Teaching Profession

Is Special Education Paperwork Really a Problem?

By Christina A. Samuels — February 10, 2016 3 min read
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When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized back in 2004, the U.S. Department of Education offered some relief to states that said they were drowning in paperwork.

One pilot program allows states to create individualized education programs, or IEPs, for students that cover three school years, instead of one. A second pilot program allows states to identify areas where they can cut back on paperwork and request a waiver from the department.

But no state has taken the Education Department up on these offers. The reason? It would require more paperwork to participate in the pilot programs than to just keep on doing things the same way, they say.

That nugget comes from a report released Monday from the General Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog office. GAO officials talked with parents, teachers, central office staffers, and state administrators in 37 states. In addition, the GAO visited Rochester, N.Y., and Clinton, Ark., to get an on-the-ground perspective from an urban and a rural district.

What they found was a general sense that the IDEA requires a lot of paperwork, but that districts and states are afraid of making major changes and risking a lawsuit from parents. Also, the report noted that individual states and districts impose their own burdens that the federal government has nothing to do with, which means any paperwork reduction efforts at the federal level would have limited impact.

For example, the Education Department has created model IEPs and other special education documents, but most states used those models only as a jumping-off point for their own forms, which often were more complex.

New York, for instance, had over 200 state-imposed special education requirements as of 2014, when the GAO was researching its report. Among them: the parents of students referred to special education must get the state’s 46-page handbook. If a student is at risk of being placed in a residential facility, parents must get information about community support services and placement alternatives.

The report also noted that many administrators and teachers, while finding the paperwork a chore, had different feelings about which requirements were the most troublesome. Teachers and district-level administrators rated some tasks as being particularly time-consuming, such as preparing IEP documents, focusing on compliance, using technology and determining special education eligibility.

At the state level, in contrast, administrators said that the only task they found particularly burdensome was preparing state performance plans and annual performance reports for the Education Department. This discrepancy may reflect the difference in the day-to-day tasks required of teachers and central office staff, compared to state-level officials.

And even the tasks that were deemed time-consuming were also seen as important tools in ensuring transparency and credibility, the report said.

Interestingly, the GAO could not find any parents in its New York focus group to speak up in favor of administrative tasks. In Arkansas, the parents who were part of the focus group acknowledged that IEPs could be useful in guiding discussions with school staff. Often, however, parents and parent-advocacy groups said that IEPs were difficult to grasp, the report noted. (An issue I’ve written about before.) And parents also said they felt that IEPs were used to justify a course of action, rather than develop an educational plan that would serve their children best.

Technology has helped with some of these issues. The Education Department, for example, has created a portal that makes it easier for states to report special education data. But at the school and district level, teachers and administrators said that mismatched computer systems and technical glitches were common problems.

Often, these GAO reports come with a set of recommendations, but there were none in this report. Michael Yudin, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, noted that the department is cutting back on federal reporting requirements in favor of a single results-oriented plan.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.