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Let’s Take the ‘Gotcha’ Out of Special Education Compliance Monitoring

By Andrew Henry

Like many others in special education, I have argued that the move from monitoring for compliance to improving quality for results is the only thing likely to improve special education outcomes. I have described how states and school systems can empower teams to evaluate the quality of special education programs using data.

In this post, I will highlight the need for enhanced transparency within statewide special education evaluation systems, as well as the importance of designing rewards and sanctions that focus on the right kinds of activities. Both of these are key elements of a results-driven accountability system for improving special education outcomes.

Make statewide accountability systems more transparent

When state officials visit school sites or look at data reports to determine whether districts are complying with special education laws, school and district personnel often feel like these activities are “gotcha” moments. Instead, these evaluations are a genuine opportunity for districts to receive the kind of feedback and support that generates real improvement.

In part, this is because school and district leaders aren’t always clear on what is being measured or how state officials are arriving at their conclusions. I have been on both sides of that equation. When I was working at a local education agency (LEA), there was never a doubt that understanding evaluation criteria and measures was our responsibility. On the other hand, even with the best of intentions, there were genuine moments of misunderstanding. Where did that data come from? Did that indicator change its measure this year? And a perennial favorite, why do they even need this data?

Across the board, states meet the minimum threshold for transparency by publishing their accountability standards for districts to read. But this isn’t enough. State officials must make their evaluation systems more transparent by ensuring that everyone understands the standards and what data and information is being used to measure success.

By using the context of General Supervision Monitoring activities to not only provide clarification, but to look at the intentions and the theory of action behind indicators, districts can leverage data to better measure success.

Connect state-level performance to site-level progress  

When considering transparency in state standards, LEAs will also benefit from visibility into the performance of other local sites. For instance, a district struggling with graduation rates for students with IEPs would benefit to know that, across the state, LEAs adopting new policies in isolation do not successfully increase graduation rates.

When we designed Stepwell, one of things that we thought hard about was the value of the data that would be generated through user’s interactions with the platform. With the adoption of Stepwell, the stage is set to accumulate programmatic data about the decisions and activities of LEAs. When this information is aggregated through Stepwell’s analytic and reporting engine, state education agencies (SEAs) will finally be able to understand the “tree-level” choices and characteristics of an LEA, as well as the “forest-level” trends and patterns that can aid a SEA in policy making and technical assistance programming.

Understanding what the standards are and how to meet them is important, but so is knowing where your schools stand in relation to these goals and what you need to do to improve. This should never be a mystery to K-12 leaders. Having a straight-forward tool that leaders can use to monitor and improve their schools’ success can take the guesswork out of this process.

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Incentivize the right activities

Another reason that state compliance monitoring typically feels like a “gotcha” exercise is that the relationship between state officials and local education leaders too often feels adversarial, instead of like a true partnership in which both parties work together to ensure student success.

State officials often try to counter this perception by investing more time and resources in working with local education leaders whose district is struggling to help them improve. Evaluations can be valuable opportunities for districts to learn what they can do to enhance outcomes for students with disabilities, and not just checklists outlining where they comply and where they don’t.

The threat of sanctions if schools aren’t meeting special education accountability goals contributes to this adversarial perception. At their best, many accountability systems incentivize avoiding contact with a SEA altogether. Doing well by meeting the thresholds of compliance most often means being “left alone” to continue along the same path.

To offset this idea that SEAs are out to punish schools for non-compliance, some states have implemented systems of rewards that recognize schools and districts for making progress with public praise or even cash incentives for making significant, measurable progress. Other states allow “administrative flexibilities” within the legal frameworks and policy guidelines they control.

Make the move from compliance to quality

As I prepared this piece, I reached out to several current and past state directors for special education. I asked them about programs they have or had in place to specifically and positively incentivize LEA leaders to focus their efforts on improving the quality of local programs. The responses were mostly broad, along the lines of, “We acknowledge outstanding programs,” and “We ask great programs to present at the state conference.” I am left wondering about approaches that exist across the country that reward districts who are successfully wrestling with the more complex, results-based indicators.

In general, it is essentially a counting exercise for an LEA to report on an indicator like B11 and likely a procedural question if improvement is required. It is another question to look at improving rates of graduation with regular diplomas for students with IEPs. To make an impact, an LEA will simultaneously grapple with many dimensions of quality impacting graduation rates. We should support and reward LEAs in their efforts to improve and sustain systemic quality.

Share your thoughts with us

I’d love to hear what you’ve seen implemented in your state or elsewhere that provide positive incentives to LEAs beyond recognition for compliance.  Do you have ideas for rewarding past and ongoing local quality initiatives? Write me at andrew.henry@stepwell.tech if you are inspired to share – I’ll make responses part of a future piece.

Andrew Henry is the founder of Red Cedar Software Group and the creator of Stepwell, a web-based platform that helps drive continuous improvement in special education with automated best practices and on-demand access to the right data.

[Note: This post is the third in a five-part series on how state education officials can improve special education outcomes by focusing on Results-Driven Accountability.]