Let’s improve the IEP: First step, what do teachers think?

Four elementary school students sitting at a laptop in a classroom

The Individual Education Plan (IEP) process is a team sport. It takes cooperation while working toward a shared goal in order to achieve the level of success our students deserve. It takes a well coordinated effort to assess a student’s level of performance, establish their educational goals, identify the appropriate supports and services, establish modifications and accommodations the school will provide the student, and identify the progress monitoring process to be used. The stars of this team are, of course, the student and his/her parents, but a talented supporting cast is required to achieve success. While administrators, education professionals, evaluation personnel, and others play an important role, the most crucial positions are operated by those educators whom the student interacts the most with on a daily basis, both in special education and general education. In a successful IEP, all teachers involved in the student’s instruction collaborate in order to establish the best instruction plan for their student, which often includes:

  • Modifying the general education curriculum and align it with special education instructions
  • Selecting the supplementary aids and services the child needs
  • Detailed identification of specific areas for inclusion
  • Identifying necessary accommodations for testing situations
  • Determining if other aspects of individualized instruction are required

What the research uncovers

Rotter (2014) conducted research about the IEP process with teachers from suburban school districts. In reviewing the literature, Rotter found limited research on the perceptions of teachers regarding the IEP process and their use of the IEP in instruction. This is of paramount importance because, intuitively, the only IEPs that impact students are those that have their objectives implemented with fidelity, and teachers have the responsibilities on the frontline of this process. Unfortunately, early research conducted on the IEP process found that the majority of teachers thought that IEPs did not provide daily assistance in instruction and were not referred to very often. They indicated that IEP documents were often under lock and key and not available.

Another study examining the perceptions of general education teachers found that they thought IEPs did not relate well with regular education curriculum and were not helpful in instructional planning. They believed IEPs were too generalized and inconsistent, and focused more on staff goals than individual student goals. Their recommendation was that IEPs should be shorter, more focused, and appropriately individualized for each student (Giangreco, Dennis, et al, 1994). In a study conducted after the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA (Lee-Tarver, 2006), researchers found that almost two-thirds of the GE teachers surveyed use IEP goals and objectives in planning and instruction in inclusionary situations.

Rotter’s (2014) study addressed the scarcity of research on teacher perceptions of the IEP and investigated whether teachers read their students’ IEPs and when; as well as if they used IEP goals and objectives in daily planning. The study also examined teachers’ perceptions of the utility of various sections of the IEP and how they would improve the usability of IEP goals and objectives. The author surveyed 311 general education teachers (GE) and 115 special education (SE) teachers. Of the 426 total teachers participating, 30% worked in elementary schools, 27% worked in middle schools, and 43% were high school teachers. The teachers in the study had a fair degree of experience teaching, with only 15% having three or less years experience.

The results from the survey were examined using descriptive analysis. In terms of the IEP availability, the results from this study indicate that great progress has been made since the days when IEPs were kept under lock and key, with 94% of the respondents indicating that they received their students’ IEPs at the beginning of the school year, and 99% percent of the SE teachers and 83% of the GE teachers reviewing their students’ IEP within the first two weeks of receiving them. Teachers were asked how they track information and take notes about the IEP and 55% of SE and 38% of GE teachers usually take notes and 50% of SE and 31% of GE teachers use a format to summarize information. These results highlight the lack of a consistent and systematic process in this area.

Based on the results from the survey we are able to rank order the four main parts of an IEP based on teachers’ views of their importance:

  1. Expressly, the teachers thought that modification and accommodation statements were the most important facet of the IEP.
  2. The second most important component was the goals and objectives from the IEP.
  3. The program statement and present level of academic performance was considered less important by the teachers surveyed.
  4. It terms of lesson planning, teachers found each of these components moderately useful.

Assessing the research

Data and information pertaining to a student’s performance is necessary to determine student progress and as indicators of successfully meeting goals and objectives. In order to meet this requirement, SE and GE teachers need to continuously collect meaningful data to accurately measure and report a student’s progress toward annual goals. The teachers surveyed indicated that they rely heavily on the use of classroom grades as the main mechanism in this process. Unfortunately, classroom grades are not considered to be a valid or reliable measure of IEP goal attainment. Using benchmarked informal assessments, direct behavioral observations, or direct behavioral rating systems provide a more efficient and systematic way of evaluating formative progress. Additionally, standardized measures facilitate a psychometrically sound summary assessments, which can report global outcomes for the students.

The results of the survey of GE and SE teachers shows that significant progress has been made in the availability and usage of IEPs as a mechanism of guidance in the instruction of individual students. Additionally, teachers believed that the IEP is moderately useful in this process. However, there is still much more work to be done to improve the efficacy of IEPs. This was evident when teachers were asked how they would improve the IEP process. From their responses two major themes emerged: The need to simplify the IEP; and the need to increase specificity and clarity. This is especially true in the area of documentation and progress monitoring of IEP goals and objectives. There is an essential need to first, improve the approach and to make it more ergonomic for teachers; and second, to expand the array of measurement tools teachers have access to and feel comfortable in using in order to expand past the myopic reliance on class grades by including formation and summative alternatives.

After reviewing the article by Rotter (2014), it becomes perceptible that the aim to improve the efficacy of the IEP can be advanced through the use of technology, specifically web-based tools or method because such programs allow for the following:

  • Improved access to the IEP
  • Assistance in instructional planning and access to supportive strategies and interventions
  • Collaboration between teachers
  • Tracking of inclusion
  • Assistance in data collection and progress monitoring by allowing for daily or periodic assessment of plan objectives
  • Reporting and charting to communicate information and to assist in organizing information for IEP meetings

Teachers are more likely to employ processes, which are easily accessible and useful in their instructional practices. Additionally, students benefit the most when teachers can use supports on a daily basis. Methods and tools which help the IEP in these areas would increase its usability and ultimately improve individual student performance.


About the Author
Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec

Chris Huzinec is an educational researcher, evaluator, and consultant with over 25 years of practical experience in public education. He is currently the Director of Research at Review360 in the Clinical Assessment division of Pearson. Previously, Chris was employed by the Houston Independent School District’s Department of Research and Accountability for 15 years, first as a Research and Evaluation Specialist, and then as the Manager of the Program Evaluation and the Performance Analysis Bureaus. He has produced publications and evaluation reports in the areas of Bilingual Education, Early Childhood Education, classroom and student behavior management, and Special Education.



Works Cited

Giangreco, M. F., Dennis, R. E., Edelman, S. W., & Chigee, J. C. (1994). Dressing Your IEPs for the General Education Climate. Remedial and Special Education, 15, 288-297.

Rotter, K. (2014). IEP Use by General and Special Education Teachers. SAGE Open, April-June 2014, 1-8.

Lee-Tarver, A. (2006). Are Individualized Education Plans a Good Thing? A survey of teachers’ perceptions of the utility of IEPs in regular education settings. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 33, 263-272.