Individualized Education Program (IEP)

When Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, federal policy prohibited educational officials from making arbitrary decisions that often excluded students with disabilities from schools. Moreover, as reflected in revisions of the same statute, the renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), federal law continues to ensure that all eligible children between the ages of 3 and 21 are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). In providing children with a FAPE in the LRE, the IDEA also called for the creation of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to direct their education. IEPs are legal documents and part of a process; they are the cornerstone of special education that formalizes the IDEA’s FAPE provisions. To this end, IEPs are publicly funded and individually designed to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. IEPs are written by teams of school personnel in conjunction with, and approved by, parents.

What the Law Requires

To comply with IDEA regulations, IEPs must include students’ present levels of performance, measurable goals, the extent to which children will not participate in general education curricula or assessments, full descriptions of all needed services (with amount and frequency), mechanisms for evaluating progress, and statements indicating whether students need, and will benefit from, assistive technology. IEPs of students with any category of disability who exhibit behavior problems that impede their learning or that of others must include well-designed behavior intervention strategies, including positive behavioral supports for developing adaptive skills. IEPs must be implemented as written even when students with disabilities are suspended or expelled from school. IEPs must also include transition statements, acknowledging the transfer of parental rights to students (unless the students are incapable of acting on their own), and transfer to employment settings or higher education is required no later than when students turn 16 years of age. Further, IEPs must indicate the language of instruction for students with disabilities who do not speak English.

While the IDEA does not specify the level of detail IEPs must contain, it does delineate the process of developing IEPs. By law, IEPs are developed by a multidisciplinary team that must include a representative from the local school board, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, school officials who can interpret the meaning of tests and measurements used in assessing children, a child’s parent or guardian, the student (whenever appropriate), and others at the request of parents or school officials. IEPs should be clear enough to be understood by everyone on the multidisciplinary teams, useful for educators, and legally defensible should they end up in court.

Since the enactment of the IDEA’s IEP requirement, school officials have faced difficulties writing and implementing IEPs. Problems include lack of adequate teacher training in developing IEPs, mechanistic compliance with paperwork requirements associated with IEPs, failure to link assessment data to instructional or behavioral goals, excessive demands on teacher time, poorly developed team processes, and minimal coordination among IEP team members. In fact, courts have ruled in favor of families and students with disabilities, charging procedural and substantive violations in the IEP. In many cases, state level due process hearings have determined that IEPs, or the process by which school personnel went about implementing the goals stated within IEPs, were inconsistent with a child’s individual needs. Many courts have held that IEPs did not conform to the collaborative nature IDEA envisioned in the IEP process.

Despite strong support for IEPs, some education scholars argue that IEPs assume that teachers know in advance what children should and can learn and the speed at which they will learn. Skeptics conclude that such projections are difficult to make for students whose disabilities were not apparent when they started school; these skeptics add that making such projections are nearly impossible for preschool-aged children who have cognitive, emotional, or social disabilities. Others argue that current laws are inappropriate and that new legislation and federal rules are required.

2004 Revisions

In response to some of the problems associated with IEPs, the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA specifically targeted changes. First, based on the complaint that too much time is spent on paperwork, IDEA has eliminated the requirement that IEPs include short term goals, except for students who are assessed using alternative assessment procedures that are aligned with alternate achievement standards. Another change in IDEA is the statement of transition, which until 2004 was required at the age of 14, not 16, as per the current language of the IDEA. IDEA 2004 also provides more flexibility in attendance to IEP meetings, indicating that team members do not have to attend if their area of expertise is not needed, as agreed by other members, or if they provide written information related to the IEP meeting prior to the meeting. This allows teams to make minor changes to IEPs through conference calls or letters. In addition, the IDEA permits the creation of pilot programs in which 15 states could apply to participate in a program allowing them to rewrite individual IEPs every three years instead of annually; one important condition here is that these IEPs must be designed to end with natural transition points in a child’s education. Another important point to note is that measuring progress toward IEP goals must occur annually. The impact of these changes to IEPs remains to be seen, because the IDEA’s new regulations were promulgated only in 2006, two years before publication of the current volume.

The process of writing IEPs and the documents themselves are important features as school systems seek to maintain compliance with the letter and spirit of the IDEA. When teams develop IEPs with an eye toward both the letter and the spirit of the law, it means that they have carefully assessed the needs of students with disabilities, that they have worked together to design programs of education to best meet the needs of children, and that they have clearly stated goals and objectives for each child so that they can evaluate whether children have been reaching their goals.

Theresa A. Ochoa

See also Assistive Technology; Disabled Persons, Rights of; Free Appropriate Public Education; Least Restrictive Environment; Manifestation Determination

Further Readings

  • Finn, C. E., Jr., Rotherham, A. J., & Hokanson, C. R., Jr. (2001). Rethinking special education for a new century. New York: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. 
  • Smith, T. E. C. (2005). IDEA 2004: Another round in the reauthorization process. Remedial and Special Education, 26(6), 314–319. 
  • Turnbull, R., Huerta, N., & Stowe, M. (2006). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as amended in 2004. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall. 

Legal Citations

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.