Rethinking the Silo Mentality in Special Education

Rethinking the Silo Mentality in Special Education FundingHow a More Holistic Approach to Education Can Create Opportunities for Blending and Braiding Funds

As a condition for receiving access to federal funds, districts have recently been required to submit increasing amounts of data and evidence on how the funds will be used to positively impact student performance.  If you are a district leader managing or implementing programs utilizing federal funds, being able to prove with data that the funds are being used efficiently and effectively should become a top priority, not only in continuing to secure these funds, but also in ensuring that the funds are there to secure in the first place.

The reasons behind this tightening of the federal belt are myriad and perhaps obvious.  

  • For one, with the widespread use of digital technology in education and the emphasis upon data collection, there is more data than ever available for scrutiny.  With this abundance of data, it is easier than ever to determine whether the programs utilizing federal funds are actually impacting student outcomes.
  • Nationally, there is also a long-term fear over federal fiscal scarcity, especially as our country’s population ages. Whether or not these funds are actually helping students learn will be a top concern in whether or not they continue to be available.  The outcomes must justify the spending.
  • Finally, there is little evidence that recent reforms in education have been effective at all. Case in point, the latest test results released by Smarter Balanced point to record-high achievement gaps in California, despite a litany of expensive reforms that have been implemented over the past decade.

School Discipline | Special EducationNot surprisingly, recent data pertaining to discipline policies across the country, specifically suspensions, are fractured along similar lines as academic achievement, with gaps persisting between whites and minority and general and special education students. This brings to light an even larger concern beyond whether reforms and programs have been effective: have federally funded programs inadvertently disadvantaged the poor, minorities, and those with special needs? Have they, in effect, done more harm than good?

Educating the Whole Child

Given the lucid relationship between academic achievement, discipline, and behavior and corresponding issues of dis-proportionality amongst minority and special education students, the education world is slowly undergoing a sea change in its approach to improving student outcomes, with more emphasis upon educating the “whole” child, which has lead to increasing interest in programming related to social emotional learning, behavior support, and restorative practices.

As holistic approaches of education become more prevalent, how the federal government provides funding to districts and how districts are expected to use these funds is also undergoing a change. New guidance on Title I from the Department of Education released in July 2015 optimized the flexibility of how districts can use schoolwide funds. To similar effect, the Association of Government Accountants distributed guidance earlier this year on the importance of blending and braiding funds to finance unique programming.

Behavior Support and the Silo Mentality in Special Education

When it comes to looking to more holistic approaches to education and funding, paying attention to how districts are funding behavior support programs is the perfect place to start, as providing effective behavior intervention and support has cross-cutting benefits for all students, including those who benefit from Title I, IDEA, and general education funds.  Additionally, research continues to indicate a direct relationship between decreases in problem behavior and improved student outcomes.  

NAFEPA Insights:  Funding Behavioral Management Survey

To better understand how districts are funding behavior support programs and whether or not this holistic approach to funding has taken hold amongst district leaders, Rethink commissioned the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators (NAFEPA) to conduct a survey of district administrators.  

What the survey found was not surprising.

  • First, behavior support programs tend not to be district-wide, but are instead school based and supported by local funds.  Due to obsolete categorical funding rules, behavior support programs tend to be silo and have not been incorporated as a part of a broader strategy.
  • Second, the reason most district leaders maintain the status-quo as far as funding is concerned is not an issue of policy, but one of personality and politics: “This is how we’ve always done it,” sang the chorus in unison.

Special Education Funding Key Takeaways

So how do we get out of this silo mentality, both in how we develop programming and in how we fund it?

Chrisandra Richardson, the associate superintendent, Office of Special Education and Student Services at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), former director of their Title I program, and vice president of NAFEPA says it starts with a willingness to collaborate. “At the district level, we have to take the responsibility for getting out of chairs, walking down the hall, and aligning with our Title I colleagues,” she explained.

Throughout her tenure at MCPS, Richardson has worked hard to resist falling into the silo mentality by collaborating with her colleagues in Title I and Early Education to develop creative district programming that paves the way for the blending and braiding of funds.

Below are some of the ways MCPS has taken a more holistic approach to educating their students and has blended and braided funds in order to do so.

  • Professional Development Across Certifications and Specialties:  

“All teachers need to be teachers of students with disabilities, just like all teachers need to be teachers of English Language Learners” explained Richardson.  

This mentality has opened up opportunities to use funding in unique ways, particularly in regards to professional development. If the goal is for all students to be included, then ensuring that general education teachers receive professional development in how to effectively teach students with special needs is imperative to their success.

One example of how MCPS has been able to provide PD to non-special education teachers using IDEA funds is through the implementation of a successful math intervention program in their Title I schools. The district began by looking at some data to identify Title I schools that were under-performing in math. They then used IDEA dollars to go into these schools and provide job-embedded professional development for teachers, ongoing coaching, and opportunities for teachers to have the time for reflection and sharing student work and student data.  Title I dollars then supplemented the effort.  If there were materials needed for specific interventions for instance, they would use the Title I dollars to buy the necessary materials and the IDEA dollars to pay for teacher substitutes or for the coaches.

“We saw just what you’d hope to see,” said Richardson, “not only changes in student achievement in mathematics, but also really clear changes in teacher behavior in terms of planning together and appropriately matching instruction to the student.  It wrapped up all those best-practices we talk about when it comes to professional development and put them together.”

  • Centralized Behavior Support:

Like most districts, MCPS’ PBIS programming is funded through local dollars, but it is centrally operated and supplemented with other Behavior Support programming at the district level. Specifically, they use their IDEA dollars to provide a core of their staff in every one of their schools intensive training in de-escalation strategies.  Even though PBIS is funded locally and not by federal dollars, it really supports all students in the schools where it is being implemented, including those with disabilities, providing yet another example of blended and braided funding to support all students.

MCPS also used the 15% of their IDEA funds they were required to set aside for early intervening services to provide teachers training in cultural competence to address issues of disproportionality in special education, again pertaining to behavior support.

Richardson says that focusing first and foremost on school climate can help districts and schools determine the best ways for providing effective behavior support.

  • Full Day Head Start:

One of the most creative ways the district has been able to blend and braid funds to support education of the whole child is through a full-day Head Start program.

Beginning with the data and the research on the importance of pre-school for students with the high rates of poverty, the district decided to make full-day Head Start available for all students in the district’s Title I schools that offer Head Start. Federal head start dollars funded a 3-hour Head Start program with Title I dollars going toward funding the remaining hours of the day. Local dollars went into ensuring that all teachers in the Head Start program were certified. And because many special education students were also attending Head Start, MCPS was able to use IDEA dollars for any supplemental needs these students required (a speech therapist for instance).

  • Looking Across the Government for Additional Funding:

In response to recent research about disproportionality in suspension data, the state of Maryland recently changed its policy around suspensions, and started thinking about suspension as a last result.  In response, MCPS looked at the certain data around suspensions, including how suspension relates to the so-called school to prison pipeline and began to think creatively about what they could do to reduce suspension and put interventions in place before students get suspended.

As Maryland was changing its regulations, the district began thinking about how they could change their practices.  They ended up focusing more on implementing a restorative practices model.  To fund this program they were able to access some grant money through the University of Maryland.

The Department of Justice has also put out projects the last two years looking at alternatives to suspending students.  While MCPS did not receive a DOJ grant, Richardson stressed that it is worthwhile for districts to look beyond the department of education and across the government for competitive funding.

When it comes to getting beyond the silo mentality and blending and braiding funds to educate all students, several things are required: first, district decision makers must commit to educating the whole child, whether this means investing in non-academic support for Title I students or professional development for general education teachers in educating students with special needs. It is also crucial that programming decisions are informed by the available data. Using research on effective programming alongside data collected by schools can make all the difference on the ROI of the dollars being spent.  Finally, none of this can happen without people being willing to talk to one another, collaborate, and think of themselves as a team working with one goal in mind:  helping all students reach their personal and academic potential.

To hear Chrisandra Richardson talk more in depth about how she has blended and braided funds in Montgomery County Public Schools, view Rethink’s recent webinar on finding creative ways to fund district-wide behavior support.

View Webinar

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