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Individualized education programs (IEPs) in special education -- from intent to acquiescence.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in Special Education--From Intent to Acquiescence

The individualized education program (IEP) is the sine qua non of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA). For special education there is no document more significant to districts, agencies, administrators, teachers, parent and educational advocates, and students. Intended as the cornerstone of the EAHCA, the IEP was considered the necessary component from which to monitor and enforce the law. The IEP supports individualized instruction based on egalitarian views of mankind with the intent of providing adequate educational opportunities for children and youth with handicapping conditions. Succinctly, the EAHCA was intended to provide administrators with proof of compliance, teachers with formalized plans, parents with a voice, and students with an appropriate education. Thus, the importance of IEPs to children's education cannot be minimized or ignored.

An examination of IEP-related position papers and research reports published over the past decade reveals a distinct evolution of the IEP process (cf. Rinaldi, 1976; Ryan & Rucker, 1986; Schenck, 1980). One might expect that such educational practices as individualization of instruction expressed in the IEP would improve as a consequence of research; however, recent studies (e.g., Smith & Simpson, 1989; Smith, 1990) have indicated that the intent of the EAHCA is not being met. Thus, the functioning of IEPs as currently formulated by public school professionals must be questioned.

As a process and document, the IEP was designed to carry into implementation the law's intent of an appropriate education. Unfortunately, after a decade or more, the effort at fulfilling the law's intent (exemplary compliance) remains mired in acquiescence. The literature (cf. Rinaldi, 1976; Schenck, 1980; Smith & Simpson, 1989) is testimony enough to question the IEP document and process, yet dialogue about the function and effects of IEPs in special education is meager. (Notable exceptions are articles by Heshusius, 1982, and Mehan, Hertweck & Meihls, 1986. These authors describe mechanistic assumptions and special education bureaucracy, respectively, as constraints to educational decision making such as designing and implementing the IEP.) Thus, despite overwhelming evidence that IEPs have failed to accomplish their mission, little has been done to rectify the situation.

Classroom practice, by the law's intent, should be guided by the IEP. That is, the IEP should be an essential component of instructional design and delivery that enhances and accounts for students' learning and teachers' teaching. Yet, data support the contention that IEPs are not functioning as designed, including being inept at structuring "specially designed instruction."


A review of the literature from 1975 to 1989 reveals contrasting perceptions of IEPs. Databased research reports and position papers can be divided into three major phases: (a) a "normative" phase or a period of prescribing IEP norms and standards during which authors described, detailed, and explained, based on some proactive concerns, the concepts and provisions of the EAHCA; (b) an "analytic" or research phase of IEP inspection with concurrent attention to teacher involvement and perceptions of the IEP, parental involvement, and the team approach; and (c) a "technology-reaction" phase focusing on finding effective computer-assisted systems to manage the IEP process and accompanying documentation.

Normative Phase

Because the EAHCA was designed to officially enhance and strengthen special education, the literature in this early phase was full of articles explaining the nature of the law, how it would affect the education of children with disabilities, and how to write and implement IEPs. Countless authors explained the various components of the IEP as well as the conditions necessary for implementation (e.g., Abeson & Weintraub, 1977).

As early as 1976, Rinaldi expressed concern about IEP implementation, stating that "just about everyone is scared to death of that provision" (p. 151). Further, he cautioned (a) that staff development must occur first and (b) that we may end up with paper compliance rather than real or exemplary implementation. The National Advisory Committee on the Handicapped (NACH) (1977) and Morrissey and Safer (1977) pointed out the potential problems of a multidisciplinary team approach to IEP development. These authors suggested that group variance or multiple interpretations or expectations inherent in group functioning may potentially subvert the IEP process. Varied attitudes and influence of those involved in or responsible for the IEP process may impact differently on its various components. Thus, Morrissey and Safer pointed out that "unless such possible differences are resolved, the utility of the IEP as a planning document, as a reflection of program quality, and/or as an instructional guide will be in jeopardy" (p. 34).

These early writings on the law and implementation turned out to be tea leaves guiding future research. That is, those very concerns noted in the normative literature (e.g., lack of proper training, paper compliance, group variance) became the subject of scrutiny by researchers. Unfortunately, these research results confirmed the normative authors' initial concerns (e.g., Comptroller General of the United States, 1981).

Analytic Phase

The EAHCA had just reached full implementation in 1978 when Schipper and Wilson (1978) reported results of a national study on the EAHCA, including IEPs, conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. The authors noted that their findings were not surprising, by highlighting such issues as teacher concerns about increased time demands, lack of teacher training, difficulty with the IEP team process, and misunderstandings by teachers and administrators of their roles and responsibilities.

Schenck and Levy (1979) were among the first to analyze a sample of IEPs regarding the synthesis of psychoeducational assessment and planned educational programming. That is, after identifying a student's performance level determined by psychoeducational assessment, requisite educational goals are written. Specifically, Schenck and Levy inspected the present performance-level statements on 300 IEPs and determined their link to annual goals and short-term objectives. Over half (64%) of the IEPs in the study did not report current levels of performance, seriously questioning the subsequent development of goals and objectives. The authors insisted that for specially designed instruction to be provided as specified in the law, the diagnostic-instructional link must be apparent. Schenck and Levy concluded: "There are serious needs that must be addressed by the field of special education" (p. iii).

In a related investigation of 243 IEPs, Schenck (1980) reached similar results. Again, goals and objectives displayed only limited foundation in psychoeducational assessment. Schenck pointed out that if an educational program is to meet a child's unique needs, it must be based on diagnostic assessment--which is the unique feature of "specially designed instruction." Schenck also noted that failure to incorporate diagnostic assessment results denies the child "specially designed instruction," without which there can be no special education. Like Schenck, Pyecha et al. (1980), in a nationwide survey of approximately 2,500 IEPs, found that a significant proportion of the IEPs did not contain the essential link between needs (determined by diagnostic assessment) and services provided (exemplified by goals and objectives). These findings suggest that assessment results may be used for purposes other than to demonstrate professional credibility, such as satisfying a perception of competence and professionalism (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Richey, & Graden, 1982).

In a related study, the Comptroller General of the United States (1981) identified IEPs with missing information and found that parents and local education agency personnel were not in attendance at IEP conferences, and that a significant number of IEPs were not in force by the October 1, 1977, mandated implementation deadline. McGarry and Finan (1982), after a 2-year statewide study in Massachusetts, stated that IEPs were too specific to be used by special education personnel. Inspecting 265 IEPs in California, Alper (1978) reported finding poorly written annual goals and short-term objectives. The Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (1979) noted IEPs lacking such basic elements as short-term objectives and evaluation methods. Joseph, Lindgren, Creamer, and Lane (1983), in a large districtwide study, reported dissatisfaction by teachers regarding the IEP. Specifically, the staff in the study felt that the time spent working on the IEP was not worth the effort.

In a statement to the Subcommittee on Fiscal Affairs and Health, Committee on the District of Columbia--House of Representatives, Dodaro and Salvemini (1985) identified 595 delinquents with identified disabilities, 63% (372) of whom did not have IEPs. In addition, 73% of the IEPs inspected were not in compliance with education or procedural requirements.

To examine IEP problems and offer resolutions, Nadler and Shore (1980) interviewed 175 persons directly involved in IEP development in eight school districts. As predicted in the normative literature, lack of teacher, parent, and student involvement and lack of training, resources, follow-through, and administrative support were found to be widespread. Thus, one suggestion by Nadler and Shore was that IEP development teams serve as consultants to teachers who would subsequently formulate the IEP. Although in violation of the letter and spirit of the law, the suggested change manifested dissatisfaction with the components of the law. Administrative support, in this study, ranged from enthusiastic to "blatantly subverting" (p. 33).

After analyzing the implementation of IEPs, Gerardi, Grohe, Benedict, and Coolidge (1984) argued that the IEP might well be the "single most critical detriment to appropriate programming for these children" (p. 39). While agreeing that the underlying concepts of the IEP are philosophically and educationally sound, Gerardi et al. asserted that the document and its process have created a new bureaucracy within the public schools. Citing problems with team meetings, parent involvement, time demands, evaluation, and loss of instructional time, Gerardi et al. maintained that the law has had far-reaching consequences on the education of students placed in special education--consequences not always in the student's best interest. Gerardi et al. concluded that the increase in rules and regulations resulting from the EAHCA has led to less instruction for students and more time spent on completing forms by teachers.

During this evolutionary phase of IEP research, investigators consistently found IEP insufficiencies, contrary to the law's original intention. Concurrent with these studies, researchers broadened their scope by investigating specific areas related to and underlying the broad IEP concept. These areas encompassed the assumptions central to IEP generation, special and regular teachers' involvement in the IEP process, parent involvement, and the functioning of the multidisciplinary team.

Assumptions of IEP Development. When interpreted as a comprehensive educational planning system, the IEP is similar to and a formalization of diagnostic-prescriptive teaching (i.e., an individualized programming approach) used in special education (Morrissey & Safer, 1977). Because this approach is the fundamental premise underlying development and specification of IEP goals and objectives, this assumption has continually been evaluated during this period of IEP research. The diagnostic or assessment component of this approach to developing IEPs has been scrutinized in the literature (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1988), and conclusions are not without disagreement.

Assessment is conducted to identify students in need of special education services and, ideally, to determine what and how a student should be taught (McLoughlin & Lewis, 1986). Yet, problems with assessment (i.e., test administration, scoring, and interpretation) have been noted, with the additional concern that the information gathered often is not useful in instructional planning (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1982). These problems are compounded by improper analysis of assessment information (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1982). Diagnosis (i.e., a label such as behavioral disorder or learning disability), another assumption underlying the IEP, neither adequately supports nor provides information for instruction (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1988). Thus, although it is generally assumed that valid assessment, analysis, and diagnosis are essential to the IEP, there is some question whether, even if these assumptions are met, the available information facilitates instructional planning. As a blueprint for instruction, the IEP is valid only to the extent that these assumptions are met (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1988).

Special Education Teacher Perceptions. Concerns regarding increased workload, excessive paperwork, insufficient support, and lack of adequate training as a result of IEP regulations are frequently voiced by teachers (Dudley-Marling, 1985; McGarry & Finan, 1982). A few studies have measured special education teachers' perception of the IEP's effectiveness on children's learning (Dudley-Marling, 1985; Morgan & Rhode, 1983). Specifically, Morgan and Rhode (1983) reported that special educators were of the opinion that they could teach and that children would learn effectively without IEPs. Dudley-Marling (1985) concluded that teachers found the IEP not to be useful in planning instruction. Similarly, Joseph et al. (1983) reported that teachers felt the time spent in preparing IEPs was not worth the effort. In general, however, most teacher-perception studies indicate that teachers felt that the IEP contributes to an understanding of the child and that it could be used as a general reference.

Parent Involvement. Central to the spirit of the EAHCA is parental involvement, based on the notion that direct parental participation in the educational process can have a positive effect on children's learning experience. Research has focused on such aspects of this issue as professionals' perceptions of the parental role (Gilliam & Coleman, 1981), parents' actual role (Goldstein, Strickland, Turnbull, & Curry, 1980), and parents' perception of their role in the IEP conference (Lusthaus, Lusthaus, & Gibbs, 1981). The results of these studies indicated little interaction by parents when they attended the IEP meeting, with parents being perceived by school professionals as recipients of information. Despite this passive role, parents have generally been satisfied with the IEP conference and its outcomes (Witt, Miller, McIntyre, & Smith, 1984).

Multidisciplinary or Team Approach. The function of the multidisciplinary IEP team is to formulate assessment data into a comprehensive planning system that facilitates the delivery of educational services. In essence, the team approach implies that a combination of personnel guarantees an efficient and effective IEP. As it functions, however, this approach raises questions as to its efficacy (Crisler, 1979; Kehle & Guidubaldi, 1980). As Crisler pointed out, "the team process is a more difficult area in which to try to implement a practical, yet efficient, means of integrating the efforts of the variety of personnel and specialists necessary to meet fully the mandate of the law" (p. 102).

The importance of a multiplicity of views and expertise by school professionals in developing an appropriate IEP is based on a logical assumption rather than an empirical base (Crisler, 1979; Kehle & Guidubaldi, 1980). Specifically, the decision to make the team approach an integral part of the IEP was not founded in definitive results of systematic inquiry. In other words, though agreeing that the team approach was reasonable, these authors (i.e., Crisler; Kehle & Guidubaldi) argued that its efficacy was untested. Crisler reported that the importance of the team concept has appeared in the literature for years and is widely advocated, yet there is no systematic training process for school personnel who must integrate their skill with those of others to formulate a comprehensive educational plan. Without adequate training, how do teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and others integrate their knowledge and skills to provide individualized instruction?

Beyond the skills necessary to ensure proper functioning of the IEP committee, attendance is crucial. If teachers, administrators, parents, or others are not in attendance at the appropriate meetings, the law's intent is not fulfilled. Studies have consistently found key personnel missing from the IEP committee meeting, thus hampering its functioning (Comptroller General of the United States, 1981; Smith & Simpson, 1989; Smith, 1990).

In a qualitative study of five rural, multidistrict special education service agencies, Skrtic, Guba, and Knowlton (1985) found variations in the team process because of several factors: (a) scheduling, (b) time demands, (c) parent apprehension, and (d) professional embarrassment if school personnel were to disagree during the IEP meeting. For example, in one cooperative, prestaffings were often held, sans parent, to reach a common decision before a formal staffing with parents. In another cooperative, team meetings were divided into segments, the procedures of which were contrary to legislative intent; in yet another, team members spelled out a total service plan and designated a special education teacher to write the IEP. These variations worked to ease scheduling, decrease time demands, separate decision making from the parent, and shift the responsibility for IEP development to the special educator. Apparently, these special education cooperatives have adjusted the mandated activities in response to day-to-day realities.

Regular Education Teacher Participation. The importance of regular education teachers in the IEP process was recognized as early as 1977 by the NACH. Most students with mild disabilities are assigned to the regular classroom for some part of the school day (Rucker & Vautour, 1978). Yet, because studies in this area have been few and scattered, the importance of the regular educator in the IEP process has not been realized. Ysseldyke, Algozzine, and Allen (1982) concluded from a study of IEP team meetings that regular and special teachers (a) do not interact or (b) do so in a superficial manner. Gilliam and Coleman (1981) found that regular education teachers were ranked high by IEP-meeting participants in their importance to the team meeting, but low in actual contribution and influence.

Based on survey findings, Pugach (1982) stated that a majority of 39 regular classroom teachers who were responsible for serving at least one child with a disability in their classroom during the school day were not systematically involved in developing IEPs. As a result, Pugach argued that "it is unlikely that this approach promotes shared decision making or encourages consistent curricular modifications across instructional settings" (p. 374). In a study involving 100 students' IEPs, Nevin, Semmel, and McCann (1983) found that regular educators who were assigned one or more of the students were minimally involved in the IEP process. These authors pointed out that if modifications in the regular program are delineated in the IEP, then the regular teacher's role is more clearly defined and more frequently implemented. Without such modifications in the document, the regular teacher's role in the IEP process is amorphous.

Although the analytic phase has spawned numerous studies that underscore the distressful state of the IEP document and its process, little has been done to bring about change. Recommendations provided by the analytic researchers include more inservice, better preservice, and more enforcement. Yet, it is uncertain whether such recommendations will result in IEP improvements. Thus, after years of intense scrutiny, it is unknown whether IEPs actually enhance children's learning.

Technology-Reaction Phase

Numerous computer-managed instructional systems (CMI), or educational management systems that use computer software to manage the IEP, have been designed to relieve the burden of paperwork and cost created by the EAHCA mandate (Enell, 1983; Minick & School, 1982). For example, Enell (1983) developed a handbook on how to streamline IEPs. Enell and Barrick (1983) examined computer systems used in writing IEPs in California and found more satisfaction with IEPs by parents, teachers, and administrators, a decrease in paperwork for teachers, and less time and money spent on IEP generation as a result of technology integration. Time savings, cost effectiveness, and positive teacher attitude were reported in many studies (Davis, 1985; Enell, 1984). Even though the issues of cost and time can be managed effectively by computer-assisted IEPs, as reported in the literature, the issue of a quality IEP is infrequently mentioned during the technology-reaction phase.

In particular, Enell (1983) suggested ways to reduce the IEP paperwork burden by using computers, such as selecting goal areas and possible objectives in advance of the IEP meeting. Kellogg (1984) described computerized IEP systems designed to save time and reduce costs associated with IEP development. Ryan and Rucker (1986) compared computerized and noncomputerized IEPs in 12 Massachusetts school districts; the authors concluded that computer-assisted IEPs took less time, cost less to develop, and led to more favorable teacher attitudes toward the IEP process.

The technology-reaction phase is important to analyze because its research focus has shifted from the original spirit and intent of the EAHCA (i.e., from the IEP quality issue in the analytic phase--exemplary compliance) to concerns about reducing the cost and time necessary to complete IEPs (minimal compliance) by computer assistance. The emphasis on being able to complete the IEP process and document in less time with less costs thereby fostering more favorable teacher attitudes toward the IEP is viable; however, the reason for the shift from developing quality IEPs to aiding the completion of the document remains conjecture.

Thus the technology-reaction phase is one of the most curious stages of IEP research, not only because of the current acceptance of the IEP (despite its skeptical past), but because of the potential sentiment that a "quick fix" using technology can accomplish what other recommendations for improving IEPs have not. Perhaps the IEP's evolution toward a technocratic solution is special education's last effort to arrive at a state-of-the-art document. The IEP, as managed by computers, would now be generated by technicians, using formulas and following rules, rather than using the intended individualized or personalized problem solving to provide an appropriate education. Use of technology to formulate IEPs represents a response to the failure of special education practice to conceptually embrace the concept of what we know about IEPs versus what we do. Thus, efforts now are undertaken to ensure minimal compliance, the very nature of which the EAHCA was intended to preclude.

Sparse mention of quality during this phase leads to questions regarding IEPs generated by computers. Have the heal-all powers of technological assistance generated this phase of IEP research? Were the obstacles to exemplary compliance as studied during the analytic phase skirted, making quality IEPs a "non-issue"? Has exemplary compliance of the IEP become subordinate to the realities of time, effort, and money? Although answers to these questions are conjecture, one CMI effect on the IEP is clear--the IEP and its mission to provide individualized education within the spirit and intent of the EAHCA has become a waning concern. Little if any suggestions are found during this phase for implementing IEPs toward the law's original intent of quality programming based on the values of an appropriate education.



Inspection and evaluation of IEPs do not reveal a matching of the IEP and actual classroom instruction, yet "specially designed instruction" as designed and managed by the IEP should have direct implications for actual classroom instruction (Meyen, 1982). The law clearly states that a relationship should exist between the IEP and classroom activities (i.e., specially designed instruction). This connection of the IEP and classroom activities is the theme behind the following implications.

"Specially designed instruction" is the definition of special education. With this in mind, if IEPs are found to be questionable in fulfilling the intent of the law, then special education (defined as "specially designed instruction") may be suspect as well. The educational program may not be "special" because the IEP document and process are not functioning as intended.

Special education is considered the "appropriate" program for students with special needs, an appropriate education being the basic ingredient in the "free, appropriate, public education" principle of the EAHCA. This concept of "appropriate" implies both quality and effectiveness (Meyen, 1982). If IEPs, as currently implemented, are to ensure quality and effectiveness, the appropriateness of special education is doubtful. Without an appropriate educational opportunity, directed by and monitored through the IEP process, students placed in special education programs are not receiving services with the full intent of the EAHCA.

After more than a decade of implementation, research, and subsequent recommendations for improvement, substantive IEP change has not ensued. In consequence, we may have been ignoring "specially designed instruction" for special needs students, and thus, the very students the law was designed to protect and educate with their individual needs in mind.

Recommendations found in the analytic literature on IEPs were submitted in response to observable data and designed to medicate the symptoms rather than analyze the cause. Suggestions included more inservice (Nadler & Shore, 1980), more informative IEP forms (Joseph et al., 1983; Schipper & Wilson, 1978), more preservice teacher training (Schenck, 1981), better coordinated compliance enforcement (Dodaro & Salvemini, 1985; McGarry & Finan, 1982), and a modification in parent involvement (Gerardi et al., 1984). Despite state compliance plans, recommendations from past research efforts, and a team approach to IEP development, IEPs continually have been found deficient in numerous areas and have been found "ineffective as a tool for accountability, parental involvement, communication, and planning" (BEH, 1979, p. 106).

Past research and the present-day acceptance of technology-assisted IEPs suggest continued questioning of the efficacy of the IEP document and its relationship with the EAHCA. If, as Turnbull (1986) stated, IEPs are truly reflective of special education's best thinking, there is an incongruency between this "best thinking" and its actual product.


Such recommendations in the IEP literature as improved inservice for special education practitioners, increased compliance efforts, and more thorough preservice training represent, in large measure, reasonable intuitive efforts to improve IEPs. Their power to improve IEPs, however, remains uncertain. As practitioners, perhaps we should acknowledge the IEP as nonviable and impractical and pursue other methods that show evidence of "specially designed instruction." Although a new approach may be a viable alternative, only a renewed and compelling IEP debate will lead to specific solutions.

Special education faces multiple crossroads. The Regular Education Initiative (REI) is the current rhetorical phrase used in special education to debate "full access to a restructured mainstream" for students with mild disabilities (Skrtic, 1987). Within the REI discussion, many topics, positions, rationales, and cautions are addressed; yet the IEP is ignored as an important part of the initiative. Will IEPs be abandoned if this initiative is sanctioned? Or, will IEPs be expected to guide and manage individualized instruction for all students in the public schools?

Beyond the REI debate over the appropriate approach to educate students with disabilities, public schools, as currently organized, have been implicated as "creating" students with disabilities (Skrtic, 1987). Although the REI debate suggests a restructuring of the mainstream to accommodate more of the students identified as having mild disabilities, Skrtic argued for the use of theory to guide reform efforts and to understand past and current inadequacies in special education policy and practice. Considering these complex issues related to the nature and mission of special education, the IEP efficacy question is emerging during a fertile time of divergent thought and proposed action within the special education community. This article, therefore, is a call for action.

This call for action suggests a vigorous revisitation of the IEP. A research shift is imperative--from analyzing the IEP process and document to identifying a system that allows practitioners to procedurally prescribe individualized education. If the IEP concept, as special education's best thinking, can be incorporated into the dialogue of the REI and the public school organizational debate, the intended individualized nature of "specially designed instruction" may be recovered. If not, participants and developers of IEPs will continue to minimally comply with a process and document of unproven validity and impact. Alternative options to implementing special education, as the reform literature offers, may provide a recovery of the IEP to operate with its fullest intention. Perhaps the answers to the IEP problem can be found in the reform effort's divergent thought.


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Skrtic, T. M., Guba, E. G., & Knowlton, H. E. (1985). Interorganizational special education programming in rural areas: Technical report on the multisite naturalistic field study. (Contract No. 400-81-0017). Lawrence: University of Kansas, Department of Special Education.

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Smith, S. W., & Simpson, R. L. (1989). An analysis of individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with behavior disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 14, 107-116.

Turnbull, H. R. (1986). Free appropriate public education: The law and children with disabilities. Denver, CO: Love Publishing.

Witt, J. C., Miller, C. D., McIntyre, R. M., & Smith, D. (1984). Effects of variables on parental perceptions of staffings. Exceptional Children, 51, 27-32.

Ysseldyke, J. E., & Algozzine, B. (1982). Critical issues in special and remedial education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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STEPHEN W. SMITH (CEC Chapter #1024) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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Author:Smith, Stephen W.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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