Every Student Succeeds Act

States’ Special Education Work Offers a Jump on ESSA’s Demands

By Christina A. Samuels — May 30, 2017 5 min read
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Well before the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act—which came with a requirement for states to create ambitious blueprints to improve student performance—special education officials were already doing similar work.

This school year marks the third year of the “results-driven accountability” initiative started by the U.S. Department of Education. And many of the elements of that effort are echoed in ESSA, such as soliticing the views of parents, local and state educators, and other stakeholders, creating ambitious goals for students, and leaving it to state discretion to figure out just what those goals should be and how quickly they should be achieved.

Part of the power of the work has been allowing states to “get more narrow and deep in fewer areas, rather than trying to solve every problem, in every way, at the same time,” said Rorie Fitzpatrick, the director of the federally funded National Center on Systemic Intervention, which has been providing assistance to states for these results-driven accountability efforts.

Another important part of the project has been encouraging states to carefully assess their approaches, and helping them improve systems so that all children are given effective services, she said.

The goal “is not the intervention that you give to one kid,” Fitzpatrick explained. “It’s the system of interventions that you build.”

Paying Attention to Results

The Education Department has long been responsible for evaluating how well states were meeting the mandates spelled out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law and its accompanying regulations can be exacting: For example, states have 60 calendar days to evaluate a child once a disability is suspected.

Over time, states have been meeting such procedural compliance provisions of the law.

But when it comes to standards connected to how well students are doing academically—test scores and graduation rates, to name two—the performance of students with disabilities has been stagnant.

That was the impetus for results-driven accountability: States would still be responsible for meeting the procedural aspects of the federal special education law, but they were also prompted to create a “state systemic improvement plan” that would focus on improving academic results.

And as part of that plan, each state was required to dig deep into its special education data to identify one area that it believed would really make a difference in the performance of students with disabilities. These areas of focus are called “state-identified measurable results.”

Most states have chosen some aspect of literacy, math, or graduation rates as their area of focus, although how they have chosen to do that can vary.

For example, Utah’s area of focus is the middle school math performance of students with specific learning disabilities or speech and language impairments, two disability categories that cover about 70 percent of the state’s special education population, said Glenna Gallo, the state’s director of special education.

It became clear as the state analyzed its data that by the time they reached middle school, students with disabilities didn’t have the same access to core math instruction as their typically developing peers, Gallo said. And middle schools have fewer resources to provide targeted assistance in math compared to elementary schools.

Partly, the state is addressing educators’ expectations about math performance. “It was important for us to look at the bigger picture here. What are we saying when we say that something is too difficult, or not worth teaching” to special education students, said Gallo, who is also president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The results-driven accountability effort has allowed states to take a deep look at what they are doing, with federal support, Gallo said.

Rhode Island’s effort centers around the performance of black and Hispanic students with learning disabilities who are enrolled in the state’s urban areas. That need “jumped off the page” when the state started analyzing its data, said J. David Sienko, the state’s director of special education.

“It became so apparent. African-American and Hispanic students in our urban core were not even showing up on the radar, their performance was so poor,” he said.

Rhode Island has launched a “very precise, very targeted” set of interventions at a handful of schools to start, Sienko said. The state is using a tiered intervention framework to provide these services. That framework includes high-quality education for all students; screening so that teachers can spot children who are struggling; targeted, research-based “interventions” of increasing intensity; frequent progress monitoring; and data-based decisionmaking.

Rhode Island’s Approach

Under the results-driven accountability initiative, Rhode Island has the resources to make sure all those pieces are operating as the developers intended, without deviations that can dilute their effectiveness. Recent national studies of implementation of an educational approach known as response to intervention have shown that schools are embracing that model, but are also struggling to put it in place effectively.

Another important piece of the work is that it has prompted Rhode Island educators to see special educators as partners, rather than compliance enforcers, Sienko said.

“I think the special education directors have been perceived as the people who show up when there’s something wrong,” he said.

Michigan educators decided the state’s focus would be on early literacy. Steve Goodman, the director of the state’s multitiered system of supports initiative, said results-driven accountability has helped the state in three ways: Federal officials are looking for state activities that will help students, they’re holding states accountable for their performance, and they’re providing resources to help states in the process.

“What has helped is the communication that this is a priority, that this is a big deal,” said Goodman, who leads Michigan’s Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative.

Another important element is that states have been allowed—even encouraged—to focus their efforts and start with a small number of schools or districts, said Louis Danielson, a co-director of the National Center on Intensive Intervention, another federally funded center that has been assisting some states with this work.

His center, which has worked directly with schools, has been helping schools use better diagnostic tools, analyze data more effectively, and restructure their schedules so that children getting extra help in reading don’t miss important parts of their core instruction.

“I think it was smart to permit states to start small,” Danielson said, because it allows schools and states to build up their capacity. “I think in general, until you’ve actually done this work, you may have a tendency to underestimate the challenges.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as States’ Spec. Ed. Work Offers a Jump on ESSA’s Demands

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