“Response to intervention,” an educational approach promoted under federal special education law as a way to identify children with learning disabilities, garnered intense interest during the 43rd annual meeting here last week of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
Roughly half the 6.8 million U.S. students with disabilities are classified as having a specific learning disability, making identification and education of such students a top concern. Response to intervention, or RTI, requires that children who are struggling be given frequent, research-based teaching in areas of academic weakness, in small groups or one-on-one. Students who fail to respond to such interventions after a period of time are then evaluated more comprehensively for a specific learning disability. (“RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.,” Nov. 30, 2005.)
Attendees were eager for specifics about techniques districts are using with their own students, and for what the U.S. Department of Education’s final regulations for the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act may say on the topic.
Louis Danielson, the director of the research-to-practice division in the Education Department’s office of special education programs, offered some clues during one conference session, based on his description of model programs in school districts being studied by the department.
While stressing that he did not know what the final regulations would say, Mr. Danielson suggested that the Education Department was unlikely to dictate to states just how many levels, or “tiers,” of increasingly intense intervention they must have in place for such students.
Mr. Danielson also said he believes in the value of standardized interventions that have proved successful for large numbers of students with similar types of problems, as opposed to “problem-solving” RTI models that tailor interventions for an individual student’s needs.
Some problem-solving models “seem a little too trial-and-error,” he said. But he suggested it was unlikely that the department would mandate to the states what types of interventions to use, though they must be research-based.
John H. Hager, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said that the final IDEA regulations were on track to be released before the next school year, “in a way that will be useful and easy to navigate.”
In a question-and-answer session after Mr. Hager’s Feb. 26 address, Robin P. Church, the executive director of school programs at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a Baltimore facility for children with developmental disabilities, said she was worried that special education teachers might not be able to meet the “highly qualified” standard mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Young special education teachers are overwhelmed with the requirements, she said.
The federal law requires that special education teachers who teach core subjects be highly qualified in every subject they teach. Mr. Hager noted that the department has offered states an extra year—until the end of the 2006-07 school year—to meet the requirement. The department is also “stimulating” states to create mechanisms that would allow alternative methods for teachers to prove they’re highly qualified.
“I would urge you to give it a little time. We’re trying to make ways that teachers can become highly qualified much easier, and much more readily available,” Mr. Hager said. “We’re not trying to penalize or hurt anybody. We’re trying to raise the level of the field.”
Both the No Child Left Behind law and the IDEA promote the concept of blurring the lines between general education and special education. Therese Hogan, the director of graduate programs in special education at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., tapped into the interest in collaboration between special and general education teachers during a session.
Communication is the key, Ms. Hogan said. That means that a special education teacher working with someone in general education must know that teacher’s style and what the teacher will cover in class.
“I can’t tell you how many teachers I meet who say they walk in and they don’t know what they’re doing from one day to the next, much less over a year,” she said.
Also, general education teachers could adapt some techniques from special education to help all their students. For example, homework assignments should include only techniques that are nearly mastered, Ms. Hogan said.
Instruction should always be tilted more toward guided, or classroom work, rather than homework, she said.
“The thing is, we’re different, but we’re not so different,” Ms. Hogan said of regular and special educators. “Good teaching is good teaching.”