Are they the promised land for special education?
Is special education eating you alive? If you are a district administrator, how can you keep this beast at bay? The world of special education is a bewildering maze that continues to grow more complex. Students with diverse needs and increasingly complicated services flood the system. Regulations from federal and state governments grow more burdensome. Lawyers pounce on mistakes. We are all looking for the silver bullet that will simplify our processes for serving special needs students. Can computer-based Individual Education Plan writers be the answer?
It's important to go into this process with your eyes wide open. Pick a software package that meets your needs. Prepare for a substantial learning curve for staff and community.
How does a computer-generated IEP work?
Essentially, the IEP is written using computer software and is transmitted electronically to a central database. To start, the special education teacher creates a caseload of students. This is labor intensive when you start from scratch-all details have to be entered by the teacher: names, addresses, due dates and services. Once the caseload of students is established, certain functions become automated and routine. The teacher gets a reminder on screen that an IEP is due. He or she sends out the required meeting notices on a standardized form. Support providers are notified that reports are due or that their attendance is required at the IEP.
A draft IEP is prepared, often with suggested goals and objectives written by school staff (the final goals are worked out in the team meeting with parents and staff). All support staff show up at the appointed time and place for the IEP meeting. During the IEP meeting, the teacher enters data, modifies or writes goals and objectives, and records notes.
Before the paper IEP can be printed, the computer software checks for compliance and red flags problems that must be fixed. The IEP is then signed. The student receives the appropriate services and placement. The district database is automatically updated. Compliance staff at the district level can make accurate reports to state and federal agencies about their special education programs.
Sounds good, right?
These software packages promise to deliver in three key areas.
IEP documents are cleaned up. Deadlines are met for meetings, services, and reports. Districts write and maintain compliant IEPs. As processes become standardized across an organization, mistakes become fewer, in theory. A uniform IEP writing process, generated on a computer, is a vehicle to make sure that all teachers and support providers speak the same language and follow the same steps.
It is easier to manage and track special education services at a school site and in a school district. It is less likely that students "fall between the cracks" as they transition from elementary to middle to high school. As districts are forced to comply with increasingly complex federal and state reporting requirements, an accurate database is essential. Reporting becomes much easier with these computer programs. Good data leads to good decisions.
Teachers write better IEPs. The software guides-or forces, some would say-teachers to follow a systematic set of procedures for the entire IEP process, from planning the meeting to reporting the IEP.
Sharpen Your Tools
The extent to which software can meet these proclamations depends on the focus of the tool itself. Some tools write IEPs and provide sophisticated reporting mechanisms. They claim to eradicate all compliance problems and meet all reporting and tracking requirements. They are kitchen sink products; that is, they claim to do everything. They are complicated and multifaceted. As a result, they can be difficult to use and involve a very significant commitment to staff development and support services. Products that write basic IEPs only are easier to use, but they may not meet a district's entire need for reporting data to state and/or federal agencies.
User Error Issues
The biggest consideration in all of this is the human element. Computer applications are useful, but they still are subject to the attitudes and abilities of the teachers and staff who use them. They force teachers to find errors to resolve compliance red flags. Real errors are fixed before the IEP becomes a legal document. This is the promise of such tools, but there is the issue of user error. Teachers create other compliance issues as they troubleshoot IEPs that won't cross the computer's predetermined finish line. If teachers creatively navigate the system and don't go back to clean up the IEP after the meeting, the compliance mistakes will cause problems later on.
As a site principal, I was faced with a new implementation of software that promised to write better IEPs. Everything sounded great in the initial training-compliant IEPs, the ability to track student data, and easier reports. In practice, some trends emerged:
--A teacher preoccupied with making the computer program work during the IEP meeting can create a barrier between the parent and staff. The best IEPs are a product of teamwork between parents and staff and the relationships developed therein. It's important to maintain the level of trust in this relationship, and teachers have to work hard to make sure that the computer is not allowed to propagate cold and stilted meetings.
--IEP writers cannot make good goals and objectives. These are the heart of the IEP. It is the IEP team of parents, teachers and support providers that writes the best goals and objectives for the individual child. This process, by definition, has to be on an individual basis. It is this individual nature of IEPs that sets limits on what a standardized computer-based writer can do. Interestingly, these products have caught the attention of parent watchdog groups for this very reason. A winter 2005 newsletter from the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education warned that the IEP writer system for San Diego City Schools "does not permit the Individual Education Program Team to individualize the IEP, without constraints and predetermined content, to address all areas of the student's needs."
--One cannot overlook the big issue of initial implementation. The programs involve a substantial financial investment in computers, servers and software. Teacher training must be systematic and comprehensive, and by definition, expensive. Support staff must be at hand to troubleshoot systems.
Eamonn O'Donovan is principal of Ladera Ranch Middle School in Ladera Ranch, Calif.