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Professional Opinion

Results-driven mindset enhances special ed

Educators can now spend more time working with students and perfecting IEPs
Cathy Boshamer is the director of special services for Spartanburg District 5 in South Carolina.
Cathy Boshamer is the director of special services for Spartanburg District 5 in South Carolina.

When the Office of Special Education Programs revised its accountability operation in 2014 to shift the balance from a system focused on compliance to one that emphasizes results, we wondered how it would impact us at the local level. Would this Results Driven Accountability framework be just another set of requirements to implement, or would it actually make a difference?

The framework has been a breath of fresh air, especially for those of us working in special education. Why? It legitimizes special education as an integral part of the education process for all students.

Here are six ways the framework impacts our special education program.

1. Shared goals.

Collaboration has increased across all departments and all disciplines to ensure that our curriculum and instruction are preparing students (including students with disabilities) to be college and career ready when they graduate.

2. Data-driven response.

Concepts that we’ve discussed for years (such as Response to Intervention, Multi-Tiered System of Supports and Universal Design for Learning) are now a reality.

A focus on results necessitates the implementation of a problem-solving framework. We now use real-time data to identify what works for each student. We can adjust our instruction or interventions, and then verify their effectiveness.

This has led to higher scores in reading and math for students with disabilities. It also helps us allocate resources for the greatest impact on outcomes.

3. Fewer forms to process.

In 2014, the South Carolina Department of Education introduced a web-based special education management platform to replace our paper-based systems. By providing a guided process for IEP case management, our teachers can better understand the reasons for what they are doing (e.g. a referral or an evaluation).

Now, the process is no longer about filling out a form because it’s required; it’s about why we’re filling out the form—to better meet the needs of the student.

Because everything is centrally located, it’s also easier to amend or update IEPs. As a result, we’ve moved from conducting annual reviews to more frequent, meaningful analyses of a student’s IEP.

4. Increased transparency.

Another way we’re improving services is through our IEP meetings. The facilitator projects the student’s IEP on a large screen, so everyone can see and make changes as needed. Parents are then provided with a printed copy of the updated IEP at the end of the meeting. This approach also saves hours of time. IEP meetings that used to be five hours, for example, are now 90 minutes.

5. Less time on compliance, more time for improving outcomes.

Having an automated system with built-in compliance checks has significantly reduced the time spent on peer reviews of paperwork to verify compliance and make corrections. As a result, teachers have more time to work directly with students.

And because it’s easier to document, track and report on compliance indicators, our district data manager saves time on state reporting. Last year, she completed our report of compliance indicator data in a fraction of the time it once took.

6. New way of thinking.

The Results Driven Accountability framework requires a change in thinking and, in turn, a change in practices. For example, in previous years, students with IEPs may have been scheduled last for classes. Now, we schedule them first to ensure they have equal access to the curriculum they need, along with extracurriculars that may be harder to schedule.

And, where children with mild to moderate special needs were bused elsewhere to receive specific types of instruction, we are now staffed in every school to provide a continuum of services so students can stay in their home zone school.

This shift to focus on results doesn’t happen overnight. It requires the right people to lead the change and the right tools to make the change easier. 

Cathy Boshamer is the director of special services for Spartanburg District 5 in South Carolina.