October 12, 2021
The process of choosing the right special education vendor or program involves looking at both the features of the program and the quality of the service provider.
To find a program with the right features, it’s essential to start with an assessment of what you already have and what you need. In our article, “A Framework for Identifying Programs & Interventions for Special Education,” we discuss how to determine what you need from a special education product. In this article, we’ll cover what to look for in choosing a special education service provider.
It’s as important to evaluate the service provider as it is to shop for the right product. A great product could be difficult to use if backed by a poor vendor, and a vendor with great support makes a strong product stand out even more.
What to Look for in a Special Education Vendor
When choosing a vendor and a program, think about who is behind the program, not just what the software can do. Here are some of the things to consider in assessing options for service providers:
- Communication: Your vendor should be fully transparent with you and keep you updated throughout the development and implementation of the program.
- Pilot testing: Running a full pilot test (not just a free trial) is an important part of trying a new program. Seriously consider choosing a vendor that allows pilot testing.
- Deep understanding of the special education space: One of the most important factors in choosing a vendor is making sure that they thoroughly understand the practice of special education, including delivery, documentation, and reporting. You shouldn’t have to spend time explaining technicalities to them; they should be steeped in this knowledge already.
- Ability to predict future changes: A good vendor should have a bird’s eye view of the field. They should be aware of emerging research, new technology developments, and upcoming changes in policy and practice. They should also be on top of what other districts are doing.
- Thorough understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Your vendor should understand the various funding sources available and how IDEA is implemented in each state. You can read more about IDEA and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding in our article, “ESSER and IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education.”
- Proactive data collection: Data gathering and reporting is important both because it drives improvement and because it can support funding. To use ESSER funding, you must fulfill certain evidence-based requirements. The more data you can report, the more convincingly you can support your proposal for a program. Lack of data or erroneous data could result in a decrease or loss of funding — or, worse still, lead to an audit that could entail penalties.
- Learning effectiveness: Does your vendor offer programs that really work? Look at their existing clients. What is the renewal rate for this vendor? Do other districts give them a positive reference?
Assessing Special Education Service Providers During the Pilot Test
After you’ve identified a vendor and program, it’s a good idea to run a pilot test. You can read more about pilot testing in our article, “A Framework for Identifying Programs & Interventions for Special Education” and download our comprehensive pilot testing checklist here.
While running your test, you should assess more than just the program you are testing; also assess the service provider. There are several things to consider:
- Problem solving and communication: If any problems arise during the pilot test, the vendor should step in quickly to fix them. They should also communicate with you every step along the way.
- Partnership: The vendor should serve as a partner with the district. Make sure they work to serve you, not the other way around.
- Culture fit: As a long-term partner with your district, the vendor will frequently interact with you and your employees, so it’s important that they mesh well with your organization.
- Training and implementation: How quickly and effectively does the service provider instruct staff on the usage of the program? Keep in mind that if you decide to go with this vendor and program, the entire staff will have to be appropriately trained.
Once the pilot is complete and you are gathering feedback, note the difference between feedback about the program and feedback about the implementation of the program. Both are important.
Continuing Follow-up and Data Collection With a Special Education Vendor
After you’ve chosen and begun implementing a program, your work is still not done. You must continually collect more data, make sure the program is working, and readjust as needed. Your vendor should support you every step of the way in implementing the product. In addition to transparency and open communication, your service provider should be proactive about:
- Ongoing problem solving: As you implement the new program, it’s likely that you’ll run into some problems. Your vendor should be quick about responding to these.
- Compliance: Vendors should be aware of all regulations and be dedicated to fulfilling them. Their data collection should also go beyond strict compliance.
- Data collection: Gathering data not only helps you, but improves the special education space as a whole. Data collection reveals what programs and features are and aren’t working, and where there are areas for improvement. It also builds an evidence base for future users.
- Embedded and targeted professional development and support: Your vendor must be committed to providing continued training and technical support throughout the duration of your partnership.
Conclusion: The Perfect Mix of Special Education Program and Vendor
The right special education solution combines great software and a great vendor. If either one is lacking, the experience will suffer and the intervention will not meet expectations. As discussed in this article, a good vendor is as, if not more, important than the program itself.
To read more about choosing the right special education program, check out our article, “A Framework for Identifying Programs & Interventions for Special Education,” which goes in-depth about what qualities to look for in a special education intervention or program. You can learn about data requirements for programs and interventions in our article, “Understanding the Evidence-Based Requirements for Special Education Stimulus Funding.”
For more information on funding sources for special education, read our articles, “Federal Funding Sources for K-12 Special Education Programs” and “ESSER and IDEA Stimulus Funding for Special Education.”