What works for kids? In St. Croix River-area schools, it's early intervention

  • Article by: ROBERT WEDL, KIM GIBBONS, DAVID HEISTAD, CHRIS MCHUGH and CURTIS JOHNSON
  • Updated: November 7, 2013 - 8:25 PM

In St. Croix River-area schools, it’s early intervention. This should be statewide.

While some parents rightfully labor mightily to get “special education” services for their children, other Minnesotans are legitimately concerned about how costs continue to rise. The proposed solutions always seem to be 1) reducing services to students or 2) increasing spending.

Instead, how about using a redesign model that gets better results and addresses costs?

About 90 percent of students with a “specific learning disability” have a reading problem. What is outrageous is that for many of these students the “disability” is largely preventable.

Most districts use a model that actually requires students to fail for several years before services are provided. But not districts in Chisago and Pine counties. With the leadership of the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED), these districts have researched a method called “Response to Intervention (RTI).”

RTI does not wait for students to fail. Instead, it tracks how well students are doing, and as soon as they are not on pace to meet the state proficiency standards, interventions are quickly provided. No student has to fail before getting help. While this model is often associated with reading, it is also effective with math and with behavior issues.

In addition to directly helping students, RTI requires sites to evaluate the regular class curriculum. Some big surprises emerge when it is discovered that the classroom reading curriculum lacks a sound research base and that is the reason some students are failing.

RTI is a personalized approach that makes adjustments in the teaching and learning experience whenever they’re needed. Frequent, one-minute assessments tell teachers a lot about how each student is doing.

If students aren’t learning, the RTI model does not look for something wrong within the student. It looks for what is wrong with the instruction.

Although this methodology was pioneered here, Minnesota is being slow to make this approach the norm. SCRED’s results over the years show that the numbers of students diagnosed with a learning disability are cut almost in half. On top of the financial savings, the big win is that more students are proficient readers. RTI has resulted in better performance for all students.

So why wouldn’t all districts use RTI? Actually, a growing number are. But progress is slow, in part due to organizational cultures accustomed to doing things in traditional ways. Maybe it’s time to recognize that prevention models like RTI are far better than waiting until failure sets in and to make the RTI model the statewide practice.

To help other districts adopt RTI, we’re lucky to have the nation’s leading experts here at SCRED, the University of Minnesota, and the Minneapolis and Bloomington districts. Why not set up an RTI center at SCRED for assisting other districts?

Teachers see the value of the data provided them in the RTI model. But the $30 million Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) tests provide little data that are actually useful to teachers. The tests are given in April, and the results are returned in summer. So Minnesota schools spend another $30 million on a test called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP.) Why? Because the MAP both provides useful data and returns the results electronically the next day for each student. So if Minnesota were to implement RTI statewide, as it should, it should also adopt the MAP as the state test.

Think of it. With RTI and MAP, we could help students before they fail;, reduce special-education placements; raise the performance of all students; have useful data for teachers; eliminate duplicate testing resulting in four or five days of added instruction (at no added cost); save $30 million, and have better accountability to boot. Now that is a Minnesota innovation legislators should be able to support come February.

Robert Wedl, Minnesota’s education commissioner in the administration of Gov. Arne Carlson, is a senior associate at Education Evolving. Kim Gibbons is executive director at SCRED. David Heistad is director of research at the Bloomington public schools. Chris McHugh, retired SCRED director, is president of Therapeutic Services. Curtis Johnson, who was Carlson’s chief of staff, is a senior associate at Education Evolving.

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