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Leading Special Education Collaboratively: Good news, bad news

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ted price

on 3 March 2013

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Transcript of Leading Special Education Collaboratively: Good news, bad news

Leading Special Education Programs Collaboratively: Good news, bad news Background The study of special education students is widely documented. Unruh, Bullis, Todis, Waintrup, and Atkins (2007) acknowledged that there are hundreds of studies and projects that have been conducted to determine ways to help students with disabilities succeed in learning environments with their non-disabled peers. However, often overlooked are the leadership practices of district administrators in providing resources and services to meet the needs of the special education population. Much of educational research has been focused on leadership. DiPaola and Tschannen-Moran (2003) have written about how difficult the task is at the school level. School principals in general struggle with the complexities of special education: “Special education presents one of the major challenges facing school leaders in the era of school reform. Today, schools must provide students with disabilities appropriate access to the general curriculum and effective instructional support. Student progress must be monitored closely and demonstrated through participation in assessment efforts” (p. 5). Leading collaboratively is difficult, especially when those in shared leadership roles perceive the tasks, the priorities and the importance of the task, and the available resources differently. Research directs us to get on the same page when leading organizations effectively. As Agnew, 2012, pointed out, “Collaboration requires transparency. People can't work together if they're not on the same page” (p. 1).
“The concept of collaborative leadership provides a useful perspective in exploring the balance of leadership responsibilities for special education across principals, assistant principals, and teachers within schools, and administrators and supervisors across school districts” (Crockett, 2007, p. 140). Leading collaboratively is about leadership that works together to share resources to provide a useful perspective in exploring the balance of leadership responsibilities. Leading collaboratively in special education programs is particularly critical because of the high incidence of special education students and the high impact of meeting their needs, coupled with the high costs for providing for those needs and services. Background: Collaborative Leading Purpose of Study This study featured survey research designed to compare the magnitude of concern between Virginia public school division superintendents and directors of special education regarding timely issues in special education.

Survey questions addressed current issues in special education identified in educational policy briefs along with the literature examining the intersection of educational leadership, special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Implications for practice include the role of perception of concern in educational decision-making and factors identified as likely to increase collaboration between superintendents and directors of special education. The United States public school system enrolled 49.5 million students in public schools in the fall of 2010 (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), (2010) reported that 6,552,766 students were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) in the fall of 2010.

Nationally, school divisions are usually led by a superintendent along with several subordinate administrative officers with the goal of meeting the needs of the students in that division. The purpose of this exploratory, descriptive study was to determine if the perceptions of concern of superintendents and special education directors were similar or different for issues related to special education programming and did they rate the concerns with the same level of intensity. Also explored were the reasons given for concerns including resources, professional development, and time.
Most of the educational leadership research has been focused on leadership. However, often overlooked are the leadership practices to meet the needs of the special education population.

Leading collaboratively is vital yet difficult, especially when those in shared leadership roles perceive the tasks, the priorities and the importance of the task, and the available resources differently. Research directs us to get on the same page when leading organizations effectively.

Collaborative leadership in special education programs is particularly critical because of the high incidence of special education students and the high impact of meeting their needs. coupled with the high costs for providing those needs and services. Method This study featured survey research designed to compare the magnitude of concern between Virginia public school division superintendents and directors of special education regarding timely issues in special education. Survey questions addressed current issues in special education identified in policy briefs from the Center on Educational Policy (2006) and Project Forum (2009) along with literature examining the intersection of educational leadership, special education, IDEIA, and NCLB (Amprey, 2005; Wasta, 2006; Frick & Faircloth, 2007; Hodge & Krumm, 2009; Wagner & Katsiyannis, 2010). Participants Following a research protocol approved by the Institutional Review Board, participants for the study were identified from the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. A listserv was created with the 2011-2012 Virginia public school division superintendents and directors of special education. The survey was delivered online to 262 participants, 132 Virginia superintendents and 130 Virginia directors of special education. The overall response rate for the survey was 37.8% (n=99). The response rate for the superintendents was 22% (n=29) while the response rate for the directors of special education was 53% (n=70). The investigators developed an online survey that asked participants to identify their current role in the school division. The survey asked participants to rate their magnitude of concern regarding special education and the implementation of alternate assessment, AYP, school accreditation, graduation rates, dropout rates, employment of highly qualified special educators, special education teacher turnover, response to intervention, professional development, discipline, the provision of LRE, special educator work load, and the over identification of minorities. Magnitude of concern was defined as no concern (not one of our division’s immediate concerns), a minor concern (creates a resolvable concern monthly in the division), a moderate concern (creates a resolvable concern weekly within the division), a major concern (creates a resolvable concern daily within the division), and high priority (one of the highest priority concerns of the administrative staff in the division). Procedures The survey also asked participants to indicate why the issue was an area of concern by choosing from the following factors: lack of resources, professional development needed, time is needed, technical support needed, or educational policy issues. Participants were also asked to choose the factor that would most likely increase collaboration from the following list: articulation of clear expectations, professional development, overt focus on needs, use of student data, and cultivate buy-in of all stakeholders.

Quantitative data analyses were performed using SPSS version 20 (IBM, 2011). The magnitude of the Pearson chi-square reflects the amount of discrepancy between the observed frequencies and the expected frequencies. This study established an alpha level of .05. When p <= .05, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the magnitude of concern or the factors influencing the magnitude of concern are different for each group indicating that the two variables are associated. In this study, a significant finding would indicate that the variable tested is associated with the position held by the administrator, either superintendent or director of special education. Since the overall n (n=99) was small, some magnitude cells were combined to create cell sizes large enough to analyze. No concern and minor concern were combined and major concern and high priority were combined. Analyses focused on the differing magnitudes of concern for both superintendents and directors of special education along with the factors impacting the assessed concerns. The results indicate there is a relationship between the position held by the administrator and the magnitude of concern regarding the implementation of alternate assessments for students with disabilities (SWD), 2 (2, N = 99) = 6.27, p = .04. Superintendents rated this issue as a moderately high to a major high concern (66%) while directors of special education rated this issue as no concern to minor concern (59%). When examining factors that impact the implementation of alternate assessments for students with disabilities, the results indicate there is also relationship between the position held by the administrator and the factors, 2(4, N = 99) = 15.502, p = .004. Superintendents (90%) rated time, lack of resources, and the need for professional development as the factors that most impact implementation of alternate assessment while the directors of special education (87%) rated time, professional development needs, and educational policy as the factors that most impact implementation.

A significant finding established a relationship between the magnitude of concern regarding the graduation rates for SWD and the position held by the administrator, 2(3, N = 99) = 8.05, p = .05. Superintendents rated this issue as a major to high concern (66%) while only 44% of the directors of special education rated the issue as a major to high concern. When examining the factors that impact graduation rates for SWD, superintendents (80%) and directors of special education (80%) indicated educational policy, resources and time. There was no statistical evidence that a relationship exists between the position of the administrator and the identified factors that impact graduation rates for SWD. Results Procedures The results of this study support a relationship between the position held by the administrator and the magnitude of concern regarding teacher turnover rates of special educators, 2(2, N = 99) = 6.40, p = .04. Seventy-seven percent of the directors of special education rated the magnitude of concern as none to minor while 55% of the superintendents rated the magnitude of concern as none to minor when considering the turnover rate of special educators. Approximately one-third of the superintendents (35%) rated this issue as a moderate concern while only 13% of the directors of special education rated this issue as a moderate concern. No relationship was established between the factors and the position held by the administrator. Both superintendents (48%) and directors of special education (34%) identified lack of resources as the greatest factor impacting the concern regarding teacher turnover of special educators.
The results support a relationship between the position held by the administrator and the magnitude of concern regarding the over identification of minorities as SWD, 2 (3, N = 99) = 10.49, p = .02. Directors of special education (79%) reported no to minor concern regarding the over identification of minorities while the superintendents reported a 48% rate of no to minor concern and a 31% rate of moderate concern. A relationship was also established when examining the factors that impact the concerns related to the over identification of minorities as SWD, 2 (5, N = 99) = 17.38, p = .004. The superintendents (48%) reported the need for professional development and the lack of resources as the most important factors while the directors of special education (58%) reported the need for professional development and educational policy as the factors that most impact the concerns related to the over identification of minorities as SWD.
When considering the professional development of special education teachers, no relationship was established between the position held by the administrator and the magnitude of concern regarding this issue. Both superintendents (41%) and directors of special education (47%) reported no concern providing professional development to special educators. Interestingly, 38% of the superintendents reported this issue as a major to high concern. However, relationship between position held by the administrator and the factors that impact the provision of professional development for special educators was established, 2 (5, N = 99) = 14.26, p = .01. The superintendents rated professional development (31%) and time (31%) as the factors most impacting the provision of professional development for special educators while the directors reported time (55%) as the most important factor. Results Several issues included in the survey did not result in significant findings for magnitude of concern or the factors impacting the magnitude of concern. Although no relationship was established between the position held by the administrator and the factors that would most likely increase the effectiveness of collaboration, it is interesting to look at the findings reported by both groups. Both groups (superintendents 63%, directors of special education 56%) reported professional development and an overt focus on needs as the top two factors most likely to increase collaboration. The directors (23%) then identified the use of student data to make decisions while the superintendents (10%) ranked the use of data fourth on the list. These findings could have practical implications when considering how both groups of administrators plan for a collaborative working relationship. Results As we were framing our research questions around a theory of teamwork and collaboration, and considering the nature of our topic with its many interpretations, we thought superintendents and directors of special education might not hold the same levels of concern regarding special education issues. We thought the difference, if there were one, would be illuminated through the research questions in our survey and subsequent data analyses. We believed, and previous research on collaborative leadership suggested (Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond, 2001; WestEd, 2004; Boscardin, 2007; Frick & Faircloth, 2007; Thomas, 2007) that collaboration could be helpful in delivering effective programs and services if true collaboration efforts were underway and if so, it would mean that both parties were on the same page.

We found the anticipated discrepancy not as significant as expected. The two groups were actually closer together than we thought they would be, with the two parties close together in most areas surveyed. When looking at magnitude of concern, the two parties differed in alternate assessment, graduation rates, teacher turnover, and the over identification of minority students as SWD. Interestingly, superintendents were more concerned with all these issues when compared to the directors of special education. Larger discrepancies were noted when examining the factors that influenced the magnitude of concern with three significant items: alternate assessment, professional development, and the over identification of minorities as SWD. Superintendents repeatedly cited lack of resources, time, and professional development as the major influencing factors while the directors of special education cited time and educational policy requirements as the major influencers. Discussion Mandates evident in NCLB and IDEIA may have served as a catalyst for increased collaboration between general and special education (WestEd, 2004), which have historically operated as independent systems with separate funding streams, legal mandates and personnel. The issues that resulted in significant findings (alternate assessment, graduation rates, teacher turnover, professional development, over identification) are mandates found in both IDEIA and NCLB with the exception of the over identification of minorities as SWD which is related to IDEIA. Interestingly, the non-significant findings were related to issues that are related to either IDEIA or NCLB, but not both, with the exception of dropout rates and the employment of highly qualified special education teachers (IDEIA, 2004; NCLB, 2001). These findings support the notion that collaborative leadership, even if participation is based on meeting the mandates of differing laws, is necessary when working to provide FAPE for all students during an era of reform initiatives such as NCLB and long standing regulations for SWD as mandated by IDEIA (Boscardin, 2007). Discussion The analyses in this study were exploratory so caution should be exercised when drawing conclusions. The major limitation of this study was the sample size. The overall number was low and the number of superintendents responding was low.

Another limitation is that the findings cannot be generalized to a larger population. The respondents, all Virginia administrators, may not be representative of administrators nationwide. Further research analyzing administrator differences in magnitude of concern regarding issues in special education should target a nationwide sample of superintendents and directors of special education. Such research could result in a much larger, representative sample that would lend itself to generalization. Limitations Implications for Practice The research presented in this study shows how superintendents and directors of special education sometimes view the same issue with differing levels of concern. This difference in perception could influence how decisions are made, resources delegated, and how populations of students are served. Effective collaboration could bring these administrators closer together, strengthening their understanding of current issues, allowing them to see the concern or lack of concern held by others, and make informed decisions based on the perceptions held by the whole. Spillane et al. (2001) argued that school leadership includes social and situational contexts. We propose that the administrator’s role in the central office is a situational context. To effectively collaborate, administrators need understand that it may not be the role held, such as superintendent or director of special education that influences their concern regarding issues, but their overall knowledge and practical understanding of an issue. For example, this study indicated a significant difference in the magnitude of concern regarding the implementation of alternate assessment for SWD. Superintendents rated this issue as one of concern while directors of special education seemed to hold little concern. Upon further probe, the superintendents reported that the reason for their concern was time and lack of resources. The directors of special education agreed with the time factor, but then reported the concern related to educational policy and professional development needs. These differences may indicate a practical need for the directors of special education to share with the superintendents some general and practical knowledge about alternate assessment and the role of the special educator in administering alternate assessments to SWD. Directors may not hold the same magnitude of concern regarding alternate assessment because it is educational policy dictated by the student’s IEP and carried out by the special education teacher. A superintendent may try to allocate resources, such as personnel and materials, when the director of special education may only need a few short staff development sessions to implement alternate assessment. Research should continue to dig deeper into the differing perspectives of administrators when considering special education issues. A national survey could supply much needed information regarding these perceptions and their impact on educational decision-making.

Another area that may present research opportunities is the application for federal waivers to bypass some key components of NCLB. States may apply for waivers that would allow freedom from some of the law’s requirements. It might be interesting to see if perceived concerns for special education issues related to NCLB lessen for superintendents if the waiver releases the district from meeting certain mandates.

The current researchers plan to continue their work with Virginia administrators, probing their concerns further with personal interviews to attempt to determine the reasons for their responses including background knowledge of issues, practical experience with the issues, or lack of either. Also, questions will be asked to seek if and how these administrators would plan to increase effective collaboration in their district. Future Research Implications for Practice The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) recently released new standards for advanced roles in special education (CEC, n.d.). These standards provide a benchmark for special education professionals as they strive to practice at a high level of skill. Included in these standards is collaboration. These standards states that collaboration can promote the understanding of both internal and external stakeholders, resolve conflicts, build consensus to provide services for students, and help leaders understand the interactions of language, diversity, and culture on decision-making. Crockett, Billingsley, and Boscardin (2012) propose that students who struggle in school can benefit from collaborative forms of leadership that support the interactions between administrators, which are necessary to support complex educational needs. These researchers state “Administrators, general and special education educators, support personnel, and families need to share their understanding of students’ needs, make individual decisions about services, and use their knowledge, skills, and resources to create instructional environments that support positive student outcomes” (p. 151). When asked to think about collaboration between general and special education administrators, this research study indicated agreement between the administrators when identifying the factors that would most likely increase the effectiveness of this collaboration. Implications for Practice Administrators in this study identified the provision of extensive and ongoing professional development for all staff that supports the goals and expectations of the division and an overt focus on meeting the needs of all students, regardless of label, as the factors that most impacted collaboration. On a practical level, these findings support Project Forum (2009) that resulted in superintendent recommendations for school districts wishing to address the need for collaboration between general and special education. The recommendations included the following: articulate clear and consistent goals and expectations; provide extensive and ongoing professional development for all staff that supports the goals and expectations and fosters dialogue; focus on meeting the needs of all students, regardless of label; maintain a system that can manage student-level data; use student-level data to analyze student needs, make instructional decisions and convince others of the value of collaboration; cultivate buy-in from all constituents; and maintain focus at the district level. When school districts begin to examine their potential for collaboration between general education administrators and special education administrators, initial emphasis may need to be placed on professional development for those administrators including the necessary background and practical information regarding issues of concern and a stated, overt vision statement addressing the focus on meeting the needs of all students even if the administrative position is defined by a population of students. Abstract Introduction
Ted Price and Deborah L. Wells
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