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Meaningful Learning (and Good IEPs) Amidst the Learning Standards Movement

By Linda Davern, Roberta Schnorr, Alison Ford, and Merry Staulters

Learning standards have redefined school life for many of today’s public school students, as well as their teachers. One definition of learning standards is “the core of what all people should know, understand and be able to do as a result of their schooling” (New York State Education Department). In many elementary and secondary schools, standards now drive decisions about curriculum and assessment – and therefore are having a significant impact on day-to-day classroom practices. What does this mean for a student with a significant disability?

While learning standards may have benefits for many learners, such as more emphasis on high expectations for all students, team members who serve students who have significant disabilities must plan thoughtfully to maintain a focus on individual outcomes. The following guidelines are offered for consideration as you parent, teach, or advocate for such a student, and join with other team members to design and implement an individual education program.

Maintain a Focus on the Individual Student’s Priorities

While educational priorities for most learners may flow from a broad framework of learning standards, planning for a student with a significant disability may require a more focused starting point. Learning standards must not override the requirement to develop an appropriate individualized educational program for a student. While districts and states are taking different approaches to learning standards (e.g., curricular areas affected by standards, the degree of specificity of the standards), the planning team still needs to consider the question: Which educational outcomes are of highest priority for this individual student?

While the team should discuss links between IEP goals/objectives and learning standards, a “standards only” frame should not be used at the cost of meaningful and relevant outcomes for a student. In other words, IEPs should not become a long list of goals related to every standard, but should offer a clear framework of individual educational priorities. Excellent tools such as Choosing Options and Accommodations for Children (COACH) can be used to guide the identification of priorities (Giangreco, Cloninger & Iverson, 1998). Specific frameworks, such as the following, can be helpful when considering areas of IEP focus for a student with a significant disability (Ford, Davern & Schnorr, 2001, p. 218):

Many states will have standards related to these areas of focus, even though they may use different language to express them. For example, “Language and Literacy” may be linked to English and Language Arts Standards; “Mathematics and Technology” may be linked to Math, Science and Technology; and “Personal/Social Development” may be linked to Career Development standards. In other words, priorities determined by parents, advocates, and school personnel do not need to be sacrificed or diluted due to a state’s or district’s desire to make these links. After individual priorities are determined through IEP planning, the team can discuss how individual goals are connected to broader learning standards.

Ensure Priority Attention for Foundation Skills Development

A helpful way to think about priorities is to consider which skills are foundation skills1. These are:

...skills that open doors for people. They provide the basis for interacting with people and information in a multicultural society, successfully navigating the tasks of living, solving problems, making contributions and doing so within an ethical framework” (Ford, Davern & Schnorr, 2001, p. 217).

Examples of foundation skills include literacy/communication, self-management, and interpersonal skills. Literacy is of particular importance. According to Erickson and Koppenhaver, “People with severe disabilities can learn to read and write. At the very least, they can benefit linguistically, cognitively and communicatively from regular and predictable interactions with others around print” (1995, p. 63). Foundation skills can be addressed through a broad range of activities. Development in these skills is relevant for all students, and may be of particular importance for a student with a significant disability.

The first planning question for the team may be, “Is this a student who will need ongoing formal instruction and support to develop critical foundation skills?” Most learners will acquire many communication, self-management, and interpersonal skills incidentally from experiences in home and family routines without ongoing formal planning or explicit instruction. Many students will acquire literacy skills very early and relatively quickly in their education. However, there will be a very small number of students for whom these foundation skills are central to their education for an extended period of time. Rather than starting with a broad-based “standards” framework for these learners, it may be necessary to determine individual priorities in foundation skills first and then link the priorities to learning standards.

For purposes of discussion, we will consider a hypothetical student, Tyrone, who is a second grader with a significant disability. His educational program is grounded in foundation skill development. As a full member of an inclusive second grade class, Tyrone participates in most of the same instructional and class routines as his second grade classmates. However, the instructional focus for Tyrone throughout those routines is on his IEP priorities in foundation skills areas such as using a communication system, participating in shared activities with peers, following class and school routines, and increasing his independence in personal and health routines (e.g., using the bathroom, mealtimes). While the instructional emphasis for most of the second graders is on literacy standards related to reading and writing independently, one of the central goals for Tyrone is developing and using his communication system. Unlike his peers, he had no functional communication system at the beginning of the school year. This year he has made significant gains using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to respond to and make requests (Frost & Bondy, 2002).

While Tyrone’s priorities may or may not emerge directly from the learning standards which are applicable to his district or state, the teaching team notes logical connections. For example, “English and Language Arts” standards for elementary learners may include “to read, write, listen and speak for understanding.” Therefore, Tyrone’s goals to use PECS to respond to others (listen) and make requests (to speak) are clearly related to some of the broad English and Language Arts standards for all elementary learners.

Because all team members understand and communicate frequently about Tyrone’s IEP priorities in foundation skills, teaching and learning are grounded in outcomes that are most critical for him. The teaching team analyzes daily class routines and ongoing opportunities for Tyrone to practice using his communication system as the focus of his participation. Many of these routines are rich literacy activities where Tyrone, like classmates, is listening to books, working with words (and related symbols) and constructing messages. Teacher-made materials that match his picture communication symbols with print are often utilized within shared activities. Some supplemental activities are planned for Tyrone’s priorities (e.g., occupational therapy, tutoring time with speech/language therapist) which include the participation of some of his classmates.

Tyrone’s individual education program within his second grade class is much more than “being there for socialization” or “partial participation in class routines.” Team members must have a clear focus on the individual student’s priorities and use these to guide daily and weekly instructional planning. For Tyrone, developing identified foundation skills (as opposed to solely “adapting” a broad range of learning standards) will be central to his education. These skills are addressed primarily within rich activities with peers without disabilities, not in a series of separate pull-out activities throughout a fragmented day.

See How Individual Priorities Fit With Standards-Based Activities

Colleges and universities are now beginning to prepare new teachers to acknowledge variation in learner profiles and to see the rich opportunities for learning that can exist within a single educational activity. What may be viewed primarily as a social studies activity can be a vehicle for progress in many areas for any child (e.g., communication/literacy, social skills). This possibility of multiple outcomes being addressed within a single activity is not always readily apparent to teachers who are accustomed to viewing a learning activity through a particular “curricular” lens. When viewed only as a standards-based social studies activity, a class member with a significant disability may be viewed as “failing.” When viewed as a rich class or small group learning activity, team members can learn to recognize (and structure) opportunities for the student with a significant disability to make progress on vital priority skills. Such opportunities are expanded when teachers use highly active and interactive approaches such as cooperative learning, activity-based instruction, and approaches that draw on multiple intelligences. Teaching can be designed to accommodate varied academic and social objectives within a shared activity.

It takes ongoing communication and team planning to build a shared understanding of how individual student priorities can be addressed. Such an understanding needs to be explored continually, in an explicit way with all team members who then actively work on these individual goals, rather than simply hoping they will be achieved. One way to support such team discussion is a tool called a “program-at-a-glance.” This tool was originally proposed by Giangreco, Cloninger, and Iverson in COACH (1998). This tool is a one to two page document on each student who has an IEP. It contains the most essential information on an individual student – with a concise listing of educational priorities. Team members cannot focus on priorities unless they actively carry these priorities around in their day-to-day awareness. A visual reminder is of benefit to busy personnel and can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the team.

Don’t Let Learning Standards Justify Exclusion

As school personnel struggle to align their teaching with standards and new assessments, some families, teachers, and advocates may find that their struggle for meaningful inclusion for a student seems to become more difficult. A climate of “high standards” – and a heightened focus on testing – cannot be used to justify exclusion of a student. Team members may need to be reminded that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) still requires that all students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment. Placement decisions do not require that individual students share the same goals or perform at the same academic levels as classmates – only that they can make progress on their individual goals as defined within the IEP.

Many of the skills a student with a significant disability will learn are not easily measured by standardized assessment procedures. This does not mean that these skills are unimportant or cannot be measured in other ways. Team members may need assurance that the student with a significant disability can be assessed on individual outcomes through alternative assessment procedures. Student achievement information can be gathered through varied means such as videotapes (demonstrating student participation in classroom projects, plays, presentations, debates, experiments) and samples of student work gathered through a portfolio process. Assistive technology can aid teams in documenting student progress.

Students with significant disabilities can learn and grow within inclusive classes throughout the elementary and secondary school years, given appropriate services and supports. Indeed, decades of experience and education research have shaped best educational practices for students who have significant disabilities. These practices continue to emphasize that membership and participation in typical school classes and routines are central to a quality education.

As is sometimes heard in discussions of the standards movement, perhaps it is our schools (administrators and faculty) who need to set higher standards for our own performance – with support from communities in terms of needed resources. As a nation, we still have a ways to go in meeting the standard of educating each child as a valued individual whose membership is unquestioned.

1 Note: We have borrowed the phrase "foundation skills" from the 1991 report from the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). We use this phrase since it seems to capture the essence of setting priorities, but use it in somewhat different ways than used in the SCANS report.


Erickson, K. A., & Koppenhaver, D. A. (1998). Using the “write talk-nology” with Patrick. Teaching Exceptional Children, 31(1), 58-64.

Ford, A., Davern, L., & Schnorr, R. (2001). Learners with significant disabilities: Curricular relevance in an era of standards-based reform. Remedial and Special Education, 22 (4), 214-222.

Frost, L. & Bondy, A. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System training manual (2nd Ed.). Newark, DE: Pyramid Educational Products, Inc.

Giangreco, M., Cloninger, C., & Iverson, V. (1998). Choosing options and accommodations for children (COACH): A guide to planning inclusive education (2nd Ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

New York State Education Department. New York State Learning Standards. Retrieved April 23, 2003 from

Linda Davern is Associate Professor in the Education Division at The Sage Colleges, Troy, New York. She may be reached at 518/244-2277 or Roberta Schnorr is Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, State University of New York, Oswego. She may be reached at 315/312-3107 or Alison Ford is Associate Professor in the Department of Exceptional Education, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She may be reached at 414/229-4750 or Merry Staulters is Assistant Professor in the Education Division at The Sage Colleges, Troy, New York. She may be reached at 518/244-2496 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Vandercook, T., and York-Barr, J. (Eds.). (2003). Impact: Feature Issue on Revisiting Inclusive K-12 Education, 16(1) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 580 K, 32 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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