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

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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."

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

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. …