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Special Education Reform That's Great for Students—and the Budget!

Nate Levenson is managing director at District Management Group, a consulting firm that helps schools and districts raise achievement, manage scarce resources, and deal with challenges like improving special education. Nate has also been a superintendent (in Arlington, Massachusetts) and school board member. This week, he'll be writing about the new era of special education reform and who's making it possible. Nate can be reached at [email protected].

The need to better serve students with disabilities has wide appeal. Few are satisfied with the status quo, but comradery turns to frustration when it comes to paying for better services. Despite the ever-increasing share of district budgets going to special education, parents and staff reasonably ask for more because the status quo isn't good enough. District leaders are reluctant because more funding in special education means cutting funding elsewhere. Furthermore, many wonder if the big increases in past spending didn't turn the tide, how will a few more paraprofessionals, another speech and language therapist, or a couple of additional special education teachers change the life trajectory of a child?

As districts embrace Phase Three of special education reform discussed in the prior two posts, the usual battle over funding can be skipped. It turns out that the three big shifts at the heart of rethinking special education—1) more general education, not more special education, 2) more time to learn, not less to learn, and 3) higher-skilled adults, not more adults—cost no more and sometimes less than current practices that haven't delivered on the promise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

How can better not cost more? It's a question I'm asked a lot, but the very asking reveals a problem. For too long we have tried to help students with disabilities by providing more, but not better. More services, more minutes, and more adults. Just since 2000, the number of paraprofessionals has increased 27 percent, adjusting for student enrollment. In the last decade of very tight finances, districts increased the number of special educators and paraprofessionals (adjusted for enrollment) by more than 10 percent, and yet achievement levels have barely budged.

These new best practices are budget friendly for a few reasons.

One, the reforms actually help kids catch up academically and socially, and thus services can fade out. One reason special education is expensive is that services seldom end because the need remains. After implementing the three shifts in practice talked about in my earlier posts, one district reduced the number of struggling readers by two-thirds over time. That's a lot fewer students who need reading support—because now they can read on grade level. Another district saw referrals to special education drop dramatically because general education interventions kicked in quickly and effectively. Special education ceased to be the only path to extra instructional time.

These best practices also cost less per student served. Close examination of the schedules of over 40,000 special educators and paraprofessionals sheds light on a little secret: Special education staff serve very few students in each session. For example, many paraprofessionals work with just one or two struggling readers at a time, and many special educators help just three or four kids each session. Gap-closing schools that prize highly skilled, well-trained teachers work hard to extend the reach of these precious resources. A highly effective reading teacher can work with five to six struggling students at a time. If all of them have a similar need, such as phonics, then a focused group of five students is a lot more impactful than three students, one struggling in phonics, one in fluency, and one in math. And yes, the larger group costs less per student served.

Finally, the new era of special education reform places more emphasis on letting staff do what they are good at: teaching kids. A laser-like focus on streamlining meetings and paperwork through process mapping allows each teacher to help a few more kids without adding to their very full plates. On average, over half of every special education budget goes to pay for meetings and paperwork. Some districts have shaved off 10-20 percent of this time and still stayed in full compliance.

Let's be clear, spending less never helped raise achievement and life outcomes, but spending more hasn't been all that helpful either. Fortunately, this next era of improving special education focuses on better, not more, and won't break the budget.

Nate Levenson

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