Over the past two years, SLPs in the Minneapolis Public Schools have used workload advocacy strategies based on ASHA's recent workload policy documents (ASHA, 2002, 2003). Discussion among the 120 SLPs and speech-language leadership committee in the school district focused on what SLPs really needed to help address workload issues, given that chances were slim that the budget-strapped district would add SLP positions.
SLPs prioritized workload goals that seemed attainable without requesting additional positions-either through the district-wide teachers' contract, administrative support, and/or actions under the control of individual clinicians.
The three workload goals were: time for case management and mandated due process/compliance activities; reduction or elimination of building-assigned non-special education duties to free up time for mandatory third-party billing and compliance activities; and contract preparation periods to use in preparing for intervention and treatment, instead of using any available time for third-party billing and compliance activities.
Collecting local workload data from a random sample of district SLPs proved critical in our efforts. Data were collected using a modified version of the workload time surveys presented in the ASHA workload "Implementation Guide" (ASHA, 2003) to share with district decision-makers, and to demonstrate that the time required for SLPs to complete all mandated services and activities exceeded the time available.
We gathered data on:
- Time spent per week on third-party billing activities
- Time spent per week on case management and compliance activities
- How SLPs were using their contract preparation periods
- Time spent on initial evaluations and three-year evaluations (using third-party billing logs to document in detail all time spent)
- Level of compliance support available at schools (e.g., from school social workers)
We also assessed the "advocacy climate" in our district and in the state, and found that, despite the state's budget shortfall, the overall climate was positive. How did we come to that conclusion? We considered the following factors:
- The district's special education teachers had negotiated a caseload cap in the previous union contract. Approval came after data demonstrated that these teachers had limited time for case management duties, which was causing serious problems with due process compliance.
- Special education workload guidelines recently published by the Minnesota Department of Education paralleled many of the concepts in ASHA's Workload documents. Although these guidelines were not mandated for districts or enforceable, they represented an out-of-district perspective on special education workloads that reinforced our rationale for SLP workload advocacy.
A Strategic Approach
To advocate for their workload goals, the district's SLPs implemented three strategies:
1. Addition of workload language into the local teachers' union contract.
At its annual presentation to the local union negotiating committee on SLP workload issues, the speech-language department presented all of the forms required when just one student is added to caseload, and shared data from our random sample on the time needed for workload activities. Secondly, we identified the relevant district decision-makers and focused our efforts on these groups. And thirdly, we became involved with the local teachers union. One of our SLPs worked to become a member of the union negotiating committee's special education subcommittee, and volunteered to expand our proposed workload language to include other district special education staff.
As a result, non-binding workload language and recommended staffing caseload ratios for several groups of special education service providers (including SLPs) were added to the teacher's contract (see sidebar above). This contract language sets the stage for future negotiations on SLP workloads and caseloads, and we considered this an important strategic step even though the language was non-binding.
In the future, we plan to keep an SLP on the special education subcommittee of the union negotiating committee, continue to collect and refine local SLP workload data, and continue to address caseload/workload issues in the teachers' contract with district decision-makers at every opportunity.
2. Administration support for relieving SLPs from non-special education duties.
In our district there is a long history of principals assigning non-special education duties to SLPs, including bus duty, hall duty, lunch duty, and advisory periods. Although many SLPs are happy to participate in these activities as members of a school community, recent expansion of SLP mandated workload duties precipitated a workload dilemma: SLPs could not continue to participate in these non-special education duties without using their contract preparation periods for compliance and third-party billing or regularly staying after school to complete these tasks.
To address this workload issue, we gave workload presentations to selected groups, and garnered support from the union negotiating committee. We also met with the special education administration, and drafted a memorandum to principals about the reimbursement and workload issues surrounding the assignment of SLPs to non-special education duties.
Our strategy in this area paid off. After the scope of the memorandum was broadened to include other special education teaching staff and reimbursement issues were confirmed, the special education administration decided to include contents of the memorandum in a special education contract with principals (see sidebar at top of page 19.)
Inclusion of the memorandum contents in the special education contract was a significant-although partial-solution to our workload challenge. We expect that this will allow SLPs to use more of their contract preparation periods to prepare intervention lessons and materials for their students.
3. A new approach to writing IEPs that builds in time for all services and workload activities.
Our district's SLP leadership brainstormed the question: How might IEPs be written differently to reflect the mandated and time-consuming services that SLPs provide beyond direct face-to-face service? The ideas were presented to the entire SLP staff. The leadership group then honed the top ideas and discussed them with the special education administration, and then brought the issue to the district's legal and compliance department.
The new approach we developed for writing IEPs includes the following concepts:
- A proposal that services be listed per "reporting period," which is about nine weeks in our district. Listing services by month would have also worked. The longer service period allows the SLP more flexibility for meeting specified service minutes and contacts (ASHA, 2002, 2003).
- Inclusion of a number of "indirect service" contacts during the nine-week reporting period. This was done by substituting indirect service contacts for a few of the direct service contacts normally provided. (See sidebar at right for a sample IEP service grid that illustrates these concepts.)
- Development of an optional checklist of "Services Provided to Student by Speech-Language Pathologist" adapted from ASHA's workload documents that can be used at the SLP's discretion to communicate to a student's parents and teachers about indirect services and compliance activities that are provided. Ideally, this checklist would be tailored specifically for each student. Our district's legal and compliance department recommended that this not be included as part of the IEP, but as a separate document to be given to the parents if desired.
The following examples illustrate the differences in IEP speech-language services between the typical approach and the new approach.
Example 1: A student typically receives 30 minutes of direct speech-language service twice per week, for a total of 60 minutes per week in a nine-week reporting period.
- Typical approach: direct sessions twice per week for a total of 18 sessions (30 minutes each) over the nine-week period
- New approach: 16 contacts per reporting period-12 "direct" face-to-face sessions per reporting period (30 minutes each), and four contacts per reporting period (30 minutes each) for indirect services and compliance activities if needed. A list of indirect and compliance activities on checklist can be given to parent/teacher.
Example 2: A student typically receives 50 minutes of direct speech-language service once per week over a nine-week reporting period.
- Typical approach: A total of 9 direct sessions (50 minutes each) over the 9-week period
- New approach: Eight contacts per reporting period-six "direct" face-to-face sessions per reporting period (50 minutes each) and two contacts per reporting period (50 minutes each) for indirect services and compliance activities if needed. A list of indirect and compliance activities on checklist can be given to parent/teacher.
This approach to writing IEPs is an honest accounting of the services and activities SLPs are required to provide on behalf of students, and includes a way of communicating with parents and teachers. We hope to train district SLPs on this and other workload solutions at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year.
SLPs in our district believe that the workload advocacy strategies discussed here can help us achieve our immediate workload goals. There are no guarantees, but our continuing advocacy gives us the best chance of realizing one of the main principles of ASHA's Workload position statement-to "help ensure students with disabilities receive the services they need to support their education programs" (ASHA, 2002).
Lessons We've Learned
What lessons have we learned as we have attempted to advocate for SLP workload issues in our school district over the past few years?
- The ASHA Workload documents (ASHA, 2002, 2003) were an excellent starting point, and contained resources and ideas that can be adapted to your specific needs.
- Workload advocacy at the local school district level can take years.
- Detailed, accurate and reliable SLP workload data are essential.
- SLPs need to know how decisions are made in their district, and who needs to be informed of workload issues. In addition, SLPs need to get involved in the teachers' union and, if possible, secure a place on union negotiating committees and sub-committees.
- SLPs need to gain administrators' support, perhaps by broadening the scope of their advocacy to include other special education staff.
- There is no single strategy that will address all SLP workload issues. In addition, there is no single workload strategy that will be understood and accepted by all constituents, even within a speech-language department. It is important to gain a consensus and develop a menu of possible strategies.
- Be strategic and think long-term. SLPs may need to accept a less-than-perfect solution now in order to negotiate a preferred solution later.
- It can be difficult for staff to drop tasks and activities in order to achieve a balanced workload. For example, it may be difficult to use some direct service time for indirect services and mandated compliance tasks, or to reduce participation in non-special education activities.
The workload goals and strategies discussed in this article do not address all workload issues. One area for future focus in our district is finding time for time-consuming initial evaluations and three-year reevaluations without using more than one contract preparation period per week, or increasing instructional group size for treatment.