Each weekday at W.G. Pearson Elementary School kicks off with more than two hours of reading instruction and activities. Pupils in kindergarten through 5th grade begin with basic word skills, work on spelling and vocabulary, take part in group- and individual-reading activities, and delve into frequent writing tasks.
In classrooms throughout the 30,000-student Durham, N.C., district, the tack is much the same. During the past several years, teachers and administrators’ have transformed a hodgepodge of teaching methods and activities into a more uniform system to provide effective literacy instruction in the early grades. The goal: to identify and help children who struggle with reading early on and reduce the numbers of students referred for special education later.
The initiative appears to have done just that. The district is earning praise for bucking a state and national trend by cutting its special education rolls by some 100 students a year.
“We were very concerned because it seemed like a lot of students were being placed in programs for students with disabilities because they couldn’t read,” says Kristine Hannan, the district’s literacy coordinator. “We decided early intervention was the key... to keeping children from going into [special education].”
That is also the theory guiding federal and state measures to raise reading achievement and, ultimately, tackle the persistent reading problems that have caused special education needs to swell over the past two decades. Convinced that current identification requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act prompt schools to wait for children to fail before providing the necessary help, lawmakers and researchers have been pushing for substantial changes in general and special education programs. They point to growing evidence that children at risk of reading difficulties can be identified early and their problems all but overcome through effective instruction and intervention.
“There is a movement to enable early intervention to take over the wait-to-fail model,” says G. Reid Lyon, the director of the branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that sponsors reading research. “We know that it is possible to identify early the kids at risk for reading failure, and that if in kindergarten or early first grade we get to them with good, informed instruction, a large number of the kids at risk... can get to average or above-average levels on basic reading skills.”
About half of all children in special education are designated for services because of specific learning disabilities, and of those, some 80 percent struggle with reading, according to federal statistics.
But many experts argue that the current measure for identifying children with learning disabilities—a significant discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability as determined by an IQ test—is not valid until the child has reached 9 years old. By that age, research suggests, a youngster who has not mastered basic reading skills has little chance of catching up to his peers. Under one proposal for the IDEA, districts would not be bound by that traditional measure, but could consider pupils for special education earlier if they did not respond to effective instruction or intervention programs.
In many places, reading instruction is being retooled with the at-risk learner in mind.
Many state and district policies—as well as the No Child Left Behind Act—have forced teachers to use instructional methods that have scientific evidence of their effectiveness.
The results of NICHD studies, as well as a landmark report by the congressionally mandated National Reading Panel in 2000, have fueled a movement toward a more systematic, skills-based approach to teaching reading that incorporates what the panel defined as five essential components: phonics, phonemic awareness (the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds that make up words), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Despite continuing debate over the most effective teaching methods, many experts agree that improving how reading is taught will help put many more students on the path to grade-level proficiency and keep large numbers of children out of special education.
“We want to reduce the extent to which kids are being identified as [learning-disabled] because they are, in a sense, instructional casualties,” says Lynn Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “That is, the nature of the reading instruction they’ve received has not been valid or high-quality, and therefore, they haven’t learned to read. We want to take those kids out of the mix.”
Some experts predict that the reauthorized IDEA will support multiple levels of prevention and intervention methods, beginning in the regular classroom, and tap special education services only after such methods have failed.
Under a three-tiered approach that Lyon and others say could serve as a model for changing how schools address the needs of struggling learners, schools would provide systematic and explicit instruction to virtually all students in general education classes as the first line of defense against reading problems.
Next, an interim level of intensive reading instruction would be provided to children who continued to struggle with mastering basic reading skills. The third tier would include special education services for students who didn’t respond adequately to the intervention.
In Durham, a similar method is used, by which teachers monitor students at various stages to determine how they are responding to instruction and intervention programs.
Minority Students Overrepresented
Such an approach, some experts say, could lessen the large numbers of minority students who are inappropriately ushered into special education programs. Those children, many of whom attend large, urban districts where poverty is pervasive, often enter school ill-prepared to learn to read. In too many places, some scholars say, school has not done enough to address those deficiencies.
We were very concerned because it seemed like a lot of students were being placed in programs for students with disabilities because they couldn’t read.
“That the overrepresentation of minority children in special education tends to increase as both poverty and the proportion of minority children present in the population increase suggests that poor instruction is a plausible explanation for children’s low achievement,” the International Reading Association asserts in a position statement released last year.
African-American students, for example, are more likely than their white peers to be placed in programs for students with learning disabilities.
And for decades, the achievement gap in reading between white students and black and Hispanic students, as measured by national assessments, has persisted.
In a district like Durham, where seven in 10 students belong to a minority group and many schools have large proportions of children who are eligible for federally subsidized lunches, the issue is overarching. Of the 4,000 students in special education, 63 percent are African-American. While 73 percent of the district’s students demonstrated grade-level performance on state tests in reading last school year, fewer than 64 percent of black students and 60 percent of Hispanic students did so.
But in the past six years, Durham’s focus on alleviating reading problems by improving instruction, officials say, has led to consistent gains in student proficiency on state tests in both reading and mathematics in grades 3-8. The improvement, as well as better coordination between general and special education teachers, has enabled the district to whittle down the number of separate special education classes.
At Pearson Elementary, where 95 percent of the children are eligible for the federal lunch program, the progress has been stunning. The proportion of 3rd graders performing at grade level on the state reading exam has risen from just 12 percent in 1996 to nearly 62 percent last school year.
Special education experts agree that such a focus on prevention and early intervention could ideally cut the number of students in special education. They worry, however, that models like the one used in Durham might draw attention and resources away from the boys and girls who will need additional services despite those best endeavors.
Jane Browning, the executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, in Pittsburgh, is not convinced that simply channeling more attention and resources into professional development and instructional materials will reduce the need for special education services for older children.
“The alternative methods of identifying students for special education will not cure learning disabilities,” Browning contends. The multistep approach to identifying children for special education, she says, could mean unnecessary delays or inappropriate interventions for those with significant disabilities.
“The bottom line from [our] perspective is that the response-to-intervention model promoted by NICHD researchers is likely to have a strong impact on lots and lots of kids who are struggling to read,” says Browning, “but that it probably won’t reduce the number of children eligible for special education.”
Durham officials harbor no delusions that they will be able to eliminate their special education programs, says Nancy A. Dominick, the assistant superintendent for student services.
Throughout the district, more than 13 percent of students are enrolled in special education. The district has expanded its Reading Recovery program to provide intensive, one-on-one instruction for more children.
With the help of some private funding, it is also sending some youngsters to a private school program that has had success helping children overcome severe reading disabilities.
Dominick and other district administrators believe that the changes have paved the way for continued improvement. And the district has set a goal for getting all 3rd graders reading at grade level by the 2007 -08 school year.
“We think we’re headed in the right direction,” Dominick says. “But we’re not there yet.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week