Currently, 14 states mandate that response to intervention be used as a method to determine if students have a specific learning disability. The rest of the states, following federal special education law, must permit RTI to be used for that purpose. Part of the goal, RTI advocates contend, is that the instructional method's focus on effective teaching can cut down on the number of children who need special education services.
But many states and districts do not have a way of determining if RTI has been successful in reducing the number of children identified as learning disabled. Districts also differ widely in when—or if—they seek parental consent to place children in a response to intervention framework, and how long the children stay once placed there.
This information was presented in a "poster session" at the annual convention for the Council for Exceptional Children, being held this year in San Antonio. (Poster sessions allow researchers to present preliminary, unpublished data from their work.) The RTI information will be included in a full report coming from Tina M. Hudson, a doctoral student in special education at the University of Kentucky, and Robert G. McKenzie, a University of Kentucky professor and the director of graduate study for special education there.
Response to intervention is an education reform movement aimed at providing more-effective instruction for all students, while reducing the number of students erroneously identified as having a learning disability when all they need is focused instruction to close education deficits.
The RTI model includes effective general instruction, frequent progress monitoring of students, and research-based interventions with students who are not mastering the general curriculum. If the student does not respond to increasingly intensive interventions, RTI models generally use that as a sign for referral to special education evaluation.
Hudson and McKenzie sent surveys to all the states and received 31 responses from state special education offices. They also surveyed 264 school districts in the states that responded to the first survey.
What they found is that of the states and districts surveyed, more than 80 percent agreed that reducing referrals to special education or the prevalence of learning disabilities is "important" or "very important." But on the district survey, only 44 percent believed that RTI has actually reduced referrals. Interestingly, 56 percent of the districts surveyed said they saw no impact or had no way to tell.
Of the districts, 86 percent said they notify parents when their children are being placed in an RTI instructional model. Seventy percent, however, don't solicit parental consent. And the number of days a child could spend getting intensive interventions ranged from five to 168 days, which is nearly an entire school year, Hudson said at the session.
The data Hudson and McKenzie gathered has potentially serious repercussions for students with disabilities. Usually, students are placed in tiered interventions before being formally identified as being in need of special education. That means they may spend a lot of time struggling in the classroom before being afforded the legal rights mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The federal Office of Special Education programs in 2011 sent a letter to state directors of special education, reminding them that they cannot delay or deny special education identification because a child is in an RTI instructional model. (The RTI Action Network has also written a report on the issues surrounding RTI and identification.)
The survey results mentioned here, however, were gathered a year after a guidance letter from OSEP was sent to states, which suggests some continuing confusion among states, with possible legal implications. The full report, which will be part of Hudson's doctoral dissertation, should help extend the dialogue surrounding the instructional model.