What Is Accountability? Part I: Special Education
Everyone seems to be in favor of accountability in education today. However, prevailing notions of how to hold people accountable usually come from the business world: Experts issue detailed edicts or design clever incentive systems to manage their employees. Democratic participation counts for little, if not nothing.
What would happen in our school district if we thought about accountability in a different way? What if accountability were conceived as bottom-up, rather than top-down? In my view, accountability works best when we structure our institutions in ways that empower people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Authentic accountability yields better information flows, sustained and affirming human relationships, and, most importantly, better results.
Consider what this alternative view of accountability would mean in two key policy areas in our district: special education and the evaluation of teachers’ performance. In this week’s post, I will discuss special education, and in next week’s, the evaluation of teachers.
Federal and state laws provide that students with disabilities are entitled to a “free, appropriate education.” The law also requires that classified students have an “Individualized Education Plan,” or IEP. How does accountability in this area work now, and how might it work better in the future?
In special education, accountability is supposed to flow from laws about proper procedures and legal rights. In practice, I know very well that this accountability system often imposes enormous psychological and financial burdens on the parents and guardians of children with special needs. It often strains human relationships and breeds mistrust. It also can take an emotional toll on the dedicated administrators and educators who want the best possible education for the special needs children they serve.
Bottom-up accountability would offer something different and better. It would start with the proposition that parents and guardians are not a problem to be managed, but a vital part of the solution to the problem. Parents have information and insights that are a key part of the process. Wise educators knows this. They need the parents’ input and cooperation in order to do their jobs well. The problem is that parents cannot meaningfully participate if they face a complex bureaucratic organization like a school district alone, proceeding one-by-one. The power imbalance is often an insurmountable obstacle.
If elected, I would urge the school board to take concrete steps to empower parents in this process. For example, the district should strongly urge all parents to bring a trained parent advocate to all IEP meetings, and it should actively facilitate the achievement of this goal. More importantly, special education laws require school districts to have a “Special Education Parent Advisory Committee,” or SEPAC. At present, our district does not have one. We have a wonderful Special Education Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO), which does an excellent job supporting parents and facilitating communication between parents and the district. However, what it does not do, and has said that it should not do (given its mission), is to involve parents in playing an ongoing role in the formulation and implementation of policy. If elected, I would urge the Board to encourage the formation of a SEPAC, with committees organized at the building level. Democratic participation and real accountability could then take root.
Many parents have experienced the provision of special education and related services as uneven and unpredictable. However, if parents were actually valued as a resource and welcomed to participate as equals, I believe they would better understand the complexity involved in educating children with special needs, and better appreciate the problem of finite resources. Some conflict is inevitable, but I believe there would be more collaboration and compromise under such a system, not less. Indeed, we might even save money in the long run by identifying needs and responding to them earlier.
This bottom-up approach to accountability is especially needed now. Budget constraints have forced our district, like others, to consider the reorganization of its delivery of special education. The district recently retained an outside firm to conduct an evaluation. The firm’s report, which has many good things to say about our district’s special education performance, can be found here:
This is not the place to debate the nuances of this report. For now, I think there are three things worth noting about it:
- First, the report uses data to argue that leveling harms the academic achievement of middle school students with special needs, and that reducing the number of levels and leveling up helps them (District Management Council Report, p. 15). This observation supports those of us who have argued for leveling up in the middle schools.
- Second, it recommends that the district move from its current full-inclusion model to a new partial inclusion model. In order to evaluate the merits of this recommendation, we need more information.
- Third, it recommends providing more extensive services within district in order to reduce the number of out-of-district placements (and thereby reduce costs). I was pleased to see that this recommendation comes with the assurance that a change in a child’s placement should occur only “when appropriate [,] and with full parental involvement and agreement” (Report, p. 18).
However, what the report does not discuss, and what is needed, is a new approach to parental involvement and district accountability. Thinking about accountability from the bottom up can keep our district moving in the right direction.
If you'd like more information on these and other subjects, please check out my website, AmyHiger.org, and also that of Jennifer Payne-Parrish and Karen (Tia) Swanson, with whom I am aligned in this campaign for School Board: payne-parrishandswanson.org. The election is April 17. Polls are only open from 2-9 p.m.