A Guide for Special Education Directors: Planning for Ambitious, Data-Driven, and Measurable IEPs

New Standards in Special Education Series: Being Compliant Isn’t Enough – How to Prepare Your District for the Increasing Responsibility to Improve Student Outcomes

Author: Matthew Korobkin, Senior Advisor – PCG and Nicole Heid, Senior Program Manager – PCG

In most school districts, the Special Education Director (or Director of Pupil Personnel Services) has compliance oversight of the district’s Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Child Study teams, under the supervision of their directors and supervisors, are ultimately responsible for making sure that every IEP addresses “the unique needs of the child that results from the child’s disability” – in other words, that the IEP is ambitious, data-driven, and measurable.

In our experience, we have identified the following four indicators that encourage the planning for ambitious, data-driven, and measurable IEPs:

(1) a “common language” around special education operational practices;
(2) an effective IEP case management system;
(3) consistent structures for effective staff and parent training;
(4) a district-wide growth mindset.

In our previous posts in this series, we discussed recent policy changes that are prompting school districts to take a fresh look at how they are crafting IEP goals— “the why” that is driving a renewed focus on student outcomes. We also provided some concrete steps on creating data-informed Present Levels of Academic and Functional Performance (PLAFP) statements and standards-based, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) IEP goals— “the what” around which specific areas of the IEP require special attention. In this post, we’ll build on these concepts and talk about the four indicators that are essential to “the how” in planning for the successful creation of ambitious, data-driven, and measurable IEPs.

A Common Language

Special education departments sometimes struggle with implementing consistent, districtwide practices in IEP creation. One reason is that districts may not have operating practices in writing. Or the existing written practices may be incomplete, out of date, in pieces and not widely shared. These issues present vexing challenges to a Special Education Director whose job is to assure that IEPs are consistently well written.

To plan for the successful creation of IEPs, one of the most important and often overlooked tools is a special education standard operating procedure manual (SOPM). Leverage your district’s SOPM as a “common language” to drive quality, compliance, and student outcomes, and offer staff a step-by-step “how-to guide” on policies and procedures that impact special education.

An SOPM is intended to be used among district staff, administration, and community stakeholders. It can serve as a resource for decisions relating to a child’s special education program, including but not limited to identification; subsequent evaluation(s); classification; development and review of a child’s IEP; educational placement of a child; annual IEP Meetings; triennial reevaluations; accommodations protocols; and assistive technology procurement and service delivery protocols.

An SOPM can provide clear definitions about district practices. This is the place to define what a well written PLAFP should look like; how Standards-Based and SMART IEP goals should be written; and how progress monitoring must be conducted. In addition, the SOPM should be highly accessible and in a format that is easy to navigate. We also recommend you put this “common language” online, in a place where staff as well as families can find it.

An Effective IEP Case Management System

An IEP case management system supports educators in more effectively monitoring student success by tracking progress on IEP goals. It prompts school personnel to design goals that are measurable and to display quantifiable data regarding the progress towards such goals. This ultimately helps to inform classroom instruction and serves as a tool to make instructional decisions.

We recommend that you leverage a flexible, web-based IEP system that approaches the IEP writing process step-by-step, versus “fill-in-the-blanks.” A process-driven system, buttressed by state and federal regulations, can also support compliance by alerting educators when something is amiss. Keeping these step-by-step processes in mind, we also recommend that you write your district’s SOPM in a manner that mirrors your district’s IEP case management approach.

Consistent Training

Staff Training
When you have a well-written SOPM and you are leveraging a flexible IEP case-management system, annual “sit-and-get” trainings on this “common language” can ensure that all staff have reviewed the document. Some districts offer their SOPM trainings at the beginning of the school year. These trainings can be customized to meet the needs of your staff. For example, some districts require that all teachers attend an annual PLAFP writing course. In addition, some districts require that new special education teachers take an intensive SOPM course; whereas veteran teachers have to take a refresher course.

It is also essential to build the capacity of Child Study teams and special education teachers as effective goal writers. One way of accomplishing this is through job-embedded coaching – which involves supervising staff during the creation of IEPs and evaluating how they engage in the process. Another way to ensure that IEP teams are fully trained on the process of IEP writing is by engaging in case studies during designated Professional Learning Community (PLC) times. Having team members take ownership can ensure buy-in and personalize the experience. This practice further promotes that staff are developing common understandings by using practical examples.

Parent Training
In addition to training staff, it is important to bring parents into the process. As members of the IEP team, it is important that parents understand the purpose and measurement of IEP goals and objectives. Holding parent nights, hosting “lunch and learns,” or leveraging mandated Special Education Parent Advisory Groups (SEPAGs) to share information about the creation of IEPs builds trust with parents, fosters transparency, and can reduce misunderstandings that sometimes occur during IEP meetings.

Growth Mindset

We sometimes hear the following in regard to IEP writing: “This is merely a compliance exercise. It does not drive student outcomes.” When that mindset permeates an IEP team, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People often have “fixed” or “growth” mindsets about intelligence, abilities, and talents. Mindsets are reinforced by the culture of the organization in which one works. A district and IEP team’s mindset can make the difference between an IEP that provides minimal student benefit versus one that is ambitious. It can also make the difference between district special education programming that is merely compliant versus programming that is focused on individual student outcomes, results, and students’ livelihoods. The IEP can serve as a powerful tool to set ambitious goals and subsequently monitor student progress. It should be used as one tool, among many, to support student learning.

As a special education director, it is important to cultivate the idea that all students can achieve at high levels, regardless of their disability. Creating an unrelenting expectation for instruction will clearly communicate to schools and the broader community that a key focus of your district’s special education department is to ensure that students with disabilities make significant progress, to the extent possible, in the general education curriculum; receive rigorous standards-aligned instruction; and experience the high-quality delivery of interventions, differentiation, modifications, and specially designed instruction in every class.

The mindset of a district needs to be inclusive of all departments from the top down. Therefore, it is essential that directors and supervisors of special education are proactive in collaborating with district administration in every department. Special Education Departments are not on an island by themselves. Operationally, be clear about the role of the central office in supporting the learning of students receiving special education. The central office’s role is to provide adequate resources, clear guidance, and professional development, and support schools in the consistent and effective implementation of programs and services. Ensuring that the district values and goals are aligned with a culture of high expectations and measurable data for ALL learners is essential to impacting change at the department level.


When there is a districtwide “common language” around special education operating procedures, Special Education Directors can set clear expectations around the creation of high quality IEPs. Coupled with a high quality IEP case management system, consistent structures for effective staff and parent training, and a growth mindset, special education directors can effectively plan for the creation of ambitious, data-driven, and measurable IEPs.

About the Authors

Matthew Korobkin is a New Jersey-based special education subject matter expert with Public Consulting Group. A former teacher and state education official at the Delaware Department of Education, he now works with school districts on special education strategic planning, training, and special education program reviews.

Nicole Heid is a former Supervisor and Director of Special Services in New Jersey. In her role at Public Consulting Group, she helps school districts improve student outcomes by providing support and guidance on EDPlanTM and delivering professional development and training sessions throughout New Jersey.

About Public Consulting Group

Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG) is a leading public sector management consulting and operations improvement firm that partners with health, education, and human services agencies to improve lives. Founded in 1986 and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, PCG has over 2,000 professionals in more than 50 offices around the US, in Canada and in Europe. PCG’s Education practice offers consulting services and technology solutions that help schools, school districts, and state education agencies/ministries of education to promote student success, improve programs and processes, and optimize financial resources. To learn more, visit


For more information on how EDPlan can help you create ambitious, standards-based, and SMART IEP goals, contact us today at 1-800-210-6113 or

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