Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Improving Special Education While Managing Its Cost

By Guest Blogger — September 24, 2020 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Nathan Levenson, the managing director of District Management Group, is a contributor to my new book (with Brandon Wright) Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck. Out from Teachers College Press, the book features an array of sharp analysts and scholars’ thoughts on how schools can make each dollar go further. Today, Nate tackles one of the more sensitive issues on the K-12 landscape—how school leaders can improve the quality of special education even as they manage its cost.


As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the day to day of educating students and puts stress on school budgets, it’s easy to think that now is certainly NOT the time to rethink special education. Who has the bandwidth for such an undertaking?

In the new book Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, I lay out the case for how embracing cost-effective special education would be great for kids, staff, and taxpayers. While not anticipating a pandemic at the time of writing, I’m certain this is needed now more than ever. After all, more students have suffered learning loss, students with disabilities are hard to serve well during remote and hybrid instruction, and future budgets are likely to shrink, despite greater needs and costs.

Talking about special education costs can feel bad, especially during a pandemic. Doing so might make it feel like we’re saying money matters more than helping kids in need, but that’s not the case. Two things are true: Kids with disabilities deserve better, and more spending hasn’t helped them in the past. Therefore, there is little reason to assume that even more dollars in the future will turn the tide. Less spending won’t help, either. What will? Spending differently.

Fortunately for kids and taxpayers alike, my colleagues at District Management Group and I, working with pioneering districts across the country, have found a way to raise achievement, make up for learning loss, and moderate costs. To do this, districts must do four things.

1. Know what works for raising achievement

Thanks to meticulous research by individuals like John Hattie and groups such as the What Works Clearinghouse and the National Reading Panel, a clear set of best practices for raising achievement have emerged. These include:

  • Ensure students receive 100 percent of core instruction in reading and math. If they don’t receive all of the material or get a watered-down, below-grade-level curriculum, how can we expect them to master state standards or the skills needed for success after graduation?
  • Focus on reading as the gateway to all other learning. If kids struggle to read and comprehend, science, social studies, even math become difficult to master.
  • Provide extra instructional time to master grade-level content. Even with quality core instruction, students who struggle need even more instructional time than their nonstruggling peers. This need for extra time doesn’t go away when teaching shifts to remote or hybrid; it increases!
  • Guarantee that core and intervention teachers have deep content knowledge.

Historically, too many districts have not embraced these best practices. Spending lots on things that don’t work won’t help. For more details on where and how to shift services, see my book Six Shifts to Improve Special Education and Other Interventions from Harvard Education Press

2. Know the actual cost of specific services and strategies

Kids with disabilities deserve more and better services, but providing those in a cost-effective manner is an act of kindness, not cruelty.

One district, for example, discovered that its schools were using different approaches to support students with disabilities who struggled to read. Each school had one full-time reading teacher. School A followed the National Reading Panel’s recommendations while school B embraced Reading Recovery. Both are best practices according to the What Works Clearinghouse and both delivered 1.5 years growth for the typical struggling student. Nice!

What was not so nice is that Reading Recovery cost $5,000 per student, while the equally effective alternative cost $1,875. Fiscally, it seems wasteful to spend two-and-a-half times as much to get the same result, and morally it’s not good, either. When schools embrace high-cost strategies, they unconsciously ration these services. In school A, 40 kids got high-quality reading help, while in school B, just 15 did.

3. Shift resources to services and strategies that improve outcomes at reasonable cost.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure that all students are prepared for success after graduation in a world of high standards and tight budgets is to shift spending away from practices not proven to be effective or not implemented in a cost-effective manner. The key word here is “shift” not “add.”

Things that can make a big difference for students include:

  • More instructional coaches.
  • More teachers with expertise in teaching elementary reading.
  • More teachers with expertise in teaching secondary reading.
  • More general education math and English teachers.
  • More behavior specialists and mental-health counselors.

Such a long list of added staff might surprise readers expecting a call for less spending in special education. Fortunately, taxpayers and students can both benefit from cost-effective strategies. While some areas need more spending and staff, these additions can be offset by slightly larger groups of students (with like needs), fewer paraprofessionals for academic support, fewer meetings, and less paperwork.

On net, best practices cost no more and in some cases less than traditional practices. But they help kids a whole lot more. And happily, no one needs to lose their job to fund these shifts. Given how difficult the job is, many leave their district or the profession every year. All the shifts can be paced to match attrition.

4. Rethink how special education is managed.

Finally, to bring these first three cost-effective strategies to life, districts much rethink how special education is managed. It will take greater collaboration between general education and special education leadership and require actively supporting teachers and principals on academic best practices, not just monitoring compliance with regulations.

The pandemic has increased student needs and crushed many budgets. A focus on improving the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of special education and other interventions is the only path forward that doesn’t lead to worse outcomes, less services, and more teacher turnover.

— Nathan

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.