New Strategy to Keep Kids Out of Special Ed

"Response to intervention" aims to determine students' weaknesses before they fall behind.

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When 8-year-old Hannah Hart started struggling in the classroom, her school wasted little time coming to her aid. Teachers and specialists provided extra daily tutoring in math and reading. About every six weeks, special educators, other classroom teachers, and even the principal of her school attended "data meetings" to examine Hannah's test scores, evaluate her progress, and pinpoint her specific needs. "Anything we did was in response to the data," says Ellen Barton, Hannah's second-grade teacher at Newmarket Elementary in Newmarket, N.H. That early attention paid off; the difference was like flipping a switch. "It was like going from the dark to the light," says Trish Hart, Hannah's mother. "Her confidence as a learner and a child just soared."

Across the country, districts are adopting similar early intervention plans to help identify and evaluate students at risk for learning disabilities. The approach, called response to intervention, uses research-based instruction, data collection, and multiple tiers of intense tutoring to catch struggling students before they need to be placed in special education classes. But implementing RTI successfully presents many challenges, especially in schools with limited resources, and classroom teachers have been generally slow to embrace the method, fearing its emphasis on data could interfere with their quality of instruction. "Teachers really feel this will be a burden," says Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas. "Everyone's great fear is: Will the science compromise the art of teaching?"

"Our goal was for data to drive the teaching," says Elaine McNulty-Knight, special services director for the Newmarket School District, adding that RTI helps teachers make informed decisions about their students. For RTI techniques to work, some fundamental research-based teaching methods must already be present in the classroom, she says. So when Newmarket adopted a new core reading program last year, teachers were told to follow it with fidelity. At first, the program concerned Barton and Dawn Russell, another Newmarket second-grade teacher. The new curriculum was formulaic, they said. Where students would have previously played games or drawn posters to practice reading comprehension, the program called for flashcards and workbooks instead. "We definitely felt a little stifled with all our fun, creative ways of teaching," Russell says. "We didn't feel like we had that flexibility."

Such reservations may explain why RTI has been slow to gain acceptance in classrooms. Though similar practices have been around for some 30 years, in the late 1990s RTI methods gained national momentum, partly in response to the growing concern that students were receiving untimely or inaccurate identification for specific learning disabilities. The traditional model for assessing which students needed special education compared discrepancies between student IQ and achievement test scores, an approach critics dubbed the "wait to fail" model because it didn't identify students until well after they fell behind. Many looked to RTI's prevention methods as a better alternative. RTI's popularity surged in 2004 when it was backed by the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides services for some 6.6 million children. IDEA allows districts to spend up to 15 percent of the money they receive for special education on RTI initiatives, and the U.S. Education Department announced plans last year to spend an additional $14 million to aid the effort. RTI also potentially could save schools money, because other district special education programs can cost about twice as much per student as the average classroom.

Technically, there is no one RTI method, as districts are free to implement it however they choose. In general, struggling students are given regular achievement tests tailored to their needs and subject areas Fluency, for example, is commonly tested by counting the number of correct words students read aloud per minute. Progress is recorded and then evaluated every six to eight weeks, and the intervention techniques are adjusted accordingly. Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, for example, has built in 30 minutes of "workshop" time each day for students to receive structured interventions, says Dawn Miller, who has been facilitating the district's RTI initiative. If over time a student shows the need for increased assistance, an additional 15 to 30 minutes of intervention could be added to the student's daily schedule, she says.