Beth Ferri, associate professor in teaching and leadership programs, is the coordinator of the Doctoral Program in Special Education. She teaches courses in adapting instruction for diverse learners as well as graduate seminars in Disability Studies, including a course on Race and Disability and a course on Gender, Disability and Sexuality. Her research interests focus on inclusive education, disability studies, and narrative inquiry. In her 2006 book, Reading Resistance: Discourses of Exclusion in Desegregation and Inclusion Debates (Peter Lang), she and coauthor David J. Connor explore how the entanglement of race and disability worked to create and maintain new mechanisms of exclusion after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.
As any educator will tell you, the pendulum of reform rarely stays in one place very long. There is always something new: new ideas, new theories, and new paradigms. Certainly my own field of special education has been at the epicenter of many educational reforms (i.e. inclusion, positive behavior support, phonemic-awareness). Yet, given this penchant for reform, how is it that the more education changes, the more it seems to remain the same?
One reason for pendulum swings, at least in terms of special education practice, is that the foundational assumptions of the field remain deeply entrenched. The idea that students come in two types, one “special” and one “regular,” for instance, remains an unstated assumption across a range of reforms. We know, of course, that students share a range of abilities, motivations, interests, identities, and backgrounds—all of which cannot be reduced to a simple binary. Yet, because we have yet to challenge this core assumption, we continue to assume that students who are deemed “special” or disabled are different in fundamental and essential ways from their non-disabled peers.
A related core assumption retained in many educational reforms is the deficit model, whereby disability is seen as inherent in the individual. Conversely, the social or minority group model locates disability in the structures of society. According to the social model, disability is relational and contextual—manifest in a lack of fit between how a particular body functions and the built and attitudinal environment in which that body finds itself. We locate the “problem” of disability in the bodies and minds of students, a disproportionate number of which are students of color. Therefore, it is only the student, not the system or larger educational context that is deemed deficient and in need of intervention. In other words, if we locate the problem of disability in students, our interventions are likewise directed at those students and the rest of the system is allowed to remain intact.
The Appeal of RTI
On the surface, the recent educational reform, Response to Intervention (RTI), appears to shift the object of remediation from the student to classroom instruction. RTI is a multi-tiered system of progress monitoring whereby research-based interventions are targeted to learners who are struggling. It has also been proposed as an alternative eligibility model for identifying students with learning disabilities. Yet, because at its core RTI is a procedure for sorting and identifying students, it retains many of the field’s problematic assumptions and practices. RTI, for instance:
– Reifies pull out models of instruction;
– Suggests that some students simply need better instruction, while others have “real needs,” reinforcing the idea that disability is something “real” inside students;
– Reinforces the idea that the appropriate response to a student who is experiencing difficulty is to refer him/her;
– Stifles teacher reflection, inquiry, and problem solving in favor of standardized responses to students learning and behavioral difficulties;
– Reduces learning to skills that can be assessed quickly and efficiently;
The Standard Treatment Protocol Model of RTI is the model that is most widely discussed in the literature. In this model every student is given what is called a universal screener, typically in the first few weeks of the school year. Those who do not do well on this screener (typically involving quickly administered assessments, such as one-minute reading fluency assessments) are monitored, while exposed to research-based instruction in the general education classroom. After a fixed period of time, students are again assessed. Those that continue to struggle are provided with more intensive instruction, most often achieved by providing the same intervention, but in a small group setting. Again students are given a fixed amount of time to “respond” or demonstrate adequate achievement. Those who respond return to the classroom (or Tier 1), whereas non-responders may either receive a second round of instruction at Tier 2 or move up to Tier 3, where they again receive the same intervention, but with either one-on-one support or with several other peers. Typically there are 3 such tiers, at which point students are referred for special education.
Is giving a student who is struggling more of the same approach that did not work in the first place an appropriate “response” to student difficulties? We might ask why we are labeling students as not responding.
As a deficit-based model, RTI locates learning differences or, what is called lack of responsiveness, as inside students. In fact, a lack of fit between the learner and exposure to research-based instruction becomes the evidence of disability in RTI. As Fuchs (in Gerber, 2005) states, “If you have a classroom in which most students succeed, then the student who does not must have ‘some underlying deficit’” (p. 519). You will notice in this calculation that the instructional model, because it has been authorized as research-based, is never called into question, even though it is obviously not working for some students. In fact, we should expect that any instructional model will work for some students, but not others. Thus, RTI represents a shift from instructional practices that focus on differentiating instruction for diverse learners to presupposing that all students should be able to learn using the same approach as long as it research-based.
Is it viable to think that one intervention will necessarily meet the needs of all learners? Moreover, if a student does not learn the way I teach, don’t I have the responsibility to try to find a way to teach the way they learn?
Unpacking the discourse of RTI, which includes terms such as standard, treatment, protocol, universal, and fidelity, reveals quite a bit about the model. First, the approach is designed to operate in a very tightly organized fashion. Envisioning the classroom as a laboratory, the goal of RTI is to control as many variables as possible. Teachers are expected to deliver research-based instruction with fidelity, which explains the penchant for commercially developed and scripted programs that can be faithfully administered by teachers. Some have gone as far as calling these programs “teacher proofed,” because they are designed to take the teacher completely out of the equation. Reducing the teacher as a variable allows an exclusive focus on the intervention, which is assumed to be valid and effective, and the learner.
Given that teacher quality and teacher training are consistently found to be the most important factor influencing student achievement across a range of studies, why would you try to teacher proof instructional materials or try to automate instruction?
Although RTI is designed to provide intensive instruction to students as soon as they begin to fall behind, it could also be seen as reifying some of the most problematic aspects of special education. It would not be a stretch, for instance, to assume that RTI labels might simply augment or replace existing special education labels. Moreover, in most of the descriptions of RTI, pull out delivery models prevail in Tiers 2 and 3. In this way RTI confuses intensity of instruction with placement—an idea that was challenged by inclusion, where special education is seen as a service, rather than a place. The model also continues to promote referrals as an appropriate response to student difficulty. Therefore classroom teachers continue to be led to believe that they are ill equipped to teach diverse learners. In this way, RTI represents a kind of push back to reforms that are more in keeping with inclusive practice, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction. The following quotes are instructive:
If students “demonstrate adequate progress” in Tier 2 they “are not disabled and can be integrated back into the general classroom” (Batscher et al., 2006).
“If students respond to the treatment trial, they are seen as remediated and disability-free and are returned to the classroom for instruction” (italics added) (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005, p. 95).
Students who do not respond are considered “difficult to remediate” and further [special education] evaluation is warranted (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005, p. 97) because they “cannot survive in the mainstream classroom” (p. 97)
In these examples, the general education classroom is envisioned as a “disability free” space, where only students who are achieving at a level commensurate with their non-disabled peers belong.
Is RTI compatible with inclusive practice? If so, why do so many of the models assume that students, particularly in Tiers 2 and 3, will receive pull-out instruction?
Finally, advocates claim that RTI will provide the solution to the disproportionate placement of minority group students in special education (Gresham, 2007). Although there is no evidence to back up this claim, presumably by ensuring all students have access to research-based instruction, unwarranted referrals to special education will be avoided. Certainly aiming to curb the disproportionate referral and placement of students of color in special education is vitally important and must be addressed. Klingner and Edwards (2006), however, suggest that RTI will not achieve this goal unless we ensure that research-based interventions are also culturally responsive. We cannot assume that interventions that are effective for majority group students, will also be effective for culturally and linguistically diverse students or students with disabilities for that matter. Finally, they caution that we must not ignore or discount contextual factors that might also explain why an intervention isn’t working for a particular child.
How will we ensure that RTI does not simply replicate existing problems with overrepresentation, particularly since students who are culturally and linguistically diverse may not “respond” to instruction in the same way or may need more flexibility in terms of instructional approaches?
There are many acknowledged (and unacknowledged) problems with special education, including lack of efficacy of pull-out models of instruction, poor transition outcomes, long-standing overrepresentation of students of color, lowered teacher expectations, increased drop out rates, as well as the unfortunate stigma associated with special education labels and placement. Given these problems, it is encouraging to see reforms like RTI attempt to change some of these practices. Unfortunately, because of its adherence to a deficit model and to traditional special education practice, RTI does very little to disrupt some of the more problematic aspects of special education.