The U.S. Department of Education is changing how it evaluates states’ special education efforts. Here’s what that means for local schools.
By Dennis Pierce
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education announced a major shift in how it oversees the effectiveness of states’ special education programs, and this shift could have important implications for U.S. schools.
Until now, the department’s main focus was determining whether states were meeting procedural requirements, such as timelines for evaluations, due process hearings, and transitioning children into preschool services. While these indicators remain in place, under the new framework—known as Results-Driven Accountability (RDA)—federal officials also will look at educational outcomes for students with disabilities in its annual evaluation of each state under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Factors that the Department of Education will consider include the participation of students with disabilities in state assessments, proficiency gaps between students with disabilities and all students, and reading and math results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Last year, when the Department of Education considered only compliance data, 41 states and territories met IDEA requirements. This year, when including data on how students are actually performing, only 18 states and territories meet the new federal requirements. Thirty-six states and territories need assistance, and six—California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Texas, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—need intervention.
If a state needs assistance for two years in a row, the Department of Education can take actions such as requiring it to receive technical assistance or identifying it as a high-risk grant recipient. If a state needs intervention for three years in a row, IDEA requires the department to take specific actions, which can include requiring the state to prepare a corrective action plan or ultimately withholding a portion of its funding.
How will the new Results-Driven Accountability rules affect local schools?
Tracy Gray, managing director of the American Institutes for Research (AIR), said she believes RDA is “a move in the right direction,” and she hopes it will result in more technical assistance for local school systems from states.
As part of its announcement, the Department of Education said it would fund a new $50 million technical assistance center—the Center on Systemic Improvement—to help states leverage the $11.5 billion in IDEA funds they currently receive. In addition, the Department of Education will be working with states to support them in developing comprehensive plans designed to improve results for children with disabilities.
Gray, who is the director of AIR’s PowerUp What Works initiative, said that while schools already are required to improve outcomes for students with disabilities under No Child Left Behind, the new rules “add clarity and specificity” to what states and schools should be doing. (PowerUp What Works connects educators with evidence-based practices and technologies that can help improve the achievement of special-needs students.)
RDA “provides a mandate and a framework for school districts and states to make sure they have systems in place to monitor how students are doing, create the necessary infrastructure to support those students, and personalize instruction to meet their needs,” she said.
Technology is a key component of that effort, and schools will need robust platforms that can help them track the progress of their special-needs students and deliver targeted interventions as needed. But technology alone isn’t enough, Gray noted. Schools also need strategic planning, with all key stakeholders represented—including the teachers who will be implementing the desired strategies in their classrooms—as well as ongoing, sustained professional development to support them.
“We all know that the two-day training or the five-day summer training really doesn’t cut it, because you only can really know what you don’t know when you’re in the classroom trying to implement (the strategies),” Gray said. “You’ve got to have coaches and mentors for teachers, and you have to create an active, supportive learning community for teachers, where they can share what’s working and also what’s not.”
As with any new rule of this kind, it will only be as effective as the people who are implementing it.
“If people see this as a positive step moving forward, it has the potential to strengthen the teaching and learning of students with special needs,” Gray concluded. “If it’s just viewed as an additional burden in those states and districts that are already suffering from what I call ‘initiative fatigue,’ it’s going to be viewed as one more thing on their to-do list.”
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