Early in my career, I taught at a school with a very progressive inclusion policy. Within my completely integrated classroom, a diverse group of learners had the beautiful opportunity to experience one another’s strengths and different ways of learning.
Core to the spirit of an IEP is each student having a sense of belonging, being known in an affirmative way and supported to succeed at school.
During that time, I got to know my special education students better and more quickly than others because each had an individualized education program (IEP). Even before meeting them, I had information that helped me understand some of their motivations, personal preferences and interests. This informed my teaching from the get-go, while frequent meetings with their parents enriched my insight into their context.
These students also received different supports, such as occupational therapy, counseling and academic assistance, to address their unique needs. The structure made it much easier to give these learners what they needed to succeed.
This all made me wonder what it might look like if every student had that level of support. What if teachers had a similar framework for each of their students? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that every student should have an IEP—and that this could be possible with the support of technology like Hāpara.
Unpacking the spirit of an IEP
I can imagine teachers halting me right here: “I have six different classes, with 32 students in each. How in the world can I manage an IEP for every student?”
Indeed, a real IEP for each learner would be highly impractical. But consider what the essence of an IEP might mean for our nation’s learners.
Core to the spirit of an IEP is each student having a sense of belonging, being known in an affirmative way and supported to succeed at school. Data collection inherent to the IEP process enables educators to more easily personalize learning, pinpointing opportunities for growth, as well as learner strengths. If done well, learning incorporates voice and choice within the student’s context, resulting in improved engagement and outcomes.
Let’s break down three key components of an IEP.
1. Present level of academic progress
Understanding where students are academically is a first step to making sure that work is neither overwhelmingly challenging nor so remedial that it underestimates their capabilities. Having high standards and high expectations within the boundaries of understanding each student promotes rigor and educational equity.
Key to increasing student engagement is ensuring that students are known in terms of personal interest and context.
Meaningful data points
In some schools, summative assessments make up the bulk of data collected about a student. I urge educators to move beyond that with formative assessments—throughout the learning process—to better understand and address each student as an individual. Using formative assessments to collect different data points enables teachers to gain insights into students that allow for adaptations and modifications to meet their needs.
I recommend project-based learning as a way to help students develop and gather feedback on skills not necessarily emphasized in traditional instruction.
2. Annual educational goals
Setting annual educational goals is a keystone of the IEP process. Broadening that practice to include student vocational goals, personal interests and hobby aspirations enables educators to make work relevant to learners and reinforce those goals.
Gathering data directly from students
To tap in and discover student goals, interests and opinions, teachers often use a check-in question at the beginning of the day, with an option for students not to share. I recommend proactively asking strategic questions once a week or more through a Google form or similar technology.
3. Accommodations and modifications
For students with disabilities, accommodations such as text readers and adaptive technology help remove barriers and promote equity. We’ve seen how many of these technologies also serve mainstream users. In what other ways can we remove barriers to facilitate deep learning for all students?
I’d start with differentiation: the recognition that, first and foremost, students are individuals with unique interests, needs and aspirations. Hāpara Workspace gives educators the ability to easily differentiate and personalize instruction and projects. Scaffolding tools or resources can be added for certain learners while preserving anonymity and privacy.
Digital delivery of relevant content
The spirit of an IEP boils down to ensuring that all learners are known and supported through academic challenges which are relevant, engaging and rigorous.
Secondly, through digital delivery of open educational resources (OER), teachers can modify lessons to reflect student interest and context by choosing different texts, materials and videos aligned to standards. OERs lend themselves to this strategy, allowing educators to add content that’s more relevant for students and better aligned to current knowledge than what may be found in traditional textbooks. For example, content authored from diverse perspectives can benefit learners who don’t historically see people who look like them or share similar backgrounds positively represented in academic content.
Hand in hand with OER, Student Dashboard Digital Backpack supports digital equity by allowing teachers to more easily meet the needs of all their students. With a few clicks, teachers can upload and assign any district-approved content they have a license to use in real time in a format that works for learners on any device. It also gives teachers the ability to automatically convert digital content (OER or otherwise) into an ADA-compliant resource for students, without requiring specialized technology.
Personalizing learning to boost equity
At the end of the day, the spirit of an IEP boils down to ensuring that all learners are known and supported through academic challenges which are relevant, engaging and rigorous enough to set them up for the success that each deserves.