Special Education

New Center Aims to Better Aid States on Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — December 09, 2014 4 min read
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For decades, states seeking help on special education issues—including management of federal funds, ways to reduce the overidentification of minority students with disabilities, and understanding the latest mandates from Washington—could rely on one of six regional resource centers.

Starting in 2015, however, that old system will be gone. In its place will be the Center for Systemic Improvement, which at $8.7 million over five years is the recipient of the largest single technical-assistance investment ever made by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education and rehabilitative services.

Instead of being linked by geography when it comes to getting technical help, as states are now, they will be connected by shared concerns.

Those that have been identified as having special education problems that need to be addressed immediately will receive individualized, intensive services. Other states that have concerns that are not as pressing can take part in cross-state collaborations. And all states will have access to a universal package of supports.

If the structure sounds similar to “response to intervention"—a multitiered model of classroom instruction—the connection is intentional, say Education Department leaders. Response-to-intervention frameworks provide a universal level of instruction to all students, and give increasingly more intensive support to students who need the extra help.

Shift in Approach

The regional resource centers have done a “fantastic” job in the past, said Melody Musgrove, the director of the federal office of special education programs, or OSEP. But the department’s shift to a new way of evaluating states, based on student academic performance, calls for a change, she said.

“We can’t continue to do things in a business-as-usual fashion,” Ms. Musgrove said. “We all have limited resources, and we think it’s really important that we focus those resources in a very targeted way.”

But the changes, coming at a time when states are under increased scrutiny for the academic performance of their special education students, will require a major adjustment, said Frank Podobnik, the state director of special education for Montana and the current president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, based in Alexandria, Va.

The Mountain Plains Regional Resource Center, which served Montana and nine other states, “knew our needs almost as well as we did,” Mr. Podobnik said. “We lost our strongest support system.”

Mr. Podobnik said he hopes the kinks of the new setup will be worked out soon, especially as states gear up to submit to the federal government their first “state systemic improvement plans,” intended to be comprehensive, multiyear sets of goals for raising the achievement of students with disabilities.

April Due Date

The first round of systemic-improvement plans is due in April, as part of the Education Department’s “results-driven accountability” framework for special education.

Ever since the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states have been required to submit to the federal government their performance on more than a dozen different special education indicators. Before this year, though, states were evaluated primarily on issues of compliance, such as timely completion of students’ individualized education programs, as opposed to outcome measures.

As a result of that focus, department officials say, states improved on compliance, but academic performance for students has been stagnant.

“That complacency is not in our students’ best interest,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a July press event announcing the increased focus on student outcomes. “In too many states, the outcomes for students with disabilities are just too low.”

The new Center for Systemic Improvement will be managed by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research and service group that operated the Northeast Regional Resource Center for 15 years from offices in Vermont and Massachusetts.

WestEd’s involvement means that some of the people in leadership positions at the new center are familiar faces. The center is also still in the process of hiring, and more staff members could also come from the ranks of the former regional centers, said Rorie Fitzpatrick, one of the new center’s co-directors and a former director of special education in Nevada. Kristen Reedy, who was the director of the Northeast regional center, is the other co-director.

The center will also be working in concert with other technical assistance centers financed by OSEP, which offer help in such issue areas as special education fiscal management, early-childhood programs, and postsecondary transitions. States seeking help on specific subjects can go to the relevant centers directly, or be referred.

“We’re hoping to broker resources,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said.

Overall, the Education Department hopes that the change will not make it difficult for states to get the help they are seeking.

“There are some states that are doing a really nice job and don’t need as much support,” Ms. Musgrove said. For those states, she said, the universal technical assistance that the Center for Systemic Improvement will provide may be enough.

“We will be working directly with the states to find out what their needs are,” Ms. Musgrove said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as New Federal Center Aims to Better Assist States on Spec. Ed.

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