Learning Disabilities are decreasing! (Or is good instruction increasing?)

This blog post originally appeared on the Education Innovating blog run by Education Evolving from 2010 to 2011. It has now been merged into our main blog.

By: Bob Wedl, former Minnesota Commissioner of Education and currently a Partner at Education|Evolving

In recent weeks there was considerable discussion in the national education press about the reduction of students in the special education category labeled "Learning Disabled."

There is debate about why this has happened, with a number of explanations including deliberate under-identification of students to improve a school’s AYP standing under NCLB, providing evidence of the positive impact of Reading First, and the expansion of the Response to Intervention (RTI) model.

But the bigger question may be why the reduction is not greater? It could and should be, because we do know how to teach kids to read—and more than 80 percent of the children who are placed in LD are deficient readers.

The sad news is that since students have to demonstrate a “severe discrepancy” in order to get help (they have to fail first!), many kids ultimately placed in LD services were there because of struggles with reading…something that is fixable.

The good news is that the RTI model changed that in three ways: requiring a research-based core curriculum, frequent (formative) assessment, and research-based interventions.

In this model, a student doesn’t have to fail first to take advantage of the early intervention and persistent help and evaluation of progress that comes with RTI. Put simply, help starts today! So redesigning a whole school around the RTI model will not reduce LD classifications by only 5 or 10 percent, but by something on the order of 30-40 percent.

"Whole school redesign" is not tinkering. It is redesigning everything from the core curriculum, measurement systems (formative assessment is testing that teachers love), real-time data analysis, changes in the daily school schedule to permit teachers time to meet and review data, research-based interventions, etc. It really is remaking the school, from its learning model to its management practices.

This type of school redesign is what the schools in Minnesota's St. Croix River Education District (SCRED) did. And over a few years of hard redesign work, the LD population was reduced by 40 percent.

This is amazing—both because of the results, and that many more sites are not moving to adopt this redesign model. How could this be? Why wouldn't everyone do this?

"We don't like that curriculum" or "we do too much testing now" or "it's just the latest fad" are common responses. RTI will also work only if significant school redesign is part of the change. Tinkering with the existing school won't do it. But redesigning the whole school models will.

The St. Croix River teachers and others using RTI are not just resting on their laurels. They understand there is no significant increasing in funding coming their way in the near future. And they know that the needs of kids continue to grow while societal expectations also continue to rise.

So their redesign efforts are now moving into pre-k. Creating literacy models from Age 3 to Grade 3 will result in more kids that are ready for kindergarten and will likely make the LD reduction even greater. Think of the impact...on kids: improved future success...on parents: less worry and real evidence of improvement... on school districts and individual schools: reduced special ed budgets. RTI is one school redesign that works...You oughta try it.

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