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Are individualized education plans a good thing? A survey of teachers' perceptions of the utility of IEPs in regular education settings.

The purpose of this survey was to investigate the perceptions of regular education teachers on the utility of individualized education plans (IEPs) for children with disabilities within an inclusive classroom. One hundred and twenty three regular education teachers from Alabama and Georgia were respondents. Twenty-six percent of respondents were African American, 72% were Caucasian, and 2% of respondents' ethnicity was unknown. Forty-two percent of the respondents were teachers in Alabama schools and 58% were teachers in Georgia schools. Results indicated that the majority of regular education teachers perceived IEPs as useful tools in curriculum preparation and teachers were active participants in the IEP process. However, responses also suggest that additional training is warranted.

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The implementation of the "No child Left Behind Act of 2001" and the reauthorization of IDEA provided children with disabilities and regular education children, their parents and teachers a unique challenge. In addition to the requirement that children must pass standardized tests before advancing to the next grade level, these acts also requires the full inclusion of children with disabilities into the regular classroom. These regulations are based on the assumption that every child can learn and that children with disabilities can positively benefit from more interaction with peers and more contact with the regular education curriculum (Huefner, 2000; Kaye and Aserlind, 1979; McKellar, 1995). These requirements resulted in changes in the way services are delivered to children with disabilities.

Traditionally, once a child with disabilities was qualified for special education services, he/she would receive educational services based upon requirements documented within their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Kaye and Aserlind (1979) described the IEP as a product and a process. As a product, the IEP serves as a roadmap for teachers and parents to ascertain improvements in the child's functioning within academic, social, and/or adaptive domains. It is an indication of the child's present level of performance, short and long term goals and objectives, additional services and supports for the child within the regular education environment and criteria for determining progress. As a process, according to Kaye and Aserlind (1979), the IEP is collaboration between teachers, administrators, parents and when appropriate the child, in determining goals and objectives. It reflects the dynamic process involved in developing, reviewing and revising the educational program in order to best serve the child with disabilities. The IEP as a product is child centered, conversely, the IEP as a process is teacher, administrator and parent centered. Successful IEPs depend upon the process of preparing the written statement describing an appropriate educational program for the child with a disability. However, educational personnel concentrated on the product more so than the process. Special education personnel were the central players in the process of developing a document that would meet federal and state requirements. Regular education teachers, parents and the child would have very little input into the product (Burstein, Sears, Wilcoxen, Cabello, and Spagna, 2004; McKellar, 1995).

Under the most recent reauthorization of IDEA, the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) of a child with disabilities is no longer the exclusive responsibility of special education personnel and concentration has shifted to the process of developing an IEP for implementation in the regular education setting. Congress expanded both the content of the IEP and the membership and responsibilities of the IEP committee. Additionally, this legislation established performance goals and indicators for students with disabilities that are more closely aligned with goals for students without disabilities. It also mandates inclusion of students with disabilities in state and district wide assessments with appropriate accommodations or the use of alternative assessment methods (Browder & Cooper-Duffy, 2003; Schulte, Osborne, and Erchul, 1998). Currently, the IEP plays a more important role than ever before in the provision of services to children with disabilities and their families. Schools are being held accountable for the failure to provide a "free appropriate education" as interpreted through the child's IEP (Huefner, 2000). The inclusion of children with disabilities into the regular classroom requires the active involvement of regular education teachers, administrators, and parents in the IEP process (Huefner, 2000; Cook & Schirmer, 2003).

IEPs and Teacher Attitudes

Teachers' and administrators' attitudes toward inclusion have been found to be closely linked with acceptance of children with disabilities into regular education classrooms. In general, teachers have been found to be unwilling to accept a child with a disability into the regular classroom (Cook, 2001; Cook, Semmel, and Gerber, 1999; Cook, Tankersley, Cook, and Landrum, 2002; Frolin, Hattie and Douglas, 1996). Martinez (2004) enumerated several factors that impact teachers' attitudes towards inclusion of students with disabilities into the regular education classroom. Martinez (2004) cited such variables as teacher experience, gender, teachers' experienced with children with disabilities, and whether the teacher had taught special education as possible determining factors on positive outcomes for children with disabilities in an inclusive class. Forlin and Hattie (1996), found a positive correlation between teachers' attitudes and their attributions of stress if a child with a disability was included in their classroom. Findings also indicated that teachers attributed a significant increase in stress when asked to cope with a child with a disability and their regular education students.

Cook, Semmel, and Gerber (1999) reported that although the majority of teachers supported inclusion in theory, they expressed different views in actual practice. This disparity between teachers' compliance with the letter of the law and implementation of the intent of the law poses a significant problem in the provision of a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities. Principals also demonstrated divergence between attitudes and practice. Praisner (2003) found that most principals agreed with the idea of inclusion when it was phrased in generic and unregulated terminology, however, attitudes were less favorable when wording became more specific and implied mandatory compliance.

According to Schulte, Osborne, and Erchul (1998), there are several impediments to effective instruction of Special Education students in regular education classrooms. These obstacles include deficits in regular education teachers' skill levels, time available for instructional planning and difficulty implementing individualized and/or small group instruction within a large group. Huefner (2000) expands on this theme by citing increased paperwork, lack of financial compensation for teachers, decreased funding for special education programs, and required time for additional training and outreach for special and regular education teachers.

Additional requirements and responsibilities for all education personnel makes the development and use of the IEP and even more time consuming and precise exercise for regular education and special education teachers. The effort required in the process and its implementation has not been of particular concern after the first authorization of IDEA in 1997. Dudley-Marling (1985), was one of the few to attempt to bridge the gap between the policy of individualized education plans and their actually implementation. Dudley-Marling (1985) investigated the usefulness of IEPs by special education teachers. Teachers of emotional disturbed and learning disabled children were surveyed to determine if IEPs made qualitative differences in the education of disabled children. Results of this study indicated that IEPs assisted the majority of teachers in developing educational programs, however IEPs were time consuming to prepare and was not especially useful in planning day to day activities. Eighty-six percent of this sample reported that IEPs were inaccessible since they are locked away in a central location or locked in a file cabinet within the classroom.

The current survey investigated the perceptions of regular education teachers towards the usefulness of IEPs in inclusive classrooms. The present survey investigated the level of regular education teachers' involvement in the development and implementation of individualized education plans for children with disabilities in their classrooms.

Method

Respondents

Respondents were 123 regular education teachers (females = 105, males = 16). Two individuals did not specific gender. Teachers from two elementary schools in Northeast and South Alabama and teachers from two elementary schools in Southeast Georgia were surveyed. In addition, teachers attending a graduate class in Education from Alabama State University and teachers who attended a regional educational workshop in Georgia were surveyed. Treatment of respondents was in accordance with the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association.

Twenty-six percent of respondents were African American (n=32), 72% were Caucasian (n=89) and 2% were unknown (n=2). The average number of years of teaching experience was 13 years. The standard deviation was 10.3 years and the range was a minimum of 1 year of experience to 40 years of experience. Forty-two percent of the participants were from Alabama and 58% of participants were from Georgia.

Instrument

A brief questionnaire was used to obtain data. The questionnaire consisted of demographic information and sixteen questions concerning the importance of Individualized Education Plans for current students in their classrooms. Item response format used a Likert scale containing the following values; 1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3= agree, 4=strongly agree. Reliability analysis of items resulted in an alpha coefficient of .70, suggesting strong internal consistency of items.

Procedure

Surveys were collected over a three month period. Within the individual schools, questionnaires were placed in individual teachers' mailboxes located within the central office of each school. Teachers were able to return questionnaires by placing them in the principal investigator's mailbox located in each of the central offices. Questionnaires were administered to a graduate education course for teachers who were returning to school for additional certification credit. Students were informed orally and in writing that participation was voluntary. Students returned questionnaires to their professor who returned them to the principal investigator. Questionnaires were also administered at a State of Georgia regional teacher's workshop. These questionnaires were returned after the workshop to a box located at the registration desk.

Results

Four items were concerned with the efficiency of Individualized Education plans in providing students within Special Education with appropriate educational goals and evaluation of academic achievement. Table 1 shows the distribution of responses. These questions were: "IEP goals and objectives provide a curriculum for my students"; "Choosing IEP goals and objectives from lists helps me to systematically sequence my instructional objectives"; IEP goals and objectives are more program specific than student specific"; "The IEP serves as a tool in evaluating the child's program and services". Data indicated that 48% of teachers agreed and 15% strongly agreed that Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) provide a curriculum for special education students currently within their classrooms. Twenty-one percent of teachers disagreed and 5% strongly disagreed that IEPs provide a curriculum for their students. Results of the question concerning the utility of the IEP in systematic planning of instructional objectives demonstrated that 48% of teachers agreed and 9% strongly agreed that IEPs were useful. Twenty-six percent disagreed and 3% strongly disagreed. In order to ascertain if the IEP is based upon the student's needs or those of curriculum, responses indicated that 31% of teachers agreed that IEPs are more program specific than student specific and 8.1% strongly agreed. Thirty-nine percent of respondents indicated IEPs were more student specific and program specific and 6.5% strongly agreed. Sixty-one percent of respondents agreed that IEPs are used as a tool to evaluate the child's program and services and 10.6% strongly agreed. Fifteen percent of respondents disagreed and 3.3% strongly disagreed.

Five items attempted to assess the impact of IEPs on general instruction and planning of regular education teachers. Table 2 shows responses to items used to asses this impact. The items were: "The IEP helps me organize and structure my teaching better", "I feel I am a better teacher because I have the IEP to guide my instructional planning", "I use IEPs goals and objectives to plan instructional activities", "Using lists of IEP goals and objectives would give me more time for teaching", "IEPs are so valuable all students should have them". Fifty-one percent of teachers agreed that IEPs help to organize and structure their teaching and 12% strongly agreed. Twenty-three percent disagreed that having IEPs assisted in planning and 3.3% strongly disagreed. Forty-percent of teachers reported that they are a better teacher because they have an IEP to guide their instructional planning, and 12.2% strongly agreed that they were better teachers by having IEPs as guides for planning. Thirty-two percent of teachers disagreed that IEPs made them feel that they were better teachers because of having an IEP to guide their instructional planning and 4.9% strongly disagreed that IEPs made them better teachers regarding instructional planning. Regarding the usage of IEPs as planning tools, 52% of teachers agreed that they used IEPs to plan instructional activities, and 13% strongly agreed that IEPs are useful planning tools. Twenty percent of teachers disagreed that IEPs are useful instructional planning tools and 3.3% strongly disagreed. Fifty-two percent of teachers also agreed that IEP list provided them more time for teaching and 6% strongly agreed. Twenty-seven percent of teachers disagreed that IEP lists gave them more time for teaching and 2% of teachers strongly disagreed that IEP lists gave them more time for teaching. Regarding the expansion of the utility of IEPs for every student, 44.7% disagreed that every student should have an IEP and 23.6% strongly disagreed that every student should have an IEP. Eighteen percent agreed that IEPs are so valuable that every student should have them and 3.3% strongly agreed that every student should have an IEP.

Remaining items assessed the teacher's role in development and use of IEPs for their students. Table 3 shows the percentages of responses to the seven items used for this assessment. They were: "The time spent on developing the IEP does not justify its worth", "Once the IEP is developed I don't look at it again", "The only part of the IEP that is a team decision is placement", "The only part of the IEP that is a team decision is service delivery", "I help to choose IEP goals for my students", "No part of the IEP is truly a team decision", and "The data shared at IEP meetings helped me in developing goals and objectives". Only 22.8% of teachers agreed that the time spent on developing IEPs did not justify their worth, with an additional 4.1% strongly agreeing that time spent in development of IEPs did not justify their worth. However, 44.7% disagreed that time spent in the development of IEPs justified their worth and 15.4% of teachers strongly disagreed with this item. Eleven percent of teachers reported never using the IEP once it was developed and 4.9% strongly agreed with the statement that once the IEP was developed they don't look at it again. In contrast, 48% disagreed that they never used IEPs once they are developed and 24.4% strongly disagreed that they never used the IEP once it was developed. In determining the teacher's role in initial place and IEP meetings, 35.8% of teachers agreed that they assisted in the selection of IEP goal and objectives for their students and 13% strongly agreed that they assisted in goal selection. Twenty-five percent of teachers reported they did not select IEP goals and 13.8% of teachers strongly disagreed that they selected goals for their students' IEPs. Forty-seven percent of teachers disagreed that no part of the IEP is a team decision and 22.8% strongly disagreed that the IEP is not a team decision. Only 3.3% of teachers strongly agreed that no part of the IEP is a team decision and 15.4% agreed that no part of the IEP is a team decision. Further evidence of collaboration in decision making was found in 46% and 16% teachers' responses indicated disagreement and strong disagreement respectively to the item stating that the only part of the IEP that is a team decision is placement. Twenty-one percent agreed with the item and 3.3% strongly agreed with the item. Additionally, 45% of teachers disagreed that the only part of the IEP that is a team decision is service delivery and 17% strongly disagreed. Four percent strongly agreed that service delivery was the only part of the IEP that was a team decision and 18.7% agreed that the only part of the IEP that was a team decision was service delivery. Forty-five percent of teachers agreed that data shared at IEP meeting assisted them in developing goals and objectives and 16.3% strongly agreed that data was useful. Twenty-one percent disagreed that data shared at IEP meetings was useful in developing goals and objectives and 5.7% strongly disagreed that data presented in IEP meetings was useful in planning goals and objectives.

Discussion

Traditionally, IEPs were viewed as an exclusive domain of special education teachers. Parents and regular education teachers were passive participants in the IEP process (McKellar, 1995). Current survey results suggested that regular education teachers are becoming active and vocal participants in the IEP process. In contrast to results found by Dudley-Marling (1985) the current study demonstrated that the majority of teachers reported that time spent in developing an IEP was justified. The majority of teachers also reported that all aspects of the IEP process was a team process in which valuable information was gained through collaboration.

The results of the current survey showed that the majority of regular education teachers found Individualized Education Plans useful tools in planning and implementing educational goals and objectives for children with disabilities within their classes. Results also indicated that the majority of regular education teachers played a role in the formation of goals for their students, and that the process of developing and implementing the IEP was a team activity. In contrast to results found by Dudley-Marling (1985) using special education teachers as participants, the majority of regular education teachers reported using IEPs as tools to help in the organization and structure of their teaching. It should also be noted that federal regulations have changed since Dudley-Marling (1985). The involvement of regular education teachers in the IEP process is now required by law.

One of the intentions of an IEP was to provide individualized education plans for children with special needs. This intention recognized the fact that not every child learned in the same way or at the same rate. An IEP should reflect the uniqueness of the child, the environment, and the resources available to provide a quality education (Kaye & Aserlind, 1979). The majority of teachers responded that IEP goals and objectives were student specific rather than curriculum specific indicating that individual needs of children were primary in the development of the IEP.

Survey results clearly indicated that more training is needed for regular education teachers on the purpose, development and implementation of an IEP. Numerous studies have identified the attitudes of teachers and administrators as impediments to the inclusion of children with disabilities into the regular education classroom (Cook, 2001; Cook, Semmel, & Gerber, 1999, Cook, Tankersley, Cook, and Landrum, 2000; Praisner, 2003; Pivik, McComas, & Laflamme, 2002; Dudley-Marling, 1985). However, research also suggests that successful inclusive schools provide a unified educational system in which general and special educators work in a collaborative manner to provide comprehensive and integrated services for all students. Other research demonstrated that preparation for inclusion of children with disabilities resulted in attitude changes on the part of administrators and teachers (Defur, 2002; Burstein, Sears, Wilcoxen, Cabello, and Spagna ,2004). One of the distressing results of this servey was the percentage of regular education teachers who responded negatively to items. Although not the majority, a substantial percentage of teachers did not feel they were involved in the selection of IEP goals. Additionally, teachers felt that placement was the only team decision, and that time spent developing an IEP was not justified. Clearly, these teachers did not feel as if they were a part of the process and these are the teachers that must be reached in order for children with special needs to develop their full potential.

Research has demonstrated the many positive benefits of inclusion of children with disabilities, their parents and regular education teachers in the process of developing IEPs (Martin, Marshall & Sale, 2004; Palmer, Arora & Nelson, 2001; Rafferty, Piscitelli & Boettcher, 2003; Rea, McLaughlin & Walther-Thomas; Ritter, Michel & Irby, 1999; Test, Mason, Hughes, Konrad, Neale, & Wood, 2004). Several studies have shown student gains in the areas of increased self confidence, camaraderie, teacher support, and high academic expectations (Ritter, Michel & Irby, 1999; Zigmond, Jenkins, Furchs, Deno, Fuchs, Baker, Jenkins, & Couthino, 1995) in students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Studies have also reported that teachers and parents reported positive outcomes as the result of inclusion of children with disabilities in the regular classroom environment. Students were more likely to engage in extra curriculum activities, develop more peer friendships and take part in the community more (Ritter, Michel & Irby, 1999). Similar results were found by Rea, McLaughlin, and Walther-Thomas (2002). Results of this study showed significant gains by learning disabled students in inclusive classrooms in core education classes, increased scores on standardized tests, and lower incidences of in and out of school suspensions as compared to their peers in pull-out programs. Cawley, Hayden, Cade and Baker-Kroczynski (2002), findings indicated that emotional disturbed students and learning disabled students achieved similar passing rates on final exams and district exams in science as did their general education peers in inclusive science classes. Social gains were also reported along with lower incidents of suspension and increased attendance. Rafferty, Piscitelli, and Boettcher (2003) found that preschoolers with severe receptive and expressive language deficits demonstrated greater language development and social skills at posttest than peers in segregated classes. Clearly there is evidence that students with disabilities acquire positive benefits from more inclusive regular education classrooms than their peers in non-inclusive classrooms.

However, more research is needed to close the academic gap between children with disabilities and their regular education peers (Curtis, 1985, Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996; Stone, & Doane, 2001; Walker, 2004; Whinnery, Furchs, & Fuchs, 1991). Shinn (1986) found that in general, performance deficits of student with mild intellectual deficits within inclusive classrooms increased across time relative to their regular education peers. According to Defur (2002), 51% of special education directors in the state of Virginia reported higher rates of failure for children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms than their regular education peer in statewide standard of literacy testing. Several studies have investigated the outcome of students with mild intellectual disabilities, social emotional difficulties, and specific learning disabled students within inclusive classrooms, but very few have investigated the impact of inclusion of children with more severe disabilities on teachers' attitudes (Cook, 2001). Students with more severe disabilities such as autism, bi-polar disorder, or traumatic brain injury would require higher levels of resources than other disability categories. Students with severe disabilities are less likely to engage in tasks related to regular education curriculum (Wehmeyer, Lattin, Lapp-Rincker, and Agran, 2003). Possibilities therefore exist that children with more severe disabilities would siphon even more of teachers' limited resources and interfere with the acquisition of skills by non-disabled students. Future research should address the impact of the presence of children with these more severe disabilities within an inclusive setting, particularly the impact on non-disabled children and their regular education teachers.

Summarily, the present survey suggests that the chasm between policy and implementation of IEP requirements is closing. Regular education teachers are becoming more involved in the provision of services for children with disabilities as full inclusion becomes a reality. It is essential that teachers are provided training and support that would facilitate the acquisition of skills in order to provide services for children with different categories or types of disabilities. It is also essential that new teachers are provided the necessary pre-service training and mentoring that would assist them in adapting their classrooms to a child with special needs. A further link in the chain would be curriculum modification of our teacher-training programs at the university level.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Aleada Lee-Tarver at drleetarver@yahoo.com.

References

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Aleada Lee-Tarver, Assistant Professor, Department of Foundations and Psychology.
Table 1
Efficiency of Individualized Education Plans

 Percentages

Item Strongly Strongly
 Agree Agree Disagree Disagree

 IEP goals and objectives 15.4% 48% 21% 4.9%
provide a curriculum for my (19) (59) (26) (6)
students.

 Choosing IEP goals and 8.9% 48% 26% 3.3%
objectives from lists help (11) (59) (32) (4)
to sequence my instructional
objectives.

 IEP goals and objectives 8.1% 30.9% 39% 6.5%
are more program specific (10) (38) (48) (8)
than student specific.

 The IEP serves as a tool 10.6% 61% 14.6% 3.3%
in evaluating the child's (13) (75) (18) (4)
program and services

Note. Number of actual responses to each question presented in
parentheses. Percentages do not total 100% as some respondents did
not answer item.

Table 2
LEP Impact on General Instructional Activities

 Percentages

Item Strongly Strongly
 Agree Agree Disagree Disagree

The IEP helps me to or- 12.2% 51.2% 22.8% 3.3%
ganize and structure my (15) (63) (28) (4)
teaching better.

I feel I am a better teacher 12.2% 39.8% 31.7% 4.9%
because I have the IEP to (15) (49) (39) (6)
guide my instructional
planning.

I use IEP goals and objec- 13% 52% 19.5% 3.3%
tives to plan instructional (16) (64) (24) (4)
activities.

Using lists of IEP goals and 5.7% 52% 26.8% 1.6%
objectives would give me (7) (64) (33) (2)
more time for teaching.

IEPs are so valuable all 3.3% 17.9% 44.7% 23.6%
students should have them. (4) (22) (55) (29)

Note. Number of actual participants' responses to each question
presented in parentheses. Percentages do not total 100% as some
respondents did not answer various items.

Table 3
Teacher Involvement in IEP Process

 Percentages

Item Strongly Strongly
 Agree Agree Disagree Disagree

The time spent on developing 4.1% 22.8% 44.7% 15.4%
the IEP does not justify its (5) (28) (55) (19)
worth.

Once the IEP is developed I 4.9% 10.6% 48.0% 24.4%
don't look at it again. (6) (13) (59) (30)

The only part of the IEP that 3.3% 21.1% 46.3% 16.3%
is a team decision is (4) (26) (57) (20)
placement.

The only part of the IEP that 4.1% 18.7% 45.5% 17.1%
is a team decision is service (5) (23) (56) (21)
delivery.

I help to choose IEP goals 13.0% 35.8% 25.2% 13.8%
for my students. (16) (44) (31) (17)

No part of the IEP is truly 3.3% 15.4% 47.2% 22.8%
a team decision. (4) (19) (58) (28)

The data shared at IEP 16.3% 44.7% 21.1% 5.7%
meetings helped me develop (20) (55) (26) (7)
goals and objectives.

Note. Number of actual responses to each question presented in
parentheses. Percentages I do not total 100% as some respondents
did not answer item.
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Date:Dec 1, 2006
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