IEP’s, Tools and Timesavers

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

It’s impossible to believe we are approaching mid-school year, a time of assessment, review and renewal. If you’ve made any resolutions, and are the type of person that keeps them, please comment on this blog with tips for the hopelessly resolution-challenged. I make really great ones. Keeping them?? Not so much.

hands filing

In my last blog, I touched on IEP (Individual Education Plan) management as it relates to parents and their wishes. There’s a fine line between being helpful and caving in to unrealistic demands in the form of additions to the legal document we know and love, called “The IEP”.

The IEP (Individual Education Plan) is a critical part of a special student’s dossier. It was introduced during the implementation of Public Law 94-142 many years ago. I have seen IEP’s that are so badly written that they only muddy the waters for the student, and are used as a device to placate over-involved parents.

There are some tips and tricks to writing a good IEP. Keep in mind that a good IEP is crafted by many people, all of whom are involved in the academic life of a special needs child. Ultimately though, it is a legal contract, a binding agreement between a special needs child’s parents and family, and the school district.

Lately, there has been a great deal of interest in using RTI (Response to Intervention) strategies to help prevent premature referrals to the Special Education bureaucracy in any given school district. I agree that a good program can help to bring everyone together in a tiered instruction model, and that it is in the best interest of students to provide interventions, especially for behavior management- the root of all evil in the classroom. Teachers need special training to become masters of behavior management. The single best resource to help teachers in that area is:

                “Pre-Referral Intervention Manual”, Hawthorne Educational Resources, Third Edition, Stephen B. McCarney, Ed.D

This manual provides teachers with strategies and checklists to help manage the most troublesome behaviors that are present in the classroom; the activities some students invent to make us all crazy. You need to be armed and ready.

I have brought together some resources in this blog that can help save you time and aggravation as you prepare IEP’s for review in 2014.

  • Wrightslaw: the best one stop website for the development of IEP’s. It reminds teachers of the legal aspects of the document, its history, and its use as a tool in a well-defined plan for managing the education of a special needs child?
  • IEP Direct: reviews and guides to state-specific IEP regulations, what happens in New Jersey may not apply in New York.
  • SPEDAssist: a review of IEP preparation software programs, comparison of commercial products. These products have come a long way, and you would be wise to work with your district leaders to invest in one of them. It will help you develop consistent goals and objects.
  • For Parents: A guide to working through the SPED IEP process.
  • For Teachers: Writing great IEP goals that are clear and enforceable. National Association of Special Education Teachers.
  • Administrators: Managing the IEP process.
  • Annotated bibliography of SPED resources.

In the end, like anything else in education, managing your paperwork for your special education students is about building relationships with concerned parties, all of them. It can’t be done in isolation; many schools develop pre-meeting focus groups so that consistent policies and procedures can be implemented.

Add to this list, we all work best when we work together.

Don’t be silent, comment on this post, what do you think, do you have tips for teachers when it comes time to reveiw IEP’s? Let us know.


Grant Name: Foundation Grants

Funded By: Flextronics Foundation

Description:  The Flextronics Foundation sponsors educational programs and other charitable activities where Flextronics employees volunteer their time. We focus our efforts on those organizations distributing funds toward programs that benefit students with socioeconomic issues, learning disabilities or handicaps. We support academic programs in areas related to electronics manufacturing, and the betterment of disadvantaged students.

Program Areas:   After-School, At-Risk/Character, Disabilities, Early Childhood, General Education, Math, Reading, Safe/Drug Free Schools, Science/Environmental, Social Studies, Special Education, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)

Eligibility:  Public School, Private School, Higher Education, Other

Proposal Deadline:  3/1/2014

Annual Total Amount: $100,000.00 – $900,000.00

Average Amount:  $2,000.00 – $50,000.00

Address: 847 Gibraltar Drive, Milpitas, CA 95035

Telephone: 408-576-7528

Website: Flextronics Foundation

Availability:  All States

UDL: Universal Design for Learning

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

UDL or Universal Design for Learning has become a buzz concept in recent years. I used to be skeptical of jumping on bandwagons and endorsing new ways to look at old problems. The new ideas usually come with expensive professional development and school supplies, books, software, you name it. One of the things I like about the UDL buzz, it is really a useful concept and way of looking at schools and curriculum development without spending much money to make learning available to all students.

UDL comes to us from the CAST organization.

From their website I pulled this nice concise definition:

“What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

This is the idea of least restrictive learning environment taken to a whole new level. If you think about accommodations schools have made over the years at the behest of federal law such as architectural changes for wheelchairs, etc. it really just makes sense. It is time now to move the accommodation focus to curriculum development.

If you have children in your classroom that are hard of hearing, doesn’t it make sense to look at your room and work to maximize your acoustics? This would benefit all children not just the ones with the disability. Partially because of UDL, the notion of outfitting classrooms with sound systems has taken off. A minor investment in speakers and projection equipment will open up that 25% of what you say that never gets heard to the ears of all.

A new thrust in the teaching of reading is developing leveled reading libraries (read Fountas and Pinnell) for school and classroom libraries, it has become standard procedure. In the old days we’d take students to the library and let them loose among the shelves to pick out a book. Now, we can quickly assess student reading levels (lexiles), share this level information with students so they will know which books in the library are the most appropriate for them. It sounds pretty basic, but UDL has caused us all to step back and take a closer look at the way we communicate this information to children.

Within the resources defined by CAST for developing UDL classrooms, you will want to offer ways of customizing the display of information in the classroom.

Within this consideration:

  • How does this help learners meet the goal?
  • How does this account for the variability of all learners?
  • Can learners customize the display?

We concentrate on goals and objectives, really stop and think about learning styles and empower students to customize the learning environment for themselves, to make learning more accessible.

Then, on the CAST site, teachers write and talk about ways they have altered displays in their schools with UDL in mind.

Other considerations might be:

1.3: Offer alternatives for visual information

2.3: Support decoding of text, mathematical notation, and symbols

4.1: Vary the methods for response and navigation

4.2: Optimize access to tools and assistive technologies

With the Internet as our best tool, we can all share ways we do things every day that help us integrate all students within a single learning environment. We’ll really provide the least restrictive learning situation in our own classrooms.

Don’t be silent, comment on this blog, what do you think, does your district embrace the ideas of UDL?


Grant Name:  USGA Alliance Grants

Funded By:  National Alliance for Accessible Golf

Description:  Grants support organizations which provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities to learn and enjoy the game of golf and its inherent values. The Alliance and the USGA share the belief that the game of golf is exceptionally well-suited to allow individuals with disabilities to participate in a recreational or competitive activity with participants who have various types of disabilities as well as those who do not have disabilities. We encourage inclusive programming – opportunities that allow participants with disabilities and participants without disabilities to learn and play the game side by side.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, Health/PE

Eligibility:  Public School, Other

Proposal Deadline:  Ongoing

Average Amount:  $1,000.00 – $20,000.00

Teacher Evaluation, Should SPED Teachers be Held to a Different Standard?

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

Last time we talked about summative assessment, the cumulative, usually annual, measures of student achievement. The annual part of the bargain seems to be changing, there may now be semi-annual online exams in some states, but the focus of this blog has been student evaluation over the past few weeks.

A larger issue, still evolving at the state and district levels, is teacher evaluation. The climate of paranoia over how we will all be evaluated as teachers has risen to a fever pitch. The main scary point has been the drive by education reformers to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement test scores. We all know the picture has only started to become clear for the assessment of special education teachers and students. Some of the biggest questions like “how can we hold special education students to the same standards as ‘regular'” kids are being asked and debated nationally.

We have learned to write specific IEP’s to try to use existing laws to our advantage while protecting our students from unreasonable testing requirements. We are actively aligning our curricula to Common Core State Standards and hope the process will be informative.

But what about the teachers? If we haven’t really ironed out student evaluation issues for special education, how are we going to fairly evaluate teachers? We all want to know how we are doing as we are compared to our peers in SPED classrooms.

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has written some guiding essays to help us understand these complex questions. CEC’s ESEA (NCLB) Reauthorization Recommendations document has been crafted over the past 4-5 years by committees and focus groups entrusted with the task of sorting it all out. It does an excellent job of reminding us that it is possible to reconcile the missions of ESEA and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). CEC believes that blending the strengths of both IDEA and ESEA will result in policies that directly address the challenges confronting the education community. They stress everyone’s desire to create and nurture a highly qualified teaching staff to manage increasingly complex student needs.

What about our teachers? How can we measure their effectiveness in the classroom? Teaching is part science mixed with a big dash of art. The older I get, and the more truly gifted teachers I observe, the more the art part comes into focus. You know a good teacher when you see one; you feel it in the electricity in the classroom and the bright eyes of the students. Really great teachers manage their classrooms brilliantly and effortlessly to manage challenging behaviors so learning can occur uninterrupted. With a flick of a wrist and a raised index finger, you can watch 25 students suddenly shush and sit up straight with hands folded on the desks (how the heck did she do that?) It’s all about expectations, and consistent messaging from day one of each school year. The children eat it up, and prefer an organized classroom to “creative chaos.”

To address questions being asked by educators the CEC drafted “CEC Position Statement on Special Education Teacher Evaluation” I urge you to read it thoroughly because it is a sensitive approach to all teacher evaluation.

They took another step and crafted “CEC’s Special Education Teacher Evaluation Toolkit“. It helps us understand some of the more practical aspects of the process. Basically their message is that all teachers must participate in the planning process for implementing teacher evaluation systems. All evaluation systems must occur as a system, over time, with scheduled monitoring and a diverse collection of tools, not relying on any one measure to judge the merit of a teacher’s efforts.

Other discussions to get you started on the road to understanding directions we will all take in the years to come:

Huffington Post article

ERIC National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality”


“Education Week Blog”

Don’t be silent, comment on this blog, what do you think, how will your district approach evaluations for special education teachers?


Grant Name:  Foundation Grant

Funded By:  Patterson Foundation

Description: The foundation provides resources to programs and to nonprofit organizations in the areas of oral health, animal health, and occupational and physical rehabilitation. Funds are granted for: Health and Human Services programs related to the focus areas that benefit economically disadvantaged people or youth with special needs; and education as it relates to the focus areas, especially programs that increase the number of underrepresented people in the dental, veterinary, occupational health and physical health fields.

Program Areas:   At-Risk/Character, Community Involvement/Volunteerism, Disabilities, Early Childhood, Family Services, General Education, Health/PE

Eligibility:  Public School, Private School, Higher Education, Other

Proposal Deadline:  Ongoing

Annual Total Amount: $500,000.00 – $800,000.00

Average Amount:  $5,000.00 – $75,000.00

Telephone:  651-686-1929


Website:  Patterson Foundation

Availability:  All States

Summative Assessment, an Unfair Imposition on Special Ed Kids?

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

Last time we talked about formative assessment, the daily measures of student
understanding we all use to stay on track. But what about summative assessment,
the (usually) annual state academic achievement tests imposed on all students?
The annual part of the bargain seems to be changing, there may now be
semi-annual online exams in some states. We can only hope school districts are
up to speed with their computer networks. There are alternative ways for
students to take exams if computers are outmoded but it’s just one more thing
for teachers to worry about.

question mark

In general, are the accommodations we write into our students’ IEPs sufficient in providing fair assessment to measure how we are progressing with students with disabilities? When IEPs are written in the fall, do we know enough about our students to include the right assists for exams being administered in the spring? Fairness for our kids is a complex and thorny issue. Lynn and Douglas Fuchs have written a thoughtful article on the subject of fair and unfair accommodations for testing.

In Massachusetts, there is an MCAS-Alt exam.

“MCAS is designed to measure a student’s knowledge of key concepts and skills outlined in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. A small number of students with the most significant disabilities who are unable to take the standard MCAS tests even with accommodations participate in the MCAS Alternate Assessment (MCAS-Alt). MCAS-Alt consists of a portfolio of specific materials collected annually by the teacher and student. Evidence for the portfolio may include work samples, instructional data, videotapes, and other supporting information.” Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 10/18/2013.

All states have devised similar systems for assessing our kids each year. Many resources have been devoted to solving system challenges and as far as it goes the alternative assessments provide useful information. But, shouldn’t there be a point at which severely disabled students are released from having to take these exams, a “test-free zone”?  How and where do you draw the line? Many minds sharper than mine have struggled with these questions for many years.

Resources for portfolio assessment.  ~  Authentic Assessment

This is not all academic; teachers should be involved in the politics of measuring student achievement. It’s fair to say that you, the classroom practitioner, should be involved at the highest levels in making decisions about who should be tested.

A school district (or teacher) could write and apply for a grant to bring in staff development specialists to assist a school assessment committee. It all becomes more complicated as we migrate to new Common Core State Standards. How do we align our curricula in resource rooms and substantially separate classrooms? We’ve got work to do. You can search for grants that are available to schools for this purpose at the Grants Database.

In a blog like this, I have the luxury of just tossing the questions out there. It’s up to governments and state leaders to come up with the answers. Get involved though, start with your own building, pull together some teachers with similar questions, do some research on who provides quality staff development in assessment and come up with ways to bring these folks to your school. Develop a grant funded long range plan to work through your district policies on assessment for special ed kids.

Stay abreast of the issues and become part of the solution in solving the thornier issues you find.

Comment on this blog, what do you think, how does your district approach testing for students with disabilities?

Grant Name: Foundation Grants

Funded By:  Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation

Description:  Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) supports innovative projects that help youth with disabilities develop the leadership and employment skills they need to succeed, particularly for careers in science, technology and the environment. MEAF will also consider projects to create tools that help break down barriers to employment and increase job opportunities for young people with disabilities entering the workforce, including returning veterans with disabilities.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, General Education, Professional Development, Science/Environmental, Special Education, Technology, Vocational

Eligibility:  Public School, Private School, Higher Education, Other

Proposal Deadline:  6/1/2014

Annual Total Amount: $400,000.00

Average Amount:  $1,000.00 – $10,000.00

Telephone:  703-276-8240

Website:  Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation

Availability:  All States

It’s the Little Things That Count – Creating an Inclusive Classroom with the HighScope® Curriculum

This post is authored by Francine Towbridge, Account Manager at Achievement Products® for Special Needs.


This year I had the pleasure of attending the HighScope® International Conference in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The workshops were informative and enlightening. I especially enjoyed chatting with teachers who were excited and ready to learn new teaching strategies. Today, many preschools programs include children with special needs. Therefore, some teachers were particularly concerned about how to implement the HighScope® approach in an inclusive setting.

I attended two excellent workshops that addressed this topic:

  • A Preschool Class with a Special Approach: Plan-Do-Review in Inclusion Classrooms
  • Making HighScope® Work for Children on the Autism Spectrum

We all know that the goal of inclusion, is to create a warm environment that encourages positive interactions, and learning for students regardless of their ability level. I learned in the workshops that accomplishing this goal need not be a “Herculean” task!    

UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Coach Wooden won ten NCAA national championships, was named the national coach of the year six times, and his philosophy was based on teamwork. The workshops taught educators that changing a few “little details” in your HighScope® classroom and collaborating daily with your team will help you achieve the goals you have for your students.

Some of the strategies I learned in the workshops:

  • Focus on what the child can do! Current teaching practices in the field of special education are often based on correcting children’s “deficits.” If we make a little adjustment in attitude, we can start focusing on the child’s strengths and interests.
  • Special needs students are eager to learn. Meet them at their level. Give them opportunities to make choices by having a variety of learning materials available.
  •  Be consistent. A consistent but flexible daily routine gives children a sense of control and promotes independence.
  • Incorporate the students’ IEP goals into your daily routine. Small group time can be used to accomplish IEP objectives.
  • Use visual cues and photos for children with autism; this helps them interpret information. Some preschoolers can follow verbal requests, such as “Let’s put the blocks away.” However, children with autism may also need a visual cue for clean up time, such as a flicker of the lights or a photo of cleanup time. You can also create a visual representation of the daily routine and use pictures for planning and recall time.
  •  Be patient and positive. Allow extra time for the children to complete tasks and respond to a question. A warm classroom environment can lead to increased academic achievement and a sense of belonging.

After the workshops were over, many teachers lingered to ask the presenters questions, take handouts and the free visual aids. To me, this was a clear indication that the teachers were inspired to go back to their classrooms, tweak a few vital details and make big things happen with their little learners. I hope you will too!

Special Education Teachers – Unique Professional Journeys

teacher time

As a young teacher, I took great pride in my choice to become a special education teacher. My early assignments were in resource rooms where students came to me with many different challenges. In those days, we still used words like “retardation” to label and describe low functioning students (my age is showing). My specialty was Learning Disabilities and all the variations in learning styles that “LD” evoked. It takes great stamina and a special balance between caring and strictness with students to be a really great SPED teacher. I excelled in the first, failed miserably in the second. It happens often in classrooms, teachers step over an invisible line to become a friend. It’s not what they need. Fortunately, I knew this and worked hard to get training in classroom management techniques that proved very helpful in sorting out these priorities.

I was always struck by how often SPED referrals were generated by discipline and behavior problems that teachers couldn’t handle in the regular classroom. It’s actually still a big problem in schools, students are referred for the wrong reasons, clogging the system and costing money to evaluate and assign (or not). We need to find a way to support new teachers to help them with classroom management skills. I’ve seen referrals “go away” once a teacher is guided to find in-class solutions to tricky behaviors. RTI (Response to Intervention) shows great promise in providing whole building solutions to these problems.

After many years, I became aware of new technologies that showed promise for remediation of reading and math disabilities. I shifted my focus from working with slow and reading impaired students, to finding technologies that could be implemented in the classroom for real learning success. Our kids were responding so favorably to computers and certain learning software. I went back to school and received a master’s degree in library science with a concentration in technology integration. I never looked back.

I tell a personal story because it’s unique; all special education teachers arrive at their choices of classrooms in their own way and time. Administrators are often just grateful to have specialists on their staff to handle tough behaviors by keeping kids quiet and learning in a classroom.

These days, it’s tempting to plug a student into a computerized solution if nothing else is working. All the IEP’s and core meetings in the world can’t fix some of the problems we are seeing in society and families that impact student learning. There are solutions “in the cloud” that show promise, distance learning opportunities where a student may have an online mentor to guide them through tricky math and reading assignments. There’s something attractive about this online presence, non-judgmental and private. The student isn’t embarrassed to reveal his deficiencies in as glaring a way as he might in the traditional classroom environment. The opportunities are there to explore, the danger lies in keeping rigor in the quality of instruction that is provided.

Another thing I learned during my first 15 years in education was that many principals, especially old-school principals, are not good at supporting their teachers.  There needs to be a whole building effort to construct a special education program that provides support for students, but also can be pointed to for best practices in regular classrooms.

The law says we are supposed to provide the least restrictive environment for all students, removing kids from classrooms and placing them in resource rooms for at least part of the day provides an “escape-valve” for kids who just need some extra support. Today, with all the great possibilities that technology may provide, we need to work in teams to make informed decisions about educational methods and materials.

I see a grant writing solution for everything these days. In the case of special education, it might just be wise to seek some funds for a process of reflection. Professional development grants are fairly easy to get, grantors like to think their support is changing school culture in fundamental ways, and the best way is to train teachers to work together for improvement of instruction throughout the school community.

Baker & Taylor/YALSA Conference Educational Grants from American Library Association. This grant is funded by the Baker and Taylor Company. The two grants of $1,000 each are awarded to librarians who work directly with young adults in either a public or school library to enable them to attend the Annual Conference for the first time. Applications must be received in the YALSA office by December 1.

States: All states
Average amount: $1000.00
Address: American Library Association, 50 E Huron, Chicago, IL 60611
Telephone: 800-545-2433 ext 4387
Website: click here
Eligibility: public school, other
Program funded: library, professional development
Deadline to apply: 12/1/2013
Deadline comments: December 1 is the annual deadline