Special Education Opinion

Improving Special Education in Tough Times

By Stephen Frank & Karen Hawley Miles — July 17, 2012 6 min read
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At a time when policymakers and educators are pushing to revamp general education programs nationwide for both cost-efficiency and quality reasons, district leaders often treat special education programs as the mythical Pandora’s box, best left unopened and unexamined.

But while inappropriate cuts in special education could trigger lawsuits and penalties, schools have an obligation to maximize the effectiveness of their spending on students with disabilities, just as they do for general education students. In fact, by halting their inefficient practices, districts could find themselves investing more in true improvements to education for students with disabilities.

Our experience working with urban districts on resource allocation has revealed four opportunities to optimize special education. To become more effective and efficient, districts should:

• Stop using special education as the catchall program for students who fall behind academically or are disruptive;

• Place students in more inclusive settings;

• Reduce unwanted turnover among teachers of students with disabilities; and

• Focus more on instructional quality and less on its quantity.


Opportunity 1: Stop using special education as a catchall program. Special education is often the only well-funded program for dealing with disruptive students or those who fall multiple years behind their peers. This creates strong incentives for overplacement. We have seen special education placement figures range from around 9 percent of a district’s student population to more than 20 percent with high rates often linked to the level of extra funding.

While it is crucial to give students the support they need, placing a student in special education often comes at the cost of stigmatizing the student—something that needs to be taken into account. Moreover, special education is a highly regulated program, with mandated supports that were never designed to maximize student learning in a cost-effective manner.

Opportunity 2: Place students in more inclusive settings. Districts often serve a high proportion of special education students in classrooms that segregate them as a group even if their individual needs vary. In research with more than a dozen districts, we have seen the percentage of students served in the most restrictive (self-contained) settings vary widely, from 2.5 percent to 9.9 percent. Not only do overly restrictive placements violate federal law and good educational practice, they are also enormously expensive, costing three to four times as much as serving students in general education settings.

While some students may always need a sheltered environment, districts must look closely at whether they are serving students with disabilities in the least restrictive setting possible as federal law requires.

Opportunity 3: Reduce unwanted teacher turnover. One of the biggest wastes of district resources is the perennial loss of talented teachers who burn out and leave the profession. Nowhere is this loss more keenly felt than in special education, where we have frequent shortages of highly qualified applicants. Turnover is high, in part, because many special education teachers report working far more hours than their general education counterparts to write lesson plans that address a wide range of student abilities, often across multiple subjects. In addition to lesson planning, special education teachers must meet significant reporting and assessment requirements and face the possibility of lawsuits if they are accused of violating the terms of a student’s individualized education program, or IEP.

Whether the result of poorly conceived support, inappropriate job structures, or difficult students, high turnover causes the percentage of novice or provisional teachers to rise, reducing instructional quality. Districts should understand and address the root causes of this turnover to ensure that they have an experienced, stable, and qualified teaching force for their students with disabilities.

Imagine if we were to embrace a vision that blurred the distinction between special education and general education."

Opportunity 4: Focus more on quality and less on quantity. Research tells us that the factors that most improve student learning are excellent teachers, high expectations, a rigorous curriculum aligned with standards, and instruction that is adjusted to meet specific student needs based on ongoing “formative” assessment of student progress against standards. Yet current approaches to special education invest significantly in class-size reduction and the hiring of teaching assistants, even as research suggests that these investments are expensive relative to their impact. Often 75 percent to 85 percent of designated special education dollars go toward smaller class sizes or teaching assistants, according to an analysis by our organization, Education Resource Strategies, or ERS. In other words, current investments often emphasize instructional quantity over quality, while research argues for the opposite approach.

While some of this is spending is required, much is the result of unexamined practice. For instance, some districts employ nearly twice as many special education teachers as required, ERS has found. Similarly, some districts are quick to assign aides to individual students, despite research that having a personal student aide does not always promote student independence, effective inclusion, or academic support.

Although lower class sizes and extra assistants may help create a safe learning environment, districts should consider investing more in differentiated instruction and other initiatives, such as expert coaching, that support improved instruction, and they should write IEPs flexibly to address student needs without mandating specific interventions.

Imagine if we were to embrace a vision that blurred the distinctions between special education and general education, requiring all teachers to be experts in differentiated instruction and focusing special education dollars on delivering a higher quality of instruction. In such a scenario:

• Single-teacher classrooms are replaced with multiple-teacher teams in which grouping and regrouping of students throughout the day is the norm—and in which special education and general education students all have ample opportunity to receive small-group instruction in priority subjects;

• Dual certification—or being legally certified in both general education content and special education teaching and behavioral strategies—is the norm, rather than the exception. And the distinction between special education and general education teachers blurs or vanishes with virtually all teachers expected to be able to serve mixed classrooms of students and to respect and meet the educational rights of students with disabilities;


• Teachers collaborate constantly and effectively because classrooms and groups are set up to require teachers to work with and learn from each other; and

• The daily or near-daily assessment of student progress and adjusting of instruction becomes the norm, not the exception.

In this scenario, special education becomes less about establishing small and often-isolated groups and classes and more about pushing knowledge and skills into integrated settings that promote the progress of each and every student. Such an approach could help districts and schools reduce unwarranted special education placements, especially restricted placements, eliminate the barriers that separate special and general education teachers (and students) and focus more resources on improving instructional quality.

When district leaders treat special education dollars as inviolable, they miss the opportunity to think strategically about how talent, time, and technology are deployed. But by adopting inclusionary practices and shifting resources to improve instructional quality and reduce staff turnover, districts can improve outcomes for students with disabilities without spending more.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Improving Special Education in Tough Times


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