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Getting More from the Special-Education Budget
From the Marshall Memo #446
“When district leaders treat special-education dollars as inviolable, they miss the opportunity to think strategically about how talent, time, and technology are deployed,” say Stephen Frank and Karen Hawley Miles of Education Resource Strategies in this important Education Week opinion article. They suggest four ways that urban school districts can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of special-education programs in tough economic times:
• Stop using special education as a catch-all program. “Special education is often the only well-funded program for dealing with disruptive students or those who fall multiple years behind their peers,” say Frank and Miles. “This creates strong incentives for over-placement.” The result is inflated budgets and inappropriately referred students feeling stigmatized.
• Place students in more-inclusive settings. The percent of students placed in restrictive classrooms varies from 2.5 to 9.9 percent. “Not only do overly restrictive placements violate federal law and good education practice,” say Frank and Miles, “they are also enormously expensive, costing three to four times as much as serving students in general education settings.”
• Reduce unwanted teacher turnover. “One of the biggest wastes of district resources is the perennial loss of talented teachers who burn out and leave the profession,” say Frank and Miles. This is especially true in special education, with its heavy workload, individualized preparation, and fear of legal action if students’ IEPs aren’t met.
• Focus more on quality and less on quantity. Special-education programs often devote 75-85% of resources to reducing class size and hiring teaching assistants – not on what research suggests are the decisive factors in classrooms: high-quality instruction, high expectations, a rigorous curriculum aligned to standards, and using frequent formative assessments to adjust instruction to students’ needs. While IEPs sometimes require smaller classes and assistants and these help ensure a safe learning environment, they’re not always in students’ best interests. In particular, a personal student aide “does not always promote student independence, effective inclusion, or academic support,” say Frank and Miles. They suggest reallocating some funds to expert coaching to improve instruction and differentiation.
The authors conclude by envisioning a better staffing and instructional configuration within schools:
“In this scenario,” conclude Frank and Miles, “special education becomes less about establishing small and often-isolated groups and classes and more about pushing knowledge and skills into integrated settings that promote the progress of each and every student. Such an approach could help districts and schools reduce unwarranted special-education placements, especially restricted placements, eliminate the barriers that separate special- and general-education teachers (and students), and focus more resources on improving instructional quality.”
“Improving Special Education in Tough Times” by Stephen Frank and Karen Hawley Miles in Education Week, July 18, 2012 (Vol. 31, #36, p. 24-25), http://bit.ly/MJ66Nb