Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education

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In the latest AEI Future of American Education working paper, Nathan Levenson, managing director of the District Management Council and seasoned special education expert, draws on his years of experience as a superintendent and special education consultant to offer a litany of field-tested practices for taming out-of-control special education spending while serving students better.

Given the high stakes of providing effective and efficient special education services in today's tight fiscal climate, Nathan Levenson's "Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education" could not come at a more opportune time. As school boards and superintendents have been forced to seek new efficiencies and ways to do better with less, many school leaders have found themselves particularly perplexed by the unique challenges of special education. Federal statute, court rulings, extensive processes, and fraught politics have left many districts disinclined to even seek savings from their substantial outlays on special education.

After all, families with special needs students naturally demand the best available service, and may well resort to litigation to secure it. Districts are prohibited from even considering costs when designing student education plans. The result has been a steady increase in spending accompanied by remarkably little attention to effectiveness or efficiency.

Levenson contends that there must be a more promising path, and the paper sketches ways for districts to do far better in four key areas. He explains how to squeeze costs and boost results by:

  • better integrating special education with general education classrooms;
  • smarter deployment of support staff;
  • the use of more sophisticated metrics to gauge effectiveness metrics; and
  • employing more strategic management structures.

Such strategies, Levenson argues, equip teachers and administrators to better meet student needs while also helping policymakers provide much-needed targeted support for cost-effective practices. As Levenson notes, "Districts must tackle the twin challenges of controlling special education costs and improving student achievement. In short, we are asking districts to do more with less."

"For educators wrestling with special education costs, the value is obvious," says Frederick M. Hess, director of AEI education policy studies. "For others, I trust that you will find Levenson's take a thought-provoking first-person account of how to be smarter and more purposive about spending school dollars."

NATHAN LEVENSON is currently Managing Director of The District Management Council, a firm that provides strategic insights and practical solutions to public school districts across the country. Previously, Mr. Levenson served as a school board member, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in Harvard MA, and Superintendent of the Arlington, MA Public Schools. While in Arlington, Mr. Levenson and his team reduced the number of elementary students reading below grade level by 52% and decreased the high school special education achievement gap by 66%, earning the district multiple commendations from the Rennie Center, the National Blue Ribbon Schools program, the Massachusetts Department of Education Compass Schools program, and School Matters. Mr. Levenson's work has been profiled in The District Management Journal, The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy's best practices in special education report, School Administrator Magazine, and chronicled in Stretching the School Dollar (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

For further information on the paper, Nathan Levenson can be reached at nlevenson@dmcouncil.org. For additional information on AEI's education policy program, please visit www.aei.org/hess or contact Jenna Schuette at jenna.schuette@aei.org or 202.862.5809. For additional media inquiries, please contact Hampton Foushee at hampton.foushee@aei.org or 202.862.5806.

 

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