OSSE has hired the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to study the quality of special education programs in the District, an $800,000 project it hopes will identify best practices that can be replicated and brought to scale in public and public charter schools.

“The plan is basically to start a conversation about what quality special education practices should look like in the District of Columbia.,” said Amy Maisterra, assistant state superintendent for special education.

The venture, to be paid for with federal Race to the Top funds, also will help establish a series of performance indicators that schools can use to assess how they serve the city’s roughly 9,000 physically and mentally disabled students.

Maisterra said much of OSSE’s work to date has been around ensuring compliance with federal laws. This is an opportunity to step back and have a discussion “at a granular level” about instruction, behavior and support services. The study will start with a literature review of effective practices locally, nationally and internationally, followed by a series of stakeholder focus groups. Maisterra said she hopes to have a report out by early summer.

There’s nothing like a big, new shiny study to get the pulse of D.C. education officials racing. Last month, Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright rolled out the much-anticipated IFF school capacity analysis. DCPS is working with Educational Resource Strategies (ERS), a Massachusetts non-profit, on how to better manage and spend their money.

These kinds of announcements invariably raise the question:what is it that an outside consultant can tell them that they don’t already know? The city’s special education system, under federal court supervision for years, faces a set of issues that seem pretty widely understood. Capacity remains the most challenging.

At a D.C. Council oversight hearing last week, Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, said there have been improvements in special education, and that the city has the right idea by trying to move students out of private placements in Virginia and Maryland back into neighborhood schools with their peers. But Sandalow said that too often the city is trying to return families before it has the programs to serve them.

She also said it is a struggle even to ascertain what the public schools have to offer.

“Despite repeated requests for this information, there is no comprehensive and publicly accessible list of special education programs within DCPS,” Sandalow said. “Short of calling each individual DCPS school for the information, parents, students and their attorneys have virtually no way of knowing where programs exist, what methodologies they are using in the classroom, what staff are in the classrooms or what training and licensing the professionals have.”

Early Stages, the DCPS center for identifying learning issues in children ages 3 to 5, has improved the city’s screening ability. But the transition from screening to full evaluation and treatment has been less successful, Sandalow said.

As an example, she described a three-year-old client who was tested at Early Stages and given an Individualized Education Program in September 2010. But the boy didn’t start receiving special education services until January 2011 and did not start his physical therapy until March.

“One the need is identified, the District must ensure that there exist sufficient resources for children to get timely services,” Sandalow said.