By Julia Hartwig, Senior Program Associate, and Eliana Tardio Hurtado, Program Associate with WestEd’s Special Education Policy and Practice team

How can state education agencies (SEAs) best lead for effective instruction for students with disabilities? On April 24 and 25, WestEd’s Washington, DC, office was energized with thought leaders from a cross-section of the education system to answer this key question based on their expertise and lived experiences. The Thought Leader Forum, hosted by the National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI) at WestEd, convened representatives from SEAs, local school districts, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), higher education, state technical assistance partners, professional organizations, family centers, and other federally funded centers to think deeply together and develop recommendations for SEAs to mobilize action around this question.

In the 2020–21 school year, the median percentage of students with disabilities in grades 3 through 8 and high school who scored as proficient on the regular statewide assessment ranged from 10.8 percent to 16.6 percent for reading, and 5.7 percent to 18.8 percent for mathematics. [1] Event participants discussed how SEAs can play a role in improving these outcomes—despite being several layers removed from the classroom.

During the event, SEA representatives and their partners from the states of Washington, Texas, Utah, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire shared their unique stories of how SEAs’ partnerships with regional and district levels of the system are improving instruction and student outcomes at the classroom level. Collectively, these presentations focused on inclusive practices, instructional coaching, educator preparation and pathways to licensure, and the implementation of specific evidence-based practices for both mathematics and reading. Presentations focused on how SEAs

  • came to understand their state’s needs,
  • approached solution finding,
  • approached and are managing implementation,
  • are evaluating progress, and
  • are learning and continuously improving.

Additionally, Glenna Wright-Gallo, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), and Valerie Williams, Director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), provided an inspiring call to action to prioritize SEA efforts toward those that will have the greatest impact on instruction for students with disabilities.

Fueled with this call to action, the concrete state examples provided throughout the event, and their own varied expertise and experiences, participating thought leaders engaged in deep discussion and exchanged ideas for high leverage recommendations. Aligned with major roles SEAs play in the education system, participants surfaced concepts such as

  • vision setting and communication,
  • using data-driven participatory systems change,
  • meaningfully engaging with stakeholders,
  • strategically allocating resources,
  • providing technical assistance and professional development, and
  • developing effective policy.

In the coming weeks, NCSI will release a resource outlining these recommendations—including specific and concrete actions SEAs can take—from April’s Thought Leader Forum. The recommendations resource will be posted in the Center’s resource library at Sign up for NCSI’s quarterly newsletter to get alerts about new resources and critical issues in the field for improving results for students with disabilities.

[1] U.S. Department of Education. (2024, March). 45th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2023.