When I first wrote about special education at my school last week, I said I would describe what my colleagues and I are doing to try to make special education services better at my school, without any presumption that what we’re doing is definitive, exemplary, or even right.

Now I want to get into specifics. To start, I’ll focus on the information-gathering that happens before we develop a student’s individualized education program, or the document that identifies goals for students with special needs and lays out the support they must get to reach those goals. The IEP is typically drafted by a special education teacher assigned to a student’s case (unless the case is an initial, triennial, or reevaluation, in which case it will be drafted by the school psychologist), who then meets with the parent and modifies it with his or her input.

While gathering as much information as possible before writing an IEP seems like common sense and best practice, and many schools go through this process in some form, I have encountered IEPs seemingly written with little direct knowledge of the child.

That problem could arise because case managers have too little knowledge or training to complete the IEP process adequately. But more often, in my experience, the issue is that the traditional method of information gathering is burdensome and unlikely to yield useful results — so at my school, we have worked to revamp that process.

The conventional way of getting information for IEPs is to solicit “teacher reports” about students’ needs and performance, generally by placing a long, complicated form in teacher’s mailboxes. The teacher checks boxes, fills in academic data from tests, grades, and scribbles in anecdotes from his or her classroom, then resubmits the form to the IEP teacher, school assessment team, or whoever is ultimately responsible for drafting the student’s IEP.

As the special education coordinator, I am responsible for ensuring that an IEP accurately depicts a student’s current performance. Unfortunately, the information provided in a teacher report tends to be thin, not necessarily due to any fault on the teacher’s part, but because of the length and tediousness of the report. But teachers might not fill out the forms in a timely manner, and each teacher completing a report is working in isolation, so it is difficult to get a comprehensive picture of a student’s skills.

In addition, schools face the challenge of meeting compliance dates for a large caseload of students with only limited resources. If IEPs are not written by certain dates, the school’s special education compliance tally — which affects a principal’s rating — will fall. This bureaucratic constraint can have the effect of making teachers’ primary focus the completion of administrative tasks, rather than the creation of a high-quality and accurate IEP.

At first, in an effort to solve some of these problems, I took the simple step of digitizing the process. I created a Google form that dropped teacher information directly into a spreadsheet. While this made the process of gathering information more efficient, and hopefully less time-consuming for teachers, I continued to find the information often so generic as to be unusable. Sometimes, two teachers gave conflicting accounts of the same student and I needed to follow up with them individually.

I took this issue to my eighth-grade team last year, and they generously volunteered to put aside time on a weekly basis for us to discuss students with upcoming IEP meetings.  At first, we structured these meetings as interviews. I asked questions and recorded notes on the same teacher report form that I used to sent out individually to each teacher.

Because we were all at the same table discussing the student, I learned more about students than I would have from reading teachers’ written reports, and the information was more relevant to students’ IEPs.

However, these conversations tended to veer into general anecdotal impressions of behavior in the classroom, rather than provide insight into specific academic challenges students faced.

To make the process more concrete, we began pairing our discussion with an examination of samples of the student’s work. This grounded our conversation in more concrete academic observations, while allowing us to corroborate that information with our anecdotes and observations.

My colleagues and I continue to fine-tune the protocol, which we call our Student Work Analysis Protocol. The process now includes an initial survey of any pieces of assessment data available, such as state test scores over time, psycho-educational evaluations, social histories, reading assessment scores, benchmarks, attendance data, and so on.

We then compare any patterns and trends in the data with our observations of the child in each of our classrooms and content areas. Next, we examine samples of the student’s work. From these observations, we generate goals targeted at student challenges and align those goals to the Common Core standards. Finally, we attempt to generate a team-wide strategy to support the student across each of our classrooms.

This protocol has been implemented in all grade level teams in my school, and because I am present as the district representative at each meeting, I can attest to the positive effect this protocol has had on the quality of our conversations with parents at students’ IEP meetings.

Now, we’re able to share with parents information that has been developed by a core team of the content area teachers who work with their children. The increased accuracy of our collective investigation lends itself to more productive conversations about concrete goals and strategies that will better meet the student’s needs.

While this process is far from perfect (I’ll speak more about why in a future post), it has improved the quality of the IEPs that we develop for our students. You can view the protocol here, and a copy of the Google template here that our team completes for each child during the process of the protocol.

I would love to hear about how educators across the city develop IEPs and get feedback from teachers and parents on how I can make this process more effective at my school. Please share your thoughts in the comments.