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Creating Transparency for Stimulus Funds

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When President Obama recently signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law, the initiative included a $12.2 billion allotment for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the statewide programs that support it as part of the education stimulus investment.

While the ARRA's passage--and the educational inclusion--underscores the importance of childhood education and assures the viability of special education programs, it also requires transparency. In February, stringent guidance was issued to government agencies on how state stimulus allocations should be monitored and reported on.

Seeing an opportunity to bridge that gap with an initiative that was already in progress when the stimulus bill was signed into law, educational leaders at Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education (CTE) are working with the Maryland State Department of Education. Together they are developing and managing an effective performance monitoring, reporting, and score-carding capability for the state's IDEA program.

The individuals involved include Carol Ann Heath-Baglin, assistant superintendent for the Maryland State DOE's special education division; Jacqueline Nunn, CTE director and associate dean of education at Johns Hopkins University; and Dianne Tracey, CTE programs manager. Working together with their respective organizations, the trio has been able to tap into critical technologies like business intelligence to successfully meet the challenges of monitoring IDEA program progress and making data driven decisions for students with disabilities.

"We've harnessed in-depth visibility into performance and been able to use this information to help the Maryland State DOE optimize programming for students with disabilities," said Nunn. "Many of the lessons learned and successes achieved in this project can be extended into the new paradigm brought on by the ARRA stimulus funding."

Put simply, the data garnered examines the progress that children with disabilities in Maryland are (or are not) making. "The goal is to make sure those students make adequate progress in the general education curriculum and to make sure the state is meeting the federal transparency mandate," said Nunn, adding that the initiative also helps states comply with the No Child Left Behind reporting requirements.

"Because students with disabilities are part of a sub-population within the school, they're a group that can easily fall short," said Nunn. "At its core, our initiative lets administrators know who is succeeding and who is not in a timely fashion, thus allowing for interventions to take place early enough to make a difference."

Funded by a Maryland Longitudinal Data System Grant, the Johns Hopkins-Maryland State DOE initiative involved gathering "lots and lots" of data from the state level that related directly to special education, said Tracey. It also included focus groups, surveys and interviews with 750 different superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents, and principals statewide, all of whom gave their input on "what data was most critical for making the best decisions to improve education for children with disabilities," said Nunn.

Using IBM's business intelligence tool, the team came up with a system that allows the DOE's leadership teams and local special education directors to examine students' progress. One area of particular interest is high school dropout rates, said Tracey. Using a "score-carding" system, for example, a local director of special education can monitor that key indicator and help institute intervention plans, rather than waiting until the end of the year, when many times it's too late.

"At the end of the day, this is all about improving instruction for individual students," said Nunn, "so that teachers, parents and school leadership can look at the data and make decisions and tweak instruction in a way that helps the student get better."

To get the technology tool out into the mainstream, the university and DOE will target a single, major school district and a small group of schools this fall. "Assuming this test is successful, and that we can show it makes a difference," said Nunn, "we'll see the system disseminated to more schools and districts across the state."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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