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Review of IDEA Shows More Use of Response to Intervention

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Seven years after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was renewed with a provision allowing response to intervention to be used when deciding if a child has a specific learning disability, a new study shows 71 percent of school districts use the strategy in at least one school.

IDEA requires the U.S. Department of Education to have the Institute of Education Sciences review how states and districts put the law into place, separate of annual reports submitted by the department to Congress on the implementation of the law. The latest national assessment, released in late July, found that response to intervention is used in 61 percent of all elementary schools, 45 percent of middle schools, and 29 percent of high schools.

RTI involves identifying students' learning problems quickly and using a series of focused lessons, or interventions, to address those problems before they become entrenched. The intensity of those interventions increases if the student doesn't respond.

It's not entirely surprising that RTI is growing in popularity, and it is probably in wider use than reflected in this study, which looked at RTI use in the 2008-09 school year. Earlier this year, one of my colleagues wrote about this trend, nudged along by the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, which says states must allow districts to use RTI as a tool for determining if a child has a specific learning disability. And a recent report from the National Center on Learning Disabilities attributes the use of RTI as part of the reason behind the decline in the number of students found to have a learning disability over the last 10 years.

Building on this report, the Institute for Educational Sciences is working on a more in-depth evaluation of RTI that will describe how its practice for early grade reading varies across schools and how academic outcomes, including reading achievement and special education identification, vary with elementary schools' adoption of these practices.

Other findings about IDEA in the report:

• Almost 90 percent of special education teachers for preschool-age children with disabilities and school-age children and youth with disabilities are considered "highly qualified," but the definition of highly qualified varies sharply from state to state.

• About 5 percent of preschool-age and school-age special education teacher full-time positions were vacant during the 2008-09 school year. Among the districts that said qualified applicants were hard to find, more than half had difficulty finding qualified special education teachers who serve children in high school. In addition, it was particularly hard to find teachers to work with students with autism and emotional disturbances.

• For both young children and school-age children, the number of requests for due process hearings was far more than the number of due process hearings that actually took place. When parents have a complaint about the services their child receives, they can request one of these hearings to try to resolve their concerns. While the number of requests for these hearings stayed about the same from 2003 to 2008—about 22 requests for every 10,000 students with disabilities—the number that actually took place dropped by more than half, from 3.36 for every 10,000 students in 2003-04 to 1.61 in 2007-08.

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