Re-inventing Special Education Leadership Priorities for the Next 10 Years

In 2013, the Missouri chapter of the Council of Administrators of Special Education (MO-CASE) Board of Directors officially committed to “re-inventing” special education.  The time for re-invention appeared right—the MO-CASE board participated in numerous national discussions and was very aware of such initiatives in other states.  CASE encouraged state chapters to consider the need for re-invention, and identify potential starting points for this work.  A growing number of Missouri schools were changing how they responded when students went off track academically or behaviorally (e.g., collaborative teams, data-based decision-making, research-based instruction, multi-tiered systems of support, blended services).  However, the MO-CASE board understood that simply adopting another state’s approach would be a doomed strategy in Missouri, fondly referred to as the “Show Me” state.  Instead, leading re-invention in Missouri would require talking to the educators doing the work and the parents of students with disabilities to understand what they thought special education should look like in their state.

We started our search for the Missouri way with a series of more than 200 individual and small group interviews with educators and parents.  The interviews were designed to identify the big ideas and high impact strategies that state and district leaders, teachers, parents, and stakeholder groups would support.  We asked questions about what was currently working and not working, as well as requested descriptions of best case scenarios for how educators could work together to ensure all students’ needs were met.  We relied on the themes and recommendations that emerged to create a survey used to collect feedback from our MO-CASE membership.  Over 225 MO-CASE members completed this survey, and expressed strong validation and support for the big ideas and key components identified through the interviews.   Ultimately, the MO-CASE board incorporated both interview and survey results into a draft Missouri special education re-invention rationale, vision, and action plan.  It is noteworthy that the term re-invention shifted to transformation as a reflection of the organic, all-encompassing nature of this work.


The expectations and context for educating students with disabilities in Missouri schools have changed drastically since the special education federal mandate of 1975.  In today’s schools:

1. The diversity and intensity of educational needs has increased significantly. Teachers are challenged as never before to provide differentiated, specialized instruction that is responsive to the unique needs of students.  Collective efforts to address these challenges utilizing all expertise in the school are more likely to produce the outcomes expected for all learners.

2. Schools and districts are accountable for the performance of all learners, including students with disabilities and other diverse learning needs, as measured through statewide assessments and evidence of successful transitions into post-secondary schools, careers, and community.  Proactive supports need to be available for any learner as soon as the need for additional support is recognized.

3. Special education has become increasingly defined by compliance requirements at the expense of time spent in collaboration with colleagues to plan and provide differentiated, intensified, or specialized instruction.

4. Increasing numbers of students with significant disabilities such as autism, emotional disturbance, and health and labels of intellectual disabilities are being identified and served in neighborhood schools.  Students with milder learning issues are often supported through tiered interventions and do not require the full extent of special education processes or safeguards in order to meet their needs.

5. Perpetuation of general and special education as separate systems has created barriers to innovative practices, efficient use of limited resources, and joint responsibility for the performance of students with disabilities and other diverse learning needs.


Our vision for Missouri’s special education is based on the creation of a single, unified, educational system where all educators demonstrate the commitment, confidence, expertise, and call to action to teach all learners within a community of professional support.  The vision has four primary themes:

1. Special education defined within the context of specialized educational services and supports, and special education staff as key participants on collaborative teams using data and problem solving to plan for and monitor progress of all learners;

2. Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) as the operational framework to identify and provide early intervention for students who need differentiated, intensified, or specially designed academic or social-emotional-behavioral instruction;

3. Evidence-based practices as the universal standard for both core and intervention instruction;

4. Proficiency on state learning standards and successful transition into post-secondary schools, careers, and community as explicitly identified outcomes for all learners.


MO-CASE will support the re-invention of special education by:

1. Gathering broad-based input from key stakeholders across Missouri and other states by collecting and incorporating educator, parent, and student input into the action plan and identifying key practices resulting in improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

2. Promoting the vision and big ideas with key stakeholders across Missouri by sharing the vision and action plan progress and producing webinar updates and Q & A sessions for regional educational groups.

3. Establishing working partnerships with professional educator organizations and leaders across Missouri by convening an All Ed Transformation Oversight Team and Advisory Council to provide technical assistance, advisement, and implementation support for the key components of the new vision.

4. Partnering with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Office of Educator Quality and Special Education to reform educator pre-service programs that support re-invention.

a. Co-facilitate Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Grant—Institutes of Higher Education (IHE) curriculum reform.

b. Revise general and special educator competencies to include MTSS, data-based decision-making, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), intensification strategies for evidence/research-based instruction (literacy, math, behavior), functional knowledge in core curriculum, and post-graduation transition.

5. Partnering with Missouri DESE Office of School Improvement and Special Education to remove barriers to innovative school practices.

a. Educate school and district leaders on misperceptions surrounding special education compliance and NCLB Federal program requirements.

b. Promote employment of school-based mental health professionals (e.g. school psychologists, counselors, social workers) and collaborative partnerships with community or regional mental health providers.

c. Advocate for publically funded universal pre-school for all Missouri children ages 3-5.

6. Providing technical assistance to schools/districts ready to begin re-invention.  This will include the creation of a Gold Standard Implementation Blue Print and AL Ed Innovations Summer Institute which articulates the key elements of re-invention:  MTSS, UDL, educator roles and competencies, collaborative data and problem solving protocols, evidence/research-based instructional practices.

This working draft was shared with district administrators at the MO-CASE Fall Conference:  Blended Leadership:  Re-invent the Vision and at the MO-CASE Winter Institute:  Transformation:  All Means All.  Feedback continues to be collected and incorporated as our transformation moves ahead.  Also, MO-CASE and the Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA) have convened and are co-facilitating the All Ed Technical Advisory Council described in the action plan.  This council is comprised of educational leaders from numerous professional educational organizations, districts, universities, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and parents.  Individuals asked to join the Council were selected based on their strong interest in the education of all learners, especially learners with disabilities and other diverse learning needs, as well as their ability to influence and lead others in the promotion of this transformational vision.

MO-CASE is currently piloting the All Ed name and logo for this work.  The All Ed logo uses the butterfly as a universally recognized symbol for transformation and metamorphosis to represent special education unified within all education.  We hope to have consensus on the name and logo soon and plan to use this in future publications and presentations.  SWIFT Talk reader feedback is encouraged!

MO-CASE understands that transformation of this scale is not possible without the participation and buy-in of all educators, parents, and students who have such high stakes in the outcome of this work.  A clear road map to take us through the next 10 years has not been created for us.  And, we cannot wait for others to tell us what our future will be.  We must create it for ourselves.  As a field, we have the experience, knowledge, and skills to do this.  More importantly, we have the spirit and the belief, that given the right circumstances, every child will learn.  Every child will find his or her way into a full and productive life.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  – Margaret Mead

– Thurma DeLoach

Photo of blog authorProject Facilitator for Missouri Council of Administrator’s of Special Education (MO-CASE) Re-inventing Special Education; Student Support Services Consultant for University of Missouri-St. Louis Charter Schools Partnership. Recently retired after 32 years working as a teacher & special education/special programs district administrator in Missouri. University of Kansas (Ph.D.), Northwestern University (M.A), University of Delaware (BA)