IEP goals: how high should they reach?

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” -Michelangelo

backtoschool letters smallerSadly, this sums up the school experience of too many special education students.  The greater the disability, the lower the aim set by educators in our students’ individual education plans.  There’s a secret incentive for the aim to be low.  The aim is not low because educators don’t care about our students, but because state and federal agencies measure schools by how well students reach their goals.  The more goals reached, the better the school scores – but that does not necessarily translate into a success for the individual student if the goal was too low to begin with.  Schools have an incentive to set the goal they expect a student can reach, rather than the goal the student should reach.

It’s good that educational goals must be individually determined for kids with developmental disabilities, because every child has a very individual set of abilities.  Individual goals, though, make it difficult to tell at a glance if the expectations for these children are being set at the right level, because there is no universally appropriate baseline to measure against.   In practice, schools tend to set goals that they feel confident can be met.  While the conversation at the ARD meeting may revolve around an “ideal” goal, what gets set down in writing is often only a small step forward, so there will be a “success” in the student’s file.

It is, of course, hard to know how fast or far a child with a developmental delay will progress.  This means there is an element of guesswork in choosing goals, especially at younger ages when the severity of the disability may not yet be clear.  The difficulty in determining in advance how far the child might go is can be remedied by regular review of the progress.  Parent’s must be watching and asking questions to make sure their children are being challenged and pushed.  When a child reaches a goal, modify the IEP to set a NEW goal right then, rather than waiting until the next yearly IEP meeting.

The US Supreme Court decision in Endrew F. V. Douglas County School District just this past spring is a significant win for special education students – it says that schools must set appropriately challenging expectations for students, in other words, they must, to paraphrase the Court, push them to be all that they can be.   Parents, your job is to push your child’s school and teachers to meet that goal.