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California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.
The vision of a unified system of education in California is becoming reality. The State Board of Education approved on March 9, 2016, a proposal from the California Department of Education (CDE), Special Education Division, to begin aligning special education accountability with general education efforts. Several initiatives helped to create the necessary climate for this unprecedented move: Results Driven Accountability, the Local Control Funding Formula, the work of the California Task Force on Special Education, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction's Blueprint 2.0. These pages provide some history and context for these various initiatives and explain how special education accountability is contributing to a unified system.
The intents of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) embody one of the most important civil rights accomplishments of the last century. Yet the current century may see the real fruits of this landmark legislation. For more than 40 years, the federal government has given money to states to help them fulfill IDEA's mandates; for example, giving students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), guiding education through individualized education programs (IEPs), and educating each child in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Time and experience have shown, however, that FAPE, IEPs, and LRE can all be in place, and too many children with disabilities still leave school not prepared for postsecondary education, careers, or adult life.
According to Ruth Ryder, deputy secretary of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), prior to 2014, "Our focus was on ensuring that States meet IDEA program procedural requirements."1 This focus attended to such things as honoring timelines and ensuring that IEPs were written. Prompted by the lackluster results of this approach, OSEP initiated a new monitoring system to guide states in their efforts to improve school outcomes for students with disabilities: Results-Driven Accountability (RDA). RDA introduces a new monitoring lens, one that attends to improved school results. "What we focus on is what we improve," says Ryder.
The federal government gives each state a certain amount of money to support efforts to educate students with disabilities. OSEP monitors the states and their use of this money using specific "indicators." Each state must have in place "a [state] performance plan [SPP] evaluating the state's implementation of Part B2 and describing how the state will improve such implementation."3 Each year the state submits to OSEP an annual performance report (APR), which shows its yearly progress relative to these indicators.
With RDA, OSEP eliminated what it saw as indicators that were both burdensome and that reflected a compliance-only ethos. Those that OSEP kept, and on which states will continue to be evaluated, relate to important issues for students with disabilities such as graduation and dropout rates, inclusion in and success on statewide assessments, rates of suspension and expulsion, and the percentage of time students with disabilities are included in general education classrooms. The indicators also address parental involvement, due process, and issues of disproportionate identification for special education services and disability categories for certain ethnic minorities.4
OSEP also created a new Indicator 17, which specifically embodies the program's revised focus on student results. The U.S. Secretary of Education announced this indicator in a letter to Chief State School Officers: "Each State will be required to develop a State Systemic Improvement Plan [SSIP]. . . . In developing the SSIP, States must use data to identify gaps in student performance, analyze State systems, and then implement targeted, evidence-based reforms to address the gaps. It is critical for a State to develop the SSIP in a manner that is aligned with the State's existing improvement initiatives and reform efforts. We expect this focus on results and alignment with other improvement work to drive innovation in the delivery of services to students."5
Indicator 17 is unusual in a number of ways. The SSIP must reflect a thoughtful process of continuous improvement—with resources and supports in place to ensure that schools are using evidence-based practices so that student learning truly does improve. In addition, the SSIP must be informed at every step by data: baseline data to provide a context for improvement, target data to identify goals for improvement, and then updated data to show actual improvement.
The most challenging—and creative—aspect of the plan's design is the requirement to align it with existing initiatives. At the March 2016 meeting of the California State Board of Education (SBE), Interim State Director of Special Education Chris Drouin said that Indicator 17 creates an "opportunity to take a federally-driven program and align it with a sweeping state initiative."
Some states are focusing their SSIPs on one specific skill or group of students. Connecticut, for example, is designing its plan to "improve the reading performance of all third grade students with disabilities."6 California is showing singular initiative and ambition by wedding its SSIP to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). "This is the most global effort in the country," says Drouin. "We are taking on everyone because we have a mechanism and an opportunity to do that."
The LCFF is arguably the most pervasive, influential educational legislation in California in decades. Through this law, the state has handed back to school districts and county offices of education—in a way that is nationally unprecedented—control over much of its money and the way it is spent. As part of this financial "loosening of the reins," the legislation also eliminated more than twenty categories of funding that previously had been tagged for a strict, singular use; eliminating these categories freed up money to serve students in whatever way the localities see best for improved learning.
The LCFF is being called a "grand experiment,"7 reflecting the belief that California's uniquely diverse—and massive—population of students will be served best by a system that can be customized at the local level by the people who know well and are a part of each local/district population. In this state, those local populations translate into countless combinations of urban, rural, suburban, wealthy, poor, and middle class students who belong to one of more than 55 races and ethnicities.
While the LCFF gives local districts the ability to make their own budgetary and programmatic decisions, the law also changes the focus of its accountability efforts—similar to RDA—from compliance to educational outcomes. Based on stakeholder input, districts are required to create Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) as part of their budgeting processes. As described by UC Berkeley researchers, "These plans identify goals for improving services and outcomes, name specific actions to reach those goals, and identify the funding sources linked to these programs and strategies. Districts will be held accountable to the goals in their LCAPs."8
As the LCFF was materializing, the SBE and the Special Education Division were participating in the California Statewide Task Force on Special Education. Charged with developing recommendations to reform special education in the state, the group ultimately outlined a vision of one unified, coherent system of education that incorporates special education and that focuses on student need and progress, not disability label or category.9 During that same period, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction was developing his A Blueprint for Great Schools 2.0 (Blueprint 2.0),10 which also reflects a vision of coordinated and unified academic and fiscal systems at all levels.
Special education dollars were not included in the LCFF's categorical sweep because of fiscal requirements under IDEA. Yet students with disabilities are one of the student subgroups that counties and local education agencies (LEAs, which include school districts and charter schools) must address in their LCAPs: "The pupil data . . . shall be disaggregated by special education status, English learners, socioeconomic status, gender, and ethnic group."11
What first determines LCFF funding is the general student count. The formula then provides additional money based on the number of students in the three subgroups that the LCFF legislation targeted: students who are English language learners, students who live in poverty, and students who live in foster care. Through their research, SSIP stakeholders found that students with disabilities are more frequently identified in these subgroups than in the general population. In fact, fully 70 percent of all students with disabilities belong to one or more of these LCFF targeted subgroups. This means that, in order to be effective, LCAP activities will need to focus on the outcomes of students with disabilities.
Given the 70 percent of students with disabilities in the LCFF subgroups, the Special Education Division (the division) determined that these students would be the primary focus of California's SSIP. Many people have asked, "What about the other 30 percent?" The answer lies in the larger picture. Sixteen of the OSEP indicators focus specifically on all students with disabilities and special education data. The Special Education Division will continue to track and report on them all and will continue to maintain its responsibilities to monitor compliance with the law—now adding the lens of student progress and results.
Indicator 17 provides California with the opportunity to take a manageable first step toward whole-system alignment through this new focus on improved results, as the SSIP includes students with disabilities as part of the larger system of continuous improvement. "Think of Indicator 17 as an additional lens that serves as an early warning system," says Kristin Wright, the SBE consultant who addresses special education issues. "We are concerned with increasing school outcomes for all of our students with disabilities, and this activity will help to deepen the technical assistance and support we can provide our LEAs."
Indicator 17 places students with disabilities squarely within ongoing general education improvement plans. In a memo to the State Board of Education, CDE wrote, "Most of these data indicators are reported as measures of past performance; [Indicator 17] is tied to future work [and] describes plans for future activities."
Additional alignment exists between general education and special education reporting requirements as several SPP indicators echo required LCFF data.
Phase 1 of the SSIP required state leaders and key stakeholders to select improvement strategies and develop a theory of action, reflecting the best of implementation science12 and what it has discovered about effecting lasting and constructive change in schools. To inform its efforts, the division convened a special stakeholder group, made up of Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) directors, Parent Training and Information Center staff, OSEP's state contact and its technical assistance contractor, members of the Advisory Commission on Special Education, CDE contractors, and CDE Special Education Division staff. The resulting Theory of Action13 displays how the basic elements of the LCFF and LCAP are aligned in the SSIP in the shared focus on high-need students, improvement plans, and accountability structures.
Indicator 17 will be tracked through what is being called the "state-identified measurable result" (SIMR). For this result, California selected "improvements on English language arts [ELA] and mathematics scores on statewide academic assessments of students with disabilities in each of the targeted LCFF subgroups." The division wanted to—and will—do that and much more: it will examine and provide information to districts on a broad range of student outcomes as tracked in the other 16 indicators, with a focus on all students in three areas: 1) student engagement—increasing the amount of time students spend at school by reducing tardiness and absences; 2) student discipline—decreasing suspensions and expulsions by developing alternatives to punitive responses to student misbehavior (i.e., positive behavioral supports); and 3) access—improving instruction in the California State Standards, emphasizing LRE principles, and using a multitiered system of supports.
While these details are important, what is particularly meaningful in the larger picture of special education is the fact that significant aspects of special education monitoring are now coordinated with a general education initiative. This alignment has the potential to support districts in designing a truly unified system for the first time in the history of IDEA.
With Phase 1 of the SSIP approved in 2015 by the SBE and then by OSEP, the division is working on Phase 2: implementing, supporting, and evaluating its plan to use assessment results for students with disabilities who live in poverty, are English language learners, and/or are foster youth. However, the division is not implementing targets this year because LCFF rubrics will not be completed until the fall of 2016. CDE's plan is to work with the OSEP so that the disparate timelines (April for the SSIP rubrics and October for the LCAPs) do not get in the way of California coordinating its single system of accountability to serve all students.
The SBE was enthusiastic about the division's plan, unanimously approving it at the board's March 2016 meeting. Member Sue Burr called it "a great service to LEAs," and Member Nikki Sandoval applauded the division for demonstrating "flexibility and relevance to what is happening now so that we don't have multiple systems working at the same time." She further expressed appreciation for "holding off on those targets. We are at an opportune and exciting time." And Board President Mike Kirst invoked the vision of the California Special Education Task Force by saying, "I am gratified that you have integrated your efforts with the design of the Task Force report."
Phase 2 also involves planning and bringing to scale a tiered system of strategically designed and researched-based technical assistance and supports for all districts—those that want to improve their currently successful programs and services and those that the evaluation process ultimately shows need help to meet their measurable targets. The division is creating a robust, tiered system of technical assistance to contribute to the state's overall system of continuous improvement. Resources will include facilitated communities of practice, guided self-assessment and improvement plans, and guidance toward implementing new programs and evidence-based practices from consultants with proven experience in school leadership and teaching. A basic level of support will be optional and available to all districts, while more intense and involved supports and interventions will be provided only to those districts whose students are not making progress.
As students with disabilities do well and improve their scores on statewide assessments for ELA and math, most school districts will not have to do anything relative to the SSIP. But if the SIMR indicates a pattern of little or no improvement, if student scores worsen overall, or if scores for students with disabilities do not improve, then districts will be given targeted supports to address revealed weaknesses.
It will take time for all aspects of the SSIP to be put in place, and at least two years to identify districts that consistently fall short of SIMR goals. For districts that struggle significantly in their efforts, conditions ultimately may be placed on how they can spend IDEA funds. Once identified, these districts will be required to develop a plan to improve the scores of students with disabilities, with some flexibility in how they design those plans.
The Special Education Division hopes that in these plans school districts will align their improvement activities for students with disabilities to the general improvement activities in their LCAPs. In the ideal approach, school districts will begin to integrate programs and services to improve outcomes for all students—eventually creating a single plan. A coordinated system of technical assistance from CDE, from both general and special education sources, is being developed to make this possible.
While important specifics of Phase 2 are still being sorted out, its focus is clear: improved school results for students with disabilities by helping schools become better places for learning. The division will be giving LEAs data on multiple indicators in addition to the SIMR, which will help them identify areas of need. Any one of the issues highlighted through the indicators, when accurately tracked, often reflects systemic problems that can affect all students. The intent is for this information to guide districts as they refine their improvement strategies, to highlight what they are doing well, and to point to where they may need additional support. The focus of all strategies and practices will be to improve student performance.
Much of what the state is doing to develop the SSIP complements and enhances the larger work of implementing the LCFF and LCAP. The CDE is developing an extensive tiered system of information, supports, and services to help LEAs improve the outcomes of all students. "This kind of coordination of effort within the department is unprecedented," Drouin says. "This is the most exciting thing I've ever seen in my 25 years in the department."
California Services for Technical
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