Pupil Personnel Management: A Problem-Solving Model for Special Education’s ‘Storms’

by C. Ben Barbour

With NCLB behind us, IDEA reauthorization in front of us and NAEP report cards and state standards on either side, American education finds itself in the center of an unprecedented confluence of state and federal mandates calling for higher performance accountabilities. The result is an educational analog to the Hollywood film, “The Perfect Storm,” where a rare matrix of weather systems produced unique challenges to survival.

Special education is particularly vulnerable to this storm—notably the high standards for proficiency as promulgated by No Child Left Behind. The upcoming reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is raising the possibility of substantial changes to such special education staples as eligibility, assessment and categorical placement. If you stir into the mix such pressing matters as overrepresentation and over-identification of minorities and elimination of the “wait-to-fail” phenomenon, special education clearly is facing some new realities.

Horry County Schools in South Carolina have addressed the mandated accountabilities through a problem-solving approach to interventions. Six years ago, the district's special education department began seeking a better way to fulfill the federal mandate of a "free and appropriate public education" for students with special needs.

We found that the pre-referral model failed to accurately predict which students were good candidates for special education, nor did it address the students' immediate educational needs. Students were shortchanged and school psychologists and staff were frustrated that inadequacies of our initial placement procedures meant school psychologists' time was not as productive as it could be. Our data showed only 50 percent of evaluated students were actually qualifying for special education.

Broad Measures

Under the leadership of the district’s director of special services, a mixed team of school psychologists and learning specialists looked for an alternative service delivery model. They picked a problem-solving model that had been used successfully in Iowa (“the Heartland model”) for more than a decade. The model provides valid interventions through a general education setting to meet the students’ needs first and supports students’ learning rather than documenting how unsuccessful the student has become.

In this approach, traditional assessment instruments, such as intelligence and standardized achievement tests, are replaced with formative assessments featuring curriculum-based measurement and the use of local norms and services without categorical labeling.

The assessments include various sources and means: criterion- or norm-referenced measures, curriculum-based assessments, development of local norms, expert judgment, formal observation by school psychologists, interviews with caregivers, play-based assessment and school and teacher records on behavioral and academic matters.

With the approval of the state superintendent, the district selected three K-5 pilot school sites to implement the problem-solving model for a period of three years. In summer 2003, the district successfully petitioned the state board of education to expand to all 24 K-5 schools. The state also approved the use of nontraditional assessment techniques to create valid general education interventions.

These interventions or treatments permitted a student study team, four to six education professionals, to declare an “entitlement” for special education services only when the demonstrated needs of the student demanded more intensity of service than the general education setting could provide. Such students then were referred to as “EI” or entitled individuals. These students have an IEP that addresses the academic or behavioral needs identified through the problem-solving approach.

The student study team, whose members include the classroom teacher, school psychologist, instructional specialist, principal or assistant principal and parent, meets as soon as the school year begins. They create a systematic intervention plan for each student, usually over the course of three meetings.

A graph or learning picture that serves as a visual representation of the team’s intervention efforts is made a part of the completed IEP. The graph then is used to monitor the student’s academic performance.

In a traditional special education program, the school system would have to label the child to obtain special services. In the general education model involving student study teams, the assessments are guided by pinpointed deficits in either academics or behavior. This provides a structure for data collection and performance criteria tailored to the student’s situation.

David Powell, principal at Seaside Elementary, one of the pilot schools, believes classroom teachers gain professional knowledge from their participation on the teams. “That’s one beauty of this problem-solving model,” he said. “The meetings themselves become robust staff development experiences. The student study team has become a learning community where teachers learn from each other, for example, by suggesting different strategies for different situations.”

Early Success

Data collected at the end of the 2003-04 school year indicated the following:

  • A 31 percent reduction in initial K-5 special education placements in school year 2003-04 compared with 2002-03;
  • A 45 percent reduction in initial K-5 special education placement of minority males;
  • 67 percent of entitled students came from kindergarten, 1 st and 2 nd grades, indicating an increased emphasis on addressing student problems aggressively and early;
  • Relevant student performance data are provided to the IEP team to develop meaningful educational goals and monitor achievement gains; and
  • School psychologists spend a greater percentage of their day in schools working with teachers to produce data-driven interventions.

Ben Barbour is supervisor of psychological services in the Horry County Schools, P.O. Box 260005, Conway, SC 29528. E-mail: The author acknowledges the help of Nancy Sargent, director of policy research with the South Carolina Department of Education, in preparing this article.