K-12 Education

Improving Special Education: 4 Strategies For District Leaders

July 24, 2023  • Gene Pinkard

District leaders play a key role in ensuring that all students, including those with disabilities or learning differences, have access to a high-quality education. Through our engagements with superintendents and cabinet-level leaders from districts across the nation, we are surfacing promising practices for creating more inclusive student experiences that lead to a richer profile of success. These forward-thinking system leaders recognize that an integrated approach to special education results in more equitable opportunities for achievement.

Students with disabilities or learning differences bring a wealth of unique experiences and perspectives to the classroom. They can help their peers strengthen durable skills such as team-work, communication, and understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). These skills are top of mind with employers and are essential to preparing students for the future of work. An effective special education system can also increase overall graduation rates by helping close the 15.9% graduation rate gap between students in special education and the general population.

Here are four systematic approaches district leaders can take to support special education:

1. Leverage current DEI initiatives

Special education, with its roots in the Civil Rights movement, is a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. This framing allows districts to use existing DEI initiatives as a solution-oriented stance on supporting students who receive special education services. Instead of limiting thinking to the prevailing emphasis on compliance, educators can shift mindsets toward creating a sense of belonging and agency for and with all students within a system. Nearly every district we’ve encountered already has a starting place in its professional development and cultural investments in DEI. For example, these districts ensure “windows and mirrors” in curriculum, representation in staffing and engagement, and inclusive student leadership opportunities. When these same practices are applied to special education populations, all students benefit from improvements in instruction and access to services.

2. Capitalize on existing continuous improvement models

Districts already have the muscle memory for making data-driven decisions. They can use this ability to help reduce racialized disproportionality in special education and other areas. Popular routines for continuous improvement networks and formative data cycles are prime settings for disaggregating data in tiers of intervention and identification. Each juncture is an opportunity to ensure that interventions have the desired effect, and to identify “hot spots” and problematic trends. These are critical guides to differentiating support for students and staff who need it the most. One of the districts in our network utilized a “risk-ratio analysis” with a regional network of school leaders, and found that Hispanic students were 1.44 times more likely to have an IEP. School leaders then collaborated with curriculum and school supervision offices to develop school-based strategic plans and professional development to reverse these trends.

Careful attention to diagnostics—including indicators of climate and culture as noted below—benefits all students. The recent attention to the Science of Reading and the Science of Learning and Development is promising for all students. Improvements in core reading instruction and our knowledge of language acquisition improve our understanding of what students should know, and what teachers should do to help them become successful readers. This understanding can help to decrease overdiagnosis of reading-related disabilities.

3. Align special education with general classroom practices

Consider that what’s most effective in special education might also be what’s most efficient. Aligning essential practices in academic content areas and in special education increases the settings and services accessible to students. More inclusive practices—deploying teachers to co-serve students, rather than more restrictive pull-out and push-in models—benefit students with disabilities and the general population, while infusing additional teaching expertise into the mainstream for reading and other content areas. As a principal and principal supervisor, I found that general education and special education teachers were energized by the opportunity to collaborate in a classroom, especially in service of students that we knew needed more from us.

4. Use student experiences to inform interventions

Authentic student voice is a powerful tool. Districts can monitor the experiences of special education students in the areas of learning, disciplinary practices, and school climate to identify interventions that will support students’ academic progress and help develop more inclusive school climates. Research shows that school climate has a direct and profound impact on academic achievement, durable skills, and character development. A positive school climate also leads to increased student belonging, which in turn is linked to improved achievement and positive post-secondary outcomes. Several districts use survey tools such as Copilot-Elevate, Panorama, and the 5E’s to track students’ sense of belonging. So, student surveys and discipline data are important indicators of not only student wellness, but organizational health as well.

Gene Pinkard serves as Director, K-12 Leadership. A longtime educator and leader, he leads the Aspen Education urban district networks which support superintendents, chief academic officers, and other leaders as they deepen their learning and refine improvement strategies. Gene was most recently the Chief of School Design and Continuous Improvement at DC Public Schools, where he led school improvement, innovation, and strategic planning. Previously, Gene championed equity initiatives and social emotional and academic development in his roles as a principal supervisor for middle schools, and as principal in traditional public and charter schools. Gene currently serves as a board officer for the Folger Shakespeare Library and Honored, a national nonprofit supporting teachers. He has been an advisor on local and national media, adjunct graduate school faculty, and hosted the Aspen Ed & Society podcast “Tomorrow’s Principal.”