The post-school success rates of students who have learning disabilities, as a group, have not been what we would all hope even though many individuals have been highly successful. A recent focus on greater school responsibility for the post-school life of students who have disabilities has resulted in new transition requirements. The purpose of this discussion is to present a different approach to writing IEPs, with special attention to the transition component This approach results in IEPs which, unlike most IEPs, are both educationally useful and legally correct.
After nearly seventeen years of life the Individual Education Program (IEP)-- the heart and soul of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- is still in it's infancy, it's great potential unrealized and unappreciated. The IEP process and product frequently have been distorted beyond recognition. The purpose of this discussion is to show how the IEP process can work to produce IEPs that are both educationally useful and legally correct. The essence of legal correctness is that the IEP is tailored precisely to all the unique needs of the individual student. The core of educational utility is that the IEP spells out precisely how the school district will address each and every unique need and how it will determine whether and when a change in strategy or service is required. The IEP process must determine:
(a) which needs or characteristics of the student require special education, i.e., individualization of services;
(b) Precisely how the district will address each need, i.e., "what special education, related services or modifications it will provide; and
(c) how and when the efficacy of those services will be evaluated.
The IEP process must include the parent (or parent/student) as a full and equal partner, and a student whose IEP addresses "transition" must be invited to participate in the IEP process and must have her or his preferences and interests considered. These transition concerns and processes are a special focus of this discussion.
Most IEPs are useless or slightly worse, and too many teachers experience the IEP process as always time consuming, sometimes threatening, and, too often, a pointless bureaucratic requirement. The result is a quasi-legal document to be filed away with the expectation it won't be seen again except, heaven forbid, by a monitor or compliance officer. The point of the IEP exercise seems to be to complete the given form in a way that commit the district to as little as possible, and which precludes, as much as possible, any meaningful discussion or evaluation of the student's real progress.
Parents too often experience the IEP process as an overgrown parent-teacher conference in which the school personnel present some previously prepared papers and request a signature. They may be told a few things about some "rights." Parents who attempt to participate as equals are often intimidated into acquiescence. They are frequently given false and outrageous distortions such as, "We (the district) don't provide individual tutoring"; or "Speech therapy is always done by the regular classroom teacher and the speech therapist provides consultation services to her"; or "We are a full inclusion school and have no special classes or resource rooms because we don't believe in pull-out programs." When such limiting and blatantly illegal practices are presented as if they are simple fact few parents are adequately prepared to challenge the district.
A Better Way
The IEP process and product can be both educationally useful and legally correct. The first step toward that end is for the district to provide an appropriate time and place for the IEP meeting, The place should be physically comfortable and the meeting time and length appropriate. The law requires the meeting be at a mutually agreed on time and place. Too often parents are not aware they have any say in either. Districts must also be careful to avoid unrealistically short meetings, especially for initial, complex or disputed IEPs.
The only legitimate focus of an IEP meeting is on the special needs of the student and how those are to be addressed. There may be a temptation for district personnel to sidestep into policy explanations or justifications or into what the parents have done or not done. If the student is not present at the IEP meeting a strategically placed photo of the youngster can serve to help all participants stay focused on the needs of that student. Many IEP meetings lose this essential focus and wander, becoming inefficient and frustrating for all.
The single most important principle of the IEP process is that the school must appropriately address all the student's unique needs without regard to the availability of needed services. Prior to the passage of IDEA (then P.L. 94-142) in 1975, schools were legally free to offer only the programs or services, if any, they had available. Parents were supposed to be grateful for anything at all that was provided. The primary purpose of the law was to turn that squarely around and entitle the student who has a disability to a free appropriate education individually designed to meet her or his unique needs. Educators who have entered the field in the last twenty years lack this historical perspective and too easily revert to the pre-IDEA mentality of trying to stretch existing programs and services to fit the students. Instead they must start with the student and design services to fit the student's needs, however unique they may be.
Sometimes parents report that only a teacher was at the IEP meeting; other times a seeming army of district personnel confront them. The law specifies that in addition to the parent and student (if the parent so wishes) a teacher of the student and a district representative must be present. The IDEA regulations allow the district substantial discretion in determining which teacher will be at the IEP meeting. Since, in theory, the IEP team is addressing the student's needs above all, it would seem reasonable to select a teacher who knows the student well. In addition, at least one team member must be qualified (by state standards) in the area of the student's disability. If this is not the teacher, it must be the district representative (Mcintire, 16 EHLR 163, (OSEP, 1990)). Students at middle school or high school most often have several teachers. The law does not require that they all attend, but good special education practice suggests their input should be sought and they most certainly should be informed of the IEP's provisions.
The district representative must provide or be qualified to supervise special education, have the authority to allocate district resources, and be able to guarantee no administrative veto of the IEP team's decisions (34 CFR Part 300 Appendix C, 13). These qualifications are the law's way of insuring that the IEP team, and it alone, has the power to determine what services the student needs and, therefore, will receive. The evaluation team, often called the multi-disciplinary team, determines eligibility, but only recommends services.
All members of the IEP team should remember the enormous power and responsibility that is theirs. When the IEP specifies a service is needed, the district must provide it. Too often parents are given a very different impression, i.e., that only what is already available can be provided and often in smaller than needed amounts. This critical difference between the law and practice is typified by the common situation, e.g., where the parent believes the student who has a learning disability needs intensive, individual, daily language therapy and is told by the speech therapist that since the therapist is only in that building on Mondays and Wednesdays the student will be included in an ongoing 20 minute speech therapy group on those two days.
In addition to the parent (and perhaps student), teacher, and the district representative, the first IEP meeting for a given student must be attended by a member of the evaluation team or someone familiar with the evaluation. In addition, either the district or the parent may invite anyone else. The district must, however, inform the parent ahead of time of all district invited persons who will be at the IEP meeting. There is no similar requirement for parents to inform the district of anyone they may invite.
The fact the law does not require related services personnel to be present may be highly significant. The IDEA regulations (34 CFR Part 300 Appendix A) advise that related service personnel provide written recommendations to the IEP team about the nature, frequency and amount of service to be provided. Arguably, there is no requirement that goals and objectives are necessary for related services. If related service goals and objectives are required they may be of the sort a teacher and parent could write. Since related services include only those necessary to enable the student to benefit from special education it stands to reason that the goals and objectives to be accomplished by the related services would appear as goals for the special education services. The focus on the related services components of the IEP is on specifying the amount of service and the outcome is reflected in the goals and objectives for special education. The related services are not ends in themselves, but rather enablers.
Contents of the IEP
The federal requirements for the contents of the IEP are straightforward. The individualized education program for each child must include:
(a) A statement of the student's present levels of education performance;
(b) A statement of annual goals, including short term instructional objectives;
(c) A statement of the specific special education and related services to be provided to the student, and the extent to which the student will be able to participate in regular educational programs;
(d) A statement of the needed transition services for students beginning no later than age 16 and annually thereafter (and if determined appropriate for an individual student, beginning at age 14, or younger), including, if appropriate, a statement of each public agency's and each participating agency's responsibilities or linkages, or both, before the student leaves the school setting;
(e) The projected dates for initiation of services and the anticipated duration of the services; and
(f) Appropriate objective criteria and evaluation procedures and schedules for determining, on at least an annual basis, whether the short term instructional objectives are being achieved. (34-CFR 300.346).
Legal Rulings on IEPs
These five general principles, among others, emerge clearly from a review of the hundreds of past IEP rulings from agencies and courts:
(1) All of a student's unique needs must be addressed, not just her or his academic needs, e.g., Russell v. Jefferson Sch. Dist., 609 F. Supp. 605, (N.D. CA 1985); Abrahamson v. Hershman, 701 F.2nd 223, (1st Cir. 1983). Arguably, no "non-unique" needs have to be addressed.
(2) The availability of services may not be considered in writing the IEP. If a service is needed it must be written on the IEP and if the district does not have it available, it must be provided by another agency. One of the earliest of all the agency rulings mandated that availability of services be disregarded in writing the IEP (Leconte, EHLR 211:146, OSEP, 1979). This principle has been reiterated repeatedly by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and virtually ignored by the field.
(3) The IEP is a firm, legally binding "commitment of resources." The district must provide the services listed or the IEP must be amended (Beck, EHLR 211:145 (OSEP 1979)).
(4) IEPs must be individualized. The same goals, same content areas, same discipline or the same amounts of therapy on many IEPs (e.g., every student who receives speech therapy in a particular building receives 30 minutes daily) reveals a violation of this individualization requirement (Tucson, AZ Unified Sch. Dist. #1, EHLR 352.547 (OCR 1987)).
(5) All of the components of the IEP required by law (e.g., goals and objectives, specific special education and related services) must be present.
II. Developing the IEP
The proper team has assembled, the student's photo is prominently placed, the calming herbal tea has been served, the tape recorder is on and the newsprint is on the easel. It is time to begin developing the IEP. A three-step IEP development process is strongly recommended:
(a) List the student's unique characteristics or needs that require individualization (and which entitle the student to individualized services);
(b) Determine and specify the district-provided services and modifications that will appropriately address each need; and
(c) Write the goals and objectives that will be accomplished by the student if the services and modifications are appropriate and effective.
An IEP "Non-Form" consisting solely of a blank piece of paper oriented horizontally can accommodate this process far better than existing forms. Divide the paper into thirds and label the three columns something like:
(1) Student's Needs;
(2) Services; and
(3) Evaluation of Services. Other headings that work well are
(a) Individualize because.....;
(b) What the district will do;
(c) How we'll know it is working.
The Student's Unique Characteristics or NeedsFirst, the IEP team must determine the student's unique characteristics or needs to which the special services will be directed. One helpful way to learn to think in terms of these essential characteristics is to imagine that you are describing the student to a volunteer who has never met the student and is going to take him or her camping for a week. The IEP is required to address only the portions or aspects of the student's education that need to be individualized. The student should be visible in the IEP. Too many IEPs reveal only the academic program available in the resource room and show nothing whatsoever about the student. The primary focus of the IEP is going to be the specification of services. This initial step is to determine what is necessitating the services.
If we complete the statement, "We are individualizing Johnny's program because "_______" those "because" are his unique needs. The "because" may be such things as:
(a) he is reading several years behind where he should be;
(b) he is unable to organize his assignments, homework; or
(c) his attention is too easily distracted away from work, etc. These are the exact needs to be addressed in the next column.
When a legal dispute arises about a student's program, a common concern is whether the services provided addressed all the student's special needs. Those special needs are what must be specified in this first stage of IEP development. It is difficult to imagine how one could either attack or defend the services offered to meet unique needs unless those needs had been specified. In addition to the real world knowledge the IEP team members have about the student's characteristics/needs, it may be helpful to consult any current evaluations. This is particularly important for the first IEP which immediately follows the evaluation which found the student to be IDEA eligible. Some evaluations fail to address a student's special needs; others can be very helpful.
Characteristics or needs will often "cluster." The team may well decide in the next stage that one service will address more than one characteristic or need. However, at this point it is important to just "brainstorm" and list all the unique characteristics that require individualized attention. Sometimes the natural flow seems to be to work "across" the IEP Non-Form, i.e., when a characteristic has been identified, to then decide what service or accommodation will address it and finally determine the goals and objectives for that service that will indicate its appropriateness. Other times it may be better to list all the characteristics first, then move to services and then to goals. Either way, or a combination, is perfectly OK.
Examples of characteristics (not all from the same student) in both academic and social-emotional-behavioral areas follow. Remember that for each, the next inquiry will be, "What will the district do about this?" Some examples of unique characteristics or needs in academic areas are:
(a) Handwriting that is slow, labored, "drawn," nearly illegible due to improper size and spacing of letters and words;
(b) Lacks understanding of place value and regrouping in both addition and subtraction;
(c) Attributes literal, concrete meaning to everything he hears and reads; doesn't get jokes or slang;
(d) Understands spoken language, decodes words accurately, but does not comprehend material read independently; oral reading reveals severe lack of expression and no attention to punctuation;
(e) Works very slowly, becomes upset if he makes a mistake, quits and refuses to continue if paper is "messy",
(f) Answers before thinking, both in oral and written work; work is impulsive; many "careless" errors; and
(g) Gets arithmetic problems `"messed up" and copies them incorrectly off board and out of book. Lines up problems incorrectly and also lines up answers wrong in multiplication and division.
The law requires that the Present Level of Performance (PLOP) in these areas of need be indicated in a way that is readily understandable and is precise enough to allow us to measure progress. The PLOP can appear either as an elaboration of the characteristic or need or as the chronological beginning point in a succession of PLOP, behavioral objectives, and annual goal. The PLOP is now, the objectives are short-term goals, and the goal is where the student is headed by the end of a year.
If the PLOP is treated as a quantification of the characteristic or need, then a PLOP for the slow, barely legible handwriting in example (a) above might be "copies 5 words per minute with 1 or 2 of the words illegible."
Some characteristics or needs are sufficiently descriptive as they are and need no quantification, e.g., lacks understanding of place value and regrouping. To say that the student performs zero regrouping problems correctly adds little to the description.
Sometimes a present level of performance can be best described by a work sample. A picture can speak very loudly, as in a timed handwriting sample which could be attached to the IEP as a PLOP. Such a sample can reveal both quality (content) of written expression as well as mechanics of handwriting.
Some examples of unique characteristics or needs in social-emotional- behavioral areas would be:
(a) Shy; no friends; never volunteers in class; never initiates social contact with other children;
(b) Bully; doesn't know how to play with other children; physically aggressive with smaller children;
(c) Over-reacts and has temper outbursts; is noncompliant; pouts and whines; is sullen and negative when suggestions are made; and
(d) Short attention span; easily distracted by sounds.
These characteristics would be treated just the same as academic needs. A PLOP would be added if necessary and then the team would ask what the district will do about the bullying or the shyness or short attention span.
The Special Education, Related Services and Modifications- the District "Will Do's" The second inquiry the team should make is, "How will the district respond to each of the student's needs? What will we do about Joe's need for help in making friends? What will we do about Toni's tendency to work rapidly and carelessly? What will we do about Manuel's anger problem?" The special education, related services or modifications the district will provide can be conveniently thought of as the "district do's." The "do's" are listed in the middle column of the Non-Form. They may be as creative, flexible, innovative, and often inexpensive as the team's brainstorming and combined wisdom allow. This listing of services becomes the "Special Education and Related Services" which the law requires be on the IEP and which is too often omitted or simply perverted into a mere check mark or a percentage of time in special education. The amount of related services such as speech therapy or physical therapy that is needed must be shown, along with the date the service is to begin and the anticipated duration of the service.
One of the interesting issues about services is the question of whether methodology need be specified. If, for example, the service is remedial reading, must the method be spelled out? In general the answer is "no". In 1977, when the IDEA rules were first proposed, they would have mandated that methodology and instructional materials were to be included in IEPs. However, when the rules became final that requirement had been dropped. In the meantime, some states and districts had moved quickly and already had forms that included methods and materials. It is not unusual to find those forms still in use. One disadvantage of including method is that so doing means an IEP meeting would have to be called to change the method. If method isn't on the IEP it can be changed unilaterally as the teacher sees fit.
Methodology becomes a source of conflict when parents are convinced their child will receive benefit from a particular method and will not benefit from the method the district wants to use. The most frequently sought methods are a particular method of communication for students who are deaf and direct instruction and/or phonics based reading programs for students who are learning disabled. Almost all courts agree that schools may usually select the method. However, in rare cases parents have been able to show that a particular method is necessary to allow the IEP to be "reasonably calculated" to allow benefit, e.g., Hawaii Dept. of Education v. Tara H., Civ. No. 86-1161, (D.HI 1987). It is extremely important to note, as no court has yet done, that when the U.S. Supreme Court said methodology should be left to the state (school) it said so in the context of presuming the school had expertise in all relevant, effective methods (Board of Ed. v. Rowley, 102 S.Ct. 3034, (1982)). This is not usually the case.
A common and interesting question related to these "District Do" services relates to in-service training for teachers. Rob, e.g., has Tourette's Syndrome and needs a teacher who is knowledgeable about how his involuntary vocalizations are affected by stress. The agreed upon service to be provided by the district is inservice training by the local physician for all the school staff. Does that "district do" belong on Rob's IEP? Yes, it does. It is a service to meet his unique need. One concern is that such a service doesn't lend itself directly to a goal formulated in terms of Rob's behavior. This concern is easily addressed by looking to what we hope to see in Rob's behavior as a result of having an informed, sympathetic teacher who assists him in avoiding unnecessary stress. One obvious answer is improved academic performance. Other outcomes could be a direct decrease in frequency and severity of his symptoms and an increase in socialization.
Another issue is that the service is not being provided directly to Rob. Legally, an important question is whether Rob is receiving some special education, i.e., some specially designed instruction to meet his unique needs, which is delivered by qualified special education personnel. If he is not receiving any special education, as defined in the law, he is either not eligible under IDEA or he is not receiving the free appropriate education to which he is entitled. If he is receiving special education then it does not matter how the in-service training for his teachers is conceptualized. Logically, in-service staff training is perfectly analogous to parent training and is, therefore, a related service. If so, it is important to specify, as for all related services, how much in-service is to be provided and when.
For many years some districts resisted including on IEPs the modifications needed in the regular classroom. However, it is well settled law that they must be included. A checklist of types of modifications (e.g., in grading, discipline, assignments, texts, tests, etc.) can be helpful to insure all necessary modifications are addressed.
The Present Levels of Performance, Goals and Objectives - Evaluating the District "Do's" The third step, after the needs have been delineated and the services specified, is to write the required annual goal and behavioral objectives for each special education service or cluster of services. The clustering of services can be very efficient as well as conceptually illuminating. For example, think of a secondary student who has a severe learning disability affecting his written expression. He might need several services including keyboarding instruction, tutoring in writing, modifications in test-taking and length of written assignments, substitution of oral presentations for some term papers, and modified grading. The entire service cluster could be reasonably evaluated in terms of his improved rates of successful course completion and attendance. Other goals could also be very appropriate. The point is that just as characteristics or needs can be clustered to provide one service, so services can be clustered to be assessed by a common, single goal.
Writing goals and objectives begins with asking, "If the service we are providing is effective, what will we see in Todd's behavior that tells us so?" The purpose of the mandated goals and objectives is to evaluate the service. We need to know when or if to change what we're doing, to change the service we are providing. As long as we're on track and the child is making reasonable progress we just keep going. That's why objectives are to be statements of how far the student will progress toward the annual goal (12 month objective) by when.
One of the common and major problems with goals and objectives is that they are not taken seriously by their writers who have no intention of actually checking whether the student has reached them or not. It is as if we never understood the most basic tenet of the IEP, i.e., that we are going to try the listed services and see if they work for that student. The goals and objectives are to be real. They are to be used to evaluate program effectiveness. They are not just legal requirements to be completed and filed. The contrast can be seen easily.