Sunday, May 29, 2016

Three Sides of a Three-Sided Coin: Specialized Supports (Part 3)

This is the third guest post in a series on Response to Intervention (RTI) by Dr. Chris Weber, a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on the topic with the International Center for Leadership in Education. Check out all the posts in the series HERE.

Differentiation, special education, and response to intervention (RTI) are interrelated and interdependent; or, they should be. In our experiences in schools, we can more successfully implement these critical, research-based initiatives. They represent principles and practices essential to meeting all students’ needs and to ensuring that students graduate future ready. Comprehensive approaches to differentiation, special education, and RTI are more necessary than ever if schools will reach the goal of high levels of learning for all students. We recommend that schools strategically and purposefully blend differentiation, special education, and RTI within Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning that optimize the complex and critical processes under a singularly-designed set of structures. This third in a series of three posts describes early intervention (pre-referral services) within a System of Supports.

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There will be students who require the most specialized supports that we can provide; students who have not yet responded to intervention and for whom special education supports may be necessary.

Strategically assess within the finite formal-evaluation time frame

There will be students who, despite are best efforts, are not yet adequately responding to tiered interventions. In these instances, we request permission to conduct a formal evaluation to determine eligibility for special education. But we intend that students will respond to special education supports such that they will no longer require them at some point in the future. We are committed to taking full advantage of the opportunity to gather vital information during the limited amount of time we have to evaluate student needs, make an eligibility determination, and if appropriate, collaboratively craft an Individualized Education Program plan. We must use all the knowledge that we have gained while scaffolding and intervening prior the formal evaluation period to ensure that this occurs.

Collaboratively craft the IEP

Again, we intend for special education to be a temporary designation for the vast majority of students who are determined to be eligible. Therefore, IEPs must be strategically written. Students must receive supports within the least restrictive environments possible – inclusive settings with all students, regardless of label. They must continue to access and gain mastery of core academic and behavioral priorities. Significant deficits in foundational skills must be ameliorated. Students must be equipped with coping mechanisms and work around strategies so that they will be successful in school, college, career, and life in the absence of special supports. 

Scaffolded access to core within the least restrictive environments

As noted repeatedly above, all students must successful participate in the core. Otherwise, the risk of failing to catching up will be great and sustaining progress will be compromised. To ensure that fully inclusive environments work for all students, some form of co-planning and co-teaching must be in place. 

Access to Tier 2 must continue

We can predict that some students will learn core priorities at different rates and in different ways. This may be particularly true for students with special needs. This is Tier 2: more time, alternative approaches. Ensuring that students with special needs have access to all tiers of supports will greatly increase the likelihood of their success.

Intervene in a targeted and intensive manner, in accordance with the IEP

This is critical. IEPs have specific goals and objectives based on areas of need. We must explicitly address and ameliorate these areas of needs. Time periods that serve as study halls and work completion assistance are not the answer. We must immediately and intensively focus on diagnosed deficits with targeted interventions, with the goal of eliminating these deficits. Within special education, the intensity of focus and resources that we are prepared to assign are greater than ever, as is the sense of urgency.


As noted above but with even more care, we teach, reteach, and reinforce key pro-social and pro-functional behaviors for students with special needs. Behavioral skills are doubly important for a student determined eligible for special education services.


Measuring the extent to which students are responding to instruction, intervention, and in this, case special education supports, should be done more, not less, when a student has been determined eligible for special education services. There is not a moment to lose and we must make adjustments, in collaboration with the IEP team, when adequate progress is not made.

Exit when possible

Approximately 12% of students receive special education services and have an Individualized Education Program plan. Approximately 1% of students have been diagnosed with a severe or profound disability, meaning that their intellectual functioning will significantly limit their ability to live an independent adult life. They will have modified jobs and accommodated living conditions. We feel blessed to live in societies in which we provide care and support for these precious individuals. The vast majority of students receiving special education services, students who have an Individualized Education Program plan, do not have a severe or profound disability and will be expected to live an independent adult life, without modified jobs and accommodated living conditions.

When we do not expect high levels of learning for all, we significantly limit students’ future prospects with equally significant impacts on our societies. Students receiving special education services graduate from Grade 12 at rates that are demonstrably lower than their peers; they attend 4-year universities and colleges at equally lower rates. We must remove supports when students are ready, allowing students to learn and thrive within the least restrictive environments, and ensure they have access to any and every opportunity.

We fear that tragically lower expectations for students receiving special education services has led (and continues to lead) to their significantly lower achievement. Accommodations and modifications in support of successful educational experiences must not correspond with modifications to expectations. Students within Individualized Education Program plans who do not have a severe or profound disability will be expected to compete and collaborate with rest of the 99% for a purposeful and productive adult life, and we must urgently prepare for this reality.

Differentiation, special education, and RTI are not new processes and they continue to be identified as areas of need by schools and schools leaders. They should be. They are incredibly impactful and important sets of principals and practices and we have not yet done them well. We must, for once and for all, do it right. A comprehensive approach to differentiation, special education, and RTI, integrated into a System of Supports for Rigorous Learning, is possible and more necessary than ever. 

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