How to Upgrade the Improvement Planning Process for Special Education

Blog Post

By Andrew Henry

In the world of special education compliance, state officials typically give local school systems a compliance rating that focuses on whether they did, or didn’t, meet certain indicators. For the most part, it’s up to each school district to independently develop and implement a plan that will improve their numbers by the following year.

This is a pretty thin improvement process. While school systems often must submit their improvement plan to the state, there is rarely much active engagement between state and local officials in developing the plan. School district improvement plans too often focus on superficial corrective actions, instead of addressing the root cause of problems and making systemic changes that lead to real, improved outcomes.

A better special education improvement process would do two things: (1) look at comprehensive data to determine the underlying causes of noncompliance, and (2) have state and local education leaders collaborate to develop a robust improvement plan that addresses these larger systemic issues.

Identify underlying issues beneath the surface-level problem

Let’s look at process improvement through the lens of IT management, for example. In IT service management, there is a distinction between managing incidents and solving problems. A less mature IT organization focuses on each incident as a separate, discrete event that must be resolved. IT operations that are more mature look at the bigger picture, analyzing data to uncover patterns within service requests. They’re focused on addressing the root cause of incidents so these issues don’t happen again.

For instance, an IT director might notice there are many more service requests for one type of server than for the others on the network. Investigating further, he or she might conclude that this server model isn’t reliable and might replace it with a more dependable model, thus resolving the larger problem.

A similar approach should be applied to special education improvement planning. When a school system is found to be noncompliant for a certain indicator, there are often multiple factors contributing to this issue. Making surface-level changes without addressing the underlying causes of the problem isn’t likely to garner deep, long-lasting results. School systems must understand the true nature of the problem and address it systematically if they want to see lasting improvement.

Suppose a school district isn’t identifying students who need an IEP in a timely enough manner. Maybe there are too many students assigned to each staff member, and adding more personnel or shuffling responsibilities might address the problem. But maybe there are other factors involved as well. For instance, maybe the district’s internal procedures need to change in order to speed along the process.

There is an opportunity to understand the true nature of the problem by thoroughly examining all of the data collected around the IEP process. How long does it take to set a meeting? How are parents invited? Where is the process breaking down, and what’s delaying it? If an LEA can answer these deeper, more probing questions, they can make sure they’re comprehensively addressing the problem.

Engage state and local leaders to make systematic change

To be most effective, special education improvement planning should be a collaborative process. In addition to local collaboration, imagine if LEA’s had consistent access to Special Education experts outside their system to work with to develop solutions.

The state-level administrators who monitor compliance and provide technical assistance to school systems have a breadth of experience across many different academic environments. This gives them a perspective that might not be shared by a specialist with experience only with one single district. They can suggest tools and processes that local officials might not be aware of.

On the other hand, local education leaders have intimate knowledge of the context of their particular district, the challenges it faces, and the strengths and resources that it brings to the table.

Each entity has unique knowledge that can be harnessed to create continuous improvement plans with the best chances for success. The most effective relationship between district and state officials wouldn’t be a one-off interaction, where the state maybe notifies an LEA when they are out of compliance. Instead, it should be a true partnership in which both parties are actively engaged in amplifying successes and making systematic change when required.

Maximize tools and resources

While I believe everyone in the system would prefer this kind of interaction, the structures in place often don’t support this level of engagement. While it is always true that more resources make a job easier, that’s an easy fallback. In my discussion with state-level administrators, there is always the desire to actively engage in improvement planning with local school systems. The challenge for many is a lack of tools they need for a deeper understanding of the special education activities within individual districts.

Stepwell is designed to solve this problem. With a comprehensive data platform like Stepwell, state officials can look beyond the gross numbers that come from annual performance reports and statewide averages for IDEA Part B indicators, diving deeper into the data for more informed insights so they understand how best to engage with individual districts. The only way to do this effectively is to have a better understanding of the data than what many systems currently allow for.

Stepwell also approaches this problem through a thoughtful design that optimizes communication and coordination between LEA’s and consultants who assist in systemic improvement efforts. Letting technology facilitate the mechanics of this engagement makes the likelihood of true partnership that much greater.

How do you approach improvement planning?

There is never going to be enough time or money to make the improvement planning process for special education easy. But states can be more effective with the resources they do have — and can make sure they’re solving actual problems instead of making blind assumptions — by using the right approaches and the tools to support these strategies.

Have you experienced similar dilemmas in process improvement? If so, I’d like to hear from you. Write me at

[Note: This post is the fourth in a five-part series on how state education officials can improve special education outcomes by focusing on Results-Driven Accountability.]