Once upon a time, there was a train company that was experiencing a lot of accidents. The company commissioned an investigation which revealed that when accidents happened, damage was usually sustained to the last car in the train. As a result, the company sent out a memo to all station masters: Before each train left the station, the last car was to be removed.
The point of this old story, of course, is that the problem was not the last cars, it was the whole train system that allowed the accidents. In education, children with serious difficulties are the “last car”; their problems indicate something wrong with the whole system.
Ever since the first iteration of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, the U.S. special education system has primarily been built to make certain that children with very serious and unusual problems receive high-quality educational services and are as integrated as possible in general education. Yet the great majority of the roughly 12 percent of U. S. children ages 3-21 who have IEPs have milder difficulties. These are children with specific learning disabilities (49 percent of all those with IEPs), speech or language impairments (19 percent), or emotional disturbance (8 percent).
The problems these “high incidence” children experience are quite different from those of “low incidence” children with more pervasive problems, such as children with serious mental retardation, visual and auditory impairments, and orthopedic disabilities. Children with high-incidence disabilities have problems that can be prevented or solved using well-established interventions. For example, most children with reading difficulties just need effective classroom teaching supplemented by proven small-group or one-to-one tutoring. Most children who have emotional difficulties just need effective classroom management and proven behavioral strategies.
Policies for high-incidence special education are heading in a better direction. Currently popular “response to intervention” (RTI) strategies emphasize prevention and intensive intervention before assigning struggling students to special education. Yet RTI remains more of a concept than an actuality, as there are few proven and cost-effective interventions in wide use.
There are many elements that could be used in RTI models, such as proven small-group, one-to-one, and computer-assisted tutoring in reading and math, and proven classroom management strategies. Yet we still need proven, replicable approaches to make initial teaching much more effective, integrated, and personalized to the needs of particular children. This requires a serious focus on research and development to solve a broad range of problems. Yet, the overwhelming focus in special education has been on laws, regulations, and policies, rather than the nitty gritty of how to help teachers ensure success in the first place. New technologies offer hope not in replacing teachers but in helping them diagnose, teach, and assess progress with all sorts of children.
A system of schooling capable of solving learning and behavior problems far more effectively for children at risk would be much better than a system focused on where children sit. We know a lot about how to create such a system, and are capable of learning a great deal more. Of course we can build much more effective strategies for the most at-risk children, and if we do, education will be better for all children. This is the meaning of the train parable. The only way to reduce damage to the last car in the train is to build a better train system, which ensures that all cars make it to their destination successfully.