IDEA guidance: How districts can strengthen their special education programs

Special education programs must have benchmarks and processes that allow districts to measure and adjust interventions for each student.
Jaime Sowers
Jaime Sowers
Jaime Sowers is the clinical advisory team director at Blazerworks, which partners with schools to support school psychology, occupational and speech therapy, and special education departments. Before joining BlazerWorks, Jaime spent three years as the special education director for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico.

In July, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs acknowledged guidance to reinforce and strengthen the rights and protections guaranteed to children with disabilities and their families under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The guidance document addresses states’ responsibilities for overseeing local districts (as required under Part B) and early intervention programs and providers (as required under Part C).

The guidance comes after nearly half the states reported noncompliance with IDEA Parts B and C. In 2022-2023, the department reported that only 22 states (and territories) met IDEA Part B requirements. Other data reveals that students with IEPs lag behind their peers post-graduation. Twenty-two states saw declining graduation rates among students with disabilities in 2020-21, compared with 10 states the previous year, according to an Edweek report.

In 2019, the adjusted cohort graduation rate for students with disabilities was 18 percentage points lower than for all public school students on average, according to The Institute of Education Sciences. By providing this guidance, the federal government looks to districts and states to help improve these outcomes.

Success starts with district-level goal-setting

Research shows that closing the achievement gap at a younger age can change the whole scope of a child’s life. However, you can only predict what students can accomplish in 12th grade if you understand what they know and can do at age 3 or 4. That’s why schools and districts must build into their special education programs benchmarks and processes that allow them to measure and adjust interventions throughout a child’s academic career.

First, districts must establish those metrics, working backward to determine:

  • What they want high school graduates to know and be able to do after graduation.
  • What students with disabilities need to be successful in high school.
  • How they’ll accommodate and modify standards to ensure students with disabilities can access them.

While this work is relatively straightforward, it comes at a time when schools nationwide are experiencing significant special education staffing shortages. These districts may also lack the technological infrastructure to measure targeted outcomes and build interventions to address any shortfalls. However, the sooner districts start putting these pieces in place, the sooner they can move the needle on student outcomes.

Leverage technology to guide IDEA monitoring and reporting

While federal and state agencies may establish the lion’s share of guidelines, growth targets or objectives for districts, local educators must put management systems in place that give them an accurate picture of where their learners are right now, what activities need to be completed and what interventions are working.

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By using technology platforms that manage IDEA workflows, including IEP intake, evaluation and review deadlines, local educators can more easily manage the operational aspects of IDEA compliance. However, the more challenging part of ensuring compliance and student improvement involves regularly running and analyzing reports from those systems to answer essential questions such as:

  • Are we spending federal IDEA money appropriately?
  • Are we meeting the metrics we’ve set?
  • Have we appropriately addressed all previous findings?
  • Are our special education programs and outcomes in our five-year strategic plan?

Throughout the process, administrators should explain to teachers why IDEA asks for us to put in all of these tools and measures that are in place for children. OSEP isn’t looking to find fault with a particular district or state; they’ve put these guidelines in place so that kids with disabilities have the same opportunities as other students—and we know they’re going to need some extra help to get there.

Be proactive and transparent with your state agency

Everyone from the federal government down to the state expects 100% compliance, but they also understand how difficult it is to achieve that. However, reaching 99% compliance still means there’s one child whose needs might not have been met completely, and that matters. If your district finds that it is out of compliance, it’s important to catch where you’re falling short early, so you can start making those changes and alert your state well in advance of reporting.

By putting systems in place to catch any instance of noncompliance, districts can get in front of it and correct it before it becomes an external issue. While we may not hit every target, understanding where and why we’re off the mark yields major improvements at the programmatic and student levels. Most of all, we must remember that behind every target is a kid. It’s not about completing paperwork or achieving an outcome—it’s a child’s success and future livelihood.

By building trust within the district, including educators and families early in the process and keeping lines of communication open, you can often address issues before they become official complaints of noncompliance.

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