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How States Can Improve Their Support of Special Education Outcomes

Multiple colored pencils appear to have scribbled in a white piece of paper

By Andrew Henry

For the last several months, I have been arguing that Result-Driven Accountability holds the key to improving special education outcomes. In a series of posts, I’ve set forth a vision for how state education agencies (SEAs) can adopt a results-driven approach to special education compliance monitoring, leading to real improvement gains in schools.

Many of the suggestions I’ve made to this point involve changes in how SEAs typically interact with the school systems they support. In this post, I’ll describe two final aspects of Results-Driven Accountability that have to do with rethinking how SEAs organize their structures to serve the needs of students more effectively.

Cross-Divisional Work

Within SEAs, it has become almost a cliché that much of the work happens in siloes—and the activities of one division might be a mystery to the division working right next door.

As state education agencies across the country developed plans  pursuant to ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, most were mindful of the opportunity to leverage the work already done through their SSIP, the State’s Systemic Improvement Plan. ESSA, the nation’s four-year-old education law, encourages states to develop systemic improvement plans that align general and special education performance goals. If a state chooses third grade reading as a general education performance indicator, for example, we’re now seeing this indicator appear in special education improvement plans as well.

This kind of cross-divisional coordination requires personnel from different organizational units to work together, and it’s a critical aspect of results-driven accountability. Taking a comprehensive approach that wraps general and special education programs and technical assistance together within a single, coordinated system builds the kinds of support structures that any child needs to be successful, regardless of his or her abilities. It also allows state agencies to be more effective.

When the activities of general and special education assistance teams are coordinated, budgets and technical assistance can be aligned and everyone is working toward achieving common goals. There is less duplication of effort, less inefficiency in the system, and therefore a greater chance of success.

Front-Loading Technical Assistance

As local school systems aim to improve special education outcomes, another way SEAs can support them more effectively is by providing them with as much upfront training and skills as possible prior to monitoring their compliance. If SEAs place more emphasis on proactive measures that set up districts for success, instead of simply learning what districts are failing to do and then prescribing corrective action after the fact, their efforts will have far greater impact.

Consider the health care sector as an example. According to the American Public Health Association, every dollar spent on patient education and other preventive measures results in $5.60 in savings on health care costs—not to mention better health for stakeholders. Taking a more proactive approach can pay similar dividends for special education compliance monitors and, ultimately, the students they serve.

To be most effective, this kind of preemptive approach ideally would involve the use of comprehensive data to identify the areas in which local districts are most likely to struggle and then target upfront assistance accordingly. This data-driven approach can be applied to any statewide assistance program. For example, states often hold school improvement conferences in which they put out a call for presenters. Instead of relying on the random nature of responses, how much more powerful would it be to use data to understand what the highest-need areas are likely to be and then develop training materials that specifically target these areas? 

A platform like Stepwell can help SEAs deliver more proactive support. With a comprehensive data platform, state officials can dive deep into longitudinal data for more informed insights on where those high-need areas are, so they understand how to front-load the right kinds of support activities that will make the biggest impact.

A Ten-Part Framework for Success

To recap this five-part blog series, here is the complete list of 10 elements involved in implementing a Results-Driven Accountability system for special education compliance monitoring.

  • Root cause analysis: Using data to understand the true nature of the problem to be solved.
  • Qualitative data collection: Expanding the types of data collected to create a more complete picture of how special education programs are performing.
  • Building capacity: Empowering state and local education teams to evaluate special education results using data.
  • Differentiated interventions: Developing tiered cycles of monitoring and intervention based on an evaluation of data.
  • Transparency: Making sure local districts clearly understand statewide accountability standards and how to meet them.
  • Incentivizing the right activities: Rewarding activities that focus on complex, results-based indicators instead of more superficial measures.
  • Better improvement planning: Creating systems that address the root causes of failure and improve results, rather than simply correcting non-compliance.
  • Active engagement: Encouraging state and local education officials to work together on improvement planning as full partners in students’ success.
  • Cross-divisional work: Eliminating siloes and ensuring that general and special education teams coordinate their efforts to support student success.
  • Front-loading technical assistance: Taking a more proactive, data-driven approach to the provision of special education support.

Together, these 10 strategies can bring improved outcomes to special education compliance monitoring, leading to real success—and a comprehensive data tool like Stepwell provides the insight that states need to put these ideas into practice.

[Note: This post is the fifth in a five-part series on how state education officials can improve special education outcomes by focusing on Results-Driven Accountability. You can read the earlier posts in the series here: 

Part 1: Moving from Compliance to Results in Special Education

Part 2: Empowering Teams to Evaluate Special Education Results Using Data

Part 3: Let’s Take the ‘Gotcha’ out of Special Education Compliance Monitoring

Part 4: How to Upgrade the Improvement Planning Process for Special Education