Four Steps to Effective and Cost-Effective Special Education

When I went off to college, my father gave me simple, time-tested advice. “Nate,” he said, “You will meet lots of new people, and if you want to get along, just don’t discuss politics, race, or religion.” Decades later, when I headed off to my first day as a school district superintendent, Dad updated his advice and counseled, “Whatever you do, don’t mess with special ed if you want to get along.”

Dad’s caution says so much about the state of special education in America then and now. Even if some are unhappy with the current state of affairs, it strikes many as treacherous territory into which they will never dare enter. And yet, there are important issues to tackle, especially amid pandemic-era budget pressure and widespread learning loss.

Despite increasing school-district spending, students with disabilities tend to have low levels of academic achievement. This uptick in special-education spending has also had adverse consequences to the rest of the schooling ecosystem, such as increasing class sizes, squeezing out arts programs, and hampering new efforts to offer behavioral supports or courses focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

Two things are true: Kids with disabilities deserve better, and more spending has not helped them. There is little reason, then, to assume that more dollars in the future will turn the tide. By the same token, simply cutting back on special-education staff or services will only make a bad situation worse.

So, what should we do? First, we need to get comfortable talking about special-education spending. We should not vilify the budget staff who say costs are rising, disparage board members who lament that special-ed spending is squeezing out other important needs, or malign any idea that saves money as bad for kids. We need to be able to talk about helping kids and the budget in the same conversation.

We also need to focus on one overarching goal: increasing the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of serving students with special needs. Fortunately for kids and taxpayers alike, my colleagues and I, working with pioneering districts across the country, have found a way to do both at the same time. There are four key steps for districts to follow to achieve this goal: know what works for raising achievement, know the actual cost of specific services and strategies, shift resources to services and strategies that improve outcomes at reasonable cost, and rethink how special education is managed.

Step One: Know What Works for Raising Achievement

Thanks to meticulous research by individuals like John Hattie and groups like the What Works Clearinghouse and the National Reading Panel, a clear set of best practices for raising achievement has emerged. These guidelines focus on students with mild-to-moderate disabilities, who constitute roughly 80 percent of all kids with disabilities. These are the students with individualized education plans (IEPs), who can and should go to college and/or have rewarding careers. Best practices for these students include:

Ensuring that students receive 100 percent of core instruction in reading and math: If they do not receive all of the material or get a watered-down, below-grade-level curriculum, how can we expect them to master state standards or the skills needed for success after graduation?

Focusing on reading as the gateway to all other learning: If kids struggle to read and comprehend, then science, social studies, and math become difficult to master.

Providing extra instructional time to master grade-level content: Even with quality core instruction, students who struggle need more instructional time than peers who are not struggling. That typically amounts to 30 extra minutes a day at the elementary level and 60 at the secondary level to remediate skill gaps from prior years, reteach key concepts, and preteach upcoming material.

Guaranteeing that core and intervention teachers have deep content knowledge: Nothing matters more than the teacher’s skill and knowledge. Instructors trained in how to teach reading or with deep expertise in math are non-negotiables for student success.

Addressing the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students: The best academic practices cannot get traction if children are not ready to learn, able to focus, and engaged in their education.

Unfortunately, some of the most common and costly efforts in use today are in direct conflict with what works. These efforts include: pulling students out of core instruction in reading and math to provide them special-education services; undermining the importance of reading on grade level by utilizing unskilled paraprofessionals to support reading; relying too much on “push-in,” the practice of giving extra help by sending a second adult into the classroom during core instruction, which does not provide extra instructional time; and assigning special-education teachers and paraprofessionals to academic support, regardless of their training, skills, or aptitude in the subjects being taught.

Historically, more districts have embraced these less-than-best practices than have shifted to what works. This preference for such practices stemmed from the false belief that more adults and smaller group sizes mattered more than the time spent on learning and the skill of the teacher. Happily, the balance seems to be moving in the right direction.

One district I visited in Vermont, for example, exemplifies how far many schools have strayed. A well-run, high-spending district was committed to helping kids with disabilities. It embraced inclusion and cared deeply. It should have been a great place to be a student with a mild-to-moderate disability, but it wasn’t.

Students with IEPs were always included in the general-education classroom, but paraprofessionals provided most of their reading instruction. Special educators who had struggled in high school math tutored math. The classroom teacher assumed that the special-education staff would provide most of the instruction to catch kids up. Worse yet, the students were often were pulled out of core instruction for speech therapy and other services. In short, children who struggled got less core instruction than classmates who did not struggle. They received instruction from adults who were caring but not content-strong teachers (or even teachers at all), and they never got extra time to learn. They got more adults but not more learning.

Yet doing the right thing works only when it is done well. Poor implementation and inappropriate IEPs undermine effective and cost-effective strategies. Measuring academic return on investment, or AROI, closes the loop on doing what works and doing it well. AROI is the systematic, structured process of knowing what works, at what cost, for which kids. The idea is simple: Gather baseline data on student levels of content and skill mastery, identify or create a control group, measure growth, and see whether outcomes actually improve while making sure to track the cost associated with serving each student.

The challenge is that few school systems gather such data. Too many rely primarily on professional judgment, observation, and faith in their practices. Kids with disabilities deserve better.

When districts do take the time and effort to measure what works, insights abound. One district, for example, was implementing a well-designed reading program but was puzzled about why results did not improve after a few years of hard work and professional development. On review, district leaders discovered that teachers and principals thought they were following the new plan to the letter, but in fact, many old habits had crept back in. Rather than trashing the program and buying a new one, district leaders recommitted to the existing program but with more objective monitoring of fidelity. Within a year, reading levels climbed.

Another district happily discovered that a secondary math-intervention program got excellent results—18 months of growth on average. A deeper dive into the AROI data revealed great success for kids who were two to three years behind but not for kids who had elementary-level skill gaps like fractions and number sense or who failed math because they disliked school. No one best practice is best for every child who struggles. That district kept its math intervention for some kids, instituted a different one for others, and switched from math help to counseling for a third group. As result, all three groups of students started attaining more than a year’s growth, and the achievement gap began to close.

Step Two: Know the Actual Cost of Specific Services and Strategies

Districts cannot thoughtfully manage special-education spending if they seldom talk about costs or if they do not have the requisite cost data. While kids with disabilities deserve more and better services, providing them in a cost-effective manner is an act of kindness, not cruelty. Getting more comfortable talking about spending and shifting the conversation from total spending to cost per service helps expand services rather than reduce them. First, though, districts leaders have to know how much things actually cost.

One district, for example, discovered that two of its schools used different approaches for supporting students with disabilities who struggled to read. Each school had one full-time staff member dedicated to this effort. School A followed the National Reading Panel’s recommendations, while school B embraced Reading Recovery. Both are best practices according to the What Works Clearinghouse, and AROI data showed that both achieved a year and a half of growth for the typical struggling student.

Though both programs were similar in effectiveness, they differed significantly in cost. Reading Recovery cost $5,000 per student, while the equally effective National Reading Panel alternative cost $1,875. Fiscally, it seems wasteful to spend 2.5 times as much to get the same result. Moreover, when schools embrace high-cost strategies, they inadvertently ration these services. In School A, where costs were lower, 40 kids got high-quality reading help. In School B, just 15 did. Each school had one full-time equivalency teacher, but one teacher was able to serve more students in School A. In School B, where there were not enough certified members of staff to help, struggling readers got push-in help from a less-skilled paraprofessional and fell further behind.

Knowing the cost per service provided to each student also helps build support for increased investment in highly skilled staff rather than paraprofessionals, who seem to have an impact that is neutral at best for kids with mild-to-moderate disabilities.

In spite of minimal impact, the number of special-education paraprofessionals increased by 22 percent over the past 10 years for which we have data, while student enrollment has inched up just 2.6 percent, during the same period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2017. While paraprofessionals are critical and valued for kids with severe disabilities, they are less helpful for students who struggle to master grade-level content. When my firm collected schedules from nearly 20,000 paraprofessionals from more than 125 districts across the country, we saw that a great many paraprofessionals spend most of their days providing academic support.

In one school, for example, 74 percent of all elementary paraprofessional hours were dedicated to academic instruction, mostly in reading. When asked why they used paraprofessionals (of whom the school employed many) and not certified reading teachers (of whom the school employed few), school leaders’ answer was simple: They could not afford a higher number of certified staff members.

A cost-per-student-served analysis was startling for school and district leaders, as they had underestimated the cost of paraprofessionals in the first place. They thought paraprofessionals earned only $11,000 a year and thought about a handful were paid $15,000 annually. Most paraprofessionals, however, actually earned about $39,000 a year with health insurance and seniority increases factored in. This is less than the cost of a certified teacher, but not as much less as leaders had thought. Still, if we stopped the analysis at cost per adult, paraprofessionals would be less expensive than teachers.

But what happens when the conversation shifts to cost per service, per student served? In our example school, each paraprofessional helped about 10 students, at a cost of $3,900 per student. The district kept para-supported group sizes small, at typically one or two kids at a time. District leaders hoped this intensity of support would offset the lower skill level of the instructor. In the same district, a full-time reading teacher or special educator with strong reading expertise earned about $85,000, including benefits, but that person helped 35 students. Groups of four to five kids, all with similar academic needs, were no problem for these teachers. These highly skilled teachers cost less than $2,500 per student served—a better bargain and much better for kids. This type of cost-per-student-served analysis was first brought to K–12 schools by Marguerite Roza.

Armed with this understanding, the district swapped one-third of its paraprofessionals for certified staff, which increased the number of students served by skilled teachers. Reading proficiency increased by 5 points. It also freed up funds to hire mental-health counselors. These positive results were brought about by a financial analysis that aimed to help, not harm, kids with disabilities.

Getting comfortable collecting cost data and discussing the relative costs of various strategies should be encouraged. From both legal and moral perspectives, kids with disabilities should not be denied services based on the cost, but those costs should still be tracked and discussed. Often, a win-win is possible. An intervention strategy can be great for kids and good for the budget.

Step Three: Shift Resources to Services and Strategies That Improve Outcomes at Reasonable Cost

Ultimately, the only way to ensure that all students are prepared for success after graduation is to shift spending away from practices that are ineffective or cost-ineffective. The key word here is “shift.” As districts follow best practices for raising achievement, they will have to add staff in some areas, but they will also be able to cut back staff in others.

Making special education more cost-effective for students also needs to make the lives of special educators better. Increased spending to support teachers is needed, but offsets are possible so that the extra help both kids and staff need can be cost-neutral. Districts that have embraced these practices and seen achievement rise spend their money very differently.

The major increases in spending include:

More instructional coaches: If general-education core instruction is foundational, then investing in instructional coaches is key to building the capacity of classroom teachers to better serve students with special needs.

More teachers with expertise in teaching elementary reading: Given the centrality of reading as the gateway skill, gap-closing schools invest heavily in highly skilled teachers of reading. These can be general-education staff, certified reading teachers, or special educators with deep expertise in reading.

More teachers with expertise in teaching secondary reading: The need to read and comprehend does not end in 4th grade. Unfortunately, too many middle- and high-school kids still struggle to read. Schools owe them a skilled reading teacher, too.

More general-education math and English teachers: Providing extra time to master the three Rs closes the achievement gap only when the extra time is spent in direct instruction from content-strong teachers. All those intervention classes need great English and math teachers in the front of the room.

More behavior specialists and mental-health counselors: Even the best academic strategies will not get traction if schools fail to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students. And if problematic student behavior overwhelms classroom teachers, they will resist their greater role in serving all students.

Such a long list of added staff might surprise readers expecting a call for lower spending in special education, though I hope it comforts those focused on improving and expanding services. Fortunately, both taxpayers and students can benefit from cost-effective strategies.

While some areas need more spending and staff, these additions can be offset by: slightly larger groups of students with like needs; fewer paraprofessionals for academic support; fewer generalist special educators; and fewer meetings and less paperwork.

Streamlining meetings and paperwork by 20 percent, for example, adds the equivalent of four teachers to a district of 5,000 pupils. Staff morale usually rises, too, because special-education teachers get to do more of what they love, which is help students. Besides, in every district I have studied, some staff have already figured out how to reduce meetings and paperwork by 30 percent or more compared with others in the district. This is a path that already exists.

Best practices cost the same as, and in some cases less than, traditional practices, but they help kids a whole lot more. Even so, shifting resources is hard and can be anxiety-producing. New and better services should therefore be added before, or concurrent with, reducing current services. Fears that cuts are definite, while additions are just a promise, rightly worry many.

Yet no one needs to lose their job to fund these shifts. Given how difficult the job is, many staff leave their district or the profession every year. All the shifts can be paced to match attrition. There is no reason to fear, as many do, that such shifts eliminate all paraprofessionals or decimate the ranks of special educators. Small shifts through attrition can make a big impact for kids and the budget, without negatively impacting hard-working adults.

Step Four: Rethink How Special Education Is Managed

Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of cost-effectively serving students with disabilities is the modified role of leaders and managers. Cost-effectiveness does not just happen. It is managed day in and day out. To successfully implement the first three steps, districts must rethink how special education is managed and who is part of the leadership team. Too often, managing special education is siloed in ways that are not good for kids, adults, or the budget.

Typically, a special-education director is in charge of almost everything, including academics, finance, staffing, and compliance. In the vast majority of districts with which I have worked, the chief business officer receives the special-education budget instead of partnering with the special-education director to develop it. Special-education staff in most districts also get less help, direction, feedback, and guidance; they are merely directed to a specific school and asked to make everything work out and schedule all services to keep in compliance.

To close the achievement gap and increase equity of access and outcomes, and to do so cost-effectively, districts need to manage special education differently. The new best practices cannot be effectively implemented via the old organizational structure. Two changes to how special education is managed will smooth the path toward more effective and cost-effective services: helping manage staff time actively and integrating special-education leadership.

Help Manage Staff Time Actively

Special-education staff deserve more support and guidance than they receive in many districts. This is a contributing factor to the high burnout of special educators.

Most often, special educators are handed a caseload and asked to make it all work. Rather than leaving it to each person to balance IEP meetings, evaluate IEP eligibility, provide services to students, and handle myriad other tasks, districts should set guidelines for how best to use the time available. Frontline staff should be part of the conversation. In the many dozens of focus groups I have led, special educators feel that their time is not optimized and that they are stretched thin.

These guidelines need to address how many hours a day special educators should work directly with students, how many hours a week a school psychologist should provide counseling, and how many students should be in a “small group,” as stated in an IEP.

In the nearly 200 school districts I have studied, fewer than a handful of leaders have set such guidelines for the staff they manage. Without a collective answer, staff members are left to figure it out for themselves on their own. This is not cost-effective or good for kids. It is also stressful for staff.

It is very hard to implement thoughtful guidelines for the use of staff time if scheduling is not treated as strategically important. The schedule is where guidelines become reality. Creating the schedule should not be delegated to each individual special educator. Building schedules in partnership with a manager and with the help of an expert scheduler is a key ingredient in managing special education cost-effectively.

Integrate Special-Education Leadership

I can think of no job more stressful than leading a special-education department. A director might have 40 to 60 direct reports. Most unhappy parents eventually land in their office. The state department of education monitors compliance like a hawk. The staff is burning out. Then, during budget season, lots of people blame the director for cuts elsewhere in the district. By the way, the students are still struggling academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. Everyone wants the director to fix this, but few see it as their job to help in that effort. It is a no-win situation.

Just as academic best practices call for an important role for general education, it follows that general-education leadership will be critical to increase the cost-effectiveness of serving students with disabilities. Chief academic officers, assistant superintendents for teaching and learning, and their ilk are the experts in academics and should drive this important work. Special-education leaders are the copilots.

In elementary schools, general-education leaders, namely, principals, assistant principals, and reading coaches, must also lead the effort to ensure that all kids can read and understand what they read. Separate is never equal, but often, it seems that elementary schools have forgotten this lesson.

Other departments also need to integrate more closely with special education. This includes the measurement, accountability, and business offices. If we want special education to focus on what works, it seems reasonable that folks trained in collecting and analyzing data and program effectiveness should do this for all programs, including those that serve students with special needs. In the same spirit, the business office should be an active partner that adds value in predicting special-education staffing and helping track and manage spending. This might seem like common sense, but it is not currently common practice. Making special education more cost-effective is no easy task, and it requires a team effort. Formally tasking these departments with helping to manage special education is key to managing it well.

Shifting Practices for a New Era

The world has changed. The kids coming to school today have more needs, but schools have fewer resources. A focus on improving the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of special education is the only path forward that does not lead to worse outcomes, fewer services, and higher teacher turnover. Fortunately, this journey can be good for kids, staff, and taxpayers,

all at the same time. It will be challenging to embrace new approaches, get comfortable talking about costs, and focus on what works, but this is not a trip special educators have to take alone. General-education leadership, general-education teachers, and other managers will lighten the burden and make it a team effort.

Reprinted and adapted by permission of the Publisher. From Frederick M. Hess and Brandon L. Wright, eds., Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2020 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

Nathan Levenson is managing director of the District Management Group.

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