Each year in early June, as my daughter eagerly awaits the end of the school year, with all its parties and victories, and makes plans for summer and friends, I must complete a very different set of arrangements for my son. Before the school year ends, Evan’s specialists, teachers, and I gather in a small room on the elementary school campus for his annual Individualized Education Plan meeting. While a balmy June breeze comes through the open door, a team of twelve, including the special education director, principal, and myself assess Evan’s year in terms of goals and progress, success and failure.
Yes, it’s the inevitable (and sometimes dreaded) IEP, a staple of special education everywhere. There’s an anonymous Dr. Seuss parody of an IEP that makes its way around inboxes this time of year, one that accurately describes a parent’s mood in the face of this annual meeting and assessment. In the parody, a voice akin to that of the Cat in the Hat proclaims,
I do not like these IEPs
I do not like them, Jeeze Louise!
We test, we check,
We plan, we meet,
But nothing ever seems complete.
In the special education system in this country, every child (and parent) must undergo this yearly planning meeting, one that can sometimes last many hours. The child’s progress is charted, weighed and measured according to quantifiable results. In the first half of the meeting we review the past year’s goals to determine whether or not the child has met them. In the second half of the meeting, the team creates goals for the following year. The process is both exhaustive and exhausting, and I have yet to meet a parent who emerges from these planning meetings without a sense of both victory and defeat. Victory for what the child has accomplished, and defeat for how much more is ahead.
For me, the cruelest twist of the IEP is that the kids who falter most under measurement are the ones measured so often, and with such rigor. My daughter, in general education, gets three report cards a year, with one parent-teacher conference thrown in for good measure. My son, who comes up short on nearly every yardstick except the happiness quotient, has a twenty-page document that follows him throughout his day. Even if I wanted to pretend for a moment that my son isn’t a walking bundle of deficits, the IEP brooks very little denial.
The IEP goals we create in our meeting each June become the backbone of Evan’s educational day, and many activities are geared towards meeting those goals. “Will engage in cooperative learning activity with one peer over the duration of the activity one time per day for one of out of three trials,” structures Evan’s free time. A good day is one in which he meets that goal (with minimal prompting); a not-so-good day is one which there has been “some” or “little” progress towards the goal. Quarterly, numerical reports come home that rank his progress, with a “5” being the brilliant “This goal has been met,” to a “3” offering the ominous “Progress has been made towards this goal, but goal may not be met by the time the IEP is reviewed.” Even worse of all is the dreaded “2”: “Progress is not sufficient to meet this goal by the time the IEP is reviewed. Instructional strategies will be changed.” Ouch.
The success and failure at the heart of the IEP process inspires the anxiety and dread I feel in the same balmy June days that bring restless anticipation to my daughter and the end of her school year. The days leading up to the IEP are tense as I look back over the previous year’s goals and objectives. There is often an email flurry about the following year’s goals. Sometimes there are changes in classroom setting or routine or personnel. No matter what, once we are all in the room together, with the plan before us, there is no getting around the issues of progress, success, or failure.
In our school district there comes a point in the meeting when we must read aloud the previous year’s goals and take official note of whether or not my son has met them. This would be a time where I feel inclined to put my fingers in my ears and sing nonsense syllables, hoping to avoid the truth. Except that I know, from all the documentation and progress reports I’ve already received, exactly how the story goes. Some years the tally is impressive. We read the goals and the service providers announce that they have been, “Met, met, met, met.”
Others, not so good. “Well, we worked on this goal a lot, and he got the first part of it, but not the whole goal, and he needs lots of prompting, so I’d give him a three out of five and say, um, partially met.” In the years Evan fails to meet his goals, I often wonder, “Why do we even bother? What’s the point?”
This year’s IEP meeting was one of those mixed bags. Evan was happy to be at school. He made an excellent transition to a new classroom, teacher, and fellow students. All the social goals that have to do with the bigger picture? Evan met them like a champ. Academically? Not so good. Didn’t learn to match shapes or accurately trail a line of Braille. Still can’t give, when asked, “Just one.” Some progress on speech but only partially met his assistive technology goals.
The news was sobering. As with almost every IEP, Evan’s inadequacies had been very explicitly presented. Even so, as we left the meeting, I resolved to focus on his success: Evan learned his way from the classroom to the cafeteria and sat at the benches during lunch like a big kid. He got to know a new group of friends and sat in circle time with the kindergartners. Maybe he didn’t learn to track Braille, but he did figure out how to turn the pages of a book. If we weren’t measuring him every day, with a twenty page document, we could honestly call the year a resounding success.
Perhaps in some ways the IEP process is full of defeat, but for every defeat there can also be a victory. This year as I left the IEP meeting I set my own goal: I would not dwell on Evan’s limitations — those goals only partially met or not met at all — but on what he had achieved. I would try to meet that goal 80% of the time with minimal assist. If I were to give myself a progress report, I’d say I measured a three out of five. With room for improvement.