Special Education

RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.

By Christina A. Samuels — November 29, 2005 7 min read
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The main federal special education law’s promotion of a practice that can identify children with learning disabilities and give them early help has brought new attention to the method.

Known as “response to intervention,” or RTI, the method aims to catch specific learning disabilities before the students fall far behind their classmates. In the best cases, teachers can ease the disabilities and make formal special education services unnecessary.

The educational practice is specifically mentioned in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which covers some 6.8 million children.

President Gerald R. Ford signed the original version of the IDEA into law 30 years ago this week, instituting a landmark federal mandate that states provide children with disabilities a “free, appropriate public education.”

The IDEA’s reference to RTI, and the Department of Education’s promotion of the practice in its proposed rules for the 2004 law, have made it a focus of the special education community. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education devoted a session to the method at its annual meeting in Minneapolis last month, and the group has published a 60-page booklet on it. A Web site that is an RTI clearinghouse, created by a special education administrator for the 5,900-student Baldwinsville, N.Y., school district, receives more than 200,000 page views monthly. RTI proponents are giving lectures around the country on the practice.

“Being part of the statutory language obviously elevates this thing called RTI to a high, visible level,” said Michael Armstrong, the president of NASDSE and the director of the Ohio Department of Education’s office for exceptional children. “It opens it up to conversation on both sides.”

Some may look at RTI and say it’s the “latest fix of the day,” Mr. Armstrong said. “But it’s bigger than that.”

The law does not require the method’s use, but says states may not prohibit school districts from using the model to evaluate students for learning disabilities. By far, the largest percent of students getting special education services have “specific learning disabilities”—about 49 percent, according to a 2003 report from the Education Department that examined demographics of students in special education.

In a response-to-intervention teaching model, all students—those potentially with learning disabilities and those without—are given a variety of “interventions,” or lessons, on subjects that are causing them difficulty. The interventions often are not more complicated than or different from the methods teachers might use for any struggling student.

Monitoring Progress

Intervention Strategies

Jim Wright, a special education administrator, has created a Web site, www.interventioncentral.org, where teachers can get hints and help on intervention techniques. Some examples of research-based interventions he lists to help struggling readers:

Assisted reading practice: The student reads aloud while an accomplished reader follows along silently. If the student makes a mistake, the helping reader corrects it.

Word-attack hierarchy: The instructor prompts the student to apply a hierarchy of word-attack skills whenever the student misreads a word. The instructor gives these cues in descending order, from general (“try another way”) to specific (“break the word into parts and pronounce each one”). If the student correctly identifies the word after any cue, the instructor stops delivering cues and tells the student to continue reading.

Listening-practice preview: The student follows along silently as an accomplished reader reads a passage aloud. Then the student reads the passage aloud, receiving corrective feedback as needed.

Student self-comprehension check: Students periodically check their understanding of sentences, paragraphs, and pages of text as they read silently. When they run into problems with vocabulary or comprehension, they use a checklist to apply simple strategies to solve them. For example: At the end of each sentence, they ask, “Did I understand this sentence?” If they do, they say “Click!” and keep reading. If they don’t , they say “Clunk!” and refer to the strategy sheet to correct the problem. As students learn the technique, the teacher can introduce an unobtrusive nonverbal signal.

SOURCE: Jim Wright, www.interventioncentral.org

However, teachers must monitor student progress with frequent short assessments, as often as twice a week. If a student makes sufficient gains, the teacher can move on to the next lesson. But if the child fails to respond to an intervention, different ones are tried before the school and parents decide that special education is necessary.

RTI differs dramatically from the most widely used method of identifying children for learning disabilities, which involves giving a student an IQ test and determining whether there is a severe discrepancy between the child’s abilities as measured by the test and his or her achievement in the classroom. Critics of that method, referred to as the discrepancy model, say that it causes schools to wait too long to offer intensive help to students with problems.

The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA says that states may not require school districts to use the discrepancy model.

Districts sometimes end up caught between a true response-to-intervention approach and the discrepancy model, which is described by some as a “wait to fail” approach, said George Batsche, a professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. A frequent lecturer on RTI, he gave a presentation to the state directors’ group.

Too often, a few interventions are tried with students, but no one measures closely to see if the strategies are working, and time is lost, Mr. Batsche said.

“Everybody has the same amount of time in school,” he said. “We can’t extend the time at the end of their academic career, so every minute counts.”

Making Distinctions

RTI also represents a shift from early federal special education policy, which was focused primarily on trying to get children who had special needs into classrooms from which they long had been excluded.

“It was a public-policy priority to find those kids and get them into school,” said W. David Tilly III, the coordinator of assessment services for the Heartland Area Educational Association in Johnston, Iowa, which provides support services to 55 school districts in the state.

The downside, Mr. Tilly said, is that too many students may be identified with learning disabilities when they may have other needs.

Also, most experts agree that students in special education are at risk of being excluded from the general education curriculum. Some provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act address that issue by requiring districts to break out separately the test scores of children with disabilities to see if they are making adequate yearly progress toward state proficiency standards.

Supporters of response to intervention embrace it as a way of distinguishing children who have genuine learning disabilities from children who might be low achievers for some other reason. And, it doesn’t have to differ dramatically from what teachers have done in the past, they say.

“Every school does bits and pieces of this thing. The goal is to do it in a more systematic, or more systemic way,” said Diane Morrison, the director of support services for the Northern Suburban Special Education District, a cooperative association of 19 suburban Chicago districts, referring to RTI.

Improved technology makes some of the data-collection efforts required for RTI much easier now than they may have been in the past, but “it takes a lot of effort,” Ms. Morrison said. “But if [the RTI method] is good and it’s worth it, you’ve got to do it.”

Ms. Morrison has been working with Illinois schools for more than 10 years to implement the RTI method, and she said it’s spreading from elementary schools to middle schools and high schools. Response to intervention can also be used to address behavior problems, not just academic ones, she said.

With RTI, “you’re making decisions from the very beginning,” she said. “You do interventions and you’re monitoring [students], not to get them into special education, but for improvement.”

Advocates’ Concerns

Opinions about the method among advocates for children with disabilities are mixed. Ms. Morrison said that some advocates are worried that the method draws scarce resources away from children with special needs.

Justine Maloney, the Washington representative for the Pittsburgh-based Learning Disabilities Association of America, said that she’s concerned RTI focuses mainly on young elementary school children who have problems reading. The spectrum of learning disabilities extends beyond young children, and beyond reading, she said.

Ms. Maloney also notes that the process is time-consuming for teachers who already may be overloaded, or not well trained in how to evaluate children.

“I can remember with the severe-discrepancy model, the [IDEA] said that before you refer the kids [to special education], you’re supposed to try all these interventions. But it was easy to dump kids,” Ms. Maloney said, even though according to the special education law, no one method is supposed to be the sole criterion for determining if a child has a disability.

So, RTI should not be seen as a quick fix, she said. “We do like easy answers, but it’s a very mixed bag.”

Ricki Sabia, the associate director of the New York City-based National Down Syndrome Society’s National Policy Center, sees a clear benefit in RTI for the children she works with. Too often, children with mental retardation may have additional learning disabilities that go unaddressed, because all of the problems are lumped into the same category, she said.

But a child with a cognitive disability can still have dyslexia, she gave as an example. Under response to intervention, teachers would have to try different approaches before saying mental retardation is the only problem, she said.

“The IQ-discrepancy test is not going to help our kids” get diagnosed with learning disabilities, said Ms. Sabia. “It’s good to see some other way of evaluating our kids.”

In Ohio, Mr. Armstrong, the special education director, said that his state’s educators are taking advantage of the interest in RTI to educate themselves. Some schools are using RTI practices, but in others the method died out after a school leader who championed it left the building, he said.

However, the concept is not entirely new, he said.

“We’re looking to understand RTI in its truest form, and how we can begin to build a culture,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It’s about restacking the information that we already have.”

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