Maintenance of Inefficiency

By 09/07/2012

2 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

In November 2010, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan presciently observed that, in coming years, educators would “face the challenge of doing more with less,” but warned against discouragement: “Enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.” The budget challenges Mr. Duncan foresaw are now reality: States and districts face tough decisions about education spending as revenue declines and federal stimulus spending dries up. But officials who have attempted to do more with less have often found themselves stymied in one key area by the intransigence of the very agency that Mr. Duncan leads.

The roadblock? A federal “maintenance of effort” (MOE) requirement in the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA, the federal special-education law) that handcuffs states and districts by requiring that special-ed spending never decline from one year to the next. In times of plenty, this mandate discourages efforts to make productivity gains; when revenues shrink, it means that special-education spending will consume an ever-growing slice of school budgets.

For one brief shining moment, Secretary Duncan appeared ready to end the MOE silliness. Then he caved to the powerful special-education lobby, which refused to accept anything other than expenditures escalating into perpetuity.

While economic realities alone should be reason enough to jettison requirements that dictate a spend-spend-spend approach to special ed, a new Fordham study by Nathan Levenson provides an even more compelling reason for doing away with MOE: Spending more on special ed simply may not do much for kids.

How is this possible? While public education is never very hospitable to innovation, efficiency, or productivity boosters, special education has generally been downright hostile. Despite statutory and regulatory tweaks from time to time, our approach hasn’t really changed since the federal law was passed more than thirty-five years ago, even as so much else in K–12 education has changed in important ways. That does not, regrettably, mean our traditional approach has worked well. Indeed, change is desperately needed in this corner of the K–12 world, as any look at the (woeful) achievement data or (skyrocketing) spending data for special-needs students demonstrates. To oversimplify just a bit, general (i.e., “regular”) education is now focused on academic outcomes, but special education remains fixated on inputs, ratios, and services.

That’s a shame, since the same basic dysfunctions that ail general education afflict special education too: middling (or worse) teacher quality; an inclination to throw “more people” at any problem; a reluctance to look at cost-effectiveness; a crazy quilt of governance and decision-making authorities; a tendency to add rather than replace or redirect; and a full-on fear of results-based accountability. Yet the fates (as well as the budgets) of general and special education are joined. In many schools, the latter is the place to stick the kids who have been failed by the former—a major cause of the sky-high special-education-identification rates in many states and districts. Further, there exists in many locales the unrealistic expectation that every neighborhood (and charter) school should be able to serve every youngster with special needs at a high level.

Enter Levenson, former superintendent of the Arlington (MA) Public Schools. In his new study, Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education, he and his team identified school districts that get similar (or superior) results for special-education students as their peer districts, yet do so at significantly lower cost. They are doing right by kids and right by the bottom line. Both at once. And their practices are eminently imitate-able.

Levenson & co. also developed a national database on special-ed spending—the largest and most detailed ever built. It contains information from almost 1,500 districts, representing 30 percent of U.S. schoolchildren. The database shows that special-education spending and staffing vary wildly—much more so than it does for regular education. Principally driving this variation are huge district-to-district differences in staffing levels.

Some districts hire almost three times more special-ed teachers (per thousand students) than do others. The difference for paraprofessionals (teachers’ aides) is greater than four times. Levenson calculates that, if the high-spending districts adjusted their staffing levels in line with national norms, the country could save (or redirect) $10 billion annually. That’s not chump change! For example, it’s more than twice the total sums invested (over multiple years) in Race to the Top.

The potential for additional savings—and better services for kids—is greater still. To its discredit, longstanding federal law bars the teams that develop Individualized Education Programs for disabled pupils from considering the cost of the interventions and services that they are recommending. Untangling federal barriers to efficiency and effectiveness in special education is the job of Congress—yet no one in Washington seems the least bit interested in tackling an IDEA reauthorization anytime soon. That’s a huge mistake.

Levenson draws on his research to offer a few simple, but assuredly not simplistic, solutions. Make general education better, he says, so that fewer kids get directed into special education. Once youngsters are in special education, design interventions for them that take cost-effectiveness into account—a benefit both for the kids and for the taxpayer. Focus on recruiting better teachers, not more teachers (and aides, specialists, etc.)—for general and special education alike. And scrupulously manage their caseloads.

Districts and states should take these lessons to heart, but the simplest fix supported by Levenson’s findings must occur at the federal level: End maintenance-of-effort requirements that are both inefficient and ineffective. As special-education costs eat into general-education coffers—a trend that is almost certain to continue in the lean years ahead—we suspect that education leaders, policymakers, and taxpayers alike (maybe even the parents and teachers of children with disabilities), will feel impelled to make our perplexing and inefficient special-education system a little less so.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Allison Hertog says:

    As one of only a handful of attorneys in the country with a Master’s in Special Education, I welcome this impressive report, and more importantly the Fordham Institute’s courage to tackle this “understudied” realm. On the surface I am one of the “advocates” this report has a thinly veiled disdain for due to my alleged focus on compliance or “inputs” rather than academic performance or “outputs.”
    But the reality is that as a dyslexic individual who has attended dozens and dozens of IEP meetings on behalf of children and parents, I, and others like myself, are regularly frustrated by the system’s inability to demand and employ quality instruction and academic progress. That
    brings me to my first point.

    Due chiefly to union mandates, which are no doubt related to the IDEA’s lack of focus on teaching methodology, parents have no standing to demand better trained teachers and higher quality instruction. Thus, they must focus more on increasing staffing and decreasing class size
    more than is beneficial for students and the system as a whole (as the authors rightly recognize).

    Two, I see how the authors come to the notion that the general education”double time” model is economical, but that recommendation betrays their lack of familiarity with high quality special education research.
    It’s axiomatic that giving dyslexic children, for instance, a double dose of the same curriculum will not result in significant progress – even for the brightest students. These children require different instructional approaches which if done intensively, in small groups and multiple times per week will in 98% of the cases result in great leaps
    in performance. Unfortunately, those instructional approaches are not happening in the vast majority of schools – even in smaller classes with special education teachers and paraprofessionals. In fact, if those
    interventions were occurring, before the children even entered the special education system, we’d have far fewer “disabled” students. This is the whole idea behind Response to Intervention (RTI), a federal general education initiative aimed at reducing the rolls of special ed. Why are schools not doing it – it’s labor intensive, innovative and

    Three, the authors are correct that there’s a lack of accountability in special education even in the era of NCLB and that must change in all the ways they recommend. As we saw in Florida this year with respect to the controversy over the school grading system, many parents (and some
    advocates) will go to great lengths to oppose accountability for disabled students because they can’t accept or they fear that their children will fail to meet standards of any legitimate level.

    Four, the authors are absolutely correct that paraprofessionals are over-utilized and can be cut in large numbers. In the district where I practice, paraprofessionals are assigned to individual students rarely -generally only in cases where the child’s safety is at issue, such as a relatively bright child with cerebral palsy who is at risk for injury or choking in a general ed setting. When safety is not at issue, paraprofessionals can and should be shared.

    Five, in theory the authors are absolutely correct that the MOE mandate sof the IDEA discourage cost effective/innovative practices in special education. The reality is that special education is not a priority to districts, and as we saw last year during the period districts were
    allowed to reduce spending, they will simply divert what was formerly special ed funds to other budget lines. In other words, just because districts, such as Miami-Dade – the fourth largest in the country – reduced special ed spending it was not because they came up with more efficient or innovative ways to operate the special ed system. It was
    because – no surprise – they were spending that money wherever it was needed or wanted elsewhere in the district. And no one was monitoring (or can or should monitor) how they were spending what was formerly their special ed funds. Thus, the result was that special education
    students suffered significant, but nonsensical, losses in services, staff and instruction with no upside whatsoever that anyone could discern. That is the whole point behind the MOE mandates – districts have demonstrated over and over that without these IDEA mandates, disabled kids will fall through the cracks in numbers which are unacceptable in civilized societies. These kids are difficult to educate and most districts will return to near pre-1975 practices
    without the mandates of IDEA.

    So, what’s my conclusion? Bravo Messrs., but next time, it would be wise to include the knowledge and perspective of a special education teacher. Also, most of the problems
    in special ed (and gen ed for that matter) directly or indirectly stem from the entrenched union culture in our schools. :-)

  • Emma Nation says:

    Chester, how much did your suit cost? If you really care about education, I’m sure there are many disabled people who can teach you how to do more with less.

    We should be investing in educating disabled people because they can teach the rest of us what we need to learn: patience, compassion, determination, realism, courage, tenacity, humor and all regal qualities of humanity.

    How would you like to be locked up in a body or mind that doesn’t work properly? You’d want to get out! Just imagine what it’s like to feel that way all the time, and have no way out, ever, without the help of others.

    ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
    Mathhew 25:32-46 NIV

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform