Does RtI reduce numbers of children in special education?

In an article slated to appear in Remedial and Special Education, Jeanne Wanzek and Sharon Vaughn reported that widely popular three-tiered approach to addressing did not significantly reduce the number and percentage of students identified for special education across seven elementary schools. Their study, which is limited to the response to instruction or intervention in the primary and early elementary grades and focused primarily on academic intervention, revealed no significant reduction in identification of children as having Learning Disabilities, even though this group would be the most likely to benefit from such prevention efforts. Similarly, there were no differences in the proportion of students identified for special education according to ethnic background.

Number of Students identified across years

Percentage of Students identified across years

The authors argue that, despite the absence of significant differences, they see a trend toward reduced identification rates. Unfortunately, the data are not appropriate for an analysis of trend. I created the accompanying images to allow readers to examine the actual results. The upper figure shows the raw number of students identified across the three years of the study, and the lower figure shows the percentage of the population identified in the seven schools. A trend is clearer when looking at the percentage but, because the raw number is relatively constant, the need for special education services (and associated costs) probably did not decrease.

Patterns of identification for special education services across three cohorts of students in kindergarten through third grade before and after implementation of a schoolwide, three-tier reading prevention model in one large school district are reported. The first cohort of students represents a historical control group that did not participate in the three-tier prevention model. The second and third cohorts of students represent successive cohorts of students who participated in the three-tier model from kindergarten to third grade. The data indicate a trend in the direction of a decreased percentage of students identified for special education through each cohort of students; however, there were no statistically significant differences in the overall percentages of students identified for special education across cohorts. Practical implications and further research are discussed.

Wanzek, J., & Vaughn, S. (2010). Is a three-tier reading intervention model associated with reduced placement in special education. Remedial and Special Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0741932510361267

1 Response to “Does RtI reduce numbers of children in special education?”

  • These findings are not surprising. Iowa has moved to an RTI model for all disabilities, and has rewritten state regulations to define disability as an “educational disability” that manifests itself as a functional limitation…early numbers suggest that special education identification decreased dramatically; however, litigation that has occurred and is ongoing has shown that those reductions were simply a result of a “new interpretation of IDEA child find”, i.e., failure to timely evaluate fully and identify (when needed), rather than an a natural outcome of evidence-based RTI (albeit used loosely, given the lack of evidence). Therefore, Iowa now finds itself in the precarious position of ironically opening the floodgates to a new subset of IDEA-eligible (according to Iowa regulations and current RTI implementation) group of false positives. Predictably, and no less ironic, the ranks of special education students will begin to swell as this trend is repeated over and over again. Bad policy (i.e. policy without a sufficient scientific research base) breeds bad outcomes.

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