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Chicago in Context: Considering Pay for Success to Improve Special Education

Megan Carolan (Associate Director for Policy Research) and Bryan Boroughs (General Counsel and Director of Legislative Affairs)

Results were released in mid-May from the Chicago Pay for Success (PFS) project which expands the city’s Child Parent Center (CPC) early education model. Evaluators at SRI International determined that children who attended the expanded CPC programs met the initiative’s aggressive and pre-determined goals for improved kindergarten readiness. Fifty-nine percent of the first cohort (consisting of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) arrived at kindergarten scoring above the 50th percentile on at least five out of the six tested domains. Two-thirds of the students scored above the 50th percentile on four of the six domains.

The evaluation released this week only reports on children’s kindergarten readiness, and it will eventually report on whether special education placement is reduced and whether third-grade literacy increased for children who participated in the CPC model. While there is vast agreement about preparing children to learn in the early years of school, some advocates worry using reduced special education placement as an outcome could threaten years of progress in securing for children the learning supports they need.

Used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Meriweather Lewis Elementary School.
Used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user

Used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Meriwether Lewis Elementary School.
A letter by the National Institute for Early Education Research and co-signed by hundreds of researchers stresses the potential of early childhood education to help reduce the achievement gap. Without appropriate early childhood support, many students will be faced with “high rates of school failure, grade repetition, inappropriate special education placements, and dropout; involvement in risky behaviors and crime; and, even higher risk for adult chronic disease including hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.”

It is these “inappropriate special education placements” that are at the heart of using reduced special education placement as an outcome metric for PFS projects. Pre-K advocates do not seek to deny special education services to children who need them, but rather to intervene early to mitigate delays in children’s development that could lead to special education placement. The Chicago evaluators explain as much in their report:

“Children with a severe disability were excluded [from the analysis] because the project is based on the hypothesis that high-quality early childhood education will prevent children at risk for developing delays or mild disabilities from needing special education services at later ages. Early childhood education and intervention also may reduce the need for children with mild delays or speech and language impairments in preschool from needing additional special education services in kindergarten and beyond. The project does not expect to prevent children with severe disabilities or needs from receiving special education services.”

We also know from years of data that children who are dual-language learners are often placed in special education rather than receive dual-language supports; the same is true for children who are labeled “problem children” for classroom misbehavior. These children often need individualized instruction to meet their specific needs, but not necessarily special education. Continuing to over-enroll these children in special education adds to an already overburdened, under-supported system.

Children with disabilities can and do benefit from the expansion of evidence-based preschool, including those that have been expanded using PFS financing. When the number of high-quality preschool classrooms increases, so does the likelihood that children with real developmental delays and disabilities will be identified and receive services earlier. For example, because of the expansion of preschool in Granite School District in Salt Lake County Utah using PFS financing, 29 children were referred to and found eligible for special education in preschool in the first cohort; they were served in inclusive preschool classrooms. We don’t know if these children would have been identified through other Child Find strategies but the fact that they were enrolled in an expanded preschool program certainly helped expedite the referral and evaluation process

Additionally, when the number of high-quality preschool classrooms increases, so does the opportunity for children with disabilities to be included with their same age peers. Children with mild and severe disabilities are participating in and benefiting from the CPC expansion– although children with severe disabilities are not included in the PFS evaluation cohort for payment, they do make up 3% of pre-K children participating in the CPC program and children with mild developmental delays or disabilities make up 11% of the children being followed in the first cohort of the PFS evaluation. More quality pre-K programs create more opportunities for children with special needs to be identified early and participate with their peers, as noted in the federal Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs.

One of the most common concerns about special education placement as a payment outcome is that children will be denied services to which they are legally entitled in order to “game” the results. It is understandable for advocates to question any initiative that may threaten the long-overdue gains they have fought long and hard to provide for students. Much work remains in improving special education services for all students; even today, ask a special education teacher or a parent of a children with an IEP, and they will tell you how much work remains to be done. During the development of Pay for Success projects, safeguards are built in to address these concerns. Programs are expanded in a way that ensure teachers and principals do not know which children are funded by this project. As one teacher said in coverage of the Chicago project, “If you ask a teacher here what a [social impact bond] is, they won’t be able to tell you. They’re just doing their job.”

It is important to remember that PFS is in its infancy as a financing tool and there is an opportunity to help shape the discussion around appropriate outcomes and safeguards.  PFS funding has the potential to expand opportunities for young children with disabilities — ICS participated in a session at the recent Inclusion Institute with officials from the U.S. Office of Early Learning and Office of Special Education Programs to start exploring these possibilities. We intend to keep this conversation going.

PFS is also one way to fund expanded special education services for children and families, and it has the potential to engage new stakeholders and improve how we measure success. The biggest takeaway from the Chicago evaluation is less about the funding and more about the children. Art Reynolds, known for his evaluations of the CPC program, noted in Catalyst Chicago that this evaluation used an even more rigorous definition of kindergarten readiness than his own work:

“’The fact that 59 percent of the kids—low-income, vulnerable kids—are meeting this very high standard is very positive.”


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