Special Education Used as Intervention
Isn’t the system of interventions what special education is designed to do?
Some people think the PLC concept is just another version of special education. They suggest, “If the kids can’t cut it, why not just put them in special education? That’s why we have it.”
Veteran educators will quickly acknowledge that student failure is often not a result of a disabling condition, but rather is a function of student indifference to school, unwillingness to do the work, or a host of personal problems that interfere with a student’s ability to do what is necessary to be successful in school. If a school was able to identify every student who truly required special education services and did a wonderful job of providing those services, it would continue to face the harsh, cold reality that a number of its students were still not being successful. Furthermore, as the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002) concludes, in many schools special education has become a “first response” rather than a “last resort.” Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1966) observed, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail” (p. 15). If special education is the only significant intervention tool available in a school, it is inevitable that the school will come to rely upon that tool too frequently. A school with a multistep system of interventions arms itself with a variety of tools for meeting the needs of its students and thus is more likely to find the appropriate strategy.
Boones Mill, one of many schools highlighted under “Evidence of Effectiveness” on this website, is an excellent example of this principle at work. Prior to building its system of interventions for students, individual classroom teachers worked diligently to help students meet the standards of their grade levels, but when students continued to lag far behind despite the best efforts of their teachers, the students were recommended for special education. In 2000, Boones Mill ranked first among the 11 elementary schools in Franklin County in the number of students referred for special education testing. Within one year of building its system of interventions to provide students with additional time and support for learning through a number of different strategies, Boones Mill ranked last in the county in terms of new referrals for special education.
Sanger Unified District, also highlighted under “Evidence of Effectiveness,” provides another excellent example of meeting the needs of students through intervention rather than special education. It has been able to cut its referrals for special education by 50 percent.
The following are some very pragmatic reasons for looking for alternatives to special education. Systems of interventions and enrichment are more cost effective and far more fluid than traditional special education programs. If timely, directive, and systematic interventions are in place in a school, a student can be shifted from one level of support to another within minutes. This flexibility also extends to the duration of services. It is not unusual for a student identified with a disabling condition in third grade to still be receiving special education services as a senior in high school. When a school has developed a system of interventions, the goal is to provide the services only until students demonstrate they are ready to assume greater responsibility for their learning. The focus is on gradually weaning the student from the extra time and support as the student becomes successful in classes. The interventions, then, serve as a safety net if the student should falter, but they are not intended to be a permanent crutch.
Finally, the response to intervention (RTI) initiative outlined in the latest version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) was specifically intended to reject the premise that a student’s academic difficulties represent a “special education problem.” RTI, like the pyramid of interventions we have advocated for years, operates under the assumption that whenever any student is having difficulty, it is a “school problem.” Rather than separating students into general education versus special education or “my kids” versus “your kids,” effective systems of intervention convey the message that every student is considered “our student,” and should have access to all of the available resources to resolve the problem.
Thus, those who would hope to deflect this problem to special education must recognize that the provisions of RTI now call for schools to have a coordinated, multilayered, systematic plan of intervention for all students. Special education serves a tremendously important role in a school committed to success for all students, but special education staff working in isolation cannot ensure all students will learn. When schools create a systematic process to provide additional time and support for any student who experiences initial difficulty in learning, all students can learn in “the least-restrictive environment” within a cost-effective and flexible framework.
Adapted from Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Karhanek, 2010, Solution Tree Press).
Maslow, A. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper.