The Risks and Opportunities of the IEP Requirements Under IDEA ’97

Dixie Snow Huefner

The new Individualized Education Program (IEP) requirements in the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA ’97) have significant implications for both general and special education teachers. Although they create increased opportunities for collaboration, they also create new risks of backlash. The micromanagement by the federal government reflected in them is problematic. Whether the expectations of the new requirements can be realized depends on many factors, including the energy and good will of IEP team members. This article analyzes the IEP changes and their implications for the effective delivery of special education and related services.

The new Individualized Education Program (IEP) requirements in the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA ’97) have significant implications for both general and special educators. The changes reflect IDEA’s increased emphasis on educational results and postschool outcomes for children with disabilities. This emphasis creates increased opportunities for collaboration, but it also creates new risks of backlash from educators and the general public. The IDEA changes pose new challenges for both general and special education teachers, many of whom feel burdened by the high expectations of the act. The mandatory involvement of general educators, the requirement of student participation in state- and districtwide achievement testing; the requirements for measurable annual goals, regular progress reports to parents, and mandatory student involvement in the general curriculum; and the establishment of a legal presumption that special education services will be delivered in general education settings all involve as many risks as opportunities. The changes raise new regulatory issues for state and local administrators, new logistical dilemmas for teachers, and new hopes for children and their parents. In addition, they will surely generate a new wave of court cases testing their limits. How best to understand and respond to these changes is the primary focus of this article.


The IEP has always been at the heart of Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its predecessor (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, also known as Part B of the Education of the Handicapped Act). Based on an individual assessment of student needs, the IEP is both the process and the blueprint for the services to be delivered. From its inception, however, school districts and IEP teams have had difficulty developing and implementing effective IEPs. Much has been written about the problems involved in producing effective and legally compliant IEPs (Bateman, 1996; Butera, McMullen, & Henderson, 1997; Goodman & Bond, 1993; McLaughlin & Warren, 1995; Rodger, 1995; Smith, 1990b). Among the concerns identified are lack of adequate teacher training, mechanistic paper compliance, difficulty with the team process, burdensome paperwork, and excessive time demands (Smith, 1990b).

Chief among the pedagogical problems produced by the pre-1997 IEP content requirements was the emphasis on measurable short-term objectives and criteria for evaluating their achievement (Goodman & Bond, 1993). Minimal coordination with general educators was also seen as evidence of the failure of IEPs to produce their intended results (Nevin, Semmel, & McCann, 1983; Pugach, 1982). Failure to link assessment data with instructional goals and objectives (Fiedler & Knight, 1986; Smith & Simpson, 1989) and failure to include social and behavioral goals in the IEPs of students with emotional disturbance (Butera et al., 1997) also reduced their effectiveness. Other studies suggested that IEP teams often wrote IEPs that were either not helpful or ignored in practice (Dudley-Marling, 1985; Lynch & Beare, 1990; Morgan & Rhode, 1983; Nadler & Shore, 1980).

Among the legal errors reflected in IEPs were failure to report current levels of performance (Schenck, 1980; Schenck & Levy, 1979), lack of short-term objectives and evaluation procedures (Bureau of Education for the Handicapped, 1979), absence of key personnel (Comptroller General of the United States, 1981; Nadler & Shore, 1980; Smith 1990a; U.S. Department of Education, 1991), and placement determinations not based on the IEP (U.S. Department of Education, 1991).

In the 1980s, computer-generated IEPs became popular as a way to save time and money. Smith (1990b) noted that these IEPs were “generated by technicians, using formulas and following rules, rather than using the intended individualized or personalized problem solving to provide an appropriate education” (p. 11).

To put it bluntly, IEPs–for all their promise and potential–have always been fraught with problems. Many of the leaders who initially conceptualized and supported them have expressed dismay at how they have evolved (e.g., Goodman & Bond, 1993).

Before the passage of IDEA ’97, many of the recommendations for improving IEPs focused on increased teacher training and improved compliance monitoring. Several researchers called for reconceptualization of the IEP (Goodman & Bond, 1993; Smith, 1990b), and Smith (1990b) noted that the efficacy of the team approach had not been empirically validated. Giangreco, Dennis, Edelman, and Cloninger (1994) recommended IEP revisions from an inclusion perspective, urging shorter IEPs that would be more oriented to individualized and family-centered student outcomes, less staff oriented, and better linked to the general curriculum.

In a report for the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), McLaughlin and Warren (1995) identified what they saw as primary faults with the current use of the IEP:

1. a failure to link specially designed instruction with the general education curriculum

2. a focus on legal compliance and excessive paperwork at the expense of a parent-friendly process

3. inadequate attention to documenting the effectiveness of services specified on the IEP

4. overreliance on the IEP as the sole accountability document to the exclusion of more general accountability systems (such as districtwide achievement testing)

The special education administrators interviewed by McLaughlin and Warren urged longer term and more meaningful annual goals and elimination of short-term objectives. They also recommended that IEPs map the services and accommodations required throughout the school day and attend to the demands of the general curriculum. Finally, they suggested greater shared responsibility between special and general educators and a process that would engage parents more. Most of the administrators’ concerns were comparable to those raised by Schrag (1994) and the Council for Exceptional Children (1994).

McLaughlin and Warren’s (1995) recommendations were influential, and the new IEP requirements attempt to respond to all of them. Their recommendations are also paradoxical, however, in that they simultaneously view formal legal compliance (paper compliance) as an impediment to effective implementation of IEPs yet urge more emphasis in the IEP on accountability for student results. They do so without acknowledging that such an emphasis on accountability produces a need for more paperwork, more bureaucratic monitoring, and more judicial review of the IEP process–in short, more attention to legal compliance and more intrusiveness by the legal system.

The New IEP Requirements in IDEA ’97

After considering various recommendations from OSEP and the special education community for over 2 years, Congress enlarged both the content of the IEP and the membership of the IEP team as well as the process for development, review, and revision of the IEP. Depending on how one counts, there are at least eight major changes to the required components of the IEP. What are the implications of these changes? Will they increase the paperwork burdens on already overworked educators? Will they cause general and special education to merge (“properly align” is the term used by McLaughlin & Warren, 1995)? Will they improve student outcomes? Will they result in increased micromanagement of the IEP process? Will they produce all of the above and more?

The Content of the IEP

To answer these questions, we must first analyze the new IEP requirements. The easiest way to begin is by comparing the 1990 and 1997 language of IDEA, starting with the content of the IEP (see Table 1).

TABLE 1. IEP Content: A Comparison of the Old and New Components

1990 law (20 U.S.C. 1401 (20)) 1997 law (20 U.S.C. 1414(d))

The IEP means a written The IEP means a written statement

statement for each child with for each child with a disability

a disability that includes “a that includes “a statement of the

statement of the present child’s present levels of

levels of educational educational performance,

performance” including–(I) how the child’s

disability affects the child’s

involvement and progress in the

general curriculum; or (II) for

preschool children, as

appropriate, how the disability

affects the child’s participation

in appropriate activities”

“a statement of annual goals, “a statement of measurable annual

including short-term goals, including benchmarks or

instructional objectives” short-term objectives, related

to–(I) meeting the child’s needs

that result from the child’s

disability to enable the child to

be involved in and progress in the

general curriculum; and (II)

meeting each of the child’s other

educational needs that result from

the child’s disability”

“a statement of the specific “a statement of the special

special educational services education and related services and

to be provided to [the] child” supplementary aids and services to

be provided to the child, or on

behalf of the child, and a

statement of the program

modifications or supports for

school personnel that will be

provided for the child–(I) to

advance appropriately toward

attaining the annual goals, (II)

to be involved and progress in the

general curriculum … and to

participate in extracurricular and

other nonacademic activities, and

(III) to be educated and

participate with other children

with disabilities and nondisabled

children in the activities

described in this paragraph”

“a statement … of the extent “an explanation of the extent, if

to which [the] child will be any, to which the child will not

able to participate in regular participate with nondisabled

educational programs” children in the regular class and

in [extracurricular and other

nonacademic activities]”

“the projected date for “the projected date for the

initiation and anticipated beginning of the services and

duration of [the] services” modifications … , and the

anticipated frequency, location,

and duration of those services and


“appropriate objective “A statement of–(I) how the

criteria and evaluation child’s progress toward the annual

procedures and schedules for goals … will be measured; and

determining, on at least an (II) how the child’s parents will

annual basis, whether be regularly informed (by such

instructional objectives are means as periodic report cards),

being achieved” at least as often as parents are

informed of their nondisabled

children’s progress, of–(aa) their

child’s progress toward the annual

goals …, and (bb) the extent to

which that progress is sufficient

to enable the child to achieve the

goals by the end of the year”

“a statement of the needed “beginning at age 16 (or younger,

transition services, for if determined appropriate by the

students beginning no later IEP team), a statement of needed

than age 16 and annually transition services for the child,

thereafter (and when including, when appropriate, a

determined appropriate for the statement of the interagency

individual, beginning at age responsibilities or any needed

14 or younger), including, linkages”

when appropriate, a statement

of the interagency

responsibilities or linkages

(or both) before the student

leaves the school setting”

[The statute is silent] “beginning at age 14, and updated

annually, a statement of the

transition service needs of the

child … that focuses on the

child’s courses of study (such as

participation in advanced

placement courses or a vocational

education program)”

[The statute is silent] “a statement of any individual

modifications in the

administration of State or

district-wide assessments of

student achievement that are

needed in order for the child to

participate in such assessment;

and(II) if the IEP team determines

that the child will not

participate in a particular …

assessment [or part thereof], a

statement of–(aa) why that

assessment is not appropriate for

the child and (bb) how the child

will be assessed”

Note. New content is highlighted in boldface.

Clearly, much has been added to the required content of the IEP. Furthermore, the requirements are more complex. Each of the old components has been expanded significantly, with a concomitant increase in the responsibilities of IEP teams. In addition, two new components have been added, one of which applies to children age 14 years and older, and the other of which applies to every child with disabilities.

Close examination of each component indicates, first, an explicit obligation to explain how the disability affects involvement and progress in the general curriculum. The general curriculum is defined in the final IDEA regulations as the “same curriculum as for nondisabled students” (34 C.F.R. [sections] 300.347(a)(1)(i)). Because IDEA ’97 emphasizes linking levels of performance with appropriate annual goals, it is reasonable to identify how the disability is going to affect the student’s involvement in the general curriculum. However, explaining this relationship in the IEP results in increased paperwork for the IEP team.

Second, the annual goals must now be measurable–a reaction, perhaps, to a superabundance in the past of broad, abstract goals about improving reading and math skills. At the same time, the IEP team now may choose between benchmarks (major milestones) and short-term objectives (measurable, intermediate steps) to monitor progress toward the goals. According to the Notice of Interpretation (Appendix A of the final regulations), the two terms are not synonymous, and the difference could be significant. Short-term objectives are conceptualized as discrete skill components of a goal. Benchmarks are described as indicators of the amount of progress expected within specified segments of the year (Appendix A at question 1.) For the same child, one might want to establish benchmarks for certain goals and short-term objectives for others. This IEP component should be recognized as a more flexible provision than its predecessor, although Congress did not totally eliminate the requirement of written objectives, as many educators had urged.

The other important point about the goals is that they should not neglect the child’s needs that are independent of the general curriculum. The emphasis on accessing the general curriculum is not meant to negate other educational needs that result from the child’s disability.

The third expansion of the IEP content requires inclusion in the IEP not only of special education and related services but also of supplementary aids and services and program modifications or supports for school personnel. IDEA ’97 defines supplementary aids and services as “aids, services, and other supports that are provided in regular education classes or other education-related settings to enable children with disabilities to be educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate” (20 U.S.C. [sections] 1401(25)). In short, such aids and services are meant to facilitate integration with nondisabled children across settings, thereby going beyond the services necessary to enable the child to benefit from special education. Apparently, “program modifications or supports for school personnel” are intended to accomplish the same result, as well as to facilitate attainment of the annual goals. Although the statutory IEP provision is worded clumsily, Congress obviously wanted IEP teams to provide special education students with a full range of services to enable their involvement and progress in the general curriculum and their widespread participation in activities with nondisabled children. No provision in the statute (or final regulations) allows for a waiver of involvement in the general curriculum in the case of individual children, for instance, those with profound disabilities. (See Appendix A at question 2.)

The change in the fourth component involves a reversal of wording with respect to the child’s participation in general educational programs. The older IEP requirement stated a preference for participation in general education programs but presumed that the child would participate only to a limited extent. The new requirement reverses the presumption; it presumes that the child will participate with nondisabled children both in the general classroom and in nonacademic activities and requires an explanation of the extent to which this will not be the case. The importance of this shift may not be immediately apparent, but it significantly enhances the legal supports for the philosophy of inclusion and also should resolve conflicting court decisions as to who bears the burden of proof with respect to a placement that removes a child from a general education setting. Congress has created a legal presumption that anyone (parent or school) proposing a placement in which participation in classes and activities with nondisabled students will not occur must bear the burden of proving that such participation is not appropriate. Although the content of the statutory provisions governing least restrictive environment and requiring a continuum of placement options did not change, Congress, in effect, introduced a shift via the side door.

One can see that all the changes so far are interrelated. Emphases on involvement in the general curriculum and on opportunities for education with nondisabled children are pervasive, even though the general curriculum is not the equivalent of the general classroom and can be delivered in a variety of settings.

The fifth and sixth changes reflect the same themes. Specifying the location of the services and modifications is one more way to monitor the extent to which services are being provided in a general education setting. Requiring that the frequency be specified adds clarity to the IEP. Ii is unclear, for instance, to say that occupational therapy (a related service) will be provided throughout the year without stating how often it will be provided. Similarly, it is vague to state that a student will be given an opportunity to turn in homework of reduced length (a program modification) without clarifying how often the opportunity will be provided (frequency) and over what period of time (duration).

The sixth major change relates directly to the second one, which required the adoption of measurable goals, including benchmarks or objectives. The sixth change first requires a statement of how progress toward the goals will be measured, which seems redundant, given the requirement for benchmarks or objectives. More interesting is the elimination of the statutory language requiring “appropriate objective criteria and evaluation procedures.” Removal of the words “objective criteria” lends support to the argument that perhaps benchmarks and objectives can be measured subjectively and can include perceptions or judgments of the IEP team. Some educators have pressed for subjective measures (for instance, portfolios, videotapes, collective perceptions) of student progress, arguing that reliance solely on behavioristic objectives (specifying the condition under which the performance occurs, the time frame within which it occurs, and objective criteria for evaluating whether it occurs) encourages narrow goals and objectives (Goodman & Bond, 1993). Others have insisted that objective criteria provide better accountability (Rodger, 1995). Both arguments have merit, depending on the context and the child. Notably, the term measurable is undefined in the statute and final regulations, and both the Merriam–Webster’ s Collegiate Dictionary (1999) and the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1998) suggest that a “measure” may not need to be numerically quantifiable, as long as some standard or criterion for comparison can be utilized.

The other significant change in the sixth IEP component is the required statement of how the child’s parents are going to be regularly informed of their child’s progress. No longer may progress be ascertained only on a yearly basis (the minimum acceptable standard under the prior IEP requirements). Parents must be informed of their child’s progress at least as often as the parents of nondisabled children are informed, and although the format is left to the discretion of school districts, each report must contain an assessment of whether the child is progressing at a fast enough rate to attain his or her goals by the end of the year. Progress is more explicitly identified as an expected outcome, a subject to which this article will return in the section on legal implications.

The seventh change relates to transition services and requires the IEP team to focus earlier on the adolescent’s courses of study so that they will mesh with the transition services to be developed for the student no later than the age of 16. By the time the student is 14, the courses in which the student is enrolled should be congruent with postschool outcomes (for instance, college or vocational training) that the IEP team will seek for the student.

Finally, the IEP forces a major interaction with the general education accountability movement by acknowledging that all students with disabilities will participate in state-and districtwide assessments of student achievement. If modifications to the administration of such assessments are necessary, they must be specified on the IEP. If the student is not able to participate, an explanation must be provided, along with a statement of how the child will be assessed alternatively. The number of such children is expected to be small, but alternative assessments must be in place by July 2000 (20 U.S.C. [sections] 1412(a)(17)(A)).

Special Factors

In addition to the enlarged content requirements of the IEP, the statute now requires IEP teams to consider a number of special factors as they are developing the IEP:

1. the strengths of the child and the “concerns” of the parents for enhancing the education of their child;

2. the results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation of the child;

3. strategies (including positive behavioral interventions) and supports (presumably for school personnel) to address behaviors when they are impeding the learning of the child or others;

4. the language needs of a child with limited English proficiency, if the needs relate to the child’s IEP;

5. instruction in Braille and use of Braille for a child who is blind or visually impaired, unless the IEP team determines (after evaluation of current and future needs) that such instruction or use is not appropriate;

6. the communication needs of the child and, for a child who is deaf or hard of heating, a whole set of factors (the language needs, the opportunities for direct communication with peers and professionals in the child’s language and communication mode, the child’s academic level, and full range of needs, including opportunities for direct instruction in the child’s language and communication mode); and

7. the child’s need for assistive technology devices and services (20 U.S.C. [sections] 1414(3)(A) and (B)).

Each of these factors reflects specific issues in IEP development that had been brought to the attention of Congress and OSEP. The factors must be considered but need not be incorporated into the IEP unless their consideration leads to a determination of a particular need. Although clearly well intended, the inclusion of these factors in the statute raises new questions and new avenues for litigation. For instance, will emphasis on considering the concerns of the parents provide disgruntled parents with a handle for litigation if their concerns are not judged important enough to generate a statement in the IEP? If behavioral strategies are to be written into the IEP, won’t their introduction into the IEP thereby subject instructional methods to judicial scrutiny–something largely avoided in the past? Similarly, will the child’s primary language or communication mode be the required instructional mode for a deaf child?

The IEP Team

The third area of major change in the IEP requirements concerns the composition of the IEP team. Table 2 compares the old and new language of the statute.

TABLE 2. A Comparison of the 1990 and 1997 Language Regarding the IEP Team

1990 law (20 U.S.C. 1401 (20)) 1997 law (20 U.S.C. 1414(d))

A representative of the local A representative of the local

educational agency (LEA) who is educational agency who “(I) is

“qualified to provide, or qualified to provide, or

supervise the provision of, supervise the provision of,

specially designed instruction specially designed instruction

to meet the unique needs of to meet the unique needs of

children with disabilities” children with disabilities;

(II) is knowledgeable about the

[The old regulations added that general curriculum; and (III)

the LEA representative had to be is knowledgeable about the

someone other than the child’s availability of resources of

teacher. 34 C.F.R. 300.344(a).] the [LEA]”

“[T]he teacher” “[A]t least one regular

education teacher of [the]

child (if the child is, or may

be, participating in the

regular education

environment)”; and “at least

one special education teacher,

or where appropriate, at least

one special education provider

of such child”

“[T]he parents or guardian of [T]he parents of [the] child”

[the] child”

The child, “whenever The child, “whenever

appropriate” appropriate”

[The statute is silent. For a “[A]n individual who can

child who has been evaluated for interpret the instructional

the first time, the old implications of evaluation

regulations include a member of results, who may be a member of

the evaluation the team described [above]”

team or an individual who is

knowledgeable about the (Note that this requirement

evaluation procedures used and applies to each IEP meeting,

is familiar with the results, not just the initial IEP

who may be a member of the team meeting.)

described above. 34 C.E.R.

300.344 (b)] [The statute is silent. The old “[A]t the discretion of the

regulations state that “other parent or the agency, other

individuals” could be included individuals who have knowledge

at the discretion of the parent or special expertise regarding

or agency. 34 C.F.R. the child, including related

300.344 (a)] services personnel as


Note. New content is highlighted in boldface.

The first change concerns the local educational agency (LEA) representative, who apparently can be one of the child’s teachers (special or general) as long as the person is knowledgeable about the general curriculum and the resources available in the district. This is a retrenchment from the prior regulations, which required the presence of someone other than the child’s teacher. It provides a measure of relief to key administrators who have served as LEA representatives in the past. Appendix A of the final regulations, however, indicates that regardless of who the individual is, he or she should be able to commit school district resources (Appendix A at question 22).

The second change is the required presence of both a special and a general educator on the IEP team in most instances. This change responds to criticism that most special education students spend the majority of their day in general education classrooms without sufficient involvement of a general education teacher in planning their goals and services or even knowing what is in their IEPs. Now, a general educator is to participate if the child “is or may be participating” in a general education setting. Cernosia (1997) has already pointed out the implication that a general educator nearly always must be a member of the IEP team, even when the child is placed outside of a general education setting; otherwise, aggrieved parents could claim that a segregated placement for their child was determined prior to the IEP meeting–an especially grievous legal error both before and after the 1997 IDEA amendments. Although a comment in the regulatory analysis suggests that continuing placements in separate schools may negate the need for a general educator at an IEP meeting, the comment may not reassure school districts because parents can change their minds about agreed-upon placements and challenge IEP team membership.

IDEA ’97 requires that the general educator participate “to the extent appropriate” in developing the child’s IEP, including determining appropriate positive behavioral interventions and strategies, supplementary aids and services, program modifications, and support for school personnel (20 U.S.C. [sections] 1414(d)(3)(C)). What is meant by “to the extent appropriate” is determined by LEAs or the teachers involved. The general educator is also to participate in any review and revision of the IEP but again only “to the extent appropriate” (20 U.S.C. [sections] 1414(d)(4)(B)). Among other things, revisions must address any lack of expected progress toward the annual goals and in the general curriculum (20 U.S.C. [sections] 1414(d) (4)(A)).

Another change in the teacher membership provision is that a special education “provider” can serve on the IEP team in lieu of the special education teacher. The implication of this term is unclear in the statute, but Appendix A of the final regulations interprets it to refer to a related service provider, if that person is providing specially designed instruction that is considered special education under applicable state standards (Appendix A at question 23). Another intriguing possibility arising from the statutory language is that a general education teacher could be a special education provider if the teacher were providing specially designed instruction to meet the child’s needs. This interpretation is discounted in Appendix A (Appendix A at question 23).

Parent and student membership on the IEP team remains the same. Under the definition of parent, a guardian qualifies, so elimination of the word guardian is not a substantive change. Requiring someone with knowledge of the “instructional implications” of evaluation results to attend each meeting provides a clearer link between evaluation results and instruction than did the prior regulatory language. It gives flexibility to the districts to choose who that can be; this person could be one of the teachers on the IEP team or some other professional, such as a school psychologist.

Note that it is no longer acceptable for a parent or education agency to involve another person as a member of the IEP team unless that person has special knowledge and expertise about the child. This precludes the participation of attorneys or lay advocates if they do not meet the qualifications. It is unclear whether it also precludes their attendance as observers. The final regulations indicate that the determination of whether someone has special knowledge or expertise rests with the party (parent or agency) who invited the individual to join the IEP team (34 C.F.R. [sections] 300.345(c)).

Implementation Issues

Acknowledging that teachers should not expect too little of students, one can still wonder whether IDEA ’97 expects too much of teachers. Are the expectations realistic? What stands in the way of their attainment? If lack of training, mechanistic compliance, incomplete IEPs, and paperwork burdens were impediments before IDEA ’97, there is no reason to think these problems have diminished. Local or state educational agencies (LEAs or SEAs) must design new IEP forms that will be longer and take more time to complete. In addition, LEAs/SEAs must provide guidance to educators as to how broad or narrow annual goals, benchmarks, and objectives should be and how many there should be. They will have to design IEP progress reports and decide whether they should be oral or written, and, if written, whether they should be included as part of the regular report card to students. They will have to decide who will develop the report. For a set of amendments that were supposed to reduce paperwork burdens, these new requirements are surprising.

The IEP team membership also raises new questions. How will general educators respond to their involvement? What outreach and training efforts should be provided by school districts and higher education institutions? What constitutes a general educator’s IEP involvement “to the extent appropriate?” Although Appendix A suggests that the extent of the general educator’s participation should be decided on a case-by-case basis (Appendix A at question 24), will general educators join in the determination of when they should attend an entire IEP meeting or when they need to attend only part of the meeting or participate in only some of the IEP decisions? Will they be tempted to give their input prior to the meeting, thereby undermining the hoped-for interaction of all IEP team members at the meeting? Will the general education teacher be compensated under collective bargaining agreements for attendance at IEP meetings?

Similarly, one wonders how special educators will respond to their new responsibilities. What outreach and training efforts should be provided to them? Are they sufficiently knowledgeable about the general curriculum at each grade level? Will the burnout rate accelerate as a result of the new demands on their time?

These are questions about reactions to the expanded procedures. More substantive issues about student needs and outcomes also arise. For instance, is the involvement of all students with disabilities in the general curriculum realistic? At a time when “social promotions” are increasingly under fire, will this result, ironically, in more social promotions if the student does not achieve at grade level? Will the pressure to involve students with mental retardation in the general curriculum make it more difficult to deliver a functional curriculum to those for whom graduation with a regular high school diploma is not possible?

Another implementation issue concerns the effect on special education budgets of the changes involving general educators in the delivery of special education. Will districts be able to (and willing to) apportion some of their special education monies to general education? If so, will this dilute the monies available for more specialized services? Overall, the IEP changes do not simplify the act; nor do they merely fine-tune it. Instead, they enlarge the act’s parameters and dictate the IEP process to a greater extent than before. Under these circumstances, one can conclude that many teachers may not be prepared for the act’s new expectations and that the new requirements may create as many problems as they solve. The ones just mentioned are merely illustrative.

Implications for Legal Changes in FAPE

The Supreme Court’s first and most important clarification of the ambiguities in IDEA was its interpretation of the meaning of appropriate in “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). In Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982; hereafter Rowley), which has guided the lower courts ever since, the Court concluded that appropriate meant “personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit from that instruction” (p. 203). In addition, the individualized instruction had to meet the state’s educational standards (which might be higher than the federal government’s) and comport with the child’s IEP. In other words, the IEP could be used as the basic tool for measuring the appropriateness of the publicly funded education. Nonetheless, the Court’s emphasis in Rowley was on procedural compliance rather than with the substance of the IEP itself, as long as the IEP was reasonably calculated to permit educational benefit to the student.

The Supreme Court determined that Amy Rowley’s benefit was sufficient because she was making academic progress in a general classroom and was receiving “special services and professional consideration” (p. 203, n. 25). The Court did not attempt to determine how much benefit was enough for other students with disabilities. Applying the Rowley standard to other situations, many lower courts concluded that trivial benefit did not meet the standard and that meaningful, good, or satisfactory progress was necessary (for instance, Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 1989; Burke County Board of Education v. Denton, 1990). Other courts made little attempt to look at the results of individual IEPs but limited their review to whether the paper IEP was “reasonably calculated” to provide benefit. The two differing approaches reflect ambiguity in the Rowley decision (see Huefner, 1991) in that the Supreme Court judged Amy’s progress after implementation of her IEP while simultaneously announcing what sounded like a prospective standard for evaluating other IEPs. In either event, the Supreme Court did not evaluate Amy’s progress toward her specific IEP goals and objectives but instead focused on her overall academic progress in the general classroom and the nature of the special services she was receiving. It indicated that for students in general classrooms, the IEP should be reasonably calculated to enable the student to attain passing marks and advance from grade to grade–a statement that did not anticipate the presence of children with severe and profound cognitive disabilities in general classrooms.

One wonders if judicial interpretations of FAPE will change as a result of IDEA ’97’s increased emphasis on results rather than simply access and procedural compliance. The IEP must now include measurable annual goals “to enable … progress in the general curriculum,” services to allow students to “advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals,” and regular progress reports to evaluate the sufficiency of the progress. Congress expects revisions in the IEP if progress is insufficient. Although a careful reading of the old statute suggests that progress was expected and that revisions should be made in the case of insufficient progress, the thrust is much more apparent now. Moreover, a subtle change has occurred in the accountability provision of the final regulations. Although it continues to state that the act does not require anyone to be held accountable “if a child does not achieve the growth projected in the annual goals” (and benchmarks or objectives), it adds two other points. It requires each public agency to make a good faith effort to help students achieve their goals and objectives or benchmarks, and it states that IDEA does not preclude a public agency from establishing its own accountability systems regarding teacher, school, or agency performance (34 C.F.R. [sections] 300.350).

If the current IEP language more clearly expects measurable progress, it may force the courts to review the child’s IEP more carefully for results. If the child makes slow progress, it is likelier to be seen as a violation of the IEP requirements. Courts that have been content with a “paper benefit” standard for implemented IEPs may have to rethink their Rowley interpretation in light of IDEA ’97. Eyer (1998) has argued for such a reinterpretation. Courts also may feel compelled to ask schools to demonstrate results in a way that has not been demanded in the educational malpractice cases brought by students who were disenchanted with their lack of educational attainment (see, e.g., Donohue v. Copiague Union Free School District, 1979; Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified School District, 1976). This could create a separate set of statutory malpractice claims distinct from common-law educational malpractice (negligence).

In an earlier article (Huefner, 1991), I observed that courts often assessed a student’s overall school progress independent of any specific relationship to the goals and objectives. I argued that by not attending to IEP goals and objectives and their evaluation criteria, courts were ignoring a potent means of determining whether FAPE was being provided. With the wisdom of advancing age, I now wonder if using the extent of progress toward the goals and objectives as a judicial measure may lead to more judicial intrusion into the education system than is desirable. The judiciary is not really in a good position to judge precisely how much educational progress is enough, and doing so may increasingly require second-guessing educators. If courts show impatience with less-than-expected progress, teachers may select goals surer of attainment and reduce their willingness to take risks on behalf of a child. At this point, this is speculation because significant cases testing the new IEP requirements have yet to be decided. Nonetheless, the judicial response to the new IEP requirements bears watching.


The IDEA ’97 IEP changes envision schools in which children with disabilities and nondisabled children work and play together, are taught a certain amount of common information about their society, and prepare together for productive roles when they exit the school system. Teachers are expected to work together to achieve improved results for students with disabilities.

When these crucial changes were being placed in the law, much of the debate focused on discipline and financial issues. Less attention was given to the implications of the IEP changes, and too little input was sought from general and special education teachers in the field. Rhetoric from Congress to the contrary notwithstanding, the changes add extensive new paperwork requirements. Unless carefully managed and financially supported, the changes that require involvement and progress in the general curriculum and a presumption in favor of general education settings could generate significant backlash from both general and special educators and from the public at large. General educators fear (not without reason) that they will be expected to implement many of the IEP goals in the general classroom without the needed supports. Many special educators and parents fear that requiring increased attention to progress in the general curriculum will result in a preference for that curriculum at the expense of specialized curriculum appropriate to the developmental needs of certain students. The public (with help from the media) fears that special education students are being given rights and safeguards not available to general education students.

Rather than limiting the number of legislative changes to those that clearly addressed problems appropriate for legislative resolution, Congress mandated systemic change from the top down and introduced what should be administrative guidance into the statute itself. Although the final regulations are more user-friendly than many educators expected, those educators may still conclude that the increased degree of micromanagement of special education by Congress in IDEA ’97, and especially in the IEP changes, will prove counterproductive. The failure of legislators and disability advocates to differentiate pedagogical from legal approaches to solving special education problems creates a new set of legal compliance problems. One can hope that IDEA ’97 will not collapse under its own weight and that the law of unintended consequences will not prove applicable, but the following cliches surface nonetheless: The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the devil is in the details.

Implications for Educators

The following implications are not exhaustive but are meant to promote a continuing dialogue on how to implement IDEA ’97 in good faith and avoid a damaging backlash.

1. The IEP paperwork implications are daunting. To survive them, teachers may wish to minimize the demands and, as IEP team members, work to limit the number of annual goals while making sure they address the student’s most important needs. Minimizing the number of benchmarks or objectives per goal could also be helpful, and each should directly translate into the kind of progress that can be reported regularly to the parent. The team should thoughtfully explore whether the best measures of progress are behavioristic or nonbehavioristic for a given child or goal; in either event the measures must allow comparisons to a standard.

Paperwork can be minimized if parents know that the instructional effort to meet the intent of the IDEA ’97 changes is being maximized. It remains true that, although all needed services must be provided (34 C.F.R. 300.300(3)(i)), not everything of significance that is planned or that happens in a classroom can or should be put in an IEP.

2. The IEP changes provide general educators with new leverage to obtain the supports they need to be effective with special education students. Their mandated participation on IEP teams creates an opportunity for them to share their own insights and information about what is possible (and what is not possible) in their classrooms. Seen in this light, it is less of a burden and more of an opportunity. It remains true that, in considering general class placement, or any other placement, the placement team must consider “any potential harmful effect on the child or on the quality of services that he or she needs” (34 C.F.R. 300.552(d)). “Dumping” a child into a general education setting without needed supports is totally unacceptable.

3. If the special education budget is allocated across all program modifications and supports and supplementary aids and services, funds may be diluted for students needing highly specialized services in pullout settings. On the other hand, enriched funds in general education settings can benefit all children and support general educators, thereby enhancing their willingness to share the responsibility for special education students.

4. Teachers will need to work more closely than ever with interested parents–during evaluation and eligibility processes, during IEP development and revision, and during placement decisions. The mandate to revise IEPs to address lack of progress toward annual goals encourages more parental involvement on a regular and continuing basis. It becomes doubly important to work cooperatively rather than adversarily and to bring parents into full partnership.

5. Special educators should not lose sight of instructional goals that are unrelated to the general curriculum. A functional curriculum, a specialized curriculum, or both, will still be important for many students and may be only marginally related to the general curriculum at any given point in time. Creative teachers may be able to link the curricula, but they should not sacrifice the student’s unique needs to the demand for involvement in the general curriculum. By the same token, they should remember to determine how children can participate meaningfully in the general curriculum and not only in a single area like language arts, in which their special education needs may be greatest.

6. Section 504 claims by IDEA students could be fewer because the lines between Section 504 and IDEA are fuzzier than they were prior to IDEA ’97. If specially designed instruction, related services, supplementary aids and services, and program modifications in the general classroom, as well as supports for personnel and student involvement in extracurricular and nonacademic activities, are all part of the delivery of special education under IDEA, then there may be little that goes on for an IDEA student, at least in the general classroom, that cannot be addressed by IDEA. Increasingly, Section 504 protections in the general classroom may be more appropriately invoked by students with other than IDEA disabilities.

7. Joint training of general and special educators to serve students with disabilities should start at the preservice level. Colleges of education must devote more time, energy, and funds toward making this happen. In fact, their role is pivotal.

8. Educators need to be trained to perform functional behavioral assessments, develop behavioral implementation plans, and determine what kinds of testing accommodations will retain the validity of districtwide achievement testing. (These issues are addressed in other articles in this issue, but they are part of the overall IEP process.)

9. Researchers should continue to engage in a variety of research methods to ascertain how new IEPs are being developed and implemented and to disseminate procedures that are producing effective results.

10. The federal government needs to continue to increase its funding to match its IDEA ’97 mandates. The expectations of IDEA ’97, with inadequate funds for more services and better training, do not generate a master plan for success.

Although the long-term outcomes of IDEA ’97 are difficult to predict, it is clear that how general and special educators respond to the challenge will make a difference. What will you do to promote the outcomes you prefer?


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Dixie Snow Huefner, University of Utah

Address: Dixie Snow Huefner, PhD, Department of Special Education, Universtiy of Utah, 1705 E. Campus Center Dr., Rm. 221, Salt Lake City, UT 84112-9253


COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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