The Fundamental Flow of IEP Creation

Image credit: Justin Lincoln

Trying to piece together the actual special education process from the implementing federal regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a lot like trying to create origami from paper shredder cuttings. However, it’s been done and, when laid out in proper order, the special education process totally makes sense.

When followed as intended, the special education regulations are a marriage of law and science. It is further assumed that procedural compliance with the regulations is likely to result in the provision of the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) promised to each special education student by the IDEA. The specific language comes from what is known in special education circles as “The Rowley Decision,” which specifically states, “the Act’s emphasis on procedural safeguards demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with prescribed procedures will in most cases assure much, if not all, of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP. “

In order to understand why the regulations require the things in special education they do, it helps to first understand the history of the language in the regulations. Prior to Congress enacting the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, which ultimately became the IDEA during a later reauthorization, there were no laws that specifically promised any kind of education to children with special needs.

Prior to the EAHCA, children with disabilities were routinely denied enrollment into the public schools. In the beginning, it was an accomplishment just to get a public school to open its doors to a child with special needs, and there was nothing that made it mandatory to educate the child according to any particular standards once the doors had been opened.

Then, in 1971, disability advocates took the matter of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the U.S. District Court. The settlement and resulting consent decree produced much of the language that is now found in the implementing regulations of the IDEA, particularly with respect to FAPE and individualized educational program development.

In PARC v. Pennsylvania, a class of individuals who all had intellectual disabilities (IDs), which at the time were described as “mental retardation,” were being denied access to public school on the basis of their diagnosed “mental retardation.” They were either languishing without any education or receiving privately funded education at their parents’ personal expense. PARC filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of itself and the child members of the class, sued for injunctive relief, settled with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and obtained a consent decree overseen by the U.S. District Court, which it later enforced through the Courts to compel Pennsylvania to enroll children with IDs into its public schools and provide them with appropriate programs.

Quoting page 8 of the May 5, 1972 Opinion, Order and Injunction from PARC v. Pennsylvania, “The lengthy Consent Agreement concludes by stating that ‘[every] retarded person between the ages of six and twenty-one shall be provided access to a free public program of education and training appropriate to his capacities as soon as possible but in no event later than September 1, 1972 …’ To implement the agreed upon relief and assure that it would be extended to all members of this class, Dennis E. Haggerty, Esq., a distinguished member of the Pennsylvania Bar who has devoted much of his energy to the welfare of retarded children, and Dr. Herbert Goldstein, an eminent expert in the education of retarded children who is Professor and Director of the Curriculum Research and Development Center in Mental Retardation at the Ferkaus Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Yeshiva University, were appointed Masters at the expense of the Commonwealth … Next, the Consent Agreement charges defendants with the duty within 30 days, to formulate and submit to the Masters a plan to locate, evaluate and give notice to all members of the plaintiff class … Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Agreement states that: ‘The defendants shall formulate and submit to the Masters for their approval a plan to be effectuated by September 1, 1972, to commence or recommence a free public program of education and training for all mentally retarded persons . . . aged between four and twenty-one years as of the date of this Order, and for all mentally retarded persons of such ages hereafter. The plan shall specify the range of programs of education and training, there [sic] kind and number, necessary to provide an appropriate program of education and training to all mentally retarded children, where they shall be conducted, arrangements for their financing, and, if additional teachers are found to be necessary, the plan shall specify recruitment, hiring, and training arrangements.'” [emphasis added; internal citations omitted]

Here, we see the language of FAPE (34 CFR Sec. 300.17), the marriage of law and science in the creation of the program design, the precursor to the federal “child find” requirements (34 CFR Sec. 300.111), and language that effectively describes creating what amounts to an IEP. PARC v. Pennsylvania laid the foundation for what ultimately became the IDEA, which specifically mandates that the peer-reviewed research be applied to the delivery of special education to the degree it’s practicable to do so (34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)).

The appointment of the masters in PARC v. Pennsylvania is important to note because it marks from the outset the need to combine the efforts of legal professionals and psychologists to come up with evidence-based approaches to special education instruction that conform with the regulations. While there have been many efforts over the years by those of a particular ilk within the public education system to minimize the science and place undue emphasis on legal maneuvering, they have never been successful at eliminating the science.

Now, we are seeing the courts rely more and more on the dry, neutral facts of science rather than the hysterical budget shielding that typically goes on in special education. As more and more people become more fluent with using math and science in everyday life, the public is increasingly expecting to see science rather than politics in the delivery of public instruction.

It has always been the intent of the applicable law to use the applicable science in the delivery of special education. The arguments for relying on facts and evidence in designing and implementing IEPs are too compelling to be overcome by cronyistic politics altogether. Politically speaking, the science has never carried as much weight in special education as it does now, which is tragic in that it’s taken this long but it’s also inevitable. The truth is the truth and no amount of political spinning changes what a child’s unique learning needs actually are or what research has proven actually works.

So, that being the case, when we look at the logical flow of how an IEP is supposed to go together, it’s important to understand how the law and science become inextricably intertwined as the IEP process goes forward. To start, a child cannot be found eligible for special education without first being assessed. Assessment determines if the child has a qualifying disability and, if so, what to do about it.

Competent special education assessment is a highly scientific process. People with special credentials and licenses are brought in to collect expert data, analyze it, and provide expert opinions to the IEP team as to why a child is struggling in school and what can be done about it. This process can become compromised by internal public education agency politics, however. See our previous blog post, “The Basics of Special Education Assessments,” for more information about this step of the process.

In an ideal world, a child’s initial assessment for special education is thorough and competent. It measures all of the student’s unique learning needs and assesses in all areas of suspected disability. The data it produces is then used with input from teachers and parents to create an IEP, presuming the child is eligible for an IEP. This is where things can get really messy.

There are two ways things can go badly at this stage:

  • The assessments were poorly done and now there isn’t good data to inform the development of the IEP, or
  • The assessment data is fine but the IEP offered to the student doesn’t match what the assessment data says the student needs

Parents need to understand what is supposed to happen at this stage of the process or they can be quickly bamboozled by seasoned bureaucrats with their own agendas. The information gathered by the IEP team about the student’s learning strengths and needs is supposed to result in measurable annual goals that describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen in each area of unique learning need.

Where things often break down is in translating all of the baseline data into measurable annual goals that target appropriate learning outcomes in every single area of unique learning need. That’s a tall order. It’s one thing to measure what already is, but it’s another thing to use that data to project where things should be in a year.

IEP teams often struggle to identify all the areas in which goals are needed, much less write the goals they come up with in a measurable manner. In my experience, the average special education professional would fail the 4th grade under the Common Core if their IEP goal-writing skills were used to measure their abilities to apply math and science to solving everyday problems.

A lot of the guidance given to special education professionals during the 1980s and 1990s about IEP goal-writing was a bunch of preemptive legal defense hooey that was utterly devoid of any kind of valid science or math. These approaches provided teachers with formulas and supposed hacks that they usually didn’t understand and usually used incorrectly in the field.

There was no sincere effort that I ever observed back in the day to teach special education professionals the technical nuts and bolts of goal-writing, and I still assert now that the training being done is grossly inadequate. A half-day workshop for continuing education units is usually about it for most special ed staffs, and most of what such a workshop instructs is usually garbage.

These are the workshops that taught teachers to write the measurement for every goal as “… with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials …” even if it makes no sense. For example, it’s highly inappropriate when used here: “By [annual due date], [Student] will cross the street safely with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials as measured by observation.”

First, try to make the math work, which you can’t. Then ask yourself what an 80% accuracy rate of crossing the street safely must look like, however it might be calculated, and whether it could possibly be educationally appropriate. It’s supposed to be a free and appropriate public education and there’s nothing appropriate about being run over in the street like a bug as a result of participating in publicly funded instruction.

My brief advice to school district administrators is to not let your attorneys develop your employee training for any aspect of special education that requires scientific rigor. And, unless you are qualified yourself in the applicable sciences, if you are an administrator, don’t think of developing that training yourself, either. Use actual experts; don’t be a chump.

Doing sound assessments only to toss the science and math out the window when it comes time to write the IEP makes no sense whatsoever. But, there is a political game that sometimes get played with parents in which public education agencies will deliver a decent assessment, but then offer a garbage IEP and act like the garbage IEP is what the data and law say the agency can do for the student. It’s a lie.

In reality, the IEP is based on how much the education agency is willing to spend on the student, but the agency’s administrators can’t admit that, so they try to run a con on the parents in which they use valid assessment data to argue for a garbage IEP. They’re effectively gaslighting the parents because the data doesn’t support the IEP at all, but the parents are usually too confused to understand what is really happening and just let it go, thereby allowing the education agency to get away with shortchanging a kid.

The parents get an assessment report that describes their kid, but then they get offered an IEP that is weak relative to the kid’s actual needs and they figure that’s the most the schools must be able to do for them. In truth, their kid is getting robbed. If the IEP doesn’t match the assessment data, something is really wrong. This can be particularly the case with IEP goals.

The data can make clear what the areas are in which goals are needed, but then only a few goals get put into the IEP by school personnel. This is a problem because the services that are offered to a special education student are supposed to be driven by what is necessary to meet the goals. If you don’t have goals in each area of need, there’s nothing to compel all of the services that are needed. Missing goals mean missing services. Schools that want to prevent spending on services can accomplish this by leaving goals out of IEPs.

Goals describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen. Services describe what it takes to meet the goals. This includes service frequency, duration, and location. For example, a student may receive 30 minutes per week of individual speech/language services to address their communication goals.

Accommodations are tools and strategies that make access to the grade-level content possible for a child with special needs. They are not the same things as modifications. Modifications actually change the learning expectations for the student to something less rigorous than the grade-level standards so that the instruction is accessible to the student.

For example, the accommodation of being able to dictate one’s answers rather than write them down doesn’t change the nature of the material being studied or the questions that have to be answered. The only thing that changes is how the response is produced, but a grade-level response is still expected.

In another example by contrast, a student with developmental delays may participate part of the time in general education math where students are calculating the hypotenuses of triangles, but the work is modified to cutting out different sized triangles for the student with developmental delays. In this example, the instruction has been scaffolded towards the grade-level expectations by modifying it to the student’s level of learning.

Before one can understand what a hypotenuse is, one must first understand what a triangle is, so instruction on triangles in general lays a foundation for the eventual instruction of the calculation of hypotenuses. Scaffolding towards the grade level standards and developmental norms is a critical method used in special education as per the peer-reviewed research to adapt the instruction to learners who cannot perform at grade level because of their disabilities. There still has to be a way to measure their learning and push them as close to grade level as possible.

Once goals, services, and accommodations are identified, the IEP team then determines the student’s educational placement. This is usually not a specific classroom or campus; it’s the type of classroom and/or campus required. Placement is decided at the end of the process because it is impossible to know where is the best place to deliver the services and accommodations such that the goals are met if the goals haven’t been written and services and accommodations haven’t yet been determined.

In addition to these critical steps, an IEP can also include an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP), which is basically a plan within a plan that describes what will be done for a teenager or young adult with an IEP to prepare them for life after high school. Students exit special education either by graduating with a regular diploma or aging out, usually at age 21 or 22, The ITP is supposed to be the driving force of their IEPs from at least age 16 forward, though nothing prevents IEP teams from starting younger.

Another component that an IEP may include is some kind of Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). They can go by a variety of names, but they’re all basically the same thing, and usually loosely based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). This is another science that gets grossly watered down in special education, sometimes to the point of becoming ineffective if not harmful.

Good ABA is a wonderful thing, but there are way too many programs operating these days that are “ABA-based,” meaning they aren’t fully adhering to the science and only have borrowed those parts from it that they find most easy to use. They take a fluid science, try to turn it into something formulaic, and ruin the whole damn thing. It’s right up there with crossing the street safely with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials.

To be clear, when I talk about ABA in this blog/podcast, I’m talking about the actual science, not some hokey fly-by-night scam trying to take advantage of the autism community. I have plenty of colleagues who operate completely legitimate, scientifically rigorous ABA programs that save and change lives for the better, and they are just as disgusted as I am by the charlatans ruining the good name of a credible science for the sake of making a buck off of autism. These charlatans who have corrupted the legitimate science are the ones with whom the autism community takes such issue when they complain about ABA.

There is no way to have a conversation about the IEP process and the degree to which science plays a role in it without discussing ABA. ABA is the most reliable method of data collection currently used in special education, even when not done that well. This is because the field is dominated with people teaching their students to cross the street safely with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials as measured by observation. Even shoddily done ABA-type data collection is usually better than that.

It’s my argument that, if the science has to be applied to the degree it’s practicable to do so, and ABA-type data collection is the most reliable, then IEP goals should be based on ABA-type data collection methods. If IEP goals were actually written according to scientific method like they were supposed to have been from the start, we would naturally default to ABA-type methods of data collection because that’s the only thing that will work.

This becomes particularly important for IEPs with BIPs. Real ABA, not the half-baked version that is peddled by some agencies, should be used to develop measurable annual goals and any BIP in an IEP. This will allow for legitimate measurement of actual progress. Here, it’s not exactly about the instructional approaches of ABA so much as how to accurately measure learning. By using ABA-based teaching and measuring approaches, it’s a lot easier to tell if a student is actually learning anything or not, which is the whole point of measurable annual goals and measurable BIP criteria.

When you understand that there is a logical order to the sequence of the special education process that the law describes from what it has taken from science, the parts of an IEP start to make more sense. An IEP is not an arbitrary document. It’s an enforceable contract that describes what a public education agency is supposed to do to tailor the instruction to a student with special needs. It includes what it includes for logical reasons.

Congress organized how IEPs are supposed to go together based on the advice of attorneys and psychologists who worked very hard to come with with a marriage of law and science that will work so long as the public education system pays equal attention to both the science and the law. There needs to be more training for professionals in the special education community as to the scientific origins of IEP design and the scientific rigor actually necessary to deliver special education according to Congress’ intent.

Parents need to understand the importance of the science, as well. They are the most important members of any IEP team and if they don’t understand what the data means, they can’t give informed consent to anything.

Parent education is a related service that can be added to an IEP to help the parents understand their child’s special needs as well as help them better participate in the IEP process (34 CFR Sec. 300.34(a)). If you feel as a parent like you don’t have enough information to be an equal member of the IEP team, it’s your right to request parent training as a related service so that your rights to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process and informed consent are honored.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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