Quick--think special education. The typical district leader groans at high costs, paperwork and inefficiency. The assessment is frighteningly accurate, but a few districts are bucking the status quo by embracing technology.
Special education can eat districts alive, confirms Clark Easter, founder and chairman of 4GL School Solutions, Inc. It devours 20 percent to 25 percent of the average district's budget with only 11 percent to 12 percent of students. Many special education teachers spend nearly half of the day buried under piles of paper. Inequitable resource allocation, staff burnout and turnover and near-zealous focus on compliance rather than instruction further complicate the scene.
But special education need not drain wallets or staff. A handful of districts have deployed technology-based special education management systems to save time and money and better serve special education students.
The Short History of Special Education Data Management
When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1977 districts struggled with its requirements. "It was not uncommon for educators completing special education census counts to lay out reams of green bar paper in hallways and cross check and hand count names," recalls Sam Dempsey, division director exceptional children programs for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools.
During the 1980s many school districts replaced labor-intensive processes with software programs that promised to simplify the special education requirements. Most failed. Many software products made the data management more cumbersome with online forms that did not replicate paper forms teachers used. In states like California with dual tracking systems, data entry was duplicated as the software lacked relational databases that could link forms.
By the end of the 1990s, districts had collectively poured millions into ineffective software products. Many are understandably suspicious about investing in another fix.
But the latest special education software solutions have overcome the problems that plagued their predecessors. Today the software fits the process, says Dempsey. This means technology can streamline and improve processes, enabling districts to save money. Technology-based systems also provide a rich source of data, which can be mined to improve service and instruction.
Software Under the Microscope
In 1999, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools looked for a better way to manage its special education department. The North Carolina district--with 70 schools, 7,500 special education students and 1,000 special education staff-- reallocated $2 million on special education management software from 4GL School Solutions.
The software, Encore, gave administrators the ability to accurately analyze each teacher's caseload. The program masters a feat that's tough for most administrators and teachers; it embeds hundreds of federal, state and local special education rules in its forms to ensure compliance. How does it work? If a teacher checks a box indicating a student has behavior concerns, the software inserts a flag to remind the teacher to complete the required behavior intervention plan. "In the paper world a teacher can check yes to a question that requires a follow-up form or plan and forget about it. Then you're non-compliant," explains Dempsey. With software checking compliance, staff can concentrate on instructional quality instead of compliance.
Another improvement is the ability to pre-fill common, redundant data like names, birth dates and grade level from a demographic database. "This saves a tremendous amount of time and effort for teachers and eliminates data entry errors," Dempsey says. The online forms look like old paper forms, which helps teachers transition into the brave new world of high-tech data collection. The software automatically updates all versions of each form, which means no one ever picks up the wrong version.
The software has translated into some powerful results in the North Carolina district. "The average length of time for an IEP meeting has dropped by 40 percent," estimates Dempsey. "Teachers aren't scrambling for different versions of a form or wondering which form comes next; the system highlights what's needed." The minutes shaved from IEP tasks have a multiplier effect--each of the district's 7,500 special education students may require three to four meetings annually with three to five teachers in attendance. "That's time and money that can be redirected to instruction and support services for children," Dempsey explains. As teachers regained time, performance among special ed students improved--including a 20 percent gain in reading scores.
Dempsey adds improved customer service to the list of advantages of the technology-based system. "If you know the program is going to handle forms, you can focus on talking about the student when meeting with parents. The IEP becomes higher quality time for parents and teachers."
Intra-district inequities have been eliminated. It's not uncommon for the loudest teachers or wealthiest schools to secure more resources. There may be fewer kids or more aides in a self-contained classroom, or one itinerant speech therapist may have a caseload of 15 students while another sees 40. Administrators are provided with real-time measurements of student numbers and service needs so they can implement caseload-based staffing. In Winston-Salem, administrators refer to a black-and-white self-contained classroom staffing plan:
6 to 10 students = 1 teacher
11 to 13 students = 1 teacher + 1 aide
14 or more students = 1 teacher + 2 aides
Prepping for Technology-Based Special Education Management
High-tech, online special education processes represent a dramatic departure from traditional means of tracking and managing special education data. Traditional methods are certainly less efficient, but most teachers are familiar with pen-and-paper options. Hence, training is required.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools employed an incremental approach to staff development and initiated training at high schools. The rationale was simple. High schools house multiple special education teachers, who could support each other during the transition to technology-based data management. After high schools were running efficiently, Dempsey turned to middle schools and then elementary schools.
At the building level, Dempsey divided teachers into multiple categories. "We started with anxious, high-energy teachers and then moved on to the willing. Initially, we bypassed resistant teachers," explains Dempsey. When the district was ready to mandate the software, it had created a wide pool of successful users, essentially allowing the technology to sell itself to the reluctant and resistant.
San Diego Public Schools, another special education management systems user, employed a rapid rollout of the Encore software, beginning a pilot in December 2003 and banishing hand-written IEPs by September 2004.
Carolyn Nunes, director of special education operations says the district opted for a fast-track approach when it realized the difficulties of storing and accessing information in multiple systems as students moved among schools. The issue is key in San Diego, which has a high number of transient students.
The district managed to train its 2,000 special education teachers by bringing teachers to central training sessions and offering ongoing phone support and help camps. "The challenge with training is that the system embeds the law, so we need to train teachers about the law," notes Nunes. Paper systems allow teachers to overlook some legal requirements, but the software does not allow teachers to close a non-compliant IEP. This feature has been misconstrued as a technical glitch by some San Diego teachers; more than a few frantic teachers have called the help desk complaining that the software would not close an IEP. Usually, the IEP is non-compliant. Phone support trainers walk teachers through the error and remedy the situation.
Software training is an ongoing process. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools professional development has merged with software development. When the district realized the software was perfectly suited to performing repetitive tasks, Dempsey asked teachers to create a list of common objectives. Instead of requiring teachers to type and re-type common objectives and benchmarks, teachers refer to a bank of objectives and benchmarks that can be auto inserted in the IEP and edited as needed. "This lifts the burden off teachers. Why re-invent the wheel with every IEP?" asks Dempsey.
Data Mining: The Next Level
Technology-based special education management certainly improves special education; however, the next level of software implementation promises to have an even greater impact. "The most exciting part about this is where we are headed," Dempsey says. The software gives the district the ability to link instruction to special education outcomes. If research indicates a given curriculum is a good approach for high-functioning learning disabled kids, the district can analyze standardized test results to determine how students taught with that curriculum perform compared to kids taught with other methods. As test results are linked with instructional practices the district can connect the dots and use data to deliver staff development and training and make budget decisions based on student outcomes.
In San Diego, the district is aiming for a concrete assessment of the software via a four-part case study.
The district plans to analyze previous processes, current software use, quantity and quality of information captured in the online IEP and how data is used. The case study will show that the district has moved beyond completing assessments and IEPs on time and implemented a more data-driven system, predicts Nunes. "We'll be able to identify strategies that work and develop more effective methods of allocating resources," Nunes explains.
Dempsey has another way of summarizing the impact of effective technology-based special education management systems. "This software gives us the potential to realize the promise of IDEA."
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.