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General Education or Special Education and Response to Intervention

General Education or Special Education, That is the Question

The debate continues: Is the best placement for under-performing students in general education or special education classrooms? When implementing Response to Intervention (RTI) strategies, many teachers question whether students who need Tier Three interventions and, in some cases Tier Two interventions, should be in the general classroom as opposed to receiving special education services. Depending on your state or district interpretation of where RTI belongs, some districts and authors are calling Tier Three “special education,”. There are two schools of thought. Some believe placing students with others at their “level” is in the best interest of all. Some believe that including students who are atypical learners in the general classroom is the best option overall.

Students Achieve in an Environment of Excellent Teaching

After co-teaching in inclusive classrooms and witnessing the benefits of inclusion done well in schools and school districts around the country, I am convinced that most students achieve more in the general classroom with an environment of excellent teaching. The trend towards tracking students in leveled classes based on test scores and ability has not been validated by credible research over time. The research on tracking/leveling is about as inconclusive and controversial as the research on homework. Find a study that claims students perform best in leveled classes and there’s another one that states that students perform better in heterogeneous classes.

That said, a small percentage of students are best served within the framework of special education and special classrooms. However, the reality is that this is a small group. In many school districts, special education caseloads are overwhelming. If we properly implement RTI, we allow special education teachers to work more intensely with the students who have the greatest needs.

Really Terrific Instruction (RTI) Reaches a Variety of Learning Styles

Response to Intervention provides general educators with the tools to reach most learners while allowing special educators to more effectively meet the needs of the student with special needs. With a system for Response to Intervention in place, secondary teachers can provide instruction that reaches a variety of learning styles, gives additional time where necessary, and monitors progress. The classroom teacher adjusts interventions based on student performance, as determined by progress monitoring. With RTI, classroom teaching is data driven and differentiated. Personally, I think RTI should stand for Really Terrific Instruction because that is what it is!

RTI Embraces Differentiated Instruction

RTI calls upon teachers to break away from the traditional mode of verbal linguistic and auditory teaching, especially at the middle and high school levels. It embraces differentiated instruction that responds to varying student learning styles. Teachers will get the satisfaction of seeing students become more successful than they ever imagined because they intervened with student centered strategies.

Because there is no textbook model currently available for implementation of RTI at the secondary level, there is no one way to implement the process. It is up to school districts to figure out how to best meet the needs of their learners.

While working on my recent book, RTI Strategies for Secondary Teachers, I interviewed several school districts to see where they were in the RTI implementation process. The following are examples of RTI strategies in place.*

Community High School District 155 of Illinois has an RTI team composed of teachers, counselors, psychologists, building administrators, principals, and vice-principals. Still in the early stages of RTI development, they began the process in a logical place: establishing a strong foundation at Tier One. All secondary teachers in the district receive extensive training in differentiating instruction. The expectation is that those teachers will implement differentiated instruction in their classrooms daily. With a solid footing at Tier One, they are developing Tier Two, yet, they did not leave Tier One behind. They continue to improve upon Tier One, researching high quality best practices and exploring co-teaching. An important step they took was to research measurement and data collection options to identify a fitting measurement device for the many initiatives already implemented.

Southland Independent School District in Texas also has an RTI team in place, which includes an administrator, a reading specialist, and a dyslexia coordinator. At Tier One, all teachers regularly differentiate instruction. At Tier Two, general education teachers use flexible grouping three times a week. They also implement peer tutoring. At Tier Three, middle school students are pulled from their non-core classes for interventions that support core classes.

Southland’s eighth graders achieved a 100% passing rate on their state tests in 2010. Teachers feel this was a direct result of the RTI process.  It is interesting to note that at Southland, none of the students receiving Tier Three interventions are students with special needs. They don’t even have a special education teacher on the RTI team.

Havana High School of Havana Community Unit School District #126 (Illinois) employs the mantra, “Every Child, Every Day” and says they are at the “What do we need now?” stage of RTI implementation.

The sole high school in the district, Havana is home to only 350 students. Their RTI team consists of a social worker, a psychologist, a teacher, the principal, a school counselor, and an RTI specialist.  All teachers are expected to differentiate. Every freshman is assigned an adult mentor who checks in with the student every day.

If a student is earning lower than a C, the RTI team and the student’s mentor pull the student’s grades and meet with the student to discuss his or her learning. Consequently, no student slips through the cracks. Someone is always checking in with each student. If a student is failing a class, or in danger of failing a class, then that student is assigned to Academic Learning Support, a structured study hall. A skilled paraprofessional monitors the study hall room for the entire day at Havana. The paraprofessional has a list of students receiving RTI team assistance. Instead of covering a study hall, teachers are now available during that time for academic assistance.

As a Tier Three intervention, Havana High offers struggling readers a reading class, which counts as an elective. Students in the class receive direct reading instruction from the teacher, read novels, and use LEXIA reading software . Students who are struggling in math can take a double block math class, which provides them with one math credit and one elective credit.

Midland High School of Midland Community School District #7 (Illinois) is in the early stages of RTI development. Their RTI teams include co-teaching teams from the English and Math departments as well as the principal. The entire teaching staff is expected to differentiate instruction at Tier One regardless of whether students are receiving RTI interventions.

Midland is using The Key to Tracker learning assessment software  to monitor students’ learning progress. The co-teaching team divides their block-scheduled class with 20-minute interventions scheduled into each two-hour block: one at the beginning of the period and one at the end of the period. Each 20-minute intervention session targets a different set of students. There is an intense focus on the freshman class because having success as a freshman sets a student up for three more years of success.

RTI Models as Examples of a Starting Point

These school districts differ drastically in their process and progress. Any one of them could serve as a model for a starting point at your school or in your district. My goal in sharing these vignettes is to reinforce the message that, at this point in time, there is no one right way to implement RTI at the secondary level. I recently worked with a high school that believed they were making a mess of RTI. I disagree. The school diligently worked at assessing what they already had in place, evaluating next steps, and bringing in support to help them move forward. That’s a positive start.

Start the process, assess, adjust and reassess. Most importantly, once the process is started, support teachers and intervention specialists with hands-on examples of how to lesson plan for RTI.

*Given the lag time between the interviews, and publication, the schools referenced in this post may be at a different place with RTI at this time. The purpose of the examples is simply to show how many approaches there are to implementation.

Copyright © 2014,  Susan Fitzell & Aim Hi Educational Programs, LLC.  First published February 4, 2014.


Written by

Susan Fitzell, M. Ed has been touching lives in public schools and beyond since 1980. She has over two decades of experience identifying and meeting the needs of youth with special needs, behavioral and anger management issues, and students who experience bullying. Susan’s work focuses on building caring, inclusive school communities and helping students and teachers succeed in the inclusive classroom.

Susan is a dynamic, nationally recognized presenter and educational consultant specializing in special education & Response to Intervention topics, co-teaching, bullying prevention, and adolescent anger management. She provides practical strategies to increase achievement of ALL students in ALL classrooms. Susan’s motto is, “Good for all, critical for students who learn differently.”

Susan’s greatest satisfaction comes from helping teachers make a positive impact using practical, doable strategies that fuel positive, measurable results. Whether she’s doing a one day workshop or long-term consulting, Susan’s straight forward, common sense approach always yields positive results.

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