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.

How Tutoring Could Benefit Students Who Do Not Need It

If you’ve been following my blogs, or if you know research on tutoring, you know that tutoring is hugely beneficial to the students who receive it. Recent research in both reading and math is finding important impacts of forms of tutoring that are much less expensive and scalable than the one-to-one tutoring by certified teachers that was once dominant. A review of research my colleagues and I did on effective programs for struggling readers found a mean effect size of +0.29 for one-to-small group tutoring provided by teaching assistants, across six studies of five programs involving grades K-5 (Inns, Lake, Pellegrini, & Slavin, 2018). Looking across the whole tutoring literature, in math as well as reading, positive outcomes of less expensive forms of tutoring are reliable and robust.

My focus today, however, is not on children who receive tutoring. It’s on all the other children. How does tutoring for the one third to one half of students in typical Title I schools who struggle in reading or math benefit the remaining students who were doing fine?

Imagine that Title I elementary schools had an average of three teaching assistants providing one-to-four tutoring in 7 daily sessions. This would enable them to serve 84 students each day, or perhaps 252 over the course of the year. Here is how this could benefit all children.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Eliminating within-class ability grouping.

Teachers justifiably complain about the difficulty of teaching highly diverse classes. Historically, they have dealt with diversity, especially in reading, by assigning students to top, middle, and low ability groups, so that they can provide appropriate levels of instruction for each group. Managing multiple ability groups is very difficult, because two-thirds of the class has to do seatwork (paper or digital) during follow-up time, while the teacher is working with another reading group. The seatwork cannot be challenging, because if it were, students would be asking questions, and the whole purpose of this seatwork is to keep students quiet so the teacher can teach a reading group. As a result, kids do what they do when they are bored and the teacher is occupied. It’s not pretty.

Sufficient high-quality one-to-four reading tutoring could add an effect size of at least +0.29 to the reading performance of every student in the low reading group. The goal would be to move the entire low group to virtual equality with the middle group. So some low achievers might need more and some less tutoring, and a few might need one-to-one tutoring rather than one-to-four. If the low and middle reading groups could be made similar in reading performance, teachers could dispense with within-class grouping entirely, and teach the whole class as one “reading group.” Eliminating seatwork, this would give every reading class three times as much valuable instructional time. This would be likely to benefit learning for students in the (former) middle and high groups directly (due to more high quality teaching), as well as taking a lot of stress off of the teacher, making the classroom more efficient and pleasant for all.

Improving behavior.

Ask any teacher who are the students who are most likely to act out in his or her class. It’s the low achievers. How could it be otherwise? Low achievers take daily blows to their self-esteem, and need to assert themselves in areas other than academics. One such “Plan B” for low achievers is misbehavior. If all students were succeeding in reading and math, improvements in behavior seem very likely. This would benefit all. I remember that my own very well-behaved daughter frequently came home from school very upset because other students misbehaved and got in trouble for it. Improved behavior due to greater success for low achievers would be beneficial to struggling readers themselves, but also to their classmates.

Improved outcomes in other subjects.

Most struggling students have problems in reading and math, and these are the only subjects in which tutoring is ever provided. Yet students who struggle in reading or math are likely to also have trouble in science, social studies, and other subjects, and these problems are likely to disrupt teaching and learning in those subjects as well. If all could succeed in reading and math, this would surely have an impact on other subjects, for non-struggling as well as struggling students.

Contributing to the teacher pipeline.

In the plan I’ve discussed previously, teaching assistants providing tutoring would mostly be ones with Bachelor’s degrees but not teaching certificates. These tutors would provide an ideal source of candidates for accelerated certification programs. Tutors who have apparent potential could be invited to enroll in such programs. The teachers developed in this way would be a benefit to all schools and all students in the district.  This aspect would be of particular value in inner city or rural areas that rely on teachers who grew up nearby and have roots in the area, as these districts usually have trouble attracting and maintaining outsiders.

Reducing special education and retention.

A likely outcome of successful tutoring would be to reduce retentions and special education placements. This would be of great benefit to the students not retained or not sent to special education, but also to the school as a whole, which would save a great deal of money.

Ultimately, I think every teacher, every student, and every parent would love to see every low reading group improve in performance enough to eliminate the need for reading groups. The process to get to this happy state of affairs is straightforward and likely to succeed wherever it is tried. Wouldn’t a whole school and a whole school system full of success be a great thing for all students, not just the low achievers?

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.

Retention Costs More, Accomplishes Less

Earlier this week, John Wilson put the spotlight on a national embarrassment in his Education Week blog post entitled Flunking 3rd Graders Is Not An Intervention. His central point is worth repeating here:

“Flunking 3rd graders is costly to the taxpayers and devastating to the students. Do the math. It costs $10,000 to educate a student every year or $20,000 annually for a special needs student. Is it better to fail a student and create an extra year of that cost or to create a “bridge” program for students who have not mastered reading by the end of the third grade? It is better to provide an intensive intervention in literacy while covering a fourth grade curriculum and eventually place the students in the fourth grade classroom when they will be successful there.”

Wilson’s assessment could not be more devastatingly true. Clearly, retention is a fiscally irresponsible option. Even worse, it sets children back an entire year in their education by repeating the course of action that set them behind in the first place. Yet schools continue to opt against adopting more effective proven interventions because they are deemed “too expensive,” and legislators in several states are considering mandatory retention for low-performing third graders.

The Doing What Works initiative at the Center for American Progress takes one step forward in addressing this issue by educating school leaders on cost-effective, proven options that are available. School leaders can also refer directly to the government-funded What Works Clearinghouse, the Top Tier Evidence Initiative at the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy, and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia from Johns Hopkins School of Education to find out what works for struggling readers. All of these sites provide comprehensive information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of education programs.

Wilson ends his post with the question: “What are your best interventions to help children read?” With all the resources that exist, we cannot simply throw up our hands when faced with this question. If the well-meaning legislators talking about mandatory retentions were aware of the evidence, they would see that retention is far from being the only solution to the problem of school failure.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure Note: Robert Slavin is the Director of the Best Evidence Encyclopedia project at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

Building a Better System of Special Education

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Sputnik 26 Trains 11_16_11.JPGOnce 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.