Rethinking Special Ed. Spending

Districts are struggling to stretch the school dollar as they deal with current and looming budget shortfalls. Yet, while they know it’s a huge cost center, few district leaders know how to effectively or legally pursue cost savings in special ed provision. Between federal statute, court rulings, extensive processes, and sensitive politics, most school boards, supes, and school leaders are content to slink away and try to shave costs elsewhere.

Indeed, districts are prohibited from even considering costs when designing student education plans. The result has been a steady increase in spending accompanied by remarkably little attention to efficiency. That’s a losing strategy, given that special education spending has grown from 4 percent to 21 percent of total school spending between 1970 and 2005. Stretching the school dollar requires taking a tough look at the efficacy of special ed service delivery alongside other district operations.

State and local officials generally accept this diagnosis in principle. But, when I talk with them, they often want to know where to get started, and how to move forward without asking for legal headaches. Happily, Nate Levenson, the managing director of the District Management Council, has stepped into the breach to offer some guidance. Levenson, a former Massachusetts superintendent and an MBA, penned the new white paper, “Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education” (Full disclosure: the paper was published by my shop at AEI).

Levenson’s charge: “Districts must tackle the twin challenges of controlling special education costs and improving student achievement. In short, we are asking districts to do more with less.” He draws on long experience as a superintendent and special education consultant to offer a number of field-tested practices for taming out-of-control special education spending while serving students better. Specifically, Levenson offers four pieces of advice to schools and districts: focus on reading and integration with general education, rethink deployment of support staff, design more sophisticated metrics to gauge teacher effectiveness, and employ more strategic management structures.

Levenson shares experiences to illustrate the challenges and explain how superintendents and school boards can confront them. In his own tenure as supe, for instance, he oversaw a program that reduced special ed costs even as the share of special ed students achieving proficiency in a three-year trial program increased by 26 percent in English and 22 percent in math. A few of his recommended solutions:

  • a relentless focus on reading, including clear and rigorous grade-level expectations for reading proficiency, frequent measurement, and early identification of struggling readers with immediate and intensive additional instruction, up to 30 extra minutes per day;
  • rethinking what special ed students are taught in general education classes to avoid overplacement of special ed students in special classes and keep them in front of the best teachers;
  • maximizing class time with content expert teachers.

Nate is also as quick to dismiss widely-held but misguided beliefs surrounding instruction for special ed. For example, he writes, “The largest portion of special education spending goes to special education teachers, who are trained in the law, know how to identify disabilities, and are steeped in theories of learning. They are not, however, trained in math, English, or reading, even though most of a special education teacher’s day…is spent providing academic instruction.” He flags one district where special ed teachers provided 100 percent of extra reading help even though only five percent of the teachers had been trained to teach reading.

Also in for some tough medicine is the practice of co-teaching, where a special ed teacher is paired with a general ed teacher in a regular classroom for students with and without disabilities. Levenson writes, “Co-teaching is like dieting. Lots of people want to lose weight and look good in a bathing suit, but actually doing so is hard.”

Levenson concludes with a handful of policy recs. These include focusing regulatory oversight on outcomes rather than inputs, collecting different and smarter types of data, and creating unambiguous standards for student eligibility and services. Anyway, check it out, if you’re so inclined. I’d say it’s interesting reading for most, but essential reading for school board members, supes, and school leaders trying to close budget shortfalls without compromising educational quality.

-Frederick Hess

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

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