Education Opinion

The Letter From: After SBR, RTI?

March 13, 2008 9 min read

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Edbizbuzz readers are probably familiar with the saying. Some know that it was drawn from “The Crack Up”, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in the February 1936 issue of Esquire. Few remember the next line: “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

I was reminded of this couplet when I started to read Using Scientific Research-Based Interventions: Improving Education for All Students, released by Connecticut’s Department of Education in February.

For weeks I have become increasingly pessimistic about the role of evidence in the success of school improvement providers over the next few years. Some reasons to be hopeless:• Sol Stern and the Fordham Foundation blame Congress for a poor definition of Scientifically Based Reading Research (SBRR) and defend a fourth-level Department of Education bureaucrat implementing a standard based not on any evaluation of each program being offered under Reading First, but on the ability of the provider to make a convincing case in writing that their program is related to a broad body of research on phonemic awareness.

• De facto, state education agencies are applying something like NCLB’s Scientifically Based Research (SBR) standard to an SES program that should be under the lower, Research Based (RB) standard – in no small part because they don’t really like the competition. Similarly, for products and services where SBR criteria should apply, they ignore the law’s provision, in order to maintain comfortable relationships with longstanding providers.

• The Supplemental Educational Service (SES) providers associated with the Education Industry Association (EIA) have apparently given up on their plans to have University of Memphis evaluator Steve Ross conduct an independent review of their programs. University Instructors’ CEO, Alan Carter, offers an edbizbuzz Guest Column suggesting that evaluation is not relevant to the fate of the Supplemental Education Services (SES) program in NCLB II.

Throughout the debate over NCLB reauthorization, SBBR, SBR, and RB have hardly been mentioned by any of the interest groups or on either side of the aisle. The reasons are simple, but discouraging. Few school improvement providers seem to appreciate the importance of these terms to the fate of their firms or know how to engage government on their definition. A lot of providers fear they can’t meet any politically plausible, technically defensible standard of efficacy. Entrentched K-12 providers, with histories that precede NCLB by a century or more, are not eager for a standard that must necessarily make a good part of their intellectual property obsolete overnight. Trade groups are caught between those big, influential members, the others who don’t think they will pass muster, and the few new firms that would welcome a clear, meaningful evaluation standard.

Investors have better things to do with their time and money than explain to policymakers what government needs to do to attract capital to upstart firms with new products that threaten to disrupt long established markets. Eduwonks don’t have much to offer on markets beyond bumper stickers “for” and “against.” Academics are too busy debating arcane methodological points to agree on a standard that might be a reasonable start in the real world. Educators are so turned off by AYP based on student performance, that they can’t engage seriously on a meaningful evidentiary standard without conceding that the methodology should apply to them as well. The Department of Education is utterly lacking in the capacity to manage the complex transition to a marketplace that NCLB’s evidentiary provisions imply. Congress hasn’t grasped that it created a market with NCLB that requires some attention if it is to supply the tools needed to leave no child behind.

That’s what underlies my thought that when it comes to SBR, things are hopeless. Without a standard of efficacy that: 1) provides basic protection against the perpetration of outright fraud against taxpayers, teachers ans students; 2) is not so high that no firm can meet it at a time when we know full well that what’s been supplied to the classroom doesn’t work and hasn’t been working; and 3) offers investors the clarity and stability required if they are to receive a reasonable return on their investment – there is no school improvement industry. There’s just the old k-12 industry.

The “opposed idea,” that gives me some to be determined that this hopeless situation can still be otherwise, is another approach to school improvement evolving out of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) into public education’s mainstream. As the Connecticut report summarizes:


DEA 2004 continues the federal mandate, in effect since 1975, for schools to provide all children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and also contains some important revisions with clear implications for general as well as special education. These revisions encourage the implementation of research-based interventions that facilitate success in the general education setting for a broad range of students. In particular, school districts are allowed to use a process known as Response to Intervention (RTI) as part of identification procedures for learning disabilities, by far the largest category under which K-12 students in special education are served, roughly half of all special education students nationwide.

RTI models grew out of research suggesting that traditional approaches to identifying learning disabilities are seriously flawed and that students sometimes end up in the special education system not due to genuine disabilities, but other factors, such as inadequate general education practices and limited opportunities for extra help for struggling including those students acquiring English. RTI involves providing scientific, research-based instruction and intervention matched to student needs, with important educational decisions based on students’ levels of performance and learning rates over time. Rather than limiting the provision of instructional and social/behavioral supports for those students classified under a particular label or program, supports are provided to all students, based on individual needs.

The basic principles underlying RTI hold considerable promise for helping Connecticut schools to improve education for all students and address the large disparities in performance within the state. These basic principles have been embraced by the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) for a number of years, as well as supported by state legislation and policy. Furthermore, numerous ongoing projects and initiatives in Connecticut, such as those involving collaborations among researchers, teacher educators and public schools, provide a strong foundation for the implementation of RTI.

What’s important about this? Why should it give me any cause for optimism? I have to admit that RTI’s extension into the mainstream could be another purely rhetorical strategy for school improvement lacking an adequate commitment to implementation, or be fouled up badly in implementation. But here’s why I’m hopeful.

When you get down to the ground level of public education, Response to Intervention (RTI) policies addresses the same schools and students as No Child Left Behind – urban schools populated by students with substantial social disadvantages. It recognizes that many students in these schools are moved into special education under IDEA not because they have genuine learning disabilities, but due to “other factors, such as inadequate general education practices and limited opportunities for extra help for struggling students, including those students acquiring English.”

RTI is actually more focused on the disadvantaged student than NCLB. While the unit of account in NCLB is student subgroups encompassing these demographics, IDEA moves down to the individual student.

Under NCLB, schools are permitted to employ Title I funding in school-wide programs that might help all students, as well as those who meet the law’s specific definitional requirements. The hope is that there is a class of curricular and instructional strategies that will meet the needs of all the students in that school. That hope is borne in part of a recognition that in many of these schools, the actual status of many students who miss qualifying under Title I is not qualitatively different from those that do. Something similar is implied by RTI: “Rather than limiting the provision of instructional and social/behavioral supports for those students classified under a particular label or program, supports are provided to all students, based on individual needs.”

Like NCLB, with its focus on student performance, the move towards a school system designed to meet individual student needs - if you will, mass customization (see here, here here and here) , demands ongoing evaluation of individual students. But RTI also requires an approach to program evaluation that has not proved feasible under NCLB. Under NCLB programs are reviewed for their overall effect on all students and individual subgroups. In a way, the approach assumes that say all African-American students in fourth grade are alike in their learning needs. Now this is surely better than the old approach which assumed that all students had the same needs, but not that much better.

I would argue that the reason most programs don’t seem to do much better for student performance than whatever school districts normally do, is that no program is made for every student. By moving decisions about program delivery to the individual student, RTI encourages an approach to evaluation that’s about finding the kind of student a given program works for and making that kind of program work better for that kind of student. It encourages program diversity and program development.

This approach holds some hope for students, teachers, taxpayers, investors and providers. There’s nothing like individualized instruction for students, and that possibility is within our grasp. There’s no reason why teachers could not specialize in educational programs in which they have confidence and facility. The taxpayers should prefer highly effective programs targeted to real children that help develop highly effective students over average programs aimed at mythical average students that produce average results. Investors and providers could see many routes to firm profitability.

The big challenge here is logistical and organizational, developing a school system capable of meeting individual needs of a massive scale. But, at least in principle, a committee of educators in Connecticut have explained why it is not beyond the capacity of mortal men or even government. And so I have some reason to be hopeful about RTI even as I despair of SBR.

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