By Tim Shanahan and Richard Allington
Dear Dr. Shanahan,
My question centers on identifying students for special education. Research says identify students early, avoid the IQ-discrepancy model formula for identification, and use an RTI framework for identification and intervention.
That said, I have noticed that as a result of high stakes accountability linked to teacher evaluations there seems to be a bit of a shuffle around identifying students for special education. While we are encouraged to “identify early”, the Woodcock Johnson rarely finds deficits that warrant special education identification. Given current research on constrained skills theory (Scott Paris) and late emerging reading difficulties (Rollanda O’Connor), how do we make sure we are indeed identifying students early?
If a student has been with me for two years (Grades 1 and 2) and the instructional trajectory shows minimal progress on meeting benchmarks, (despite quality research-based literacy instruction), but a special education evaluation using the Woodcock Johnson shows skills that fall within norms, how do we service these children? Title I is considered a regular education literacy program. Special Education seems to be pushing back on servicing these students, saying they need to “stay in Title I.” Or worse, it is suggested that these students be picked up in SPED for phonics instruction, and continue to be serviced in Title I for comprehension.
I am wondering what your thoughts are on this. The “duplication of services” issue of being service by both programs aside, how does a school system justify such curriculum fragmentation for its most needy students? Could you suggest some professional reading or research that could help me make the case for both early identification of students at risk for late emerging reading difficulties, and the issue of duplication of services when both Title I and SPED service a student?
This is a great question, but one that I didn’t feel I could answer. As I’ve done in the past with such questions: I sent it along to someone in the field better able to respond. In this case, I contacted Richard Allington, a past president of the International Reading Association, and a professor at the University of Tennessee. This question is right in his wheelhouse, and here is his answer.
I know of no one who advocates early identification of kids as pupils with disabilities (PWDs). At this point in time we have at least 5 times as many kids identified as PWDs [as is merited]. The goal of RTI, as written in the background paper that produced the legislation, is a 70-80% decrease in the numbers of kids labeled as PWDs. The basic goal of RTI is to encourage schools to provide kids with more expert and intensive reading instruction.
As several studies have demonstrated, we can reduce the proportion of kids reading below grade to 5% or so by the end of 1st grade. Once on level by the end of 1st about 85% of kids remain on grade level at least through 4th grade with no additional intervention. Or as two other studies show, we could provide 60 hours of targeted professional development to every K-2 teacher to develop their expertise sufficiently to accomplish this. In the studies that have done this, fewer kids were reading below grade level than when the daily 1-1 tutoring was provided in K and 1st.
Basically, what the research indicates is that LD and dyslexics and ADHD kids are largely identified by inexpert teachers who don’t know what to do. If Pianta and colleagues are right, only 1 of 5 primary teachers currently has both the expertise and the personal sense of responsibility for teaching struggling readers. (It doesn’t help that far too many states have allowed teachers to avoid responsibility for the reading development of PWDs by removing PWDs from value-added computations of teacher effectiveness).
I’ll turn to senior NICHD scholars who noted that, “Finally, there is now considerable evidence, from recent intervention studies, that reading difficulties in most beginning readers may not be directly caused by biologically based cognitive deficits intrinsic to the child, but may in fact be related to the opportunities provided for children learning to read.” (p. 378)
In other words, most kids that fail to learn to read are victims of inexpert or nonexistent teaching. Or, they are teacher disabled not learning disabled. Only when American schools systems and American primary grade teachers realize that they are the source of the reading problems that some kids experience will those kids ever be likely to be provided the instruction they need by their classroom teachers.
As far as “duplication of services” this topic has always bothered me because if a child is eligible for Title I services I believe that child should be getting those services. As far as fragmentation of instruction, this does not occur when school districts have a coherent systemwide curriculum plan that serves all children. But most school districts have no such plan and so rather than getting more expert and more intensive reading lessons based on the curriculum framework that should be in place, struggling readers get a patchwork of commercial programs that result in the fragmentation. Again, that is not the kids as the problem but the school system as the problem. The same is true when struggling readers are being “taught” by paraprofessionals. That is a school system problem, not a kid’s problem. In the end, all of these school system failures lead to kids who never become readers.
Good answer, Dick. Thanks. Basically, the purpose of these efforts shouldn’t be to identify kids who will qualify for special education, but to address the needs of all children from the beginning. Once children are showing that they are not responding adequately to high quality and appropriate instruction, then the intensification of instruction—whether through special education or Title I or improvements to regular classroom teaching should be provided.
Quality and intensity are what need to change, not placements. Early literacy is an amalgam of foundational skills that allow one to decode from print to language, and language skills that allow one to interpret such language. If students are reaching average levels of performance on foundational skills, it is evident that they are attaining skills levels sufficient to allow most students to progress satisfactorily. If they are not progressing, then you need to look at the wider range of skills needed to read with comprehension. The focus of the instruction, the intensity of the instruction, and the quality of the instruction should be altered when students are struggling; the program placement or labels, not so much.
Reprinted with permission. Tim Shanahan is Professor Emeritus of Urban Education at the University of Illinois – Chicago. He is a member of the CDL Professional Advisory Board.