More state schools are adopting a method that quantifies progress and can quickly identify kids who need help most.
One by one, elementary students sat down at long tables in the cafeteria at Loring School in north Minneapolis. They read aloud while an instructor kept time to see how many words they could get correctly in ... one minute.
As instructor Sarah Scheller's timer buzzed at the far end of the room, fourth-grader Kieran Stomberg looked up from the story he was reading. "How do you feel about that one?" she asked. "It's fun!" Kieran said, flashing a smile full of braces and high-fiving Scheller when she told him his score.
Rattling through 170 words is a snap for some students, but for others, getting through 30 or 40 can be an arduous task, full of hesitation and mistakes.
The test -- taken by every student at Loring three times a year -- is part of an increasingly popular teaching philosophy that aims to improve achievement among all students while getting fast, effective help to the kids who need it most.
It's a framework that, for some schools, has reduced the number who end up needing special education.
A few Minnesota schools that have used the model for years say they have seen a dramatic improvement in elementary students' reading skills, as well as a drop in those identified as learning-disabled. Now state educators are taking an in-depth look at the framework through a three-year federal grant, and the Legislature has pumped $1 million into a two-year effort -- now at its midway point -- to train and support schools that want to adopt the approach.
Nearly 40 schools and districts are receiving coaching this year with the legislative funding, from Vista View Elementary in Burnsville to Congdon Park Elementary in Duluth. And a growing number of schools are sending staff to conferences about it, including one in Rochester this month. Its spread, supporters say, signals a major change in the way schools find and help struggling students.
"It keeps kids from being referred for special education, it meets needs earlier and it just helps kids learn better," said Mia Urick, lead staff member at the Minnesota Administrators for Special Education.
Data looked at often
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a data-driven approach to reading, math and sometimes even classroom behavior that screens all students and groups them based on achievement. At Loring School, young readers who are having the most trouble work in smaller groups, and their progress is assessed every one or two weeks, instead of three times a year. Reading instructors meet once a month to go over their students' data, which includes scores from district and state tests. If one research-based teaching strategy isn't working for a particular student, they try another.
"We look at the data, and that's how we plan for our instruction," said Loring Principal Jane Thompson.
RTI has been around for years, and many school districts have long used some of its principles. But its popularity has grown nationally since 2004, when the reauthorization of a key federal special education law implicitly endorsed RTI by, among other changes, allowing its use to help identify students with learning disabilities. It also comes at a time when schools are facing tougher standards under No Child Left Behind, as well as high costs for providing special education.
RTI can save money by reducing the number of students who need special education, said Matt Burns, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who has long studied the approach. In one case, he said, a Michigan school district reported saving roughly $2 million to $3 million a year with RTI. But other districts say it's a wash, partly because the approach often has special education teachers spending more time in general ed classrooms.
Research on RTI's effectiveness is fairly thin for students beyond elementary school and in subjects other than reading.
Still, a few Minnesota schools are collecting striking data: The St. Croix River Education District (SCRED), which runs special education and other services for five east-central Minnesota districts, has been using RTI principles for a dozen years. In 1996, a struggling St. Croix River first-grader scoring in the 10th percentile on the one-minute reading test -- which correlates well with overall reading ability -- could get through 15 words. In 2007, a student in the same percentile could read 39 words in a minute.
And in the last decade, the percentage of students identified as learning disabled has dropped by about 50 percent.
"We're preventing kids from ever needing special education because we're able to catch their problems early and fix them before they become too severe," said Kim Gibbons, executive director of SCRED.
No longer waiting to fail?
Nationwide, nearly 14 percent of public school students -- about 6.8 million children -- are in special education for conditions ranging from autism to hearing impaired. Roughly 2.7 million of those kids get the service because of a learning disability such as dyslexia, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
The reason that fewer students may end up with the "learning disabled" label in classrooms that use RTI has a lot to do with how schools have traditionally identified those students, educators say.
"The old special education model is a 'wait to fail' model," said Ann Casey, director of the Minnesota Response to Intervention Center, which received the legislative funding to help more schools roll out RTI.
The standard, "wait to fail" model defines a learning disability as a discrepancy between a child's IQ and his or her classroom achievement. But establishing that discrepancy can take years, and learning-disabled students who need special education often don't qualify for the service until fourth or fifth grade, Gibbons said.
"You very rarely identify little kids," she said. "They never qualify because they haven't failed long enough."
In many cases, the problem isn't with the child as much as with the teaching, Gibbons said. "A lot of kids end up in that category because they haven't gotten good, scientific-based reading instruction," she said.
Fears and challenges
Proponents say RTI holds promise to help educators do a better job of identifying learning-disabled kids, but some parents are worried.
"Parents have expressed concern about not wanting their child to get stuck in RTI too long," when what they really need is special education, said Virginia Richardson, manager of parent training at PACER Center, a Minnesota-based advocacy group for families of children with disabilities. The calls from parents peaked, she said, after the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
RTI isn't meant to replace special education evaluations, which, by law, parents can ask for at any time.
"The point is to get the correct services to the kid as early as possible," Urick said. "If the correct service means referral for special education, then that's what we do."
RTI faces other hurdles, including the difficulty of getting schools the resources and training they need to roll it out effectively in the classroom.
"In my opinion, the chances of successful RTI implementation at the national level are quite slim, but individual schools can be successful," Burns wrote in an e-mail. "In education we have a long history of trying the new thing to come along, but then not implementing it correctly and ... giving up on it because it didn't work."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016