Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Chapter 5: Response to intervention and graduated response

An alternative to categorisations such as those outlined in the previous chapter is Response to Intervention (RtI). In brief, this involves (a) tracking the rate of growth in core subjects for all students in the class; (b) identifying students whose levels and rates of performance are significantly below their peers; and (c) systematically assessing the impact of evidence–based teaching adaptations on their achievement (Shaddock et al., 2009). Above all, RtI is an approach focused on outcomes and on the evaluation of intervention; it thus integrates student assessment and instructional intervention. The RtI framework provides a system for delivering interventions of increasing intensity. Data based decision-making is the essence of good RtI practice.

RtI can be considered a being roughly equivalent to other approaches, known variously as ‘student progress monitoring’ and  ‘data-based decision making within a problem-solving framework’ (NASDSE and CASE, 2006).

RtI is widely used in the US and Canada, but the writer was unable to find any significant reference to its use outside North America.  However, RtI bears a close resemblance to the ‘Graduated Response’ model of intervention in England, as outlined in the 2001 Code of Practice. This will be summarised later in this chapter.

The material relating to RtI is synthesised from Ervin (2010), Gerber (2010), the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the Council of Administrators of Special Education (2006), the National Center on Response to Intervention (2010), and Wikipedia (2010).

5.1 Background

In the US, RtI has a statutory and regulatory foundation. Thus, the re-authorisation of IDEA in 2004 proscribed the identification of a child with a specific learning difficulty on the basis of a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability. Instead, it favoured a process in which the child ‘responds to scientific, research-based intervention’ [P.L. 108-446, x614(b)(6)(B)]. Further, subsequent regulations required that prior to being referred for classification as a child with a specific learning disability, he or she should have been provided with ‘appropriate high quality, research-based instruction in regular education settings’, and that ‘data-based documentation of repeated assessments of achievement at reasonable intervals, reflecting formal assessment of student progress during instruction’ be provided. Only then, if the child has not made adequate progress after an appropriate period of time, could the child be referred for an evaluation to determine if special education should be provided.

RtI builds on two recommendations made by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002):

Consider children with disabilities as general education children first…In instruction, the systems must work together to provide effective teaching.

Embrace a model of prevention not a model of failure. The current model guiding special education focuses on waiting for a child to fail, not on early intervention to prevent failure. Reforms must move the system toward early identification and swift intervention, using scientifically based instruction and teaching methods (p.9).

The Commission also specifically recommended the use of an RtI model:

Implement models during the identification and assessment process that are based on response to intervention and progress monitoring. Use data from these processes to assess progress in children who receive special education services (p.21).

It would seem, too, that the development of RtI was provoked, at least in part, by concern that over 50% of IDEA funding was being spent in learning disability programmes, with around 70% of special education activities being related to learning disability cases (Batsche, 2006). However, it must be emphasised that RtI is not limited to students with learning disabilities, but is intended for all those who are at risk for school failure, as well as students with identified disabilities.

5.2 Definition of RtI

The National Center on Response to Intervention (2010) in the US defines RtI as follows:

Response to intervention integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. With RTI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities or other disabilities (p.2).

Another definition is provided by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the Council of Administrators of Special Education (2006):

RtI is the practice of providing high-quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, monitoring progress frequently to make decisions about changes in instruction or goals and applying child response data to important educational decisions. RtI should be used for making decisions about general, compensatory and special education, creating a well-integrated system of instruction/intervention guided by child outcome data (p.2).

5.3 Components of RtI

According to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the Council of Administrators of Special Education (2006), there are three key components of RtI:

High-quality instruction/intervention, defined as instruction or intervention matched to student need that has been demonstrated through scientific research and practice to produce high learning rates for most students. Individual responses are assessed in RtI and modifications to instruction/intervention or goals are made depending on results with individual students.

Learning rate and level of performance are the primary sources of information used in ongoing decision-making. Learning rate refers to a student’s growth in achievement or behaviour competencies over time compared to prior levels of performance and peer growth rates. Level of performance refers to a student’s relative standing on some dimension of achievement/performance compared to expected performance (either criterion- or norm-referenced). Decisions about the use of more or less intense interventions are made using information on learning rate and level. More intense interventions may occur in general education classrooms or pull-out programmes supported by general, compensatory or special education funding.

Important educational decisions about the intensity and the likely duration of interventions are based on an individual student’s response to instruction across multiple tiers of intervention. Decisions about the necessity of more intense interventions, including eligibility for special education, exit from special education or other services, are informed by data on learning rate and level.

What follows is a more detailed explanation of the ‘multiple tiers of intervention’, referred to in the last of the above points, and sometimes described as ‘levels’. Most writers identify three tiers, but sometimes four are described. Each tier provides progressively more intense and individualised intervention, with the aim of preventing, as far as possible, serious and continuing learning difficulties.

Tier I: core classroom instruction. Sometimes referred to as ‘primary prevention’, this is the foundation of RtI and contains the core curriculum (both academic and behavioral). The core curriculum should be effective for approximately 80% -85% of the students. If a significant number of students are not successful in the core curriculum, RtI suggests that instructional variables, curricular variables and structural variables (e.g., building schedules) should be examined to determine where instruction needs to be strengthened, while at the same time addressing the learning needs of the students not being successful. Tier I interventions focus on in-class support and group interventions for all students and are characterised as preventive and proactive. The teaching programme should comprise evidence-based instruction and curriculum and should be the responsibility of the general education teacher. At this level, there should be careful monitoring of all students’ progress and universal screening to identify at-risk students.

Tier II: supplemental instruction.  Sometimes referred to as ‘secondary prevention’, interventions at this level are of moderate intensity and serve approximately 15-20% of students (some writers go as high as 30%) who have been identified as having continuing difficulties and who have not responded to normal instruction. Interventions at this level comprise targeted small group interventions (two to four students) for about an additional hour per week. Instruction is both more extensive and intensive than at Tier I and there should be weekly progress monitoring of target skills to ensure adequate progress (and that the intervention is working). Students at Tier II continue to receive Tier I instruction in addition to Tier II interventions. Based on performance data, students move fluidly between Tier I and Tier II. This tier is still the responsibility of the general education teacher, but with the assistance of a relevant specialist.

Tier III: Instruction for intensive intervention. Sometimes referred to as ‘tertiary prevention’, this tierserves approximately 5-10% (some say as few as 2%) of students and is targeted at those with extreme difficulties in academic, social and/or behavioural domains who have not responded adequately to Tier I and Tier II efforts. The goal is remediation of existing problems and the prevention of more severe problems. Students at this tier receive intensive, individual and/or small group interventions for an additional hour (two thirty minute sessions) per day, with daily progress monitoring of critical skills.  Special education programmes are designed to supplement and support Tier I and Tier III instruction. At this level, a trained specialist would be involved. Once students reach target skills levels, the intensity and/or level of support is adjusted. These students also move fluidly among and between the tiers. If Tier III is not successful, a student is considered for the first time in RtI as being potentially disabled.6

These three Tiers are sometimes referred to as ‘universal’ (Tier I), ‘targeted group’ (Tier II), and ‘individual’ (Tier III).

A caveat should be entered at this point: there should be a mechanism through which students with severe or significant academic, social-emotional of behavioural problems which would allow them to be ‘triaged’ directly into Tier III, rather than requiring them to go through Tiers I and II. This procedure should be used with caution, however.

Figure 5.1 provides a graphic depiction of this three-tier model (National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the Council of Administrators of Special Education, 2006):

Figure 5.1: The three-tier model of Response to Intervention

Image of Figure 5.1: The three-tier model of Response to Intervention.

5.4 Implications of Implementing RtI

For RtI to be effectively implemented, several conditions have to be met:

  1. effective assessment  procedures – for screening, diagnosis and progress monitoring- have to be put in place (see also Chapter Nine of this review);
  2. evidence-based teaching strategies should be employed (see also Chapter Ten of this review);
  3. a structured, systematic problem-solving process should be implemented;
  4. it is important to see RtI as a flexible and fluid model, based on student need and not premised on particular labels or special education programmes;
  5. there should be school-wide responsibility for all students, including SWSEN;
  6. teachers, principals and specialists should receive appropriate pre-service training and in-service professional development on RtI (see also Chapter Thirteen of this review);
  7. adequate resources need to be made available;
  8. parents should be involved in the decision-making processes in RtI (see also Chapter Fifteen of this review);
  9. exemplar RtI models should be developed before RtI is fully implemented;
  10. it takes time and can be costly to implement; Batsche (2006), for example, pointed out that evidence from Iowa and Minnesota suggested that it takes 4-6 years (or more) to complete full implementation, including policy and regulatory change, staff development, and development of school/district-based procedures;
  11. consideration must be given to teachers’ variability in their ‘capacity to respond to differences in students’ response to instruction’ (Gerber, 2005, p.215).

Finally, as Madalaine & Wheldall (2009) pointed out,

There is an enormous amount of support for RtI in the literature but, while it makes very good conceptual sense, there is relatively little scientific evidence about its effectiveness as yet in comparison to other models of identification and remediation (p.9).

However, what research has been reported is encouraging. For example, VanDerHeyden et al. (2007) found that students responded positively to RtI and that African-American students responded more quickly than other ethnic groups. They also reported a significant reduction in the rate of placement in LD programmes. Similarly positive findings have been reported by Marston (2001), who attributed RtI to a drop over a three-year period in the percent of African-American students placed in special education from 67% to 55% (considering that 45% of the student population was comprised of African-American students). Like VanDerHeyden et al. (2007), Marston (2001) also reported a 40% decrease in special education placements for LD programs.  He attributed this to the use of RtI to determine eligibility, with students appearing to get the help needed in skill development with the three-tier model of prevention and intervention.

5.5 The Graduated Response Model in England

There are marked similarities between RtI in the US and the system of ‘Graduated Response’ in England, particularly with regard to the notion of three tiers and a concern for monitoring student outcomes. As outlined in the Code of Practice (Department for

Education and Skills, 2001):

In order to help children who have special educational needs, schools in the primary phase7 should adopt a graduated response that encompasses an array of strategies. This approach recognises that there is a continuum of special educational needs and, when necessary, brings increasing specialist expertise to bear on the difficulties that a child may be experiencing. However the school should, other than in exceptional cases, make full use of all available classroom and school resources before expecting to call upon outside resources (p.48).

As in Tier I in the RtI, in the Graduated Response approach it is assumed that classroom teachers should do all they can to provide an appropriate education for all their students through differentiated teaching, with additional action being taken only for those whose progress continues to cause concern. In addition to the assessment data that all schools record for all students, the pupil record for a student with special educational needs should include more detailed information about his or her progress and behaviour. This record should provide ‘information about areas where a child is not progressing satisfactorily, even though the teaching style has been differentiated’ (p.51). From this, the teacher may feel that that his or her teaching strategies are not resulting in the child learning as effectively as possible and will consult with the school’s Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) to review the strategies currently being used. Following this consultation, it may be determined that the child requires help over and above what can be provided by the teacher. In that case, consideration may then be given to helping the child through School Action (roughly equivalent to Tier II in the RtI).

In School Action the class teacher or the SENCO identifies a child as having special education needs and will ‘provide interventions that are additional to or different from those provided as part of the school’s usual differentiated curriculum’ (p.52, emphasis in the original). The triggers for School Action include (a) the child making little or no progress even when teaching approaches are targeted at a his or her areas of weakness, and (b) the child presenting persistent emotional or behavioural difficulties which are not ameliorated by the behaviour management techniques usually employed in the school. The SENCO and the child’s class teacher then decide on the nature of the intervention needed to help the child to progress. This may include the deployment of extra staff to enable individual tuition, the provision of different learning materials or special equipment, and staff training, all to be recorded in an IEP.

Should further help be required, a request for external services is likely, through what is referred to as School Action Plus. This would follow a decision taken by the SENCO and colleagues, in consultation with parents, at a meeting to review the child’s IEP. The triggers for School Action Plus usually involve the child, despite receiving an individualised programme and concentrated support, (a) continues to make little or no progress in specific areas, (b) continues to work at National Curriculum levels substantially below that expected of children of a similar age, and (c) has emotional or behavioural difficulties which substantially interfere with the child’s own learning and that of the class group. This review would result in a new IEP which sets out fresh strategies for supporting the child’ progress, which are usually implemented in the normal classroom setting.

The next step in the process is for the school to request a statutory assessment. This requires evidence that the child has ‘demonstrated significant cause for concern’ and that ‘any strategy or programme implemented … has been continued for a reasonable period of time without success and that alternatives have been tried…‘ (p.56).

An Ofsted (2006) survey found serious weaknesses in schools and local authorities’ interpretation and operation of the graduated response approach. It considered that the provision of additional resources to students, such as support from teaching assistants, did not ensure good quality intervention or adequate progress. The survey findings showed that key factors for good progress were: the involvement of a specialist teacher; good assessment; work tailored to challenge pupils sufficiently; and commitment from school leaders to ensure good progress for all pupils. Ofsted also felt that students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties were disadvantaged in that they were the least likely to receive effective support and the most likely to receive support too late.

5.6 Summary

  1. Response to Intervention (RtI) focuses on student outcomes and the evaluation of intervention.
  2. In the US, RtI has a statutory and regulatory foundation, IDEA 2004 favouring a process in which the child ‘responds to scientific, research-based intervention’. This arose from a recommendation of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education in 2002.
  3. The National Center on Response to Intervention in the US defines RtI as ‘[The integration] of assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximise student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. With RtI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities’.
  4. Important educational decisions about the intensity and the likely duration of interventions are based on an individual student’s response to instruction across multiple (usually three) tiers of intervention:

Tier I: core classroom instruction. This contains the core curriculum (both academic and behavioural), which should be effective for approximately 80% -85% of the students. If a significant number of students are not successful in the core curriculum, RtI suggests that instructional variables, curricular variables and structural variables (e.g., building schedules) should be examined to determine where instruction needs to be strengthened, while at the same time addressing the learning needs of the students not being successful. The teaching programme should comprise evidence-based instruction and curriculum and should be the responsibility of the general education teacher.

Tier II: supplemental (or secondary) instruction. Interventions serve approximately 15-20% of students (some writers go as high as 30%) who have been identified as having continuing difficulties and who have not responded to normal instruction. This tier is still the responsibility of the general education teacher, but with the assistance of a relevant specialist.

Tier III: Instruction for intensive intervention (tertiary). This tier serves approximately 5-10% (some say as few as 2%) of students and is targeted at those with extreme difficulties in academic, social and/or behavioural domains who have not responded adequately to Tier I and Tier II efforts. Students at this tier receive intensive, individual and/or small group interventions for an additional hour per day, with daily progress monitoring of critical skills. At this level a trained specialist would be involved. If Tier III is not successful, a student is considered for the first time in RtI as being potentially disabled.

  1. For RtI to be effectively implemented, several conditions have to be met. These include:
  1. effective assessment  procedures should be in place;
  2. evidence-based teaching strategies should be employed;
  3. a structured, systematic problem-solving process should be implemented;
  4. teachers, principals and specialists should receive appropriate pre-service training and in-service professional development on RtI;
  5. adequate resources need to be made available; and
  6. parents should be involved in the decision-making processes.
  1. Although there is relatively little evidence as to the effectiveness of RtI, what research has been reported is encouraging.
  2. In England, the system of ‘Graduated Response’ bears a close similarity to RtI. This approach recognises that there is a continuum of special educational needs and brings increasing specialist expertise to bear. The first level assumes that the classroom teachers do all they can do to provide an appropriate education for their students through differentiated teaching. If this is not succeeding, the second level, ‘School Action’ is implemented. This involves providing interventions that are additional to or different from those provided as part of the school’s differentiated curriculum. Should further help be required, a request for external services is likely, through what is referred to as ‘School Action Plus’. The next step in the process is for the school to request a statutory assessment.

Footnotes

  1. To these three Tiers, Gerber (2010) adds a fourth to encompass students with ‘extraordinary needs,’ who require ‘highly specialized methods’.
  2. Similar Graduated Response systems are also in place for early education settings and the secondary sector.