When the Alabama State Department of Education began an effort last year* to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, the task seemed like “moving mountains, requiring a comprehensive effort across the department,” says Assistant State Superintendent Elisabeth Davis. The work included bringing together officials who oversee different sections, often accustomed to working in virtual silos. “While many were trying to serve the same schools, the same students, they were working in isolation,” says Davis. “In fact, some didn’t even know each other, let alone what their colleagues were doing to support some of the same schools. Now, though, we’re taking strategic steps together to align systems and our work across the state to meet the needs of the whole child.”

To help guide the effort, Alabama leaders called upon the WestEd-led National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI), a key player nationwide in such initiatives since its inception in 2014. The center supports state education agencies, particularly their special education divisions, with technical assistance and coaching aimed at improving outcomes for children with disabilities. In October 2019, WestEd and partners were awarded federal funding to continue NCSI through 2024.

Over the prior five years, NCSI has successfully led many customized technical assistance activities for state departments of education in Florida, North Carolina, and other states. NCSI designed a project in Tennessee, for example, to help state officials identify students in need of special education services earlier in their school careers — and thereby improve long-term educational outcomes. Changes to the state’s special education screening process resulted in an increase in the percentage of the school-aged population eligible for services.

Alarming Gaps in Performance

The need for targeted efforts to support students with disabilities is substantial. According to Susan Hayes, a WestEd senior program associate working closely with Alabama, only 15 percent of the state’s students with disabilities were considered proficient in reading, compared with just over 50 percent of the general education student population, as measured by statewide assessments in 2018/19. Math proficiency levels were similar. Alabama is not alone in these disparities. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from 2015 and 2017 puts the gap in reading achievement between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers at more than 40 percentage points at each grade tested, and at between 29 and 44 percentage points in math in grades 4 and 8, respectively. In terms of graduation rates, the percentage of students with disabilities nationally who earned a regular high school diploma rose to 70 percent in 2016 but still lagged far behind the overall high school graduation rate of 85 percent. In Alabama, the figures are 67 and 90 percent, respectively.

Hayes says that even though great progress has been made nationally to ensure students with disabilities have access to a public education and are educated alongside their peers in the least restrictive environment, much more needs to be done for students with disabilities to truly succeed and thrive. Hayes adds that there is every reason to believe the vast majority of students with disabilities can achieve grade-level standards, given an inclusive learning environment marked by a culture of high expectations, high-quality instruction, and responsive supports.

Overcoming Challenges

Alabama’s work with NCSI began in 2019, sparked by a presentation at a national Council of Chief State School Officers’ meeting. There, NCSI Director Rorie Fitzpatrick summarized key lessons from NCSI’s work with states to overcome what are sometimes considered “intractable challenges” related to improving outcomes for students with disabilities. Based on NCSI’s experience, Fitzpatrick laid out four central themes to guide state and local leaders in making “impactful, lasting change”:

  1. Start by aligning general and special education systems around a vision, goals, and strategies for improving student outcomes.
  2. Focus on instruction, monitoring individual student progress and modifying instruction and/or providing further support when needed.
  3. Embrace equity, which includes shifting from an emphasis on special education compliance to focusing more on outcomes.
  4. Expand educators’ capacity to deploy evidence- and research-based practices, while also being adaptive, supporting individuals “to evolve through the change process.”

After hearing the NCSI presentation, Davis asked Alabama’s special education section to reach out to WestEd to begin addressing the needs of students with disabilities in Alabama. “I knew we needed to revamp our state support framework to assist districts in moving beyond mere compliance. We needed a collaborative process, using findings to drive the supports and evidence-based strategies to address individual students’ needs,” recalls Davis.

Accordingly, Alabama leaders are challenging themselves to determine what actions they can take at the state level to systematically support schools and districts to better meet the needs of this student population. Davis has valued that NCSI staff bring the “highest-caliber, research-based expertise and energy” to the efforts. “They’ve been there to do the heavy lifting with us: to leverage the knowledge of our own people, help us build collaborative communities within the department, and share examples of what’s going on in other states.”

Align General and Special Education

A key component to Alabama’s improvement efforts is the extent to which the state is strategically aligning general and special education systems, says Katherine Nagle, a WestEd senior program associate on the NCSI team supporting Alabama. “It’s one of the first times we’ve had so many sections within a state working together.” States sometimes struggle to engage peers who have responsibilities outside of the special education division, Nagle notes. In Alabama, however, NCSI and state leaders are partnering to bring together cross-disciplinary peers from areas such as student learning, assessment and accountability, mental health, child nutrition, school improvement, and transportation. Hayes says this approach “creates efficiency, reduces duplication, and contributes to greater organizational coherence.” Further, it better serves all students’ needs. “Regardless of the nature of their disabilities, many of the students designated for special education could be doing much, much better,” adds Nagle, “but that’s not going to happen without connecting improvement in special education to improvement in general education.”

Davis agrees. As a former district superintendent, Davis knows firsthand how frustrating it can be when local education officials are unable to rely consistently on leaders at the state level for support. “If, as a superintendent, I have data telling me that discipline problems in my district are affecting the achievement of my special education students, I need the state to help identify other successful initiatives that could help my district, and possible funding options,” says Davis. “But until we began our alignment of systems and supports, there may have been multiple state-level tools and supports available, but they were often overlapping or not even part of the discussion because of the unintended silos.”

Focus on Instruction and Embrace Equity

Toward improving instruction, NCSI is helping Alabama define, develop, and put in place a Multi-Tier System of Supports — a framework for screening and then designing appropriate services — for all students, especially those eligible for special education services who primarily spend their school days in general education classrooms. Alabama is embracing an approach that includes, in the words of an Alabama State Department of Education work group, both a “continuum of evidence-based practices that are matched to students’ needs” and “data-based decision making . . . at all levels to allocate resources, personnel, and supplemental services that focus on prevention and growth, and ensure rapid response intervention.”

Nagle has been struck by participants’ willingness to honestly confront and respond to some of the reasons behind the gaps in outcomes between students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. That perspective involves shifting from a historical focus on special education compliance to a stronger emphasis on student results. For leaders and educators “to step outside their comfort zones and struggle with issues of justice and equality sends a powerful message that they are determined to close those gaps,” says Nagle. “Their recognition that something has to change, and the passion they have for that change, is very apparent.”

Expand Evidence-Based and Research-Based Capacity

NCSI’s work in Alabama has included on-site work sessions, each spanning two days and led by NCSI staff, as well as intermittent virtual meetings. Participants in each of four work groups are charged with developing a framework for improvement and coming up with strategies to catalog, communicate about, and evaluate the impact of ongoing state initiatives. Action plans are in development to assist the department of education in improving its system of professional learning for district and school leaders, with an emphasis on evidence- and research-based instructional practices, says Colleen Riley, a senior technical assistance content specialist for NCSI and for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Riley notes, “The fact that people who last August didn’t even know each other are now collectively coming up with evidence-based, tried-and-true strategies designed to boost achievement, reduce absenteeism, and increase graduation rates tells me there’s already been an impact.”

Hayes points to Davis’s leadership as a major factor in the progress Alabama has made so far through its collaboration with NCSI: “The way she has motivated the staff to come together and work as a team to take up the thorny issues and accept responsibility for student achievement is inspirational.” Davis, in turn, credits State Superintendent Eric Mackey for “empowering people to do their jobs and then supporting them.”

This article was developed in winter 2019/20, prior to the rapid changes and new challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic. In response to the pandemic, NCSI quickly mobilized to assist states in addressing their evolving needs. On 3/21/2020, the federal agencies OSERS and OCR released an information sheet on addressing the pandemic and serving children with disabilities, and informed stakeholders that NCSI would be a source of technical assistance for implementing IDEA Part B. For more information, please contact NCSI or visit https://ncsi.wested.org/.