Taking a Data-First Approach to IDEA Compliance

Technology can streamline monitoring, inform outcomes, and ultimately help states and districts better serve students with disabilities.

This past summer, the US Department of Education tightened its guidance on IDEA Parts B and C requirements after the 2023 determination letter showed that fewer than half the states met IDEA Part B requirements in 2022. IDEA Part B is a federal statute that governs how special education and related services are provided to children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21. The letter emphasized that states "may not ignore credible allegations about potential noncompliance" even if they are brought forward outside the regular review cycle. And in cases where a program is non-compliant, states must issue that finding within three months unless the district corrects the noncompliance and the state is able to verify the correction.

As a public school board member and parent of a child with an IEP, I've witnessed how challenging it can be for district educators to gather and report evidence that shows compliance with IDEA Part B. Meeting critical deadlines for hundreds of students, facilitating meetings with diverse stakeholder groups and following up on findings requires significant time and organization. With the right processes and systems, educators can more easily track and report on activities promptly.

Here's how educators can benefit from a comprehensive technology tool that streamlines data collection to fulfill stricter compliance requirements and better serve students with disabilities.

Moving Away from the "Milk Crate" Method

One of the examples I like to use when I talk about the complexity of IEP management is the "milk crate" analogy. Ten to 20 years ago, teachers and educators walked around their buildings with big milk crates containing all kinds of papers and documents. Then, after they were done reviewing them, the materials got filed somewhere else and put back in a closet or filing cabinet. Not only did this approach leave room for error and put a district at high risk for noncompliance, but it also didn't give educators much insight into how the pieces of their program fit together. While most districts today likely use a combination of spreadsheets, e-mails, or electronic document storage as part of their IDEA management process, there are better ways to leverage technology that allow us to get a complete picture of a special education program—down to the student level.

Systems that help educators manage all of the pieces of the IDEA process in one place can result in the following:

  • Increased communication: Instead of e-mailing back and forth, members of your IEP team can message and leave notes for each other in one system.
  • Greater visibility: Each step of the IDEA process comes with specific deadlines and timelines that need to be followed, and it's easy for activities to fall through the cracks. If all parties can log into one system, they can see missing documents, what's coming next, and what deadlines they must prepare for.
  • Quicker turnaround times: As the states feel more pressure to meet federal compliance requirements, districts will need a way to retrieve records and report data quickly. If you have to sift through files, e-mail folders, and multiple software programs to find the data you're looking for, you'll unlikely get the information you need promptly.

The right technology can also reveal program strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, zero in on individual student progress.

Connecting the Dots

Using automation and program management tools to improve your IDEA process is just one piece of a larger puzzle. With all of your process and student data in one place, educators can identify patterns and frequencies of noncompliance to help better understand where their teams are excelling or missing the mark. They can:

  • Look at data from a numbers perspective, or you can look at trends over time.
  • Discover improvements in one program area, but see where team members need help maintaining compliance in another.
  • See evidence of best practices emerge from a particular program, school, or classroom that you could replicate across a district.
  • If two or three locations continually fail to meet compliance, educators can plan for more resources or provide technical assistance.

Districts budget for a certain number of educators and resources. By leveraging the data they're already collecting, technology can help leaders further drill down and figure out how to manage programs cost-effectively.

I was excited to talk to a state that, for the first time, achieved 100% reporting by leveraging technology. Their state legislature outlined specific data sets that needed to be collected and reported quarterly and annually. All of the state's districts were able to report their data up to the state because they also had to collect it at a district level. The state said having the right technology made data collection more efficient and made peoples' jobs easier. Best of all, the process will have a positive impact on kids. They're looking forward to building upon that success to improve their programs and student outcomes.

Focusing on Outcomes

I've served on my local school board for 15 years, and in that context, I ask myself, "What do I want to see? What information do I really need?" School boards frequently discuss state assessment data, graduation rates, or discipline data, but we don't look at special education data enough. Often, we're surprised to hear that we still need to meet compliance in at least one area. Technology that reveals frequencies of noncompliance and how and when teams plan to approach their corrective action plans can help boards understand the timeline and resources needed to get the job done.

My youngest son has an IEP, and as a parent, the most important thing for me is to be able to reflect on his last two or three years and see what he's gained from his program. I want to know where he received support and the benefit of that support. The right tool can connect those data points between what's happening inside the IEP, and how it's impacted my child.

The over-arching goal of IDEA compliance is to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. School boards and state and federal agencies often spend the bulk of their time on compliance activities and need more time to focus on student improvement. It makes sense — if you can't meet state compliance, you're probably not hitting the mark on student outcomes either. Very often, districts get stuck as they struggle to hit compliance — so much so that they don't have the energy to look at improving outcomes. If we can use technology to make IDEA compliance more straightforward and efficient for educators, we can free them up to do more than check the boxes. Instead, educators can use these tools to transform programs for students with disabilities, changing their focus from compliance to educational excellence.

About the Author

Eric Isham is the VP of Product Design & Development for Red Cedar Solutions Group (RCSG), the creator of Stepwell. Since 2009, Eric has served on the Leslie Public Schools Board of Education in Leslie, Michigan.