The IEP System Needs Reform

Hi everybody! Before I get into this post, I need to stress that the views expressed here are my own and are not endorsed, vetted, or reflective of my employer’s or educational institution’s thoughts, beliefs, or official statements. Additionally, I’d also like to stress the purpose of this post is strictly education, and that all circumstances alluded to do not inherently reflect my experience. With those disclaimers out of the way, I want to say that the entire Individualized Education Plan (IEP) system needs reform, and I’ll expand on why as you keep reading.

Before I get into my reasoning as to why reform is needed, I want to provide some brief definitions for those who may be unfamiliar. I suspect most who will read this will have some experience in Special Education or have a disabled child who has gone through these processes, but I want to provide definitions to ensure my post is accessible to all who come across it. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a legally binding and individualized document and plan drafted by the IEP Team [typically consists of a parent, student (if appropriate, and newsflash, it’s almost always appropriate), a general education instructor (like the student’s math teacher, for example), a special education teacher who will most likely become the student’s case manager (the person who helps the student and ensures all documented accommodations are provided), an “LEA representative” (Local Educational Agency representative, typically a principal), someone who can “interpret results” of diagnostics and testing (oftentimes the SpEd teacher, LEA representative, or a member of the district’s IEP team), and if desired, a representative from an external agency (like rehabilitation services)] that establishes a student’s disability status and identifies services they need to receive a FAPE (free appropriate public education) that may differ from those of their non-disabled peers. That’s a lot of jargon to say that an IEP is a document that ensures a student receives accommodations due to their disability. I also used the term “Special Education” and “SpEd” above, which I’ll define as a program within schools tasked with carrying out the IEP and providing “additional” services to ensure a student receives a FAPE. I dislike the term “Special Education” because my needs aren’t special, they’re just things I need to access services, but to keep things brief and use current terminology, I’ll bite my tongue and use the term. Now that we’ve got definitions established, let’s hop into why reform is desperately needed.

Firstly, the process of qualifying for an IEP is grueling. I believe this was by design, as a way to scare or discourage already disparaged students and families away from seeking accommodations. To even qualify for an IEP, a student must fit a slim definition or category of disability that varies by every state. Additionally, the diagnosis/diagnoses must be verified by an extensive amount of medical documentation from doctors, and in many cases, specialists that some families may not have access to. This area alone disqualifies many, including myself when I was younger, from getting an IEP. After initially qualifying for an IEP, the student must be further assessed by the school district to, in all honesty, determine if the student really is “disabled enough” to qualify. I have a personal bone to pick with that piece, but I’ll save it for another post. These district assessments often include arbitrary IQ tests, life skills assessments, consideration of socioeconomic status, and other potentially dehumanizing tests and assessments. I understand the purpose of these assessments, however, they often pose additional barriers or establish a student’s assumed “value” in the classroom to how well they perform on these assessments. This is another area that phases out many students, as they may perform well on these assessments. However, just because a disabled student does well on their assessments, that does not necessarily mean they should not receive services.

Now, let’s say a student does meet all the criteria and tests into services. That’s only the beginning. The team will draft up a 15+ page document that describes all the testing and concerns, as well as accommodations, for the family and teachers to skim through, hoping to find the accommodations section on page 10. But wait, you’ve gotta have a meeting to discuss all of that first, with everybody on the team. Often, there are multiple scheduling conflicts on the date and time that works best for the parent and student, so the student/parent has to wait and try to make things work on their end to facilitate the meeting. Now, the meeting is scheduled! This should be an easy meeting, the team has everything they need, right? Nope. Now, the parent and student must review every section of that document to correct and offer input on what should change. Oftentimes in an initial meeting, this includes a question of “what accommodations are needed?” and the follow-up “do you really need that?” I was lucky enough to avoid most of that issue, as I was moving from a 504 Plan to an IEP and most of my accommodations were already solidified, but even the prospect of my accommodations being questioned by the team scares me. If I (or any student, for that matter) says we need an accommodation, we need it, and truthfully, we needed it yesterday. The student and parent are often in a “hot seat” being required to advocate for the student’s best interests and needs. This, in and of itself, is soul-draining and exhausting. Sometimes, the team can overpower the parent and student and flat deny to include a requested accommodation in the plan, or bury words in the plan that the parent and student object to. For example, I was outed in my first IEP and didn’t catch it until three days after I received my official copy. This, if received by my teachers, could have posed a significant risk to my safety and opened me up to discrimination. So, parents and students must learn to advocate for themselves in these meetings (or include an external agent to do so on their behalf) to ensure all of the student’s needs are met and abided by.

The IEP is now in place, yay! Or… not? Even though the plan is in place, it now falls onto teachers to implement and requires the student or case manager to further advocate and ensure a FAPE is truly being provided. This part will vary by student, case manager, district, teachers, etc, but I have needed to request that my case manager step in to remind teachers of accommodations they were not following. Aside from that, now that the plan is in place and the student/case manager have reiterated the specific needs to the teacher, there should be no issues.

But, wait, remember that every year (and multiple times/year if extremely important amendments are needed urgently), the team must convene again and revisit the plan! During this meeting, the team discusses if the student is “still disabled,” where the student is academically, and if new accommodations need to be added. And, that process looks like a “lite” version of the initial meeting, and there’s still a lot of advocacy involved to keep or change accommodations.

Now, I want you (the reader) to read all 700+ words of the past four blocks over again and imagine living it. Imagine constantly having to advocate for yourself or your child to ensure their needs are met. Imagine having to sit in grueling potentially hours-long meetings where a team of people who work for the school and have no/very little medical experience questions the need for you/your student to receive accommodations. Imagine, even after that, still being required to fight for your/your student’s needs. Just sit with it for a moment and imagine. Sounds tough, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

But, there are ways to change it, and these are my top three suggestions:

  1. Change the methods of testing a student for Special Education services to be more inclusive. If a student has medical documentation that notes a need for accommodations, provide them without question. If a student does not have a medical diagnosis or the resources to get one, but clearly needs services, provide testing to identify where and what help is needed, then provide those services. This ensures that no student “falls through the cracks” or gets left behind because of their inability to “test in” or their family’s inability to get medical documentation.
  2. Believe the student’s need for a requested accommodation. The purpose of creating an IEP is to allow learning in the “least restrictive environment” and improve the educational results of the student. Disabled students work best when all of their needs are met, and denying or inhibiting the implementation of some, directly counters the purpose of the IEP in the first place. As I mentioned above, if a student asks for accommodations, they needed the services yesterday.
  3. Make the language of an IEP make sense, and change the format to highlight the most important things first. Most of an IEP, to most families, is jargon that does not make sense. A 15-page document with accommodations on page 10 does not make sense for teachers who need to quickly identify which student needs what services. An IEP should make sense, or use “people language,” to ensure parents and their students can understand what is being written, assessed, and provided in the IEP. All elements of the IEP are important, however, the most important is the “Profile” (about the student as a person) and their accommodations. If those two sections were together and used “people language,” it would allow skimmability and better understanding by both parents, students, and educators, and most likely lead to better compliance with the needs of the student.

These suggestions, if implemented on a wide scale, would make the process of getting, understanding, and implementing an IEP significantly easier. The suggestions reduce the burden of proof for families, ensure all appropriate accommodations are met, and make the IEP a “living document” that reflects the student and their needs in a way that makes sense to them.

Some may call a new IEP system that included these suggestions a “dream” or a “long shot,” and they would both be right. Creating a new system like this is a long shot that will most likely require rebuilding from the ground up, however it incorporates so many important changes that students, parents, and educators need to ensure all students receive a free appropriate public education. I dream of implementing something like this, not for me, but for those who get put through the wringer after me. And I will not stop fighting until I make it happen.

Thank you for reading.

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