Avoiding special ed

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A decade ago, concerns that too many students were being mistakenly referred for costly special education services led Chicago Public Schools to adopt a process to stem the tide.

The goal was to use teaching strategies designed to help students who had fallen behind—such as changing a child’s seat in the classroom or working with him or her in a small group—before evaluating a child for a learning disability.

The results were mixed, and after the better part of a decade, most participating schools apparently stopped using the process. CPS data show that between 1998 and 2008, 437 schools opened cases under the process, called school-based problem-solving, but by Sept. 2006, 73 percent of them (317 schools) had stopped using it.


Why this matters

The state of Illinois is requiring schools to use a new strategy called Response to Intervention (RTI) to ensure that special education placements are accurate and timely.

  • Teachers and administrators say the district still pressures schools to keep down the number of special education referrals.
  • Advocates say that children too often fall through the cracks. Those with mild to moderate disabilities often go without needed supports. Other children are mislabeled with a disability.
  • Proponents of RTI are pushing to include it as part of a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Some case managers at schools admit scaling back the program, blaming lack of staff. Some say they feel pressure from the district to keep down the number of referrals, a charge the district has denied. Special education advocates maintain that schools began using the process to keep down the number of children referred for special learning services. (The number of students in special education fell 10 percent over the past five years.)

Now, CPS and other districts throughout the state will be required to institute a similar process intended to make sure special education referrals are accurate and timely.  In addition to using teaching intervention strategies, schools will have to track hard data on children’s progress before referring students to special education. Under a policy adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), school districts must institute the new approach, called Response to Intervention or RTI, by 2010.

(ISBE encouraged districts to use school-based problem-solving, but did not require it.)

The ultimate goal is to avoid unnecessary placement in special education, which accounts for 16 percent of the CPS budget and is a growing percentage of suburban district budgets, as well.

RTI focuses on children who show signs of having a learning disability, the most common reason for special education referral. CPS is now in the third year of a five-year pilot intended to help the district craft the best way to roll out RTI on a districtwide scale. So far, staff at the pilot schools say the approach is making a difference. (See sidebar.)

Illinois’ policy is in line with a national push for RTI, which promotes tailoring instruction to student’s individual needs and abilities and collaboration between regular and special education teachers. Under the process, students who need help are placed in one of three “tiers,” or groups, based on how much additional support they need to improve skills such as reading comprehension. To ensure that children are not mislabeled as needing special services—or that children who need such services go undiagnosed—teachers must use provide extra support through interventions such as working with the child individually or in a small group, talking to parents about attendance issues or even suggesting a student get glasses.

Proponents of RTI are pushing for the strategy to be adopted in a reauthorized version of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Recently, Vanderbilt University professor Doug Fuchs, a leading RTI expert, told lawmakers at a congressional hearing that the U.S. Department of Education needs to fund pilots on how to implement RTI on a large scale. Federal education officials are currently funding studies of RTI in California and Tennessee.
The Council for Exceptional Children, a national special education organization, supports RTI—with the caveats that it must be adopted schoolwide, that schools must have sufficient resources to implement it and that it “must not” be used to delay special education referrals.

Here in Chicago, some special education advocates, and even some school staff, point to the experience with school-based problem-solving as evidence of possible pitfalls with RTI.

Just ‘best practice’

Officials in the district’s Office of Specialized Services argue that RTI simply asks teachers to tailor their instruction to children’s learning styles, a practice they should be doing anyway.

“This is about meeting the needs of all students,” says Amy J. Dahlstrom Klainer, who is running the district’s pilot and will help develop a districtwide plan. “This is best practice.”

Participating schools must also do a self-assessment and focus their resources effectively, she adds.

Teachers, psychologists and reading specialists throughout the district were trained over the past year on RTI strategies, including how to use interventions and measure student progress; for instance, by tracking the number of questions a child answers correctly on the district’s literacy assessments, compared to the CPS average.

But case managers who have worked with school-based problem-solving warn that staffing shortages will make it virtually impossible to fulfill RTI’s requirements.

Claudia Kusek, a counselor at Field Elementary in Rogers Park, says school-based problem-solving worked well at her school—as long as Field had a staff person with enough time to coordinate the program. But that staffer left, as did other teachers who were familiar with the process. New teachers don’t always know how to do their part, Kusek says.

“It is hard getting them to do the paperwork, the follow-up and the assessments,” she says. “We are at a standstill until then.” (The school, like others in CPS, is still using school-based problem-solving; the district has not fully rolled out RTI.)

Karen Tipp, a CPS special education teacher who divides her time between two schools, says school-based problem-solving only worked well when a staff person at a school takes responsibility for oversight. Tipp, who also serves as co-president of the North Side chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association, says that in some suburban districts, staff shortages have forced schools to use janitors and lunchroom aides to implement interventions with children.

Klainer, however, disagrees with the argument that schools need additional personnel or money to implement RTI. Schools should assess their existing resources and put the priority on supporting students who need extra assistance.

“It is about being strategic,” Klainer says.

Who decides? How long?

In testimony to Illinois state education officials, and in a follow-up letter to the state superintendent from the Attorney General’s Special Education Advisory Committee, advocates noted “a number of uncertainties [about RTI] have appeared, causing serious concerns.”

Specifically, advisory committee members want ISBE to spell out who should decide which students need interventions and what type of interventions should be used. Also, they want the state to set a timetable for keeping students in RTI, to make sure that referrals are made in a timely fashion.

There’s some evidence for that concern. In 2002, the state investigated allegations that CPS was delaying special education evaluations. Following the investigation, ISBE sent a formal notice to Chicago directing the district to stop blocking referrals. (See related story.)

In response to the committee’s letter, ISBE has promised more clarification is in the works.

Done right, Klainer says she sees no reason for a timetable.

“It really comes down to the individual,” she says. The question is, “Is the student progressing at a sufficient rate to close the gaps? Are the interventions sufficient?”

Klainer emphasizes that RTI is not about avoiding referrals, but making sure that only the students who really have disabilities are placed in special education.

There is good reason to be careful about referrals. Research has shown that some 85 percent of students who are evaluated end up placed in special education. In a best-case scenario, these children would get extra help to overcome their disability and then transition back to regular education, but that scenario is rare.

Donald Moore, executive director of the group Designs for Change, points out that children sometimes remain in the school-based problem-solving process too long. “Often nothing much happens,” he says.

Schools have often delayed referrals, he adds, although the law is clear that any time a parent requests an evaluation, the school must honor that request, Moore says.