The opportunity to step back and reflect on challenges facing schools that are tackling achievement for students with IEPs brings an array of thoughts. Based on my observations, conversations, and consulting experiences across the country over the past few years, I have the following thoughts regarding where we are today relative to moving achievement forward for students with IEPs.
Achievement gaps, both within and across groups of students, are challenging many schools, districts and education service agencies in Michigan. Underlying systemic issues, fraught with history, agency culture, and challenged resources and resource management create complex barriers and restrictions to moving student achievement forward. Deep, second-order change is generally required; simple adjustments are not the order of the day.
"Organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting." Attributed to W Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis (2000). MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Examining systemic barriers and restrictions is difficult and complex work. Almost always uncomfortable, such analyses can uncover deep-seated practices and beliefs that have worked against moving achievement forward over time. When discovered, such practices and beliefs prove painfully difficult to accept. I have seen some providers in tears when they realize that what they have been doing actually works against moving achievement forward for students with IEPs.
Even more challenging is the implementation of change, of addressing barriers and restrictions; onerous, frustrating, and slow, most implementation efforts are bombarded with resistance. Overcoming such resistance requires understanding and sensitivity along with a firm and consistent, even relentless focus on moving forward. This requires very focused leadership, as well as skills in confronting and resolving personal and professional conflict.
With a focus on moving achievement forward for students with IEPs, and given these issues, I share some thoughts, from my perspective, regarding the following areas:
- Eligibility Rates, MTSS and Sub-Group Achievement
- Impact of Separate Systems (General and Special Education)
- Achievement Opportunities through Integrated Early Childhood Frameworks
Eligibility Rates, MTSS, and Subgroup Achievement
Eligibility rates for special education, particularly for Specific Learning Disability (SLD), have been subtly declining over the past few years. This is simultaneous with an apparent trend toward implementation of Response-to-Intervention (RTI) and/or Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) across districts. While there are no data to show causality, we have hypothesized that identifying students who are struggling and attending to their unique learning challenges in a timely fashion – that is, at the first sign of difficulty – would not only improve achievement and but also reduce inappropriate referrals for special education. In other words, students would not be referred for special education evaluation due to lack of appropriate instruction.
There are two major challenges or cautions with this scenario. One, are the students who are receiving tiered supports making progress? If not, what is being done to impact progress? Second, as the number of students determined eligible for special education programs and services declines, we have to realize that the students who ARE eligible are those truly with disabilities, and indeed need more specialized instruction. This means evaluation, instruction, and progress monitoring for these students must be evermore rigorous, timely, and intentional. Moving achievement forward for this group of students becomes not only imperative, but also more challenging than ever.
The subgroup of students with IEPs represents a group of students for whom specialized instruction becomes critical – all hands on deck! The roles of the general and special educator are distinct as well as complementary; the general educator is the content expert and the special educator brings customization to instructional strategies based on the individual students' unique needs. This assumes that educators are supported to work closely together on behalf of students, that schedules support regular time for collaborative progress reviews and instructional adjustments. Achievement targets cannot be met when teachers function in isolation from one another, when student response to instruction is neither shared nor discussed in an ongoing manner.
Questions we should be asking:
Assuring that students identified as needing targeted or intensive intervention and supports (Tiers 2 & 3 in an MTSS framework) actually receive such support, delivered with fidelity, and within planned timelines, requires that the following question be asked:
- Are the targeted instructional interventions or intensive supports appropriate to the needs of the learner? How have we determined this?
- Are the interventions or supports being delivered with fidelity? How do we know?
- Are the interventions or supports impacting achievement in a timely manner? How do we know?
- Are all relevant providers involved in these discussions?
Caution is always necessary to be sure that ineffective interventions or ineffective application of such interventions are scrupulously avoided. And, there must always be an awareness of risk relative to delaying appropriate evaluations for possible disability.
Ultimately, the BIG questions for each student's achievement trajectory are "How is the student doing now?" And "what do we do next?"
Impact of Separate Systems (General and Special Education)
One of the pervasive challenges in many sectors of this state is the conundrum presented to local district building administrators when they are accountable for student achievement, but do not have authority over staffs that provide special education programs and services. It is not unusual for special education programs and services to be hosted in a district building, while the staff assigned to provide these programs and services actually report to intermediate district supervisors. While most educators are devoted to their mission and eager to do the best for the students they serve, it is problematic for building administrators when they do not have direct oversight and authority for staff who are key to moving student achievement forward.
For example, current effective practices for collaborative problem solving around student concerns (academic, behavioral) require that both general and special educators meet together and follow certain protocols to assess instructional impact and make adjustments as needed. A building administrator has the responsibility to assure that such meetings are supported within the weekly schedule and that appropriate staff will participate. However, when the building administrator does not have authority for the special education staff, s/he can only count on the goodwill and dedication of this staff to participate. The inability to establish standards or protocols for teaming that assure effective practices are followed works against moving student achievement forward; effective systems cannot be built solely on good will or good intent.
This impacts any number of effective practices that are supportive of improving student achievement. For example, curricular or grade-level data-review processes, student progress monitoring, aligning individual student achievement goals within curricular standards, and sharing effective strategies to further support student progress should be pro forma operations for educational teams. The expectation and the support necessary for educational staff to function in teams must be in place.
A case in point: administrators in a district with designated Focus schools organized a full day for building teams to tackle the issue of the achievement gap for students with IEPs. Beginning with data review and discussion, the day included an overview of systemic issues that can impact student achievement. Building teams were facilitated to work together to begin to uncover systemic challenges. Building administrators were hopeful that special education staff would participate. Unfortunately, while the day was devoted to students with IEPs, the special education staffs that serve the children were not allowed to participate; their ISD supervisor deemed it not necessary. This also begs the question of which agency is truly responsible for student achievement.
Questions we should be asking:
- Do the educators who are held accountable for student achievement have the authority to support and supervise staff who are directly involved with the targeted sub-group of learners?
- Do all of the involved educational service systems share responsibility for student achievement? How do we know? How is this measured?
- Are special education services aligned with achievement standards in the general curriculum? Who determines this? How is this measured? Who has oversight for this alignment?
Achievement Opportunities through Integrated Early Childhood Frameworks
While there are a number of early childhood programs across the state that embrace research-based and effective practices, there are some that would benefit from rethinking and retooling to realize the most effective and efficient use of available resources. In too many cases, critical supports for individual achievement, such as speech and language therapy, are isolated and delivered without alignment to the learning priorities within the early childhood classroom. Classic pullout models of 15 minutes of therapy 1 or 2 times a week work in isolation of the learning environment in which the young child can apply new learning.
For example, many districts have created developmental models for grade configuration, with PreK-Grade 1, K-1, K-2 or similar configurations. This physical structure provides an embedded opportunity to implement a language rich early literacy focus in an early childhood setting. This requires that general education and special education staff function as a single team, in which providers of services such as speech and language therapy are intimately involved. In such a setting, individual IEP goals can be targeted within the early childhood classroom; the support and instruction can be customized to the learning priorities within the classroom. This requires that all appropriate staff function as one team; this is best supported within a single accountability structure. Once again, if the special education services are isolated and separate from the district teaching and learning agenda, resources are at risk of both ineffective and inefficient use.
Progress and Unmet Needs
We have made progress in a number of areas. Certainly we have moved ahead in the understanding of least restrictive environment, with increasing success for students spending more time with their nondisabled peers. Certainly we have come a long way in understanding and supporting students with autism. And for many students, the uses of technologies that begin to even the playing field have provided impressive gains in function and achievement.
In many sectors, however, we have made little change to our service delivery models for students with IEPs since the initial state and federal mandates for services were implemented. We have some sectors that continue to deliver special education services in an isolated manner, unconnected to the increasingly rigorous standards that will serve students best as they exit school. We have students who are capable of achieving diplomas who do not experience support and relationships necessary to meet this goal. So our work is incomplete.
Overarching challenges that remain include implementation of state-of-the-art effective practices on a universal scale—where geography does not determine the status or quality of special education programs and services, where all providers are up to date with technologies, protocols and practices, and where general and special educators are functioning fully as educational teams that work to support the achievement of each and every learner. We have much to do to assure that each and every learner has the opportunity to achieve at the highest levels.