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When an IEP Leaves Out the Individual

My first exposure to an Individualized Education Program (IEP for short) occurred my first year teaching when I had a student on an IEP.

Except, it wasn’t.

The IEP dictated that the student, who needed help with reading, was pulled from my Language Arts class, and put into a resource class. That student then was plugged into the district’s reading program, which was much touted because it was research-based.

When I inquired how his goals were determined, I learned that they were taken from a drop-down menu that the district supplied to ensure that all goals were “in compliance” based on an audit that was done the previous year.

I asked the special education teacher why they were using the reading program and not adjusting the grade-level instruction to meet the student’s needs, and he explained that the district program made it really easy to report progress and performance for that student.

I asked more about the program, wondering if maybe I should use it for my whole class, because there were a lot of students who were low but didn’t qualify for an IEP. He said that wouldn’t really be a good idea, because the program is very scripted, and it is pretty boring. Most of the kids didn’t like it that much, and he spent a lot of time keeping them on task with the scripted program.

In what is supposed to be the most individualized education program in our system, a student with specially-designed instruction “tailored” for his special needs, I quickly learned that Special Education is really about enrolling kids in programs and doing work that makes it easier for adults.

I thought, “That’s weird. I wonder why our school does it this way.” How naive I was.

I have since learned that nearly everyone does special education this way. I will freely admit, there are a few people I have met along my way that really did individualize things for students. But, sadly, they are saddled with expectations and programs that the district has invested in and is unwilling to give up.

Here’s a scenario, when a student came into the middle school I taught at, and needed special ed support in reading, they were given two options:

  1. Regular reading class
  2. Resource reading class (using a mandated, usually scripted, program)
  3. Study skills

Every student who needed help in reading got those three choices.

Now, how is that individualized?

Spoiler alert: it’s not!

People often argue that the goals are what make it individualized. But those aren’t individualized when they are chosen from a drop-down menu and aligned (for easy reporting for the adults) to the scripted curriculum.

Now, lest you think that I have all the answers, I don’t, my own daughter has at least 13 goals on her IEP. Thankfully, many of those are specific to her. But, how in the world is she going to keep track of and accomplish 13 different goals! Another spoiler, she’s not!

Our kids deserve better than what we are giving them.

We need to really make our IEPs individualized education programs.

Setting Goals as a Family

Each week, my family sets goals. This year, we started setting monthly and yearly goals.

This process takes about 5 minutes each week, and about 10 minutes the first week of a month.

It's really powerful, and helps us know what each person is working on throughout the year.

We set a family goal each month, as well.

Here's a picture of it of the tracking sheet.

Our Monthly Family Goal Setting Sheet. I want my kids to be able to dream big, so we set weekly, monthly and yearly goals together. We celebrate the successes and failures.

Our Monthly Family Goal Setting Sheet. I want my kids to be able to dream big, so we set weekly, monthly and yearly goals together. We celebrate the successes and failures.

Top Ten Transformative Principal Episodes of 2018!

This was the best year ever for Transformative Principal content.

If you’ve been listening all year, you’ve heard amazing stories of schools that are doing incredible things throughout the world.

Here are the top ten podcasts from this year:

10: Formative Five with Tom Hoerr Transformative Principal 225 - In this podcast, I talk with Tom Hoerr about his book Formative Five, which highlights the five characteristics kids need to develop. I also make a bold claim that maybe that is all schools should teach!

9: How to have inclusive schools with Alysson Keelen Transformative Principal 238 - Alysson talks about the need for inclusive schools and inspires me. This conversation played a big role in our school having an inclusive approach.

8: Design39Campus School Visit Overview - This is a short podcast which is actually better as a video on YouTube. I took some pictures of a visit to Design39Campus in Poway, CA and it was awesome and inspiring.

7: Learner Centered Innovation with Katie Martin Transformative Principal 241 - While Katie and I talked briefly of her book of the same title, we talked mostly about how to do that actual work of being focused on learners, something many schools pretend to do, but don’t.

6: The First Days of School with Jethro Jones Transformative Principal 240 - I love these rare episodes where I talk about what I am actually doing at my school. It’s so much fun. I hope you enjoy it, too. We took a big step in being student-focused this year, and we are seeing some great results.

5: Finding Balance with Dr. Spike Cook Transformative Principal 220 - It’s always fun to talk with Spike, and this one was no different. Spike is so genuine with what he is learning about and how to make himself more impactful.

4: Can Do U with Jeff Becker Transformative Principal 232 - Jeff Becker has become a true friend after I met him on this interview. He is an awesome guy who is doing great work with kids. He came up and did a speech to students at a high school here in Fairbanks, and it was great to meet him in person, and hear his awesome speech. You know how high schoolers are sometimes too cool for whatever is in front of them, right? Well, there were certainly some kids who were acting that way, but then he reeled them into his story eventually, and it was powerful to see in person. You should totally reach out to him to have him speak to your kids.

3: Changing assessments with Melissa Emler Transformative Principal 1048 - This is a great interview with Melissa Emler about assessments. She is doing a lot of work with Modern Learners and we talk about assessments in this episode.

2: Results Matter with Karl Rectanus Transformative Principal 237 - Karl Rectanus founded LEARN to help schools streamline ed tech tools. We talk about how his company helps schools know if the technology they are thinking about purchasing.

And finally, the #1 downloaded podcast this year was:

1: Creating a Gradeless Math Classroom when grades are still required with Andrew Burnett Transformative Principal 231 - In this episode I interview Andrew about how he doesn’t use grades, even though they are still required in his district.

Why I am blogging every single day

About five years ago, I started Transformative Principal. Before that, I blogged regularly at my other blog. My podcast goes there automatically, and that is all well and good, and the posts there have been consistent with the podcast.

When I started the podcast, I said to myself, "This podcast is putting something out there, so that is good enough."

Eventually, I started writing a book, and while Seth Godin has been telling me for years to write daily, I haven't done it, until I started writing the book. Once I did that, I was writing 1000 words per day, sometimes much more.

I had been making excuses about not writing.

On November 1st, I just decided to stop that line of thinking. It had nothing to do with it being the first of the month.

I was ready to start my final 66 day challenge for 2018, and decided I would blog every day. Right now, I am 41 days into my 66 days, and I'm going to continue after the 66 days are over.

Here's three things I get from blogging daily:

  1. An outlet. Sometimes, we are so caught up in our own mind games, we just can't handle it. Blogging daily helps me get that out.
  2. Clarification. There is a lot that goes into writing, and it's not just about the writing. Writing helps me clarify some of my own thoughts.
  3. Reflection. While clarifying my own thoughts, I have also been able to reflect on lessons learned.

It's good. I have missed blogging daily, but glad to be back at it.


I saw an act of kindness by a teacher the other day that was really great.

She saw a student do something that wasn't right.

She gave him the teacher look, and he stopped.

She said, "I know I don't have a relationship with him, and so if I said anything to him, it wouldn't matter. I got him to stop, but I know I can't change his behavior without a relationship. I need to talk to the teacher that does have a relationship with him."

Why is this kindness?

She honored that student by thinking of his needs before her need to be "right." She thought of him and his growth, and rather than lecture him yet again, she cared enough about his growth to say, "I'm going to get the right person to talk with him when he is calm."

It's inspiring.

Teacher Guilt

Teacher Guilt is something that afflicts every educator at some point in her career. Teachers grew up in and were trained in a system that set them up to believe certain things about education. Teacher Guilt is the idea that when teachers do something that is not traditional, they feel like they are missing out on doing what good teachers “should” do.

The best way to illustrate this is by giving a couple examples.

First, a school district adopts a curriculum and books that are not a good choice for kids to learn. Let’s say, for sake of the argument, that they are racially biased, portray dark-skinned people in a negative light, if portrayed at all, have few multicultural voices, and the content is too challenging for students in a teacher’s class. Even though Mrs. Jones knows that this curriculum is not a good match for her high-poverty, multicultural class, Mrs. Jones still goes back to the book again and again for her lessons, because she “has to follow the curriculum.” This is intentionally an extreme example, because most educators today understand that they need to supplement this curriculum, at the very least.

One district I worked with adopted a math curriculum that had lots of errors, taught advanced concepts before foundational concepts, and had many typos that hindered the work of the children. The math teacher consistently said for all the years that the textbook was adopted, “This book is no good, and I don’t like using it.” But she still did because it was the adopted curriculum. You see, she couldn’t overcome her teacher guilt and do the right thing.

Another area relates to grades. Great teachers all over the country are still using grades as punishment. I’ll talk more about this later in the Student Experience section, but for now, I’ll leave it at this: teachers give bad grades to students to “teach them a lesson” or “prepare them for the next level” or whatever. Rarely do school district policies outline how much of a percentage of the overall grade should be based on participation or homework or tests. And yet, teachers still feel the need to include all those metrics in a grade. One more example before I close. I’ve talked with many teachers who want to do innovative things in their classroom, but they are worried about the innovation parts taking too long, and not being able to cover all the content. It’s better if they are looking at standards than content, but the challenge still remains. “I’d like to engage my students in a project about how government works,” a teacher might say, “but I need to cover the civil war.” They feel a pressure to accomplish everything but they know they don’t have enough time, and so they feel guilty about it.

What are some other aspects of teacher guilt that you see?

An elementary school just acquired a startup!

Many educators today are worried about the competition they are getting from private schools, voucher options, and charter schools. In my research, the vast majority of these schools are still doing “school” essentially the same way. There’s a teacher up at the front of the room, teaching, and kids are “learning” from that teacher.

This is not that disruptive.

What is disruptive is something like this: WeWork’s WeGrow acquires education startup MissionU

You may have read that and thought I was speaking a foreign language.

WeWork is a company that allows people to come to their spaces and use them to work. This is a $20 billion company!

So, they started a school, much like an Acton Academy. It’s about creating a hyper-localized, student and family driven school that really meets the needs to kids.

Here’s this quote:

This fall, when $20 billion startup WeWork opens elementary school WeGrow, the 40 inaugural students will start their day with a laughing circle or a meditation session. At lunchtime, students will prepare meals using food grown on the farm they run, while live guitar and drums play. Throughout the day, there will be blocks of time set aside for the arts, including drama and dance. And during the week, there will be opportunities for students to meet with WeWork mentors, paired according to the students’ interests–or, in the parlance of WeGrow founder and CEO Rebekah Neumann, according to their “superpassions” and “superpowers.”>

There is the idea that a company can provide a better experience for their employees’ children than the school system can.

Imagine companies offering education of your children as a benefit, much like health insurance and retirement pensions used to be the big draws. And, it’s not just reading, writing, and arithmetic:

For example, WeGrow plans to include a parent lounge in the WeGrow school space that architect Bjarke Ingels is designing. The lounge will host programming for parents, as well as offer them a place to work while their child is in class. Parents will also be encouraged to engage with some practices, like meditation, alongside their children.>

The future is exciting, but we are not going to be able to continue doing education the way we always have.

And just in case you think this is crazy talk, Acton Academy has thousands of new applications each month to start satellite schools.

These are not scary things that are happening to us. These examples show me that there is a lot of ways to make sure that we are doing what is best for our students.

Turning Learning Upside Down

Twitter version: Read this book, and join me as I try to change education.

I have been trying to change education from the inside out for YEARS! Ever since I started, I have been poking and prodding and trying to change and adapt it to better meet the needs of our students.

It started with inner-city kids blogging on salvaged computers my first year teaching. Then, a standards-based RTI approach that allowed every student in my class for two years to pass successfully (400 kids!). When kids get D grades, they have failed their potential. When a student gets an F, it is the teacher who has failed the student.

After that, I sought to change libraries in a 33,000 student school district so that they were hubs of learning rather than just places to check out books.

Following that I moved to a curriculum specialist position that allowed me to coach teachers to implement a coteaching practice. We also created a middle school schedule that increased reading scores significantly.

Then, I started administration, and started focusing more on kids as individuals, hearing their concerns and treating them with respect, even though they were usually in trouble. We also raised attendance rates from 85% to 95% in a Title I elementary school by doing 1 simple trick.

In my next school, we added Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports to the school day, rather than forcing kids to be told they are dumb all day, only to be forced to attend an after-school program where they still felt dumb. Honestly, if we can't meet kids' needs during the 7 hours we have them each day, that's our fault.

At my current school, we are really upping the ante by making education personalized for our students. Not just lip service, which is what most personalized learning is. We are looking at big ideas to make things happen for kids in a powerful way.

Here's my Four Year Plan (TM haha):

Click the image above to go to the podcast where I explain this in more detail. 

Click the image above to go to the podcast where I explain this in more detail. 

In the last month and a half, there has been a confluence of factors that have helped me see that it is truly possible to do what we need to do for our kids.

I'm a podcast nerd, so many of these links are to podcasts, which is worthwhile, because you get to hear the excitement in the voices as they talk about it.

I spoke a little bit about this passion in my podcast a couple weeks ago, where I suggested that we end college career readiness.

The dream I have had for education is already happening at a place called Acton Academy. At least a year and a half ago, Seth Godin suggested I talk with Jeff Sandefer, the co-founder (with his wife, Laura) of Acton Academy.

We really need to empower kids to make their own learning choices. I've been doing this with my kids for the last several months by just goal setting each week with them. It has been very powerful to see the goals they have set. Things that I have wanted for them for months they are choosing to do, without my involvement. It's awesome.

Last month, I interviewed Heather Staker for the Transformative Principal Podcast. That interview is not out yet, but you will enjoy it when it is, so please subscribe.

One of the things she said was that I must interview the Sanderfers and was kind enough to connect us.

While I was in the process of arranging that, the book Courage to Grow was released, and I bought it for me and my Mastermind right away. I suggest you buy it as well. I read it in two hours.

Soon after that, Laura was on The 1 Thing Podcastt. Listen here. I was on The 1 Thing podcast, too, btw.

Then I interviewed Jeff a couple weeks later. Here is the early release, unedited of that episode.

We can turn learning over to our students and really empower them in a powerful way.

So, how do we change education? We empower students to be the learners they are innately, and stop letting our public education put road blocks up that bore them and destroy their creativity.

The 25' Airstream at the Coast Guard Campground

Last week we did one of my favorite things at school. We visited the homes of our students.

I learned about this from Rob Carroll and I just loved the idea.

It's got to be hard not having a home, especially in middle school.

I went back to work last week, but all my teachers came back this week. We also did something really cool: Home visits. I'd like to share the video we made with you. Click HERE to watch it. We visited 460 students' homes and even a couple that we didn't know about that were around.

We broke up into pairs of dedicated teachers and visited the home of every student that we had an address for (and even some new move-ins we hadn't met yet)!

There was even a student who had an address of "25' Airstream at the Coast Guard campground"!

The best part of the visits I did that day was visiting the student who was at the Coast Guard campground, who didn't have a home to live in yet.

Being a middle schooler, and living in a camper trailer that your family just towed across the country would be difficult in the best circumstances.

We made sure that this kid who didn't have a home knew that he had a home at the Middle School. We are excited he made it here and we can't wait for him to be a part of our school.

What a fantastic day.

My Daughter Ran Away and What I Learned about how to be an Effective Educator

My daughter ran away while we were camping. She was supposed to just go to the bathroom, early in the morning, but instead went to go find someone. That's pretty scary to begin with, but it is more scary when compounded with the following factors:

  • We were in Denali National Park.
  • There were signs everywhere about a moose charging people if they got too close.
  • There was a river not too far from our campsite.
  • My daughter has no sense of direction.
  • My daughter has no sense of consequences.
  • My daughter is very stubborn.
  • My daughter has down syndrome and can't communicate very well to all people. We understand her, but not everyone else does.

I went to a place where I thought she might go. It was a place where she and I walked two days before, so it is possible she might know the way. I told the workers there the situation, and one worker's response was

"Oh, just make breakfast. They usually come back when there is breakfast."

That one comment brought about so many emotions I could hardly stand it.

Anger - I was really angry that she would say something so insensitive. My daughter had no idea where she was or where we were. She has no sense of direction or ability to find her way back. She doesn't know what campsite we were at, only that we were in Denali. It wasn't just about breakfast. She was lost, and she would not miraculously find her way back.

Frustration - This lady was not listening to me. She didn't understand my daughter! How dare she make some off-the-cuff response that totally disregards all the information I had just given her about her disability and inability to find her way home.

Sadness - My daughter was lost, and nobody could tell me that she was going to come back home on her own. I needed help to find her, and someone who should have been able to give some help or advice on how to get help was completely unable to offer support.

Hurt - I felt like this lady was judging me that I was upset that my daughter was lost. She seemed dismissive about what I was going through.

Empathy - I suddenly realized that this lady was totally unequipped to help comfort a parent who was in a dire situation. She didn't have the tools to help me be successful.

What does this have to do with Education? I'll tell you:

  1. We need to be supportive allies of parents. One of my friends asked me a while ago, "How can I be a good friend?" Many times, with parents, that's what we need to do.
  2. We can't judge parents. Parents are likely doing the best they know how to do. We can't waste any time making judgments about what they are doing or how they can or can't do something. My daughter ran off through no fault of mine or my wife's. She had been to the bathroom at the campsite many times by herself, and she chose to run away rather than go to the bathroom. When that lady that should have helped me made me feel that way, I felt like I was a bad dad. I'm not. I'm not perfect, to be sure, but there was nothing I could do to have prevented it.

I hope I can approach situations with my students and their families with more empathy, respect, and lack of judgment.

I hope you'll join me in August for the #1 online conference for educational leaders: Transformative Leadership Summit Join me and over 40 amazing educational leaders to discuss all the ways you can improve your school this year.