Special Education: Raising Learning While Lowering Costs

by Nathan Levenson

Something has got to change!

Perhaps one of the few points of agreement among superintendents, school boards, teachers, parents and state commissioners of education is that the status quo for serving students with disabilities is not working well. No Child Left Behind demands higher levels of student achievement as school budgets are getting smaller.

The twin challenges are daunting, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The Arlington Public Schools, in the suburbs of Boston, were able to reduce real special education spending, raise student achievement and, surprisingly, increase parent satisfaction.

Here’s how the school district accomplished that.

Talk Efficacy
Step 1: Change the discussion.
Teachers, administrators and parents are motivated by a love of children and a passion to help. They have little love for cost-saving measures. Instead of talking about cost cutting, talk instead about cost effectiveness, getting the same or better results for less money.

Step 2: Start with general education. When struggling students receive intensive support from general education staff, the instruction is better integrated with regular classroom curricula and often more rigorous. It is also more cost-effective, as general education services don’t require individualized education plan testing or team meetings, and support ends when the student gains mastery.

Step 3: Create criteria for eligibility and staffing levels. If reading support and general education intervention aren’t enough, special education services may be required. This decision should be made consistently and thoughtfully. Too often, eligibility for an IEP and the level of service vary greatly from staff member to staff member, building to building, district to district. This is unfair to students and taxpayers alike. Does your district even have criteria for ending services?

The lack of clear criteria is revealed in large-scale national studies showing that comparable communities may have twice as many speech pathologists or four times as many paraprofessionals. Comparative data lead to better decisions. Often, high staffing levels have more to do with tradition and teacher preference than student needs.

Step 4: Rethink the role and schedule of paraprofessionals. Sometimes, paraprofessionals are essential, but in other cases they cause students to fall further behind because they get less attention from the classroom teacher and become socially isolated. When paraprofessionals are necessary, they should be assigned just for part of the day, so students gain independence and fewer staff can help more children.

Step 5: Create cross-departmental teams. Special education staff can’t meet the challenge by themselves. The business office must provide detailed cost information. IEP team members must work closely with the transportation director. School districts can partner with local counseling agencies. Principals must efficiently schedule special education services, and curriculum leaders must support special education teachers.

Measured Savings
These five steps when implemented in Arlington made a world of difference. Partnerships provided more than $1 million a year of services at nearly no cost to the district. New in-house programs saved $5 million over three years. In some departments, the same staff served 25 percent more students, and transportation saved more than $250,000 — all while student achievement and parent satisfaction increased.

Improving special education isn’t easy, but it is possible. Districts that pinpoint a short list of high-impact opportunities have raised student achievement, lowered costs and improved parent satisfaction. Sometimes an outside set of eyes can help a district reimagine special education for tough financial times.