THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Michele Jolin Headshot

Data Is Key to Improving Outcomes for Students With Special Needs

Posted: Updated:

For far too long, we as a nation have set unnecessarily low education expectations for students with special needs, limiting their choices and opportunities for success. But thanks to a new U.S. Department of Education directive, things are changing for the better. The Department is shifting to a new approach for the nation's 6.5 million children and youth with special needs by focusing on student outcomes instead of simply on how well states comply with procedural requirements. This is welcome news.

The new framework, Results-Driven Accountability (RDA), ensures that states are showing that students with special needs are making progress on reading and math and graduation rates in order to close achievement gaps with other students. Before, states simply reported how well they met procedural requirements such as timelines for evaluations or due process hearings.

Increasing the number of indicators of student progress under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) means increasing accountability on actual student results and opportunities for success. For example, last year the Education Department considered only compliance data in making annual funding determinations for states and found that an overwhelming majority of states and territories -- 41 -- met the requirements. This year, after including student performance data, only 18 states cleared the bar, showing that we have more work to do on the things that matter most for student success.

Results-Driven Accountability also means no longer throwing money blindly at states without regard to how well that money is being spent. This is an important and needed shift toward honesty about student outcomes so that states, school districts and schools put a laser-like focus on success over process. As the Department implements this new approach, it will help both students and states succeed if it remains data-driven and evidence based.

In order to help states meet these new requirements, raise expectations and boost academic outcomes, the Department is funding a $50 million technical assistance center to help states invest the $11.5 billion they receive in special education funding as effectively and efficiently as possible. In announcing this historic step, Acting Assistant Secretary for Special Education Michael Yudin pointed out that, "Less than 10 percent of our nation's eighth graders with IEPs are scoring proficient in reading, according to the best available data. We can and must do better."

He's right. The system is not working well for students with special needs if nearly 24 years after IDEA became law, less than 10 percent of eighth graders with special needs are proficient in reading. The problem isn't the students, and it isn't that we don't have data -- it is how we are using the data to help the students achieve. Asking the right questions will help us get the right answers.

The Department comes to this directive with a deep and growing commitment to "investing in what works." In fact, the U.S. Department of Education scored the highest in the most recent Results for America Federal Investing in What Works Index, which highlights the extent to which federal departments and agencies have built the infrastructure necessary to be able to use data, evidence and evaluation when making budget, policy and management decisions. Results-Driven Accountability is a further step in the right direction to improve outcomes for all of our nation's students.

Accountability decisions may seem technical or wonky, but they have real consequences for our children. Students with special needs must be prepared to enter and get through college, and have the skills needed to enter the workforce. The families of special needs students have high-expectations for the potential of their children, and their ability to contribute to their communities and succeed in life. Without a focus on academic outcomes, those hopes may never become reality. Through rigorous use of data, evidence and evaluation, the federal government can help states "raise the bar" for special education and improve the lives of students with special needs across the country.