Before special education

With special education costs and enrollments soaring, schools are trying to help students with learning problems before they need special education services that typically cost 50 percent more per student. What’s known as “response to intervention” or RTI is controversial, reports the Wall Street Journal. Some fear children who need special ed won’t get the extra help.

RTI is designed for children at risk for a “specific learning disabilities” diagnosis. Nearly half of special education students are diagnosed with SLDs such as dyslexia; that’s doubled in a generation.

To determine whether a student has SLD, schools have traditionally looked for disparities between the IQ scores and achievement-test results of low-performing children. Usually, such disparities don’t become apparent until the later years of elementary school.

RTI supporters call that a “wait-to-fail” approach. They maintain that many children now in special education are simply victims of poor instruction and wouldn’t need expensive special-education services if they had gotten extra help as soon as their problems surfaced.

In Elk Grove, a Sacramento district, 16 percent of students were in special education, higher than the national average of 14 percent. RTI cut that to 9 percent.

The Journal story suggests RTI may delay diagnosis for kids who really need special ed services. And clearly some school districts are learning how to intervene effectively. It would have been nice to hear from parents whose children were helped in kindergarten and first grade, learned to read well and never received a disability label.

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  1. But in the DSMV it specially says that poor instruction must be ruled out before the diagnosis is given. What percentage of the time do the teams of highly qualified specialist that take special ed referals decide that the problem is really one of poor instruction?

    A more philosophical question about learning disabilities is how is something a disability if it never results in a handicap? Would we say that the intervention “cured” the child?

  2. The big issue is that there are not peer-reviewed studies out there that show RTI’s superiority over the discrepancy model.

    I see the greatest value of RTI in working with kids who would not qualify based on the discrepancy model–the low-performing readers who do not qualify because their reading scores on diagnostic assessment are at the same level as their IQ. But we can also deal with the RTI issues by aggressive Title I reading intervention in the early grades. You can definitely flag the kids with a disability by lack of growth over a school year with the aggressive intervention–if the district is so motivated to do so. That’s the catch right there, and that’s what is fueling the litigation.

    It’s a bit hard to blame poor instruction when you have kids who are receiving the same instruction, in the same school–and some are succeeding while others fail. Then you need to look at attendance patterns, disability issues, and second language issues.

  3. Mike, a diag in Texas says:

    RTI is a pre-referral action that documents the interventions that took place before assessing and placing in Special Education. It is based on the theory that schools are “growing” SLD students, that is, they are creating the IQ-Achievement gap.

    The hope is that interventions will close the temporary gap and enable the student to continue in regular education. Students who don’t improve are assessed and theoretically, at least, are truly disabled.

    I would agree that there is a lack of research on this. However, after 3 years of doing assessments, I seem to spend much of my time not qualifying students due to the gap closing. If SLD is not a permanent disability, it makes sense to try and avoid both the stigma and mis-allocated resources that a “temporary” disability would entail with the placements.