An Outcomes-Driven Special Education Paradigm

Heartland Area Education Agency’s Problem Solving Model: An Outcomes-Driven Special Education Paradigm

Jankowski, Elizabeth A


In this article, an alternative outcomes-oriented special education model currently in use in Iowa is discussed, the Heartland Area Education Agency Problem Solving Model. Described are the rationale of the model, its evolution, and a description of the assessment and delivery system of the model. The core beliefs necessary for successful implementation of the model are also described.

Heartland Area Education Agency (AEA) 11 is the largest of 15 area education agencies created in 1974 by the Iowa Legislature to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children. Support to local schools is provided through a vast array of programs, services, and resources. The staff serves a large, increasingly diverse, and often geographically distant clientele though Heartland’s Johnston, Iowa, headquarters and 10 branch offices geographically located throughout 11 counties covering 6,600 square miles in central Iowa. Schools within Heartland range from small rural districts with fewer than 250 students to large districts with student populations greater than 7,500 students. Presently, Heartland Area Education Agency 11 serves about 123,000 students, nearly one-fourth of Iowa’s total student population as well as 9,000 teachers and administrators. This includes 56 public school districts made up of more than 300 buildings and 35 approved non-public schools.

In many Iowa districts, special education entitlement decisions are made using an alternative intervention and assessment system. Services are delivered through an alternative service delivery system as well. Alternative, in this case, describes a system different than the traditional refer-test-place models. The model requires use of functional assessment rather than a battery of standardized tests. Students are served in special education by being an “Entitled Individual” (EI) rather than being labeled in traditional disability categories.

Rationale for Alternative Assessment and Service Delivery Systems

For approximately 30 years, special education services, in large part, have been determined by educational disability categories (Morison, White, & Feuer, 1996; Ysseldyke & Martson, 1999). These definitional categories have been used in the federal legislation to define which children are disabled, such those labeled as Mildly Mentally Retarded, Learning Disabled, etc. (Ysseldyke & Marston, 1999). Familiar arguments in the educational arena in support of categorical identification have been summarized by Ysseldyke & Marston (1999). They note that among these are notions that the categorical approach helps to clarify which students arc disabled due to extensive inclusionary and exclusionary criteria and claims that the categorical approach has important instructional ramifications. An additional principle includes the argument that categorical approaches help in administering and funding programs.

Ysseldyke & Marston (1999) offer rebuttals for arguments in favor of categorical approaches. First, inclusionary and exclusionary criteria are not applied consistently among practitioners, thus, making categorical placement unreliable. Second, effective instructional practices may be the same for students exhibiting similar educational needs, not necessarily by categorical disability. For example, instruction that is effective with students with a diagnosis of a learning disability may be the same instructional method that is effective for other students, e.g., students with a diagnosis of mild mental retardation. Therefore, categorical definition does not lead to identification of specific effective instructional strategies. Third, administrative funding based on a categorical label docs not lead to the best outcomes for students since individual educational need is overlooked. Ikeda & Gustafson (2002) argue that categorical approaches have led to a large group of students falling into the “sea of ineligibility.” These include groups of students who arc outside the circle of general education, but who do not meet the definitional criteria needed to be considered for special education.

Evolution of the Model

Because of concerns surrounding the legitimacy of categorical service delivery systems meeting the needs of students, Iowa began exploring alternatives to the traditional test-and-place system. Other factors related to reform included the movement toward outcomes criterion to evaluate what is done in special education and meeting the needs of at-risk students. Also, the idea of using a problem solving process to define problems, directly measure behavior, design interventions, and frequently monitor student progress was appealing and played an important role in system reform.

Heartland’s Problem-Solving Model began in 1988 when the Iowa Renewed Service Delivery System (RSDS) was developed to improve educational services in local schools by planning and implementing educational innovations across the state. The original oversight committee of RSDS was comprised of 22 persons including school principals, general and special education teachers, school psychologists, university faculty, and State Department of Education personnel. The group’s purpose was to examine concerns within Iowa’s special education delivery system, to identify guiding principles that would become the foundation of reform efforts, and to make recommendations to help guide innovation implementation (Reschly, Tilly, & Grimes, 1998). Through the work of the committee, a set of foundational principles was developed. These principles represented guiding themes educational agencies were asked to consider when designing reforms for their districts and schools. The key principles for innovation planning, training, and implementation are presented in Table 1.

Area Education Agencies were invited by the Iowa Department of Education to develop trial-site plans indicating how they planned to implement special education reforms using RSDS innovation principles. Fourteen of 15 Area Education Agencies chose to participate at that time. After AEA trial-site plans were developed and agreed upon, school districts within each AEA were invited to participate in RSDS innovations. A key component in each participating school was a site-based building plan that allowed some level of autonomy for local education agencies.

The specifics of individual AEA plans varied substantially from one another with the Department of Education working with each AEA individually to allow maximum flexibility within the parameters of RSDS principles. In the case of Heartland Area Education Agency, the Heartland Problem Solving Model was an outcome of this reform effort. Heartland proposed framework was one of several within the state requiring waivers of state special education eligibility rules. In 1995 new standards for determining special education eligibility were put into place allowing for the use of the Problem Solving Model to determine entitlement to special education services (Iowa Area Education Agency Directors of Special Education Association, 1996). Thus, the Model became an integrated and acceptable mode for assessment and identification.

The Model has evolved from the RSDS reform involvement to a four-level problem solving approach. New staff members at Heartland AEA receive substantial training about the problem-solving model. Veteran staff receive training as the model evolves. The Guiding Principles are contained in Heartland’s Manual Improving Children’s Education Results Through Data-Based Decision-Making (Heartland Area Agency 11, 2002).

Description of the Model

Heartland’s Problem Solving Model has two major components: a) a systematic problem-solving process used to analyze student needs-assessment activities provide a foundation for planned interventions or strategies to enable a student to be successful; and, b) a problem-solving approach with implementation of the problem-solving process at various levels of intensity using the resources necessary to address the needs of the learner (see Figure 1). Functional assessment using curriculum-based evaluation (Howell & Nolet, 2000) and curriculum-based measurement (Shinn, 1998) are the primary means of assessment along with Heartland AEA’s Review, Interview, Observation, and Test (RIOT) procedures (Heartland Area Agency, 2002). Most students, although not all, within Heartland AEA receive special education services through the “Entitled Individual” or EI category.

Problem Solving Approach

The problem solving approach is intended to find the educational strategy(ies) or intervcntion(s) that will best meet the needs of a student. The emphasis is on arriving at solutions to problems that can be implemented within the least restrictive environment for the student and that utilize the appropriate level of resources. The Heartland AEA problem solving approach encompasses four levels of problem solving as depicted in Figure 1. The level of difficulty a student is experiencing matched with necessary resources needed is referred to as “levels” within the problem solving approach. As the needs of the student become greater, there is an increased level of rigor and intensity to the process. Resources needed to resolve the problem increase as well. The severity or intensity of the problem will also determine which of the local school and Heartland support staff will work with parents and teachers to try to resolve the problem. For example, a challenging behavior specialist who conducts a functional behavioral analysis may be called to assist with a student exhibiting intensive behavioral needs, but not necessarily on all cases involving behavior as a concern. A detailed description of each problem-solving level follows.

Level One-Consultation Between Teachers and Parents. At this level, problem solving involves consultation between a classroom teacher and student’s parents. Informal discussions between teachers and parents are held regarding a behavior of concern (academic or behavioral) and some type of intervention is documented. The student’s teacher and parents informally monitor the student’s progress. A follow-up conference is held to determine the effectiveness of the intervention and the possible need for further resources. This less formal stage of assistance requires a low level of resources.

Level Two-Consultation with Other Resources. Level Two involves consultation with other resource personnel, in most cases a school’s building assistance team (BAT) members. The BAT consists of teachers who work together to support other teachers and to assist students. Heartland provides extensive training for the BAT to help them define student problems, put effective interventions into place, and conduct ongoing monitoring to determine the efficacy of interventions. Some form of written plan is often put in place to document these efforts.

Level Three-Consultation with the Extended Problem-Solving Team. If a student’s problem(s) persist, even with the assistance of additional resources, the level of rigor in the design of the intervention increases and additional personnel may be added to the problem solving team. Heartland personnel are part of the extended problem-solving team. In order to ensure equitable service delivery, all schools within the Heartland area are assigned a team made up of AEA staff who visit schools one to several times per week depending on caseload and other factors. The team typically includes a school psychologist, an educational consultant, school social worker, and speech/language pathologist. Heartland staff work with local school personnel to help students along the problem-solving approach continuum. Other ad hoc members may include additional Heartland personnel such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, autism specialists, challenging behavior specialists, and assistive technology specialists.

One of the key components at Level III is a systematic analysis of the presenting problem by AEA personnel. Quite often, there is a need for functional assessment information to be collected at this level to determine the intervention that will best match the cause of the problem. A formalized intervention plan is written that includes the components of problem solving as required by the Iowa Administrative Rules of Special Education (Iowa Department of Education, 2000). These components include measurable and goal-directed attempts to solve the presenting problem and collection of data related to the identified problem. Systematic progress monitoring is a key component at this level with data relative to instructional effectiveness being used to develop interventions.

Level Four-Consideration of Entitlement for Special Education. If the data collected throughout problem solving indicate a need for specialized services delivered by special education personnel, parental consent is required to use the information gathered during the problem solving process in determining entitlement for special education services. Additional assessment information may need to be conducted at this time. If it is determined that the student is eligible and in need of special education services, an intervention is written and becomes the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Entitlement to special education services is determined using information gathered during the problem solving process at each level of the problem solving approach to help answer the following questions in three domains:

1. Educational Progress: Is the student’s rate of progress less than the rate of typical peers or an expected rate of skill acquisition? Under what learning conditions has the student experienced the greatest rate of gain?

2. Discrepancy: Does the student’s performance remain significantly different than that of peers or identified standards?

3. Instructional Needs: Does the student continue to need a curriculum and instruction that is significantly different than what is provided in the general education classroom? Additionally, what environmental conditions will best enhance the student’s performance?

According to Heartland’s decision-making guidelines (Heartland Area Education Agency 11, 2002), the following conditions must be present for a student to be entitled to special education services:

1. Educational Progress: Previous interventions have failed to sufficiently improve a student’s rate of learning and additional resources are needed to enhance student learning or the interventions that have sufficiently improved the student’s rate of learning are too demanding to be implemented with integrity without special education resources.

2. Discrepancy: Given equal or enhanced opportunities, the student’s current level of performance is significantly lower than typical peers or identified standards.

3. Instructional Needs: Instructional needs have been identified that are beyond what can be provided in general education. This is evident when curriculum, instruction, or environmental conditions need to be different for the student as compared to the needs of other students in the general education environment.

Problem Solving Process

As previously discussed, Heartland’s Problem Solving Model consists of a problem solving approach and a problem solving process. The approach matches resources to the severity of the problem. The problem-solving process (see Figure 2) is vised to facilitate decision making about intervention success at each level of the problem solving approach. Four areas are addressed when working through each level of the problem-solving process:

* Define the Problem: What is the problem? Why is it happening?

Emphasis is placed on describing the problem behavior in specific, observable, and measurable terms. The problem behavior is defined in terms of the child’s current performance and environmental expectations. At Level III, a detailed problem analysis takes place and assists in the development of plausible hypotheses regarding why the problem may be occurring and help define the problem even further.

* Develop a Plan: What is going to be done about the problem?

An intervention plan is developed and put in place based upon the results of the assessment and the hypotheses regarding problem etiology. The plan includes who will do what, when, and how. A goal as well as monitoring procedures are developed to determine effectiveness of the intervention plan.

* Implement Plan: Is the plan being implemented as intended?

Integrity of intervention is part of the follow-up implementation process. Support with developing materials and the training of personnel may be needed to put the plan in place. Monitoring is used for periodic evaluation of the success of designed interventions.

* Evaluate: Did the plan work as intended?

Trends in performance are analyzed to gauge the effectiveness of the intervention plan. Conclusions are drawn as to next steps including continuation of the intervention, modifying the intervention, or seeking more resources to help solve the presenting problem if it has not been resolved at this point. All four steps of the problem solving process are used at each level of the problem solving approach. The documentation at Level 1 is much less formal than that expected at Levels III and IV.

The Applicability of the Problem Solving Model to Eligibility Under IDEA, 1997

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all students with disabilities regardless of whether a student has or has not been assigned a traditional categorical label. Also, a student must have an educational disability and a need for special education to be determined eligible for special education services. “Disability” and “need” are not clearly defined. This lack of specificity at the federal level leaves open to states the operationalization of these terms. Within Iowa, each Area Education Agency is required to document how it meets the mandate for eligibility criteria under IDEA. The Iowa Administrative Rules of Special Education (Iowa Department of Education, 2000) require:

1) interactions with parents, the individual, school personnel, and others;

2) general education interventions. Interventions must document:

* Measurable and goal-directed attempts to resolve the problem

* Communication with parents

* Collection of data related to the identified problem

* Design and implementation of interventions

* Systematic progress monitoring to measure the effects of interventions;

3) full and individual evaluation; and,

4) determination of needed evaluation data (Section 281-41.48).

In the Rules, it is stated the purpose of a full and individual evaluation is to determine the educational interventions that are required to resolve the presenting problem behaviors of concern (academic or behavioral) or suspected disability including whether or not the educational interventions are special education. Heartland has chosen to meet these requirements through its problem solving model.

Beliefs Supporting the Problem Solving

As the Heartland Problem Solving Model has evolved several factors appear to be key to its success. In this case, success is described as providing the student what is needed educationally (including curriculum, instruction, and environmental factors) to maximize outcomes in the least restrictive setting. Perhaps foremost among the factors for success is an understanding of the model and the beliefs inherent in the model. These beliefs, as outlined by Reschly, et al. (1998) include:

* Solve problems by designing effective individual interventions. For problem solving to be effective, the primary purpose must be to solve problems, not place students into a particular program.

* Problem solving is a collaborative activity involving two or more people who share expertise and responsibilities. Teachers must be open to working with others in an attempt to meet the needs of students experiencing difficulties. Recognizing that others with differing areas of expertise, including parents, have valuable information to share is essential to problem solving.

* All appropriate resources should be used to help learners become educationally successful. Successful problem-solving teams are creative in finding resources to make the process work. Training various school personnel such as educational assistants and volunteers to help implement interventions is an example of this creativity.

* Effectiveness of a solution cannot be determined prior to its implementation. Solutions must be implemented, monitored, reviewed, and changed as necessary. If this Belief is not understood, the integrity of intervention implementation as well as data collected during implementation will be in question. Interventions which are implemented as designed with a desire for the intervention to succeed are integral to effective problem solving.

Interventions must be sensitive to and appropriate for diverse educational settings, learners of all ages, and problems of different severities. Interventions must be individually designed, individually determined, and based on the specific educational needs of the individual.

* Procedures best applied as part of a school wide effort. Highly functioning building assistance teams recognize problem solving as an ongoing school-wide process. Ownership of the model is shared and is seen as part of a larger school improvement effort.

* A problem is not defined as the difference between a learner’s potential and achievement, but as the discrepancy between the demands of the educational setting and the learner’s performance in that setting. Teachers must recognize that changes in the educational environment, curriculum, and/or instruction may need to be made on their part in order to meet a student’s needs. Problems do not reside exclusively within the learner.

While the Model is accepted, this is not to say that problem solving is fully accepted or without challenges.

In examining the impact of problem solving on practice, it is clear placement rates have not changed substantially since the implementation of the Heartland Model. At the beginning of the problem-solving period (1992), the percentage of school population within the Heartland AEA enrolled in special education was 9.88%. Approximately ten years later, the percentage has climbed less than 1% to 10.61% of the total student population. Therefore, Heartland staff members continue to explore the effects of problem solving at all levels.

Teacher satisfaction surveys and surveys of BAT members provide data about the problem solving approach. Ikeda & Gustafson (2002) report on two years of data collected from a sample of about 10% of BAT members in the Heartland area. It was indicated that the number of problems addressed without special education resources is approximately 75%. This equates to a substantial number of children being helped by area BATs and suggests interventions arc being implemented with success in the general education classroom. Yet, 25% of children referred to BATs arc served using special education resources. Of great significance is the aggregation of outcomes on IEP goals that recently has become a statewide effort.

Implications for Special Needs Students in Rural Iowa

One of the key concepts of the Model is the collaboration between general and special educators as well as support staff in addressing student needs. When a student is exhibiting academic or behavioral problems in a classroom, a teacher is no longer left in isolation to “solve” the problem. This could be particularly problematic in a rural school setting where frequently smaller numbers of colleagues and resources are available to help individual teachers. Although difficulties with resources may continue to exist, support can be provided using problem-solving activities. With BAT staff development training, teachers are taught to assist one another to solve problems through the following procedures:

* teachers learn to interview other teachers to help clearly define problematic behavior in specific, observable, measurable terms;

* BATs are given support in developing individualized interventions;

* BAT members acquire skills in matching instructional interventions to assessment information;

* teachers learn to assess the progress of interventions through systematic progress monitoring; and,

* teachers are taught to evaluate data and make instructional decisions based upon specific decision-making rules.

In addition, all school personnel within Heartland receive equitable services regardless of school size and location. As mentioned, team members are assigned to work with specific school buildings on a weekly basis. Other staff members provide direct or consultative services to students and local education agency staff. At present, for example, a group of ten rural schools within Heartland has a ratio of AEA team members to student population of 1 to 1664. The typical Heartland-wide ratio is 1 to 1400-1799.

At the heart of the problem-solving approach is the intent to find the educational strategy or intervention that will best meet the needs of a student. The emphasis is on finding solutions to problems that can be implemented within the least restrictive environment. With the problem-solving approach, students are provided immediate help by working through the various levels of the problem solving process, and students who are placed in special education are done so with educational needs including curriculum and instruction clearly determined. Given that in many rural school settings only one to two special education teachers typically are on a school staff, the assistance provided through the Model is helpful to these teachers. An example of the type of problem solving activities BATs may be involved in within a typical school year are shown in Figure 3.

As noted in Figure 3, 28 students were referred to that school’s BAT for teacher assistance during the school year. Of those students, 21% were staffed as special education students. While 7% had problems resolved, 58% of the referred students were continued with the interventions that had been put in recommended by the BAT. Students referred to the BAT came from all grades levels. A large majority of requests for assistance were in the area of reading.


In the past, “help” for a student exhibiting difficult to manage behaviors was quite often equated with placement in special education. Often, the prereferral process was used to document that a student was not making progress, a traditional assessment was conducted, and the student was then placed in special education. Placement often was seen as solving a problem when the special education teacher was often left with little help to determine the type of curriculum and instructional strategies that would be of benefit to the student.

In rural areas, this scenario could be problematic if it was difficult to find educational interventions to meet the child’s needs. In some rural school districts there can be a lack of in-house specialists to work with students exhibiting specific intense needs, e.g., autism, significant reading disability, etc. Thus, it can be left to the special education teacher to “fix” the problem once a student walked into the classroom. “Help” in the problem solving model is defined quite differently by providing immediate assistance to a student by engaging in an array of problem-solving activities and matching an appropriate intervention to an identified need.

New educational policy mandates require a heightened emphasis on improving the educational results of children with disabilities. With an increased emphasis on student outcomes and the academic growth of students with disabilities, accountability will shift from simply providing special education services to specific outcomes for students who receive these services (Deno, Fuchs, Marston, & Shin, 2001). As the problem solving model at Heartland AEA continues to evolve and additional information relative to its effects is analyzed, the potential of the Model to help meet these outcomes appears quite promising.


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Iowa Department of Education, Bureau of Children, family and Community Services. (2000). Iowa administrative rules of special education. Des Moines, IA: Author.

Morison, P., White, S. H., & Feuer, M.J. (Eds.). (1996). The use of IQ tests in special education decision making and planning. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Reschly, D. J., & Tilly, D.W. III. (1993). Why system reform? Communique, Special Iowa Edition, 1-14.

Reschly, D. J., Tilly , W. D. III & Grimes, J. P. (1998). Functional and noncategorical identification and intervention in special education. Des Moines, IA: Iowa Department of Education.

Shinn, M. R. (1998). Advanced, applications of curriculum-based measurement. New York: Guilford Press.

Ysseldyke, J., & Marston, D. (1999). Origins of categorical special education services in schools and rationale for changing them. In D. J. Reschly, W.D. Tilly, III, & J. P. Grimes (Eds.), Special education in transition: Functional assessment and noncategorical programming (pp. 1-18). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Elizabeth A. Jankowski

Heartland Area Education Agency 11

Johnston, Iowa

Copyright American Council on Rural Special Education Fall 2003

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