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How Better Student Data Can Improve Special Services Education

Michael Nutter

May 9, 2018

Data-driven decision-making is a key part of effective special education, both in the classroom and at the administrative level.

The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (subsequently renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) was a landmark moment for the American education system. Prior to 1975, public schools only accommodated one of every five students with special learning needs — four decades later, roughly six million students receive special services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) every year.

While it’s clear that we’ve made a lot of progress, far too many educators still struggle to ensure that each and every one of their students receives an education that is tailored to their unique needs. This is largely because most districts have failed to place a premium on effective use of student data, says Schoolrunner Founder & CEO Charlie Coglianese.

“The idea that teachers would use data to make sure every student gets the support they need seems intuitive,” he writes in a piece for EdWeek Market Brief. “But it doesn’t happen in most schools, in part because they lack the right technology.”

Summarizing a conversation he had with Joe Gallagher, a Student Supports Coordinator from Milwaukee, Coglianese points out that data — and the technology that supercharges it — helps teachers provide better, more targeted support not only to students with IEPs, but to all students.

Building Good Data Habits

According to Gallagher, “The accommodations that students receive under a tiered support structure or IEP result in differentiation that is actually the best practice for increasing the likelihood that every kid is going to be successful.”

In order to achieve this kind of personalized instruction, teachers need to embrace the power of student data. Effective differentiation involves adapting lesson plans for each student, a process that needs to be grounded in data-driven insights that can easily be referenced and shared with administrators, parents, and other outside-of-the-classroom stakeholders.

“If [a] teacher says, ‘Sarah’s been talking out of turn in class,’ the first question everyone is going to ask is, ‘How many times did Sarah talk out of turn in class?’ Was it five times or fifty times?” Gallagher explains. If the teacher doesn’t keep a detailed, verifiable record of Sarah’s disruptive behavior, it’s going to be hard to get an objective sense of how bad her behavioral issues are, especially if it’s being judged after the fact.

Even if a teacher doesn’t have a student with a clearly defined set of special needs, both Gallagher and Coglianese agree that it would benefit every educator to start “building the habits of using data” so that they’ll be prepared for any set of circumstances. “Analyzing data in the abstract can be a challenge for anyone,” Coglianese admits. “However, practicing data-driven strategies when you already have an intuition of what the answer should be is actually the best way to build confidence in your skills.”

Ensuring Maximum Funding for Special Education Services

Developing data literacy as early as possible is especially important for superintendents and district administrators. IEPs and similar programs are effective, but they’re also expensive: research shows that schools spend more than two times more in operating expenditures on students with learning-impairing disabilities than on non-disabled students.

Failing to report a single IEP can cost a district as much as $7,000 in lost funding. That’s why it’s absolutely essential that administrative stakeholders track all of their district’s special education activities with real precision.

Fortunately, with a powerful data management and verification tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS platform, superintendents and district administrators can rest easy knowing that all of their data will remain organized and accurate at all times. Schools need abundant resources to fully realize the promise of IDEA, and our CheckPoint platform is designed to ensure that they get every last penny to which they’re entitled.

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