Mislabeled as Disabled

Kenny is a 10th grader in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He is an African American from a disadvantaged neighborhood, attending a high school that requires high grades and test scores. He has good attendance, and has never had any behavior problems. A good kid, by all accounts but one.

Kenny reads at the kindergarten level.

Kenny has spent most of his time in school in special education. He received extensive and expensive services, following an Individual Education Program (IEP) made and updated over time just for him, tailored to his needs.

Yet despite all of this, he is still reading at the kindergarten level in 10th grade.

Kenny’s story starts off a remarkable book, Mislabeled as Disabled, by my friend Kalman (Buzzy) Hettleman. A lawyer by training, Hettleman has spent many years volunteering in Baltimore City schools to help children being considered for special education obtain the targeted assistance they need to either avoid special education or succeed in it. What he has seen, and describes in detail in his book, is nothing short of heartbreaking. In fact, it makes you furious. Here is a system designed to improve the lives of vulnerable children, spending vast amounts of money to enable talented and hard-working teachers to work with children. Yet the outcomes are appalling. It’s not just Kenny. Thousands of students in Baltimore, and in every other city and state, are failing. These are mostly children with specific learning disabilities or other mild, “high-incidence” categories. Or they are struggling readers not in special education who are not doing much better. Many of the students who are categorized as having mild disabilities are not disabled, and would have done at least as well with appropriate services in the regular classroom. Instead, what they get is an IEP. Such children are “mislabeled as disabled,” and obtain little benefit from the experience.

blog_4-4-19_BuzzyHettleman_500x333Buzzy has worked at many levels of this system. He was on the Baltimore school board for many years. He taught social work at the University of Maryland. He has been an activist, fighting relentlessly for the rights of struggling students (and at 84 years of age still is). Most recently, he has served on the Kirwan Commission, appointed to advise the state legislature on reform policies and new funding formulas for the state’s schools. Buzzy has seen it all, from every angle. His book is deeply perceptive and informed, and makes many recommendations for policy and practice. But his message is infuriating. What he documents is a misguided system that is obsessed with rules and policies but pays little attention to what actually works for struggling learners.

What most struggling readers need is proven, well-implemented programs in a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework. Mostly, this boils down to tutoring. Most struggling students can benefit enormously from one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified teaching assistants (paraprofessionals), so tutoring need not be terribly expensive. Others may need certified teachers or one-to-one. Some struggling readers can succeed with well-implemented proven, strategies in the regular classroom (Tier 1). Those who do not succeed in Tier 1 should receive proven one-to-small group tutoring approaches (Tier 2). If that is not sufficient, a small number of students may need one-to-one tutoring, although research tells us that one-to-small group is almost as effective as one-to-one, and is a lot less expensive.

Tutoring is the missing dynamic in the special education system for struggling readers, whether or not they have IEPs. Yes, some districts do provide tutoring to struggling readers, and if the tutoring model they implement is proven in rigorous research it is generally effective. The problem is that there are few schools or districts that provide enough tutoring to enough struggling readers to move the needle.

Buzzy described a policy he devised with Baltimore’s then-superintendent, Andres Alonso. They called it “one year plus.” It was designed to ensure that all students with high-incidence disabilities, such as those with specific learning disabilities, must receive instruction sufficient to enable them to make one year’s progress or more every 12 months.  If students could do this, they would, over time, close the gap between their reading level and their grade level. This was a radical idea, and its implementation it fell far short. But the concept is exactly right. Students with mild disabilities, who are the majority of those with IEPs, can surely make such gains. In recent years, research has identified a variety of tutoring approaches that can ensure one year or more of progress in a year for most students with IEPs, at a cost a state like Maryland could surely afford.

            Mislabeled as Disabled is written about Buzzy’s personal experience in Baltimore. However, what he describes is happening in districts and states throughout the U.S., rich as well as poor. This dismal cycle can stop anywhere we choose to stop it. Buzzy Hettleman describes in plain, powerful language how this could happen, and most importantly, why it must.

Reference

Hettleman, K. R. (2019). Mislabeled as disabled. New York: Radius.

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Response to Proven Instruction (RTPI)

Response to Intervention (RTI) is one of those great policy ideas caring policymakers always come up with that is carefully crafted and enthusiastically announced, then inconsistently implemented, evaluated at great cost, and found to have minimal impacts, if any.   In the case of RTI, the policy is genuinely sensible, but the 2015 MDRC evaluation (Balu et al., 2015) found that the implementation was poor and outcomes were nil, at least as measured in a much-criticized regression discontinuity design (see Fuchs & Fuchs, 2017).  An improvement on RTI, multi-tier systems of support (MTSS), adds in some good ideas, but I don’t think it will be enough.

The problem, I think, relates to something I wrote about at the time the MDRC study appeared. In fact, I gave the phenomenon a name: Bob’s Law, which states that any policy or intervention that is not well defined will not be well implemented and therefore will not work, no matter how sensible it may be. In the case of RTI/MTSS, everyone has a pretty good idea what “tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3” are in concept, but no one knows what they are actually composed of. So each district and school and teacher makes up their own strategies to do general teaching followed by remediation if needed, followed by intensive services if necessary. The problem is that since the actual programs provided in each tier are not specified, everyone will do pretty much what they would have done if RTI had not existed. And guess what?  If both RTI and non-RTI teachers are drawing from the same universally accepted basket of teaching methods, there is no reason to believe that outcomes will be better than ordinary practice if the RTI group is doing more or less the same thing as the non-RTI group.  This is not to say that standard methods are deficient, but why would we expect outcomes to differ if practices don’t?

Response to Proven Instruction (RTPI).

I recently wrote an article proposing a new approach to RTI/MTSS (Slavin, Inns, Pellegrini, & Lake, 2018).  The idea is simple. Why not insist that struggling learners receive tier 1, tier 2, and (if necessary) tier 3 services, each of which is proven to work in rigorous research?  In the article I listed numerous tier 2 and tier 3 services for reading and math that have all been successfully evaluated, with significant outcomes and effect sizes in excess of +0.20.  Every one of these programs involved tutoring, one to one or one to small group, by teachers or paraprofessionals. I also listed tier 1 services found to be very effective for struggling learners.  All of these programs are described at www.evidenceforessa.org.

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If there are so many effective approaches for struggling learners, these should form the core of RTI/MTSS services. I would argue that tier 1 should be composed of proven whole class or whole school programs; tier 2, one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified paraprofessionals using proven approaches; and tier 3, one-to-one tutoring by paraprofessionals or teachers using proven approaches (see Figure 1).

The result would have to be substantial improvements in the achievement of struggling learners, and reductions in special education and retentions.  These outcomes are assured, as long as implementation is strong, because the programs themselves are proven to work.  Over time, better and more cost-effective programs would be sure to appear, but we could surely do a lot better today with the programs we have now.

Millions of children live in the cruel borderlands between low reading groups and special education. These students are perfectly normal, except from 9:00 to 3:00 on school days. They start school with enthusiasm, but then slide over the years into failure, despair, and then dropout or delinquency.  If we have proven approaches and can use them in a coherent system to ensure success for all of these children, why would we not use them?

Children have a right to have every chance to succeed.  We have a moral imperative to see that they receive what they need, whatever it takes.

References

Balu, R., Zhu, P., Doolittle, F., Schiller, E., Jenkins, J., & Gersten, R. (2015). Evaluation of response to intervention practices for elementary school reading. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, NCEE 2016-4000.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S. (2017). Critique of the National Evaluation of Response to Intervention: A case for simpler frameworks. Exceptional Children, 83 (3), 1-14.

Slavin, R.E., Inns, A., Pellegrini, M., & Lake, C. (2018). Response to proven instruction (RTPI): Enabling struggling learners. Manuscript submitted for publication.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Beyond the Spaghetti Bridge: Why Response to Intervention is Not Enough

I know an engineer at Johns Hopkins University who invented the Spaghetti Bridge Challenge. Teams of students are given dry, uncooked spaghetti and glue, and are challenged to build a bridge over a 500-millimeter gap. The bridge that can support the most weight wins.

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Spaghetti Bridge tournaments are now held all over the world, and they are wonderful for building interest in engineering. But I don’t think any engineer would actually build a real bridge based on a winning spaghetti bridge prototype. Much as spaghetti bridges do resemble the designs of real bridges, there are many more factors a real engineer has to take into account: Weight of materials, tensile strength, flexibility (in case of high winds or earthquakes), durability, and so on.

In educational innovation and reform, we have lots of great ideas that resemble spaghetti bridges. That’s because they would probably work great if only their components were ideal. An example like this is Response to Intervention (RTI), or its latest version, Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). Both RTI and MTSS start with a terrific idea: Instead of just testing struggling students to decide whether or not to assign them to special education, provide them with high-quality instruction (Tier 1), supplemented by modest assistance if that is not sufficient (Tier 2), supplemented by intensive instruction if Tier 2 is not sufficient (Tier 3). In law, or at least in theory, struggling readers must have had a chance to succeed in high-quality Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 instruction before they can be assigned to special education.

The problem is that there is no way to ensure that struggling students truly received high-quality instruction at each tier level. Teachers do their best, but it is difficult to make up effective approaches from scratch. MTSS or RTI is a great idea, but their success depends on the effectiveness of whatever struggling students receive as Tier 1, 2, and 3 instruction.

This is where spaghetti bridges come in. Many bridge designs can work in theory (or in spaghetti), but whether or not a bridge really works in the real world depends on how it is made, and with what materials in light of the demands that will be placed on it.

The best way to ensure that all components of RTI or MTSS policy are likely to be effective is to select approaches for each tier that have themselves been proven to work. Fortunately, there is now a great deal of research establishing the effectiveness of programs, proven effective for struggling students that use whole-school or whole-class methods (Tier 1), one-to-small group tutoring (Tier 2), or one-to-one tutoring (Tier 3). Many of these tutoring models are particularly cost-effective because they successfully provide struggling readers with tutoring from well-qualified paraprofessionals, usually ones with bachelor’s degrees but not teaching certificates. Research on both reading and math tutoring has clearly established that such paraprofessional tutors, using structured models, have tutees who gain at least as much as do tutors who are certified teachers. This is important not only because paraprofessionals cost about half as much as teachers, but also because there are chronic teacher shortages in high-poverty areas, such as inner-city and rural locations, so certified teacher tutors may not be available at any cost.

If schools choose proven components for their MTSS/RTI models, and implement them with thought and care, they are sure to see enhanced outcomes for their struggling students. The concept of MTSS/RTI is sound, and the components are proven. How could the outcomes be less than stellar? And in addition to improved achievement for vulnerable learners, hiring many paraprofessionals to serve as tutors in disadvantaged schools could enable schools to attract and identify capable, caring young people with bachelor’s degrees to offer accelerated certification, enriching the local teaching force.

With a spaghetti bridge, a good design is necessary but not sufficient. The components of that design, its ingredients, and its implementation, determine whether the bridge stands or falls in practice. So it is with MTSS and RTI. An approach based on strong evidence of effectiveness is essential to enable these good designs achieve their goals.

Photo credit: CSUF Photos (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via flickr

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Response to Intervention and Bob’s Law

The problem in education reform isn’t a lack of good ideas. It’s a lack of good ideas implemented with enough clarity, consistency and integrity to actually make a difference in rigorous experiments (and therefore in large-scale application). A recent large-scale evaluation of Response to Intervention (RTI) illustrates this problem once again.

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a strategy for helping students who are struggling to keep up with ordinary classroom teaching. The idea is that following initial instruction (Tier 1), teachers provide mild assistance to students who are having difficulties (Tier 2), such as small-group remediation. Those who continue to struggle might receive more intensive assistance (Tier 3), such as one-to-one tutoring.

RTI has been common in U.S. classrooms for 20 years, and was virtually mandated as part of No Child Left Behind. So it is distressing that a recent study by MDRC, a respected independent research organization, found no positive effects of Tier 2 services in grades 1-3 reading. In fact, there were slight negative effects for first graders receiving Tier 2 services.

Philosophically, I am a supporter of RTI, but I’m even more of a supporter of rigorous evidence. Yet here’s a very large, well-done (though not randomized) study of RTI that finds no benefits.

I think the findings of the RTI evaluation speak to a broader problem of education policy. Often, national, state or local policies promote or require uses of broadly defined strategies. RTI is a perfect example. Everyone understands the general idea, but there are thousands of ways to implement RTI in practice.

Studies of broad teaching concepts almost always find that they make little if any difference. The reason is that general concepts are implemented differently from class to class and school to school, and end up on average looking a lot like what teachers were doing before, or are doing in schools that do not claim to be implementing the broad concept. That is, the “experimental” classes are not terribly different from the “control” classes.

As a good example of this problem, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Madeline Hunter was extremely popular, and she spoke everywhere suggesting effective classroom strategies. Yet several studies found that when teachers were given training and coaching in Madeline Hunter strategies, it made no difference in achievement. Why? The studies also found that control teachers were already using strategies much like those in the Hunter model. It may well be that Madeline Hunter’s theories were so popular precisely because they were appealing descriptions of what teachers already were doing. Everyone likes to hear that what they’ve always done turns out to be supported by research. So, exactly what made Hunter’s prescriptions popular also made them no more effective than ordinary teaching, because they were ordinary teaching.

In the case of RTI, the MDRC researchers documented some differences between schools using RTI and those that were not, but there was enormous overlap.

So here’s a proposal for what I’ll call Bob’s Law: General teaching strategies subject to substantially varying interpretations by individual teachers are likely to be transformed into practices much like ordinary teaching. For this reason, they are unlikely to produce better outcomes than the control group does.

This does not mean that ordinary teaching methods are bad, or that teaching methods informed by general concepts are bad, but what it does imply is that if you want to see marked improvements in student achievement across many teachers and schools, you have to have programs that are well-conceived, well-specified and well-supported by top-quality professional development and materials. Even then, not all programs work, but success is at least possible if programs bring about systematic and sensible change in teaching methods.

Back to RTI, I remain hopeful that RTI’s strategies can improve student outcomes. However, the approaches to this concept that are likely to work are ones that are specific about all key aspects of the design and help teachers implement approaches that are markedly better than whatever they were using before.