Solutions in Special Education: Smart Districts Use Tech-Based Approaches to Keep Special Education Requirements from Draining Staff and Budgets

Article excerpt

QUICK--think special education.

The typical district leader groans at high costs, paperwork and inefficiency. The assessment is frighteningly accurate, but a few districts are bucking the status quo by embracing technology.

Special education can eat districts alive, confirms Clark Easter, founder and chairman of 4GL School Solutions, Inc. It devours 20 percent to 25 percent of the average district's budget with only 11 percent to 12 percent of students. Many special education teachers spend nearly half of the day buried under piles of paper. Inequitable resource allocation, staff burnout and turnover and near-zealous focus on compliance rather than instruction further complicate the scene.

But special education need not drain wallets or staff. A handful of districts have deployed technology-based special education management systems to save time and money and better serve special education students.

The Short History of Special Education Data Management

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1977 districts struggled with its requirements. "It was not uncommon for educators completing special education census counts to lay out reams of green bar paper in hallways and cross check and hand count names," recalls Sam Dempsey, division director exceptional children programs for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools.

During the 1980s many school districts replaced labor-intensive processes with software programs that promised to simplify the special education requirements. Most failed. Many software products made the data management more cumbersome with online forms that did not replicate paper forms teachers used. In states like California with dual tracking systems, data entry was duplicated as the software lacked relational databases that could link forms.

By the end of the 1990s, districts had collectively poured millions into ineffective software products. Many are understandably suspicious about investing in another fix.

But the latest special education software solutions have overcome the problems that plagued their predecessors. Today the software fits the process, says Dempsey. This means technology can streamline and improve processes, enabling districts to save money. Technology-based systems also provide a rich source of data, which can be mined to improve service and instruction.

Software Under the Microscope

In 1999, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Schools looked for a better way to manage its special education department. The North Carolina district--with 70 schools, 7,500 special education students and 1,000 special education staff--reallocated $2 million on special education management software from 4GL School Solutions.

The software, Encore, gave administrators the ability to accurately analyze each teacher's caseload. The program masters a feat that's tough for most administrators and teachers; it embeds hundreds of federal, state and local special education rules in its forms to ensure compliance. How does it work? If a teacher checks a box indicating a student has behavior concerns, the software inserts a flag to remind the teacher to complete the required behavior intervention plan. "In the paper world a teacher can check yes to a question that requires a follow-up form or plan and forget about it. Then you're non-compliant," explains Dempsey. With software checking compliance, staff can concentrate on instructional quality instead of compliance.

Another improvement is the ability to pre-fill common, redundant data like names, birth dates and grade level from a demographic database. "This saves a tremendous amount of time and effort for teachers and eliminates data entry errors," Dempsey says. The online forms look like old paper forms, which helps teachers transition into the brave new world of high-tech data collection. The software automatically updates all versions of each form, which means no one ever picks up the wrong version. …