Assessing and Improving Special Education: A Program Review Tool for Schools and Districts Engaged in Rapid School Improvement

Anecdotal reports from those who have worked extensively in efforts to turn around persistently low-performing schools, and at least one state study of such schools,* suggest that our lowest-performing schools tend to have above-average enrollment of students with disabilities. For schools in which this is the case, successful turnaround will depend on a focused and data-driven effort to ensure that those students are provided with a high-quality special education program. This program review tool was developed by the Center on School Turnaround to assist school districts or individual school leaders in catalyzing conversations about, and reviewing and improving the quality of, their special education program as a key component of school improvement efforts.

The tool was developed through the use of Leading by Convening,^ a stakeholder-engagement strategy from the IDEA Partnership at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Leading by Convening engages individuals representing different stakeholder groups in an approach to program improvement that is rooted in shared goals; in this case, the goal is having a high-quality special education program in every district. Participating in the process were 21 individuals from 19 agencies or other organizations representing youth, families, school administrators, general education teachers, special education teachers, occupational therapists, special educators, school social workers, school psychologists, higher education, and state education agency and technical assistance center personnel. Building from their collective experience and expertise, including knowledge of the research, participating stakeholders started by identifying 16 features that they consider essential to a high-quality special education program and, for each feature, provided examples of practices that demonstrate the highest standard, an acceptable standard, and an unacceptable standard.

The tool consists of three parts: an overview of the program features with examples of the features at three different levels of quality (i.e., high, acceptable, and unacceptable); a template for conducting a special education program review inventory; and a template for developing a quality improvement plan based on results of that inventory. The templates are created as “fillable forms,” which means they can be completed directly in this document.

* LiCaisi, C., Citkowics, M., Friedman, L. B., & Brown, M. (June 2015). Evaluation of Massachusetts Office of District and School Turnaround assistance to Commissioner’s districts and schools: Impact of school redesign grants. Washington, DC: AIR, p. 25. Retrieved from
^ Cashman, J., Linehan, P., Purcell, L., Rosser, M., Schults, S., & Skalski, S. (2014). Leading by convening: A blueprint for authentic engagement. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education.