TregoED Blog

Guide to Data-Based Decision Making in Special Education

7 Essential Questions

Does this sound familiar?

Your Special Education Department is facing a big, costly (in both time and money) decision for your district. You are also facing the potential mayhem of:
• Different/competing perspectives
• Lack of information OR Information overload
• Legal constraints
• Budget constraints
• Hidden agendas/Special interests
• Too many options/Lack of options
• Underestimating/Overestimating risks
• High emotions

What could go wrong?    Without a clear process or strategy, the possibilities are endless. (Think Allstate’s Mr. Mayhem.)
What could help?
Using a defensible, data-driven, research-based decision-making process! By using a process that asks the right questions you can:
1. Establish clear criteria – Decision making with the “end in mind” asks first: What is it that you want or need in your solution? What would the optimal solution look like?
2. Effectively and efficiently use data/information – It is important to not only establish criteria but to weigh the importance of each “want” giving you a mathematically sound way to determine your best choice.
3. Strategically include multiple perspectives– giving stakeholders an opportunity to participate in the process of establishing criteria gives you a more well-rounded picture of a great solution.
4. Increase transparency – When you make your process, data, and thinking visible, stakeholders have a clearer picture of how and why a decision was made
5. Communicate rationale– With visible thinking it is easy to explain and communicate to the public and other stakeholders, including the board.
6. Consider and plan for risk – This all-important last step is important for planning and ensures that implementation of your choice has the best chance of success.
7. Build trust– When a standardized process becomes the norm for decision-making in the district, stakeholders understand the decision better and are more likely to support it.

3 Questions that special education teachers use for decision making

Typically, SPED decisions center on 3 essential questions…

  • Is it worth fighting for?
  • Is it defensible?
  • Are we united?


While a good start, there are other questions that can help enhance effective and defensible decision making in Special Education:

7 Essential Question for Effective Decision Making

  1. What is the compelling reason for this decision?
    Intentionally stating the decision and thinking about the criteria for a good decision before you think about options helps you avoid the pitfall of jumping to options before you have a good picture of what you want.
  2. What criteria should we use?
    Listing and evaluating criteria can give you a clear picture of what you want and need in a decision
  3. What options should we consider?
    Here is where you should be creative and open minded. Good ideas may come from stakeholders or advisory groups.
  4. What are the risks of this choice and how will you guard against them?
    This step is allows you to be proactive rather than reactive. Planning ahead helps you avoid implementation disasters and plan for opportunities.
  5. Who should be involved and whose input should we consider?
    Often involving “nay-sayers” and diverse opinions during the process results in increased buy-in and understanding at the end.
  6. How will you implement and communicate this decision?
    If your chosen option is causing change focus on the criteria and how the present-day system is working against that. Plan communication with clear rationale and your audience in mind.
  7. What indicators will you use to assess success?
    Based your assessment on the criteria that you have developed in the process.

Using these steps can help improve your efficiency when there are many options, effectively address multiple perspectives and viewpoints and help clarify the rationale for change. Most importantly it can help you avoid the mayhem of decision making based on emotion, politics, culture or tradition.
Read more tips on better decision making in special education:
Decisions in Special Ed Begin by Asking the Right Questions
Ensuring Defensible Decisions in Special Education Environments… the Age of the Squeaky Wheel