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Peering Into the Crystal Ball


Board Buzz, the blog of the National School Board Association, brings news of an upcoming audio conference titled "Special Education: What's On the Horizon?"

The conference is scheduled for 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EST April 16, and includes some well-known special education law experts, including Houston-based school attorney Christopher Borreca and Allan Osborne, a principal and former president of the Education Law Association. Regular registration is $140, but some discounts are offered and for the price, you can gather as many people as you want around a speaker phone to hear the presentation.

Here's my prediction: Response to intervention is going to generate due-process hearings, and maybe even lawsuits, unless districts do a good job explaining the educational method to parents. There's already grumbling among some parents that the RTI process takes too long to get their children the specific extra help they need. However, I admit that I'm not going out on a limb: The Washington Post (registration required) and the Wall Street Journal have already written about this topic.


In my opinion, personal and professional, the RtI model delays and/or denies services to students. Especially vulnerable are students with hidden disabilites, such as learning disabilites and/or emotional disorders. Delaying/denying services constitutes a denial of FAPE. I am particularly disturbed by the number of highly skilled and trained special educators supporting this model. My ethics as a special educator uphold a value system that preclude supporting RtI. Frankly, I had hoped more would join me in my resistance to a line of thinking that sets our field back to the Dark Ages. How can we justify denying students of their civil rights under the politically correct guise of blaming instructional quality (translation: blaming teachers)? Disabilities are real. They are permanent. Those identified with them are protected by law. Pretending instruction will make them go away is both ludicrous and unconstitutional.

I have to respond to Kim, because the viewpoint she expresses is so surprising to me. As I understand RtI it is, like many things, nothing more than finally getting around to things that have been required by law for some time. The identification process (in order to determine which students are entitled to the protections of the law) has always called for ruling out the effects of poor/lack of/inappropriate instruction. It has always seemed to me that short of being raised by wolves for an extended period of time no child was ever found to suffer from a lack of instruction. I also recall reading somewhere on Pete Wright's website an actual survey of psychologist who perform MFEs and whether they believed that school factors 1) were ever a cause of a student's delay/difficulty and 2) whether they had ever issued such a finding. The answers were yes and no. The article went on to explore whether an employee of a school system could be considered to be an unbiased identifier of school based problems.

Actually requiring a systematic tracking of interventions utilized and success/rejection stands to improve the chances of all students with learning difficulties--whether they are in the end identified as having a disability or not. It is important to remember that the categories of disability appear in the law. Children are not stamped out with such status at birth. Some successful countries (eg Scotland) have dropped the categories altogether and serve the child, not the disability.

My experience, and that of many parents, prior to the formal focus on RtI has included such things as "we don't test for disabilities before second grade," "a student must be two grade levels behind in order to qualify for services," "your child doesn't have a disability s/he just doesn't want to learn," "you don't want to have your child tested and labeled--there is a stigma." I am guessing, because I believe that Kim truly cares, that these are things that she actively combats.

But I don't see the distinction that Kim sees between "interventions" and "services." As a veteran in the IEP wars, I can attest that the primary "service" that has been offered is a resource room with smaller class-size. When I pushed for an accounting of the actual "services" that would be available in this smaller classroom (of students across a wider ability/grade level and with higher needs), what I got in writing was "direct instruction." (small d, small i). While direct instruction is indeed an available pedagogy, there is little to convince me that there is any enormous difference between the amount of direct instruction in the regular classroom vs the resource room (or that this is the particular approach likely to be most helpful). There is a vastly simplified curriculum with lots more worksheets, fill in the blanks and memorize the simple answer.

The "services" that might be enormously helpful, such as OT, or peer group support for socialization, anger management, etc, are either missing or doled out in dosages so small as to be ineffective.

What RtI does threaten is the current separation and turfs of the regular and special education classrooms. By looking at children as children and not as labels, the line between the two "service providers" gets blurred. But in the end, this is a line that should be blurred. There are too many kids who get dropped in that chasm between the two. Kids who are not far enough behind to "qualify" for services. Kids who "qualify" but would learn best if those services were available to them without the traumatic move down the hall to that other classroom. Kids whose difficulties can be overcome in the short term with an intensification of educational services.

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