Oct 7, 2014 by Will J. Gordillo
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Special Ed RDAThe U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) announced a major shift in the way it oversees the effectiveness of states’ special education programs. Until now, OSEP revealed that its primary focus was to determine whether states were meeting procedural requirements such as timelines for evaluations, due process hearings, and transitioning children into preschool services. While these compliance indicators remain important to children and families, under the new framework known as Results-Driven Accountability (RDA), the Department will also include educational results and outcomes for students with disabilities (SWDs) in making each state’s annual determination under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Each state will also begin to issue their school districts an annual determination that is aligned to their own data on educational results and outcomes for SWDs. This will encourage each school district to be more cognizant of the impact that each school’s data for SWDs will have on their district’s determination and work closely with schools to improve instruction and provide targeted evidence-based practices and interventions to struggling SWDs. This change in accountability represents another significant raising of the bar for special education. The “shift” towards RDA will have a great impact in refocusing the priorities of state education agencies, school districts, and schools by sharpening the focus on what is happening instructionally in classrooms to promote educational benefits and improve outcomes and results for SWDs. How will these changes affect your school or district? 

Throughout my tenure overseeing the provision of special education and ensuring compliance with IDEA in school districts, I have been a strong advocate for systems change that is focused on student performance in order to continue to redefine special education and help it regain its groove.  Some of the things most valued in terms of impacting outcomes for SWD include focusing on serving students in the least restrictive environment (LRE), promoting inclusive practices, implementing evidenced based practices and interventions, closing the achievement gap on standardized assessments, reducing suspension rates, reducing drop-outs, and increasing graduation rates towards attainment of successful post-secondary school outcomes.  

These indicators for success are now moving to the forefront of accountability. Some progress has been made throughout the years but we are still not bridging the gap significantly and disparities in student performance between disabled and non-disabled peers continue to grow.  Common Core implementation has raised the bar on rigor and expectations for all students and there is a valid concern that the gap for SWDs will continue to grow based on the historical trend data and outcomes for this subgroup. There is great potential to redefine the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process by placing a greater collective emphasis on how educational benefit is provided to the student through specially designed instruction, accommodations, and evidence-based practices and interventions as well as how well their fidelity of implementation is monitored and recorded for SWDs served in both general education and special education settings.  

This new RDA framework encourages some reflections.

As educators, we must always presume competence. It is important to remember that the majority of SWDs will receive instruction in the standard curriculum and will follow a standard diploma pathway towards graduation.  IDEA is founded on principles that all SWDS are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) in the LRE and the IEP documents the processes of addressing the needs of the students in accordance with all the requirements of this federal law. We must also remember that the “I” in “IEP” stands for “Individual” and stop expecting SWDs to deliver the same results at the same pace and in the same ways that their non-disabled peers do. Their ways and rate of learning may be somewhat different, but “different” doesn’t mean “less.” The word “individual” should also apply to the ways in which they are instructed and provided evidence-based practices and interventions as well as how their progress is measured. It’s not just about standardized test results but also about measuring against their own individual histories and not solely compared to the history of other student’s records. SWDs often need more time to master concepts and specialized approaches that are proven to be effective based on their instructional needs, measured performance, and recognized disability. If the same evidence-based practice or intervention is being delivered to a SWD that all other students are also receiving and is not working, then it’s time to try another one that is more individualized and addresses the presenting needs of the student while considering the context of his or her disability.

So what could a “shift” towards RDA look like in both general education and special education classroom settings in the future?

  1. Standards-based IEPs are written to provide access to instruction and research-based interventions for SWDs by teachers who can align IEP goals and Common Core Standards confidently while implementing and monitoring them with fidelity.
  2. Early intervention is provided to struggling learners with a greater focus on language and literacy first with the goal of all students reading by 3rd grade.
  3. Instruction in the content areas is provided to SWDs who are following a standard curriculum pathway in the general education setting first.
  4. The neediest SWDs with deficits in language and literacy are scheduled first for interventions on the master schedule in general or special education classroom settings in accordance with the IEP.
  5. Evidence-based practices and interventions are selected and matched to address the individualized needs of SWDs.
  6. Flexible scheduling is implemented by grouping clusters of SWDs in the general education classrooms based on similar instructional needs to effectively provide specially designed instruction and implementing evidence-based practices and interventions with co-teaching or in-class supports by a special education teacher.
  7. Personnel resources are efficiently scheduled to provide co-teaching or in-class supports to SWDs by special education teachers in general education classroom settings.
  8. Paraeducators are shared to assist multiple SWDs and provide individual or small group instruction under the direction of the teacher and help scaffold access to instruction in the common core standards.
  9. Processes that monitor the fidelity of implementation of accommodations, specially designed instruction, evidenced-based practices, and interventions are clearly delineated in the IEPs of SWDs.
  10. Universal design for learning, accommodations, and assistive technology are used and clearly evident in both general education and special education classroom settings to address the individual needs of SWDs.
  11. Facilitated classroom environments that incorporate specially designed instruction delivered in group rotations with stations that provide multiple opportunities for learning (e.g. direct instruction, cooperative learning, individual seat work, virtual/online/computer-based learning, project-based) are evident during classroom observations.
  12. Instruction is extended beyond the classroom for SWDs using content that is accessible through multiple devices and can be used at home or in the community.
  13. Multiple diploma pathways are available that will provide options for SWDs to progress towards college career readiness, employment, and successful post-school graduation outcomes.
  14. Early warning systems will be in place to track SWDs who are at risk or not on track for graduation so that appropriate strategies can be implemented proactively.

In my upcoming webinar, How Can Special Education Regain Its “Specially Designed Instruction” Groove in the ERA of Results Driven Accountability (RDA)?, we will explore this topic further in order to gain a better perspective of what this “shift” towards RDA will look like in classroom settings serving SWDs in the future. Practical information will be provided that will assist practitioners, schools and districts to implement systems change so that strategies are aligned for success in this “shift” in accountability.

Further Reading:

New Accountability Framework Raises the Bar for State Special Education Programs

Florida Inclusion Network Website Resources

Inclusive Education Research & Practice (PDF)

Related reading:

Assessing ELLs for Special Education: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid

Flipping the Classroom for Students With Learning Disabilities