A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children with Disabilities - 1996

Statewide Systems Change for Students with Severe Disabilities

This section highlights one of OSEP's efforts to provide assistance to States and localities to educate all students and to ensure the effectiveness of these efforts. The statewide systems change grant program described in this section exemplifies the opportunities OSEP has provided to States to explore innovative inclusion practices and promote better results for students with disabilities.

As part of its effort to ensure appropriate services for students with severe disabilities and to facilitate greater inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classes and schools, OSEP provides grants to State educational agencies (SEAs) under its statewide systems change priority. Between 1987 and 1990, 16 States received 5-year statewide systems change grants to increase the physical, social, and academic integration of students with severe disabilities; increase the capacity of State and local education agencies to provide effective services to students with severe disabilities; empower parents to become actively involved in their child's education; and promote collaboration among parents, students, and service providers. Grants were in the amount of approximately $250,000 per year.

To describe statewide systems change at the State and local levels, and to identify factors that facilitate or impede systems change, Westat, Inc., under contract with OSEP, conducted 1-week site visits to five States that received statewide systems change grants between 1987 and 1990--Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. This section summarizes the findings from those site visits.

Contextual Factors Affecting Systems Change

As described by Hasazi et al. (1994), the context in which systems change was introduced was extremely important to the success of the projects. As with any reform initiative, stakeholder support, relationships among key actors, the presence of necessary preconditions for change, and the local culture all affected the extent and type of change achieved. For example, when the grant was awarded to Colorado in 1987, the SEA was promoting needs-based programming, which was student-centered and stressed creative problem solving and encouraged services based on individual need and not on any disability category. The SEA had been working with local high schools in conjunction with university faculty on inclusion through another Federal grant, and Colorado was already serving many students with disabilities in regular schools and classes. When the OSEP systems change grant was awarded, the State had already taken preliminary steps toward inclusive programming for students with disabilities.

Likewise, when Vermont was awarded its 1988 systems change grant, the State had been working on systems change for several years through previous Federal grants and related State initiatives. Consequently, the activities undertaken through this grant supplemented work already conducted, including efforts to build consensus among stakeholders on necessary changes to special education service delivery and a vision for best practices. In addition, a consulting teacher model was the predominant method of staffing special education, and as a result, many special education teachers were accustomed to working collaboratively with general educators. These factors existed at the outset of the 1988 to 1993 systems change project.

The local context also shaped the nature of services for students with disabilities, and the ability to change the nature of those services. In one rural intermediate unit in Michigan, a few parents of students with disabilities were dissatisfied with sending their students to a regional program, in part because of the long bus ride. District administrators were concerned about the expense of busing students long distances, and the intermediate unit was losing the lease on one of its schools. These factors all came together to facilitate changing the role of the intermediate unit from providing direct services to providing technical and programmatic support, and moving students previously served in the intermediate unit back to their local school districts.

One contextual factor that seemed particularly critical in understanding statewide systems change was the level of State agency support for systems change. Some indicators of State support for inclusive programming and systems change include:

Project Emphasis on Various Aspects of Systems Change

The statewide systems change projects that Westat visited conducted relatively similar project activities, although (as shown in table 3.6) different projects chose to emphasize different avenues to systems change. Most projects developed and disseminated frameworks for best practices or adapted products developed in other States, and provided technical assistance to selected schools or school districts to facilitate inclusive programming for students with severe disabilities and to test the processes described in the best practices documents. They provided widespread inservice training across their States, promoted awareness of systems change, and undertook efforts to reform preservice training.

TABLE 3.6 Amount of Emphasis Placed on Various Aspects of
Systems Change
             Develop and   Intensive              Disseminate   Technical                Statewide   Reform                 Best       Assistance   Widespread  Awareness-   Pre-               Practices   in Selected   Inservice     level    Service               Framework      Sites      Training    Training   Training               =========    ========     =========   ========   ======== Colorado        High         High       Moderate      High       Low Michigan        High         High         High        High       High Pennsylvania    High         High         High        High       Low Vermont         High         High         High        High       High* Washington    Moderate       High       Moderate    Moderate   Moderate 
* In Vermont, many necessary changes in preservice training were made prior to the grant described here.

SOURCE: Descriptions developed based on site visits with State and local project staff and verified by State project personnel.

Typically, a project staff member was assigned to work with each local site. States worked with four or five new sites per year, and assistance was provided for up to 3 years. Over the projects' 5-year existence, intensive assistance was provided to 15 to 20 sites per State. The technical assistance providers spent several days a month at each local site. In most cases, personnel at local sites, along with their technical assistance provider, completed a needs assessment, which was used to determine which activities should be carried out during the coming year. Project staff then provided inservice training on issues such as systems change, inclusion, and collaboration, and helped plan services for individual students. Projects also offered summer institutes, which provided week-long intensive training on systems change. Districts were encouraged to send teams composed of regular and special education teachers and administrators to the summer institutes.

Efforts were also made to conduct training to raise the awareness of local educational personnel concerning systems change across the States, rather than restricting such training solely to project sites. Project staff conducted inservice workshops, made conference presentations, and wrote newsletters to draw attention to the issues of systems change. System changes project staff in Michigan worked in some capacity with 72 percent of that State's local school districts.

While projects proposed working with faculties from various universities to reform preservice training for general and special education personnel, those efforts had limited success. In Michigan, preservice training curriculum was closely tied to State certification requirements, and most universities were reluctant to revise their preservice training curriculum until certification requirements changed. Many projects used changes to inservice training as an alternative to preservice reform. In Vermont, service providers (in both general and special education) were trained through inservice workshops to work in inclusive classrooms. The retraining of teachers to work in a collaborative, inclusive model continues to be a major challenge for project staff.

Nature and Amount of Systems Change

Just as the context for systems change within each State differed, the extent and nature of change also differed. Some States, such as Colorado and Vermont, were particularly successful in changing State policy to promote inclusion of students with disabilities. Others, such as Pennsylvania, changed the role of intermediate units from providing direct services to providing technical support, and moved students from regional programs back to their local schools and school districts. Washington and Pennsylvania were particularly successful in leveraging State funds to expand technical assistance activities beyond what was possible through the OSEP grant, while all five States enhanced statewide awareness of inclusion through conference presentations, inservice training, and publications. Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Michigan reported moving sizable numbers of students to more inclusive settings during the grant period, and Vermont reduced its special education child count through enhanced general education services. These results are presented in table 3.7.

TABLE 3.7 Relative Amount and Nature of Change Observed in Each State
                                                   Change                             Inter-                  mediate                 Units from                              Move      Reduc-        Revise     Direct             Revise   Enhance   Students  tion        State    Services to Leverage Pre-     Aware-    to More   in        Education Technical  State    service  ness of   Inclusive Child        Policies  Support    Funds    Training Inclusion Settings  Count        ========  =======   =======   ======== ========= ========  ===== Colorado
       High        NA       Low       Low      High     Moderate   Low Michigan
        *         Low       Low       Low      High      High      Low Pennsylvania        Moderate    High      High      Low      High      High      Low Vermont
       High        NA       Low      Moderate  High      High      High Washington
       Low         NA       High      Low      High      Low       Low                                  

* The Michigan legislature is currently considering policy changes that facilitate inclusive programming for students with disabilities.

SOURCE: Descriptions developed based on site visits with State and local project staff and verified by State project personnel.

Challenges to Systems Change

Several areas presented difficulties for most or all of the systems change projects either at the State level or for local sites. These areas include spreading change from target schools to other locations, institutionalizing change at the secondary level, meeting the needs of students with emotional impairments in inclusive settings, and defining appropriate roles for paraprofessionals.

Many projects focused on school-level change, and careful planning was required to facilitate the spread of systems change from one school to another. In one district in Pennsylvania, systems change efforts were targeted at a particular elementary school, with little district involvement. Although schoolwide efforts were extremely successful, when students left the elementary school for the middle school, there was no inclusive programming available and no systematic plan for adopting inclusive programming.

In general, statewide systems change projects had more success in bringing about change in elementary schools than in secondary schools. In one district well-known for its inclusive practices, secondary school teachers expressed frustration with the lack of training and information on how to implement inclusive programming at the secondary level. Teachers were uncomfortable with parental expectations for class credits and diplomas. Grading was an issue, and secondary school teachers were seen as excessively committed to their academic discipline rather than their students. Some parents were as dissatisfied as teachers with secondary programming, reporting that some teachers took responsibility for students with disabilities in their classes, but others relied on paraprofessionals to adapt curriculum and instruction. Several parents reported that nondisabled students in middle and high school were less accepting of students with disabilities than they were at the elementary level. In a few cases, parents who had insisted on inclusive programming for their children at the elementary level placed their children in separate facilities in middle school.

Of all the disability groups, students with emotional impairments remained the most difficult to accommodate. From a local perspective, these challenges were tied to the disruptive behavior displayed by many students with emotional impairments. From a broader perspective, limitations in success were tied to the scope of training and resources for meeting student needs.

Another difficult issue in several States related to the role of paraprofessionals in modifying and adapting curriculum and instruction, and the expense associated with hiring these additional staff members. In general, local personnel seemed uncertain about the appropriate role of paraprofessionals in meeting the needs of students with disabilities in general education settings.

Discussion of Systems Change

As State and local systems change projects work to improve services for students with severe disabilities, they are faced with diminishing funds and growing needs for educational programming. The climate of fiscal austerity challenges the ability of many schools and school districts to garner the resources necessary to support systems change.

In Colorado and Vermont, a wide range of State policies and practices supported local school districts in adopting inclusive practices. The administrators created what Fullan (1995) described as "incentives and conditions for change." At the time of the systems change grant, change in Michigan was primarily driven from the bottom up, although since that time the State has become far more involved in policy change to support and promote inclusion. In Michigan, parents demanded inclusive placements for their children with severe disabilities, and local school divisions worked to provide appropriate programming. The local school districts gained the advantage of being able to take credit for initiating change at the local level and establishing a sense of local ownership of policies. While they continued to face difficulties in implementing change, local staff seemed to take responsibility for those difficulties and for finding appropriate solutions. The primary limitation with locally-initiated change that was not initially supported by compatible State policy was that there were pockets of reform surrounded by areas where the status quo prevailed.

The picture that emerges from these site visits is complex. No single factor or group of factors accounted for all of the change that occurred. In most cases, long-lasting reform occurred when a system was given time to adjust to successive changes. In States such as Vermont, where reform has been taking place over a long period of time, administrators and university personnel acknowledged the difficulties they experienced and the new ones they anticipated. They advised States just beginning the systems change process to acknowledge that change takes time. The systems change grants are designed to stimulate change--specifically, as noted at the beginning of this discussion, to increase the physical, social, and academic integration of students with severe disabilities; increase the capacity of State and local educational agencies to provide effective services to students with severe disabilities; empower parents to become actively involved in their child's education; and promote collaboration among parents, students, and service providers. To a large extent, the systems change grant projects did stimulate change in those areas.

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