Acronyms Unpacked: A Quick Guide to Support Better Parent-Teacher Communication

Acronyms Unpacked: A Quick Guide to Support Better Parent-Teacher Communication

Acronyms! They are everywhere in education. IDEA, FAPE, FERPA—the list goes on. While acronyms may be essential shorthand for busy teachers and administrators, they can become roadblocks when it comes to forming clear lines of communication between parents and teachers.

In light of the fact that sharing ideas, information, and feedback with a student’s family is a widely acknowledged way to both respond to parent concerns and boost student achievement, here’s a guide to understanding some of the most common education acronyms—and, in turn, helping to keep those communication channels wide open.

Special education

Parents of students with special education needs may initially find themselves overwhelmed by a wave of hard-to-decode acronyms. Knowing what each of the following terms means is important for families eager to connect with the school and support their student’s learning.

  • IDEA: This acronym stands for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Before IDEA became a federal law in 1975 (under a slightly different name), millions of children with disabilities or individual needs were kept out of public schools. Further adjustments to the law were made in 1990, 1997, and 2004 to reflect changing ideas around special education services. The law mandates, among other things, that all students with an “identified disability receive special education and related services to address their individual needs.” IDEA is “complicated...but well worth understanding and implementing," according to the Center for Parent Information and Resources.

  • FAPE: Under IDEA (as well as a previous law called the Rehabilitation Act), every child who qualifies for special education services is guaranteed a “free and appropriate public education,” or FAPE. Like IDEA, FAPE is intended to ensure all students—regardless of ability level or individual need—are being prepared for “future education, employment, and independent living.” As characterized by the special education advocacy site Wrightslaw, FAPE does not guarantee access to a “Cadillac program” but rather to a “serviceable Chevrolet that runs.” Still, experts maintain that FAPE requires schools to “individualize instruction” for students who are not making adequate progress. (This 2017 radio program on dyslexia offers a compelling look at what happened when a group of parents fought to get their kids’ needs met at school.)

  • IEP: The IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is the specific roadmap each family will use to ensure an individual child is getting the special education services guaranteed by both IDEA and FAPE. IEPs are created with family and school staff after a child has received a special education evaluation provided by the state. (Some parents may also opt for a second, privately funded evaluation.) IEPs will typically be reviewed at least once per year to ensure compliance and progress on behalf of the student. The federal government defines IEPs as “the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability” and contends that, to be successful, a program must truly be “individualized” (tailored to a student’s particular needs).

  • LRE: This acronym stands for Least Restrictive Environment and is a companion to both IDEA and the IEP. LRE means that a student who requires special education services and supports must be placed in a classroom—preferably at a neighborhood school—with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent possible. In other words, whenever possible, students with IEPs should not be segregated from mainstream classrooms. Determining which school setting will qualify as a student’s least restrictive environment is a highly individualized process, based on the level and type of services the student needs.

  • 504 Plan: While technically not an acronym, the 504 Plan is another term that requires clear explanation. Its roots go back to 1973’s Rehabilitation Act, a precursor to IDEA designed to ensure certain rights—including the right to a free and appropriate public education—for people with disabilities. A 504 Plan accommodates a student who does not qualify for an IEP but still requires support and services at school in order to be successful. Students with attention issues (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example) or mental health needs (such as anxiety) may benefit from a 504 Plan. This determination is usually made by school staff for students with an accompanying medical diagnosis. A 504 Plan can help tailor the school day to a child’s specific needs by allowing for more time on tests or freedom of movement, among other things.

General education

The acronyms in this section may be new to parents of students with or without special education needs, and may cause confusion if not clearly explained. Following is a short list of common acronyms that are worth understanding:

  • ESSA: This is the new federal education policy that was signed into law under then-President Barack Obama in 2015. ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, was a reworking of the previous federal law known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. ESSA provides guidelines around testing and accountability for the nation’s public schools but is regarded as much less prescriptive than its predecessor in terms of how exactly schools should make sure all students are succeeding. Each state was tasked with designing its own accountability and school ranking systems under ESSA, and community input was required. Parents with questions about ESSA and its impact may want to turn to their state’s Department of Education for more information.

  • SIP: A SIP is a school improvement plan developed by an LEA—a local education agency—as mandated under ESSA. Schools with low graduation rates or test scores are to be given priority for intervention, as outlined in a SIP. According to ESSA, such plans are supposed to be comprehensive in nature (focused on more than simply boosting test scores) and designed with “stakeholder input” (parents, community leaders, and so on). Many schools, even those within larger districts, will have their SIPs posted online for easy access.

  • PD: This common term among teachers and school districts refers to professional development. PD can be mandated by a district or administrators, or may be driven by teachers’ interests and self-identified needs. Through learning more about what teachers are focusing on in their PD sessions—such as better ways to address reading issues or how to offer more individualized support for students—parents can gain insight into the teaching and learning process, along with the latest research regarding instruction.

  • FERPA: First authorized in 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was designed to protect student records. FERPA also offers guidelines for families regarding privacy and access to student data, which is a key consideration in today’s data-centric school environments. Although data is an important part of understanding and measuring student learning, the U.S. Department of Education has noted that its use must be “balanced with the need to protect students’ privacy rights.” FERPA is intended to do just that.

There are many more acronyms to be found in education, but these need not be a deterrent to strong parent-teacher communication plans. Once everyone has a common base of understanding, education acronyms can be used to speak openly about students, their needs, and their rights. The goal is to embrace parents as key partners in their child’s education—indeed, there are several apps just for this purpose!—because research and conventional wisdom show that students do better when their parents are involved and informed.

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