Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Response to Intervention: the Cons

Note: Visit my education blog, The Green Cup.

Can we still measure whether a child has a disability?

We talked last week about the new model for identifying learning disabilities: Response to Intervention.

Who decides if Johnny has a disability? In the past it was mostly math. Parents and educators could point to test results and say a child DID or DIDN'T have a disability.

One of the biggest questions the Response to Intervention (RtI) model will face is a pretty simple one: "What IS response?" The discrepancy model, for all its shortcomings, was quantifiable.

You can hear the psychologist (or whomever) at the eligibility committee meeting: "Susie has this much of a discrepancy between her intelligence and her achievement scores, Ms. Smith, and ...well... that means she not learning disabled..."

But can you hear the school's reading specialist making the explanation instead? "Ms. Smith, we've been giving Susie some extra help during intervention time now for about 15 weeks. I know she doesn't seem to be catching up; but when we move her into a one-to-one setting with a specialist and tailor instruction just for her she responds well enough that, in my professional opinion, she doesn't have a learning disability."

Who does decide if Johnny or Susie has a disability? At the moment it's not completely clear whether interventions (and the response Johnny or Susie has to them) are also evaluations, or part but not all of the evaluation process, or simply part of the pre-referral process. Does the fact that Johnny didn't respond to interventions mean in itself that he has a learning disability, or does it mean he should be evaluated to see if he has a learning disability? And if it means that he should be evaluated, then what constitutes an evaluation? The answers to those questions will probably vary from state to state...

It is clear that RtI is intended to replace the discrepancy model as a way of identifying learning disabilities. And it is clear that states cannot require local school districts to use the discrepancy model. It is not clear when the actual evaluation process starts -- when we stop trying to simply intervene and catch Johnny up in reading, and when we start trying to decide if maybe Johnny has a disability. And the new rules will probably allow more flexibility of differences in practice from state to state and district to district than ever before.

In the past it was mostly mathematical. IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, amended in 2004) is first and foremost a civil rights law, guaranteeing the rights of children with disabilities to an education. It relies on the best features of our adversarial court system to ensure that a child's rights aren't denied. And now the only thing that really seems to determine whether a child has a learning disability is the one thing the courts are reluctant to second guess - the professional judgment of educators.

Will it really be a problem? Consider this...

The estimates vary, but somewhere between 50% and 80% of students identified as having a learning disability are dyslexic. Reading is the process of associating a group of mental units we call phonemes with symbols we call letters. Dyslexia is a condition that alters the way sound is processed so that a student with dyslexia doesn't recognize those phonemes the way other students do. What do students with dyslexia do? They cope. They make an effort to associate whole words with the way a group of letters looks to them. Or they employ some other strategy. And they make progress. Some progress. And the more attention and encouragement the child gets, the more progress they make. The problem is, while it is enough progress to hold out hope for those concerned about the child's performance, it is almost never enough progress to catch up. The result? A dyslexic child can appear to be responding (to some extend) to an intervention when in fact we've only slowed the pace at which they are falling behind. And unless their dyslexia has been identified, the chances are that they will hit the same wall in reading (the expansion of vocabulary) that they would have under the discrepancy model - and hit it at the same time (about fourth grade).

Students with dyslexia DO respond to intervention - just not enough to catch up. And the RtI model will then have to decide whether they have a learning disability based on partial response. It is not just an either/or model - though you could get that impression from the simplistic nature of many discussion of the issue.

We've talked around a bigger question. Is dyslexia a disability? The International Dyslexia Association says "yes." I think the solution often has been to ignore the possibility that a child even has dyslexia - despite the fact that there are specific interventions that could be used to teach reading to learners with that disorder.

The success of RtI will be based in part on whether educator in America come to grips with dyslexia - identify it early and address it specifically with interventions designed for dyslexics. If that doesn't happen, my prediction is that RtI will not be a successful approach to learning disabilities any more than the discrepancy model was.


hayesatlbch said...

RTI could only be effective if the correct intervention is chosen. As selecting the best intervention is assumed for RTI I have to question whether what is being measured is the ability to select the proper intervention or how the individual is responding to it.

In my opinion, most teachers are trained to select techniques based on what is best for most students leaving many students with different needs out.

As an example, some dyslexics have visual problems that are less likely to be helped by interventions based on the phonological model.

I sell dyslexia glasses at that are a very effective intervention for visual dyslexics. They are not an effective intervention for most dyslexics because most dyslexics don't have visual problems.

An intervention can only be as effective as it meets the needs of the individual.

Liz Ditz said...

Hi Greg -- excellent observations on the RtI model.

The problem I see is that many teachers don't have the background to understand dyslexia (or specific learning disability -- reading) or whatever the district wants to call it.

In my local district, the preferred remediation is Reading Recovery, which has at least two flaws:

1. The intervention is insufficiently intense to remediate the underlying weaknesses in the child's ability to distinguish or manipulate the small sounds in spoken language (phonemic awareness)

2. The intervention is insufficiently structured.

Reading Recovery: What Do School Districts Get for Their Money, at Wrightslaw, details further criticisms.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities will be launching a RtI Action Network in the spring of 2008.

Kathleen Whitmire, the chiar of the network, wrote:

The adoption of RTI will of course require some deep, system-wide changes. While change is hard, and sometimes uncomfortable, we can reach our goal of providing high-quality instruction to all students if we work collaboratively and collectively. It is paramount that state and local policies and practices evolve in order to help inform building-level leadership. School leadership in turn will be able to galvanize school staff to embrace the necessary changes in roles and responsibilities and help facilitate the breaking-down of barriers between general education and special education.

Changes of this magnitude will require careful thought and a process put in place over time. It is important to remember that RTI implementation is a ‘process,’ and that true, effective shifts in policy and procedures happen in stages. The efforts will be worth it in the long run because of the benefits that will be afforded to students nationwide.

Here's what the network has done to date: 2007 RtI Retrospective.

Here's an RtI primer from Reading Rockets.

Greg_Cruey said...

Most reading specialists in my area want to talk about (generic) reading disabilities - without ever saying the "D" word. Part of that is the dyslexia is a medical condition and is expensive and time consuming to confirm. We've progressed to "suspected dyslexia," but I don't know any one in my county that can make a confirmed diagnosis.

We are starting to implement an Orton-Gillingham method (I think it comes from the Multi-sensory institute), but we're in the early stages. It will be one of two Tier III choices for kids.