Special Education

Ed. Dept. Backs Research Plans for RTI Method

By Christina A. Samuels — November 03, 2006 4 min read
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With funding from the Department of Education, researchers are closely examining “response to intervention,” an instructional framework that many educators say offers promise for treating children with learning difficulties before they fall behind their peers.

The Education Department’s office of special education programs, or OSEP, is financing a $1.5 million research partnership between the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the Illinois education department, which is investigating how response to intervention can improve academics and behavior in urban schools. Another OSEP project, based at the University of Texas at Austin, is refining response-to-intervention techniques used with beginning readers.

And the 2-year-old National Center for Special Education Research, a part of the federal department’s Institute of Education Sciences, is seeking grant proposals by mid-November for researchers who would like to delve into all parts of response to intervention, or RTI, from how it is used with individual students to how it can be expanded to entire districts.

“This represents the possibility of fundamentally changing our idea of disability,” said Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and a co-director of the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities.

Response to intervention has many potential uses. One garnering attention at this time is its possibilities in providing early treatment for struggling students before those students fall far behind their peers academically. (“RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.,” Nov. 30, 2005.)

That use is mentioned briefly in the text of the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but it gets a far more expansive treatment in the final regulations for the IDEA, the nation’s special education law. However, in the final regulations, the Education Department clarifies that states can still use other methods of diagnosing children with learning disabilities.

Three Tiers

Generally, a response-to-intervention program is considered to have three tiers of instruction for struggling students. The first tier is standard classroom instruction. A student who has academic problems is then referred to a second tier, which might include small-group sessions and more intense instruction, using scientifically based methods shown to provide results for struggling learners. The third tier is yet more intensive, and may include individualized instruction.

Weighing 'Response to Intervention'

The Department of Education is financing a number of current and forthcoming research studies on this technique for schools to diagnose whether children have learning disabilities, including:

Reading and RTI

Vanderbilt University is investigating several questions related to reading instruction and learning disabilities, including determining valid ways of monitoring a student’s “responsiveness” and determining a valid definition of nonresponsiveness to intervention.

RTI in Urban Schools

The University of Kansas and the Illinois state education agency are partnering in an effort to study the approach in high-poverty urban schools in both states. The goal is to help schools devise different strong interventions both for academics and behavior.

Implementation of RTI

The Education Department’s National Center for Special Education Research is requesting proposals by mid-November for researchers to examine all facets of response to intervention, including how the process would work for different academic subjects, how RTI can be implemented successfully at the school and district levels, and how accurately the approach can be used to predict a student’s learning disability.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

If a student continues to have learning difficulties after the third tier, he or she may be in need of special education services.

Each tier is also marked by careful monitoring of the child’s progress, which includes short tests given as often as once a week to gauge a student’s responsiveness to the interventions.

Response to intervention can work within a school’s current methods of instruction, and provides much more data for teachers and administrators to make decisions about teaching methods, said Larry Wexler, the associate director for the research-to-practice division of OSEP.

“It’s really quite elegant in its simplicity,” Mr. Wexler said.

Response to intervention has also shown success in addressing children with behavioral issues, who are given different interventions, increasing in intensity, to address whatever problems they may have.

Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas and the associate director of the university’s Beach Center on Disability, is one of the researchers working on a project that will examine behavioral interventions in Kansas and Illinois schools. The four-year research program will train teachers and school administrators in behavior-support techniques using response to intervention.

The goal is to take the technique and extend it in areas beyond learning disabilities, Mr. Sailor said.

“I think this has general utility,” he said.

Research Questions

Louis Danielson, the director of OSEP’s research-to-practice division, also said in an interview that much of the research is focused on the “next generation” of response-to-intervention programs. Several schools have been using the process for some time, but research is focusing on refining the approach.

“In many places, they are at a point to build on what early implementers have learned,” Mr. Danielson said.

Response to intervention has grown in stature as educators have grown dissatisfied with the other methods of diagnosing disabilities, such as the so-called iq discrepancy method, said Mr. Fuchs. In that method, children who are struggling learners are given intelligence tests to see if there is a wide discrepancy between their intelligence and their academic progress. The iq discrepancy model has been criticized as a “wait and fail” approach, he said.

The challenge that remains for researchers, Mr. Fuchs said, is defining what the different tiers of intervention should look like. Also in question is how to define how much “response” an individual student needs to show before he or she can be moved from intensive instruction in the second tier back to the classroom. At the same time, there are still questions about the definition of “nonresponsiveness”—for example, how long a student should spend at the second tier before moving to the third.

And what happens to students who still struggle after the third tier is also a matter for research, he said.

“There area lot of groups with a lot of different views on this,” Mr. Fuchs said. “Bottom line, I think the Department of Education is being very responsive to the current situation, and is definitely encouraging researchers to work on these very important questions.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Backs Research Plans For RTI Method

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