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Fostering a unified approach to RTI and special education

Sponsor: Spectrum K12 School Solutions

What is a "unified approach" to special education and how does Response to Intervention fit in? To find out, Achievement Today interviewed two prominent experts in special education: Alexa Posny, Kansas Commissioner of Education and formerly Director of the Office of Special Education Programs for the U.S. Department of Education, and Judith Hackett, superintendent of the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization in Illinois and president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education.

How should educators think about Response to Intervention as it relates to special education?

Posny: It's really identifying any student who is having difficulty learning so that intervention can be provided, whether it's needed in the general curriculum or elsewhere. I believe there's a misperception that this is a special ed initiative. However, when we think about Response to Intervention as a systemic approach to providing and meeting the needs of any child, it cuts across all education.

What is meant by "systemic" or "unified" approach?

Hackett: Let's say we have a child where repeated problems come up with attendance or reading or behavior. In a traditional approach we have determined that the student has a behavior problem and send the student to a special education teacher to address it. A unified approach brings in a collaborative team. The focus shifts from who is responsible to what needs to be done to address the student's needs. We take a unified approach, which is to figure out what the problem is, come up with a detailed plan and determine how the team can implement the plan.

How does RTI fit in with a unified approach?

Hackett: Response to Intervention is high quality instruction matched to student needs. The core of it is really differentiating instructional strategies for all students and providing those interventions that are researched based. There is an individual aspect to it as teams look specifi cally at student needs, but in the broad sense of the terms, RTI unifies your entire school or district in terms of looking comprehensively at the types of curriculum and interventions you have that work or don't work and focusing on charting progress and connecting strategies to outcomes.

Isn't RTI all about good teaching? You monitor a child's progress and if it's not adequate you incrementally intervene to help meet expectations.

Posny: Exactly, but this concept of a systematic approach is key. We knows there are kids, even with the best core curriculum and teaching, who still struggle and who need something extra. Maybe it's small groups. It's usually referred to as Tier 2. Even with that level of intervention, there are kids who still struggle; they go to Tier 3, which may be one-on-one or other interventions. Even after that, there are kids who struggle, who most likely have a disability. But I believe we misidentify almost half the kids who are labeled learning disabled. First, we wait for them to fail, so they look disabled even though they may not be. Second, we didn't provide intervention for them as soon as we knew they were struggling. So RTI, with early intervention strategies, is really the key to meeting the needs of all learners.

What should teachers know about RTI?

Hackett: First, providing high quality interventions matched to a student's needs isn't synonymous with special education. Second, teachers need to know how to look at data to determine what they are doing that is netting the best outcomes. When you start measuring a student's progress every week without seeing significant gains you need to make adjustments.

How should educators work with parents to help implement this unified approach?

Hackett: Having parents at the table to address student needs as early as possible is very important in the process. We must understand their fears: that some of the terms and processes are different and we need to continue to communicate their student's progress and address their questions along the way. It is difficult to explain RTI in a short period of time without the conceptual framework. It often takes a few layers of explanation and I believe it is the responsibility of educators to reach a common understanding with parents.

What should district administrators know about RTI?

Posny: RTI can really change education because the earlier that school staff can assess a student's needs and identify those with difficulties, the quicker and less expensive it is to help them catch up. By adopting this concept of a unified approach, I believe districts will see a reduction in the number of students who are misdirected to special ed.