Special education is a broad and complex topic that can intimidate educators and board members alike. Even the most seasoned administrators can find themselves second-guessing prior knowledge, questioning new legislation, or needing a second (or third!) opinion on a matter outside of their area of expertise. While there is so much to know about this evolving field, the efficacy of a special education program can be optimized with a focus on systems and intentional planning. Thinking critically about how your district approaches professional development, instructional intervention, and finance will support a thriving and integrated special education program.
Ensure Teachers are Trained and Supported
The most important thing school boards should know about special education is that it is a field in crisis. Every year, the percentage of students receiving special education increases, and every year more special educators leave the field. For every special educator that leaves, a district will spend, on average, $25,000 to replace them. This adds up to a billion-dollar problem annually, nation-wide. Research indicates, however, that when teachers are adequately supported and trained, they remain in their positions. To ensure teachers in your district or charter are receiving adequate support and training, some questions you might ask are:
- How does the special education department onboard a new teacher and mentor them while they are new in their career?
- What training is provided on a regular basis to all teachers in the special education department to ensure confidence, compliance, and competence in their work?
- How are teachers in the special education department supported emotionally? Do they have regular opportunities to connect with other special education teachers to dialogue about their days and feel their challenges are understood?
Optimize Your Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
Another key to the success of any special education program actually begins with ensuring pathways to success for every student through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS describes a framework for tiered instructional delivery, wherein students receive targeted supports aligned to their needs in the areas of academics and behavior. In a district that implements this well, the needs of all learners are met through research-based instruction, struggling learners are identified early and provided targeted interventions, and data within and between the tiers of instruction is reviewed regularly to inform instruction. Many districts, however, struggle to implement MTSS well for a variety of reasons, including lack of funding for interventionist positions, lack of training and buy-in for staff, and attempts to replicate something that worked well for another district that doesn’t meet the unique needs in your district or charter. When MTSS are not in place or are functioning poorly, this often leads to over-referral of students in special education. Without the opportunity to attempt and respond to intervention services designed to their needs, struggling learners are referred to special education evaluation. This can lead to a steady stream of inappropriate referrals to special education that increases costs and workload for the department. If your district is in the early phases of developing MTSS, consider how your district will assess their current resources, staffing, curriculum, and student needs in order to have a successful implementation. If your district already has MTSS, consider how oversight and problem-solving function to support students and staff.
Identify Your Finance Expert
A final critical component to the success of your special education program, and the stability of your district or charter, is fiscal compliance. It is crucial that every district and charter have as a member of their administrative team an expert in the complicated topic of special education funding. Special education funding is difficult to predict for many districts and is highly-regulated. Districts and charters who misspend special education funds are subject to having them withheld in subsequent years and increased monitoring by the Minnesota Department of Education. All districts and charters must implement policies and procedures in compliance with the Uniform Grant Guidance to ensure special education funds are spent appropriately and with careful oversight. A further financial challenge is the increasing cost of providing special education services to students. Now more than ever, districts and charters are challenged to think creatively about how to meet the needs of their students with fewer resources and limited options. An expert on special education funding can make a world of difference in this area by thinking strategically about the unique needs in your district or charter and developing a portfolio of cost-effective resources to utilize.
Special education can have a great impact on the health and wellness of your district or charter. Taking the time to work through these recommendations and think critically about your systems, resources, and staffing will ensure your special education program has stability and a positive influence on your district as a whole for years to come.