Understanding Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
According to the U.S. Department of Education, “The IEP is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability.” But what does that mean? Simply put, an Individualized Education Program is the plan that is put into effect after a child is identified with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s meant to ensure equality of access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all.
Keep It Simple
Technically, there is no specified form that an IEP must take. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the states from creating absolute tomes of documentation under IDEA. Heck, the form approved in Illinois is longer than several of my favorite one-act plays, weighing in at a whopping 24 pages. And although at least one educational thought leader has proposed condensing the IEP into a one-page document, it is unlikely that that will happen anytime soon. So, what’s an educational professional to do?
Keep it simple. An IEP exists to set learning goals for the student and to state what services the school district will be responsible for providing to that end. Along the way, a team considers the following: the results of the most recent evaluation of the student and their current educational performance, participation in statewide and district-wide assessments, co- and extracurricular opportunities, transportation needs related to the disability, transition services as the student prepares to transition from school to “the real world,” and more.
But keep it simple. The IEP exists to help an individual student meet goals. Keep the student at the center of your thinking at all times.
Meeting all applicable timelines for identification, evaluation, planning, and implementation of an Individualized Education Program is mission critical. The U.S. Department of Education has published a handy guide that simplifies the procedures and timelines that must be followed. The following 10 steps are included:
- Schools/“The State” are responsible for locating, identifying, and evaluating all students needing special education.
- The school district must conduct an evaluation in the area(s) of suspected disability. Parents have the right to have their child independently evaluated if they disagree with the results of the district’s evaluation at the district’s expense.
- A team meets to determine the student’s eligibility for special education services based on the results of the evaluation(s). This meeting is often referred to as an Evaluation Team Review (ETR).
- If the student is eligible for services, the IEP team must meet within 30 calendar days (not school days) to write an IEP for the student.
- The IEP meeting must be scheduled in accordance with the law. All participants must be contacted and a mutually agreed-upon date, time, and location must be set. Schools must disclose to parents these details, notify them of who will be in attendance, and must inform parents that they may also invite people to the meeting (e.g. a parent may wish to invite a private therapist, family advocate, or special education attorney).
- The IEP meeting is held and the IEP is written. The parent(s)/guardian(s) may consent to implementation and, after receiving Prior Written Notice (PWN) that the IEP is going to be implemented, the student begins receiving services on the date specified in the PWN. If parents disagree with the decision of the IEP team, the team may re-convene, enter an informal or formal mediation process, or file a formal due process complaint with the state.
- The school is responsible for providing services to the student.
- Student progress toward measurable goals is tracked and reported to parents (e.g. quarterly progress reports are provided in addition to a student’s report card).
- The IEP is reviewed at least once annually. However, the IEP team may gather more frequently upon the request of any member of the team.
- The student is re-evaluated for services (the above ETR process) at least once every three years, and the data is used not only to determine continuing eligibility for services, but also drives the next annual IEP review (or sooner).
Note: There are several scenarios not covered in the scope of this article, such as a private school writing a “service plan” as their version of an IEP, or a public school writing an IEP for a private school in a scholarship or voucher situation.
Whew! That’s a lot. The good news is that the process is truly a team process. In a perfect world, all team members work together to do what’s right for the child. Contentious IEP meetings will happen, particularly when a parent disagrees with the district’s evaluation or decision of the team to provide certain accommodations or not. It is often helpful in meetings to vocalize that the team is meeting not to determine “who is right” about the student, but to try to use data to do “what is right.” That way parents will more often than not see you as an above board member of the team.
The IEP and the LMS: Streamlining Meetings and Workflow
Learning management systems (LMSs) and student information system (SIS) software keep making it easier to hold meetings with students and their families. Does your SIS (the program where you typically look up a student’s contact information, schedule, and grades) seamlessly integrate with your LMS (the virtual classroom where teaching and learning occurs, resources are curated and stored, and more)? Can the intervention specialist access the online IEP writing program through the SIS? These are all features that will help make the annual meeting more efficient and productive.
The IEP and the LMS: Serving Students with IEPs
At first, IEP accommodations and assistive technology can seem overwhelming. In addition to small-group testing environments and extended time for assessments and/or assignments, common IEP accommodations may include things like providing advance copies of class notes and study guides to students, “chunking” of projects and other assignments, and more.
Use the power of your learning management system to track and meet these accommodations. In addition to keeping the standard binder of IEPs handy with hard copies of each document inside, you may also want to keep scanned versions or the shorter “IEP At a Glance” documents - that typically focus on goals and accommodations - in one place in your LMS. Then, decide how you will substantively and efficiently meet those accommodations. For example, by keeping your lecture notes, presentations, visual organizers, and study guides all within your LMS ecosystem, you can make them available 24/7 to all of your students and their families, not just those with IEPs. Additionally, many websites and online textbook resources are already able to accommodate for learning exceptionalities.
Remember, IEPs are federal documents. You are required to meet all requirements of the IEP, including any accommodations included by the IEP team. What’s more, you will need to be able to provide updates and, often, detailed data to the parent(s)/guardian(s) and the full IEP team on a regular basis. Having a system to do that, facilitated by educational technology, will make it much easier for you to meet your legal obligations and improve educational outcomes for your students with special needs.
It’s About Access
Once upon a time, a parent stated to me that because her son was on an IEP, he should be able to get an “A” in music class “for converting oxygen into carbon dioxide.” She was serious. My response was that I felt that was disrespectful to special education, because an IEP isn’t written to “give” a student an “A,” but to ensure equal access to the curriculum.
The bottom line? Keep kids and their needs at the center of your decision making and the process of developing and implementing an Individualized Education Program won’t seem so overwhelming.
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