The state’s special education programs need a reboot

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath testifies on school board issues before the Senate Committee on Education August 16, 2016. Photo by Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune

More than 450,00 students, or about 9 percent of the total student enrollment across the state, receive special education. The Texas Education Agency must do everything in its power to make sure it is serving these students well. Unfortunately, in the last two years, TEA has found itself under fire with regards to providing support and oversight in special education.

The Houston Chronicle’s 2016 investigative reporting into TEA’s Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) drew national attention and elevated the voices of concerned parents, teachers and administrators across the state who claimed Texas schools denied special education to eligible students with disabilities.

After those reports, TEA felt it necessary to remind districts that there is no special education cap or limit and that schools should adhere to federal expectations for identifying and serving students with disabilities.

More recently, on December 15, the TEA terminated a controversial special education data analysis project with SPEDx, a vendor that received a $4.4 million no-bid contract to analyze private data. SPEDx would then present findings and recommendations to districts and the state for improvements.

In a recent news release, Education Commissioner Mike Morath recognized that the concerns about the no-bid contract and other aspects of the project would “be undermined without real support from parents and educators alike.” TEA also fired its new special education director after learning she had been accused of covering up sexual abuse allegations in her previous job. That director believes she was fired because she uncovered an illegal agency contract.

The last two years of controversy have done little to build public trust and students with disabilities are languishing in Texas public schools.

Only 55 percent of all students receiving special education are proficient on the STAAR examination across all subjects, in comparison to 61 percent of their non-disabled peers, according to TEA. About 84 percent of students receiving special education graduate from high school, and almost 12 percent drop out. Statewide averages for all students are 91 percent and 7.2 percent. Students with disabilities are also suspended from school at a higher rate than their peers.

To make things right, TEA must acknowledge that the state’s special education system is broken, that failures to adequately monitor special education in local districts have harmed to students with disabilities and families and that structural and systemic action needs to be taken.

The agency needs to invest heavily in analyzing its state education data systems to identify areas of improvement, similar to what SPEDx hoped to do, which might include:

  • Identifying districts and schools with unusual and potentially inappropriate changes in the percentage of students in special education over time, especially when considering school characteristics.
  • Investigating whether special education supports and services identified in each student’s individualized education program are impacting achievement and other measurable outcomes.
  • Understanding how and to what degree students with disabilities are being served in different classroom settings and how classroom settings are related to achievement and other measurable outcomes.
  • Locating districts and schools that dramatically improve outcomes for students in special education to learn from their successes, and detecting districts and schools that are struggling and require additional support and intervention.

Using state education data systems in such exploratory ways extends beyond traditional approaches to compliance monitoring and can provide helpful insights to improve special education processes and outcomes across the state.

TEA would be wise to use such analyses in more transparent and community-oriented processes where families and other Texas citizens can propose, discuss and have input on important decisions about how the state will move forward with special education.

The agency and students in special education across the state cannot afford any more disruption and failure. It is time for TEA to capitalize on whatever assets and opportunities it has at its disposal, and do so in a transparent, community-engaged process that rebuilds trust and a shared commitment with families to best serve all students.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

David DeMatthews

Assistant professor, the University of Texas at El Paso

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