10 Ways Administrators Can Get On The Balcony to Improve Special Education 

In the Practice of Adaptive Leadership, the authors urge leaders to “get off the dance floor,” where they are dealing with 100 everyday items at a time, and “get on the balcony” to change perspective and more seamlessly draw insights about the systems that need change. 

This can be hard for the school or district leader, especially one who is deeply engaged in building-level operations. In our work with districts and schools, we find making a small investment in understanding root causes and trends across student groups helps leaders get on the balcony and more effectively address the issues at hand. One way to do this is through a needs assessment.

Take one of our engagements as an example. Because we were able to collect data and view the work with a new perspective, we learned that school staff needed more strategies and training to manage interfering student behaviors in the classroom. Once this need was identified, leadership provided focused training and supported the implementation of new strategies. Teachers reported being much better equipped to handle behavior issues. 

How You Can Get on The Balcony

We broke our needs assessment down into 10 data types you can examine to get on the balcony about a given area of concern (here, we’ve aligned those areas with the elements in our Quality Special Education Framework).  As a leader, you can pick one type of data to collect or make a plan to assess each area for a complete transformational approach.

Why a Needs Assessment? 

A few years ago, our team conducted a national survey to better understand how schools collect, analyze, and respond to data related to Special Education. What we learned, which may not surprise you, is that schools are collecting data but only using very little of it, especially for schoolwide improvement. 

Much of the data is stored in a way that makes it inaccessible when needed. Teams may not have the training or authority to use it for systemic change. And too frequently, there is not enough time in the day to sit on the balcony and reflect.

In our work with schools and districts, we’ve learned that having access to the right data, presented in an actionable way, helps school improvement go faster. 

And the needs assessment was born! 

Our Needs Assessment aligns with our Quality Special Education Framework, which outlines the critical elements of a special education program that supports all students. We collect various data, including classroom observations, student data, feedback from parents and staff, school or district goals, and more. 

Our team analyzes all the data against our framework, producing a summary report detailing the areas of strength and opportunity. As a last step, ABC facilitates a deep-dive meeting with leaders to determine the highest-leverage opportunities for next steps.

Improvement that addresses systemic change can be hard, slow, and adaptive work. But don’t let that stop you from taking action. Start today by taking one small step, collecting one piece of data, drawing one insight, and making one change.


Want help getting on the balcony?  ABC can support you by conducting a comprehensive needs assessment.  Using multiple data sources including surveys, interviews, observations, document review, and research, ABC assesses results against our Framework for Special Education Quality to present (1) a complete profile of district-wide strengths and opportunities for growth and (2) recommendations for focused improvement. Contact us today!

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