A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Streamlining special education services
Reducing costs while improving student outcomes
By Brenda Clarke | March | April 2024
In 2021, the average cost of educating a student in special education with an Individualized Education Plan was approximately $26,000 — triple the $9,000 cost of educating a student without one (OSEFM, 2021). At a time in history like no other, where more students than ever are struggling inside and outside of school with physical and mental health issues, the strain on the educational system is at a tipping point. The increase in students with challenges can be attributed to (i) better recognition and diagnosis of common conditions such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), (ii) more anxiety and depression since the pandemic, (iii) the rise in technology use addictions, and (iv) less stigma among parents about seeking special services for their children (CDC, 2023). Adding to the problem of increasing demand for help, there is currently an unprecedented shortage of special educators, paraprofessionals, licensed counselors, and affordability of the entire special education process (Virad & Gibbons, 2023). These issues, coupled with the exponentially rising rate of students with learning gaps and documented disabilities, are making the current system unsustainable (OSEFM, 2019). Given this unfortunate trajectory of rising costs, teachers should focus their efforts on transforming their pedagogy in the general education curriculum to make their content accessible for all students. Ideally, students will be able to demonstrate their knowledge and be assessed using universal design for learning (UDL) and equitable grading practices, eventually mitigating the need for disability accommodations entirely.
Coming from a background as an investment banker, I moved into education administrative roles with the experience to streamline practices. For nearly 30 years, I occupied various roles in the special education process ranging from parent, special education teacher, general education teacher and, most recently, school site administrator overseeing special education and student services. Through these experiences, I have come to understand that utilizing best practice concepts can simultaneously create win-win situations for the school district and students. What I know for sure after meeting with thousands of high school students is that no student wants to be labeled, singled-out or not in an inclusive setting given the choice — and parents do not want this for their child either. Decades of gathering “street data” took me into the trenches to listen to the voices and experiences of our students, staff and families. It has given me real-time, leading indicators on the inner workings of school programming, needs, placements and instructional decisions while enabling rapid feedback loops for decisions and practices (Safir et al., 2021).
Upon transitioning into educational leadership, I immediately identified places in which the concept of creating efficiencies could be transferred. Meeting with hundreds of families through the IEP process who have students with one-on-one paraprofessional support written into their plans, it became easy for me to recommend this shared paraprofessional idea by noting that their student would become more independent over time and develop deeper relationships with classmates by sharing a paraprofessional. In every IEP meeting where I brought up this idea, the team including parents and students agreed. Over the past decade, I have worked closely with others to thoughtfully reduce expenses — in one case reducing a school site’s spending on paraprofessionals from $750,000 down to $350,000. After meeting with hundreds of IEP teams at just one school site, I was further able to taper off less vital services and restructure support systems through the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) and 504 plan processes to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars again. If this process were replicated at a district level, efficiencies in special education services model delivery would easily equate to millions of dollars in savings. From my perspective, the solution of diminishing the need for expensive and resource-intensive special education is to help students find success through the MTSS process and, if needed, the 504 plan process, which costs virtually nothing to implement and provides student-centered accommodations.
The following steps are designed to reduce costs of special education while improving student outcomes focusing on strong MTSS Tier 1 instruction, which is the curriculum, instruction and assessments provided to all students in all grade levels. These 10 best practice steps include:
1. Training general education teachers — It is critical to provide an inclusive classroom where many students have some documented disability with either an IEP, 504 plan, or are an English language learner. In order to identify and accommodate all students, general education teachers need to know about the most common disabilities like ADHD, ASD, depression, anxiety, seizures, diabetes and specific learning disabilities. They need to be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), de-escalation techniques, co-teaching practices, UDL, grading for equity, accommodations and modifications, and specific differentiation strategies that activate higher order thinking. They must routinely identify which students need which accommodations and track all of their students’ needs and progress.
2. Leading with general education teachers — All classrooms must be led by teachers working closely with their professional learning communities (PLCs) to provide common syllabi, common success criteria and learning outcomes, and common assessments. They must understand how to implement all accommodations and have consistent grading policies that allow for retakes and corrections of assessments for students to show mastery with solid Tier 1 instruction with embedded inclusion practices. 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, 2022). Students are best served academically when their general education teacher takes primary responsibility for their learning, especially in high school. Since special education 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 (Levenson, 2020). Preventative measures such as implementing evidence-based reading and math teaching to raise achievement for all students who struggle ensures that even students with mild to moderate disabilities may overcome their learning gaps to avoid the need for IEP plans.
3. Playing to the strengths of special educators — Special education teachers work best when they are prepared for behavior and medical issues, well-trained in general education teaching methods, and play to their academic strength in push-in general education settings. Training that offers big returns for very little cost include CPR programs, Nonviolent Crisis Prevention & Intervention Training (CPI), de-escalation techniques, co-teaching best practices, and sample well-written IEP present levels, goals and accommodations from which to draw. In addition, it is clear that some special education teachers may have expertise in specific content areas and should work in classrooms focused on math, social studies and English, based on their expertise. Some special educators who have backgrounds involving training in cutting-edge inclusive teaching practices can serve as leaders in guiding their general education colleagues on methods for accommodating students with disabilities (DM Group, 2023). They can instruct their peers on techniques including scaffolding, UDL, differentiating, equitable grading methods and an array of additional teaching frameworks to improve the learning experience of their students. Others are more effective in coordinating with parents, counselors, other teachers and outside providers to assess and manage the IEP process, including writing thorough IEPs and leading IEP meetings (DM Group, 2023). For those who feel strong in this area, encouragement to acquire larger student caseloads and direct focus towards case management responsibilities allows for more daily work satisfaction while freeing time for others to work directly with students (DM Group, 2023). Delegating tasks and shifting workload balance based on individual special education teacher interests can lead to an overall dramatic increase in productivity and job satisfaction among a special education department, while also increasing the homogeneity of the IEP process (Fikes, 2023).
4. Identifying trusted adults — All staff at school, but specifically counselors, teachers on special assignment and licensed therapists, must act as trusted adults for students. If the student is not able to identify a trusted adult, then designated staff members are contacted to meet with this student and work on creating a bond. This trusted adult serves as a mentor and active listener to support the student and make them feel welcome and accepted. Creating interventional homeroom classes with custom picked teachers who know their students will further help develop positive relationships.
5. Providing shared support to students with paraprofessionals — Paraprofessionals must be recruited internally and trained to avoid using expensive agencies. They then must be repurposed to support two or more students with special needs, or even an entire classroom of students to focus them on staying on task with schoolwork, behaviors, answering questions and organization while licensed teachers focus on teaching content. Reducing paraprofessional positions by half benefits a district through cost reduction and increasing student independence.
6. Consistent IEP and 504 meeting agendas and timing — Administrators overseeing special education must provide agendas for IEP and 504 meetings and monitor them closely, ideally limiting meetings to 30 minutes. With this best practice target in mind, meetings are efficient and cost significantly less to run when considering hourly pay per person at the meeting. Teacher feedback can be provided via email and read by the administrator to reduce the expense of substitute teachers and time needed during the meeting. Districts also create efficiencies by offering a rotating substitute to push into classrooms and relieve specific general education teachers to participate for no more than five minutes each. Limiting the amount of time that teachers, counselors and outside providers give their input to about five minutes allows everyone to take turns and get a chance to participate. It also serves as less time-consuming and burdensome for the parents and students, who unanimously prefer shorter meetings to limit the stress they create.
Reverse engineering the systems of support with the end goal of creating a more efficient and effective educational system requires careful and thorough planning.
7. Peer mentoring system – Successful and mature students, likely 11th and 12th graders, must be trained and placed in classroom settings at high school and junior high levels to support struggling students and those in need of extra help with academics. This peer mentoring approach offers successful students the chance to give back and help others while re-teaching material they know to solidify their knowledge (Hattie, 2009). It also provides free help for school systems and role models for struggling students to learn from those who have already mastered the curriculum in classes that seem challenging for some. Building positive relationships and leadership opportunities while increasing student outcomes is optimal for districts — peer mentoring is a key part of the solution. 8. Professional development and progress monitoring – All staff need to have extensive professional development on the various models for supporting students through IEPs, 504 plans and the MTSS process. Additionally, they need to be trained on co-teaching strategies and how to identify and teach students with a wide array of disabilities. Surveys should go out to all stakeholders including parents, teachers and students to gain insights into what is going well and where school-wide practices can improve. Specifically, the surveys should monitor academic, social and emotional outcomes with input taken seriously to drive improvements. An open-door policy from all administration and staff to work collaboratively with parents and students to reflect and continuously improve is crucial for success. Based on input from a wide range of educational partners, school systems need to prioritize resources and refocus efforts in directions that most benefit student outcomes. 9. Efficient use of resources as supports and interventions – Important internal resources including homeroom time, tutoring, teacher office hours and specific academic interventions from licensed teachers work much more effectively than the special education study hall classes to support academic learning and student outcomes. Specifically, after-school tutoring and lunch tutoring, plus options on Zoom as requested, provide needed academic support. Homerooms focused on math, reading, science, and Advanced Placement (AP) class further support learning. 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 use technology to share schedules, it allows for overlapping viewership, leading to understanding of current practices not only at individual schools but also across the entire district. Administrators and staff alike can contemplate the time school employees spend in meetings, the extent of the services provided in one-on-one or group form, and the amount of education provided by paraprofessionals. With the knowledge of current practices gained from this shared schedule method, district leaders gain increased capacity to insightfully plan roles to optimize the time and energy of all involved parties. 10. Providing high-quality in-district programs instead of outside programs – By hiring paraprofessionals internally and organizing classrooms for students with moderate-to-severe special needs, districts save money. The financial savings that result from removal of tuition to outside programs as well as the costs of transportation for the students can in turn be redirected toward in-district services and programs. It is optimal for districts to bring in supports and partner with local nonprofit counseling agencies, academic hospitals, graduate psychology programs and even mental health providers that are reimbursed by medical insurance companies to further expand social service offerings (DM Group, 2023). By utilizing the 10 best practices outlined above, positive change can be cultivated in any educational system. In general, these best practices are appropriate for most students with mild-to-moderate disabilities or no disability at all. As a side note, students with severe disabilities likely need a different approach. Reverse engineering the systems of support with the end goal of creating a more efficient and effective educational system requires careful and thorough planning. To implement these practices effectively, diligent efforts are required to reorganize workflow and scheduling, service delivery models, and roles and responsibilities of school site staff. All leaders within the district need to have clear communication with one another as well as educational partners, such as parents, counselors, students and outside providers, to make the system work. The problem is not the student, but rather the educational system and curricular design. In the interest of closing the achievement gap and improving student outcomes, school and district practices must be aligned in policies and resource allocation to advance curriculum design and teaching practices in order to progressively eliminate the need for special education. Implementing these 10 best practice solutions will take effort, but the longitudinal improvements will inevitably make weaning off of special education a worthwhile and fulfilling endeavor. References 10 best practices for Improving Special Education. DM Group. (2023). https://www.dmgroupk12.com/blog/10-best-practices-for-improving-special-education About universal design for learning. CAST. (2022, February 8). https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl Buli-Holmberg, J., & Jeyaprathaban, S. (2015, November 30). Effective practice in inclusive and special needs education. International Journal of Special Education. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1099986 Cardinal, D. N., Griffiths, A. J., Maupin, Z. D., & Fraumeni-McBride, J. (2020, July 7). An investigation of increased rates of autism in U.S. public schools. Wiley Online Library. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pits.22425 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, April 4). Data & statistics on autism spectrum disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html Feldman, J. (2023, October 12). Grading for equity by Joe Feldman. Grading for Equity. https://gradingforequity.org/ Fikes, M. (2023, April 10). Teaching strategies for special education. ECAP Blog-Texas Teacher Certification Information. https://blog.ecapteach.com/teaching-strategies-for-special-education Greenberg, S. H. (2022, May 2). More students report psychological disabilities. Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/05/03/more-students-report-psychological-disabilities Brenda Clarke, Ed.D., M.B.A., is assistant principal of Student Outcomes overseeing Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, student services (including 504 plans), and special education, as well as assessments, fiscal resource allocation, and academic curriculum and instructional programs at Santa Barbara High School.