OCLB Special Education Primer - IEPs (Part 2)
- OUR CHILDREN LEFT BEHIND
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AUGUST 31, 2004OCLB SPECIAL EDUCATION PRIMER
INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PROGRAMS – WHAT GOES ON THE IEP
The last section of the OCLB Special Education Primer discussed how an Individualized Education Program [IEP] is developed and how reauthorization would change that process. This section discusses a key change that would be made in what an IEP contains. We also briefly discuss two Senate provisions addressing positive behavior support and assistive technology.
We have described the IEP as a contract; a physical piece of paper that promises FAPE [a free appropriate public education] to individual students who have disabilities and describes the students’ programs. The IEP contract:
• Identifies student strengths and needs;
• States individualized educational objectives;
• Describes educational services and programs to be delivered to the student; and
• Specifies how the service delivery will be monitored and evaluated.
The House and Senate have proposed one significant change to the IEP contract – eliminating short term objectives and benchmarks. Today’s primer discusses that proposed change. Again, we refer to proposed House changes by using the House bill number, H.R.1350. We refer to proposed Senate changes by using the Senate bill number, S.1248.
Short-Term Goals and Objectives -- The Current IEP
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] requires that all IEPs include “a statement of measurable annual goals, including benchmarks or short-term objectives, related to …” educational and disability-related needs.
Parents like short-term goals and objectives [STOs] for a number of reasons. First, many students receiving IDEA services have developmental, educational or skill-based delays that lag behind age or grade-level expectations. These delays cross all domains including academic, behavior, social skills, activities of daily living, speech, language, occupational and physical therapy, etc. STOs allow parents, teachers and school support personnel to focus on a student’s specific needs across those domains. STOs help parents and school personnel to focus on, understand and define those student issues that are unique to the child and that usually exist outside the conventional academic focal area. They also let the involved parties tailor the size of the STO to the child’s base needs.
Second, STOs permit parents, teachers and school support staff to clearly define expected progress or outcomes that should result from school intervention. Clearly stated STOs provide a meaningful opportunity to reasonably and rationally understand how well and how rapidly a student is acquiring and maintaining skills. Well-written STOs help ground parents and professionals in the reality of the student, rather than in generic expectations of so-called typical students at that age or grade level.
Third, properly written STOs can be easily measured and modified across domains. Suppose that a student’s IEP goal is that she or he will greet fellow students every morning during circle time. The teacher can easily monitor this social goal. Once this goal is attained, new social goals can be created.
Fourth, STOs, being unique to the student, are not as likely to get lost in the shuffle as might more generic or long term goals that correlate to grade or age-based expectations. STOs invite and in some instances even drive parental and professional attention to performance detail.
Finally, STOs provide accountability in the most positive sense of the word. They let parents and professionals know in fairly short order what is or is not working for the student. They can change techniques or strategies that are not working, or modify the STOs to more accurately reflect student performance. STOs let the student, parents and school test the viability and success of the goal and the student. Well written STOs also help mark the longer road of growth and development and help keep things headed in the correct direction.
These positive aspects help explain why so many parents, teachers and educators have opposed eliminating STOs from the IEP.
Proposed House and Senate Amendments
The House and Senate both change current language to new language requiring the IEP to contain “a statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, designed to …”
H.R.1350 phases in the transition from STOs to “academic and functional goals” by 2005-2006 and continues the use of STOs for children who “take alternate [sic] assessments aligned to alternate [sic] achievement standards …” S.1248 contains no phase-in language, nor does it preserve STOs for any children.
There is no clarity or well-defined expectation from the phrase “academic and functional goals.” The amendments take the certainty of expectation and accountability that follow the many years of using and interpreting the phrase “benchmarks or short-term objectives” and replace them with the certainty of ambiguity, confusion and diminished accountability.
Parents of children who receive special education services greatly fear that the No Child Left Behind law will encourage and even force schools to abandon individual goals and objectives in favor of group or aggregate objectives that can be tested and measured on a wider scale. The reauthorization amendments appear to do just that.
Those who support eliminating the use of STOs on IEPs claim that the change will reduce paperwork and improve the focus on teaching. For them the problem is not in the statement of the long term goal. It is in the time and effort it takes to create and measure the intermediate or short-term steps that take the student from his or her present level of performance to the end goal.
From our perspective those claims are specious. Americans expect our children to enter school in Kindergarten without knowing how to read, and graduate from high school being excellent readers. We do not, however, leave the process of learning to read up to chance or fate. Instead we have designed programs and plans to guide the student through the reading education process and have built in stages along the way to test how we are doing and how the students are doing. The general educational curriculum is nothing more than compounded short-term educational benchmarks and objectives.
The same process holds true for children who have disabilities. For nearly 30 years, IEPs and the IEP Team process, using STOs and benchmarks, have done for these students the same services that the educational curricula developers and educators have done for the broader student population. Eliminating STOs now will neither reduce nor eliminate the need to create and monitor the steps taken to deliver the student to the broader long-term goal.
In a similar vein, the core educational curricula – again expressed in progressive steps -- permits moderately uniform evaluation of student performance across the country. No Child Left Behind, when reduced to its lowest measuring common denominator, does nothing more than to require nationwide normative educational expectations and the testing whether individual schools are meeting those expectations. The clear objective of this measurement requirement is accountability.
No similar system exists within the special education community for the multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted needs of individual students across academic, developmental or skill-based domains. STOs and benchmarks fill in those gaps on an individualized basis. They provide for individual development what general curricula and No Child Left Behind provide across general education. Stated differently, No Child Left Behind now provides the accountability for general educational curricula that STOs and benchmarks have provided for individualized special education programming for nearly 30 years.
Improving the Use of STOs and Benchmarks in IEPs
We do not disagree that the use of STOs can become a burden on an IEP team and the educational team that must implement the IEP. We have seen IEPs that we think clearly state too many STOs. The mere number of them overwhelms the educational team. Everyone feels the burden is too heavy.
But parents often feel that they must get everything in writing. They have been told by schools, advocates and publications that a goal or objective, however stated or defined, must be on the IEP in writing in order for the parents to enforce the IEP. When relationships between schools and parents become stressed, the pressure on the parents to get it all in writing is increased.
In these circumstances it is not the use of STOs, per se, that creates the overbearing IEP or the overburdened education team. It is the tension between the parties and the breakdown of [or failure to create] the parent-professional partnership. The strain is going to exist and the problematic effect is going to continue whether or not STOs are used.
We believe that the vast majority of the parents of this nation’s 6.5 million children with disabilities and the schools that educate them find STOs to be the best, most effective tool for developing individualized services tailored to the student’s needs. In those relatively rare cases where the number of STOs explode on an IEP, we suggest that Congress direct more effective resources for families and educators to use to enhance partnering skills and opportunities rather than eliminating STOs, which are the most effective and best understood measure of accountability within the special education setting.
Promoting Positive Behavior Support
IDEA ’97 requires that an IEP Team “consider, when appropriate” behavioral interventions and strategies including positive behavior support [PBS] when a student’s behavior impedes her or his ability, or the ability of other students to learn at school. The mandate here is on giving consideration to positive behavior supports.
S.1248 changes the emphasis from “consider” to “provide,” thereby mandating the development of PBS programs, rather than their mere consideration. H.R.1350 maintains the “consider” language found in present law.
We find the Senate proposal to be proactive and positive. We believe it far better for IEP Teams to put PBS programs in place before problems arise rather than waiting for and reacting to the behavior challenges once they do occur. Putting PBS into the IEP – or into a separate but equally enforceable behavior team component – aligns behavior expectations and concerns with carefully crafted STOs, thereby increasing the likelihood that the student and her or his peers will have maximum opportunity to learn in the classroom setting. We support the Senate’s efforts here.
Promoting Assistive Technology Skills and Devices
S.1248 inserts a new phrase requiring that IEP Teams “consider, when appropriate, instructional services related to functional performance skills, orientation and mobility, and skills in the use of assistive technology devices, including low vision devices.” IDEA ’97 does not have any similar provision.
We understand that this new provision is designed to focus greater IEP Team attention on the availability and use of alternative methods of information processing, mobility, etc. We have seen huge technical gains in the 30 years since special education law first became a reality. This provision encourages IEP Teams to discuss technological support in developing the IEP. We support this effort.
IEP DEVELOPMENT SUMMARY
The IEP contract should contain provisions which the parties can easily interpret and implement. Short-term objectives and benchmarks remain the most effective tool to use to merge expectations with accountability. Developing IEP STOs can be problematic in tense relationships. Parents and schools will be better served if additional partnership-building and dispute resolution resources are directed to those relatively rare cases where the parties’ tensions are expressed in complex or voluminous STOs. The fact that some IEP Teams propound complex or voluminous STOs does not justify eliminating the widely accepted and understood use of STOs on IEPs. For most students they work well and should not be disturbed.
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