In some districts, IEPs are still kept in a filing cabinet and reviewed once per year. Even if the IEP is shared electronically, its vital information is not readily available in the tools that teachers use everyday—i.e., the learning management system (LMS). The LMS is where teachers organize curriculum; craft lesson plans; share assignments; and communicate with other educators, students, and parents. This is where content, information, and tools to implement the IEP need to live as well.
Special education has operated in a silo since its inception—different teachers, different classrooms, us versus them, etc. But now that students with IEPs are included in the general education classroom, and almost every teacher must make accommodations, modify lessons, and differentiate instruction, special education cannot be a siloed task. Schools can begin by creating a culture that equips every educator who influences the education of a student with a disability to be an active member of a student’s IEP meeting team.
To maximize workflow and access, the information within the IEP needs to be placed in front of the eyes of every teaching team member everyday—so they know the specific goals, strategies, accommodations, and modifications that work for each student.
Compliance is important and necessary, but teachers are already doing extremely hard work. It is time we give them easy access to the information they need, and leverage technology to provide them with tools to document and collaborate around this hard work in a meaningful way.