Special Education

The Department of Education on RTI

By Christina A. Samuels — January 18, 2008 2 min read
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The great thing about a blog is that it allows writers a chance to share information that can’t make it into the print edition of the newspaper. So, this is a perfect way to start On Special Education: with an interview on response to intervention with Department of Education official Louis Danielson.

Tight scheduling kept me from speaking to Danielson, the director of the research to practice division in the office of special education, before my articles (here and here) went to press, but I was able to spend a half hour talking with him about RTI, an educational framework that is gaining widespread attention.

Federal assistance on RTI
: “One of our clear, key investments is the RTI center,” said Danielson, referring to the National Center on Response to Intervention, a $14.2 million, five-year project. The new center will take over some of the functions of the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring and the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities, both of which are wrapping up their grants this year. Some of the regional technical assistance centers are also helping states with RTI, though that’s not their sole focus, he said.

How to “scale it up”: Michael Gerber, an education professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, takes a dim view of how successfully RTI can be expanded nationwide. Too many other education initiatives have fallen into disuse because people don’t take into account the differences in the thousands of schools and teachers who must implement a plan, he says.

Danielson said that he understands that concern, pointing out that it’s an issue with any educational innovation. However, the department has had a great deal of success with “positive behavior supports,” which is a way of using RTI to affect student behavior. He pointed to Virginia as a state where RTI is being introduced gradually, in a carefully controlled manner.
“They’re going to start with a small number of school districts and not to force it down people’s throats. The risk of doing it that way is that they’ll do it badly and say it doesn’t work,” Danielson said. “It is hard work to do, we’ve got to be deliberate about it and we’ve got to be smart about it.”

RTI and due process: Some parent groups are concerned that response to intervention might delay the identification of a child as learning disabled. Special education shouldn’t be seen as a negative, said Naomi P. Zigmond, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. It should be seen as a way for students to get the targeted help that they need to succeed.

But students usually aren’t identified with learning disabilities quickly now, Danielson said. He referred to one district that was studied after it implemented RTI. It didn’t change its percentage of children who were identified as having learning disabilities—it held steady at about 5 or 6 percent, he said—but now 1st and 2nd graders were identified, which he sees as a good thing. “While there could be a fear that [RTI] could drag things out; in this district it didn’t happen,” Danielson said.

Expect to hear much more about RTI, the officials suggested. It’s too early to make definitive pronouncements, but the early information is exciting. “If well implemented, we can get really good results for kids,” Danielson said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.