Sustain Funding to Narrow Achievement Gap in Special Education

September 7, 2012 at 3:00 PM Leave a comment

Hold that axe, Professor Levenson. Your $10 billion solution for the Special ED budget would deliver a blunt cut to funding just as the program is implementing more functional policies to promote efficiency and efficacy of services. Let’s look at the who and the how of Special Education services before punishing districts for deviations from an arbitrary median. And don’t forget…closing the achievement gap for students with Special Needs means results measuring their achievement against that of all students, not just other students with disabilities.

Effective use of funds for students with Special Needs is essential to their futures. Outcomes for these students during K-12 schooling can be determinants of their success in life relative to their peers without disabilities. However, what constitutes optimal sources and uses of funding is still very much in flux.

Variations in expectations and the intensity of services are rising in Special Education. At the same time, emerging technologies are creating new options that could make personalized learning ubiquitous in schools. Meanwhile, budget-conscious policy analysts led by Nathan Levenson and the Fordham Institute are seeking prematurely to cut spending in Special Education based on isolated cases of better student outcomes with less money. Let’s stop for a glimpse from the special educator’s chair.

For many students with moderate disabilities, the goal is to achieve results on par with their peers without disabilities. Special educators provide classroom accommodations and modifications that level the playing field while students develop compensatory mechanisms to overcome their obstacles to learning. These students can have their best abilities harnessed to accomplish great things.

For students with severe disabilities, the goal is maximizing independence and quality of life in spite of constant challenges. They will always require services, but any strengths must be developed and leveraged to reduce the intensity of their service needs and facilitate their participation in adult lives. Their academic achievement gap is unlikely to close.

However, included among students with intensive Special Needs is a unique and growing population of children along the autism spectrum. While educators lack a full understanding of students along the spectrum, there is hope to one day unlock their potential for communication and connection to society at large. We cannot yet predict how high their performance could be with appropriate intervention. In the short run, this is a high-cost service area with evolving expectations.

Despite the variations and complexity of disabilities, the Fordham report suggests limiting spending in Special Education in a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the essence of Special Education: the individual education plan. Further, even as we attempt to increase the personalization of education for all students, Fordham would target SPED staffing cuts that would reduce the impact of the small resource classroom, the very incubator of innovation for new teaching methods.

Many instructional techniques that have become best practices in the general education setting were developed initially for students with Special Needs. Essentially every student has learning style issues. We have a success cycle of recognizing students whose special needs interfere with their progress, designing interventions on their behalf, and, if successful, building capacity for serving more children with more general dissemination of new methods. So it could be with new technology as well.

That said…Yes, it is appropriate to question how Special Education dollars are spent. However, the size of budget requirements for Special Education is the symptom. It should not be treated with blunt cuts to match median spending at a seemingly random moment in time. Rather, the underlying causes of unbridled growth in demand for high-cost services need to be examined. Among those are…

  • Financial incentives for over-diagnosing special needs in an eligibility-based model
  • Systematic absence of longitudinal data on progress toward grade-level proficiency within the education planning process
  • Lack of participation of the children in their own education planning until they are in transition for the end of secondary education
  • Changing profiles for intensity of special needs within the population of students with disabilities

Historically, Special Education services have been funded based on eligibility without tracking performance. In addition, regulations only required reevaluation of academic achievement every three years, again to document eligibility at the given time. As a result, there has been no incentive to routinely seek longitudinal evidence of academic growth or effectiveness of modifications and accommodations.

At the Federal level, new policies are in development to collect longitudinal data and increase accountability for closing the achievement gap for students with Special Needs. Also, many state policy teams have already addressed efforts to improve classroom accommodations to keep students with minor issues in the mainstream setting using the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. In the event they are approved for Special Educattion, I have suggested another policy initiative – a more active role for the children in their individualized goal-setting and program planning – that could allow them to be their own advocates in accelerated achievement.

Beyond system adjustments, technology has become available that holds promise for blended techniques in learning. Several emerging technologies are already enhancing access to lessons and raising the level of personalized learning without increasing the number of special educators. However, technology models have not reached a level of robustness and general accessibility to dictate adjustments in staffing.

Meanwhile, the Fordham Institute sponsored the study by Levenson on spending and outcomes in Special Education. The conservative think tank has suggested pruning the budget for Special Education services by $10 billion using a simple national median rate for across-the-board SPED funding, regardless of the needs of the children. There are no best practices underwritten with this new formula. Apparently the money saved speaks for itself…the cure for any budget-busting program is to underfund it.

The study began with spending data from 1,400 school districts. However, the conclusions were drawn from ten pairs of districts that were chosen for their unique validity as cohorts that yielded the desired results for conservative spending. That desired outcome was evidence that the district that spent less outperformed the other in student outcomes. I cannot help wondering what happened with the other 1,380 districts.

Nevertheless, application of an arbitrary median spending model that is not reflective of student needs or evolving practices in Special Education is poorly informed and without merit. And it would short-circuit legitimate efforts to close the achievement gap for Students with Special Needs.

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Entry filed under: Special Education.

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