Thursday, January 10, 2008

Is Differentiation of Instruction Part of the Job?

My father told me and my sisters, “Anyone can teach the kids who get it. The real challenge is teaching the kids who don’t get it at first.” We’ve all taken the challenge. One of the ways I’ve met the varying needs of students in my mainstreamed classroom is by differentiating my lessons. So an article in last week’s Washington Post disturbed me…In “Waiting Too Late to Test: Parents Protest as Area Schools Delay Learning Disabilities Screening in Hopes of Avoiding Costly Special Education,” Michael Alison Chandler writes that schools in the D.C. metro area favor “response to intervention” (RTI) techniques instead of learning disabilities testing. RTI techniques can include moving a student to the front of the room or grouping students who need to work on a particular skill together for review. These are the kinds of things I do when I differentiate a lesson to meet various students’ needs—what’s the problem?

I kept reading, and Chandler continues: "Many educators say learning disabilities have been over-diagnosed and are seeking ways to address learning difficulties in mainstream classrooms, rather than addressing them through special education for as much as twice the cost. Loudoun officials estimate their cost per pupil in special education is $22,000 a year, compared with $12,000 for most students…For many school systems, RTI-influenced strategies have led to a significant drop in the number of special education students. In Charles County, special education enrollment has fallen to 8 percent from 12 percent in 1999. In Frederick County over the same period, the rate dropped to 11 percent from 17 percent. Loudoun's rate fell to 10 percent from 12 percent in 2001. The national average is about 14 percent."

Chandler also explains that: "The national movement reflects the emphasis on quality teaching and on raising student achievement in the federal No Child Left Behind law, said William W. Knudsen, deputy assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. Too many students, he said, are funneled to special education because they have not been taught appropriately or have not been well prepared for school…Many school systems, including Loudoun, have sought to revamp general education programs in response to concerns about high numbers of minority students who flow into special education. African Americans make up about 8 percent of Loudoun students, but they constituted about 12 percent of the county's special education population last year."

Okay, well now I’m riveted because the high numbers of minority students in special education have concerned me for years. If we in education are classifying students who don’t actually have disabilities, that frightens me. However, Chandler goes on to report that some parents feel these RTI steps don’t serve students; the article suggests that RTI strategies keep students from services they need so schools can save money. The accusation stung. I’m not a special educator, but I’m the mainstreamed teacher who often works with classified kids, differentiating my instruction with RTI strategies to service students. In fact, I think of that as my actual job, yet Chandler portrays me as sort of stuck with a kid who needs to be self-contained. I’ve never met a special educator who tried not to serve kids, either, and the characterization of special educators trying to pinch pennies upsets me. I needed clarification on how schools actually use RTI, so I called my former college roommate, a speech-language pathologist and special educator in Montgomery County Public Schools, another D.C. metro-area school district.

My friend explained that the discrepancy model for diagnosing learning disabilities looks for a discrepancy between IQ and achievement scores on tests; however, other factors could contribute to that discrepancy, especially in the first years of education. Did the student miss a lot of school last year? Does the family read a lot? Did the student have Teacher A instead of Teacher B? Did the class learn phonics too early in the year for this student’s readiness? The way I understand her explanation, the student might be behind rather than disabled. The federal law requires that students be in the “least restrictive environment.” It alarms special educators that they have diagnosed disproportionate amounts of minority and poor children. So the RTI techniques gather more data before the steps of labeling and self-containment are pursued. Yes, RTI means classroom teachers need to differentiate instruction and keep data on these kids. If these strategies are employed faithfully and students show “resistance to intervention,” then they will continue the process of classification. It’s an intermediate step to verify diagnosis, not a refusal to serve. My friend pointed out that maybe Loudon County should spend $15,000 to $18,000 on “normal” students, lowering class size and providing classroom aides, perhaps catching students up who fall behind without formal RTI techniques; $22,000 versus $12,000 is one heck of a difference! Gathering more data can prevent students from being classified with deficits they might not have. If a student isn’t really learning disabled, should we really classify him or her?

She and I discussed how we’ve come a long way from the stigma of special education that our peers experienced when we were in school twenty years ago. Chandler characterizes parents as seeking classification for their children; years ago, people resisted the label of special education. It’s terrific that we’ve moved passed the stigma, but there’s no reason to label average kids who have fallen behind simply because we find being average less desirable than being “special needs.” Shouldn't we take steps like RTI before categorizing a kid and moving him or her to new teachers in a new classroom?

My friend and I have known each other for almost twenty years, and we’ve both worked in education for over ten. We’ve discussed various aspects of education innumerable times. When we spoke about this topic of who is and who isn't "special ed" this past weekend, however, she said something I’d never heard her say before: “Sometimes classroom teachers will say to me, ‘I’ve got one of your kids.’ How did the kid become mine and not theirs? Don't all these kids belong to all of us?” Her comment struck me because I’ve said that to various special educators across the years. I don’t really know what I meant by it, but I’m a big enough believer in the power of language to stop saying it now. Does an IEP or a 504 or RTI make a kid not “mine” even when he or she sits in my own classroom? Am I the teacher to the normal? Am I reinforcing the idea parents have that I don't teach students who have learning difficulties?

Essentially, I’m offended by the characterization of teachers in Chandler’s article. I haven’t found that special educators seek placement for students to save money, and I don’t hang around with teachers who resist the concept that they should differentiate instruction to meet a variety of student needs or feel that doing so isn’t part of their job. I think RTI strategies are part of good teaching rather than part of a conspiracy to help schools save money by not meeting students’ needs. However, Chandler’s article prompted me to examine my perspective on students with special needs, and while I’m still confident I differentiate well, I’ve realized I need to broaden my sense of which kids “belong” to me. In the meantime, I agree with my friend…let’s spend more on the “average” kid and just see how much improvement we can get…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

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