Together at Last


Left out of the digital revolution for too long, specialeducation is finally being integrated into studentinformation systems.

Together at Last : llustration by Peter BennettNO ONE CAN SAY with real certainty why it happened, but when K-12 schooldistricts began implementing the first student information systems (SISs) duringthe 1990s, special education was largely left out of the process. The twosystems evolved as separate entities, technologically speaking, and in thehandling of individualized education programs (IEPs), paper remained thedominant storage medium long after other student records had made thedigital transition.

"We had file cabinet after file cabinet stuffed with paper from our special education programs," recalls Curtis Smith, director of technology and information systems for the Nevada Joint Union High School District in Grass Valley, CA. "When we implemented our student information system, we wanted to get the general education piece in place and get the teachers and administrators up to speed on the technology before we addressed special education. That's a separate world with its own unique requirements. But we adopted the SIS with an eye on the future-and those filing cabinets-anticipating that we would need to integrate down the road."

A growing number of districts are finding themselves quite a ways down that road. They need to integrate their general education and special education systems, because, among other reasons, they're both part of a larger process. Any student can get a special education referral at any time, and much of the student data needed to make special ed determinations resides in the SIS: grades, attendance records, test scores, discipline information. If a district's IEP structure doesn't display this information easily, IEP planners have to bounce between two systems. If a district's IEP solution doesn't talk to the SIS, information has to be re-keyed. All this back-and-forth and extra time at the keyboard fosters errors and discourages usage.

Together at Last : llustration by Peter BennettBut IEP data can be challenging to integrate with a standard SIS. An IEP is a written document developed for an individual public school student who qualifies for special education. These documents are highly customized, team-developed, narrative in nature, annually reviewed, and subject to federal and state scrutiny. Also, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that certain information be included in an IEP, but it doesn't specify anything about how it should be formatted.

If all of that weren't complex enough, an intermediate tier between general education and special education has emerged. Called "response to intervention," or RTI, it accounts for student interventions that are not yet classified as special education, and may never get that far.

Nevada Joint Union, a small district in northern California's Sierra Nevada foothills, has found that a software solution designed specifically for this RTI layer is providing as much integration between its SIS and IEPs as it currently needs.

Four years ago, the district implemented eSchoolPlus, a webbased K-12 student information management system developed by the Public Sector Pentamation group SunGard. A year ago, SunGard approached the district with a new product called Student Success Plan.

"It's not a full IEP system," says Smith. "It's a module of a larger product that allows us to keep all the student information in one place. It allows the teachers to be involved, of course, but also the counselors and other professionals, and the parents. There's this ongoing success plan that tracks how well they're doing. And for now, it's working for us."

"Special education teachers...were very comfortable with penciland paper. So back in the day, when computers first began impactingK-12 education, they were the last people the districtswanted to drag into the digital age."
-George Saunders, SunGard

Down at the southern end of the Golden State, the Chula Vista Elementary School District has yet to embrace this three-tiered model, but when it implemented its first IEP system in 2003, there was never any doubt about whether it would need a full-featured solution. With roughly 27,000 K-6 students in 44 schools, the district serves an estimated 2,200 special education students on a day-to-day basis. "But we're always moving kids in and out of services," says Maria Grabowski, the district's manager of information technology.

Also a SunGard customer, Chula Vista has been using eSchoolPlus since 1999. The district has since added the company's IEPplus product to generate IEPs. The product is webbased and comes with features for managing the student referral and evaluation process; tracking special education student records; maintaining historical information; and complying with IDEA, state, and federal regulations. It also provides a set of web-based forms for developing the IEPs.

"We needed to get control of our IEP data to provide better services to our students," Grabowski says. "And there's the whole accountability piece. We have to provide annual data submissions federally and to the state, and we needed to do a better job of making sure that the data was absolutely accurate."

Suggestions that the newly integrated system could become a productivity tool for teachers were met with skepticism. "No one believed that the special education teachers could adapt," Grabowski says. "But we started with a pilot project, rolling it out first to the willing. We provide support and training-even a psychologist. Now it's clear that providing a way for information to flow both ways between the SIS and the IEP system was key. We flow all the critical student ID information-name, contact information for parents, ethnicity, gender, birth date. The top of all the state IEP forms is prefilled for [teachers]. It helps with data accuracy, and it has freed the team to focus on the student."

George Saunders, product manager for SunGard's Plus Series, says the late arrival of special education to the digital party is a common circumstance among US school districts, and an understandable one.

"Special education teachers are hands-on people by nature," Saunders observes. "They work closely with students and are traditionally an especially non-technical group; they were very comfortable with pencil and paper. So back in the day, when computers first began impacting K-12 education, they were the last people the districts wanted to drag into the digital age. But eventually, the separation between the two systems became an MIS [management information systems] nightmare. To be fair, it took a fairly long time for general education to get up to speed on the technology. But now the districts are saying, ‘Okay, we're all comfortable using computers, so let's try to help these special education teachers realize that this is a far more efficient way of performing their jobs.'"

Two Kinds of Data

The reluctance of special ed teachers hasn't been the only challenge met by this particular data integration. For one thing, says Steve Benfield, chief technology officer and vice president of product management at Spectrum K12 School Solutions, SISs are essentially data collection systems of record, while a student's IEP is much more than a hunk of names and numbers.

"Foundationally, SISs are data management systems," Benfield says. "Data in, data out. The problem with this approach is that a student's IEP is a process-a very complex process with complex and changing rules. While there are federal rules, each state has different interpretations of those rules, as well as additional requirements. The IEP forms for one state look very different from the IEP forms for another state, even though some of the core data is similar. Likewise, these forms and the rules are constantly changing. So the basic problem of building an IEP system is a business process-modeling problem. This is completely different from the philosophy of an SIS."

Spectrum K12 is a Towson, MD-based provider of "individualized learning process" solutions for special education students. The company's flagship product, Encore, is a web-based special education and IEP management software suite. Designed to provide an all-in-one solution, it covers special education, limited English proficiency, RTI programs, and the requirements of Section 504-a federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities in the public schools.

RTI: Taking Action

Together at LastRESPONSE TO INTERVENTION (RTI) is a fairly new approach to identifyingstudents who are eligible for special education services. It doesn'trely on the traditional ability/achievement discrepancy model, whichrequires that a student exhibit a severe discrepancy between his or herIQ and academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.

The problem with the old model, RTI backers say, is that studentsmust fail or fall behind for a substantial period of time before they arerecognized as eligible for help. This requirement for an "accumulationof failure" effectively prevents early intervention.Worse, the furtherbehind students fall, the more services they will need to catch up.

RTI makes forceful use of universal screening, frequent progressmonitoring, and child response data to make instructional and diagnosticdecisions. Districts using this approach provide services andinterventions to struggling learners at increasing levels of intensity.

Members of Congress get some credit for the emergence of RTI.When they reauthorized the Individuals With Disabilities Education Actin 2004, they changed the criteria for identifying children with learningdisabilities. According to the bill, schools are no longer "required totake into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancybetween achievement and intellectual ability."

RTI has its own challenges, though, the central one being that itcrosses some traditional boundaries. Because it aims to address theneeds of all students through a continuum of services, it requiresgreater integration of general, compensatory, and special education.Also, athough there is consensus that RTI shifts the focus from a student'slack of success, there is no universally accepted RTI model.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities launched a national initiative last year to sort out these challenges.Using a $2 million grant from the CiscoFoundation, the NCLDestablished the RTI Action Network. Theinitiative aims to encourage collaborationamong general education,special education, andfamilies to achieve anintegrated approachto responding tostruggling learners.

"Keep in mind that when SISs were originally built, IEPs were much simpler," Benfield says. "And since then, they have gotten considerably more complex."

It may be true, as Benfield says, that at the end of the day, data is data, but forms-based data, which are typical of IEPs, add considerable complexity to the data management process. His company's customers, for example, normally run more than 450 rules per IEP to check for compliance.

"The rules aren't just data entry," he says, "they're between forms." Depending on which box is checked on which form, more forms-or worse, differing forms-can be required, Ben- field explains. Adding to that complexity: Different forms can drive future process dates.

"There are federally prescribed timelines that must be met in an IEP, and the system must manage to those timelines and help guarantee that things are done in the right way and in the right order. Not doing so deprives students of critically needed services and opens districts up to legal liability. Special education is one of the most litigious areas within education, so an IEP system must be robust enough to help a district ensure compliance with thousands of pages of federal and state regulations."

Many SISs have data collection pieces for IEPs, Benfield explains, and the system needs to help populate those pieces of data. However, at the heart of a district's data needs is state reporting, and that is a very complex process requiring detailed IEP information. State reporting directly impacts a district's funding and its performance ratings from the state department of education, so it's a critical function. SISs don't handle that function; IEP solutions do, or at least they help in it, Benfield says.

Another key challenge in this integration process is the requirement some states place on districts to provide special education services for students who are not in the SIS: Special ed services are provided to homeschooled children, juvenile prisoners, and students in hospitals. Some states even require services for students that live in other districts. "Many SISs don't accommodate those populations," he says. "In the IEP system, we have to allow for that."

This summer, Spectrum K12 plans to introduce a new product that branches beyond today's IEP systems. Called Encore NT, it's designed to provide all students-general and special ed-with the opportunity to have individualized learning plans. "Basically, we see two major systems that schools need," says Benfield, "the SIS and a student achievement management system, which is a fully integrated platform for managing all special programs that require process management, from the moment a child enters preK through age 21."

Investing in Integration

The emerging complexity Benfield describes is being felt in school districts around the country. It was the driving force behind the decision earlier this year of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction to invest $1 million in an SIS/IEP integration project. The goal of the NDDPI's project, announced in February, is to implement a full case management system across all the school districts and regional centers in the state to enable teachers to prepare IEPs.

The state's existing special education paperwork process is cumbersome, duplicative, and frustrating, explains Dorice Miller, the NDDPI's assistant director for management information. There's a lack of consistency in the overall management and sharing of the data, which means that teachers and administrators spend too much time preparing and sharing inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate data.

The state currently provides its 31 special education units with forms listing the student achievement data it must report. But historically, the decision of how that information would be presented was left up to the individual special ed units, Miller says. "They could use [Microsoft] Word if they wanted to, and then print out the forms and add them to the cume file," she says.

The NDDPI believes that implementing a case management system statewide will make it easier for special education teachers to collect, analyze, and report student achievement data to the state, Miller says. The system will ease the process of developing reports and improve communication among parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members. It will also allow the NDDPI to gather data in a uniform manner from all districts and enhance its ability to monitor performance.

Use of the new system is voluntary. However, all of the state's special education units have indicated that they will participate. And even if they opt out of the reporting process, they will still be required to input their data into the system.

"The NDDPI has been working on this process for several years," says Nora Paape. "The idea is to implement a system with which they could gather the data at a statewide level, monitor districts, and help them to make improvements on services for students with disabilities." Paape works for government services provider Maximus, and is serving as the project director for the NDDPI's installation of the company's Tienet special education case management system.

Maximus is managing a neat trick with this project: It's unifying an entire state's IEP reporting process while sidestepping the SIS/IEP data integration issue. How? By taking the data from an established statewide reporting system. North Dakota's State Automated Reporting System (STARS) is a unique, state-developed assessment system for reporting student progress in meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and in determining adequate yearly progress. North Dakota educators use a mix of locally designed assessments in tandem with national tests and statewide writing assessments to measure the performance of students.

"We learned early on in this project about STARS," explains Suku Sukumar, director of operations in Maximus' Educational Services Division. "So instead of linking the Tienet special ed system with the individual SISs, we decided to link with STARS, which already had connectivity with these systems."

"We call this our authoritative data source for student demographic information," says Miller. "Some of our smaller special ed units don't have an SIS, but every student in the state is in the STARS system." By linking Tienet to STARS, Maximus eliminated the need for constant monitoring of the connections with the various individual SISs, which represent multiple points of potential failure, Sukumar explains. The current configuration requires that the system monitor just one connection. "It's incredibly efficient," he says.

Among the things that North Dakota has done right on this project, says Paape, is the effort it put into including all the school districts in the process of configuring the system. "It was very smart," she says. "Now it's everybody's system. We've seen states put together special ed case management systems in sort of a vacuum. They weren't as successful as they will be in North Dakota." In other words, Chula Vista's Grabowski says, the successful integration of an SIS and an IEP depends ultimately on the people who will be using that data.

"It might seem obvious to say it, but just integrating these two systems doesn't mean you'll get the special education teachers to embrace the system," she says. "My advice is to start with the willing, build the population of people who are going adopt the system and advocate for it, and let the momentum work. And remember, these are teachers, not computer people, so don't expect them to love the technology for its own sake. Show them how it will help them to do a better job helping students."

If you would like more information on IEPs, visit here. In the Browse by Topic menu,click on Special Needs Students.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Mountain View, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.