IEP+P: How Makers Could Change Special Education


One of the best makers I teach hardly ever shows up for class.  Of course I can’t use his real name, so let’s call him Andres.  When Andres does come to class, he finishes the project we’re doing in a single class.  For context, it often takes many of the other students weeks to finish a project.  If you’re thinking to yourself “you need to give this student more challenges”, I’m right there with you.

I teach at a few different locations in the Bronx.  One is at an art center open to all young people in the Bronx.  It’s a beautiful center with amazing programs that incorporate social justice, the arts and making.  I also work at a middle school and a high school.  The high school grew out of the art center, but is now completely operated by the New York City Department of Education.  Art and social justice are heavily promoted and discussed in the school and it’s created an interesting array of cliques and identities within the school culture.  I love teaching in such a diverse place, and teaching in this school has given me an opportunity to witness and reflect on the many types of diversity out there – including diversity in learning styles and educational needs.

One class I teach is completely made up of students with Individualized Educational Plans (IEP), so students have an array of different learning, emotional and behavioral support needs.  Many students in this class also have significant attendance problems.

This brings me back to Andres.  Andres is labeled with an intellectual disability, and has attendance problems.  I’m not a psychologist and I haven’t done any assessments, but I believe he has been wrongly labeled.  There are many things that can go wrong when students are evaluated for intellectual, learning and emotional disabilities.  For example, there are cultural competency issues both in regards to the evaluation tools and the person giving the evaluation.  Furthermore, there are too few school psychologists (especially in New York City), so they are generally overworked and not able to consult with teachers and parents when doing evaluations. Additionally, sometimes people giving the diagnosis are not psychologists and not fully trained and qualified to be labeling students in ways that will seriously impact the rest of their educational careers. In sum, there are many roads that can lead to a misdiagnosis.

Not only will a misdiagnosis affect the services and educational experience of a student, in the case of New York, it also often prevents students from graduating with the same type of diploma as other students.  In New York, many students with IEPs are not prepared to take the Regents exams (New York state’s standardized examinations), which disqualifies them for a Regents diploma (the “normal” high school diploma).  As a means to address this issue, policy-makers changed the requirements for receiving what is called a local diploma.  Students now just need to pass the math and English exams to receive the local diploma, as opposed to three additional exams to receive the Regents diploma.  While this policy shift is a huge improvement from the previous offering of IEP diplomas, it’s likely that employers and colleges will discriminate against applicants with local diplomas.

Let’s examine Andres’ situation again.  He was diagnosed with an intellectual disability, which unfortunately carries a lot of stigma.  He does not come to school regularly and is thus not emotionally engaged with what happens there. However, in my maker classes, he demonstrates a level of talent that strikes me as in the gifted range. For example, when he entered my class, Andres had no prior exposure to programming of any kind. With almost no instruction and seemingly lightening speed, Andres was able to develop a digital instrument on Scratch (with no prior experience) and fabricate a physical controller linked by a MaKey MaKey. As this was happening, most other students were still at the very beginning of figuring out scratch basics. The other teacher and I were stunned.

Andres’ situation points to the limitations of standardized assessments and diagnostic labels, and how they can not only construct a negative relationship to learning and school but completely miss areas of intellectual talent.  On a systemic level, the message being communicated to Andres and other students with IEPs is that people don’t expect him to achieve at the same level as his peers. Thus, he will be getting a different, “inferior” type of diploma from them.

To clarify, my intention is not to critique individual teachers and school leaders; there are a great many working hard to increase student expectations and push low performing students to reach greater levels of potential. I’m calling into question a message that is communicated at the systemic level through the (often) sole use of standardized testing, previously given diagnostic labels and a lack of learning opportunities that address different learning needs (such as kinesthetic or visual/spatial learners). Andres is a junior right now and the school is doing its best to prepare him for passing the math and English Regents exams, so that he can earn a local diploma.  The low expectations placed on him along with what seems like a misdiagnosis have a created a situation where he doesn’t feel the need to show up to school.

This may be an oversimplification of a very complex issue, and I’m not at all advocating for the elimination of IEPs.  However, I think that Maker has something very significant to contribute in the quest for a solution.  Former FabLearn Fellow Christa Flores wrote a lot about the use of self-assessments in MakerEd. They’re a great alternative, or at least supplement to the current system of standardized testing.  I think for students with IEPs, especially students like Andres, self-assessments could be a life-changing tool.  Given that IEPs already incorporate goals and measures to evaluate progress, self-assessments would be easy to incorporate.

What exactly would this look like?  First, maker teachers could be part of the student’s IEP team.  Incorporated into the goals of the IEP, the student could list projects/interests she would like to pursue.  Let’s call it the Individualized Education Plan + Project (IEP+P).  The Maker teacher would support the student in completing the project and related self-assessments. This data would then be added to the student’s portfolio of academic work and progress.  This process would empower a student like Andres to take more ownership and thus initiative in his learning process. This, in turn, could transform his relationship with school and learning.  He would have a seat at the table that is attempting to guide his future, he’d be able experience and demonstrate his own strengths and be more empowered as a self-directed learner.

Andres is goal-oriented.  He has plans to join the military when he completes high school, although he needs to receive a diploma first.  The military can provide a lot of opportunities for students who don’t want to or are not ready to pursue college.  But what if Andres had the opportunity to pursue those opportunities first in school?  Wouldn’t that given him greater confidence and prepare him more for what comes next?