What is an IEP?

Often shrouded in mystery, the EIP - Individual Education Program - details each special education student's needs and goals, and how the school will meet them.

By Priscilla Pardini

The goals Mary Anderson wanted for the 11-year-old – a child with severe autism and moderate retardation – were by most accounts modest: increase the amount of time he spent behaving in socially acceptable ways, increase the length of time he stayed on task to 10 minutes, acquire a functional vocabulary of 50 words, and keep his hands to himself. The techniques she would use to help him meet those goals: one-on-one instruction, hands-on activities, repetition and tangible rewards.

At a recent meeting at Milwaukee’s Audubon Middle School, Anderson reviewed all that and more with the student’s legal guardian, his grandmother, and the other Audubon staff responsible for his education. Everything discussed was recorded on a 14-page document, the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The IEP, the centerpiece of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, provides the framework for the “free and appropriate public education” guaranteed children with disabilities.

Basically, an IEP is a written document detailing a student’s educational needs and the steps a school plans to take to meet those needs. Developed by the special education teacher in conjunction with other school personnel involved in the student’s education, it documents the student’s level of performance, his or her goals and objectives, the degree to which the student will participate in regular education, and any related services, such as occupational therapy or counseling that the student might need. The IEP must be reviewed and updated once a year. It’s a time-consuming process given that some IEPs run as long as 40 pages.

Elaborate procedural safeguards are designed to ensure that a student’s parent or guardian is notified about and has a right to participate in IEP meetings. In Anderson’s case with the 11-year-old, that meant Anderson had to make sure there was someone present at the meeting to act as an interpreter for the boy’s grandmother, who spoke only Spanish.

Anderson is particularly conscientious about the IEP meeting. She discussed the results of her evaluation of the boy’s ability, which she said were at the level of the average preschooler. She pointed out that under the law his grandmother was entitled to request additional assessments. She noted that the boy’s frequent absences were hindering his progress, a situation the grandmother attributed to unreliable bus transportation provided by the district.

As Anderson described various tasks her students were doing in the school cafeteria as part of a vocational education unit, his grandmother began to laugh. “So that’s why he’s been spending so much time in the kitchen taking dishes out of the cupboards, washing them and putting them back,” she said through her interpreter.