Building An Effective IEP for Your School

How school leaders can help to improve the quality of education for students receiving special education.

By Mark Paige
December 2017, Volume 41, Issue 4

I just returned from an education law conference in San Diego. The weather, of course, was gorgeous; those nice sunny days are truly appreciated, especially as the cold temperatures set in here in New England, where I live.But what I most appreciated about this conference was the opportunity to sit down and talk with school law attorneys and professors about significant legal issues facing public school leaders, including principals. One issue that continuously arose was the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent Endrew F. ruling issued in March of 2017. To the “school law nerd” set, which includes folks like me, the Endrew case is important because the Supreme Court had not touched the central issue in the case (see below) in decades.

Of course, the case is also important to school principals. As building leaders, principals oversee special education staff and may run IEP meetings as the district representative. Because of this, I thought it would be helpful to discuss this case and, importantly, ways it may help you improve the quality of education for your students receiving special education.


The Endrew Case Background

Endrew (who had autism) had an IEP in his school from preschool through fourth grade. By fourth grade, his parents believed that his progress had stalled. The school district proposed an IEP for fifth grade that essentially resembled the prior years. The parents rejected the IEP believing it simply mirrored the past years. They sent Endrew to a private school. At Firefly, Endrew flourished under an educational program that incorporated ambitious goals and behavioral supports.

While Endrew was at Firefly, the school district, once again, presented the parents with a new IEP. That IEP largely resembled the past IEP they proposed, and did not incorporate the features of the educational programming from the Firefly School. The parents rejected it and sought a remedy in federal court.

The legal issue centered around the adequacy of the IEP. The district believed an IEP that was designed to provide some minimal progress (as opposed to none) was satisfactory. However, the Supreme Court disagreed. Instead, it held that an IEP is adequate if–and this significant–it is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

How does Endrew impact you, the building principal?

So, what does this new standard mean for you, a school leader? Some might say that the special education delivery is the responsibility of the special education staff and you’ll leave it to the “experts.”

That is a mistake. To begin with, as the principal, you are the legal leader of your and the proverbial “buck stops” with you regarding many important educational decisions and how your personnel (i.e., special education teachers, case managers, and others) approach special education matters that arise in your school. Thus, here are a few “practical” tips that may enhance your application of the Endrew standard in your building.

Tips to use Endrew to improve special education

1. IEPs are unique to the child. At its core, the Supreme Court’s decision demands that each IEP meeting focus on the individual child’s needs and potential. It is worth repeating that the Court’s standard requires an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.” IEPs are developed on a case-by-case basis. The days of “cut and paste” IEPs are over.

2. Approach Endrew as a win for both parents and schools. Parents may perceive Endrew as a victory for them and a loss for “schools” which would be counterproductive. To begin with, that only perpetuates a divisive “parent vs. school” narrative. As a building leader, encourage the view that Endrew as a victory for all stakeholders. For parents, the decision requires heightened attention on the individual child’s needs and capacities. For school officials, it requires educators to apply their years of accumulated training and experience (both formal and informal) to crafting meaningful IEPs unique to the child’s needs. Indeed, school officials have a great degree of expertise that they can – and must – bring to the table for the benefit of the child. These are good things for everyone.

3. Take parental input seriously. Unfortunately, in my practice I have seen instances where school officials believe “special education” decisions are best made by the special education “experts.” The district in Endrew made this mistake when they essentially refused to adopt some of the modalities that had proven successful at Endrew’s private school. Not only was that poor form, but increased the district’s legal risk exposure. To be sure, Endrew does not require schools to adopt every parental recommendation (it requires a “reasonable calculation” which suggests that there is room for multiple views). But dismissing parental input is problematic.


As a building principal, it might be convenient to say that special education is handled by the special education folks. To some extent, that is accurate. Yet you, as the building leader, have an ethical and legal responsibility relative to special education, too. Use the Endrew decision to continue to fulfill those duties.

Mark Paige is an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

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