When implemented well with a systems-thinking approach, these 10 best practices can help superintendents and district leaders improve outcomes cost-effectively for students with special needs and all students who struggle.
Improving special education is challenging. All school districts want to close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students with special needs and for students who struggle, but school and district practices are not always aligned to meet this objective most effectively.
But there is reason to be hopeful. Best practices exist that, when implemented well with a systems-thinking approach, can help school districts of all sizes and types achieve dramatic gains in achievement and inclusion and expand services for students with disabilities. DMGroup has developed our top 10 best practices for improving special education based on extensive research by the What Works Clearinghouse, the National Reading Panel, John Hattie’s Visible Learning, numerous major research studies, and our own hands-on work with hundreds of school districts. Surprisingly, the cost of this approach is no more, and in some cases less, than current efforts. One note: these best practices are appropriate for most students with mild to moderate disabilities or no disability at all. Other students need a different approach.
1. Focus on student outcomes, not inputs
In too many districts, if last year’s efforts didn’t work as well as desired, the response is to add more staff, more paraprofessionals, more co-teaching, and more hours of service. These changes seldom help students and always cost more. Over the past decade, districts constantly increased the number of special educators and paraprofessionals, and yet achievement levels have barely budged.
If the current approach isn’t achieving great outcomes, current practices must be reviewed and modified. The districts that have successfully raised achievement for students with special needs and other students who struggle are the districts that keep the focus on results.
2. Effective general education instruction is key
Effective general education instruction is key: higher performance of general education students correlates to higher performance of students with disabilities, as shown by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students with special needs and students who struggle spend most of their day in the general education classroom; therefore, core instruction provided by the classroom teacher must meet most of their needs. In some districts, a culture has emerged where special education staff take the lead in serving students with disabilities. In many schools, elementary school children who struggle to read are pulled out of the core reading block to be taught by a special education teacher or paraprofessional.
While well-intentioned, these common practices are not what’s best for students with special needs and students who struggle—students are best served academically when their general education teacher takes primary responsibility for their learning. Beyond core instruction, even interventions are often best provided by general education staff, which is the hallmark of RTI. Fundamentally, RTI and efforts like it embrace general education as the foundation for all students’ success.
3. Ensure all students can read
In many districts, up to half of the referrals to special education are, at their root, due to reading difficulties. Referral rates jump in third through sixth grades when reading problems make it difficult to learn math, science, and social studies. An overwhelming majority of students who have not mastered reading by the end of third grade will continue to struggle throughout high school and beyond. These students tend to have increased rates of behavioral problems in later grades and are less likely to graduate from high school or to enroll in college.
In order to raise achievement for all students who struggle, districts need to faithfully implement best practices for teaching reading and ensure that students with mild to moderate disabilities are benefiting from these best practices.
4. Provide extra instructional time every day for students who struggle
Students who have difficulty achieving grade-level standards often need more time for instruction in order to catch up and keep up with their peers. At both the elementary and secondary levels, this additional time can be used to pre-teach materials, reteach the day’s lesson, address missing foundational skills, and correct misunderstandings.
In many schools, struggling students are provided extra adults, but not extra time. Struggling learners may receive additional support from a teaching assistant, paraprofessional, special education teacher, co-teacher, etc. while staying in the same classroom as their peers for the same duration. Some schools have specialized instruction in place, but it is typically not in addition to the regular period. Struggling students, for example, may be assigned to a “replacement” class, a lower-level general education class that covers less content with less rigor. Extra “help time” should not be confused with extra instructional time. It is common for students with special needs to have a resource room period or a support period where a special education teacher provides ad hoc help or test prep across multiple subjects, grades, and courses. This is not the same as a daily dedicated extra period focused explicitly on math skills, for example.
Districts that have successfully closed the achievement gap and significantly raised the achievement of students with and without special needs provide extra instructional time each day in addition to core content instruction time.
5. Ensure that content-strong staff provide interventions and support
As standards have risen and the complexity of the content has increased, staff’s having a deep understanding and mastery of what they teach becomes even more important. A teacher who has engaged in extensive study and training in a particular subject is more likely to have a wider repertoire of ways to teach the material. However, in most districts, extra instruction is provided either by paraprofessionals, or by special education teachers, who have expertise in pedagogy but often are generalists without specialized expertise in teaching subjects such as math, English, and reading.
Districts that have made the most significant gains among struggling students have done so by providing these students, whether or not they have IEPs, with teachers skilled in content instruction during extra instructional time.
6. Allow special educators to play to their strengths
Districts that have made strides in improving services for struggling students have focused on ensuring that teachers are able to play to their strengths. For example, some special education teachers may have expertise in specific content areas, while others may be very efficient and skilled in assessing and managing the IEP process.
It is highly beneficial to leverage these areas of expertise:
Teachers who have particular strengths in academic content areas (e.g. reading instruction, math instruction) should focus on maximizing their time supporting students in their academic area of specialization.
Teachers with pedagogical expertise should coach general education teachers on accommodating the needs of students with disabilities and on using scaffolding, differentiation, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), chunking, and other teaching strategies.
Special education teachers with a strong background in providing social-emotional or behavior supports to students should focus on delivering these important supports.
Case Management Expertise
Some special education teachers are particularly efficient and effective in managing the IEP process. These teachers should focus on case management responsibilities and thereby allow other special education teachers more time to serve students.
Making these shifts in roles enables teachers to focus on applying their particular strengths to benefit students. Specialization of roles also simplifies professional development for special education teachers; teachers can develop deeper skills in one area rather than having to master many different skills and specialties.
7. Focus paraprofessional support on health, safety, and behavior needs, rather than academic needs
Across the country, the number of paraprofessionals supporting students has been steadily increasing in recent years. Paraprofessionals play a critical role in the lives and education of many students, especially those with severe needs, autism, or behavior issues, and have helped expand inclusion. However, paraprofessionals have also been given a growing role in supporting academic needs.
This seemingly logical, caring effort actually runs counter to many of the best practices. Students with special needs and students who struggle need to be receiving instruction from content-strong teachers, and they need to be receiving extra instructional time rather than having additional support during core instruction. What’s more, the presence of an aide can actually decrease the amount of instruction a student receives from the classroom teacher; it is not uncommon for a classroom teacher to feel that a student with an aide already has 100% of an adult’s time, and therefore to focus attention on those students without aides. As a result, students with the greatest needs receive the least attention from a teacher certified in the subject.
It is important that districts focus paraprofessional support on health, safety, and behavior needs, and have certified reading teachers, RTI interventionists, and other trained specialists focused on academic and other specific needs. Fortunately, most districts can shift their staffing to better meet the needs of students in a cost-neutral way.
8. Expand the reach and impact of social, emotional, and behavioral supports
Addressing students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs is critical, and many districts have responded to a growing need for these services by adding counselors, social workers, or paraprofessionals but still feel more is needed. The key is to expand the reach and impact of existing staff, expand staffing by shifting resources, and partner with others to provide free or low-cost services.
Some districts have managed to double the amount of student services delivered by existing staff by streamlining meetings and paperwork. But even if all non-student work were streamlined, many districts still would be understaffed. Fortunately, many districts can improve and expand social, emotional, and behavioral supports within their existing budget by shifting to having fewer lower-skilled paraprofessionals but more staff with the highly specialized skills required, such as certified behaviorists. Finally, some districts further expand social and emotional services by partnering with local nonprofit counseling agencies, teaching hospitals, graduate psychology programs, or even insurance-funded mental health counselors.
9. Provide high-quality in-district programs for students with more severe needs
In the past, many mid-sized and smaller districts decided against providing in-house special education programs; these districts felt they lacked sufficient numbers of students at any given grade level to justify the cost of such services. This needn’t be the case. If a district has at least three students with similar needs within the same age range, it may be more cost-effective to establish an in-house program than to place the students in an out-of-district program. Of course, the savings resulting from decreased tuition payments and transportation costs must be invested in providing enhanced in-district services.
The key to providing effective and cost-effective programs is to hire staff with the right skills and training, to adjust staffing levels throughout the year as enrollment shifts, and to provide dedicated leadership for these programs.
10. Know how staff spend their time and provide guidance on the effective use of time
To implement best practices at-scale and in a cost-effective manner, districts must have a detailed understanding of how staff, including special educators, related services providers, and RTI staff, are currently serving students. Then, the district must work collaboratively to establish expectations regarding the service delivery model and to set guidelines on the amount of time to be spent with students.
Given the vast range of tasks that staff perform, it is challenging for districts to develop an in-depth understanding of how staff spend their time. When districts utilize schedule-sharing technology to gain a deep understanding of current practices, both staff and administrators are often surprised at how much time is spent in meetings, how much service is provided 1:1 or 2:1 even though the IEPs call for small groups, and how much instruction is provided by paraprofessionals. Armed with a detailed understanding of current practices, districts can thoughtfully plan what is the best use of time for each role, grade level, and student need.
Finally, school and district leaders must assist principals and special education and intervention staff to build thoughtful schedules in accordance with best practices. Too often, the master building schedule forces teachers to pull students from core instruction in reading or math, prevents grouping of students with like needs, or demands attendance at too many meetings.
Scheduling is both an art and a science, and effective scheduling is key to ensuring that student needs are best met. There is no reason to believe every teacher or principal is an expert scheduler; even if they are, their schedule is impacted by dozens of other people’s schedules, so efficient and effective schedules cannot be built in a vacuum. Coordinated scheduling is essential to ensure that time is being used most effectively.
Implementing these best practices is not easy or quick, but it is worth the effort
While implementing these best practices can have a significant positive impact, to say that implementation is easy would be misleading. It takes time and hard work to effect large-scale shifts in service delivery, staffing, scheduling, and roles and responsibilities. It takes time, much communication, and attentiveness to foster buy-in and ensure fidelity of implementation. It requires participation from leaders across all functions of the district as well as dialogue with key stakeholders such as parents. Clear goals, careful planning, and lots of communication can help to pave the way.
Taking a close look at current practices and taking a systems-thinking approach to implementing best practices can make a significant difference in student outcomes. It is hard work, and a time-consuming process, but well worth the effort to improve the lives of students with special needs and students who struggle.