Special Education Data Can Improve Learning For All Students

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner
Visualizing data by hand. Photo credit: Beth Samek, School Happiness Coordinator at Schoolrunner.

SpeciaI’ve spent my whole career helping people be more effective at their jobs by giving them better information and better tools. The idea that teachers would use data to make sure every student gets the support they need seems intuitive. But it doesn’t happen in most schools, in part because they lack the right technology.

I had a conversation the other day with Joe Gallagher, student supports coordinator at Milwaukee Excellence Charter School, who described how data and technology inform the special education strategies they use to support the neediest students. That information, however, benefits everyone in the school: students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

Gallagher reflected on some successes and insights.

Inclusion Techniques Benefit Everyone

Studies show that pulling students out of class creates a stigma and costs them valuable classroom time, making it harder for students to catch up. This can impede a student’s efforts to get s diploma, even in cases where more moderate accommodation and intervention strategies could have been sufficient. The studies also show that other students in the class benefit from inclusion as well.

Gallagher pointed to another benefit I’ve heard discussed less often: the pluses for teachers. He described a common scenario of sitting with a teacher to review mandated supports for students with IEPs. They’ll agree that the best approach is to give students multiple options for how to display mastery of material. The teacher will then realize that the approach will benefit many other students as well.

“So often the accommodations that students receive under a tiered support structure or IEP results in differentiation that is actually the best practice for increasing the likelihood that every kid is going to be successful,” he said.

That’s not to say that differentiation is easy, especially if teachers don’t have the right tools to help them know where to start.

Data-Driven Strategies Help All Students

Gallagher also described past struggles getting parents and teachers aligned around student behavior.

“If the teacher says, ‘Sarah’s been talking out of turn in class,’ the first question everyone is going to ask is, ‘How many times did Sarah talk out of turn in class?’ Was it five times or fifty times?” he said.

Before using the Schoolrunner app, Gallagher said that type of data was hard to come by. If he wanted it, he’d have to spend time manually noting it, instead of walking around the classroom helping kids. Data collection tools for teachers help take the either/or out of the equation.

When thinking about using data in a special education context, Gallagher said most teachers believe they don’t need hard data because they already know the individual students so well.

But then he flipped this idea: “We’re starting to build the habits of using the data so that we’ll be ready when we grow.”

The genius part of this strategy is that analyzing data in the abstract can be a challenge for anyone. However, practicing data-driven strategies when you already have an intuition of what the answer should be, is actually the best way to build confidence in your skills before moving on to larger data sets with more unknowns.

Data Can Motivate Students

Behavior data at the school level often means having a record of the number of referrals and suspensions for each student and not much more.What a limited conception of how a student is engaging in the cultural values of the school!

The more that behavior is a vague concept to students, the harder it is to address their challenges. When trying to work with a student on their behavior, Gallagher said he asks, “What do you think your most common infraction is?”

He can then report the answer, using data. And he can also use more positive data as a counter-balance. He can note that the student has also been recognized for integrity numerous times. The ability to track clear goals for personal organization or anything else can be a big motivator for students.

“I had kids who had an IEP goal to complete their homework two days a week. John now does his homework on average 4.5 times per week,” he said.

Gallagher also talked about recognizing signs of other problems in this data. For example, if he looks at his dashboard and sees that the ratio of negative to positive behavior reinforcement for a teacher is 2:1, what does that imply?

“If you’re a first-year teacher struggling with classroom management, you end up spending your time doling out consequences. Instead, let’s work together to address the underlying issue, for example, by ensuring your instructions are clear and consistent,” he said.

Without access to the data, it’s impossible to systematically spot potential problems like this.

Photo credit: Beth Samek, for Schoolrunner


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One thought on “Special Education Data Can Improve Learning For All Students

  1. Inclusion does NOT benefit everybody. Learning in a class of 20, 25, 30, 35 students is not possible for a small percentage of students for a myriad of reasons. Spewing saccharine platitudes reeks of rhetoric and agenda pushing that snake oil hucksters have tried to sell parents since the beginning of time.

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