FCPS Special Education Programs Fail State Targets

FCPS Special Education Programs Fail State Targets

Division to develop enhanced plan.

Inclusive education as special education students are mainstreamed into general education.

Inclusive education as special education students are mainstreamed into general education.

Disparities for special education students in Fairfax County Public Schools, cited in the 210-page FCPS Special Education Comprehensive Program Review: Year 2 Final Report by American Institutes for Research, did not surprise Amanda Campbell. She is the president of the Fairfax County Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA).

Campbell highlighted that the final review mirrored SEPTA's findings to the division. "It was very validating to see it backed by data," Campbell said.

The report was the second of two annual deliverables by American Institutes for Research, which the division contracted in October 2020 to conduct an independent, third-party review of its special education program. 

American Institutes for Research presented its Year 1 interim report and presentation document at a session in September 2021, followed by its 2022 Final Report https://bit.ly/3m3JQpv The report’s scope did not include special education programs during COVID-19.

Fairfax County School Board meets in a work session on Oct. 4. to discuss FCPS Special Education Comprehensive Program Review: Year 2 Final Report with its authors. 


The division's four original goals for its special education program to AIR’s two-year comprehensive review were: one, design, structure, and processes; two, human capital; three, evidence-based practices; and four, communication. "Restraint and seclusion would be specifically OUTSIDE OF SCOPE for the purposes of this review," according to the division’s RFP 2000003084 Special Education Comprehensive Review.

“We are very appreciative of the work that has been done in compiling this report,” said Dr. Michelle Boyd, assistant superintendent of Special Services at FCPS. “Our staff has worked closely with students and families, which is reflected in the report’s mention of positive feedback from parents on the quality of FCPS instructional staff.”

Campbell addressed what she considered the top four important findings of the lengthy review. 

* First, "Fidelity of implementation is a point that we (SEPTA) have been raising since being chartered in April 2017," Campbell said. She referenced a research question in the final report, “To what extent do schools implement special education services with fidelity?”

Fidelity of the implementation of special education intervention programs is minimal and inconsistent across programs, according to the independent report. And special education services are implemented inconsistently across the district. 

Campbell said that programs and best practices for students with disabilities had been identified. However, teachers and support staff who interact with students face difficulty implementing programs effectively. A poorly implemented program can fail students just as easily as a poorly designed one. AIR’s finding was important to Campbell. “If the programs are not implemented with the same evidence-based science, then the outcomes are not going to be the same,” she said.

“That time aspect is a critical part of fidelity,” said Campbell. The time the program requires is not always what the students receive, according to Campbell. She described scheduling around multiple services as a giant jigsaw puzzle. “It is critical that we get kids the time they need in these programs for them to succeed,” Campbell said. To implement a practice or program “with fidelity,” teachers should understand how to implement evidence-based practices centered on five elements: adherence, exposure/duration (time), delivery quality, program specificity, and student engagement.

* Second was Campbell's concern was that the division’s special education services are inconsistently implemented across its five regions and schools (1k.2.). It is “very individualized and dependent on where you live in the county and what school,” Campbell said — leading to a question of equity.

The Fairfax County Public Schools division is the eleventh largest in the United States. It serves a diverse population of about 178,635 students from Pre-K through 12. In all, 14.9 percent of the total student population are students with disabilities; 31.7 percent are economically disadvantaged; and 19 percent are English language learners. Approximately 198 schools and centers are dispersed across five distinct regions within the district, covering 391 square miles.

* Campbell’s third concern: Students with disabilities disproportionally receive in- and out-of-school suspensions compared with peers without disabilities (1a.3.). SEPTA and the division have discussed this since 2019. The differences are dramatic.

* Campbell’s fourth concern was how little parent input was evident in IEPs. “Results from the IEP sample review show minimal documentation of parent input on IEP documents. Nearly 38 percent of the IEPs in our sample did not include any written evidence of parent input within the IEP itself,” cited the review (1f.4). AIR reviewed a randomly selected, representative sample of 300 IEPs.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Each IEP must be designed for one student and must be a truly individualized document. The IEP creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities. The IEP is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability.”

According to Campbell, parents should be equal partners in the IEP process. “When you have a statistic showing so little parent input, it encapsulates the concerns that families have noted. Their input is not included. That is one of the incredibly validating findings of this report," Campbell said.

Boyd, the assistant superintendent of Special Services, said the division knows “there is work to be done to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.” Boyd named areas such as “multi-tiered systems of support, inclusive practices, transitions, communication with stakeholders, and exploring ways to address special education teacher workload.”

Among other findings related to students with disabilities, as reported by AIR, FCPS does not meet Virginia state targets for the percentage of time students with disabilities are included in the general education setting (1.e.1.). Access to evidence-based practices for students with disabilities varies. Special education students in some racial-ethnic groups are at a higher risk of being suspended or expelled for greater than ten days than their special education peers in all other racial groups (1a.3.). 

The final review of AIR included 54 findings and 19 recommendations for changes to the division's policies, processes, and practices. AIR will engage in three months of pro bono strategic planning with the division’s Department of Special Services to support them in the next steps. “We look forward to working collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive special education enhancement plan,” said Boyd. 

Background: In December 2019, a school board forum topic requested that the Office of Auditor General amend the annual audit plan to address ongoing concerns regarding IEP compliance, inclusion, professional development, and reporting. On Oct. 23, 2020, the division awarded the contract to AIR. It was to be carried out in phases over two years, with the division having the option to renew the contract for three more one-year periods.

The independent, third-party review of the division's special education program reportedly cost $197,400 in Year 1, 2020-2021, and $177,998 in Year 2, 2021-2022, for a total original contract value of $375,398. Based on feedback from the School Board during the September 2021 work session, the Audit Committee recommended $87,443 in additional funding for Year 2 for stakeholder focus groups, classroom observations, and existing data analysis. The Board approved the change.