IEPs (and finding time to write them)

As New York teachers well know, IEPs are the legal documents that justify and lay out services for students with disabilities. They’re necessary, no doubt about it. But as special education teachers, IEP Teachers, and various related service providers also well know, the paperwork involved in writing and keeping track of IEPs can be so time consuming that educators are left with precious little time to actually implement them. Many of us blame SEISIS or the IEP itself for resulting workload issues. But despite some annoying redundancies in the paperwork system, the real source of our IEP woes lies in (1) the failure of a critical mass of school administrations to respect the time of special education providers; and (2) the failure of our union to clearly negotiate contractual language that would give us a basis for a remedy. In this post, I’ll go over the language we do have to go on, and some possible solutions.

The Direct Language

There is one place in the contract that, in theory, directly gives special education teachers time to write IEPs. That place is here: “IEP/special education teachers shall be programmed for a specific number of periods (minimum of 5 per week) for (i) preparing for and attending the IEP meetings of children initially referred to special education, and (ii) coverage of other special education teachers’ classes so that they may attend the IEP meetings for their students for requested reevaluations and triennial evaluations…” This language is often more than enough to convince principals that special educators deserve one period a day (usually their C6) to work on IEPs. But, some principals will argue that this language was actually only intended for IEP teachers. Of course, while the language does start with IEP teachers, it also includes special education teachers. The popularity of the less generous interpretation (IEP time only for IEP teachers) is compounded by odd language that bases this IEP time only on students who are ‘initially referred to special education.’ But, SPED and IEP teachers in higher grades rarely work on initial referrals either, so those special circumstances again seem like a red herring. My recommendation in future bargaining sessions would be to change the language to more clearly demarcate designated periods of IEP-writing time for any special education provider with an IEP-writing caseload, and add ‘annual reviews’ to that language. That way issues can be cleared up in consultation and not have to be interpreted by arbitrators down the line.

IEP-writing as a C6

The most common place that IEP-writing time is given, when it is given, is as a Circular 6 (C6). Indeed, IEP-writing is a valid C6 menu item, based on another oddly worded contract section, specifically the wording of menu item 4: “Perform student assessment activities (including portfolios, performance tests, IEPs, ECLAS, etc.).” If special education teachers automatically received ‘IEP writing’ as their C6 assignment, many IEP workload issues would likely be resolved. But, increasingly, principals want to use this time for other things (often, advisory, which UFTers should remember must be SBOd if it’s a C6). Chapter leaders and consultation committees therefore should push to get IEP time designated for special education teachers as a C6, unless some other period is already carved out of the workday for IEP writing. Alternatively, chapters can push for ‘coplanning time’ as the C6. As long as this time isn’t micromanaged, a coplanning C6 period effectively doubles the prep time of SPED teachers. It allows them to ‘prep’ during their C6 and write IEPs during their normal prep. For technical reasons, I theoretically prefer when the C6 is IEP writing rather than coplanning, mainly because the former designation preserves the precedent that IEP work is done during professional time (rather than the prep). In practice, though, I usually find it better for non-micromanaged coplanning to be the C6. Some chapters split the difference and do an SBO to split the C6 between coplanning and IEP writing, especially if caseloads are decent. That also works. (Just whatever you do, don’t use an SBO to split the C6 to something other than IEP writing or coplanning unless you work in IEP caseload limits).

The Workday and the Workweek

The above strategy, getting SPED teachers 5 periods a week of IEP-writing time via designating the C6 as either IEP time or coplanning time, works most of the time. However, even if principals did always assign SPED teachers with one of those C6 menu items (and they definitely don’t), it wouldn’t be enough. That’s because some SPED teachers don’t have a C6. SPED teachers with comp-time positions and SPED teachers who are chapter leaders therefore need recognition of other contractual language–such as designated IEP time in general or otherwise–in order to get time during the workday to write IEPs.

For me, the best catch-all precedent for ensuring this is simply by acknowledging our contract’s most powerful precedent of all: the workday is the workday. Principals cannot assign homework to teachers. If you are given an IEP caseload, but no time to do it, then the contract is inherently being violated. Some principals don’t understand that. Others do, but still don’t want to budge on C6 time. In those situations, what principals often do is allow IEP-writing special education teachers to take time off from instruction to sit and write IEPs. This practice is extremely common. It’s fair enough in a pinch, but it’s not a good best practice, especially if it’s done all the time. That’s because if a SPED teacher is removed frequently from class to write IEPs, then students are systematically being denied their legally mandated services. That’s a travesty of justice for the students with IEPs – teachers not giving them services because they’re writing the paperwork needed to justify their services. It could lead to a special education complaint and all sorts of bureaucratic oversight by the City or State, and is a major reason why in the end it is better for administrations to find a way to give SPED teachers designated IEP writing time that doesn’t eat into instructional time. Again, this should be done during the C6 or another non-teaching professional period carved out of the workday. It can also be supplemented by per session postings if teachers agree to take that on.

The Road Forward

Principals, and indeed the DOE at large, should want teachers to have time to write their IEPs. For one thing, that’s the only way to ensure that paperwork is done and schools are in compliance. But for another–far more important–reason, IEP time is necessary because, if teachers are pulled from class to write IEPs, they won’t be there to actually help the students with IEPs. Alternatively, if teachers only have their prep periods to write IEPs, they won’t have time to design differentiated instruction or assess the educational progress of students with IEPs. They’ll be spread too thin to do the jobs they were hired to do in the first place. IEP-time, in other words, is one of the many situations where what is good for teachers is also what is good for the kids. It’s a no brainer to give teachers IEP time, and yet present but unclear contractual language makes it difficult for chapters to advocate for it. This next contract, let’s change that by making the language clear. It’s time that teachers have the time they need to ensure that their students actually get the services designated in their IEP.

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