The bottom line is ALL of us are committed to the success of ALL students, and ALL of us are willing to do things differently to achieve this.” (Comment from a Superintendent at the 2013 Focus Schools Summer Institutes.)

When a district leader makes this statement, it represents a marker in school improvement. It also reflects multiple levels of leadership from superintendent to principal to teacher levels and more. It implies a collaborative commitment across all general and special education staff, signaling a readiness to function systemically and holistically. It implies a willingness to take risks and step away from the old way of working. And it signals that all central office roles and functions are ready to support the improvement efforts. In short, it has the potential to create foundations for a culture of high expectations, shared leadership and real improvement in learning for each and every student.

Reaching consensus and developing a plan is big work – these steps are part of a solid footing for implementing change. Recent research and professional literature have pointed to the variables and practices that must be addressed.  When it comes to a focus on improving achievement for students with IEPs, these variables and practices are consistent. They include the following primary focus areas.

FOCUS: District-wide and whole-school effort (No silos) “We took a hard line on the use of data and teaming – everyone had to do it – and the results were ridiculously good; it was hard to argue with them.”

Dan Goldman, Director of Curriculum & Instruction, Tigard-Tualatin School District, Tigard, Oregon.1

 “Everyone had to do it;” a district-wide whole school effort to tackle achievement (and achievement gaps) requires a unified and strategic approach to improvement. This cannot rely on a separate or even parallel systems approach.  Everyone must be on the same team. This means that “special education” is a member of “TEAM Education.” Across districts where achievement gaps have lessened, various approaches to creating a single unified team have emerged. Bringing all adults together in a shared vision and shared effort has been a common denominator.
Leadership Highlight: Shared vision and commitment to the goal is a critical beginning. Moving beyond management for compliance to leading the teaching and learning dynamic is a challenge for special education as well as for principal leadership. In some cases, districts have merged general and special education leadership structures to intensify and prioritize the focus on teaching and learning.2


FOCUS: Effective and strategic use of data “We created our first data wall because we were told we had to. But once we realized the power of actually seeing and talking about student performance data, we began to see how working together could actually make a difference – both for the students and for us.”

(Comment from a school improvement team member.)


In order to improve outcomes for students with IEPs, focus on the consistent use of progress monitoring, benchmarking and ongoing assessments for students with IEPs:

  • Annual IEP meetings are not the place to review progress for the first time.
  • Periodic benchmarking and progress monitoring are critical for informing instructional adjustments for students with IEPs – this is not something that is limited to general education practice.
  • District-wide common assessment results must be disaggregated to the individual student level for students with IEPs.
  • Ongoing formative assessments are essential to strategic and timely instructional adjustments, both in the general education classroom and for any special education instruction and support services.

Leadership Highlight:Merely having data on students with IEPs does not assure utility. Having the right data and meaningful use is the task. This requires a shared and ongoing review and use of progress data by general and special education staff. It’s more than a once-a-year look at IEP demographics by/with the special education director. And it’s more than leaving the special education teacher to an isolated task of reviewing student data for the annual IEP review. (See the Dec 2013 article, Putting Faces on the Data for Students with IEPs.)


FOCUS: Laser-like attention to fidelity of implementation for identified improvement and instructional strategies “Measure both adult implementation and student achievement to gauge the effect of district actions on student performance.”3

To improve outcomes for students with IEPs, it’s important to adhere to standards in the implementation of selected instructional strategies:

  • Monitor instructional practice to provide data for professional feedback and to identify professional learning and coaching needs;
  • Target support and professional learning for all staff tied directly to these identified instructional and practice challenges;
  • Assure that both general and special education staff are included in ongoing review and improvement of targeted practices.

Leadership Highlight: attention to instructional strategies selected and implemented to improve outcomes for students with IEPs must be a collaborative endeavor. All staff involved with teaching and learning domains in which a student with an IEP is involved must be on the instructional team together. Paying attention to research and proven practices is part of the risk-taking of moving away from business as usual. (Resources for Selecting Instructional Strategies: Closing Achievement Gaps)

IEPs are intended to identify student strengths and needs, explain how disability impacts progress in the general curriculum, create meaningful goals that move the student forward, and identify individual supports that are necessary (services, accommodations, modifications, etc.). (See the August 2013 article: Knowing Each Student as a Learner.) Specific instructional strategies are the domain of all of those who do the teaching – and all are on the same team on behalf of the student. (See the September 2013 article: Knowing Each Student…: A Systems Perspective.)


FOCUS: Assure infrastructure supports are coherent and aligned with improvement goals

  • Professional Learning Priorities: Both targeted instructional strategies and collaborative inquiry into levels of implementation and impact on student learning are key to improved professional learning. Both general and special education staff should be involved together - they function as an instructional team in the school improvement process. Special education staff should be able to share approaches to differentiating instruction and supporting the use of digital technologies that are included as supports for individual students with IEPs. Such supports enhance access to the general curriculum for students with IEPs and improve success in general education settings.
  • Scheduling for Staff and Students: Scheduling is critical, both to drive teacher collaboration time as well as instructional time in core academics for students with IEPs. The following Primary Focus addresses time in the instructional core for students with IEPs.
  • Attention to Use of Fiscal Resources: Allocation of financial resources requires attention to multiple funding streams that impact both general and special education. Act 18 funds, IDEA funds, Title funds and general funds should be reviewed annually to assure that allocation of each supports both required and desired improvement strategies. This implies collaboration across the district and with the intermediate unit, and goes beyond a perfunctory or cursory review.

Leadership Highlight: Leading improvement planning and implementation necessitates responsibility for assuring that infrastructure supports are aligned with the overall improvement plan. A coherent system is one that is tied together, all eyes and efforts on the goal. Professional learning, scheduling and fiscal resources must all be aligned and focused on the intended outcomes. This includes special education as a support to, and integral with, general education; special education is not a separate and independent system. It must support targeted outcomes for students with IEPs as part of the school improvement process.


FOCUS: Time in instructional core is key to learning “…for too many children with disabilities…educational programs concentrate inordinately on the characteristics of the disability at the expense of access to the curriculum.”4 


Time spent in core instruction must be examined as part of an analysis of the achievement gap for students with IEPs (See the October article: Moving Your Numbers: Identifying IEP Student Demographics). This includes:

  • Attending to time spent in general education settings/classrooms,
  • Access to the general curriculum and core standards,
  • And time spent in (or scheduling of) pull-out services that may detract from core instruction.

Key attention must also be paid to alignment between general and special education instruction:

  • Are curricular standards aligned?
  • Are IEP goals carefully determined to move the student forward - toward grade level achievement?

It is important to remember that the majority of students with IEPs are students within the range of normal ability. Their IEPs should be constructed to provide appropriate accommodations and supports to move them along ”aim lines” reflecting rigorous growth.



FOCUS: Pay attention to IEP demographics

Robust analysis of your IEP demographics will shed light on who is being identified for special education, when and why. Such robust analysis can help you see trends, risk levels for identification for special education, and patterns that beg questions such as:

  • What early intervention supports should be considered?
  • What academic areas need more intensive & systemic attention?
  • What behavioral challenges could be addressed systemically?


SUMMARY: All really does mean all?
Recent research and literature on school improvement consistently identify key variables and practices that undergird improved outcomes for all students, including students with IEPs. One big variable is a commitment to whole-school strategies and practices. In this case, the all means all staff across all sectors, shaping an integrated system of instruction and services for all students. Special education must be an integrated component of a sound, data-driven, and highly effective teaching and learning system. It cannot be a stand-alone service sector; it cannot be isolated from school leadership for teaching and learning. It can be a critical component of successful school improvement.

Click Here for References

1 In Telfer D.M. (2012). A Synthesis of Lessons Learned: How districts used assessment and accountability to increase performance for students with disabilities as part of district-wide improvement.)
2 (Ibid.)
3 (Ibid.)
4 (Hehir, T. (2005) New directions in special education. Harvard Education Press. Cambridge, MA. Pg.111)

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