Outstanding Dissertation Award recipient Dr. Christopher Plum discovers a gap between policy and practice in special education placement.

Christopher PlumFor his dissertation, Interaction Within Individualized Education Program Meetings: Conversation Analysis of a Collective Case Study, Dr. Christopher Plum analyzed numerous taped conversations between school psychologists and students’ parents during the high-stakes meetings held to determine the education plan for students with disabilities.

His research, which received the 2009 Harold L. Hodgkinson Award for Outstanding Dissertation, focused on the interactions that occur just before a student’s education placement decision is reached—a decision that, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, should be collaborative.

A Unique Research Approach
Plum used a method called conversation analysis to examine the data he collected from observing 13 Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings in three schools across the greater Detroit area. Conversation analysis studies natural conversation patterns—such as deep breaths and overlapping talk—to determine more about the interactions of those involved.

Using this method, Plum repeatedly found that little interaction occurred between parents and the school psychologist in the minutes leading up to a student’s diagnostic information and placement decision.

But his “aha” moment came late one night while listening to playback from an IEP meeting he observed. “The school psychologist was sharing the diagnostic testing information and the parent asked, ‘How come?’” The interruption caught the school psychologist off guard, and noting the psychologist’s inability to respond to the parent’s question, Plum concluded both parties had unknowingly been playing designated roles.

The parents, Plum says, had taken on passive roles and allowed the school psychologist too much sway in determining the student’s future—which resulted in anything but a collaborative agreement.

Putting Research Into Practice
Plum’s dissertation later revealed that IEP meetings do have a predetermined script followed by the school psychologist. “The meetings are supposed to be collaborative, but are really driven by the diagnostic results and the school psychologist’s power. There’s a clear gap between policy and practice,” he says.

As a school principal, Plum has the opportunity to make informed adjustments to IEP meeting protocol. “Now we don’t reveal the child’s diagnostic information until the end of the meeting,” he says, “and everyone around the table has informed conversation about the needs of the child. Once we have our picture painted together, we turn to the diagnostic results to see if the tests supports the work we’ve done.”

Beyond the Classroom
Conversation analysis, Plum says, can be used not only in education, but also in healthcare to improve the interactions between doctors and patients, or among a group of doctors who are working together to improve their diagnostic process.
The essential element is to analyze how information is being exchanged and taken in. Often, Plum says, stakeholders do not realize where the communication problem lies until someone properly analyzes how their conversations are taking place.

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