Teaching Opinion

This Sounds Familiar

By Elizabeth Stein — April 09, 2010 5 min read
Elizabeth Stein believes special education teachers have a key role to play in RTI. Here she provides small-group reading instruction to 3rd graders at Mills Pond Elementary School in Long Island, New York. <br/> — Emile Wamsteker
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Rewind to any Tuesday morning about eight years ago. My colleagues and I are seated around a table with a view of a grassy courtyard. The room is way too warm due to the school psychologist’s need to crank the heat—regardless of the temperature outside. As I walk in, colleagues know that I will walk over to the window and crack it open, just a bit, to find a compromise. Welcome to my school’s Instructional Support Team meeting, circa 2002.

Each week we discussed three to four students who had demonstrated insufficient progress in classroom performance. Our team included the psychologist, a speech and language pathologist, the social worker, the nurse (if applicable), the principal, the reading specialist, a special education teacher, and the general educator of the particular student being discussed. As the special education teacher, my job was to be a keen listener first while the general education teacher shared his or her concerns. Then, when the pivotal moment for the brainstorming phase arrived, I would share research-based strategies that I thought might help the student. The meetings were all about combining our powers to enhance classroom instruction, increase student achievement, and limit the amount of referrals to special education. Sound familiar?

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After a few years of being a member on this IST team, I created a group-based professional development project at my school that we called “strategy sessions.” Each teacher in the group would identify a struggling student and determine a specific academic skill to address with that student. We’d spend time exploring best practices and over the course of several weeks, participants would apply those strategies and document the students’ progress. My purpose in creating this program was not that I had psychic abilities and knew that RTI was coming. And it was not because I thought my role as a special education teacher allowed me to twirl my magic wand and fix the instructional process. No, it was about collaborative problem-solving. In my mind, the student needs we discussed were not the responsibility of general educators or special educators. They were the responsibility of all educators.

Fast forward to the RTI framework: That premise for instruction has not changed.

New Paradigms

The emphasis of RTI is on high-quality regular classroom instruction. But while RTI is primarily a general education initiative, it reflects special education concepts. Under RTI, general education teachers are expected to assess individual student needs, identify targeted goals, monitor data on students’ progress, and use this data to inform instructional decisions. To a certain extent, general educators are being asked to adopt time-honored special education practices (including, I’m afraid, the paperwork).

In my view, RTI is just a sensible, proactive teaching practice. And I think its stated aim of fine-tuning the special education referral process is long overdue. But as a special educator watching from the sidelines, I do have some apprehensions about this fast-growing methodology.

One of my concerns is that old instructional paradigms are often deeply set into the minds of general educators. For example, the buzz around the effectiveness of differentiated instruction has been loud and clear for many years now. But sadly, the “one-size-fits-all” mode of teaching is still prevalent in many classrooms. What makes administrators think that teachers will be able adapt to the demands of RTI?

Which leads me to my second point. I worry that many general education teachers aren’t getting enough high-quality training in the elements of RTI to feel empowered to use the framework confidently. Especially with an instructional model as collaborative as RTI, schools are only as strong as their weakest link. If teachers are only getting some quick on-the-job training, they will likely revert to the old paradigms, and RTI programs will languish.

And what about the well-intentioned goal of minimizing over-identification of students with learning disabilities? If classroom instruction is not strengthened to the extent that RTI models presume, there may in fact be a ricochet effect. That is, we might see an increase in special education referrals, with schools resting on the assumption that they’ve done all they could by putting struggling students through the RTI paces. The groundwork of high-quality instruction and intervention must be consistently evident to prevent that. Are schools ready to invest in their teachers to truly ramp up instruction for all kids?

Spec. Ed.’s Role

At this point, you might be asking, “If RTI is primarily a general education responsibility, what are the special educators doing?” In my experience, special educators can play key roles in RTI by providing needed interventions and by supporting general education teachers.

At my school, special educators facilitate small-group instructional groups, most of which fall under the category of Tier 2 intervention. The benefit of special educators being involved in the RTI intervention process is simple: Students receive researched-based, direct instruction from a certified special educator without needing to go through the hoops of eligibility.

I facilitate small-group reading instruction for 3rd graders who struggle in regular classrooms. I use research-based decoding and comprehension strategies, and I am careful to plan instruction so that it links to what is happening in the general education classroom. Relating my small-group instruction to the curriculum encourages students to transfer content and concepts as they work on targeted academic goals within a cycle of learning that makes sense.

I also work closely with my general education colleagues on progress monitoring and problem-solving strategies for particular students. Given the crossover in techniques long used by special educators and those now expected to be used by general educators under RTI, I believe this type of collaboration is essential.

My colleague Madeline Saavedra, a 2nd grade teacher, believes our school’s collaborative approach is one reason she is comfortable with the RTI mindset. Working analytically with colleagues has guided Madeline to evaluate her teaching decisions objectively and become more diagnostic in her approach.

Special educators can help in fostering this mindset. Ideally, after all, this is the kind of instruction we’ve been modeling all along.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as This Sounds Familiar


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