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Moving from Compliance to Results in Special Education

By Andrew Henry

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

State education officials tasked with improving the delivery of PreK-12 special education services work diligently to review school districts’ special education programs and offer technical assistance to local educators. But all too often, these efforts focus more on compliance with Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. To a person, special educators would agree that while counting and sorting activities provide insight into the largest trends in a state, region or district, they would rather focus on improving the system to better serve students.

State officials typically look at overarching and generic statistics. This analysis includes factors such as how many students with disabilities are graduating from high school with a regular diploma or the percentage of time that students with disabilities spend in general education settings. Imagine the power of administrators probing deeper, looking beyond these simple metrics to examine the quality of program delivery to understand better whycertain students may struggle despite a check in every box for compliance. This may help them identify which specific practices are having a real impact.

If we make special education improvement about results, we can deliver more refined services that lead to significant learning gains. This is the powerful concept behind Results-Driven Accountability, which shifts the focus from compliance to outcomes.

Results-Driven Accountability requires more than just a shift in thinking. It requires a new approach to how state education departments collect and analyze student information. The process will include working with local educators to improve the quality and delivery of special education services.

The Stepwell team has identified 10 essential elements of a Results-Driven Accountability system for improving special education. Here are the first two elements in this framework.

Setting the Stage with a Root Cause Analysis

Any sound improvement process should include these four steps: gather data, study the data, make a plan based on the data and execute the plan. The goal of studying the data is to discover root causes that often require additional investigation and data gathering. Root cause analysis seeks to understand the “why” of what has been measured. It seeks to understand the true nature of the problem represented by the data, so organizations can develop appropriate solutions. If you can’t pinpoint the root cause of the problem, your chosen approach to solve the issue is likely to fail.

Significant disproportionality is one of the many complex issues confronting special educators that demands root cause analysis. Simply identifying that a disproportionate number of African-American boys have been referred to special education services is a great start for a district or a state. To get to the root cause of the issue, a great second step might be the analysis of data that provide insight into those students’ characteristics and a system’s responses to them. Local behavioral data indicating, for instance, that African-American boys are disciplined for minor infractions at much higher rates than the general student population, leading to improper referrals, would be critical to understanding an issue of disproportionality. Recognizing that the real causes of mis-identification lies with how students are being disciplined, you might solve the problem by revising policies or changing procedures for addressing behavioral issues.

To support this type of deeper analysis, state officials can provide LEAs with the basic data they need to understand their local circumstances, as well as a structured process of root cause analysis, supported by software for local teams in which they embed their analytic activities. That is where our platform comes in. Stepwell is an online environment that brings together the data and processes that state and local leaders need to pull data from multiple disparate sources and leverages visualization tools to help leaders understand key trends.

In performing a root cause analysis, it’s not enough to look only at quantitative measures of student performance, such as grades, assessments, graduation rates, and disciplinary infractions. While numbers may not lie, they often tell only part of the story, as well. This leads us to a second element of a Results-Driven Accountability system, which is qualitative data collection and analysis.

Identifying trends via Qualitative Data Collection

While states are required to measure and report on the 17 indicators under IDEA Part B, these are not sufficient for understanding the quality of local programs. When working with LEAs, state monitoring teams should strive for a robust data portrait of that system and expand the types of information they collect to create a more complete picture of how special education programs are performing.

Interviewing or surveying parents, teachers, students and other education stakeholders can provide rich qualitative data to help support the numerical analysis. Collecting codified observation data during a site visit to be analyzed along with the usual count data helps teams understand what is happening in either their own special education programs or systems under review.

To simplify this process for schools, in addition to workflows that support a site visit by monitoring teams, Stepwell has created a database of questions officials can ask about the IEP process, program staffing, the educational environment, school leadership, curriculum and other key areas.

When we move beyond compliance and focus on outcomes, real transformation can happen. By leveraging both quantitative and qualitative data, and by utilizing a Results-Driven Accountability framework, schools can implement substantive changes to drastically improve both teaching and learning.

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.