Concerned with the persistently low academic outcomes and graduation rates of students with disabilities, the federal government a few years back decided to transform the way it worked with states on special education accountability. The new approach, termed “Results-Driven Accountability,” shifted beyond a focus on procedural requirements toward an emphasis on performance. States were charged with not only ensuring that children with disabilities had equitable access to services but also with improving their learning and development outcomes.

“Results-Driven Accountability has required a massive change in how states approach special education and early intervention services,” says Rorie Fitzpatrick, co-director of the National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI) at WestEd,* which helps states transform their systems to improve outcomes for children with disabilities.

One of the major requirements of Results-Driven Accountability was for each state education agency and “lead agency” (a state agency that serves infants and toddlers with disabilities) to conduct a comprehensive review of its services and develop a systemic improvement plan to reduce gaps in performance for children with disabilities.
Developing these plans has been a major undertaking that has included analyzing troves of qualitative and quantitative data, taking stock of existing state infrastructure, communicating with a range of stakeholders, and, ultimately, determining meaningful and measurable outcomes.

“While we were excited by the potential of the new results-driven approach, a lot of states were struggling with how to meet the new requirements,” said Barb Schinderle, who coordinates Michigan’s outreach to agencies serving infants and toddlers with disabilities.

To help staff like Schinderle through the rigorous process of developing the systemic improvement plans and executing the new results-driven approach, NCSI has provided a range of supports and technical assistance to states. The center’s work has included coaching agency leaders; conducting professional learning; hosting webinars; and offering expert-informed problem solving and peer support, undertaken through online forums and national and in-state meetings.

For Schinderle and other state leaders, NCSI has been a lifeline, linking them to specialists in areas in which they have little experience and enabling them to share their own expertise with other states. “I wouldn’t have known where to start without NCSI,” Schinderle says. “They build on our strengths and make us feel less isolated as we work through the complexities of this new results-driven approach.”

“While most states had efficient systems for monitoring which services were provided to children with disabilities,” says Fitzpatrick, “they didn’t have systems in place to measure how effective those services were. We’ve been helping states learn to analyze their data, figure out underlying reasons for why certain outcomes were positive or not, and then create and implement detailed strategic plans for boosting those children’s outcomes.”

To date, NCSI has offered technical assistance to 116 state education and lead agencies, helping them develop and submit the first two phases of their systemic improvement plans. States have begun to implement and refine those plans in preparation for the final phase, beginning in spring 2017. That phase will involve full implementation and evaluation of the plans’ progress and outcomes.

A model for cross-state sharing

One of the most fruitful, and popular, forms of support offered by NCSI so far has been its cross-state learning collaboratives — the creation of facilitated professional learning communities through which state education and lead agency staff and their stakeholders can actively engage with and learn from NCSI experts and peers across the country. One hundred state teams belong to one or more of NCSI’s nine learning collaboratives, each of which align with priority areas that states identified in their state systemic improvement plans, such as language and literacy, family outcomes, or social and emotional outcomes.

Schinderle says the collaboratives’ in-person and online meetings offer a useful way to check in regularly with her peers: “I find it particularly valuable to hear what other states are doing. We don’t really have another mechanism to reach out to other states and learn what they’re up to otherwise.”

“Each learning collaborative is intentionally designed to be a community,” Fitzpatrick says of NCSI’s model for support. “In the same way that kids need trust and bonding with caregivers in order to thrive, we know that when you are engaged in deep systems-change work, you’ve got to have trust in the community to open up and access support.”

And, as states have been working together to address common logistical and strategic challenges to improving their systems of support for children with disabilities, that trust and peer support has deepened over time, she says. “It has been rewarding to watch as states have become increasingly comfortable sharing resources and strategies, helping each other problem-solve, and receiving guidance from NCSI staff.”

To build states’ capacity and investment in the process, says Fitzpatrick, NCSI often taps members’ knowledge and experience to demonstrate that experts are not always outsiders. For example, during a meeting of the Social and Emotional Outcomes (SEO) Learning Collaborative about improving stakeholder involvement in the systemic planning process, Schinderle shared Michigan’s long-standing practice of asking parents to serve as board members of its Interagency Coordinating Council. NCSI invited Schinderle to present in an upcoming webinar so that other states could learn from Michigan’s experience.

“One reason the learning collaboratives work so well is that the NCSI staff leaders ‘get’ implementation science and team development,” says Pam Thomas, a Part C Coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Early Intervention Services, who is part of the SEO Learning Collaborative.

Targeting areas of support for children with disabilities

When mandating states to shift to a results-driven approach, says Fitzpatrick, the federal government knew it couldn’t expect states to immediately improve children’s outcomes across the board. So states were told to “focus on one area of support and go deeper” by identifying a specific measurable result for children with disabilities that the state wanted to target for improvement.

Accordingly, the new requirements caused coordinators in Missouri to “push the pause button” and start targeting their efforts, recalls Thomas. “We did an extensive and broad analysis of our programs and services to eliminate elements that weren’t helping us achieve our goals. We’re still learning how to focus our efforts.”

NCSI’s learning collaboratives were designed to help states like Missouri “go deeper” into their chosen areas of focus for improving outcomes for children with disabilities. With teams from 15 states participating, one of the most popular and productive collaboratives has been the Social and Emotional Outcomes Learning Collaborative.

The group helps states integrate a relationship-based approach to early intervention services that promotes the well-being and healthy social and emotional development of infants and toddlers. Once dismissed as “touchy-feely,” healthy social and emotional development is now seen as a vital part of early development.

“States are realizing that young children’s healthy development is dependent on strong, nurturing relationships — parent to child, caregiver to child, provider to parent,” says WestEd’s Monica Mathur-Kalluri, co-leader of NCSI’s SEO Learning Collaborative.

Mathur-Kalluri points to research, such as the landmark CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which has shown that poor social and emotional development related to early childhood stressors puts children at increased risk for later health problems, behavioral issues, and poor performance in school and work. She also describes the importance of a longitudinal study conducted in Kauai that found that having one close bond with a supportive adult could help a child overcome early childhood risks and change their life trajectory.

In addition to helping states decide which evidence-based practices to embed in their systemic plans and how to implement those plans, the SEO Learning Collaborative is helping states work through the complicated logistics of developing effective systems for training large numbers of providers in strategies to support young children’s social and emotional development. For instance, members have shared approaches to large-scale professional learning proven effective in their states, such as partnering with a major university to enhance and scale the state’s capacity to provide professional learning to early caregivers. Another state representative shared details about how her state’s multi-agency professional learning infrastructure draws on a network of early intervention and education organizations to train early caregivers of young children with disabilities.

Sharing that sort of practical, nuts-and-bolts information about states’ existing early intervention programs and strategies can go a long way, says Thomas: “It’s helpful not to have to reinvent the wheel.”

Moving forward, Fitzpatrick says NCSI will continue to provide multiple avenues of support to build states’ capacity to implement and evaluate their plans. “While all of these new requirements involve significant shifts in how states do their work,” she says, “in the end, this results-driven approach to special education and early intervention services has the potential to greatly benefit children with disabilities for years to come.”

* NCSI is led by WestEd, in collaboration with the American Institutes for Research, National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Council of Chief State School Officers, SRI International, and National Parent Technical Assistance Centers Network.