The Burden of Compliance
Although not perfect, the legislation has certainly made a difference. However, even today, delivering on IDEA is no easy feat. With government emphasis on compliance, everyone must work together to ensure the core process, dictated by regulations, is adhered to. Administrators and clerical staff are challenged to manage this complex process and negotiate the legal terrain to ensure that all steps are completed and documented on time. Districts are responsible for aggregating special education data and reporting regularly to the state, which in turn reports to the federal government. Failure to comply with regulations could result in loss of federal funding.
It is costly not only to implement, monitor, and measure the process but also to deliver individualized services and instruction. This challenge is recognized by the federal government, which has the noble intention of funding up to 40 percent of special education, but today funds just 16.5 percent. State and local governments typically are asked to make up the difference. In fact, states are discouraged from reducing special education spending by the IDEA Maintenance of Effort provision, which seeks to protect students with disabilities from harmful budget cuts by forcing states to provide funding that is at least equal to the prior year’s spending.
Ongoing Technological Revolutions in Special Education
In the beginning, the process was managed with checklists and paper documents and filed in cabinets. It was difficult to expose compliance failures or aggregate data for analysis and state reporting. These tasks required a lot of time, resources, and manual coordination —leaving plenty of room for human error.
In the early 1990s, software became available to help manage and automate regulatory requirements. Although commonplace today, special education administration software has revolutionized the management of special education. If it were solely about compliance, it would be a fairy tale ending. IDEA, though, was never intended to be about compliance but about leveling the playing field for students with special needs through personalized instruction and sufficient supports. This presents its own challenges, some of which may lead to the next revolution in special education that ultimately may positively affect education for all students.
Today, delivering on IDEA is further complicated by a shortage of qualified professionals to work with students affected by complex disabilities. Districts need to recruit and maintain highly trained staff from an already shallow pool — a problem that is sometimes compounded by geographical location. This has led some districts to experiment with outsourcing some or even all of their special education services to outside educational agencies or for-profit businesses. The goal is to have access to qualified resources that will work closely with district educators and the students to maintain a seamless educational experience. Another option, which could complement outsourcing, is the virtual delivery of services. For example, if a district has trouble finding certified speech pathologists in the area, it can hire someone who lives 500 miles away. Services then can be professionally administered remotely with a paraeducator or parent by the student’s side.
Technology that allows for effective personal interaction, a necessary component of special education, is rapidly becoming a staple in U.S. schools. Many districts are already using teleconferences, web conferences, email, and web-based software to virtualize special education meetings. Supplementing special education with virtual services is likely to be not only a viable option, but a beneficial one, helping to ensure that individualized instruction and services are delivered by qualified professionals.
Getting to the Heart of IDEA
At the heart of IDEA is the notion of educating students with disabilities, to the extent reasonable, in a general education setting with their non-disabled peers. Known as Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), this is a pillar of special education reform.
The intent of LRE is to ensure students with disabilities receive FAPE by offering them similar resources and opportunities as students without disabilities. In practice, this is commonly thought of as educating students with special needs in a regular education environment with additional supports, which is referred to as “mainstreaming” or “inclusion.” Arguably a noble and worthwhile pursuit, its implementation is fraught with complexity.
General education teachers need to be familiar with and sometimes assist in accommodating the special needs of their students. Considering the wide breadth of disabilities and associated accommodations, modifications, and behavioral implications, this can be a daunting challenge. Special educators must work closely with content educators to ensure the special needs of these students are adequately addressed. Often times a co-teaching model is implemented, where content and special education teachers work collaboratively in the classroom. Paraeducators can also provide support for content teachers and special educators by helping to implement the student’s IEP.
Inclusion Drives Collaboration
Inclusion classrooms will be even more important as standards-based curriculums, benchmarks, and grow indicators become the norm. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced a plan to rollout a revised IDEA evaluation process called “results-driven accountability.” Although compliance indicators will still be measured, states will be evaluated on academic performance of students with disabilities. Districts will be obligated to ensure that these students are not only serviced properly but that they are benefiting and advancing through their individualized instruction. In this process, educators will have to work as a team to craft and deliver standard-based approaches that include the necessary supports and appropriate scaffolds for students with disabilities.
One thing is certain: collaboration is essential. Parents, educators, psychologists, services providers, and the student often work as a team to define and implement an IEP. When it comes to delivering individualized instruction, communication and coordination is very difficult. Introducing outsourced and virtual services may only exacerbate this problem.
It is likely that we will see special education administration software begin focusing on connecting all the educational stakeholders. Technology will not only continue to improve internal communication and coordination, but also remove geographic boundaries, allowing students to work with qualified educators from around the world. Today there is no shortage of models for virtualizing the delivery of education. Virtual schools, blended learning, the flipped classroom, and learning management systems all leverage technology to provide alternate ways to deliver content, impart knowledge, and improve education. In fact, they all seek to nurture the same basic principle of special education — an individualized education. If collaborative instruction and virtual services can work for students with special needs, it might just work for all students.
The Realization of Individualized Learning
It may not be long before individualized education is a reality for all students. Districts working with Response to Intervention and Individual Learning Plans are already dabbling with personalized education and providing students with custom services and supports to correct deficiencies and nurture strengths. A collaborative framework facilitated by technology may allow these programs and other innovative initiatives to flourish. What if content instructors were specialists and were able to teach from anywhere in the world? What if students sit in a classroom with their peers but are instructed remotely, with paraeducators providing classroom management and individualized support? What if a student’s education team could work together to adjust curriculum and supports real time — at home, virtually and in the classroom?
Ideally, this collaborative framework would build off of existing information systems, affording the team instant access to relevant data that enables student-centric action. This may not be what the future holds for education. But one thing is certain: if special education can successfully deliver individualized education programs and leverage technology for new levels of collaboration and virtualization, the rest of the education community should pause and take notice.