Fixing the Form: Improving Individualized Education Programs in North Carolina

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Executive Summary

Policy Problem: Special education services for children in North Carolina schools are highly dependent upon the development of individualized education programs, or IEPs. In fact, without an IEP in place, a North Carolina student will not receive special education services. As the statewide agency tasked with providing special education, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) publishes a model form for school districts (also known as local education agencies or LEAs) to use when they develop IEPs.

This project considers how the form used to prepare IEPs, known as the DEC 4, can be changed to improve the substantive special education services that will be provided for North Carolina children. This project is premised on the notion that improved parental understanding of the form will help parents, as advocates for their children, ensure that children receive better services.

Policy Question: How can the DEC 4, the form used to develop individualized education programs in North Carolina, be revised to better help parents understand the DEC 4?

Policy Recommendations: There are two sets of recommendations in this project. First, I include recommendations for how to change the DEC 4, which are presented in order of feasibility. A more complete analysis of these recommendations can be found on pages 16 – 27 of this report. (1) Add instructions to the DEC 4. (2) Add numbers or letters before all items on the DEC 4. (3) Add legal citations to the DEC 4. (4) Add a text box and change the wording of the item on page 7. (5) Change the wording of all items on the DEC 4 so they are worded as questions, not statements.

Next, I propose four strategies for changing the DEC 4. For maximum impact, these strategies should be implemented in the order in which they are presented in this report. A more complete analysis of these recommendations can be found on pages 25 - 30. (1) ACS must identify the best lead actor for this project, ideally a parent or group of parents. (2) The lead actor should reach out to three specific children’s rights organizations and DPI to garner support for the project.
(3) Consider using one LEA as a pilot” for DEC 4 revisions. (4) When this project concludes, work next on the DEC 5.

Summary of Methodology and Criteria for Analysis: To determine how the DEC 4 could be improved, I conducted three types of research: (1) legal research (2) research on survey design (3) qualitative interviews and surveys

The legal research consisted of an analysis of state and federal statutes and regulations about special education. The survey design research focused on best practices in structuring or writing questions so that they are easily understandable. The qualitative interviews included phone or in-person interviews with five parents, two teachers, and one director of special education, as well as attorneys who represent parents and children in special education matters in North Carolina. Although this sample was small and selected by professional contacts, the conversations were consistent with findings from research on survey design and survey comprehensibility.

I also sent an electronic survey to a variety of organizations and individuals in North Carolina that represent four critical groups: teachers, parents, school administrators, and school psychologists. 238 people completed the survey. The survey did not track respondents’ geographic region of North Carolina or income level; however, the respondents represented a range of North Carolinians who interact with children.

To develop the recommendations for changes to the DEC 4, I considered four criteria: (1) whether the recommendation would be supported or approved by multiple groups of stakeholders (2) how responsive the recommendation was to parental concerns (3) the legality of the recommendation (4) how much the recommendation would cost DPI, the organization that creates the state model IEP form

Explanation of Results: To make the DEC 4 more understandable, ACS should encourage DPI to modify the DEC 4 to make it more user-friendly. Parents, teachers, school personnel, and parent advocates all comment that the DEC 4 is confusing and lacks clarity, even for school administrators that use the form regularly. The five recommendations concerning the DEC 4 will all help ensure that the form is more easily understandable for parents, as the advocate for children in IEP meetings and the focal group for ACS. However, these recommendations are also supported by other groups of stakeholders, such as teachers and school personnel, which will help ACS make a stronger case than if the changes were supported by parents alone. Presumably, making the form more understandable will then improve the substance of services for North Carolina children.

Since ACS is not DPI and does not control the DEC 4, this report also includes strategies to help ACS encourage DPI to change the form. These strategies are built on the assumption that a collaborative effort among a diverse group of organizations will encourage DPI to make these changes faster than if ACS acts alone.





Ireland, Elizabeth (2013). Fixing the Form: Improving Individualized Education Programs in North Carolina. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.